The Players Championship
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It was a thoroughly enjoyable weeks viewing at Bay Hill as after the Bryson and Jordan show on Saturday, Sunday turned in to a dual between the final pairing of Bryson Dechambeau and Lee Westwood in tough scoring conditions, where par was your friend.
In the end the US Open Champion got the better of the current Race 2 Dubai Champion by one shot after making clutch pars on the final two holes. Huge credit should be given to the Englishman though who pushed Bryson all the way and after he made a gutsy par of his own on 18 having unluckily found a divot off the tee Bryson was forced to make a five footer for the win.
From our point of view the week started poorly and never got much better and only our ‘saver’ on Rory McIlroy gave us any real interest over the weekend. Once Rory dumped two balls in the water off the sixth tee on Sunday though our race was run and it was just a case of sitting back and enjoying the show.
So, moving on and the Tour now head about 180 miles North East to Ponte Vedre Beach, Jacksonville and to what is arguably my favourite week of the year on the PGA Tour.
TPC Sawgrass opened in 1980 and the stadium course has been host to the Players Championship since 1982.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Players Championship on several occasions in the past and was there last year as events ground to a halt. This year I will be watching from the comfort of my armchair at home but roll on 2022, I can’t wait to get back there!
On that note with it being twelve months since the tour was suspended I think it worth saying what a fantastic job the PGA Tour have done since its return in June. Many were sceptical as to whether the resumption was sustainable once it happened but after a few early teething issues things have rolled on as smoothly as anyone could have hoped.
The action has been superb and I am sure I am not the only one who has been hugely buoyed by being able to watch world class golf week in week out in these difficult times and with fans now starting to return hopefully we are heading back to full normality.
With this week hopefully allowing for some positive reflections on the Tour’s achievements over the past year it is fitting that as always for their flagship event we have arguably as strong a field assembled as you get each year on the world stage.
The market is headed up by world number one Dustin Johnson who marginally edges favouritism over the most recent champion here from 2019 Rory McIlroy and Sundays API winner Bryson Dechambeau.
This trio are then followed by Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas.
One noticeable absentee is Brooks Koepka who sadly has had to withdraw due to a knee injury.
The course is a Par 72 and measures just under 7200 yards.
As note above TPC Sawgrass is the jewel in the crown of Pete Dye’s designs and other Dye courses to compare to include Hilton Head, the Stadium Course used for two rounds of the Amex event played in the Californian desert and TPC River Highlands, home of The Travelers.
After the 2016 edition the greens were changed from Miniverde Bermuda to TiffEagle Bermuda.
Last year there was a further change to the greens as they were over seeded with Velvet Bent/Poa Trivialis.
After the 2016 edition a course redesign took place, which as well as seeing the greens being re planted saw the 5th, 6th & 12th holes undergo changes.
The most noticeable of these was the changes made on the 12th which saw it become a driveable par 4.
One hole that wasn’t changed though was the Par 3 17th which is one of the most iconic holes in world golf.
Measuring 137 yards this hole really should be no more than a pitch and putt hole for the players and if it wasn’t surrounded by water it surely would be.
However when the players arrive on the tee to the sight of the big blue lake and the huge galleries, their minds start to play all sorts of tricks on them and even on the calmest of days you’ll see balls going in the water.
When the wind does blow it becomes a real monster [as does the whole course] and all sorts of havoc occurs!
The Par 3 17th is part of a fantastic overall finish to the course with eagles being possible on the Par 5 16th, huge numbers being possible on the 17th, and finally the 18th, the toughest hole on the course to finish.
With this finish no lead is too big on Sunday afternoon coming in to this stretch and you can see big comebacks [Rickie of course] and real disasters [remember Sean O’Hair.]
As mentioned above the event has been held at the Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass since 1982.
For the majority of this time the event was held in mid to late March, however in 2007 the event date was changed to the second weekend in May.
The main reasons behind this at the time were twofold, firstly to give the PGA Tour’s flagship event more of its own identity, rather than it being seen as a warm up to the Masters and secondly to move the event to a statistically dryer time of year so that they could get the course playing firmer and faster as the design had intended.
Moving on ten years though and a decision was made as part of a reshuffle to the PGA Tour Calendar to revert TPC back to its historical slot in March from 2019.
