6 Storylines: THE PLAYERS Championship

The Trophy is seen on the course prior to THE PLAYERS Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on Mar 5, 2021, in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. (Photo by Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

This is where it all started one year ago. The first round of THE PLAYERS Championship, known as “the fifth major”, had just completed its first round, with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, hoping to end a long winless drought, had tied the course record with a 9-under 63.

Two strokes back was Harris English, who was in the middle of resurrecting his career, and Christiaan Bezuidenholt, a young South African who had never contended in a U.S. event.

Then it happened: the COVID pandemic hit the fan. The sports world came to a screeching halt. The PGA Tour first considered allowing THE PLAYERS to continue without fans, but they wisely cancelled the tournament all together, following the lead of the NBA and several other professional sports organizations.

The 2020 event became the one that never officially happened, to the justifiable frustration of Matsuyama and others, but nearly the entire top 50 of the OWGR is back at TPC Sawgrass this year. The storylines are plentiful in this iconic tournament’s triumphant return. Here are the ones to watch most closely.


1. Rory Defends (Again)

Rory McIlroy Wins The PLAYERS Championship
Rory McIlroy talks with caddie Harry Diamond on the 18th hole during the final round of The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Mar 17, 2019 in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

At the 2019 PLAYERS, the most recent edition that was actually finished, Rory McIlroy birdied five of his final ten holes to clip wily veteran Jim Furyk by one stroke.

It was the 15th victory of his PGA Tour career. Now, nearly two years later, Rory arrives at TPC Sawgrass in uncertain form. In his past 12 starts, the four-time major champion has 11 finishes of T21 or better, including five top-10s, but he is currently in his longest winless drought since 2007, and at No. 11, just fell out of the top 10 in the world for the first time in three years.

So, what is to blame? McIlroy had a great chance to land in the winner’s circle again when he co-led last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational after 18 holes, an event that he dominated on Sunday just three years ago. However, he shot 71-72-76 over the final three days to drop to T10, struggling with his driver in difficult Sunday conditions. His final prayer went out the window on the final day when he hit two shots in the water on the par-5 6th for a double-bogey.

The 31-year-old from Northern Ireland has definitely been comfortable at TPC Sawgrass, however. In addition to the 2019 victory, he posted three consecutive top-10s from 2013-2015, and then added a T12 in 2016, which included two Sunday eagles.

The talent still appears to be there, but Rory also seems to be lacking the killer instinct that was so apparent during his time as the World’s No. 1 ranked golfer. He will need to avoid the big number to flip the script in his favor once again.


2. International Flavor at TPC Sawgrass

Jon Rahm
Jon Rahm tees off during day three of Open de Espana at Centro Nacional de Golf on April 14, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Despite being the flagship event of an American-based Tour, an event that had just one winner from outside the U.S. in its first 17 editions (Sandy Lyle, 1987), TPC Sawgrass has been flying international flags more often than not in recent history, with nine of the past 14 champions hailing from other countries.

That includes four of the past six: Martin Kaymer (Germany, 2014), Jason Day (Australia, 2016), Si Woo Kim (South Korea, 2017), and McIlroy in the most recent edition.

So, which side of the America vs Everyone Else rivalry is favored this year? Eight of the top 10 in the OWGR are American, but the Internationals have been better at this event in recent history.

The top international player is 26-year-old Spaniard Jon Rahm. The world No. 2 is coming off a two-win season where he finished in the top 10 in over half his starts. He also held the 54-hole lead at this event last year, before an uncharacteristically poor Sunday dropped him to T12.

The other international top 10 is No. 7 Tyrrell Hatton of England, who had bookend 77s as the defending champion of last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Other non-Americans playing well in 2021 include McIlroy, the English trio of Matthew Fitzpatrick, Paul Casey, and Tommy Fleetwood, the latter of whom has finished in the top 10 here the past two years, South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Christiaan Bezuidenhout, and early 20s stars like Norway’s Viktor Hovland, South Korea’s Sungjae Im, and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, among others.

THE PLAYERS is not a team competition like the Ryder Cup, but it recently has had something resembling the feel of one.


3. No. 1 Back In Action

Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson plays his shot from the 11th tee during the final round of The Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club on February 21, 2021 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Surprisingly, none of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s 24 career PGA Tour victories have occurred at THE PLAYERS Championship. Not only that, but he did not even record a top 10 finish at TPC Sawgrass until the most recent edition, finally recording a T5 in 2019 after ten straight tries of nothing better than T12.

Now, DJ is the favorite everywhere. He is the reigning Masters Champion, as well as the reigning FedExCup Champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year. He is coming off a season where he won three times and was runner-up twice among seven top-10s in just 14 starts.

In the 2021 season, he has five finishes of 11th or better in six starts, with a win and a runner-up. That finish outside of the top-11, however, is what gives slight concern about where his game is this week.

