The 2023 Players Championship marks the culmination of an incredible five-week stretch for the PGA Tour. It started in Phoenix with Scottie Scheffler defending his Phoenix Open title, continued in Los Angeles with Jon Rahm’s 80th (approximate) win of the season at the Genesis Invitational and carried into Florida over the last two weeks. Now, the Tour presents its crown jewel with several top players playing their best golf and a thousand talking points to hit as the week unfolds.
Until last week’s T39 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rahm had truly been on a Tiger Woodsian run. Given his, uh, interesting history at TPC Sawgrass, what he does at this year’s Players should be fascinating. Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Max Homa, Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele have all played terrific golf at times, and several of them will factor into this tournament.
Throw in all the off-the-course drama — the revamped PGA Tour schedule, LIV Golf’s ever-present threat, the $25 million purse — and not even Tiger’s absence can dampen what should be one of the best weeks of the year.
Let’s take a look at 10 storylines for what should be another spectacular week at the Players Championship.
2023 Players Championship storylines
1. Planet Rahm: Before last week’s 76-76-72 closing stretch, Rahm had pretty much burned the entire thing to the ground. His scorching West Coast swing was comically good, and it looked for a bit like he might not fall out of contention all year (the API finish was his first outside the top 10 anywhere in the world since before the last NFL season). Given his near misses at TPC Sawgrass, including a mini-meltdown in 2019 that led to McIlroy picking up the win, the deserving favorite and biggest curiosity this week lie within the same person. As an aside: How wild would it be for somebody to drive up Magnolia Lane in April having bagged Kapalua, Palm Springs, Riviera and TPC Sawgrass?
2. So much randomness: TPC Sawgrass, perhaps more than any other regular course on the top players’ schedules, elicits bizarre leaderboards that are seemingly impossible to predict. I mean, look at these last two top 10s.
Joseph LaMagna lays out the reasons for this seeming randomness, including tons of water hazards and an increased demand for accuracy off the tee, in this piece, but the point remains that it’s extremely difficult to predict who will emerge from the pack — or sometimes even make the cut — at this golf tournament. Thankfully, for your one-and-done, it’s not the biggest purse of the year or anything.
3. No defending champion: Not only is it strange that the defending champion of a prominent tournament won’t be in attendance for non-injury reasons, but The Players will be missing half of its top 10 from a year ago. Cameron Smith, Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey (finishing first through third) plus Harold Varner III and Dustin Johnson (both in the top 10) are all out of the field. They are healthy but none will play because they moved to LIV and remain indefinitely suspended from the PGA Tour. What’s crazier? This is happening for the second time in the last year at one of the game’s most important events. Phil Mickelson was last year’s defending champion at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, and he chose not to defend his title even though there were no restrictions on his participation.
4. Signature win: Many golfers in this field are looking for their first signature win or even their first win in general. You could throw Hovland, Sam Burns, Cameron Young, Tom Kim, Sungjae Im, Sahith Theegala and maybe even Will Zalatoris and Tony Finau into that bucket. Those last two golfers have both won FedEx Cup Playoff events, but The Players is much different than the playoffs, and a win this week would usurp anything that came before it. Given TPC Sawgrass’ aforementioned relative randomness, this becomes a bit more of a storyline than it otherwise would at a place like, say, Augusta National.
5. Disney Spieth: I’m stunned that Jordan Spieth played well at the place with all the roller coasters last week. His history at TPC Sawgrass, however, is less compelling. He finished T4 in his first appearance in 2014 but hasn’t placed inside the top 40 since. If he contends for the second week in a row, especially at a place that is excessively penal toward wayward tee shots, I would be absolutely shocked, although not as shocked as I was on Sunday when I found out he doesn’t write down his score after each hole. Others who perform worse than their expected number at TPC Sawgrass include Rahm, McIlroy, Young, Finau, Burns, Cantlay, Collin Morikawa and Harris English. So, again, good luck this week.
6. Rory’s back: The 2019 champion had a mediocre West Coast swing following his victory in Dubai but got things back on track with a near win at Bay Hill. Like most, he has been a mixed bag here. The victory in ’19 was nice, but he sandwiched that with missed cuts, including one in 2021 in which he chased Bryson DeChambeau’s length right into the lake running up the 18th hole. He’ll feel the spotlight this week as both a player and apparent playing commissioner of the league, and he often thrives when he feels he has something to prove and a reason to prove it. I don’t know that that results in another win here — he’s been more crooked off the tee than usual this season, which doesn’t bode well — but if he does start feeling the moment a little bit, then it should be a show.
7. Scottie as Phil: Scheffler has been Mickelson to Rahm’s Woods impression so far in 2023, but don’t let what Rahm has done get in the way of the fact that Scheffler, not Rahm, has been the best ball-striker in the world so far in 2023. That’s a stunning reality given what Rahm — and to a lesser extent McIlroy and Homa — has been doing, but it’s true. It doesn’t mean Scheffler is going to win the tournament, but it’s a good one to remember as the week begins.
8. Speaking of Tiger: His absence will be felt, but it won’t be monumental. That’s pretty crazy, right? I’ll dive deeper into this idea later in the week, but the Tour has been so strong through the first two months of designated events that the idea of a post-Tiger world thriving more than it did when Tiger was at his apex is not inconceivable. Brendan Porath discussed this idea on the Shotgun Start. There’s real momentum at this year’s Players, but more importantly, real movement. If you contrast this year to last year, in which it felt like the Tour was trying to defeat LIV with no plan of which to speak, there’s legitimate excitement about where all of this could go.
9. What’s up with J.T.? The 2021 champion has been … fine so far in 2023, but not his usual, elite self. This floor is still pretty high for Thomas — he has six top 25s in seven starts! — but he’s is disinterested in top 25s and hasn’t truly contended for a golf tournament of late. Interestingly, he has been struggling with the soundest part of his game (again, relative to his normal performance). He’s a top-20 player over the last two years from 50-100 yards, but in 2023, he’s been about league average. This is one thing to keep an eye on with so many important approach shots at TPC Sawgrass this week.
10. Gold Boy: The biggest question of the entire week, as the league and its future and the biggest championship on its slate all hang in the balance, is whether the anthropomorphic golden statue will make his second consecutive appearance on our televisions. My hope, obviously, is that he returns and returns with gusto.