Any­thing can hap­pen

A strong field, an un­pre­dictable course at Players

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY DOUG FER­GU­SON

The Players Cham­pi­onship at­tracts the strong­est and deep­est field in golf. In its 43-year his­tory, all but 10 win­ners of the PGA Tour’s pre­mier event have cap­tured a ma­jor cham­pi­onship.

It also might be the most dif­fi­cult to hand­i­cap.

Rory McIl­roy didn’t break par at the TPC Saw­grass un­til his fourth ap­pear­ance in The Players, in­clud­ing the year af­ter he won the U.S. Open. At least he has steadily im­proved with four straight years no worse than a tie for 12th, though he has never con­tended on the back nine Sun­day.

“This is a golf course where I’ve had to rein in my game over the years,” McIl­roy said. “I’ve al­ways felt that driv­ing is a big ad­van­tage for me if I can drive the ball well, whereas here, it just doesn’t let me do that. Ear­lier on in my career, I had to come to terms with that, and come to terms with hit­ting the ball in the same po­si­tions as ev­ery­one else off the tee and then try­ing to beat them from there.”

Dustin John­son wouldn’t mind hav­ing McIl­roy’s record at The Players.

He has played 26 rounds on the Players Sta­dium Course dat­ing to his rookie sea­son in 2008 and he has bro­ken 70 only twice.

“I think both were last year, too, maybe,” he said.

Just once. He shot a 68 in the fi­nal round, and it car­ried John­son to his best fin­ish ever in this tour­na­ment. He tied for 28th. The other time was the open­ing round in 2014, though the mem­ory is vague to John­son. He was told that he at least broke par in three of the four rounds last year.

“There you go,” he replied. “I knew some­thing was good last year.”

Jor­dan Spi­eth, mean­while, seems to have worked in re­verse. He showed up for the first time in 2014 at age 20 and not only did he share the 54-hole lead with Martin Kaymer, he played 58 holes be­fore mak­ing his first bo­gey. Too many more bo­geys fol­lowed, how­ever, and Spi­eth tied for fourth.

That was the last time he played on the weekend at the TPC Saw­grass. He has missed the cut each of the last two years.

“I want to think that it’s just kind of a fluke,” Spi­eth said. “Those two years could have been spread out over 15 and ev­ery­thing else is solid. I know I can play it re­ally well if I play it smart, and I think I’ve just been try­ing to do a lit­tle too much the last cou­ple years.

“If you try and take some chances, and you’re not quite on, that’s where you get in trouble.”

That’s what awaits the 147man field com­pet­ing on a course that has been re­ferred to as fright­en­ing, dra­matic and an­noy­ing over the years. Ja­son Day last year be­came the first player in 33 years to lead from start-to-fin­ish.

He re­turns hav­ing not won a tour­na­ment since then, and be­ing re­minded that no one has ever won in con­sec­u­tive years since the tour­na­ment began in 1974.

Tiger Woods is the only player to win it twice (2001, 2013) since it moved to the TPC Saw­grass.

AP PHOTO

Rory McIl­roy hits from a sand trap on the 11th hole dur­ing a prac­tice round for The Players Cham­pi­onship golf tour­na­ment Wed­nes­day in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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