Five players I'm keeping an eye on at the Players Championship:
1. Graeme McDowell can win this week because he believes he can. He's coming off a victory at Hilton Head-a Pete Dye design, like TPC Sawgrass — and his stats say he can. "This is a golf course where I feel I can get it round," he said early in his long press conference Wednesday. McDowell was in contention here two years ago until crumbling with a final-round 79, and he's seventh on Tour in driving accuracy — an invaluable asset here. What's more, his attitude is exemplary. While others have called Sawgrass "fiddly" (Ian Poulter) and much, much worse, G-Mac called it "exciting" and "certainly very score-able."
2. People say the Players Championship is hard to predict, but here's an easy one: Billy Horschel, 26, will finish at the top of this year's 25-man rookie class. Horschel, who lives in Jacksonville Beach, has finished first (New Orleans), T9 (Hilton Head), T3 (Texas Open) and T2 (Houston) in his last four starts. Does the course suit his game? Well, let's see — does it have 18 holes and green grass? "I don't want to be a one-time Tour winner," he said Wednesday.
3. If Henrik Stenson doesn't at least finish in the top 10 this week, then stats have absolutely zero value. Stenson, whose final-round 66 left everyone far behind at the 2009 Players, leads the PGA Tour in total driving (third in driving accuracy) and greens in regulation. He finished T18 at the Masters, T2 in Houston and T8 at Bay Hill. Given the condition of the greens at the Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow last week, Stenson gets a pass for his 76-76 to miss the cut. He'll go off the first tee with Russell Henley and Brian Gay at 8:29 a.m. Thursday.
4. Davis Love III will be the happiest player in the field no matter what he shoots. After putting it off for years, the two-time Players champion underwent back surgery in February and is returning to competition this week, marking his 28th consecutive Players start. He's so excited to be back he played the back nine by himself Sunday, and his ebullient mood is in stark contrast to the overall vibe at this maddening course. Producer Tommy Roy said earlier this week that NBC's video position allows for a candid view of players as they enter the scoring room, and almost without exception, he said, "Every player is coming in angry."
5. Tim Clark is due for a big week at Sawgrass, where he won in 2010. Second on Tour in driving accuracy, behind only Ken Duke, Clark would have won the Sony Open in January were it not for Russell Henley's fireworks. And Clark is coming off a T11 at the Masters at Augusta National, which shouldn't suit his short-but-straight game. Sawgrass does, and Clark joins Stenson and Adam Scott as the three most likely repeat winners of the 10 former champions in the field.
Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass
Course Par Value: 72
Course Yardage: 7215
Thursday's Marquee Groups
8:39 a.m.: Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker
1:28 p.m: Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson, Justin Rose
1:49 p.m: Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchare, Brandt Snedeker