The Players Championship 2014: Predictions for Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy at TPC Sawgrass

Richard Heathcote

Tiger Woods, the defending champ at TPC Sawgrass, is absent but 46 of the top 50 in the world are in attendance for the PGA Tour's biggest event. Here are some picks and predictions for the week in Ponte Vedra.

The Players Championship has the strongest field of the year in golf, and while it's often called a wide open event, the tournament has consistently produced superstar and decorated champions in recent years. Tiger's gone, but Adam, Bubba, Phil, Rory, Sergio, and Kuchar are all here and it's likely we have a new No. 1 player in the world come Sunday night. SB Nation golf staffers Brendan Porath and Mark Sandritter deliver their predictions for this week.

Who finishes higher -- Phil or Rory?

Mark: Both had their moments last week. It's been too long since McIlroy put together a full four-round tournament for me to pick him. He's been done in by a bad round or two and while Phil has had similar issues -- including last week -- he's at least done it recently.

Brendan: Coming off last week in Charlotte, it's hard to predict how these guys will do not just week-to-week but day-to-day. One day, they're rolling in everything and firing a round in the low to mid 60s, the next they're bombing it all over the course and blasting putts back and forth past the hole. Rory should have a win or two at this point, but some weekend stumbles have prevented him from getting all the way back from that ugly 2013 season on Tour. A win at the Honda seemed inevitable, but then he imploded coming down the stretch on Sunday to give away a multi-shot lead that he carried the entire tournament:


Given that Rory's back to contending pretty regularly, and Phil has yet to get a top 10 stateside, the natural pick would be to go with McIlroy to finish higher. But his putting stroke is still too shaky, and his record at TPC Sawgrass is not pretty. So I'm going with the 2007 Players Champ, hoping that Mickelson looks more like the player from last Saturday (a dazzling round of 63 at Quail Hollow) than the one we saw on Sunday (a blundering 76).

Will Bubba Watson contend or are you expecting a check-out week from the Masters champ?

Brendan: After he won the Masters in 2012, Bubba definitely checked out for awhile, taking in all the new fame, money, and appropriately spending time with his new child. It was almost two years before he won again, and he rarely even came close during that stretch. But this season, he's probably playing the best in the world and while he didn't swing a club for a couple weeks after this year's Augusta win, his approach is entirely different and he should keep pressing the rest of year.

So he's not going to check out, but he's also not going to contend this week. Augusta sets up perfectly for Bubba's booming left-handed fades, and he'll continue to win there for years to come. But TPC Sawgrass is the opposite for a unique talent who relies so much on creativity and feel, as opposed to rote mechanics. He's never finished higher than T37 here, and on Tuesday, he admitted that this Pete Dye design just doesn't fit his eye. That's not a very encouraging statement for someone who relies so much on getting comfortable sightlines to play those amazing shots. I wouldn't expect much from him this week.

Mark: With nearly a month off since winning at Augusta, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he comes out rusty. He had a similar layoff, although not quite as long, after winning in 2012 and finished T18 at Zurich that year. The bigger issue is Watson has never had a ton of success at the Players. His length isn't as much of an advantage there and he's missed the cut three times in six tries. He's probably a non-factor.

Who's your darkhorse pick to win or contend?

The Players Championship

Mark: Steve Stricker at 80-1 is interesting. He hasn't played very well at the Players the last two years, but he's proven he has the ability to not play for weeks and then show up and contend.

Brendan: I really want to take Welshman Jamie Donaldson at 100/1, but I just did that for the Masters a month ago. So to switch things up, I'll ride Erik Compton at 150/1. The two-time heart transplant survivor has played in this event just once, missing the cut last year. But he's got three top 15 results in his last five events, and I think (and everyone hopes) he makes a run to the weekend at TPC Sawgrass.

What's your opinion of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass? Is the 17th cool or a contrivance? Do you put this tournament on a different level than all the others? Is it a "fifth major"?

Brendan: I'm sold on this tournament being the fifth major. If you asked me a year ago, I would have railed against the hype jammed down our throats for this event -- a contrivance the PGA Tour is assigning importance to (and pouring loads of cash on) because it doesn't control or run the four majors. But I've come around to its lofty perch, and think it's fine if we designated this a major.

I'm still not crazy about the Pete Dye design, which is a bit juiced up at points for TV and the stadium crowds, but the strength of the field trumps all the arguments against its importance. It's the deepest field of the year, with no large chunks reserved for open qualifiers or teaching pros, and whether it's the money or its import to the Tour, the best players from all over the world continue to patronize the event. The four tournaments we now call majors haven't always been designated such, so what's wrong with another change? It'd also be cool to have another non-rotating major, and one played every month from April through August.

Mark: Assuming the greens are playable, I think TPC Sawgrass is one of the better stops on Tour. I like the unique aspects and the fact it plays close to the same for the short and long hitters. I could understand some seeing the 17th as a bit too much, but I enjoy it. It is one of the most-entertaining holes in golf and with it's unpredictable nature, leaves the tournament in suspense.

The Players certainly features a major-caliber field. I categorize the PGA Tour tournaments in three levels: The majors, the must watch and everything else. To me, the Players falls into the must watch along with the WGC events and other stacked-field events.

What's the best case scenario for the Tour with no Tiger in the field this week?

Mark: A great tournament with an exciting finish would be an excellent start. The Tour really needs something exciting to happen with a player with some name value. It would be great for golf if a guy like Harris English came of age and played really well this week, but a Phil and Rory hole-by-hole duel that came down to how each played the 17th would probably help the Tour more.

Brendan: We hear a lot about the ascendant group of talent that's 30 and younger, but the best case for the Tour, and NBC/GolfChannel, is a Phil Mickelson win. He's the second biggest star in the game, and while Rory is clearly next, Mickelson already has a large and entrenched fan base. I'm ready for some of these younger guys, like English or Jordan Spieth, to win some of the biggest events but we badly need Phil to join the battle in this Tiger-less season. (Also, a Sergio contention might be fun again, for lots of reasons!)


And finally, your winner (and why) this week?

Mark: With the issues with the greens, they are going to be soft which should lead to some low scores. With the potential for a shootout, I'm not going to overthink it and am going with Adam Scott to win. He's won it before and he's been sharp in recent starts. With low scores, I'll go 17-under wins it.

Brendan: So Scott will be your new No. 1 player in the world come Sunday night? I'll take Matt Kuchar, who won here in 2012 and is someone this season you can automatically slot in for a top 10 finish, no matter the venue. His worst result in more than a month was that 5th place finish at the Masters (where I also picked him to win). It's not really going out on a limb here, but with the defending champ not in attendance, Kuchar's consistency and record at Sawgrass make him the pick.

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