Known by many as the ‘fifth Major’, the Players Championship is arguably the biggest tournament of the season outside of the four Majors. Down the years the event, hosted at TPC Sawgrass, has given us a number of memorable moments, many of which have taken place at the iconic 17th hole.

48 of the top 50 in the world are competing this week as they seek to add their names to the famous roll of honour and here is our preview ahead of Thursday’s opening round.

Cantlay poised to take next step in career

Although ranked ninth in the official golf rankings, one player who seems to have perhaps slipped under the radar this week is PATRICK CANTLAY who looks absolutely tailor made for this week’s test at 22/1. The former world number one-ranked amateur has become one of the most consistent players in the game as shown by his stats the season. He’s made the cut in all nine starts so far, finishing in the top 25 seven times and the top 10 on four occasions. He was superb in winning the Zozo Championship at the back end of 2020 and has continued that form into 2021 with a solo second at the American Express and a tie for third at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Given his tremendous consistency, it’s unsurprising he ranks third in Strokes-Gained Total this season.

On first inspection his record at Sawgrass only reads so-so with finishes of 22nd, 23rd and a missed cut in 2019, however, that only tells half the story. On debut in 2017, Cantlay sat seventh after round one, fifth at halfway and seventh with a round to go, before a disappointing Sunday saw his challenge peter out. A year later, he led after the opening round and he was well-placed after day one in last year’s cancelled event.

He’s spoken of his love of Sawgrass and has compared it to another Pete Dye design in Harbour Town, where his form figures read 3-7-3. Throw in three top-15s at TPC River Highlands, another course Dye has had a part in, and it’s clear that Cantlay flourishes at Dye-designed layouts.

Another thing in Cantlay’s favour is the lack of mistakes the American makes. This season, the 28-year-old is ranked sixth in bogey avoidance, while he was ranked third in 2019 behind the two most recent winners of the Players in Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson. The stats suggest keeping the bogeys off the card is key with five of the last six winners in McIlroy (tied for first in 2019), Simpson (tied for seventh in 2018), Si Woo Kim (tied for first in 2017), Jason Day (tied for first in 2016), Martin Kaymer (tied for first in 2014) and Tiger Woods (first in 2013) all ranking highly in the bogey avoidance category.

Simpson could become a Players champion again

The other player who looks of major interest is 2018 winner WEBB SIMPSON at 22/1. The 35-year-old was an impressive four-shot winner here three years ago and it was a win that really gave him confidence that he is an elite player. He’s won twice since then – both in 2020 – and although you might have expected him to have won more times than that, he’s finished runner-up on four separate occasions too, so it’s not like he hasn’t been in contention on several occasions.

Like Cantlay, he’s made all nine cuts so far this season and although he didn’t really contend at the back end of 2020, he’s come right back to form in 2021. He finished in a tie for fourth at the Sony Open, before a tie for sixth at the WGC a couple of weeks ago, where an even-par 72 in the final round cost him. He was tied for sixth in Strokes Gained: Total at the Concession and that was despite an uncharacteristically cold putter. He ranked 11th in Strokes Gained: Putting on the PGA Tour in 2019 and 13th in 2020, while he’s 21st so far this season, so being ranked 40th in that tournament was most unlike him.

He also lines up well with the bogey avoidance theory as he was first in the category in 2020 and is third this season (he bogeys just 11% of the holes he plays) – a stat we now know is key around Sawgrass. Webb will have fond memories of returning to Jacksonville after his win here three years ago and if that putter warms up, he could join a select list of double Players Championship winners.

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