That finish was a shocking T54 at the WGC-Workday Championship at Concession; a start where he opened with a 5-over 77 and closed with a 6-over 78, sandwiching two solid rounds (69, 69) between them. That Sunday 78 was in spite of five birdies on his round (nine holes of bogey or worse), and his putter was a disaster all week, giving up over 10 strokes to the field on the greens.

It seems much more likely than not that DJ gets into the mix in Florida this week, because that is what he does, but for the first time in over half a year, he comes into a tournament looking slightly less than immaculate.


4. Collin and Bryson: Coming Off Victories

Collin Morikawa Wins WGC-Workday Championship
Collin Morikawa smiles and reacts on the 18th green during the final round of WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession on Feb 28, 2021 in Bradenton, FL. (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

Two of the last three majors happen to have been won by players who happen to have also won their most recent start. Collin Morikawa will be making his full PLAYERS debut this week, but that lack of experience will not have people counting him out of the mix. The 24-year-old won the PGA Championship last August in just his second major start.

Among his three other wins in just 39 career starts includes a WGC victory two weeks ago at the WGC-Workday Championship At Concession, showing little nerves on a Sunday where he finished three strokes ahead of the field.

Already No. 4 in the OWGR, Morikawa leads the Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, is third in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and fourth in greens in regulation. He shot a 4-under 68 in his one round at TPC Sawgrass before the event was cancelled.

Bryson DeChambeau left the U.S. Open field in his dust last September, winning by six strokes and the only under-par finisher in an elite field. More recently, he was victorious at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, outdueling a motivated Lee Westwood down the stretch.

Bryson DeChambeau Wins the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Bryson DeChambeau celebrates making his putt on the 18th green to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club on Mar 7, 2021 in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

It was the eighth career victory for the current World No. 6, who also boasts a win at The Memorial and two FedExCup playoff events. Everyone knows about the historically powerful drives, but some point be surprised to know that he is also an excellent putter and also leads the Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green.

Also the current leader in the FedExCup standings, DeChambeau has made two PLAYERS starts in his career, a T37 in 2018 followed by a T20 in the 2019 edition. He was 2-under in the one round that was recorded last year, carding birdies on three of his first four holes, but struggling some on his back nine (which was the front nine).


5. Mickelson: Out of the Top 100

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson plays a shot from a bunker on the fourth hole during a practice round prior to the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 11, 2019 in Pebble Beach, CA. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
When the Official World Golf Ranking came out after this last week’s action, something was seen that had not been seen since 1993.

Or more accurately, it was what was not seen: Phil Mickelson.

The 44-time Tour winner had dropped to spot No. 101, the first time he has not been ranked in the top 100 since before his victory at an event called “The International”, which featured a field containing nobody else who will be at TPC Sawgrass this week.

It should not be shocking, given that Mickelson turned 50 last year, and has even played in three Champions Tour events, but for much of his late 40s, he looked invulnerable to Father Time.

After his most recent win, which occurred at the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he has rarely been relevant. In his first start of the 2021 season, Phil finished T44 at the Safeway Open. In seven starts since, he has missed four cuts, has posted no top-50s, and has not even left a tournament under par. In his most recent competitive round, he shot a second-round 80 to miss the cut at Pebble Beach.

If Mickelson is going to get back into the top 100, he will need a solid performance at THE PLAYERS, an event he has struggled in over the past decade-and-a-half. He won the 2007 version by two strokes over Sergio Garcia, but has not finished better than T17 since, with six missed cuts and a T41 making up his last seven attempts.

If he is going to turn back the clock, he will need to do much better with his irons. He ranks 207th on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green.


6. Surging Spieth

Jordan Spieth talks with his caddie Michael Greller on the ninth tee during the second round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Spyglass Hill Golf Course on February 12, 2021 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

One of the most welcomed developments on the PGA Tour as of late is the sudden hot play of three-time major champion Jordan Spieth. The 27-year-old experienced incredible early career success, with 11 victories in his first five seasons, spending considerable time atop the Official World Golf Ranking.

Unfortunately for the Texas product, zero of those 11 wins have come since his inspiring Sunday effort to outduel Matt Kuchar at the 2017 Open Championship.

In the 2020 season, he was not even contending in events. In 17 starts, he had nothing better than a season-opening T8, and in six of his nine starts after the COVID layoff, he finished outside the top 70 or missed the cut all together.

Spieth has imputed his struggles entirely on the mental game. For years, fans have had no idea what part of his game is going to tank in any given event. He was all over the place.

Some good news though: his slump may finally be coming to an end. In each of his last four starts on Tour, he has finished inside the top 15, including a T3 and a pair of T4s. He has struggled in Sunday contention, squandering at least a share of the 54-hole lead in two of those starts, but for the first time in years, he is looking close again.

THE PLAYERS has not been one of Spieth’s best events – even in his good days. He did manage a T4 in his 2014 debut, but in five attempts since, he has four missed cuts and a T41. He was 3-over in his first round of the cancelled 2020 edition.

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