The Players Championship
It was a fascinating week at Bay Hill as conditions conspired to make it one of the toughest, if not the toughest, test seen on the PGA Tour in recent years.
Gusting winds, which never let up all week, thick rough and firm greens were enough to drive the players to distraction and when all the scores were finally added up come Sunday evening Englishman Tyrrell Hatton was the last man standing and had his hands on his first PGA Tour trophy.
From our point of view the week had started really well with one of our first round leader picks Talor Gooch landing us a full 100-1 e/w payout and that certainly took the pressure off for the rest of the week. Unfortunately though we were unable to build on that and despite five of our starting team of six making the cut we were unable to bag any further returns.
So, moving on and me 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 I can’t wait to get back there.
Sawgrass really is a fantastic place to watch golf and there really is no better place than the amphitheatre around the 16th green and 17th tee.
This year will mark the first playing of the event since the passing of the man responsible for the iconic design, Pete Dye, and the event is sure to take on extra meaning because of this.
One of the other great things about TPC is arguably you get the best field that assembles on golf world’s stage every year and this year is no exception.
With the exception of Tiger Woods who is still nursing a back problem all the big names are present with Rory McIlroy heading up the market. Rory is then followed in the betting by Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Bryson Dechambeau.
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 others on course to compare to include Hilton Head 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.
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 last year.
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. All though 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 last year, 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 last years 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 after the possibility of some showers on Monday the forecast at the moment looks dry for the remainder of the week with temperatures sitting in the high 70s throughout.
Winds, which is regularly a factor here does not look to be too much of an issue this week with gusts not forecast to get above 15mph.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with six players this week as follows;
JUSTIN THOMAS – 14-1 - 3pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 10
First up for me this week is Justin Thomas.
JT has chosen to sit out the first two legs of the Florida swing this year and while you would normally have preferred a warm up on the Bermuda, allowing for how tough conditions have been at the Honda and API this is something that may actually play in to his hands.
Last time out Justin was in prime position going in to the final day in Mexico only to uncharacteristically falter, still though it was a solid finish of sixth place giving us the requisite recent high finish of previous winners here and I am sure the three week break will have been put to good use to iron out any issues in his game causing concern.
Looking at Thomas’ stats in Mexico and despite his Sunday struggles, which saw negative numbers in both his long game off the tee and in his putting, he still finished the week eighth from tee to green and 15th in approach play and from that point of view things were clearly working from Thursday through Saturday and I am happy to put Sunday down as a bad day at the office.
Furthermore with Justin sitting eighth for the season in strokes-gained-approach-to-the-green and twelfth in old fashioned GIR we know that his Iron game, a key factor to success at Sawgrass, is in good shape.
As noted in my ‘History’ section I see The Players Championship as an event over the years that, with the rare exception, has very much played out to a clear course/current form pattern and outside of Si Woo Kim’s success three years ago course form/experience has always been key.
On that basis if we take a look at the 26yr old’s history here the fact that he has made five previous starts and posted best place finishes of third and eleventh leaps off the page to me.
Naturally in an event that as a rule is won by one of the games bigger names, you can make a strong case for pretty much all of the leading protagonists however allowing for the historical trends it is Thomas I like the most this week and I am happy to lead our team with him.
BRYSON DECHAMBEAU – 20-1 - 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 10
Next up for me this week is the inform Bryson Dechambeau.
Bryson arrives here on the back of three top five finishes in his last three starts with the most recent coming at Bay Hill over the weekend.
What was particularly impressive about Dechambeau’s performance in Orlando was that despite playing on the wrong side of the draw he hung in there over the first two days and then produced rounds of 72 71 in the tough conditions over the weekend, closing out with four birdies on the back nine on Sunday.
Furthermore Dechambeau finished the week first in strokes-gained-off-the-tee, seventh from tee to green and, as well as leading the field in DD he was 22nd in accuracy, a lethal combination.
Clearly then Bryson arrives in Jacksonville with his game in fine fettle and no doubt full of confidence.
With regards to his history at Sawgrass the one slight negative is that this will only be Dechambeau’s third start here and history as a whole tells us that experience is key. Having said that though Si Woo Kim bucked this trend in 2017 when winning on his second start here and clearly Bryson is good enough, and in good enough form, to follow suit.
