By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – Jon Rahm may have come back down to earth after a strong start to the year but he is still the hottest player going into this week’s Players Championship where 2022 champion Cameron Smith will be a notable absentee given his decision to join LIV Golf.
Rahm is the first player since Johnny Miller in 1975 to win three times in a calendar year before March and will headline a loaded field at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, which includes 44 of the top 50 players in the world.
The Spaniard, who opened the season with six consecutive top-10 finishes before settling for a share of 39th last week at Bay Hill, has never missed the cut in five starts at The Players and had his best result in 2021 when he finished ninth.
World number one Rahm counts the 2021 U.S. Open among his 10 wins on the PGA Tour, but the Spaniard is very eager to add a Players Championship title to his resume.
“I mean, winning this event is a big step forward to a Hall of Fame career,” Rahm told reporters. “You are The Players Champion. Arguably as close as you can get to being a major champion without officially being one.”
Among the other contenders at TPC Sawgrass, where the winner will get $4.5 million from a purse of $25 million, are reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Scottie Scheffler and four-times major winner Rory McIlroy.
For Scheffler and McIlroy, who have both spent time atop the world rankings this year, a win this week is one of the many scenarios in which they can return to top spot in the rankings.
McIlroy arrives full of confidence after finishing runner-up at Bay Hill where during the final round the Northern Irishman carded successive bogeys from the 14th before a two-putt birdie at the par-five 16th kept his hopes alive.
“As much as I was disappointed that I didn’t play the final five holes the way I wanted to, it was still a good week, and I feel like getting into contention last week and sort of having those feelings sets me up well for this week,” said McIlroy.
McIlroy, who will play the first two rounds of the PGA Tour’s flagship event alongside fellow major winners Rahm and Scheffler, has four top-10s in 12 starts at The Players, including his 2019 triumph.
Scheffler, who returned to world number one for a week in February after his successful title defense at the Phoenix Open, finished in a share of fourth at Bay Hill where he was also the defending champion.
Max Homa finished in a share of 13th place last year at TPC Sawgrass and will be liking his chances in what will be his third Players start given he is one of two golfers with multiple titles on the PGA Tour this season.
“This place is really tricky, so I think confidence is a big part of the week. It’s nice to have that,” said Homa, who moved to a career-best seventh in the world rankings this week.
“It’s kind of fun to arrive at a massive event and not feel like I’m tinkering with anything or trying to do anything different.”
While there will plenty of star power at TPC Sawgrass, one glaring absence will be British Open champion and world number five Smith, who has been banned indefinitely from playing in PGA Tour events after switching to LIV Golf.
Australian Smith is one of five players who finished inside the top-10 last year at TPC Sawgrass who have since fled to LIV Golf, a group that also includes runner-up Anirban Lahiri, Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and Harold Varner III.
First-round action begins on Thursday.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)