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THE PLAYERS preview: PGA Tour’s Flagship event

Preview – PGA Tour – THE PLAYERS Championship – TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course – Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida –

The flagship event for the PGA Tour takes center stage this week with THE PLAYERS Championship.

The event attracts the strongest field in golf assembling at TPC Sawgrass near PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Verde Beach, Florida. The 144-player field features everyone in the Top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings except for Tiger Woods – the World No.1 and defending champion – who is recovering from back surgery.

The Pete Dye-designed stadium course, which plays to a par-72, is just over 7,200 yards. The race for World No. 1 is a sidebar this week with four players having an opportunity to overtake Woods at the top spot.

The famed 17th island green is a “show” all by itself.

Precision shots and ball-striking are keys to winning at TPC Sawgrass – which pays out a $10 million prize pool this year including $1.8 to the champion. Most players plot their way around the layout and play into greens from the same areas. Par 4 Performance will also be a key factor this week.

Four of the last six champions at THE PLAYERS have been international-born competitors including K.J. Choi (2011), Tim Clark (2010), Henrik Stenson (2009), and Sergio Garcia (2008).

Jordan Spieth, 7th in the world ranking, headlines the list of 15 first-timers here this week. He tees off Thursday off No. 10 at 8:18 a.m. local time with major champions Zach Johnson and Graeme McDowell.

2013 Recap:

  • Woods won the title here at 13-under after opening 67-67. He was two shots clear of David Lingmerth, Kevin Streelman and Jeff Maggert. Martin Laird, Ryan Palmer and Henrik Stenson were T-5 finishers, while Sergio Gargia, Rory McIlroy, Brandt Snedeker and Lee Westwood logged Top 10s.

Viewers can watch the opening two rounds on The Golf Channel, while NBC Sports handles the weekend coverage.

FANTASY: Donald plays well at TPC Sawgrass and finished runner-up on the PGA Tour last month losing to Kuchar in dramatic fasthion at the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head. Consider Stenson, who won here in 2009 and has four Top 10s in eight starts at this venue. Charl Schwartzel should have the game to contend here along with Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk and Spieth. Westwood should factor this week in Fantasy picks. His ball-striking keeps him in as a threat in big events like this one.

BETTING: McIlroy is the top betting pick at www.ladbrokes.com at 12-to-1 odds followed by past champions Scott (14-1) and Matt Kuchar (16-1). McIlroy, who struggles at TPC Sawgrass, comes into this week with five Top 8s including four Top 10s in his last five worldwide starts. Take Justin Rose (20-1), who is trending. He had a T-8 at Zurich and was 5th at the Wells Fargo last week. Garcia (25-1) was in the mix a year before the Tiger paired derailed him. He has three Top 10s this year and a January victory at the Qatar Masters.

Other Golf News:

  • The European Tour hosts the Madeira Islands Open this week.
  • McIlroy makes his fifth start at TPC Sawgrass, making the weekend cut just once. He’s not the only top player who has struggled at TPC Sawgrass. Snedeker has missed several cuts at THE PLAYERS along with Masters champion Bubba Watson.
  • The LPGA Tour returns to action next week at the Kingsmill Championship in Virginia.
  • Players ranked greater than 90th have won 11 of 25 events on the PGA Tour in the 2014 wrap-around season.
  • Spieth was runner-up at the season-opener in Hawaii, finishes 5th in the Match Play and then runner-up at Augusta for the Masters.