All the silly talk about the Players being the fifth major -- there is no such thing -- obscures its annual importance as a key barometer heading into the summer, when three real major championships will be played in the span of ten weeks.
If we’re lucky, the Players will bring a little clarity to what has been an exceedingly topsy-turvy season so far. All of the game’s headliners arrive at TPC Sawgrass facing questions of varying magnitude.
Boy king Rory McIlroy reclaimed the top spot in the World Ranking with a playoff loss at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, the latest twist in a good news/bad news season. McIlroy has raised the standard of his play to such a supreme level that almost winning no longer feels good enough. The Fargo was his second runner-up finish of the year on the PGA Tour to go along with a third place, against a lone win at the Honda Classic.
The Masters is McIlroy’s only time out of the top 10 all year, as he was near the top of the leaderboard after two rounds but blew up on the weekend. While acknowledging that he should have played a more aggressive approach in sudden death in Charlotte, McIlroy was preaching patience on Tuesday, saying, “I think as long as you just keep putting yourself in that position, sooner or later you're going to get the hang of it, and the wins will start to come in a bit more regularly.”
But when you’re the world No. 1, the apprenticeship is over. McIlroy needs another big title to go with his U.S. Open, and he knows it. Of course, the young lad’s mere presence at the Players is news given that he snubbed the tournament last year, due to a crowded schedule and a beef with the PGA Tour that was largely the work of his now ex-agent, Chubby Chandler.
Tiger Woods’s participation is also noteworthy because two years running he’s had to withdraw mid-tournament due to injury. Woods claims to finally be sound of body; in the wake of only the eighth missed cut of his illustrious career, most of the scrutiny has been on his mental game. Asked on Tuesday how he feels about so many pundits taking a guided tour of his psyche, Woods said,” I always find it interesting since they're not in my head. They must have some kind of superpower I don't know about.”
Woods blamed his shoddy play in Charlotte -- and Augusta before that -- on flaws in his setup and the confusion of being between his old swing and the new one he has yet to master. Sawgrass will provide another important assessment because, despite its fearsome reputation, it’s a course that demands precision above all else, not unlike Olympic and Royal Lytham & St. Annes, the venues for the upcoming Opens.
With Woods’s short game less reliable than it used to be, he knows that only improved ballstriking will give him a chance this week. “There's no getting around it, you just have to hit the golf ball well,” he said. “You just can't fake it on this golf course.”
McIlroy and Woods command the most attention whenever they tee it up, but other key protagonists are on hand. Phil Mickelson is flying high from having been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame earlier in the week. But Mickelson, 41, isn’t washed-up yet; he’s definitely playing well enough to have his heart broken yet again at the U.S. Open. Phil has always possessed a panoramic view of the sport, and he was thrilled to see Rickie Fowler win his first tournament last week in Charlotte. Fowler is a natural heir to Mickelson in charisma and comportment. “I love the way he treats people, the way he works at his game,” Phil said. “I think he's great for the Tour. I think he's exciting and young and brings a new, fresh attitude, and it's really cool to see, and I've loved seeing his success.”
Fowler’s maiden victory was all the sweeter because he beat his contemporary McIlroy, with whom he’s had a friendly rivalry going back to the 2007 Walker Cup. A subplot to this Players will be the ongoing Rickie & Rory Show, as they’re the key to the future as golf begins to transition out of the Tiger & Phil era.
“I know [McIlroy] wants to beat me just as bad as I want to beat him,” Fowler said. “But I think that both him and I would have to kind of run away and play really well just for it to be a rivalry between the two of us. There's a lot of really good young players right now, and to count any one of them out of a rivalry would be somewhat unfair to them.”
Fowler mentioned by name his playing partner for the opening two rounds Hunter Mahan, the only guy who has won twice on Tour this year. He also tipped his cap to Keegan Bradley, the reigning PGA Championship winner, and Luke Donald, who has spent most of the last year at No. 1. While a certain strain of golf fan pines for Woods’s former dominance, Fowler sees beauty in the Tour’s current parity.
“I definitely think it is good for the game right now with the amount of guys that are bouncing back and forth and the amount of guys that are winning,” he said.
If any player is going to separate himself, the Players is the place to start.