Venue: TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida Dates: 11-14 May
Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website on Saturday and Sunday
England’s Luke Donald is a former world number one who is playing this week’s Players Championship for the 15th time. He was runner-up in 2005, fourth in 2011 and sixth the following year. The golfer is compiling an exclusive diary for BBC Sport from his week at Sawgrass and here is his first entry.
The Players is such an important tournament. It is certainly a step above our regular Tour events, probably not quite to the major status, but it certainly fits right in just behind the majors.
It’s one of the best fields, we play on a very iconic golf course and it is a tournament everyone wants on their resume for sure. I’ve come close in the past and would dearly love to win out here.
Preparing this week has involved accommodating the course changes, which include the new short par-four 12th. The course being slightly altered and renovated brings a freshness to the place that we haven’t seen.
So we are relearning some of it because the past knowledge that we had is not quite the same. It is a course that demands a lot out of your game, the Championship produces great winners and you can’t argue with that.
I saw the new 12th hole for the first time and it is an interesting driveable par-four. I feel like a lot of people will still lay up but some will definitely go for it.
A lot of golfers out here have a big ego and they feel like they can take it on, which is a good design feature. But it’s a reasonably simple lay-up and simple pitch to a somewhat flat green.
You will pretty much have a plan before playing the hole. I will talk to my caddie and figure it out, but I have to play to my strengths – and they are not hitting 300-yard straight drives. That’s just a reality that I have to come to terms with.
My strengths are 100 yards and in, so if I can put myself in a good position from there I’m going to create birdie chances. The risk of going for it for me isn’t worth it, so it is likely I will lay up every day.
I’ve been working on my swing to control my ball flight a little bit better off the tee. If I get it in play then I can let my irons and my short game do the work. That’s the preparation I’ve been doing leading up to this week.
I remember the Players course played more difficult in March. There was more rough and certainly more wind. Wind and firmness are the two factors that make golf courses more difficult.
This time of year the course is a little firmer compared with March but you get a lot less wind and more favourable weather conditions.
March would probably be a good slot for this tournament. You might have more weather issues but it would make the course more difficult if that’s what their goal is.
It would affect the rhythm of the golfing year if it moved back to March and the PGA Championship took the May slot. It would feel strange at first but after a few years we would get into the mode of that being the case.
It would be a bit weird having the Open Championship as the last major in July and then have to wait eight months until the Masters in April for the next major.
It would condense the schedule a little bit and people would have to play a bit more in the middle of the season.
We just have to be very grateful for the tournaments and the prize money and everything that we get to play for. If the calendar is in a different order I don’t think it will make too much of a difference.
The only thing with the PGA moving to May would be eliminating some really good North East golf courses in America because the weather conditions probably aren’t good enough to get those courses in good enough shape to stage a major.
Coming into this week, my form and confidence are a mixed bag. I’ve had some good weeks and my game is close.
I am still working very hard on aspects of my golf swing that I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I keep slipping back and it is very hard with such a busy season to get those changes cemented in, but I’m making progress.
Last month, at the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head – where I was second again – was a good week. It’s always a good week for me there. That’s given me confidence.
My short game that week was as good as it has ever been, my putting was very solid and that’s how I build my game.
If I can keep that strong and continually improve some of the little weaknesses in my swing and long game then expect to see me rising up those rankings again.
Luke Donald was speaking to BBC Sport’s golf correspondent Iain Carter.
Willett did not rule out the prospect of his childhood friend one day returning to his bag but he was forced to use a member of his management team in the second round at the RBC Heritage.
He will use Sam Haywood at this week’s Players Championship in Florida. Haywood was best man at Willett’s wedding and has recently been on the bag of American player David Lipsky.
“Sam knows my game really well,” Willett added. “We’ve played a lot of golf together over the last 10 or 15 years. It’s nice having someone who you can speak frankly with. He knows where my game is and when it’s good. I think it’s going to be good.”
Smart and Willett memorably embraced in the recorders’ room at last year’s Masters when it became clear the Englishman had won a first major.
But he has not won a tournament since, placing outside the top-25 in the three other majors in 2016 before missing the cut on his return to Augusta in April.
The dip in form has seen him fall 10 places to 21 in the world since the turn of the year.
