The USPGA Tour like to call it the ‘Fifth Major’ and with a prize fund of $9.5m (€7.3m) and the presence of nine of the top 10 in the world rankings, the 39th Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass looks like living up to expectations.
The odd man out of that top 10 is Masters champion Bubba Watson, who is staying home with his wife and newly adopted two-month-old son.
He explained: “I need to spend more time with Caleb and Angie and plan to take a month off. The Players is one of the best weeks of the year but bonding with my son and wife is what it is all about now. Sorry to disappoint the fans but The Players has one of the best fields all year, the tourney is more than fine without me.”
Open champion Darren Clarke, 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel and Thomas Bjorn are the highest profile names also missing the event.
The battle for the number one spot between Rory McIlroy and Luke McIlroy has gone to and fro over in recent months with the 23-year-old Irishman back on top after making the play-off in Quail Hollow on Sunday night before losing out to Rickie Fowler’s brilliant birdie at the first tie hole. McIlroy and Tiger Woods are 8/1 joint favourites to claim that monster first prize of $1,710,000 (€1.3m) this week. Lee Westwood, third in the rankings after a superb final round of 66 at Quail Hollow, has spoken of his love for Sawgrass, and clearly fancies his chances.
However, with such a powerful 145-strong field, pretty much anyone could claim the title. Even though Fowler’s dress style may not appeal to everybody, he is a talented golfer and another contender this weekend. He had a great win at Quail Hollow and now that he has finally broken through after many disappointments, looks a good prospect for a prosperous career, at the age of 24. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t conceal his delight after seeing off McIlroy and DA Point in extra time.
“It’s nice to kind of shut the knockers up a little bit,” he said with a roguish grin. “Rory is the top-ranked young player right now, I’m probably the one that sticks out most with colour. Now that I’m a PGA Tour winner, I’ve got some credibility.”
McIlroy was typically sporting and fulsome in his praise of Fowler. “It’s great to see. Rickie probably went through a little bit of scrutiny and a lot of pressure trying to get that first win, but now it is out of the way, hopefully that’ll ease the pressure a little bit.”
McIlroy was yesterday still ruing the bogey he took at the 11th that almost certainly cost him a second title on the US Tour this year. He was cruising through his final round at 14 under and just 97 yards from the flag and in an ideal position after a huge drive. But he flew the green with a wedge, left his chip short and did not hit his putt hard enough.
McIlroy missed the Sawgrass cut in 2009 and 2010 and didn’t play last year. Nevertheless, hopes of a big week for the Irish are high with Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, both of whom skipped Quail Hollow, also in the field. They stand 18th and 89th respectively in the world rankings. Nineteen countries are represented at Sawgrass. Each of the last four winners and seven of the last 10 were non-American and the last six have been from six different countries, the longest such streak of any event on the PGA Tour. The group includes the holder, KJ Choi of Korea and Spain’s Sergio Garcia in 2008. As usual, Tiger Woods (winner in 2001) and Phil Mickelson (2007) will command a lot of attention.
This is a quiet week on the European Tour with the Madeira Islands Open the main attraction. Irish players in the field for a tournament offering the relatively modest prize fund of €675,000 are Dara Ford, Simon Thornton and Colm Moriarty.
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