By Dan Reardon

And they’re off…

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Starting with this week’s edition of The Players Championship, the PGA Tour launches into one of the year’s best six-week stretches of golf. That stretch continues with the Byron Nelson and Colonial, also in May, and the elite Memorial at the start of June. It concludes with the U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Golf fans will be treated to the best players from around the world, displaying their talents together for the first time since the Masters. World rankings should shuffle. Olympic selections should solidify. And a cavalry charge should be put in place for the rest of the 2016 season, with double majors in July, the Olympics in August, FedEx in September and the Ryder Cup at the start of October.

The calendar year to date has been a blurred vision of golf top talents. Already this year the PGA Tour has seen 11 first-time winners, one fewer than all of 2015. A year that began with a Jordan Spieth win early, back-to-back Adam Scott wins followed by consecutive Jason Day wins has failed to sustain that early promise.

With the starting gates opening at Ponte Vedra this week, lets look at the betting favorites,

World #1 Jason Day followed his sizzling finish in 2015 with Bay Hill and the Match Play triumphs. He fell short at Augusta, finishing tied for 10th, and had one bad round at the Heritage. His charge at New Orleans was blunted when the event was cut short by a day. He comes into The Players well rested after skipping Wells Fargo and hopefully fit after minor back issues at Hilton Head.

Number 2 Jordan Spieth will be teeing it up for the first time since his disappointment on Sunday at the Masters. Spieth challenged the view that his game was off for the first quarter of the year, pointing to five consecutive top 20s through Augusta, including two top 10s.

His lengthy spring hiatus was probably the necessary recharge he needed after a busy winter on and off the golf course late in 2015. A year ago at this time he missed the cut at The Players and then ran off seven top 10s in an eight-week stretch, featuring two wins (including the U.S. Open) and a fourth at St. Andrews.

At number 3 in the OWGR, Rory McIlroy may have the most to prove among the current big three. His last win in the U.S. was Wells Fargo a year ago. A European win in Dubai is his only victory in his last 20 starts. The Irishman has flashed his brilliant game every time out but has found stretches of holes over the four days that kept him from the top.

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Only one player from Great Britain, Sandy Lyle, has ever won The Players Championship.

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Lefthander Bubba Watson has treated this part of the calendar as his summer vacation in the past. Typically, only The Players and Memorial have put him on the road. His one career win at the second quarter pole was a playoff win at New Orleans in 2011.

Rickie Fowler rounds out the top five in the world, and his performance record is a little uneven going into this stretch. He has made more appearances than the four ranked ahead of him. He has flashed on the leaderboard seven times on Sunday but posted no wins. Perhaps even more disturbing is that he surrendered third-round leads on Sunday at Phoenix and last week at Wells Fargo. He has a reverse Tiger record with third-round leads never ending in tournament wins.

A few others worth noting:

Henrik Stenson (#6) contends but hasn’t closed the deal since 2014. Adam Scott (#7) hasn’t cracked the top 20 since his two late-winter wins. Dustin Johnson has four top fives in his last five events, ending with his appearance at the Masters, where posted his best-ever showing, T4.

Masters champion Danny Willett (#8) will be walking to the first tee for the first time announced as a major winner this week at Sawgrass. A year ago he had missed cuts at The Players and the U.S. Open for his only U.S. starts in the second quarter. And Justin Rose (#9) appears to be still fine-tuning his new putting grip. His last U.S. win came a year ago in New Orleans. And like his fellow countryman Willett, he had the weekend off last year at The Players.

With all the breakthrough wins so far this year, The Players could be ripe for an out-of-the-pack winner like Tim Clark, Fred Funk, Stephen Ames and Craig Perks, all champions in the last 14 years.

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Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.