It took seven rounds over five days but Rory McIlroy scored a first success on American soil this year at the WGC Cadillac Match Play tournament last week. It was the perfect way for the world number one to celebrate his 26th birthday and he’ll be hoping for a double celebration as he heads to Florida for The Players Championship.
This year’s field certainly justifies the event’s ‘fifth major’ tag with McIlroy part of a stellar cast that includes Masters champion Jordan Spieth and defending champion Martin Kaymer. All eyes, though, will once again be on Tiger Woods as he makes his first appearance since that promising Augusta return a month ago.
The iconic TPC Sawgrass once again plays host. At 7,215 yards, the par 72 is far from long but short doesn’t necessarily mean easy as the 137-yard par three 17th attests (28 balls found the water there last year). With small targets and a series of doglegs, this tree-lined layout provides a stern examination of all parts of the game. Experience and accuracy tend to outweigh power with five of the last 16 winners leading the field in greens in regulation (Kaymer was third last year) at the end of the week. Old heads Furyk, Maggert, Kuchar, Choi, Toms and Clark have all won or finished second since 2010.
In fading light, Kaymer held off Furyk by a single shot in 2014 - the fourth straight year when 13-under par has been the winning mark. The German is bidding to become the first back-to-back winner of the event. Here’s my line-up this week…
Jim Furyk, £4.0
Ponte Vedra resident, in form and has form around here. Semi-finalist last week and a winner the week before, Furyk sits fourth in driving accuracy, 25th in greens in regulation, 14th in scrambling and eighth in strokes gained. Those stats should see him contend again at a venue where he was runner-up last year and has three other top-10s.
Jimmy Walker, £3.0m
Disappointing Match Play campaign but he is trending in the right direction here. Since a missed cut in 2011 he’s finished 35th, 15th and 6th at Sawgrass. He’s enjoying another fine season, sitting fourth in strokes gained and 14th in the all around.
Zach Johnson, £2.8m
Should be fired up after missing out at the third hole of last week’s three-way group stage play-off. He had recorded three top-20s in his four starts before that and has a decent record here, making nine cuts from 10 starts, including top-30s in his last five.
Webb Simpson, £2.0m
A last-gasp defeat to eventual runner-up Gary Woodland cost him a place in the knockout stages last week. He’s missed just one cut this year and sits in the Tour’s top 20 for greens in regulation, strokes gained and the all around. A 15th in 2013 is his best effort here.
Francesco Molinari, £1.6m
Hammered Adam Scott in his opener last week before two narrow defeats. He’s the most accurate driver on the PGA Tour and also ranks 19th for greens in regulation. Sixth here last year and ninth in 2010.
Morgan Hoffman, £0.9m
Has had time to ponder after his poor final round at the Zurich Classic. That was his fifth made cut in six starts which includes two top-10s. Finished 17th on his debut here last season and won the Junior Players Championship back in 2007.