The Players Championship
It was a case of ‘nearly but not quite’ for us at Bay Hill as our 66/1 pick Chris Kirk fell away after briefly holding a share of the lead on the 14th hole. It was a fine performance from Kirk who landed us a full place but it was ultimately a case of what might have been.
The event was won by Scottie Scheffler who showed again how suited his game is to a tough grind as at 5- under he was the last mam standing to land his second title in three starts.
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. This year sadly I will be watching from the comfort of my armchair at home but I can’t wait to get back there and hopefully will be next year!
As is always the case the field is a stellar one with only Bryson Dechambeau of those from the very top of the game as he continues to nurse an injury.
One other absentee will be Phil Mickelson who whether enforced or not continues to take ‘time away from the game’. This means that it will be the first year since 1994 that both Mickelson and Tiger Woods will miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event.
The market is marginally headed up by world number two Collin Morikawa over the man above him in the rankings Jon Rahm. They are then followed by defending Champion Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland.
The course is a Par 72 and measures just under 7200 yards.
TPC Sawgrass is the jewel in the crown of the Pete Dye’s designs used on the PGA Tour. Other Dye designs used regularly on Tour include Hilton Head the home of the RBC Heritage, TPC River Highlands home of the Travelers and the Stadium Course used for two rounds of the Amex event played in the Californian desert.
After the 2016 edition the greens were changed from Miniverde Bermuda to TiffEagle Bermuda.
In 2020 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 last year.
So let’s take a look at the last ten winners;
2020 Justin Thomas
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
Over the years of the event it is 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.
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 .
Finally to bring us up to date last years winner Justin Thomas ticked all of the ‘formula’ boxes in relation to course form in that he had made five previous starts including a best of third place and had made the cut here the previous year posting a solid 35th place, all of, which as longer term readers will remember, lead to us being onboard!
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.
2021 Justin Thomas 15
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
As you can see all had made the cut and the worst finish of any of the past ten winners in their previous start was 22nd place by Si Woo Kim.
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, and/or 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 going back to 2010 includes Tim Clark, KJ Choi, Garcia, 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 four of these, last year’s winner Thomas, 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 McIlroy was posting his first win in just over 12 months since his 2018 API triumph, 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. In addition if we go back a further year 2010 champion Tim Clark was tasting victory for the first time on the PGA Tour and over a year after he bagged the Australian Open.
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.
Sadly after several weeks of great weather on the tour we could come unstuck this week as both the lead in days and the first three tournament days all show the possibility of thunderstorms, hopefully they stay away!
Temperatures for the first three days look to sit in the mid 70s, however Sunday, which at the moment is forecast to be the clearest day shows a considerable drop in temperature.
Winds, which is regularly a factor here also looks like being an issue with Saturday in particular currently showing the possibility of 40mph gusts!
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with six players this week as follows;
SHANE LOWRY – 45/1 – 1.5pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 13th
First up for me this week is the player who leaps off the page to me as fitting the ‘winners profile’ I have outlined above the most, Shane Lowry.
Lowry arrives in Jacksonville having made a really solid start to 2022 with three top 25 finishes out in the Middle East before putting it all together last time out at the Honda Classic where he lost out by a shot to Sepp Straka.
At PGA National after a slowish opening day Lowry really found his long game gaining over six shots in approach play over the final three days and a whopping 11 shots from tee to green and had one or two more putts dropped on Sunday the trophy would have most likely been his.
In addition of course as those who watched the conclusion of the Honda will know Shane was dealt a somewhat cruel blow as the heavens opened just before he played the final par five 18th hole making it way tougher for him to make the birdie he needed. In simple terms it just wasn’t quite his week!
So we’ve established that Shane arrives here in great form and with his ball striking, which is so crucial here firing, but what of his record in the event? Well, while he hasn’t really sparkled here he is exactly the sort of profile we are actually looking for as he has made six previous starts here and in amongst three missed cuts and a ho hum 46th place he has posted a 16th and a best place finish of eighth last year.
As we know Shane memorably lifted the claret jug in 2019 and having made his Ryder Cup last year it goes without saying he ticks the boxes as a player who has the pedigree to win here, however also again in line with the trend I noted earlier of several winners over the years Shane has failed to notch a win since that memorable week at Royal Portrush meaning it is approaching three years since his last triumph.
To sum up in my eyes Lowry has everything going for him this week from both his form and profile point of view and from the moment he failed to pinch the Honda from Straka he was an absolute must bet for me this week.
DANIEL BERGER – 35/1 – 1.5pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 13th
Returning to the recent Honda Classic and the player who looked all set to take the trophy before closing with a disappointing 74 was Daniel Berger.
There is no doubt that Berger will have been hugely disappointed with that Sunday effort at PGA National however lets not lose sight of the fact that for the first three days Berger produced a superb display with all areas of his game firing on all cylinders. Hopefully then once the disappointment of that Sunday settled Daniel will take the confidence that his game is in good shape.
