Iain Carter column: Players Championship March fixture the key to UK success?

Matthew Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick, 24, is currently ranked 33rd in the world

Maybe this is the year? As the Players Championship returns to its traditional March position on the golfing calendar, the move may herald some long-overdue UK success at Sawgrass.

Certainly there were grounds for optimism given events at last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, where no fewer than four UK players finished in the leading six positions.

Matthew Fitzpatrick took a huge step towards coming of age on the PGA Tour with an excellent runners-up cheque at Bay Hill. This was a very impressive display by the 24-year-old from Sheffield.

Fitzpatrick's frustration that he could not catch the inspired champion Francesco Molinari must be tempered, given baked greens that grew firmer as the afternoon wore on. Tucked pins made it an almost impossible chase.

With experienced caddie Billy Foster at his side, Fitzpatrick was very composed in the final pairing alongside Rory McIlroy. Finishing second, only an extraordinary final-round 64 completed much earlier by the Open champion could beat him.

Molinari showed his winter break and work done to bed in new equipment, including a red-hot putter, will make him a formidable force once again in 2019. There is no sign of 'second season syndrome' for Europe's top player last year.

But Fitzpatrick, a former US Amateur champion who made his Ryder Cup debut in 2016, is a world-class prospect. With five European Tour wins already to his name, the young Englishman can become a winner on the US circuit as well.

The Stadium Course at Sawgrass, the home of this week's Players Championship, is the sort of place he could flourish. Pete Dye's penal design demands precision allied to a surgeon's touch on the greens.

Such demands should not intimidate Fitzpatrick. Stringing together two top-drawer weeks against the best golfers in the world is the sort of challenge he relishes.

He should not lack confidence this week, nor should McIlroy, Tommy Fleetwood or Matt Wallace as they look to build on impressive performances at Arnie's place.

Yes, it was another frustrating Sunday for McIlroy as he sought to retain his Bay Hill title. Going out last was a disadvantage on a set-up that reached the levels of a major in its difficulty as the weekend wore on.

"My Sundays haven't been what I would have liked, but I'm putting myself in that position. Good golf is good golf, I keep saying that, at the end of the day," McIlroy said.

"I feel like I really didn't play that badly. I missed a couple of shots, but I felt like I was hitting good shots to 30 feet all day and it's hard to sort of shoot a score."

Finishing in a share of sixth was McIlroy's worst return of the year to date, which speaks to a remarkably consistent start to 2019. But it is now more than a year since he won.

In its May date, Sawgrass never played to his strengths but the schedule switch this year gives cause for optimism. "I'm excited for its move to March," McIlroy told PGA Tour social media.

"I love the look of the golf course already, the over-seeded grass - everything looks so much more green and lush."

Rory McIlroy
McIlroy, 29, came second at the WGC-Mexico Championship in February

The tournament, worth a record $12.5m (£9.5m) this year, has been played in May since 2007. Now it is back where it belongs as the first genuinely big event of the golfing year.

It is much more than a massive warm-up for next month's Masters.

Whether the Stadium Course will ever suit McIlroy's power game is open to question, but his increasingly reliable touch on the greens could help make him a contender against what is always one of the strongest fields of the year.

Fleetwood has the sort of game that could prosper this week, and a closing 68 at Bay Hill to finish in a share of third place gives further grounds for English confidence.

And Wallace is growing with every week he spends Stateside. It is all new for the 28-year-old Londoner, who has climbed to 35 in the world after finishing alongside McIlroy last week.

Following his online Players Championship diary on the BBC Sport website should be fascinating as Wallace tries to come to terms with the famous island green 17th, and everything else that Sawgrass throws at him.

It is such a stacked field for the 45th edition of the Players, with all of the leading golfers in the world competing. In this famous tournament's history only Scotland's Sandy Lyle, in 1987, has won from these shores.

This week the UK challenge will be spearheaded by world number two Justin Rose, another to have traditionally struggled at Sawgrass.

It is a curious anomaly, as is the relative lack of UK success on a course that demands much more than a standard PGA Tour stop.

But given current form and the return to the Championship's more familiar place on the calendar, maybe this is the year that changes.

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