David John has three selections for this week's stellar PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.
There have been one or two head-scratching results at the PLAYERS Championship down the years but proven top-level form from an established star or a rapid improver has been the general order of the day.
A whopping 48 of the world’s top 50 go to post at the iconic TPC Sawgrass with a knee-knocking closing stretch that includes the par three 17th island green – Russell Knox was the latest significant victim in 2016 having blown his chance of victory by running up a nine in round three.
There remains a diverse opinion when it comes to Pete Dye’s gem just outside of Jacksonville in north Florida – some love the place, others are less keen while some just can’t seem to find the key to good scoring.
Phil Mickelson’s response after his victory a decade ago – at the height of his ‘slash it and thrash it’ period - was “I can’t believe I have won here” and the consensus opinion is this is a strategic, positional golf course that won’t be bullied into submission.
It is a huge help then if you can successfully pick your spots from the tee and know where to miss a green in a bid to avoid the worst of some severe run-off areas.
Swirling winds, hot temperatures and a switch of position in the calendar a few years ago from mid-March to the current slot for harder, faster conditions craved by officials provide one of the most thorough tests both physically and mentally outside of the majors.
It has been described as “risk-reward at its limit” and a fascinating week is unquestionably in store with so many of the best players around fully primed and ready to assert themselves.
World number one Dustin Johnson is clear market leader and looked well pleased with his weekend efforts at the Wells Fargo Championship after rounds of 67-67 saw him come up just shy of another win this year.
It was all the more impressive considering it was his comeback from the freak back injury which left him a late scratch from the Masters last month and very limited time to practice prior to Eagle Point.
It was without doubt a lovely warm-up to build on and probably surprised Johnson a little how close he came to actually winning but he will have to consign a rather sketchy career record around here to the dustbin if he is to get involved.
It will be interesting to see how Rory McIlroy fares as a newly-married man and perhaps embarking on a fresh chapter in his life away from the course could help him finally convert another splendidly consistent run of form since the turn of the year into a big victory.
McIlroy is judged – and judges himself – by titles alone so stringing top 10s together only provides a source of frustration week in and week out.
He has not looked a million miles away once again in four events on his return in March from a rib fracture and an increasingly eye-catching set of form figures at Sawgrass suggest he is getting to grips with the demands after missing the cut on his first three attempts.
Defending champion Jason Day could be ready to rediscover his best form too after a difficult period in his personal life as his mother battles illness while I would not be particularly perturbed by Jordan Spieth’s back-to-back missed cuts here as this place should be right up his street.
But at over twice the odds, I prefer Spieth's great pal Justin Thomas to register a fourth and by far his most significant PGA Tour victory of the season.
Thomas has taken a little bit longer to find his stride compared to the dual major winner but his time has arrived to join the absolute elite of the game after a golden couple of months around the turn of the year hoisted him up to number 10 in the world rankings.
A successful defence of his title at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia was followed by successive victories in Hawaii (with a 59 while playing with Spieth thrown in along the way) and pinpointed Thomas as a player who is going to win at regular intervals.
A resident now in Florida, the Stadium Course really gets his juices flowing and he could not be more glowing in his praise for the layout.
“There is just something about this track and the atmosphere,” he said.
“I love this place and it is really one of my favourite courses to play in tournament conditions.”
While others might have reservations over whether this is the place for them, you have to love the upbeat approach taken by Thomas, who understandably cooled off a little in the spring but showed a nice return to form last time with a T5 alongside Bud Cauley in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
A third round 75 here last year in some very windy conditions ultimately proved his undoing but he battled back on the final day (65) to finish in a tie for third and has excellent claims to improve on that further.
He is ranked 12th since 2014 for Strokes Gained on Dye-designed courses if you are a stats boffin and Thomas can confirm he really is among the elite with victory here.
Jon Rahm continues to tackle every challenge with some gusto and it doesn’t seem to bother him what venue is in front of him ahead of his Sawgrass debut.
In an era where new players seemingly take less and less time to acclimatise, Rahm’s rise to the top has been extraordinary with some good judges at the Wells Fargo believing he could end up even better than compatriots Seve Ballesteros and Sergio Garcia.
The latter can start to enjoy a new lease of life too on his first competitive outing since winning the Masters and boasts as excellent pedigree around here as well having taken the title and also been beaten in a play-off.
There is always a chance of a little bit of a hangover or drop-off in performance on the back of such a pivotal victory in Garcia’s career but balanced against that is the fact he is playing some of his very best golf at the moment.
Justin Rose, vanquished at Augusta National, and former winner Rickie Fowler are other likely popular picks but I am going to take a chance on a couple who fall very much into the ‘improver’ category at three-figure quotes – Hudson Swafford and Patrick Cantlay.
The former has threatened to be a very good player for a number of years and although a relatively late bloomer after his maiden PGA victory this year at the CareerBuilder Challenge, he remains the right side of 30.
His form went a bit pear-shaped in the immediate aftermath when he got a little distracted through February but by his own admission, he got himself "playing good" once again and has posted solid efforts at the Anold Palmer Invitational and in Houston.
Swafford lives just an hour from Sawgrass and played the course plenty of times as a junior while the fact he loves Bermuda greens and Pete Dye designs suggests he will improve massively on last year’s debut when finishing out with the washing.
He did open with a 66 though and arrives a much-improved player with greater belief after those exploits in the California desert.
“I really felt comfortable in the final round,” he said in the post-round press conference after getting his hands on the trophy at the CareerBuilders.
“I was nervous but I went up and got it and that gives you such a lot of confidence.”
He has spoken since in Houston about how strong all aspects of his game feel currently, particularly wedge play and putting, and looks a likely type to take that next step up the ladder.
It has taken a long time for Cantlay to get to this position having suffered various injuries and personal tragedy but we are at last seeing what a gifted performer he has the potential to be.
I say ‘potential’ because the talent is there to be as good as Rahm or Spieth and he has already flashed some outstanding form from limited starts in 2017 to secure his playing rights in the USA for the rest of the season.
He managed that via a second place behind Adam Hadwin at the Valspar Championship and then added to that for good measure with a T3 at The Heritage.
It was a great finish down the stretch in the Valspar as Cantlay showed a big-game temperament and made the more experienced Hadwin pull out all the stops for victory.
The UCLA standout is only going in one direction given the opportunity to play a consistent schedule now and a little delve into the form book sees his positive form in Florida is boosted by a T5 at the Jacksonville Open – played on the same property at this venue’s sister course.
Posted at 2130 BST on 08/05/17.