Furthermore the 26yr old has clearly shown that he has what it takes to conquer Sawgrass in his two previous visits as he finished 37th on debut and 20th last year.
Also one further fact I like is that in addition to solid performances over the past two years Bryson showed when finishing fourth at Hilton Head in 2016 that the quirks of a Pete Dye layout are something he is more than capable of getting to grips with.
With five PGA Tour titles to his name already in his short time on tour Bryson has shown that he has what it takes to become a serial winner on a long term basis and it is surely only a matter of time before he lifts a Major Championship.
Interestingly however since a golden year in 2016, which saw Dechambeau win four times, he is now winless since the most recent of those victories at the Shriners nearly eighteen months ago, and as noted earlier this is an event that has a history of producing a winner who has gone through a relative barren spell.
All in all Dechambeau looks perfectly primed to bag a big event very soon and I am keen to have him onside this week.
HIDEKI MATSUYAMA – 28-1 - 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8
Next up is another player who is winless for far too long now and undoubtedly would fit the profile of a big name ending a barren run, and that is Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama.
Since the start of the 2018/19 campaign Matsuyama has posted eleven top ten finishes on tour and only missed the cut three times in thirty five stroke play starts, basically he has done everything but win!
Last week Matsuyama struggled in the tough conditions at Bay Hill and his final two rounds of 80 and 77 are of course of slight concern. Allowing for the conditions the players faced though I am happy to write of these rounds and trust that his swing will be back in the groove after a couple of days practice at Sawgrass.
With Matsuyama ranking third from tee to green this season and 11th in approach play the main concern of course with him is never in the long game but with the putter and once again at Bay Hill this was the club that let him down. Therefore for want of sounding like a stuck record with the 28yr old, he is one good putting week away from a return to the winners enclosure.
Looking at Hideki’s history at Sawgrass and very much like our first pick Justin Thomas, there is no doubt that he fits the profile of past winners here perfectly having made six previous starts here with two top tens including an eighth place last year.
Undoubtedly Matsuyama has been a tough person to follow over the past couple of years however a big win will inevitably come soon and there is every chance it could be this week.
DANIEL BERGER – 50-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 10
Next up for us this week is another fairly straightforward course/current form selection, Daniel Berger.
Like Dechambeau Berger arrives here on the back of three straight top ten finishes, the most recent of which came on the Bermuda at the Honda Classic a couple of weeks ago when we were on board.
Known as a quality iron player at his best Berger was strong from tee to green again at PGA National finishing the week ranked sixth in both DA and approach-to-the-green. In addition he also finished 17th for the week in putting.
For the last three seasons Berger has been struggling prior to arriving at TPC Sawgrass however on each occasion he has made the cut building up some strong course experience.
If we go back to 2016 however it was a different story as Daniel arrived here on the back of four straight top twenty finishes and he went on to finish ninth here, showing that when his game is ‘on’ TPC Sawgrass is certainly a good fit for him.
As a Florida native Berger is clearly more than comfortable on the bermuda and having now built up a solid bank of course form and experience in his five previous starts and arriving here in really strong form, I can certainly see the two time tour winner making a bold bid for the trophy this week.
DANNY LEE – 150-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 10
Having sided initially with four fairly obvious selections I am going to finish our team with a couple of big priced plays, with the first being Danny Lee.
It is fair to say Lee is a hard man to catch right and it has no doubt been a frustrating period for those waiting for him to add a second PGA Tour title to his 2015 Greenbrier success.
Still only 29 though there is still certainly plenty of time for Lee to fulfil the undoubted potential that he has and which he showed when becoming the youngest winner of the US Amateur title at the age of 18 [surpassing Tiger Woods’ record] and again when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic as an amateur in 2009.
This season on the PGA Tour there are just signs that Lee might be about to break through again as he has now posted three top tens including a creditable second place under home pressure in the CJ Cup and a fifth place last week at Bay Hill.
Arriving now at Sawgrass and despite having missed the cut here on three of his five visits including last year, Lee, like our other selections does have ‘previous’ here having finished in seventh place in 2018 after starting the final day in second place.
With Korean golf buoyed by the recent win of Sungjae Im and with that ‘roll’ having been continued at Bay Hill with another strong performance from Im as well as top ten finishes from Lee and Kang it is quote possible the Korean contingent will continue to feed off each other in the way The Australian players did early this year, and I can see Lee having another strong week and threatening the frame at big each way odds.