So let’s take a look at the last ten winners;
2019 Rory McIlroy
2018 Webb simpson
2017 Si Woo Kim
2016 Jason Day
2015 Rickie Fowler
2014 Martin Kaymer
2013 Tiger Woods
2012 Matt Kuchar
2011 KJ Choi
2010 Tim Clark.
Over the years of the event it is also fair to say that a very clear pattern had emerged of an identikit winner and if I had been writing this preview in the lead up to the 2015 edition I would have been pretty bullish of the credentials of player we should be looking for.
To outline this lets look at the ten winners from 2005 to 2014. These were as follows;
F Funk, S Ames, P Mickelson, S Garcia, H Stenson, T Clark, KJ Choi, M Kuchar, T Woods & M Kaymer.
So what do these players have in common? Not a lot you’d think on first glance however in relation to Sawgrass form it is quite striking.
Firstly they had all played in the event on multiple occasions building up a bank of course experience.
Secondly they had all notched previous high finishes in the event with KJ Choi’s 16th place being the worst ‘previous high finish’ any of these players had. [All bar Kaymer, Kuchar & KJ had a previous top 10.
Thirdly all bar Ames had made the cut the previous year at the event.
However, since 2014 these stats have been diluted slightly in that both the 2015 & 2016 winners Fowler & Day had missed the cut the previous year, however both had made five starts in the event and both had a previous top 10 finish.
Finally 2017 winner Si Woo Kim won the event on only his second start, something unheard of over the previous decade plus. Although it should be noted that he did finish 23rd on his debut the previous year so we can at least say he had taken to the course.
In 2018 however the formula pretty much returned with Webb Simpson’s victory. Webb had, like many winners before him, made multiple starts in the event and he had posted his best finishes of 15th and 16th in the event over his previous four visits, the latter of, which had come the year before in 2017.
Finally, and on to 2019, and the trophy was bagged by Rory McIlroy. Rory’s win fitted this profile on two fronts in that he had made numerous previous starts in the event posting three consecutive top tens from 2013 through to 2015. He had however missed the cut here in 2018 on his previous visit to winning .
One other thing that is of huge significance in identifying the winner over the years is recent form coming in with all winners having a really solid outing in their previous start to their victory here; To expand this further here is a table showing the finishing positions of the past ten winners in their start prior to lifting the trophy here.
2019 Rory McIlroy 3
2018 Webb Simpson 21
2017 Si Woo Kim 22
2016 Jason Day 5
2015 Rickie Fowler 9
2014 Martin Kaymer 18
2013 Tiger Woods 4
2012 Matt Kuchar 13
2011 KJ Choi 3
2010 Tim Clark. 63
As you can see all had made the cut and only Tim Clark way back in 2010 had failed to finish inside the top 22.
There is also one other thing that connects some of the historical winners and that’s as follows….
As we know TPC is sometimes referred to as the ‘fifth major’ and it has certainly caught my eye over the years that the winners have often been players who were/are pedigree players on the world stage, had played Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, were considered potential major winners/had come close in majors on occasions, but at the time of winning TPC they hadn’t quite been able to get over the line [or indeed still haven’t.]
This list includes KJ Choi, Clark, Sergio, Stenson, Kuchar and Fowler.
Finally there is also so something about Sawgrass that has helped return some of these names to the winners enclosure after a lean period with regards to victories.
To clarify if we again look at the last ten winners we find the following;
Only three of these Si Woo Kim in 2017, Jason Day in 2016 and Tiger in 2013 had won on tour over the previous twelve months with Tiger and Day having won earlier that calendar year.
Of the remainder 2018 winner Simpson was winless since 2014, 2015 winner Fowler hadn’t won since the 2012 Wells Fargo, Kaymer and Kuchar were winless in approximately eighteen months, KJ Choi in over three years and Tim Clark was tasting victory for the first time on the PGA Tour and over a year after he bagged the Australian Open. Even 2019 champion McIlroy had gone over twelve months since he had last lifted a trophy at the 2018 API.
So in summary what [or who] are we looking for statically is for an experienced player with on average 5 starts at Sawgrass, a previous top 16 finish, [preferably top 10] who is a big time player with Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup experience who is in strong form coming in but who has struggled to post a victory of late.
Finally, over the last ten years the winning score has ranged from -18 [Webb Simpson in 2018] to -10 [Si Woo Kim in 2017] with the average being around -13.
