Donald top of bill in Sawgrass circus Murphy hoping to re-launch season
ROLL UP, roll up ... this week's Players Championship on Pete Dye's celebrated Stadium Course at Sawgrass is as close as professional golf gets to the 'Big Top'.
It doesn't matter that ringmaster, Tiger Woods, no longer cracks the whip. Nor that two of the world's top-10, No 1 Lee Westwood and No 6 Rory McIlroy, decided to skip the US Tour's annual showpiece.
Outside of the Majors, The Players remains the greatest show in golf. For a start, Ireland's Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell are among a host of Major-winners in the field.
Suggestions from this side of the pond that the $9.5m event would be severely diminished by the absence of Westwood or McIlroy smacked of that infamous old Fleet Street headline "Fog in Channel -- Continent Cut Off."
Westwood's share of fourth place last May was his first top-10 at Sawgrass in six outings this century, while McIlroy has missed the cut on his only two appearances.
While Westwood and McIlroy both have offered perfectly logical reasons why Sawgrass doesn't fit neatly into their schedules, the 21-year-old Ulsterman also had the gumption to admit the course doesn't suit him or his game.
With so many 'white-knuckle' holes at Sawgrass, especially the world-famous par-three 17th, plenty of thrills and spills are guaranteed for the tens of thousands in the 'Stadium' itself and many millions more at home.
Given the nature of the event and the golf course upon which it's played, one might expect two of the sport's greatest showmen, Phil Mickelson or the gloriously instinctive Bubba Watson, to make this stage their own.
Yet, aside from his victory in 2007, Mickelson boasts just one other top-10 finish at Sawgrass this century, while Watson has made just one in four cuts at a course which, he admits, forces him to pause on the tee and think a little more than he'd usually like.
Mickelson is capable of winning this week only if he hits peak form. Nobody overpowers Sawgrass, where the key to success is exemplary all-round golf with minimal mistakes.
Woods showed at the Masters that his new swing is beginning to bed-in, but Tiger's once invincible putter is too fallible to imagine him returning from injury this week to truly contend for the first time since his solitary win in 2001.
The player with the form and the Sawgrass pedigree to win is Luke Donald, who'll displace Westwood at the top of the world should he lift that Waterford Crystal trophy on Sunday.
Martin Kaymer can also go to No 1 by finishing first or second. Justice would be best served if the German or Donald managed to do it.
Padraig best hope of long-shot Irish
LIGHT appeared at the end of the tunnel for Padraig Harrington at Quail Hollow last Sunday as he once again strutted his stuff like a three-times Major champion.
It augured well for the Dubliner's prospects at next month's US Open at Congressional or the British Open at Royal St George's ... but Ireland cannot reasonably expect one of our own to win the Players for a first time this weekend.
Harrington finished second at Sawgrass in 2003 and 2004, but hasn't impressed since 2007, when the tournament was switched from March to May and the course was revamped.
Meanwhile, a productive session with coach Pete Cowen last weekend helped Graeme McDowell quell what he described as "a little panic in my game" after a poor run of results this spring.
Though he looks forward with customary optimism to this week's test, the Ulsterman cannot expect to suddenly get back to the rampaging form of 2010 in an arena which has not brought out the best in his game. A tie for 26th last year is the US Open champion's top finish in three appearances.
Murphy hoping to re-launch season
WHAT'S seldom is wonderful, and Gary Murphy hopes that'll be the case when he tees it up in anger for the first time in five months at the Iberdrola Open in Majorca, writes Bernie McGuire.
The Kilkenny man's return to the professional fold at the Jose Maria Olazabal-designed Pula golf course was not entirely stress-free.
After first being informed yesterday that his 'Torpedo' putter was illegal, Murphy was then given the green light to use it this week as he makes his 2011 European Tour debut as one of a seven-man Irish contingent in Majorca.
The 'Torpedo' has a brass bulge fitted to the shaft below the grip, which allows for a bigger sweet spot. When Murphy checked the putter's legality yesterday, tournament director Miguel Vidaor said 'no'. However, the R&A later confirmed it is conforming.
After losing his Tour card last year, Murphy's has played just one event this year, the Challenge Tour's Kenya Open. "It's just great to be back out playing again as I've had five months at home since Kenya, where I missed the cut," he said. "A good result here and next week and you never know."
Also up in Majorca is Simon Thornton, who has also played just once since losing his card last year, while Colm Moriarty tees it up on the main European circuit for the first time in 2011.
The Iberdrola Open
Live, Sky Sports 2, 10.30/3.30
The Players Championship
Live, Sky Sports 2, 6.0