SEPP STRAKA – 300-1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 10.
Having focused so far on players with current form and positive course history I am going to finish of our team this week with a player that regular readers may have suspected would feature, Sepp Straka.
To fill newer followers in I sided with Straka at the American Express in January on the basis that I felt his strong ball striking would be suited to the Pete Dye Stadium Course layout, particularly as he had finished third at the Dye design used for the Web.com Tour Championship in 2018, a track, which is a stones throw from this weeks venue.
Well at the Amex it is fair to say that the Austrian didn’t let us down and after posting bogey free rounds of 65 and 66 on the Stadium Course on his way to a fourth place finish he landed a juicy 300/1 e/w winner for us.
Furthermore in the two rounds that were measured that week at the Stadium Course Straka ranked third from tee to green and second in approach play.
Straka it should also be noted is no stranger in his short time on tour to making a splash on leaderboards and he has already posted three top four finishes including the one at the Amex, in addition he performed admirably at least summer’s US Open at Pebble Beach to sit fifth after day one before going on to finish 28th.
From a negative point of view this is Straka’s debut at TPC Sawgrass however I have covered above why I believe he will take to the venue like the proverbial ‘duck to water’ and I have a very strong hunch he could have a great week and make the frame at huge odds.
UPDATED MARCH 10th - FIRST ROUND LEADER PICKS
CAMERON TRINGALE - 125/1 - 0-5pts e/w 1/5 odds 1st 7
SEPP STRAKA - 175/1 - 0.75pts e/w 1/5 odds 1st 7
I've decided to go with two picks in the FRL market this week, both of whom have an early tee time on Thursday, which i see as advantageous.
One of of these picks, Sepp Straka I wont go in to in any great detail on again as I have already covered my reasons for being keen on his chances this week in my main preview. I shall simply add that in relation to his chances on Thursday that he is in the first group out in the morning at 7.40am so should get the benefit of the best of the geeens and that if he is to have the week that I am hoping for it will likely come from a good start.
In addition it is worth highlighting that he sat in fifth place after day one of the US Open at Pebble Beach last summer so he is clearly not phased when starting out in a big event.
My second pick in this market is Cameron Tringale who tees off at 7.51am in the company of Lucas Glover and Scott Brown.
Tringale is still winless on the PGA Tour and he is certainly not a player I would have any great confidence in on a Sunday when in contention, however Thursday is a different story.
Twenty Seventh last time out at the Honda Tringale and fifth on the PGA Tour in 'early round 1 scoring averages' he has posted rounds of 68 or better on day one on six ocassions in his 13 starts this season, including a 67 at PGA National last time out and a 64 at the RSM.
Furthermore If we then look at Tringale's record here at TPC Sawgrass while it is solid if unspectacular with finishes of 35 16 56 in his last three visits on closer inspection we will find that in 2016 when he finished 16th he held a share of the lead on day one after an opening 65.
In addition while that 65 came on the back of a ho hum 41st place at the Wells Fargo the week before, the following year he still shot 70 on day one even though he arrived on the back of three missed cuts.
Put all this in to the mix and it is clear to me Tringale is comfortable at Sawgrass, comfortable on Thursday's and with the steady season he is having, which currently sees him 86th in the Fedex Cup standings, I expect him to go well on Thursday from his favourable tee time.
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICK - ZACH JOHNSON - DK VALUE $6000
With two of my main team, Danny Lee and Sepp Straka sitting in the sub $7000 DK pool I shall add just one further DK pick in that range this week, two time Major Champion, Zach Johnson.
Johnson has obviously been struggling for the past 18 months or so and at the age of 44 and with his lack of length off the tee, the undoubted feeling is that his best days are behind him.
Still six years away from the Champions Tour though Zach is no doubt working hard on his game and there have been signs of life recently, firstly with a solid opening 67 at the Honda and then with how he hung in their last week at Bay Hill.
If Zach is to figure strongly on leaderboards again then courses like TPC Sawgrass, where his lack of length is not a handicap, are surely the type of places he will have to make hay.
Prior to missing the cut on his last two visits Zach made the cut on nine consecutive starts in Ponte Vedra so it is obviously a course he is comfortable on and having played solidly for the last two weeks I would expect him to be with us again for all four days this week.