(Reuters) - World number one Dustin Johnson, newlywed Rory McIlroy and defending champion Jason Day headline a stacked field this week at The Players Championship where Sergio Garcia will compete for the first time since winning the U.S. Masters.
Johnson has struggled at the PGA Tour’s flagship event - a share of 28th last year was his best result - but unlike other years the reigning U.S. Open champion enters what is widely regarded as golf’s unofficial fifth major in enviable form.
The long-hitting American had won three consecutive starts prior to a freak accident that forced him to withdraw from last month’s Masters but showed no ill effects from the back injury by finishing runner-up in his return last week.
He will be staring down a premier field featuring 48 of the world’s top 50 golfers at the challenging TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with its island green on the par-three 17th that has become one of the most recognisable holes in golf.
World number three Day, who missed the cut in his last event in New Orleans, tied the Stadium Course record here last year with an opening 63 and the Australian became the tournament’s fifth wire-to-wire champion.
But the former PGA Championship winner has not been at his best so far this year with just four top-25 finishes in eight events.
Four-times major winner McIlroy, fresh off his honeymoon, returns to action for the first time since finishing equal seventh at the Masters and the world number two will have all new clubs after signing a deal with TaylorMade.
“I’ve been on Tour for 10 years, and it’s very rare that you get really excited about your equipment,” said McIlroy, who will be grouped with Johnson and Justin Thomas for the opening two rounds starting on Thursday.
“I feel like it’s a new chapter in my life with a lot of stuff going on, but I really feel with the new equipment, as well, it’s hopefully going to take me to that next level.”
Garcia, who triumphed here in 2008, will be well rested having not competed since claiming his first major title and will no doubt feel comfortable on a course where has eight top-15 finishes in 17 starts.
“It’s going to be amazing. It’s one of the things I‘m most looking forward to,” Garcia told Golf Channel.
“I think that everyone knows how much I love The Players Championship, how well I’ve done there, how much it means to me. To be there as Masters champion, it’s going to be extra special.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Larry Fine