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What to know for golf’s ‘fifth major’ | CBC Sports

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In some ways, it’s hard to understand how the Players Championship is not an actual major. It’s been around for a half century, fans love it, it’s held at a famous course (Florida’s TPC Sawgrass, featuring the iconic island 17th green) and the purse is bigger than any of the other four majors. A total of $25 million US is up for grabs this week, including $4.5 million to the winner. A fifth-place finish is worth more than a million bucks, and even a top-40 earns you over a hundred grand.

But there’s one huge difference between this tournament and the majors: no one from LIV Golf is invited. As the PGA Tour’s flagship event, the Players Championship is off-limits to any of the golfers who jumped ship for the renegade tour and its even-more-insane paydays.

That means reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm, five-time major champ Brooks Koepka and 2022 British Open and Players Championship winner Cameron Smith are persona non grata at Sawgrass, along with past major winners Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, reigning LIV tour champion Talor Gooch and others. It’ll probably remain this way unless the PGA Tour reaches a peace deal with LIV’s Saudi backers. Here’s the latest on that.

Here’s what else to know for the 50th-anniversary edition of the Players, which tees off Thursday:

Scottie Scheffler is the man to beat.

After cruising to a five-shot victory last year, the world’s top-ranked player is trying to become the first to win back-to-back Players Championships. Scheffler is a huge favourite in the betting markets following his dominant five-shot win Sunday in the prestigious Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he fired a final-round 66 to pocket a cool $4 million.

Though that was his first victory of the season, Scheffler has been incredibly consistent. In six starts this year, he has five top-10 finishes, three top-5s, and his worst result is a 17th. The 27-year-old Texan is so good in every facet of the game from tee to green that he’s nearly unbeatable when his putting is on. But there’s the rub: he ranks 107th on the tour in strokes gained with the flat stick.

After his putter caught fire at Bay Hill, Scheffler’s betting odds of winning the Players are now between two and three times better than any of his opponents. That’s reminiscent of Tiger Woods in his prime.

Speaking of Tiger…

He’s not playing this week. The chronically injured 15-time major champion made his first official start in nearly a year at last month’s Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles, only to withdraw early in the second round due to what he said was the flu. He hasn’t been seen since.

Tiger said in December that he was aiming for “maybe a tournament a month” this year, so many fans assumed the Players would be his March date. But he didn’t enter the tournament and hasn’t provided an explanation for his absence. The Masters is a month away, so maybe he’s just trying to get healthy for that.

Other players to watch:

Rory McIlroy is second behind Scheffler in the world rankings and the clear No. 2 in the betting markets for the Players. But the Northern Irishman is slumping. He’s failed to crack the top 20 in any of his four PGA Tour starts this year.

World No. 3 Jon Rahm bolted for LIV in December, while No. 4 Viktor Hovland, the reigning FedEx Cup champ, is off his game too. The Norwegian has only one top-20 this year and faded badly at the Arnold Palmer with back-to-back 75s on the weekend.

American Justin Thomas is going in the other direction. The 2021 Players champ and two-time major winner was a mess last year, missing the cut in three of the majors and finishing 65th in the other. But he’s righted the ship, placing in the top 12 in four of his five events this season.

Will Zalatoris has also regained his form. The wiry American was a runner-up at two majors in 2022 before a back injury derailed his rise. Now he has tied for second and fourth in his last two tournaments.

Canadians to watch:

A whopping seven of them are in the 144-player field. Canadian Open champ Nick Taylor ranks the highest at No. 25 after his victory at last month’s Phoenix Open. But Sawgrass is better suited to No. 46 Adam Hadwin and No. 50 Corey Conners, who are more accurate off the tee.

That’s especially true of Conners, whose blend of straight drives and exceptional approach shots make him the Canadian betting favourite at about 50/1 to win the tournament. It’s Conners’ work on and around the greens that tends to hold him back, which was the case last week when he tied for 18th at Bay Hill.

Hadwin is perhaps best known for getting tackled by security when he rushed the green to celebrate his pal Taylor’s Canadian Open win last summer. But the 36-year-old has a PGA Tour win under his belt and a pair of top-six finishes this year, including a tie for fourth at last month’s Genesis Invitational — one of the Tour’s $20-million “signature” events. Hadwin is a well-rounded player whose biggest weakness — a lack of distance off the tee — is not such a big factor at Sawgrass, which rewards accuracy above all else.

Rounding out the Canadian contingent are 68th-ranked Adam Svensson, No. 81 Mackenzie Hughes, No. 93 Taylor Pendrith and No. 117 Ben Silverman.

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