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Preview: The Players Championship 2024 - predictions, course guide, preview

Sports Mole previews the 50th edition of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass which gets underway on Thursday.

The self-dubbed 'strongest field in golf' convene on TPC Sawgrass this week for the 50th edition of the Players Championship, golf's unofficial fifth major, and the PGA Tour's flagship event.

After Scottie Scheffler blew the field away to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last week, the world number one returns to Sawgrass to defend his Players title from last year.

The Players Championship preview

Scottie Scheffler poses with the Players Championship trophy on March 12, 2023© Reuters

A 144-strong field will tee it up on Thursday, including nine former winners, 23 debutants, but no LIV defectors, such as world number three Jon Rahm, who abandoned the tour late last year.

Another player not in the field, despite gaining entry, is Tiger Woods, as the legendary figure is likely keeping himself rested ahead of the Masters next month, after withdrawing from the Genesis Invitational in his only appearance of the season so far.

All eyes will therefore be on last week's winner Scheffler, whose incredible round on Sunday saw him leave the field in his wake as he romped to a five-shot victory over Wyndham Clark in second.

Scheffler has led the tour this season in strokes gained tee-to-green and approach-to-green, while also hitting the most greens and making the most birdies, but his strokes gained on putting was 144th going into the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and was the reason why he had not yet won in 2024.

When the world number one can get the putter working though, he is unstoppable, and Scheffler led the field in putting on round four at Bay Hill, meaning that it was no surprise he won by such a margin, shooting a six-under 66 on Sunday despite the course playing difficult.

It was a five-stroke margin last week, and it was the same story here last year, as Scheffler shot 17-under-par to claim a maiden Players Championship, but if the putter goes cold again, he may be in trouble, as shown by the fact that he failed to win any of the majors in 2023.

Rory McIlroy on his way to winning the Tour Championship and Fedex Cup on August 28, 2022.© Reuters

Going off as second-favourite will be Rory McIlroy, who had yet another inconsistent and frustrating week at Bay Hill, bringing himself contention on moving day with six birdies to close out round three, before shooting six-over-par in his opening 11 holes on Sunday.

Often described as having the finest swing in professional golf, McIlroy does not capitalise on leading the tour in strokes gained off-the-tee, as out of 186 players, the Northern Irishman ranks 152nd in strokes gained approach-to-green, and 129th in putting, as he would end up finishing 14 strokes behind Scheffler.

Those kinds of performances have been endemic for most of Europe's leading players this season, as Viktor Hovland is also struggling, with a tie for 19th his best finish so far this season, while fellow Ryder Cup teammates Matt Fitzpatrick and Sepp Straka are also lacking form heading to Sawgrass, having both missed three cuts already this season, with no top-10s so far.

It could therefore be an opportunity for two South African players, who have not long made the step up from the European Tour, to contend here, as Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Erik van Rooyen have shown promising signs this season.

Bezuidenhout finished second behind amateur Nick Dunlap in that historic win at the Amex recently, while Van Rooyen is going under the radar slightly, but has shot 12 successive rounds in the 60s this season, and has finished in the top-25 in six of his eight starts, including a tie-for-second at the Cognizant Classic.

Leading the American charge behind Scheffler could be Will Zalatoris, who is back in excellent form after back surgery ended his 2023 campaign before it really began.

Will Zalatoris on his way to winning the St Jude Championship on August 14, 2022.© Reuters

There is much excitement around the youngster, who burst onto the scene with numerous great showings in the majors, despite never getting over the line, with six top-10s in his first 10 major starts.

Zalatoris led by five at one point on Saturday at Bay Hill, but a late collapse allowed the field back into play, and he would only finish tied-fourth, just a few weeks after coming tied-second at the Genesis behind Hideki Matsuyama

Justin Thomas is looking close to his best after a nightmare 2023, but waywardness off the tee and some shakiness with the putter is still holding the two-time major winner back.

Thomas will tee off with Scheffler and good friend Jordan Spieth for the first two rounds, and the Texas native has no such difficulties with the putter and is also a big contender, but being liable to erratic shots means that there is never any certainty on the Spieth rollercoaster.

Xander Schauffele is another player going under the radar slightly, but after making a 41st successive cut last week, his ability to consistently get himself into contention means that he cannot be discredited here, with four top-10s from six starts in 2024.

Course Guide:

General view of the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass during the Players Championship© Reuters

After playing as easy as Sawgrass ever has done last year, it will be intriguing to see whether the field can get close to the sort of records that they set last year.

On round three in 2023, the average score for the field across the day was the lowest seen in Players Championship history, helped by Tom Hoge's course record 10-under-par 62, which took him from the cut line to eventually finishing tied-third.

The 'Island Green' 17th hole is set to provide more memorable moments this year though, in front of a 36,000-strong crowd, after seeing a record three holes-in-one last year, it will also see its fair share of water-bound balls.

The 17th is infamous for its layout, and the masses of crowds which flock to see, but the closing 18th hole is potentially the most daunting challenge.

Despite much jeopardy given the huge water hazard down the left-hand side, the reward of executing a risky shot is certainly worth it, especially come Sunday, when it will be a psychological battle for the golfers.

All 18 holes have water hazards in places to a varying degree, but it will ultimately be down to the Floridian weather as to what the scoring will be this week.

Despite some rain and storm delays last year, the weather was favourable, and was the reason for such low scoring, while persistent rain in 2022 meant that there was a Monday finish, something everybody will be hoping to avoid.

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We say: Scottie Scheffler to win

There was something of a return to normality last week as Scheffler became the first fancied golfer to win on tour this season, as all previous nine winners had been 40-1 or higher from the start, including Grayson Murray (400-1), Dunlap (300-1), Chris Kirk (200-1) and even US Open winner Clark, who started at 60-1 for the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

With such great depth in the tour at present, nobody within the top 30-or-so favourites can be written off, as wins for the likes of Si-Woo Kim, K. J. Choi and Tim Clark over the past 15 years shows outsiders do have a chance here.

The likes of McIlroy, Hovland and Collin Morikawa especially could do with a big win to set themselves up ahead of major season after slow starts to the year, as the latter has missed two cuts in five starts this season.

However, while there has never been a back-to-back winner in the past 49 editions of the Players, Scheffler comes into the week as the resounding favourite, and all will depend on his putter, as it will be almost a guaranteed victory for the world number one if he can get it working as he did at Bay Hill.

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