(Reuters) - American Rickie Fowler heads into his title defense at this week's Players Championship on the ultra challenging layout at the TPC Sawgrass well aware that no one has ever won the prestigious tournament in consecutive seasons.
Part of the reason for this is the combination of a difficult course, a brutal three-hole closing stretch and the strongest field in golf at the PGA Tour's flagship event, which is widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major.
This week's field is as potent as ever with 29 of the game's top 30 golfers set to tee off in Thursday's opening round on the par-72 Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
"It's one of the toughest courses we play all year, and probably the toughest field that we play all year," world number five Fowler told reporters when asked why the Players Championship had never produced a back-to-back champion.
"So whoever is winning is taking care of business, beating the best players at the time and conquering one of the toughest courses that we play. You have to be pretty spot on."
Fowler won last year's title in sensational fashion, beating fellow American Kevin Kisner and Spaniard Sergio Garcia in a playoff after finishing the final six holes of regulation in six-under-par.
This week, he will have to contend with players such as world number one Jason Day and second-ranked Jordan Spieth, who are both eager to add the Players Championship to their already impressive golfing resumes.
"They say this is our fifth major and it is like a major championship for us," said Australian Day. "So the motivation is very high to try and win one of these in my career, and I would like to do that this week if I can.
"This is one of those tournaments where, if you're on the border of getting into the Hall of Fame, this could kick it over and get you into the Hall of Fame."
U.S. Open champion Spieth returns to PGA Tour competition for the first time since his shocking final-round meltdown at last month's Masters, where he threw away the title after being five strokes ahead with nine holes to play.
"The first couple of weeks it was certainly nice to be away from the game, then I started watching weekend golf (on television) the last couple of weeks and I'm kind of anxious to get back," said American Spieth.
"So coming to the Players, a golf course that's one of my favorites, I couldn't be happier right now. For the most part, my game feels great.
"I have put in a lot of hard work and the past week or so I've been shooting some low numbers when we've been playing (in practice) so there shouldn't be any excuses on the rust side."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)