Analysis – ‘Trying times for Willett’
BBC golf correspondent Iain Carter
It’s been a struggle to adjust to the status of a major champion for Willett. Results haven’t been good for a year.
Recently he’s missed three of the last four cuts, so these are trying times.
It came home for me today as I remember this day last year I approached him at his first tournament since winning the Masters. Now, the mood music could not be any different.
What makes a major? The question arises because it is becoming harder to find reasons why this week’s Players Championship will not eventually evolve to that elevated level.
The four men’s majors are the benchmark of the game.
The Open Championship is the world’s oldest and most prestigious event, the Masters has become the game’s most glamorous tournament, the US Open is America’s national championship and the PGA? Well, it is the PGA.
Chronologically it is last of the big four and is regarded as such in significance – this despite always boasting the top 100 players in the world, which is more than the other three majors are able to do.
Gaining major status only genuinely happens when there is universal agreement that a tournament deserves such status.
The stature of the US Open has never been in doubt while on these shores, The Open’s lustre only wobbled when American professionals became reluctant to travel in the 1950s.
Arnold Palmer’s continued support of The Open ensured its elite status was preserved and never again ignored by any of the world’s leading stars.
The Masters only truly acquired its major standing in the post-Second World War years and the US PGA Championship needed to switch from its original matchplay format in 1958 to maintain its relevance.
It is also the preserve of the PGA of America, one of the most powerful bodies in the sport and the organisation that runs the US Ryder Cup team.
All majors have in common a place in sporting history, large prize funds, deep fields populated with players desperate to win, a resonance that stretches beyond the golfing village and the ability to identify the best players in the world.
History built year on year
And this neatly brings us to the 44th Players Championship, which will be played at TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida from Thursday.
Which of those boxes is not ticked by the Players?
Its history has built year on year. This is the 36th time it will be played on Pete Dye’s famous Stadium Course, relaid and refined this year, and the closing stretch of holes including the famous island-green 17th have become as familiar as any on the golf calendar.
In financial terms it is every bit as lucrative as any other tournament on the planet. This year it is worth $10.5m (£8.1m) and it is little surprise that it attracts the PGA Tour’s strongest field of the season.
And it resonates. The fact that it returns to the same course every year helps and it generates memories that stick with us.
Remember Hal Sutton’s “be the right club, be the right club, today” as he fired his tournament-winning approach to the 72nd green to hold off Tiger Woods in 2000? Or Fred Funk slamming his cap into the green upon completing his 2005 victory?
Sandy Lyle has been Britain’s only winner, and his victory is still fondly remembered even though it was achieved 30 years ago. More recently the nerveless play-off wins by Sergio Garcia (2008) and Rickie Fowler (2015) are easier to recall than many a decisive moment in, say, the PGA Championship.
And there can be little argument over the pedigree of its champions. The Players is rarely won by anyone other than the highest calibre of golfer.
Jack Nicklaus triumphed three times, including the inaugural tournament in 1974, and the roster of champions includes; Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Fred Couples, David Duval, Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer and last year’s winner Jason Day – all world number ones.
Sawgrass messes with golfers heads. It demands precision and the correct angles of attack. “It tests basically everything from a mechanical and hitting standpoint, as well as to a mental approach,” said Duval, the champion in 1999.
Relaid and refined course
For this year’s event the course has been relaid with new grasses and several greens have been altered.
The 12h hole now becomes a driveable par-four to provide a kickstart to the fireworks that inevitably occur on the water dominated par-five 16th, short 17th and dramatic par-four closing hole.
Until 2007, the tournament occupied a March date and was recognised as the first genuine gathering of the world’s best golfers before the Masters. Then came the move to its current timing in May.
Many have debated the wisdom of the schedule change. “I don’t believe the golf course has quite lived up to how they have wanted it since the move to May, with the condition of it,” Duval said.
“It should go back to March,” he added, saying such a move is more likely to yield firmer and faster playing conditions. “It’s been a bit of struggle and so I hope it does go back.”
Recent Players Championship winners
2016: Jason Day (Aus) -15
2015: Rickie Fowler (US) -12 (won after play-off)
2014: Martin Kaymer (Ger) -13
2013: Tiger Woods (US) -13
2012: Matt Kuchar (US) -13
2011: KJ Choi (Kor) -13
Duval may well get his wish. The proposed restructuring of the golfing calendar would see the PGA shift from its August date to take the Players Championship slot in May, as it moves back to the original pre-Masters timing.
