Players Championship doesn't always favor the best in golf

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Rory McIlroy putts on the ninth green during a practice round for The Players Championship golf tournament, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rory McIlroy didn't break par until his fourth appearance at The Players Championship.

Dustin Johnson waited until his sixth appearance at the TPC Sawgrass before he could post a round in the 60s. Brooks Koepka has yet to finish in the top 10 after five tries around this Stadium Players course that has been described as everything from exciting to scary to annoying.

“It's because this place rewards good golf and penalizes bad golf,” said Justin Thomas, who has experienced a little of both in his five years at The Players.

The strongest field of the year — minus Tiger Woods, who said his back was not ready — takes on one of the most exciting courses of the year Thursday with the richest purse in golf history ($15 million) on the line.

McIlroy is the favorite, mainly because he is No. 1 in the world and hasn't finished out of the top five in any tournament around the world since late September. He also was No. 1 in the world in 2012, shot 72-76, and missed the cut.

“I think this golf course can play so differently day-to-day, depending on wind direction, conditions,” McIlroy said. “It really doesn't suit any one style or any one type of player.”

Phil Mickelson is another case study.

He has a great career. He has all the shots. And in 26 years, he missed the cut 10 times and finished in the top 10 only three times. Then again, one of those was a victory in 2007, and Mickelson still isn't sure how he did it.