PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — A year ago, Cameron Smith captured what was then the richest winner’s purse in men’s golf history when he one-putted eight of the last nine holes to win the Players in a Monday finish.
Smith collected $3.6 million after surviving rainy and windy conditions, along with a three-year exemption into the majors and a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour. He won in front of his mother and sister, whom he hadn’t seen in two years because of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After defecting to the LIV Golf League in August, Smith won’t be around to defend his title (and won’t need that PGA Tour exemption) at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass this week. In fact, the top three finishers and five of the top 12 from 2022 are playing on the Saudi Arabian-financed rival circuit and won’t play this week. India’s Anirban Lahiri finished second and England’s Paul Casey was third last year. Harold Varner III tied for sixth and Dustin Johnson tied for ninth.
With the defending champion and others out of the field, who can win the PGA Tour’s flagship event and the so-called “fifth major”?
Tier I: The guys who can win
Here are the legitimate contenders to win the Players. They have the games, guts and nerves to handle four pressure-packed rounds.
McIroy won the Players in 2019 and has three other top-10s in his past 13 starts. The tour’s most vocal supporter winning its flagship event would seem like a wink from the golf gods.
As good as the world No. 1 golfer has been, he hasn’t been great at TPC Sawgrass (or in Florida), but it might not matter. A final-round 77 dropped him to a tie for 55th last year. He has just one top-10 in five starts here.
JT captured the Players in 2021 when he went a combined 12 under on the weekend to defeat Lee Westwood by a stroke. After a slow start to 2023, his form seems to be coming around. If he figures out his putter, he’ll be in contention.
Zalatoris hasn’t been hampered by the back injury that caused him to shut it down at the end of 2022. Few players rise to the occasion as Zalatoris does in the majors, so he should be comfortable in the next-best event.
Like Rahm, Scheffler hasn’t quite figured out the Stadium Course either. He missed the cut in 2021 and tied for 55th. He shot 4-under 68 in the third round, but it was sandwiched by a pair of 76s.
Homa has already won twice this season and was second at the Genesis, 2 shots behind Rahm. He tied for 13th at the Players last season after missing the cut in 2021.
Hovland’s irons were dialed in at Bay Hill, and that’s a good sign for him. He tied for ninth last year and was 7 under over the final two rounds.
After tying for second behind Webb Simpson in 2018, Schauffele has missed the cut in his three starts here since (the event was canceled after the first round in 2020 because of COVID-19). He’s too good not to turn it around.
Another great player who has been befuddled by TPC Sawgrass, the two-time major champion’s best finish was a tie for 41st in 2021. Still, the guy shows up for big events, and this is a large one. He ranks third in driving accuracy on tour, which will be important at Sawgrass.
The reigning U.S. Open winner tied for ninth at Sawgrass in 2021, then missed the cut in windy conditions last year. The Englishman was dealing with a neck injury and seems to be dialing things back in.
Bradley, 36, is playing some of the best golf of his career with a renewed commitment to fitness. He won the Zozo Championship and was second at the Farmers Insurance Open. He was fifth in the Players last year.
The four-time PGA Tour winner was right in the mix last year until a final-round 76 knocked him out of the top 25. Like Homa, Hovland, Schauffele and others, it’s time for Burns to bag a big one.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 6, 2023
Finau has missed the cut in four of his previous six starts at the Players. Still, he has won three times since July and is more than capable of putting together four good rounds.
After tying for fourth in 2014, Spieth hasn’t finished inside the top 40 in seven starts since. The place doesn’t seem to fit his eye, but he played well at the Arnold Palmer Invitational until his putter let him down late.
He was solo third against a stellar field at the Genesis. He missed the cut in his past three starts at TPC Sawgrass and had just one round under par in his past six.
The South Korean player’s form was better at the API after he struggled in consecutive starts at the Genesis and Honda Classic. He tied for 17th in the 2021 Players.
It’s only a matter of time before the reigning PGA Tour rookie of the year picks up his first victory. He was second at the Saudi International but hadn’t done much on tour until a tie for 10th at the API. He missed the cut in his Players debut in 2022.
Tier II: If everything goes right
Here are the sleeper candidates to win the Players. This tier includes a few previous major champions and a handful of players who have made comebacks this season.
The 2019 Open Championship winner thrives on tough courses and in tough conditions. He has back-to-back finishes in the top 15 at the Players.
Players making their first starts at TPC Sawgrass have traditionally struggled, but Kim might end up being the exception. He doesn’t drive it as far as McIlroy and others, but he’s accurate off the tee, which will be at a premium this week.
He’s still searching for his first PGA Tour victory, but Fleetwood’s game has shown signs of life this season. He has two top-10s in five starts at the Players.
