PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Despite the absence of a few heavy hitters in Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, this week’s Players Championship still lives up to its annual billing as the best field in tournament golf.
And because of that, it’s also the most difficult to predict.
In recent years, this tournament has been won by big hitters (Henrik Stenson), short-knockers (Tim Clark), old guys (Fred Funk), young guys (Adam Scott), superstars (Tiger Woods) and one-hit wonders (Craig Perks).
And yet, let’s try to prognosticate this thing anyway. Just remember: Expect the unexpected.
|1. Jason Dufner: Pick a name, any name. The Year of the Unpredictable Champion continues this week with an underrated ball-striker (pictured above) who’s overdue for a win.|
|2. Matt Kuchar: Count ‘em up. It’s been exactly 53 weeks since Kooch missed a cut – and that may actually be less surprising than the fact that he “only” has one win.|
|3. Ben Crane: Three years ago, he was T-6 at this tourney. Two years ago, he was T-5. Last year, T-4. Hmm, anyone else smell a pattern?|
|4. Matteo Manassero: The uber-talented teen doesn’t hit the ball a long way, but he doesn’t need to on this course, where his exquisite short game will serve him well.|
|5. Luke Donald: It would be pure folly to leave the world’s greatest short game artist (sorry, Phil) off the list of contenders at any event, but especially this one.|
|6. Jim Furyk: After a lackluster start, Mr. Consistency has peeled off five straight top-25 finishes and will be playing in his adopted hometown again this week.|
|7. Francesco Molinari: Yet another ball-striker supreme on the list, this half of the Molinari Bros. finished ninth in his Players debut last year.|
|8. Adam Scott: Once upon a time, Scott won this event and was thought to be a major champion in the making. Following a runner-up at the Masters, maybe that’s still true.|
|9. Zach Johnson: So … the course is fast and firm this week? Sounds like perfect Zach-like conditions. Coming off a T-6 at Quail Hollow, his game is in the right shape, too.|
|10. Phil Mickelson: What will Phil do next? At this event, it’s anyone’s guess. Since winning here four years ago, he hasn’t finished better than 17th in three starts.|
|11. Bill Haas: A list of the five most underrated players on the PGA Tour wouldn’t be complete without this multiple winner from last season.|
|12. Rory Sabbatini: With a rumored suspension impending, can you imagine the look of dismay on PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s face if he had to hand over the trophy to Sabo?|
|13. Sergio Garcia: It would be the story of the year – no, the story of any year – if the 2008 champion could win here again following the passing of countryman Seve Ballesteros.|
|14. Steve Marino: Like last year’s champion Tim Clark, he is currently on the short list of best current players without a PGA Tour victory. Don’t expect him to be there much longer.|
|15. Rickie Fowler: The new crown prince of the PGA Tour is still searching for his first career win, but would have Ponte Vedra Beach execs swooning if he could pull it off this week.|
|16. Jonathan Byrd: There won’t be many putts to force a playoff any better than the one stroked by Byrd on the final hole at Quail Hollow last week.|
|17. Gary Woodland: Four finishes of sixth or better – two of which occurred in the Sunshine State – including a victory at the Transitions Championship prove he’s more than just a big banger.|
|18. Stewart Cink: He maintains that his new and improved swing still isn’t there, but he’s playing well anyway. When it does click, watch out for big things.|
|19. Ricky Barnes: This week is a big event, right? Then consider Barnes, who always plays his best golf when the stakes are highest.|
|20. Camilo Villegas: Call this one a complete hunch. In a dozen starts so far this season, Villegas has made the cut just seven times and has zero top-25 finishes.|
Follow Jason Sobel on Twitter @JasonSobelGC