Three talking points in golf this week
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Tyrrell Hatton held off a stellar field to claim his maiden PGA Tour title at Bay Hill on Sunday, while Tiger Woods announced he would miss this week's Players Championship through injury.
Here, AFP Sport looks at three talking points in golf as the world's leading players gear up for the sport's 'fifth major' at TPC Sawgrass:
McIlroy primed for title defence
-- World number one Rory McIlroy appears set for a strong showing as he bids to become the first player to successfully defend the Players title this week despite more Sunday disappointment at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The four-time major winner started the final round two shots behind leader Hatton, but slipped back with a four-over-par 76.
But the Northern Irishman has now posted seven consecutive top-five finishes and will be the favourite to win again on the Stadium Course.
"There's a lot of similarities between the start of this year and the start of last year," McIlroy told pgatour.com.
"A lot of chances, not converting, but knowing that the game's pretty much there.
"Hopefully if I just keep putting myself in those positions, it's only a matter of time."
Tiger facing race to be fit for Masters
-- Two-time champion Tiger Woods will sit out of the Players due to his ongoing back problems, raising questions about whether he will be fit to defend his Masters crown at Augusta next month.
The 44-year-old has not played since finishing last of the players to make the cut at the Genesis Invitational in February and is still waiting to claim a record-breaking 83rd PGA Tour victory.
"Back just not ready," Woods' agent Mark Steinberg told Golf Digest and ESPN. "Not concerning long term, just not ready."
But the 15-time major winner has said he is focused on being in top form for the majors in the latter stages of his career as he bids to overhaul Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 triumphs in golf's four big tournaments.
"The idea is to peak around Augusta," Woods told reporters two weeks ago in a conference call.
Hatton strikes blow for Europe in US
-- A week after former US Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger was criticised for belittling the European Tour when speaking on TV commentary about Tommy Fleetwood's ultimately failed bid to win a maiden PGA Tour title, Fleetwood's fellow Englishman Hatton did just that at Bay Hill.
Hatton, who rose to 22nd in the world rankings on Monday, had already won four times on the European circuit.
The 28-year-old proved that the Europeans can still mix it in the United States by holding off Marc Leishman to win one of the PGA Tour's 'elevated' events and secure a three-year exemption.
Now Hatton will be eyeing becoming the first Englishman to emerge victorious at the Players.
"It's hard to kind of think about next week at the moment with the sort of potential celebrations we have got later today. I don't think I'll be in any fit state at least until Wednesday," Hatton, who will be hoping to be part of a second straight European Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits in September, said.
"But next week's going to be interesting and hopefully an Englishman can finally win that trophy."
Top 20 on March 9
1. Rory McIlroy (NIR) 9.42 average points, 2. Jon Rahm (ESP) 8.61, 3. Brooks Koepka (USA) 7.91, 4. Justin Thomas (USA) 7.53, 5. Dustin Johnson (USA) 6.59, 6. Patrick Cantlay (USA) 5.97, 7. Webb Simpson (USA) 5.94 (+1), 8. Patrick Reed (USA) 5.93 (+1), 9. Adam Scott (AUS) 5.91 (-2), 10. Tommy Fleetwood (ENG) 5.67, 11. Tiger Woods (USA) 5.56, 12. Xander Schauffele (USA) 5.48, 13. Bryson DeChambeau (USA) 5.17 (+1), 14. Justin Rose (ENG) 5.04 (-1), 15. Marc Leishman (AUS) 4.76 (+6), 16. Tony Finau (USA) 4.71 (-1), 17. Matt Kuchar (USA) 4.50 (-1), 18. Gary Woodland (USA) 4.46 (-1), 19. Louis Oosthuizen (RSA) 4.31 (-1), 20. Shane Lowry (IRL) 4.25
22. Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 4.20 (+10)
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