Tellingly, the Players is at the heart of the conversation on finding the most attractive schedule for the men’s game. It, therefore, is already sitting at golf’s top table.
And, while the sport might not need another major – and certainly not another in the United States – it feels more and more as though we are arriving at a tipping point.
Right now it is “the four majors and the Players” when we discuss the most prized events in the game, but for how much longer might this distinction be drawn?
Golf has gained “six-appeal” and taken a significant step towards finding a marketable short form of the game.
The European Tour’s Golf Sixes, staged at the Centurion Club near St Albans, proved popular with players and fans and established itself as the blueprint for the sport’s version of cricket’s Twenty20 format.
Introducing the use of a shot clock on one of the holes is an idea that could swiftly be incorporated in existing long-form tournaments.
But this inaugural event also proved meaningful golf matches can be played over as few as six holes. They can be done and dusted in little over an hour and a decent tournament can be completed in a weekend.
This is just what golf needs with the current perception that it is increasingly losing out because it takes too long to play and watch.
Traditional professional golf becomes genuinely absorbing “down the stretch.” Golf Sixes catapults us straight to that point with no preamble.
Every shot counts, making the importance of a good start paramount, but there remains the opportunity for dramatic fight-backs. This is a formula that serves so well cricket’s IPL and Big Bash matches.
For spectators, there was plenty to watch and hear. Some of the stuff pumped through the microphones and speakers missed the mark but an engaging atmosphere was generated.
To make it work better they should employ announcers who know their subject and are capable of identifying all of the players and match situations.
Celebrity TV coverage
Further gimmicks are not required, nor do we need our intelligence insulted when mediocre putts are described as “great”.
Likewise, the celebrity aspect of the television coverage grated somewhat and we did not need to be constantly told of the tournament’s success in such sycophantic terms.
We could see for ourselves that it was worth watching.
It could have been bettered if the players wore microphones – listening to tactical discussions would have enhanced the coverage and the greensomes matchplay alternate shot format was a good choice.
But the most significant development was the shot clock used on the fourth hole. “I think it’s a great idea,” said England’s Andy Sullivan.
During the first day of round-robin group matches, players were allowed 40 seconds to execute their strokes. That was reduced to 30 for the second day of knockout matches.
“What we found is when we’re hitting, we had such a long time,” Sullivan added. “You’ve got ages, and it’s embarrassing when you are playing on the Tour and it is taking that long.
“I think that’s highlighted a lot of things, really, for the Tour.”
Paul Peterson, of the United States, fell foul of the shot clock on the first day and it cost the Americans a quarter-final place. “He’s probably humiliated,” said Chris Wood, Sullivan’s England team-mate.
“I think that’s quite a lot to do with it, the naming and shaming. Sully is right, there’s too much leniency I think.
“Players are to blame; hold your hands up there, but referees can be stronger on occasion.”
Slow play is the enemy
European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley has identified slow play as golf’s biggest enemy. It would be a surprise if he is not considering proposing wider use of shot clocks.
He will also be wondering where next to take the Golf Sixes concept.
“I think it is definitely answering the cry from the global world of golf to be innovative and not be afraid of change,” Pelley told BBC Sport.
“There needs to be another way to attract the younger generation. Is this the answer? Maybe, and we will take what is good out of this and build on it.”
The Tour will examine player feedback – some felt the knockout matches should have lasted nine holes – and marketing data before deciding their next move.
“It will definitely be back next year,” Pelley announced at the closing ceremony.
Certainly it feels as though his Tour has arrived on a concept that can complement the existing diet of predominantly 72 holes strokeplay.
It would work well under floodlights in big city venues where it is easier to attract big crowds. They are vital to generating an atmosphere commensurate with the excitement of the golf.
The inaugural tournament ended with Denmark winning the final against Australia on the closing green. Scotland came third, triumphing by inches in a nearest the pin shootout against England’s quarter-final conquerors, Italy.
It was a fitting climax to a weekend that lays down a very encouraging and exciting marker for the future development of the game.