The 2018 Players Championship is upon us and I find myself as interested about this year’s tournament as I was about the recent Masters.
While the Masters is undeniably the greatest annual golf tournament, it is more of an event on par with the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, although some may want to include the Daytona 500 in this analogy. The difference is the Masters, as per its tradition, allows previous winners to play without having to qualify. The only stipulation is that they can be no older than 65 on the first day of the tournament and have had to play at least 15 official tournaments in the previous calendar year.
It’s the reason, for example, you see Fred Couples (Bridgestone Tour B330) and Mike Weir (Pro V1x) still playing in the tournament, even they no longer have the same competitive capabilities as they did when they were younger or in their prime.
But that’s the Masters. It is by invitation only and this year had only 87 players begin the tournament, which was a record low.
The Players, which is considered the unofficial fifth Major, has rules that allow some previous winners to automatically qualify, which is the case with most tournaments, but there is a process by which some competitors can earn their way into it.
The Players Championship is such a key event, Tiger Woods (Bridgestone TourB XS) will be competing. Everyone saw the hype for Tiger going into the Masters. The gallery of people watching him was bigger than for any other golfer, as were the boisterous “in the hole” shouts that rang loudly back when he was in his prime. And the TV coverage of Tiger was heavy because he draws eyeballs, which reflected in strong numbers. CBS reported a 14% increase from last year’s tournament. That really is the Tiger effect.
While Tiger made the cut, which was somewhat of a feat, he was clearly scuffling and really didn’t find any kind of consistency until the final round.
Tiger has won the Players twice, the last time in 2013. With the added number of players in the tournament compared to the Masters, he has a bigger challenge. He should be able to make the cut, but I’m thinking a top-10 finish is somewhat realistic as a projection.
Somehow I get the feeling that after all he’s been through on and off the golf course, Tiger is just happy to be playing on a regular basis again.
He’ll be paired to start the competition with old rival/new friend) Phil Mickelson (Callaway Chrome Soft X). Lefty is also a former winner of the tournament. While his relationship with Tiger has been strained in the past and often made for good drama, it’s nice to see they have moved past that. But if the two are in a dogfight for the lead and were paired in one or both of the final 36 holes, that would be interesting.
So, who’s going to win the tournament? Well, I picked Rory McIlroy (TaylorMade TP5x) to win the Masters and he looked like a winner going into the final round, but his putting went south. Rory is among the favorites to win this year’s Players, but I’m jumping off his bandwagon because I never pick the same player to win any of the Majors or the ones with a field that has a similar strong content.
Jason Day (TP5x) won the Wells Fargo last week as part of his resurgence, and he is also projected as a favorite. But I don’t like to pick a player to win a tournament back to back.
Also included among the favorites are Justin Thomas (Pro V1x), Jordan Speith (Titleist Pro V1x), Dustin Johnson (TaylorMade TP5x) and Rickie Fowler (Titleist Pro V1). Any one of these players is capable of winning, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
With all due respect to all of these players, I’m leaning to two players, Jon Rahm (TaylorMade TP5x) and Hideki Matsuyama (Srixon Z-Star XV). Rahm is third in the current World Rankings. He placed fourth in the Masters after a disastrous opening round and had his heart broken on the 15th hole in the final round when his approach shot landed in the water. Rahm has all the ability to win this. He has a win, a second and three top-10 finishes this season. I really like his chances to pull off the win. Matsuyama, ranked ninth, is another one of the young lions on the tour. He has only two top-10 finishes in nine tournaments this year, but he is steady. He may be lost in the galaxy of big-name players in the tournament, but he could pull off a surprise.