Previewing the Players Championship: What is the future of golf's 'fifth major'?

Previewing the Players Championship: What is the future of golf's 'fifth major'?

Which groupings are you most looking forward to watching this week?

Mark Schlabach: Obviously, there are the high-profile featured groups -- reigning FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland/Rory McIlroy/Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler/Rickie Fowler/Justin Thomas are probably the best.

I'm curious to see how Sweden's Ludvig Åberg performs in his first Players Championship. He'll be playing with Patrick Cantlay and Adam Scott in the first two rounds. There's a reason there has been only one golfer that's won the Players in his debut since the tournament moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982 (New Zealand's Craig Perks in 2002).

Åberg, 24, is exceptionally talented and handled pressure well while competing for the European team in last year's Ryder Cup in Italy. The former Texas Tech star already has four top-25 and two top-10 finishes this season. He just moved into the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time in his career.

Paolo Uggetti: I'm going to go slightly off the board here. Since the season so far has been largely defined by underdogs winning tournaments, I'm curious to see how the grouping of Jake Knapp, Nick Dunlap and Matthieu Pavon fare. All three have won tournaments already this season, yet all three are still considered long shots.

Not many eyes will be on this trio, but given that we've never seen Dunlap or Knapp make their way around TPC Sawgrass, I'm curious to see how they will approach a course that demands some serious shot-making.

This event has never seen a repeat victory. Will Scottie Scheffler be the first to pull it off?

Schlabach: If Scheffler putts like he did last week while winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill for the second time in three years, he's going to be very difficult to beat every week.

Last year, he ran away with a 5-stroke victory at the Players Championship, so he's going to come into TPC Sawgrass extremely confident.

In 2023, Scheffler was fifth in strokes gained: off the tee (4.637), fourth in approach (7.529) and 48th in putting (.107) at the Players. He led the field in driving distance (305.9 yards) and by hitting 75% of greens in regulation.

Scheffler will try to become the first player to defend his title at The Players Championship. There hasn't been a player win one week and then defend a title the next since Tiger Woods in 2007 -- he won the PGA Championship and then defended at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

As well as Scheffler has played over the past year -- and as good as he putted last week -- it wouldn't surprise me at all.

Uggetti: It's crazy what a mallet putter can do for you. Just a few weeks ago, we were talking about Scheffler potentially squandering another all-time ballstriking season due to bad putting. Now, we're wondering if he's going to make history by winning this tournament two years in a row.

That's how good and talented Scheffler is. Mark has the stats to prove it, but what was even more telling from Bay Hill was how much confidence Scheffler exuded Sunday. The putting improvement seemed to only enhance his ballstriking and short game. We even got a few animated fist pumps.

Perhaps this sudden improvement with the putter is an aberration, or maybe it's just a hot streak Scheffler. Whatever the case, it's safe to say that the No. 1 player in the world has more confidence going into this week than he did two or three weeks ago. Repeating at this venue is, by all accounts, impossible but if anyone can do it, it's Scheffler.

How big of a deal is it that Tiger Woods won't be playing this week?

Schlabach: Woods' absence is a big deal because it's the PGA Tour's signature event. He is now on the tour's policy board as a player director, and recently was named a vice chairman of PGA Tour Enterprises. The 15-time major champion has been intimately involved in reshaping the tour, along with other player directors.

After playing only 24 holes at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club outside Los Angeles in February, there was a hope that Woods would show at TPC Sawgrass as a final tuneup before the Masters, the first major championship of the season. Instead, he'll apparently go a full two months between starts in official tour events -- unless he plays in next week's Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida, which seems unlikely.

The two-time Players Championship winner hasn't made a start at TPC Sawgrass since 2019, which has to be disappointing for tournament organizers.

"He's kind of the heartbeat of golf, in my opinion, and any time he tees it up it's a spectacle," Xander Schauffele said.

Uggetti: I feel like it's hard to know what is or isn't a big deal with Tiger anymore. In theory, playing more ahead of the Masters (like he did in 2019) would do wonders to his form. Then again, this is the first time Woods is coming off an ankle fusion, and no one knows his body better than him.

He said he wanted to play once a month (he hasn't even played two rounds since the Hero World Challenge), but if not playing until Augusta will have his body ready for those hills, then so be it.

Has golf's 'fifth major' suffered due to the divide between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour?

Schlabach: There's no question the migration of players from the PGA Tour to LIV Golf over the past three years has hurt the Players Championship field. It's not just reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm and past major winners Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith and others who are missed.

It's aging players like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson and middle-of-the-pack golfers Charles Howell III and Jason Kokrak. Those names helped the PGA Tour put together one of the best fields in the sport at one of the most difficult courses in the world.

You can't argue the defections haven't cut into The Players Championship's depth.

"I don't think it helps the tournament," Schauffele said. "Yeah, I mean I think you would like to have those players playing, in an ideal world. ... We're definitely beating a dead horse, in my opinion. I mean, everyone kind of knew what was going to happen when they made a decision, and this was probably the highest probability of the outcome, which is to have people on different tours at the time.

"I know the guys are working on getting everyone back together, but in the meantime, I'm kind of on the page of, it is what it is."

Uggetti: The "best field in golf" is no longer the best field in golf. If anything, the Players has gone from the Tour's premier event to the event that has suffered the most from both LIV defections and the Tour's struggles to deal with the aftermath.

Imagine a scenario this week where we have Rahm going up against Scheffler for the tournament that's supposed to be the Tour's major. Instead, we all have to wait until the actual four majors to get a true sense for how the world's best stack up against each other.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said Tuesday that both he and PIF chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan want to "quiet the noise and unlock golf's worldwide potential." How about let's start by getting all of the world's best players playing the same tournaments again? Then maybe we can worry about golf's worldwide potential after that.

Who's taking home the trophy Sunday?

Schlabach: Scheffler. He's playing head and shoulders better than everyone else. What a way to mark the 50th anniversary with the first back-to-back winner.

Uggetti: Everything is saying Scheffler, but if this golf season has taught us anything, it's that the unexpected will likely happen instead. How about a guy that is playing with Scheffler the first two days? Justin Thomas has been quietly trending in the right direction, and I can see this being a week where he puts it all together.


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