I am pleased to say that as I type the forecast for the week looks great with no rain predicted and temperatures sitting in the low 70s until Sunday when things are due to warm up to 80.
Winds, which is regularly a factor here does not look to be a major issue this week however gusts around the 15mph mark, which look to be at their strongest on Sunday should keep the players honest.
As I always so though this could all change!
Before we get started with this weeks picks just another reminder to take a look at what’s on offer at our partners Sounder Golf. Just follow the link below and the exclusive 10% discount will automatically be applied to any purchases you make.
I have gone with six players this week as follows;
JUSTIN THOMAS – 20-1 - 2pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED 1st!!!
First cab off the rank for me this week is Justin Thomas.
Thomas has undoubtedly been distracted by off course issues over the past couple of months firstly due to his inappropriate use of language in Hawaii, which rightly was condemned and then more recently through the sad passing of his Grandfather.
Following on from this Justin struggled at the Genesis Invitational missing the cut for the first time since The Travelers last summer.
Next up for JT after that rare weekend off was the WGC at Concession and after opening with a 73 it looked like it could be another long week for the former PGA Champion.
As the week progressed however Thomas turned things around and after bouncing back with a 66 on Friday he played solidly enough for the rest of the week eventually finishing in 15th place.
The main problem for Thomas at Concession, as is often the case, was his lack of accuracy off the tee, however his iron play was as dialled in as ever and he finished the week second in strokes-gained-approach-to-the-green.
Moving forward to Sawgrass and two things strike me here. Firstly as noted earlier there is a clear pattern to historical winners here in relation to their previous history in the event and recent form coming in, and of all the tournaments played on the PGA Tour every year this is the event I always lean most closely to for past trends.
From that point of view JT’s five previous starts here, which have netted him five made cuts, a best of third place and a solid 35th last time here, alongside 15th place last time out is an absolutely perfect fit for what I am looking for.
Secondly, as noted earlier, JT has struggled with the big stick of late however at Sawgrass while the driver is in play at times of course there are plenty of holes where he can leave it in the bag, with iron off the tee often an option. In addition Sawgrass is very much undoubtedly a second shot golf course and that sets up for his strengths perfectly.
Any time a serial winner like Thomas is available at 20-1 or thereabouts he is certainly of interest, however add in his ‘identikit’ profile this week and he is a must selection for me.
JORDAN SPIETH – 25-1 - 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED 48th
Next up for me this week is the inform Jordan Spieth.
I’ll confess to being slightly frustrated as to how Spieth’s odds have, understandably I should say, shortened considerably from what was available on Saturday.
As Jordan’s form has continued to trend in the right direction I have had him very much in mind for this event for a couple of weeks now and to be frank all I wanted to see from him at Bay Hill was a solid top twenty. The fact that he was seriously in the hunt though in Orlando until the back nine on Sunday was enough to stop me pulling the trigger early as if he had won the API I wouldn’t have wanted to jump on this week.
Anyway enough of my grumbling and on to why, even at the more restricted odds the Texan is a must for me this week.
For this I will return to my ‘recent winner trends’ here, [something, which will be a recurring theme as we continue through the preview!] and Spieth very much fits the bill here on several fronts.
Firstly and foremostly we have Jordan’s current form figures, which read 4 15 3 4 going back over his past four starts. No doubt then he arrives here in really strong form, which historically is a must for the winner.
If we then look at his event form, and while it is not hugely strong by his own standards with four MC in six starts, he did finish fourth here on debut in 2014 so he has the requisite previous high finish. Ideally I would have preferred it if he had made the cut on his last visit in 2019 however as noted earlier Fowler and Day have both bucked this trend lately by winning the year after missing the cut so I am happy to overlook that.
Finally on the trends front Spieth is winless as we know since 2017 and he therefore fits the bill perfectly of a player returning to the winners enclosure after a lengthy absence, something often seen here.
There will be plenty who will look at Spieth’s recent run of results and point to the hole outs, chip ins, monster putts made etc and say that this is just masking some of the swing flaws that still lurk, however there is no denying his long game is improving all the time and he ranked seventh from tee to green and fourth in approach play at Bay Hill, attributes, which are far more key to this week than driving accuracy.
In addition at Pebble Beach recently, a track that sits more akin to this week and where Jordan is a past winner, he ranked sixth from tee to green and second in approach play.
Spieth has a victory to his name at the Dye designed TPC River Highlands and has also performed well at Hilton Head over the years so he should really be comfortable around here and he is another must selection for me this week.
