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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship attracts the strongest and deepest field in golf. In its 43-year history, all but 10 winners of the PGA Tour's premier event have captured a major championship.
It also might be the most difficult to handicap.
Rory McIlroy didn't break par at the TPC Sawgrass until his fourth appearance in The Players, including the year after he won the U.S. Open. At least he has steadily improved with four straight years no worse than a tie for 12th, though he has never contended on the back nine Sunday.
"This is a golf course where I've had to rein in my game over the years," McIlroy said. "I've always felt that driving is a big advantage for me if I can drive the ball well, whereas here, it just doesn't let me do that. Earlier on in my career, I had to come to terms with that, and come to terms with hitting the ball in the same positions as everyone else off the tee and then trying to beat them from there."
Dustin Johnson wouldn't mind having McIlroy's record at The Players.
He has played 26 rounds on the Players Stadium Course dating to his rookie season in 2008 and he has broken 70 only twice.
"I think both were last year, too, maybe," he said.
Just once. He shot a 68 in the final round, and it carried Johnson to his best finish ever in this tournament. He tied for 28th. The other time was the opening round in 2014, though the memory is vague to Johnson. He was told that he at least broke par in three of the four rounds last year.
"There you go," he replied. "I knew something was good last year."
Jordan Spieth, meanwhile, seems to have worked in reverse. He showed up for the first time in 2014 at age 20 and not only did he share the 54-hole lead with Martin Kaymer, he played 58 holes before making his first bogey. Too many more bogeys followed, however, and Spieth tied for fourth.
That was the last time he played on the weekend at the TPC Sawgrass. He has missed the cut each of the last two years.
"I want to think that it's just kind of a fluke," Spieth said. "Those two years could have been spread out over 15 and everything else is solid. I know I can play it really well if I play it smart, and I think I've just been trying to do a little too much the last couple years.
"If you try and take some chances, and you're not quite on, that's where you get in trouble."
That's what awaits the 147-man field competing on a course that has been referred to as frightening, dramatic and annoying over the years. Jason Day last year became the first player in 33 years to lead from start-to-finish. He returns having not won a tournament since then, and being reminded that no one has ever won in consecutive years since the tournament began in 1974.
Tiger Woods is the only player to win it twice (2001, 2013) since it moved to the TPC Sawgrass.
Sergio Garcia and McIlroy are playing for the first time since the Masters, and both showed up in a celebratory mood — Garcia because he has a green jacket he finally won at the Masters, McIlroy because he has a ring on his finger from his April 22 marriage.
The focus starts with Johnson, however, mainly because he has not finished worse than third over his last five tournaments that stretch over three months and one very untimely slip down the stairs that knocked him out of the Masters.
Playing for the first time in six weeks because of the deep back bruise, Johnson missed a playoff by one shot last week in the Wells Fargo Championship. He is aware is record is not great at The Players, though he has never been playing this well coming into the tournament.
For all his power, Johnson's rise to No. 1 in the world — only Woods has had a larger lead over the last two decades — is due to his wedges. They are so solid that one of golf's biggest hitters now is willing to lay up on par 5s if he feels a full wedge gives him a better chance than missing the green.
And he never seems to lose his cool, even on a course that seems to bring out frustration in anyone.
"I don't think it will faze him being where he is in the world of golf," McIlroy said. "I don't think anything fazes him — that's probably the understatement of the year. I can't see him falling off. It's up to the other guys to try and catch him."