Rory McIlroy in the first round of the Players, 2020
Rory McIlroy in the first round of the Players, 2020 | (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Golf | Players Championship 2021 preview | Defending McIlroy under scrutiny at Sawgrass

  • The 2021 Players Championship takes place this weekend at TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra, Florida
  • Rory McIlroy defends title won in 2019, as 2020 tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19
  • Tournament considered unofficial fifth major, with top 50 players in attendance vying for $2.7m prize
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA – As the countdown continues to the Masters, the pressure is on Rory McIlroy this weekend as he defends the Players Championship at Sawgrass.


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Masters countdown continues

After a year in hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this weekend sees the cream of golf once more return for the 2021 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.

Continuing on from the first leg of the Sunshine State swing in the lead-up to next month’s Masters, the famous Stadium Course in the seaside commune of Ponte Vedra Beach, again hosts the tournament.

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Just days on from Bryson DeChambeau’s one-stroke victory over Lee Westwood – winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill – a trip to Augusta for the first major of the year now stands just a month away.


The ‘fifth’ major

Played every March as part of build-up to the Masters since its inception in 1974 – aside from a ten-year move to May between 2007 and 2017 – the Players’ is often regarded as the ‘unofficial fifth major of the year, with the top-50 players in the world all participating.

Not only that, but the tournament boasts the biggest purse in golf at a staggering $15 million, a full 2.5 million more than the US Open. The winner on Sunday claims an 18% winning pot, in the region of $2.7m.

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Money and prestige aside, along with 80 ranking points, the eventual victor receives a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a three-year invitation to the Masters and three-year exemptions for the US and Open Championships. If a Tour member, 600 FedEx Cup points can be gained also.

Home of the iconic par-3 17th ‘Island Green’, Sawgrass has been a favourite destination on the calendar for many a year and 2021 is no exception, not least, after its cancellation 12 months ago due to the pandemic.


McIlroy defends title

After his win at Sawgrass two years ago, Rory McIlroy was on top of the golfing world. Indeed, after a stellar 2019, the Northern Irishman went on to claim the number one ranking in the world. Since then however, McIlroy has been hampered by inconsistency.

Having lost his top spot to Jon Rahm last summer, the 31-year-old from Holywood has not won a Tour event since the WCG Championship in China during November 2019.

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With the chance to defend his crown this weekend, McIlroy can once more prove his obvious credentials, but his form in recent tournaments and majors suggest even getting to Sunday, could be a struggle.

At Bay Hill, McIlroy was in contention going into the final round, but again found the last day of tournament play hard going, carding +5, to come home T21.

McIlroy shot -16 at Sawgrass 24 months ago – edging out Jim Furyk by a single stroke – but with a field stronger than ever, the Briton will have to arrest a run of poor form on the PGA Tour, with his last lone win on North American soil coming at the Canadian Open in Toronto some 21 months ago.


DJ gunning for crown; Spanner in works for DeChambeau

McIlroy will have his hands full in defending his crown this weekend in Florida, indeed, this will be the first tournament in 2021, that sees the big names reunite under one umbrella.

Not least world number one Dustin Johnson, still basking from his second major win at Augusta after taking home the prized Green Jacket last November.

As the South Carolinian makes an earlier than usual return to the Georgia pines in four weeks’ time, DJ will here, look to tick another title off his ‘to do’ list.

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As too will Brooks Koepka, fresh from his miraculous win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Arizona last month, where the former US Open and PGA Championship winner overturned a final round deficit of five shots, to win in Scottsdale.

Defender of the Wannamaker Trophy, Collin Morikawa also has enjoyed recent success, and after claiming the WGC-WorkDay title also in Florida, will be cautiously optimistic of his chances this weekend.

DeChambeau as documented, arrives in Ponte Vedra buoyant from claiming the red cardigan, but his own hopes may have been dented by a ruling introduced by the PGA for this weekend.

As reported by BBC Sport, an internal out-of-bounds has been made on the 18th hole, to ensure DeChambeau cannot take a more unusual – and potentally shorter – route to the final green. Believed to ensure the safety of fans, it is a decision sure to irk the big-hitting Californian.



As ever, the opening tee-times of the tournament have thrown up some interesting pairings.

As the first players go off at 06:45 local time Thursday morning (11:45 UK time), McIlroy is paired with two former winners of the Players Championship in Webb Simpson and Sergio Garcia, who head out at 07:40.

Elswehere, Englishmen Tyrrell Hatton and Paul Casey play with another favourite for the title in Xander Schauffele (08:02), whilst Rahm, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth make up a heavyweight threesome (12:49).

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Perhaps the most intriguing opening pairing start out shortly after however, as the winner of all three majors in 2020 are united, with DeChambeau, Morikawa and Johnson beginning at 13:00 local time.

This particular early-spring weekend in coastal Florida is always one to relish, and the 2021 edition is poised beautifully, for Sawgrass to thrill one more time.


The 2021 Players Championship begins at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.


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