HIDEKI MATSUYAMA – 35-1 - 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED MC
I will confess the next preview was a very easy one for me to write as basically it is all but a carbon copy and paste from this time last year when I was very keen on the chances of Hideki Matsuyama in the ‘Players that never was’.
Matsuyama went in to this preview last year as another player who had been winless for far too long now and therefore undoubtedly fitted the profile of a big name ending a barren run and twelve months down the line that is still the case.
Last year the Japanese star arrived in Jacksonville on a run of two top six finishes in his previous three starts and with my money firmly on him he opened up with a scintillating round of 63 to take the first round lead. As they say after that ‘the rest is history’ however needless to say I was very keen for a second round to be played, which would have meant an official result and winner would have been declared!
This year while Hideki’s form hasn’t been quite as eye catching he arrives here having finished 15th and 18th in his two starts in Florida so again he appears to be hitting a groove.
At Bay Hill Matsuyama played as solidly as pretty much anyone on day four posting a 72 in the tough conditions despite making a six at the last and what caught my eye is that he also holed some meaningful putts on Sunday, particularly down the stretch, and with his tee to green game trending nicely this hopefully will give him some momentum going in to this week with the flatstick.
Of all the players in the field this week there is no doubt that Matsuyama fits the identikit profile of past winners here the most perfectly. He has made six previous starts here with two top ten’s including an eighth place on his last visit, he sits, just below the top echelons of Major winners, the type of player that tends to do well here, he is winless since 2017 and he has the requisite high finish last time out.
Undoubtedly Matsuyama has been a tough person to follow over the last few years however a big win will inevitably come soon and in my mind there is every chance it could be this week.
SERGIO GARCIA – 70-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED T9TH
Next up for us this week is a player who I just can’t resist at the odds in the shape of Sergio Garcia.
The oddsmakers seem to have taken a view this week that Garcia’s love affair with TPC Sawgrass is more a thing of the past and therefore even with some solid recent form under his belt they seem happy to dangle a generous each way carrot.
From my point of view though I will return to the fact that Sawgrass is a course where course experience is key and with sixteen consecutive made cuts here, a run, which includes one victory and four further top eight finishes, no one has that experience more than the Spaniard.
As well as his stellar course form Garcia has plenty more going for him this year as he arrives in Jacksonville, as he has been in a steady trot of form either side of the Christmas break, which began with him adding an 11th PGA Tour trophy to his cabinet at the Sanderson Farms last October.
Since that morale boosting victory Sergio has posted an 11th place at the Sentry ToC, while over on the European Tour he notched sixth and 12th place finishes in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
Granted his last two starts at the Genesis and the WGC have seen Garcia go MC 32 however at Concession he ranked sixth for the week from tee to green and fourth in approach play with the putter for which he ranked all but last a 67th being the problem.
This week though he returns to greens he knows as well as any on tour and as long as his tee to green game continues in the same vein any kind of improvement with the flat stick will surely see him in the mix.
One further ingredient here is that at 41yrs old Sergio knows that his Ryder Cup opportunities are becoming limited and he will be desperate to make a big push to make the team at least one more time. Currently on the outside looking in the former Masters Champion needs some big performances and he will know that with his history here this will be one of his best opportunities to make serious inroads in to the qualifying positions.
To sum up an in form and motivated Garcia at TPC Sawgrass is definitely a dangerous thing and I am more than happy to jump on board at the odds.
JHONATTAN VEGAS – 200-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED 61st
In the hope of taking advantage of the 10 places on offer each way with several firms I am going to finish our team with a couple of big priced plays, starting with Jhonattan Vegas.
Vegas has been in the doldrums for most of the 2020/21 season however last time out he sprang in to life at Puerto Rico and it was only the heroics of Branden Grace over the final couple of holes, which prevented him from adding a fourth PGA Tour title to his resume.
In Puerto Rico Vegas finished the week 13th for Driving Accuracy and seventh for GIR so clearly his game clicked in to gear.
Looking at the Venezuelan’s history at TPC Sawgrass and again he is a player who fits the profile we are looking for here in that he has posted two top ten finishes in seven visits to the track, furthermore last time out saw him post his best result here finishing third.
