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.
Woods, while not playing this year, also has been unpredictable. He is on the short list of two-time winners at The Players. He has never missed the cut in 19 appearances. But he has only contended for the title three times. Along with his two wins, he was runner-up in 2000 to Hal Sutton,
Koepka had no answers.
“I don't know if it's the players or the way they set up the golf course sometimes," Koepka said. “Back when it was in May, you could catch flyers, so hitting the fairways was a premium. Now, not so much.”
Koepka also hit on another trend worth nothing.
“At the same time,” he said, “probably every great player has won here.”
For the first 20 years on the TPC Sawgrass, 18 of the winners are now major champions. Since then, for every Mickelson or Sergio Garcia or Martin Kaymer, there was a Craig Perks or Si Woo Kim.
“I think it is a course of strategy because everyone kind of plays to similar spots,” said Adam Scott, who won in 2004. "I don't think you can overpower the course. And I don't think you can play out of the rough all week and do well. ... It's really open to whoever can play well. I don't think it favors long hitters. I don't think it favors just a short game.
“I think it tests all areas of the game.”
The test looms a little larger for Koepka, who lost his No. 1 ranking last month to McIlroy and is trying to find his game since returning in January from a knee injury. Koepka left Orlando after the Arnold Palmer Invitational and flew to Las Vegas to work with Butch Harmon. He normally works with Claude Harmon, Butch's son.
“I felt like I just I had so much going on in my head, so many swing thoughts and needed to clear the slate,” Koepka said. “I just needed a different set of eyes. Maybe something might click, because I was failing.”
The plan was to spend a few days with Harmon, who was seen plenty of Koepka over the years.
“He saw it in four swings and told me a couple things," Koepka said. “I had planned on being out there all day Tuesday, except he told me to fly here and get out here and practice, because he felt like everything was on the right track.”
And now he gets to try it out on a course where so many shots are on the edge of great or disastrous, part of that a product of having water in play on so many holes, the most infamous being the island green for the par-3 17th.
The most telling about the unpredictable nature of this tournament might have been last year. McIlroy, with his fluid, powerful swing, won by one shot over Jim Furyk, a 48-year-old who was among the shorter hitters even when he younger.
“One thing about this golf course, I'm not sure it favors a style of game as far as power is concerned,” Furyk said. “But it will test a lot of different areas of you game.”