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The Players: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler face Sawgrass test to be world’s best

Whenever the Players Championship has been staged in March it has carried the calling card of being the first tournament of the year to bring together all of the world’s top players – until this year.

The arrival of the PGA Tour’s ‘designated events’ has altered that dynamic. January’s stop at Riviera, the WM Phoenix Open in February and last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill have already provided such a spectacle.

And fans have been richly rewarded with Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm trading the top spot in the world rankings courtesy of thrilling competitions.

Rory McIlroy

And this only serves to whet the appetite for this week’s 49th running of the Players – the PGA Tour’s flagship event.

These three golfers are grouped together for the first two rounds here at TPC Sawgrass in Florida. If one of them triumphs they will guarantee themselves top spot in the rankings.

However a reminder of golf’s turbulent times comes with a stroll through the competitors’ car park where there is no designated spot for the defending champion.

Cameron Smith is one of 31 golfers who were part of the Players field in 2022 who are now indefinitely suspended for choosing to sign up to the Saudi Arabia-funded breakaway LIV Tour.

For the Australian, a local resident to these parts, the only option to be on the grounds this week will be as a paying spectator, an option he has not discounted.

It is a shame that a player of such great talent is absent. Smith is also the Open champion and it would have been fascinating to see his tilt at becoming the first player to successfully defend this title.

But in his and the other defectors’ absence, the PGA Tour powers on. Leading stars such as McIlroy and Rahm readily admit the advent of LIV has prompted rapid evolution and millions more dollars flowing into the pockets of tour loyalists.

McIlroy says the PGA Tour was “antiquated” prior to the challenge posed by LIV and this week is another of these designated tournaments carrying a record prize fund of $25m (£21m).

Rahm has acknowledged that the difference between the Players and the newly elevated tournaments – which carry an average of $20m prize pots has diminished a little.

“It’s not going to be as big a gap as it maybe has been in the past,” the Spaniard said as he prepares to try to land a first Players title.

But he added: “People may think of opting out of some of those designated events, but nobody’s going to opt out of this one. I mean, winning this event is a big step forward to a Hall-of-Fame career.

“You are the Players champion, arguably as close as you can get to being a major champion without officially being one.”

It is striking that no player has dominated this Pete Dye designed Stadium Course. There is no such thing as a Sawgrass specialist.

Jack Nicklaus’ three victories all came before the tournament took up permanent residence here in 1982. There are five other multiple winners, Tiger Woods the most recent when he won his second title a decade ago.

It is a venue that has yielded a broad range of winners with vastly differing playing qualities – champions range from a big hitter such as McIlroy (2019) to the distance challenged Fred Funk (2005).

You would rarely speak of Justin Thomas (2021) in the same breath as diminutive South African Tim Clark (2010) and similar contrasts pepper the roll call of champions.

Sandy Lyle, back in 1987 when the event was known as the Tournament Players Championship (TPC), remains the only Scottish winner and McIlroy’s victory four years ago is the lone Northern Irish success.

That seems an anomaly because there have been many fine English challengers – most recently Paul Casey who finished third last year and Lee Westwood, who was runner-up to Thomas two years ago. Both Englishman now ply their trade on the LIV circuit.

Another recruit to the breakaway tour, Ian Poulter, was runner up for the second time in 2017 while Scottish PGA Tour vetaran Martin Laird missed out to Matt Kuchar in 2012.

Perhaps US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick carries the best hope for a first English win this week. The Sheffield star demonstrated he has the temperament with his stunning victory at Brookline last June.

Fitzpatrick showed decent form in tough conditions at Bay Hill finishing 14th last week despite a disappointing third round 76.

Tyrrell Hatton is another Englishmen showing encouraging form. The 31-year-old from High Wycombe shared fourth place last week, one of four top-seven finishes in his last half dozen tournaments.

Tommy Fleetwood has an encouraging record at Sawgrass with only one missed cut in five appearances and was joint fifth in 2019, when he was in the final group for each of the final two rounds.

Predicting the Players winner is fraught with difficulty, and if England’s duck is set to continue, another player to consider could be the resurgent Australian Jason Day.

Not because he is a past winner – his 2016 triumph came when the tournament was played in May when the course is usually firmer and faster than it will be this week – but because of his current form.

Quietly, the former world number one is returning to his best after years of injury blighted struggles. He has been top-10 in his past four tournaments and since September last year has climbed from 164th to 43rd in the world rankings.

Aussies like this place – Day, Adam Scott and Steve Elkington twice – not to mention Smith and his LIV boss Greg Norman – have all won this title, the most prestigious in the game outside the majors. –