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Q&Gray: Can Rory McIlroy buck Players trend and his own?

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The PGA Tour’s flagship event is about to kick off.

An elite field is gathered this week for The Players, where one of the most lucrative prizes in golf will be up for grabs. From a streaking world No. 1 to a slumping former major champ to possible dark horse contenders, here are four burning questions to consider before the action tees off at TPC Sawgrass:

Which streak will end for Rory McIlroy?

McIlroy has been on something of a heater in recent months, with seven straight top-5 finishes dating back to the end of 2019. That’s a run of consistency that has been surpassed in recent years only by Tiger Woods, and one that McIlroy mirrored last year before breaking through for victory at TPC Sawgrass.

But returning as defending champ, the trends are going against him. McIlroy has never successfully defended a title on Tour, finishing no better than fourth in 11 prior opportunities. On top of that, the fickle nature of the Stadium Course has not been kind on recent winners, as no player has ever gone back-to-back at The Players. To find a winner who finished in the top 10 the following year, you have to go all the way back to Adam Scott in 2005.

But if anyone is poised to curb those recent patterns, it’s the world No. 1. McIlroy has five top-12 finishes at this event since 2013, including last year’s victory, and he’s currently second on Tour this season in total strokes gained. There’s no weak spot in his tee-to-green arsenal, with a balky putter the most likely factor that could potentially derail his week in Ponte Vedra. But whether for the player or the event, an impressive recent trend is about to come to an end.

Rory: 'Only way to not win is to concentrate on the results'

Rory: 'Only way to not win is to concentrate on the results'

Is Jason Day poised for another quick recovery?

The Aussie won here in 2016, but he’s now listed as questionable after withdrawing from last week’s event at Bay Hill because of a back injury. Day walked gingerly to the parking lot in Orlando, and he walked nine holes in lieu of playing upon his Monday arrival at TPC Sawgrass.

But Day’s bounce back potential is perhaps higher than most of his peers. After all, it was just last year that Day withdrew because of a seemingly serious back injury at Bay Hill – not only did he tee it up at The Players the following week, he tied for eighth. He also won a playoff event in 2015 after missing the pro-am that very same week because of, you guessed it, a back injury.

Day WDs from Bay Hill again citing back injury

Jason Day has withdrawn from the Arnold Palmer Invitational four holes into his second round on Friday.

There are still plenty of questions surrounding the former world No. 1, but if his body responds he could certainly make a deep run on a course where he was dominant four years ago and has cracked the top 10 three of the last four years. Day finished fourth just a few weeks ago at Pebble Beach, so the good form isn’t exactly long gone. Having taken the old adage of “beware the injured golfer” to new heights in recent years, don’t be surprised if he does it once again this week.

SB2K group: We'll have some fun out there

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Is a familiar grouping enough to spark a turnaround for Jordan Spieth?

Spieth was transcendent in his Players debut back in 2014, nearly playing the entire tournament without making a bogey before finishing fourth behind Martin Kaymer. Needless to say, things haven’t gone so well for him since then on the Stadium Course.

Spieth has struggled mightily in this event over the last five years, missing the cut four times and finishing T-41 in 2018. He’s often dug himself an early hole at Pete Dye’s place, failing to break par in the opening round at this event every year since a 67 in his very first competitive round here in 2014.

Spieth has been open about the ongoing search for form, having found glimmers of hope in Phoenix and Pebble Beach but still without a top-5 finish since last year’s PGA Championship. But this week he finds himself in a familiar early-round grouping, joined by fellow spring break participants Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler in a trio that is sure to draw plenty of fan support.

If the added comfort level is going to lead to lower scores, it’ll likely manifest itself off the tee. Last year Spieth was spraying the driver in both directions en route to missing the cut at Sawgrass, and this season he ranks a dismal 195th on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee. 

Who’s most likely to earn a maiden PGA Tour win at TPC Sawgrass?

One of the testaments to the depth of this week’s field is the fact that 110 of the 144 players who will tee it up on Thursday have won at least once on the PGA Tour. That’s the highest such total in the FedExCup era, one more than the 109 who did so at the 2017 Players.

So chances are that the winner will add to his trophy haul rather than starting it, but a breakthrough champion wouldn’t be unprecedented. Craig Perks (2002) and Tim Clark (2010) both earned their first career PGA Tour win at TPC Sawgrass, while The Players was win No. 2 for Stephen Ames (2006), Martin Kaymer (2014) and Si Woo Kim (2017).

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The maiden win debate has been a popular point of discussion along the Florida swing, with Tommy Fleetwood nearly snagging his first U.S. title at the Honda Classic and Tyrrell Hatton finishing the job last week at Bay Hill. Fleetwood leads the list of likely contenders this week, eager to bounce back from a rare missed cut on a course where he has finished T-7 or better each of the last two years.

But don’t forget about a soft-spoken American who is rocketing up the world rankings: Scottie Scheffler. The former U.S. Junior Amateur champ was the Player of the Year last year on the Korn Ferry Tour and hasn’t missed a beat since earning a promotion, becoming the lone rookie to qualify for the WGC-Mexico Championship. He’s now inside the top 50 in the world, a standing that could net him a Masters bid in three weeks, and he has already racked up seven top-20 finishes this season.