THE open season is upon us. It’s that time of the year when the world’s best players embrace a period of some 15 weeks with the intensity unlike any other time of the campaign.
It’s a period of competition that is highlighted by the US Open, the British Open and the US PGA Championship, the three Major tournaments that follow in the wake of the Masters – always played in April.
It begins this week at the Players Championship at the headquarters of the US PGA Tour in Ponte Verde Beach Florida and culminates with the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Georgia where the FedEx Cup showdown holds court.
The Players Championship has forever been touted as the unofficial “fifth Major”. Its history has long taught us that it is the single event in world golf with the strongest field. And for good measure the TPC Sawgrass course has almost become as celebrated as the tournament itself.
The par-3 17th hole, with its majestic island green, has made sure of that.
Nearly all, if not all, of the game’s big-name players will be at the Players Championship, including Tiger Woods. This in itself is clear indicationof just what it means to them. It’s also affirmation that these top guns have one eye on the US Open next month.
The season’s second Major will be hosted at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in New York from June 14 to 17 where Brooks Koepka will start as the defending champion.
If things go according to plan, Woods will be there as well.
About a month later the famed Carnoustie Golf Club in Augus, Scotland will be the venue for the 147th British Open championship.
This is the oldest and most famous of golf’s four Major championships and Jordan Spieth will do well to retain his crown on July 22, which he captured at Royal Birkdale last season – securing him a third Major title.
The PGA Championship last year was Justin Thomas’ Major breakthrough and the world number two will be keen as ever on a repeat of that success at Bellerive Golf Club in St Louis, Missouri when the event is held from Aug 9 to 12.
The Tour Championship brings the curtain down on the PGA Tour season and crowns the season’s most consistent player with the FedEx Cup, a title that comes with a US$10mil bonus.
Between the Players Championship this week and East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta is when the action will count most.
Woods will feature prominently in the publicity stakes, more so if he does well in the first and second rounds.
He went to the Masters as a genuine contender after two top-five finishes in the events leading up to Augusta. His short-game and putting then exhibited flashes of his old self and he enjoyed a huge following, despite not really delivering on the promise.
This weekend he started the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina and his every move at Sawgrass will be documented.
Si Woo Kim won the Players last May, handing him the biggest career victory.
The South Korean will be hard pressed to make it two-in-row, but we can rest assured that should he fail, it would not be because of a want of trying.
World number one Dustin Johnson, along with Thomas, Jon Rham, third in the world standings, Spieth, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Koepka and Masters champion Pat Reed will start with good backing. And there is nothing, at this stage to suggest that the winner will not come from this elite bunch of players.
Johnson looks a solid bet for the Players Championship crown yet it is McIlroy and Thomas who have the most backing in certain quarters.
McIlroy was bitterly disappointed with his showing at the Masters, especially after playing himself into contention before up in a tie for fifth place. He will also be bent on winning the Players Championship as this is not one of his 14 PGA Tour titles.
He has already won this season, landing the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a last round 64 and his fans know all too well that he has the game to pull it off.
But even if the 28-year-old Northern Irishman is on song at Sawgrass, he should find some stiff resistance from any number of contenders, including Player of the Year Justin Thomas.
The top performer on Tour and leader of the FedEx Cup standings, Thomas’ consistency over the past year or so has been exemplary.
If he puts together two good rounds at Sawgrass there’s no saying that he will not go on and win it.
Johnson, who is only marginally ahead of Spieth on the favourites’ list, won the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii in January and is due another triumph. He too has the game to walk away with the coveted prize of the Players Championship and consolidate his position in the world rankings.
Spieth and Fowler are among the most popular in the game and they too will be eyeing the crystal trophy and getting their open season off to a telling start.