Moving on to the Floridian’s record at TPC Sawgrass and it is remarkably similar to that of Lowry’s in that he has made six previous starts here and in amongst four poorer efforts he has posted two ninth place finishes including last year. Again then he has exactly the sort of record here we are looking for.
With regards to Berger’s profile as a whole he presently sits in exactly that sort status that, as noted earlier, several of the past winners here have done. Basically he sits just below the top tier as a player who is yet to win a Major but no one would be hugely surprised if he did, something reflected in his current place in the top 20 of the World Golf Rankings. Furthermore he now has Ryder Cup experience under his belt having been part of the USA team last year to go with his previous Presidents Cup experience.
A four time winner on the Tour Daniel’s most recent success came in the 2021 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am so he arrives here having not posted a win in just over 12 months.
All in all like Lowry Berger is a player who ticks all the boxes I am looking for this week and I expect him to be on a mission to put his poor Sunday at PGA National behind him and produce a big performance.
BILLY HORSCHEL – 50/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - WITHDREW MID EVENT WITH ILLNESS
Next up having left him out last week I will return to Billy Horschel.
I have to be honest, having been on Horschel at the Honda where he performed solidly again, when I decided to leave him out last week, with a view to returning to him this week, I had everything crossed that he would perform well at Bay Hill but not quite get the job done.
From that point of view while I obviously would have been delighted for Billy if he had got the win in his home state I was somewhat relieved he came up just shy.
Horschel has never really produced his best at Bay Hill, hence my reason for leaving him out, however he showed again that when his game is ‘hot’ he can deliver at most places and while he will no doubt be frustrated at having missed out he will know his game is in ideal shape as he arrives at his ‘home town game’.
Earlier in the year Horschel was relying quite heavily on his putter, however as he alluded to at interviews in Orlando his long game has clicked as well now and this was reflected in his all round stats at Bay Hill, which saw him rank fifth in approach and 12th from tee to green.
Billy it must be said has never really produced his best in front of his home fans with a best of 13th in eight previous starts here. That does though give us the previous high finish here we are looking for and having made the cut here last year he ticks that box as well. In fact with his current form being as strong as it is he reminds me very much of KJ Choi from a profile point of view the year he win.
Let’s also not forget he has positive Pete Dye form having won his maiden tour title at TPC Louisiana at the Zurich Classic before triumphing there again in the pairs event. In addition of course he landed the WGC Matchplay trophy at the Dye designed TPC Austin last year so he has plenty of ‘Dye positive’ form on his CV.
All in all it is clear that Horschel is trending towards something big and it may just be that it was ‘in the stars’ for him to just miss out last week only for him to go on and land the trophy that outside of a Major would undoubtedly mean the most to him and I expect him to produce another really big performance this week.
MATT FITZPATRICK – 40/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED MC
Another player who is on a really strong run of form and whose credentials it is hard to ignore this week is Matt Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick who landed his seventh European Tour title at the Andalucia Masters last October has started 2022 on the PGA Tour with three straight top tens the latest of, which came at Bay Hill over the weekend.
Currently seventh on tour from tee to green Matt managed the hugely impressive feat of going 27 holes bogey free around a brutally tough Bay Hill at the weekend until he finally made three bogeys on the back nine on Sunday. Still it says something for where his game is at at the moment that he kept his card clean for such a stretch.
Let’s not forget as well that while his ball striking stats weren’t quite as strong as they had been Matt has been slightly derailed of late as he was forced to withdraw from Riviera three weeks ago with a bout of the flu with his start last week being his first since. My hope then is that he will have brushed off some cobwebs last week and will push on again this week.
Looking at the Sheffield man’s track record at Sawgrass and in keeping with our first two picks we see a player who started off here poorly with two missed cuts before producing two solid efforts and a best of ninth last year. In other words like so many past winners here, he has gradually got to grips with the venue more each time he has come back.
In addition as self-confessed lover of Hilton Head Fitzpatrck is clearly more than comfortable with the challenges a Pete Dye design offers.
Yet to win on US soil it is only a matter of time until Matt does and I expect a bold showing from him this week.
LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN – 50/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED 42nd
If TPC Sawgrass and The Players Championship lend themselves to quality players returning to the winners enclosure after a lengthy absence then there can’t be many who fit that profile greater than Louis Oosthuizen.
Yet to win on US soil Louis’ most recent success of his nine wins came on home soil at the South African Open in December 2018 and since then of course he has continued to be the ‘nearly man’ at Major Championships posting the small matter of four top three finishes in last seasons six Majors. Ultimately though whether it be in the biggest of events or the bread and butter the wins continue to elude him.
