Take 5: Can red-hot Day fend off deep Players field?

Anyone compelled to make an argument that The Players Championship should be added as a fifth major need only to look at this week’s field to support their case.

For the first time since the 2016 U.S. Open the top 50 players in the world golf rankings and the top 50 players in the FedExCup Standings are in the field to take on the daunting TPC Sawgrass.

No injury excuses. No complaints about a busy schedule. Players plan their schedule around a handful of marquee tournaments, and The Players is at the top of the list of non-major events and the Ryder Cup.

Strangely, outside of No. 2 Justin Thomas (tie-third in 2016), most of the current top players in the world have a poor – if not terrible – track record at TPC Sawgrass.

No. 1 Dustin Johnson has never finished in the top-10; No. 3 Jon Rahm has a one-year sample size but tied for 72nd last year; No. 4 Jordan Spieth has missed the cut each of the past three years after tying for fourth in his first Players; and No. 5 Justin Rose has just one top-10 (T4, 2014) in 14 career appearances.

This year’s Players is as wide open as any in recent memory. Take 5 looks at a few candidates primed to be in contention come Sunday.

Si Woo Kim
Si Woo Kim is trying to become the first player to repeat as The Players Champion. (Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports)

5. Si Woo Kim, Korea. The reigning champion was more than a one-year wonder. The 22-year-old has a pair of PGA Tour victories on his resume and four top-10s in 16 starts this season. Kim led the field in scrambling last year and was second in strokes gained off the tee, and holds the best scoring average (70.25) of any player with at least eight rounds played in the event.

The biggest weight on his pre-tournament odds? No player has ever successfully defended a Players title. None. Zero. The best effort by a defending champion was Nick Price’s fifth-place finish in 1994.

4. Henrik Stenson, Sweden. The 42-year-old is quietly putting together a very strong season. He has not played since the Masters, where he tied for fifth. That followed top-6 finishes at the Houston Open and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Quick math says that in his last three starts, Stenson has averaged a fifth-place finish — no one else in the field boasts that recent consistency.

More important, the 2009 Players champion has three additional top-10 finishes in 13 appearances. He is also leading the Tour in driving accuracy (76.8 percent) this year.

Sergio Garcia won The Players in 2008 and has made the cut 14 consecutive years. (Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports)

3. Sergio Garcia, Spain. Despite a frustrating meltdown in a playoff against Rickie Fowler in 2015, TPC Sawgrass clearly suits Garcia’s eye. He won the event in 2008 and holds the longest active streak with 14 consecutive cuts made dating back to 2004 (Tom Kite holds the all-time record at 23). His $5.32 million won at The Players is an all-time record and he has five additional top-10 finishes to go with his ’08 victory.

Garcia is second to only Rory McIlroy (29-under) with a 27-under cumulative score to par in the past five Players.

Need more evidence? Garcia’s 20 rounds in the 60s ranks second in tournament history, and he enters with three top-10s in seven starts on Tour this season. Conversely, he has also missed three cuts — including in his last two events at the Valero Texas Open and the Masters.

2. Rickie Fowler, USA. As is fitting to his overall reputation, it’s go big or go home for Fowler at The Players. The 2015 champion also tied for second in 2012. His other six appearances? A T60 (’17), T77 (’14) and four missed cuts – including each of the past two years.

Fowler is coming off a T21 at the Wells Fargo Championship, but he did finish solo second at the Masters and recent results are rarely a window into the future of the wildly inconsistent Fowler. If he can withstand the environment of being paired with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for the first two rounds and avoid the several blowup holes that tend to mar his scorecard, Fowler should be a factor come Sunday.

His birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie finish to reach the playoff against Garcia and Kevin Kisner in 2015 remains the best closing four-hole stretch in tournament history, and arguably one of the best closes anywhere, any time.

1. Jason Day, Australia. Yes, it’s easy to ride the horse coming off his second victory of the year and a vault to No. 7 in the world rankings. But Day’s ascent back into the upper echelon of men’s golf isn’t an accident. He is driving the ball further than ever before and he proved on Sunday that when that driver loses its aim, he has the short game to recover.

Arguably the world’s best putter from inside 10 feet, Day also has a strong track record in the event. The 2016 Players champion also tied for sixth in ’11 and 19th in ’13. He does also have three missed cuts in his seven previous appearances.

Day will have to erase the memory of a final-round 80 last year, his second-highest score at TPC Sawgrass behind an 81 in the second round in 2015. But no one enters hotter than the 12-time winner on the PGA Tour as Day has made the cut in all nine of his events on Tour this season and leads the Tour in both strokes gained putting and sand saves percentage.

–Derek Harper, Field Level Media

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