The Players Championship is like the Kentucky Derby. You can place odds on the competitors, but that doesn't mean a 50-to-1 longshot won't come through every so often.
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On a PGA Tour annual schedule of utterly impossible-to-predict golf tournaments, the Players ranks highest in degree of difficulty, based on its recent champions list. In fact, every year at this time, I write some variation of the following paragraph while handicapping the contenders.
Champions at this tournament have included long hitters like Davis Love III and peashooters like Fred Funk. We've seen world-beaters like Tiger Woods and one-hit wonders like Craig Perks. Old guys like Hal Sutton and young studs like Adam Scott. Great putters like Phil Mickelson and, well, not-so-great putters like Sergio Garcia.
So, remember: The following predictions might be based on statistical breakdowns and educated guesses, but that doesn't mean they'll actually be correct. Without further ado, here is my top 25 for the upcoming Players Championship.
The Players Championship Top 25 Rankings
|1. Hunter Mahan||T-40, 2005||Following a final-round 68 at Quail Hollow, he's starting to find his game -- and it's about time Mahan won a big one. "I feel like I have a really good understanding of what it takes to win a major," he said recently. "I've had some pretty decent finishes and I feel like I know what it takes." The Players isn't a major, but it's the next best thing. Even without a strong track record at the event, expect Mahan to be in the mix on Sunday.|
|2. Nick Watney||T-63, 2008||I'm not even going out on a limb with the following proclamation. It's simply the truth: Watney has been the most consistent performer on the PGA Tour so far this season. With nine top-25 finishes in 11 starts -- including a win at Torrey Pines and a runner-up at Doral -- he's proving to be among the elite players these days. A big bomber off the tee, his length should be a major advantage this week.|
|3. Sean O'Hair||11, 2007||I'm gonna tell you the straight, honest truth: When I first started working on this ranking on Friday, O'Hair had been on the Quail Hollow leaderboard. He owned a strong track record at TPC Sawgrass and so ... I decided he would be my pick to win the Players. Until he won on Sunday and sort of stole my thunder, that is. Going back-to-back won't be easy, but expect another strong showing for O'Hair.|
|4. Phil Mickelson||Win, 2007||After a slow start, Lefty has turned on the afterburners lately, finishing ninth or better in five of his past six starts. He'll come to TPC Sawgrass with the confidence of having won on this course two years ago. Don't be surprised if it happens again.|
|5. Camilo Villegas||T-3, 2006||Always the same ol' story for Camilo: Lots of eagles and birdies, but lots of bogeys and others, too. Early reports are that red numbers won't be too difficult to come by this week, which should bode well for Villegas' chances.|
|6. Boo Weekley||T-21, 2008||They're not booing, they're saying ... oh wait, they are booing. No one will get the galleries rocking like this Ryder Cup hero, who owns three consecutive results of 13th or better.|
|7. Retief Goosen||2, 2006||He may not be a member of the erstwhile Big Five anymore, but the Goose is back among the world's elite players. The winner of the Transitions Championship in March is fresh off four days of contending at Quail Hollow.|
|8. Tiger Woods||Win, 2001||Here's what the world's No. 1-ranked player has done at Sawgrass since winning the Players in 2001: T-14, T-11, T-16, T-53, T-22, T-37, DNS. That's right -- no top-10 results for a guy who has finished in the top-10 in approximately two-thirds of his professional starts. Add in the fact that he's currently struggling with his long game and putter, and it could be another frustrating week for Tiger. Then again, Mine That Bird ran from the No. 8 position at the Kentucky Derby, too.|
|9. Jim Furyk||T-3, 2006||Of the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., residents on tour, Fred Funk still owns local bragging rights over Furyk and Vijay Singh, thanks to his 2005 victory at this event. The 2003 U.S. Open champ would love to change that. He's shown flashes of brilliance recently, although interspersed with brief periods of poor play, too.|