Mitchell has had stretches of very good golf since November. He leads the tour in total driving and is very accurate off the tee. He tied for 13th at the Players last year.
The Englishman hits enough fairways to be a contender. He tied for 13th last year, his best finish in the Players. He had another solid outing at Bay Hill.
Kitayama stared down challenges from several of the tour’s best players, including McIlroy, Scheffler, Cantlay and Spieth, and didn’t blink in picking up his first PGA Tour victory at the API. He’s talented enough to do it again. He jumped from No. 46 to No. 19 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
The 2021 Masters champion has a fantastic track record at the Stadium Course with five top-25s in his past seven starts. But his recent form (consecutive missed cuts) and ailing neck are reasons for concern.
English was playing like one of the best players in the world before a hip injury sidelined him for much of 2022. He’s back after tying for 12th in the Genesis and for second in the API. He jumped 40 spots to No. 39 in the world after his latest start.
The 2015 Players winner seems to be finally turning the corner with his new swing. Fowler has three top-10s in nine starts this season, one fewer than he had in 60 starts the three previous seasons combined.
The four-time PGA Tour winner is second in driving distance, but the rest of his game has been up and down this season. He tied for 13th at the Players last year.
Straka carded a final-round 67 to tie for ninth at the Players in 2022. He was under par in three of four rounds in difficult conditions.
Kirk has been hot since the beginning of 2023 and ended his nearly eight-year drought with a playoff victory at the Honda Classic.
Theegala already has five top-10s in 12 starts this season. He missed the cut in his first Players start, and his inconsistency off the tee might be a concern.
Hoge tied for third at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, so he won’t be intimidated by a very strong field. He was 33rd or better in each of his past three starts at the Stadium Course.
First round tee times @THEPLAYERSChamp 🍿
7:34 a.m. ET
7:45 a.m. ET
7:56 a.m. ET
12:34 p.m. ET
12:45 p.m. ET
12:56 p.m. ET
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 6, 2023
Horschel’s recent form hasn’t been great, but he’s efficient off the tee and calls Ponte Vedra Beach home. He withdrew before the start of the third round because of illness last year.
Shame on us for continuing to overlook the Irishman, who won the Bermuda Championship in October. He finished 35th or better in his first two starts at TPC Sawgrass.
The Australian is finally healthy and it shows in his results with five top-10s in 11 starts this season. The 2016 Players Championship winner is one of nine players to card a 9-under 63 in the event.
Conners, from Canada, has five top-25s in eight tour starts this season. He’s a little erratic off the tee and his putting hasn’t been great but still gets it done.
The Englishman returned to the winner’s circle with a victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He has five top-25s in 17 starts at the Players.
Harman missed the cut in three of his past four starts, but he has three top-10s at the Players, including a tie for third in 2021.
Si Woo Kim
The 2017 Players Championship winner claimed his fourth tour victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.
Riley broke out of a funk — three straight missed cuts — to tie for 29th at the Honda Classic and eighth at the API. It will be his first start at the Players.
Fox, from New Zealand, won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews last year and has climbed to No. 32 in the world. He tied for 14th at Bay Hill.
Hughes won the Sanderson Farms Challenge in October, his second PGA Tour victory. He missed the cut in his past two starts at TPC Sawgrass.
Much of Noren’s best work has come on the DP World Tour. He tied for second at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and DP World Tour Championship and for fifth in Abu Dhabi.
Scott hasn’t done much yet this season, but his results in the Players have been good with 10 top-25s in 20 previous starts. He won the event nearly two decades ago in 2004.
For a guy who can be pretty self-deprecating, Dahmen has five top-25s in 11 starts this season.
The Canadian hits about 63% of fairways and has a solid all-around game. It’s why he finished ninth at the Players in 2022.
The 2019 U.S. Open champion finally saw signs of progress with a tie for ninth at the Genesis.
Wise missed the cut in three of his past four starts on tour but has otherwise had a solid 2023 campaign. The former Oregon star is up to No. 46 in the world.
The rookie from UNLV started his maiden season red-hot with eight top-15 finishes in his first nine starts. He has cooled off since.
The Canadian, who played for the International team at the Presidents Cup, tied for 13th at the 2022 Players.
Poston has been up and down so far in 2023, but he has a pair of top-25 finishes at Sawgrass.
Kisner has been struggling with a swing change and his putter hasn’t been as good. He finished fourth at the Stadium Course last year, earning close to $1 million.
Tier III: Hey, miracles happen
They are the long shots. Everything would have to fall perfectly into place over 72 holes in four days for someone from this tier to win.
Tier IV: Happy to make the cut
They aren’t expected to be among the contenders unless something truly magical happens.
Byeong Hun An