Willett & Spieth: How will they fare after drama of Augusta?

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Jordan Spieth looks on as Danny Willett acknowldges the applause at Augusta
Danny Willett and Jordan Spieth have both taken a month off since the dramatic final day of the Masters

Masters champion Danny Willett and runner-up Jordan Spieth face the sternest of challenges when they return to action at this week's Players Championship.

Neither has competed since the drama of Augusta more than a month ago, and they face the strongest field of the year on a TPC Sawgrass course that demands the utmost precision.

This is the week when golf bursts back to life at an event that is a major in all but name. It heralds the start of a hectic spell that includes the US Open, Open and PGA Championship as well as the game's return to the Olympics in Rio.

And it will be asking a lot for the top two at the Masters to hit the ground running.

Willett has spent the past month getting used to the life-changing circumstances of becoming a dad and a major champion for the first time.

Spieth, meanwhile, has been coming to terms with the first serious setback of his young career having squandered a five-stroke lead on the back nine at Augusta.

"He's going to learn from it and that'll be the measure of him going forward," said David Duval, the former world number one and 1999 Players Champion.

There are many who believe Spieth will emerge a better player for the pain he suffered last month. The 22-year-old American has always shown remarkable maturity and seems well-equipped to bounce back from his Masters meltdown.

He will face considerable scrutiny as he embarks on what will be only his third Players appearance. Spieth was tied fourth on debut in 2014 but missed the cut last year.

Having taken a break that included a boisterous Bahamas holiday with fellow pros Smylie Kaufman, Justin Thomas and defending Players champion Rickie Fowler, Spieth says he is "kind of anxious to get back".

Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Smylie Kaufman and Rickie Fowler on holiday in the Bahamas
Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Smylie Kaufman and Rickie Fowle enjoyed Spring Break together in the Bahamas

Having cashed in on his two major successes in 2015 with numerous global appearances around the turn of the year, the young Texan needed to recharge his batteries after the Masters.

"It feels like the start of a new season," he said after completing his early Sawgrass preparations.

Since his holiday he has been working on trying to return his swing to where it was last summer, when he came close to adding the Open and PGA titles to his Masters and US Open victories.

But despite the prestige of the Players, it would be wrong to read too much into his performance this week, and the same applies to Willett.

Sawgrass is not a place where you can ease your way back into form - the 7,215 yard, par-72 Stadium Course is far too punishing and demanding for that.

"The middle of the green never hurts you," Spieth said. "You've just got to try and find the fairway."

It's not a course where you can take on doglegs to shorten holes and the design messes with sight-lines in a way that unsettles the golfers. World number one Jason Day has often struggled in this event.

The penalties for inaccuracy are severe, especially on the closing stretch of holes where water is ready to punish wayward strikes on the par-five 16th, the famous island-green 17th and demanding par-four closing hole.

This famous finish rewards the daring, as Fowler showed last year. The young American went birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie to force his way into the play-off he won against Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner.

Fowler then birdied the 17th twice, first in a three-hole shootout and then in sudden death with Kisner, to complete a stunning victory that consigned to the rubbish heap a poll that had branded him the PGA Tour's most overrated golfer.

Since its inception in 1974, no champion has successfully defended the Players title. Sawgrass has been its home since 1982 and it is one of those courses that no-one routinely conquers.

Rickie Fowler
Rickie Fowler beat Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a play-off to win the Players Championship last year

This year, dry, warm and breezy conditions are predicted and come the weekend the course is expected to be fast, firm and as demanding as ever. All attributes of the 144-man field will be fully tested and 29 of the world's top 30 are on show.

While it would be unfair to measure the state of Spieth or Willett's games in the days ahead, the same cannot be said of Rory McIlroy.

This week's return to Florida provides an opportunity for the Northern Irishman to build on his encouraging finish at Quail Hollow last week, where he shared fourth place after a closing 66.

Sawgrass doesn't play to his big-hitting talents but he has finished in the top 10 in the last three years. Winless so far this year, McIlroy would send a huge message were he to rectify that this week.

It would show that he can prosper in the most demanding of circumstances - where patience and precision are key - and set him up perfectly for the rest of the year.


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