ESPN predictions: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm two popular picks to win the Players


The Players Championship is the PGA Tour’s signature event. Even without Tiger Woods, who will sit out this week because of a stiff back, the field remains loaded. There are plenty of good choices for who will win. Can Rory McIlroy become the first player to repeat at The Players? Some of our experts think so. Others think Jon Rahm will avenge his Sunday meltdown from a year ago. But those are far from the only two names being mentioned.

Matt Barrie, ESPN
Winner: Jon Rahm
Why he’ll win: Rahm is off to a solid start this season and is likely still hanging on to that 54-hole-lead collapse last year at TPC Sawgrass. By the time he finishes his 72nd hole this time around, he’ll be The Players champion.

David Bearman,
Winner: Tommy Fleetwood
Why he’ll win: Fleetwood was the 18- and 36-hole leader last year and was right there for the trophy until a final-round 73. He is T-5, T-7 the past two years at Sawgrass (Jason Day is the only other player with Top 10s the past two years), with five rounds in the 60s. Fleetwood’s form was good heading into Arnie’s event, as he had T-18 in Mexico and a third-place finish at The Honda. Here’s hoping his 76-76 at Bay Hill was a result of the conditions that crushed many golfers this past week.

Michael Collins,
Winner: Jon Rahm
Why he’ll win: From Jan. 1 until now, Rahm has played five tournaments with four top-10s and a T-17. Last year, Rahm led going into Sunday but had a back nine to forget. This year, he’ll get redemption.

Michael Eaves, ESPN
Winner: Justin Thomas
Why he’ll win: The fourth-ranked player in the world already has a win under his belt in 2020. In two of his other four events, he finished T-3 and T-6. (Granted, he missed the cut in the other two tournaments, but hey, we’re trying to be positive). Coming off a two-week break, he should be fit and fresh when he arrives in Ponte Vedra and in prime condition to win his first title at TPC Sawgrass.

Chris Fallica, ESPN
Winner: Bryson DeChambeau
Why he’ll win: DeChambeau has three straight top-5s in three well-regarded events. His improved length off the tee this season has been a big reason for his hot start. In his third trip around Sawgrass, DeChambeau can certainly capture the title here.

Charlotte Gibson,
Winner: Jon Rahm
Why he’ll win: When it comes to consistency this season, the 25-year-old Rahm has found it. In the five events he has played in 2020, he finished in the top 20 of all of them. Currently ranked No. 2 in the world, Rahm needs to redeem himself from that 76 in the final round of last year’s Players (the 76 that blew the lead).

Bob Harig,
Winner: Dustin Johnson
Why he’ll win: It’s hard to believe that more than a year has passed since Johnson’s last victory, but he has shown some life of late, with three top-10s, including a runner-up finish in Saudi Arabia. Johnson never had much success at TPC Sawgrass until the tournament moved to March last year, and he finished tied for fifth. On a course that doesn’t typically suit any one style of player, his long game is certainly not a hindrance.

Peter Lawrence-Riddell,
Winner: Rory McIlroy
Why he’ll win: I think it’s going to be a big year for McIlroy, and he’s off to a great start. Why not a repeat at The Players? He has finished T-5 or better in every start he has made on the PGA Tour so far this year.

Marty Smith, ESPN
Winner: Tony Finau
Why he’ll win: Tony Finau. Hear me out. After Finau lost a heartbreaker to Webb Simpson in Phoenix, a fan took to his piano and penned a song about Finau’s victory drought. In that same spirit, here’s a poem about Finau’s pending victory at Sawgrass:

Finau hits it a mile off the tee.
But Sawgrass demands accuracy.
Length is helpful but irons are key.
To winning the coveted TPC.
Tony wasted a chance in Phoenix to win.
Back at the Stadium, he won’t waste it again.
So against the odds, folks, lay down your wager.
On Finau y’all, for golf’s fifth major.

You’re welcome, America.

Andy North, ESPN
Winner: Rory McIlroy
Why he’ll win: Even with the problems McIlroy had Sunday at Bay Hill, I think he will win at the TPC. His driving is such an advantage on so many holes.

Ian O’Connor,
Winner: Rory McIlroy
Why he’ll win: McIlroy is the best and most consistent player in the world right now, and he proved last year that he knows how to win on this course. Nobody has gone back-to-back at The Players, but Rory has the tools and the singular purpose to do so. He needs to get locked into winning mode to give himself the best chance to end his drought at Augusta a month from now.

Nick Pietruszkiewicz,
Winner: Xander Schauffele
Why he’ll win: Schauffele finished tied for second two years ago. Last year wasn’t so good; he missed the cut. His name is one of those regularly mentioned when trying to predict who is ready to take that next step. This is where Schauffele takes that step. He ranks eighth on the Tour this year in scoring average (69.559) and ninth in greens in regulation (72.22%), which is even more impressive given that he isn’t in the top 100 in driving accuracy. If the tee ball finds the fairway this week, he’ll be holding the gold trophy on Sunday.

Mark Schlabach,
Winner: Rory McIlroy
Why he’ll win: The world No. 1 and defending Players champion is the hottest golfer on the planet with seven top-five finishes in seven straight worldwide events. With so many other upper-echelon golfers dealing with injuries or other issues right now, McIlroy might be poised for a very big season. He’ll avoid big mistakes at TPC Sawgrass for the second straight season to become the event’s first back-to-back champion.

Curtis Strange, ESPN
Winner: Bryson DeChambeau
Why he’ll win: It’s a quirky golf course, and I would think he would like that. Plus, the course eliminates others.

Tom VanHaaren,
Winner: Justin Thomas
Why he’ll win: Thomas hasn’t made this an easy pick, missing the cut in two of his starts in 2020. But he has a win and finished top-six in his other appearances. I’m picking him mainly because I’m sticking with my original prediction that he’d have a big year. I think it starts here.

Kevin Van Valkenburg,
Winner: Sungjae Im
Why he’ll win: If you want to win The Players, you need to have the guts to go after difficult pins, and no one in golf is more fun to watch right now than Im, who never saw a flag he wasn’t willing to take dead aim toward. It’s difficult to pick just one thing to admire right now about Im’s game, whether it’s his buttery takeaway, his smooth putting stroke or his fearlessness. But the 21-year-old is emerging as a force in the game, so don’t be surprised if he walks away with the PGA Tour’s biggest tournament.

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