This year after a lengthy break Louis returned to action at the WM Phoenix Open with a solid 15th place finish before posting a 30th at the Honda last time out. From that point of view we have a slight concern in that as noted earlier none of the past ten winners here had fared worse than 22nd in their previous start, however the last South African to win here Tim Clark in 2010 finished 62nd in his previous start so I’m willing to overlook that.
At PGA National Oosty started really poorly with an opening 75 however he bounced back on Friday superbly with a 65 to make the cut before playing solidly over the weekend so his game is clearly coming round.
While Louis long game stats were, in keeping with his overall performance ‘up and down’ at the Honda, he also encouragingly ranked ninth for the week on the greens so there was enough overall encouragement in there for me.
Looking at Louis record at TPC Sawgrass and while there have been plenty of poorer efforts he did give us the big previous finish we are looking for when posting a runner up finish here in 2017. Furthermore he posted a solid 41st here last year to give us the ‘made cut’ we are looking for.
Backing Louis in big events has of course proved a costly business over recent times, however his odds have drifted out to make him a good each way proposition this week and I am happy to chance him.
CHRIS KIRK – 90/1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8. - FINISHED MC
For my final pick this week I am going to give a chance to the man who performed so well for us last week, Chris Kirk.
Like pretty much all of our team this week Kirk arrives at Sawgrass in really strong form having posted finishes of 14th, seventh and then fifth at Bay Hill in his last three starts.
At Bay Hill Kirk ranked sixth from tee to green for the week and eighth in accuracy and had one or two more putts dropped it could have been his week, still it was another really strong week for the player who currently ranks 12th from tee to green on the season and his is clearly trending in the right direction.
Moving on to Kirk’s Sawgrass form and although he has been solid here he has never quite performed as well here as you would expect him to have done, particularly as his trademark draw fits well with several key holes here. However he does have three top thirteen finishes here over the years to give us the high finish we are looking for.
In addition that resume of finishes doesn’t quite tell the full story for Kirk here…Firstly in 2015 he held the 54 hole lead here before stumbling to a closing 75, while last year after posting a Friday 65 he was right in the mix at halfway, as he was still, through three rounds before a closing 79 saw him tumble down the board.
Two disappointing Sundays for Kirk then at Sawgrass and when you add this to the fact that he is winless on the PGA Tour since 2015 this does of course give rise to some concern. However lets not forget that the Georgian is a four time winner on the PGA Tour, one of which was a Fedex Cup Play Off event and has also represented the USA in the Presidents Cup so he does have the kind of profile we are looking for, and as noted earlier this event has a habit of returning players to the winners enclosure after a lengthy absence.
UPDATED - 8th MARCH
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - JHONATTAN VEGAS - DK VALUE $6800 - FINISHED MC
First up this week I'll chance Jonny Vegas. Vegas has taken to TPC Sawgrass well over the years having missed only two cuts in eight visits with two top tens to his name and a best of third place in 2019.
This year the Venezualean arrives here on the back of four recent solid starts including an eith place out in Saudi Arabia, with his long game in particularly good shape. I would exprect him to stick around again for all four days and if his putter co operates he could make some serious waves.
PICK 2 - JT POSTON - DK VALUE $6100 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS TOTAL 23.5
For my second selection in the sub $7K bracket I will roll the dice on JT Poston. JT is one of those players who will struggle on long tough 'bombers' layouts but can come in to his own on layouts, which do not penalise his lack of length and allow his short game to flourish.
Two top 25 finihes here in two visits show that Sawgrass is one such course, which suits him well and his win at the Wyndham also links nicely here.
Granted his form of late has been patchy but he has made four of his last seven cuts and I'll chance that a return to Sawgrass see's him stick around for all four days again.
UPDATED 9th MARCH
FIRST ROUND LEADER BETS
HIDEKI MATSUYAMA - 40/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 1st 7 - [WITHDREW BEFORE START] & SEPP STRAKA - 125/1 - 1/2pt E/W 1/5 1st 7 - NO RETURN
Two picks for me in the first round leader market and with the so much uncertainty around Thursday's weather I will take one from the AM & one from the PM waves.
Firstly Hideki Matsuyama who tees off at 7.40AM arrives here with two wins on the season already and while he has cooled slightly of late he played solidly last week for 20th place at Bay Hill.
Currently ranked 13th on the PGA Tour in round 1 scoring he has been getting out of the gates quickly this year and having opened with a 63 in the 'players that never was in 2020' we know he can go low here.
My second pick Sepp Straka tees off at 12.45PM. Straka is no doubt still riding a crest of a wave from his win at the Honda. Having missed the cut at Bay Hill Sepp should have had time to recharge the batteries and I expect him to be raring to go again.
The Austrian has only made one start at TPC Sawgrass missing the cut last year, however having played really strongly on the Stadium Course at the Amex in 2020 we know he can perform on a Dye design and this test should really suit his ball striking strength.