Vegas it is fair to say is a mercurial sort of player who you never quite know what to expect from, however on his day he is capable of mixing it in the big league and with the recent course form and current form to his name I am happy to roll the dice at decent each way odds that he can be a factor here again this week.
EMILIANO GRILLO – 175-1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 10. - FINISHED MC
For my final pick this week I am going to give a chance to Emiliano Grillo.
Grillo is not a player you would particularly want to trust at short odds in a weak field as invariably over the recent years he has come up short over the weekend.
As we know though Grillo is a hugely talented player who has the game to compete at the highest level and there are certainly signs of late that his work with swing coach Chris Como [who also coaches API winner Dechambeau], which coincidentally began at this event last year is beginning to bear fruit.
At Bay Hill at the weekend the Argentine’s trademark long game was in solid working order and he finished the week ranked third in strokes-gained-off-the-tee and 22nd both from tee to green and in approach play on his way to a 21st place finish. He also ranked 38th with the putter, which while not spectacular of course was steady enough for a player who normally struggles in this department. Roll back seven days further to Puerto Rico and he was also reasonably solid again with the flatstick ranking 33rd when finishing 11th.
While a win for Grillo this week would be a huge upset he does actually fit the profile we are looking for in that he has played here on four previous occasions with a best of 11th giving us the requisite high finish, he has played Presidents Cup and he played strongly last week.
As I say though at 175/1 with ten each way places on offer we are not really expecting him to take the trophy home but hopefully to deliver a trademark tee to green performance on a course that suits his ball striking prowess, and to sneak in to the frame, and I will round off this week by chancing him to do exactly that.
FIRST ROUND LEADER
KEEGAN BRADLEY - 80/1 - 1/2pt E/W - 1/5 ODDS 1st 8 & CAMERON TRINGALE - 95/1 - 1/2pt E/W - 1/5 ODDS 1st 8. -NO RETURN
Two for me in this market starting with Keegan Bradley. The former PGA Champion bounced back to form last week at Bay Hill to finish 10th all be it with a topsy turvy performance where he followed his 74 on Friday with a 64 on Saturday before closing out the week with a 78!
Clearly though Bradley is trending positively again and having finished 16th and 7th here in his last two visits he now appears comfortable around TPC Sawgrass.
Bradley's last three Thursday efforts have all been in the 60s including a 66 in Phoenix and he shared the lead here after 18 holes as recently as two years ago posting a 65 from the morning wave
My second pick is the in form Cameron Tringale who tees off at 12.05pm local time. Still winless on the PGA Tour Tringale seems far more comfortable earlier in the week than he does on a Sunday, something backed up by the fact he currently sits tenth on tour in round one scoring averages.
Co leader here on Thursday in 2016 after opening up with a 65 Tringale is worth chancing at good each way odds to make a fast start here again.
UPDATED 9th MARCH
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - KEEGAN BRADLEY - DK VALUE $6900 - FINISHED 29th - DK POINTS TOTAL 71.5
Before heading in to this weeks suv $7K DK selections just a reminder that a couple of our main team from above fall in to this bracket. As always though I will put up a couple of seperate specific DK selections who sit in this bracket.
First up then is Keegan Bradley. Bradley it is fair to say had an up and down week last week shooting rounds of 69 74 64 78 at Bay Hill. While he would have been hugely disappointed with his round on Sunday when all the numbers were added up Keegan posted a creditable tenth place finish, a result which built on two made cuts in his previous two starts.
Moving on to TPC Sawgrass and Bradley has played solidly here over recent years with 16th and 7th place finishes in his last two visits.
Whether the former PGA can seriously threaten to lift the trophy here is debatable but I expect a solid week from him and to be a presence for all four days.
PICK 2 - JASON DUFNER - DK VALUE $6100 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS TOTAL 28
From one former PGA Champion to another for my second selection in the shape of Jason Dufner.
Duf is very much a forgotten man these days with regards to the business end of leaderboards with his form in 2020/21 patchy to say the least.
At TPC Sawgrass however he has a solid record over the years making the cut on nine of his past 11 visits, a run, which includes two top tens with a fifth place finish as recently as 2018.
While this season has been poor for Jason so far his last couple of starts have seen definite signs of improvement with a 26th place at Pebble Beach and most recently a 36th finish at Bay Hill on Sunday.
Combine this improvement with his record here and there is every reason to think Dufner can stick around in Jacksonville for all four days again, which at $6100 makes him a strong play.