|10. Anthony Kim||T-42, 2008||His two victories last season? Those were nice. His great Ryder Cup debut? Terrific. But really, all you need to know about AK is that the dude made a record 11 birdies -- yes, 11! -- in one round at Augusta National last month. Still pretty unbelievable.|
|11. Ian Poulter||T-21, 2008||He's going to win in the U.S. -- and when he does, it just may be a big one. Coming off a strong week at Quail Hollow during which he got into contention on Sunday afternoon, Poulter should go into this week with plenty of momentum.|
|12. Davis Love III||Win, 1993, 2003||The two-time Players champ has been playing some inspired golf as of late. He's missed each of the past two Masters, though, and still isn't qualified for the final three majors of this year. A big week could take care of all of that.|
|13. Padraig Harrington||2, 2004||OK, so the Paddy Slam evaporated halfway through his quest, but that doesn't mean Harrington isn't a formidable contender this week. He had back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2003 and '04.|
|14. Luke Donald||T-2, 2005||Even though he owns only two PGA Tour victories and two others worldwide, I'm still waiting for Donald to find the winner's circle at a big-time tourney. The Players has always seemed like a pretty natural fit.|
|15. Mathew Goggin||T-12, 2007||Think of him as the Australian Sergio Garcia ... or the poor man's Sergio Garcia. That's sort of a backhanded compliment; like El Nino, Goggin is a terrific ball-striker, but lacks a great short game. Well, if Garcia can win at TPC Sawgrass, maybe a guy who plays like him can, as well.|
|16. Zach Johnson||T-8, 2005||The 54-hole leader last week at Quail Hollow was undone by an early triple-bogey, but he's still hitting it well and his wedge game is always good enough to keep him in the mix.|
|17. Henrik Stenson||T-3, 2006||The last time Stenson competed in Florida? He took off all of his clothes. Oh, c'mon -- don't act like you can't remember the Swede stripping down to his skivvies in order to play a shot from a water hazard at Doral. What does that have to do with his chances at the Players? Absolutely nothing.|
|18. Jeff Klauk||1st appearance||Sure, he's a PGA Tour rookie competing in his first Players, but Klauk already has logged more than 1,000 rounds on the course. "I think I know where every sprinkler head is," said the son of former TPC Sawgrass superintendent Fred Klauk. "I know the fairways. I know the greens. I know where every shot is going. I definitely know every inch of the whole place."|
|19. Geoff Ogilvy||T-16, 2004||With two wins already this season, Ogilvy has established himself as a top-five talent. He hasn't fared too well at the Players -- three MCs in his past four starts -- but he has the stuff to compete anywhere on any given week.|
|20. Stephen Ames||Win, 2006||Ball-striker supreme loves this course, having won here in 2006 and finished solo fifth last year. Ames will have some work to do, though, with no results better than T-17 in eight starts since a T-5 to start the season at the Bob Hope Classic.|
|21. Steve Stricker||T-6, 1999||Though he doesn't own a very solid record -- six made cuts in 13 starts with just one top-10 finish -- Stricker is enjoying a strong season so far, the latest chapter in a resurgent career.|
|22. Kenny Perry||T-3, 2004||Before his playoff loss at the AT&T Classic in 2008, before his three wins, before his Ryder Cup heroics, Perry played in the final pairing at this event last year -- and finished with a share of 15th place. He'd love to replicate the first three rounds again, with better results on Sunday, of course.|
|23. Charlie Wi||T-63, 2008||One of the tour's leading putters this season, Wi got a taste of the spotlight when he contended at last year's PGA Championship -- his first career major start -- earning a T-9 result. At 37, his experience should overrule any nerves if he gets into such a situation again.|
|24. Sergio Garcia||Win, 2008||Check his recent results -- no results of better than T-13 in a half-dozen PGA Tour starts this season -- and it doesn't appear that the defending champion is on the verge of contending this week. Then again, last year he hadn't fared better than T-15 prior to defeating Paul Goydos in a Players Championship playoff.|
|25. Ben Curtis||T-42, 2008||I don't care that he's gone T-42, MC, MC, MC, MC the past five years at TPC Sawgrass. Curtis is the type of player who shows up on the leaderboard when you least expect it.|
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.