Dominant Rahm headlines strong field at Players Championship

Dominant Rahm headlines strong field at Players Championship
Jon Rahm plays his shot from the first tee during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Golf Course in Orlando, Florida on 4 March 2023. (Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Men’s golf’s unofficial ‘fifth major’, the Players Championship, tees off on Thursday, without its defending champion Cameron Smith who has defected to LIV Golf.

Jon Rahm may have come back down to Earth after a strong start to the year, but he is still the hottest player going into this week’s Players Championship where 2022 champion Cameron Smith will be a notable absentee given his decision to join LIV Golf.

Rahm is the first player since Johnny Miller in 1975 to win three times in a calendar year before March. He will headline a loaded field at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, which includes 44 of the top 50 players in the world.

The Spaniard, who opened the season with six consecutive top-10 finishes before settling for a share of 39th last week at Bay Hill, has never missed the cut in five starts at The Players and had his best result in 2021 when he finished ninth.

The world No 1 counts the 2021 US Open among his 10 wins on the PGA Tour, but is very eager to add a Players Championship title to his résumé.

“I mean, winning this event is a big step forward to a Hall of Fame career,” Rahm told reporters. “You are The Players Champion. Arguably as close as you can get to being a major champion without officially being one.”

Cameron Smith

Cameron Smith plays a shot from a bunker during the LIV Golf Invitational in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, on 25 February 2023. (Photo: Juan Luis Diaz / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images)

Among the other contenders at TPC Sawgrass, where the winner will get $4.5-million from a purse of $25-million, are reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Scottie Scheffler and four-times major winner Rory McIlroy.

For Scheffler and McIlroy, who have both spent time atop the world rankings this year, a win this week is one of the many scenarios in which they can return to top spot in the rankings.

McIlroy arrived full of confidence after finishing runner-up at Bay Hill where during the final round the Northern Irishman carded successive bogeys from the 14th before a two-putt birdie at the par-five 16th kept his hopes alive.

“As much as I was disappointed that I didn’t play the final five holes the way I wanted to, it was still a good week, and I feel like getting into contention last week and sort of having those feelings sets me up well for this week,” he said.

2019 triumph

McIlroy, who will play the first two rounds of the PGA Tour’s flagship event alongside fellow major winners Rahm and Scheffler, has four top 10s in 12 starts at The Players, including his 2019 triumph.

Scheffler, who returned to world No 1 for a week in February after his successful title defence at the Phoenix Open, finished in a share of fourth at Bay Hill where he was also the defending champion.

Max Homa finished in a share of 13th place last year at TPC Sawgrass and will be liking his chances in what will be his third Players start, given that he is one of two golfers with a number of titles on the PGA Tour this season.

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“This place is really tricky, so I think confidence is a big part of the week. It’s nice to have that,” said Homa, who moved to a career-best seventh in the world rankings this week.

Read in Daily Maverick:

LIV Golf threat has benefited everyone, says McIlroy

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“It’s kind of fun to arrive at a massive event and not feel like I’m tinkering with anything or trying to do anything different.”

While there will be plenty of star power at TPC Sawgrass, one glaring absence will be 2022 Open champion and world No 5 Smith, who has been banned indefinitely from playing in PGA Tour events after switching to LIV Golf.

Max Homa

Max Homa plays an approach shot on the sixth hole during a practice round before The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, on 8 March 2023. (Photo:y Jared C Tilton / Getty Images)

Australian Smith is one of five players who finished inside the top 10 last year at TPC Sawgrass who have since fled to LIV Golf, a group that also includes runner-up Anirban Lahiri, Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and Harold Varner III.

Homa conflicted about LIV Golfers

Homa is on record as being critical of the LIV Golf League, but that didn’t stop him from saying the PGA Tour potentially would be better off if it welcomed back some of the defectors from the upstart circuit.

“I’m not super-duper close with a tonne of guys, but it does feel like we’re all kind of in this together to push competitive golf and push the game forward,” Homa, the No 7-ranked golfer in the world, said Tuesday.

“My petty side would be a little bit annoyed, but also kind of smiling underneath thinking, ‘okay, welcome, welcome back to what you could have just been doing’.

“But I think my unselfish side and my realistic side is that, as I just mentioned, all of those guys that you can name that left are great for golf. Champion golfers, interesting golfers, so many great stories across their careers.

“So, of course, if I could put my selfish part aside and maybe put on my big-boy hat, I would realise that having them back would be a good thing for golf at large.”

Homa (32) shouldn’t hold his breath, however. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan dismissed the notion of welcoming back LIV players with open arms.

“For some reason I’ve been hearing that a lot lately, and I’m not certain where that’s coming from,” Monahan said. “The players that are playing on that tour are contractually obligated to play on that tour.

“So, any hypotheticals at this point really aren’t relevant, and I think you know me well enough to know I’m not a big fan of hypotheticals. But our position, to answer your question directly, has not changed.”

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy during practice before The Players Championship on 8 March 2023. (Photo: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

Still, Homa noted that certain LIV golfers – such as Bryson DeChambeau – move the needle in terms of interest.

“Yeah, I think that certain TV shows and movies aren’t great, like a Hallmark movie, when everything is just all perfect. And I think all of it is interesting,” Homa said.

“I do think that it is a shame that I find Bryson to be one of the most interesting people who has probably ever swung a golf club. He thinks about it differently.

“… It was something like, you know, sixth at Bay Hill last year or two years ago, it was like must-see TV, and it was awesome. As I talk to my friends who are far removed from my standing in golf and how close I am to it, I ask them quite often, you know, who are their favourite players and least-favourite players.

“And it’s interesting because when they mention someone who is maybe not their favourite, they always seem to like light up and love talking about it.

“I’m not saying that those players are anyone’s least favourite, but they obviously have brought some controversy when they have played in events here and there, whether that’s good or bad, but for golf I feel like that’s good. For entertainment that’s good, for fans that’s good.” Reuters/DM


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