The Players Championship
It was a case of ‘nearly but not quite’ for us at Bay Hill as two of our picks, Tyrrell Hatton and Viktor Hovland, who were right in the hunt heading in to Sunday were unable to finish the job off. While the same can be said for numerous players who were in the mix in another dramatic Sunday in Orlando, our pair will no doubt be kicking themselves for not having got over the line, with Hatton’s putter failing him down the stretch, while Hovland’s chances were sunk with a really poor approach to the par five 16th, which found water.
The event was won by Kurt Kitayama who showed huge character to see off the host of big names down the stretch to land his maiden PGA Tour title after three runner up finishes last year.
Kitayama has shown us several times before what a gutsy character he is, particularly when closing out on the DP World Tour in the past and he deserves all the plaudits for finishing off the job here with a great birdie on 17 and clutch par on 18 after his chances looked to have gone when he made a seven on the ninth.
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 the market marginally headed up by Jon Rahm. Rahm is then followed by Rory Mcilroy who just edges the third of the ‘big three’ Scottie Scheffler, in the betting based no doubt on his far greater course history.
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 winners since 2011;
2022 Cameron Smith
2021 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 let’s 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 Choi 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 .
On then to 2021 and the 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!
Finally last years winner Cameron Smith was making his fifth start here and had produced his best finish here the previous year when finishing 17th so again we have the same pattern of a bank of course history with one strong finish.
One other thing that is of huge significance in identifying the winner over the years is recent form coming in with the 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.
2022 Cameron Smith 33
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 winners noted in their previous start was 33rd last year by Cameron Smith at the Genesis. Smith had though already won once in the calendar year at the Sentry just three starts prior so clearly confidence was still on a high.
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, Fowler and prior of course to his win at St Andrews in the summer last years champion Smith.
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 five of these, Smith, Thomas, Si Woo Kim in 2017, Jason Day in 2016 and Tiger in 2013 had won on tour over the previous twelve months with Smith, 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 20 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.
We look set for a dry week as a whole although the odd shower can’t be completely ruled out. Temperatures meanwhile look set to sit in the low 70s.
Wind, which is regularly a factor here looks like it will play its part to a certain extent as although there is nothing as extreme as last year in the forecast at this stage, 15-20mph gusts over the week are a possibility.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with five players this week as follows;
VIKTOR HOVLAND – 25/1 – 2pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED 3rd
As already noted earlier it was a frustrating end to our week in Orlando and our first selection again this week, Viktor Hovland was by and large responsible for that.
I sided with Hovland last week for two main reasons, firstly because he had shown a liking to Bay Hill in previous visits, notably when second their the year before, and secondly due to his really solid for coming in, a run that had seen him post par or better in everyone of his 35 rounds on the PGA Tour this season prior to Sunday at Bay Hill.
At the API Viktor vaulted himself in to contention for the trophy with a near flawless round of 66 on Saturday where he only missed two greens [and holed out for birdie from the bunker on one of those occasions!]. Heading out on Sunday though alongside eventual champion Kurt Kitayama, after bogeying the first Hovland never really looked comfortable and although, after double bogeying the eighth, he clawed his way back in to contention with back to back birdies early on the back nine his chances were sunk when he inexplicably chunked his approach in to the par five 16th in to the water.
So, hugely frustrating then for Hovland and if you add this to his poor display on the final day at St Andrews last summer there will be those already starting to question the Norwegians temperament in the heat of the battle.
From my point of though every set back can be seen as a learning curve, particularly when you have only just turned 26!, and we have seen time and again big names and indeed lesser names over the years look flawless one week down the stretch and all at sea the next, or indeed vice versa. After all let’s not forget that Kitayama who held off a host of world class stars to triumph yesterday floundered hugely when in a similar position in far lesser company at Pebble Beach just two starts ago. Similarly I don’t accept that Morikawa is now a bad ‘closer’ because of his collapse at the Sentry in January.
So, if I am happy to accept that Hovland, who let’s not forget has, if we include his two Hero World Challenge titles, won seven times across the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, just had a ‘bad day at the office’ yesterday then what are we left with?
Well firstly we return to the fact that Viktor arrives here in really solid form having posted four top 20s in five starts on the PGA Tour this year giving us the strong recent form we are looking for. Secondly his tee to green game, the key to success here and clearly his strength, is firing on all cylinders as he ranked 12th in this department at Bay Hill [despite the poor Sunday] while also ranking second for the week off the tee.
Moving on and as I noted last week we have seen from Hovland over the past few years that when he takes a shine to a venue he tends to go back there and perform well there again the following year with his two consecutive titles at the Mayakoba and the Hero World Challenge obvious examples of this, and he showed this again by backing up his previous good efforts at Bay Hill with another big showing last week.
From that point of view then while ideally I would have liked him to have had a couple more starts under his belt here the fact that he was ninth last year on his second visit is a real pointer to Hovland taking to the course and as we saw with Si Woo Kim, while experience is more often than not the key, players with limited experience can triumph here.
Furthermore one look at Hovland’s CV of wins at Puerto Rico and Mayakoba twice, as well his strong form at Pebble Beach is a hugely encouraging pointer to Sawgrass being right up his alley with all tracks being wind effected shorter courses. In addition let’s not forget that the man who benefited from Hovland’s struggles at St Andrews on the final day was Cameron Smith who of course triumphed here last year.
All in all then what we have with Hovland is a really strong ball striker who arrives in the great form we are looking for and who seems at his best where tee to green play is key and on shorter wind effected tracks. Add in the fact that he has also already shown a liking for TPC Sawgrass and that is enough for me to go in again on him this week.
TYRRELL HATTON – 30/1 – 2pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED 2nd
Next up I am going to continue with my theme of chancing players from last weeks team by going in again on Tyrrell Hatton.
Hatton as we know is something of a specialist at Bay Hill having not only won there before but also having posted two further top four finishes and it was therefore no surprise to see him in the mix again on Sunday before narrowly missing out.
As noted last week though the case for Tyrrell in Orlando was built on far more than his love of the venue as prior to last week he was on a run of four top ten’s in his last five DP World Tour starts, while his opening salvo’s on the PGA Tour this year had seen him finish sixth in Phoenix alongside a more lowly 40th at Riviera.
In contrast to his great record at Bay Hill though had I been writing this preview this time last year a record of three missed cuts and a 41st at TPC Sawgrass in four starts would have been more than enough to see me scroll past the Englishman’s name in the betting without so much as giving him a second glance.
Last year though something clicked for Tyrrell on visit number five here and he posted an eye catching 13th place and this really does now put his profile alongside that of many past winners here who after struggling in earlier visits marked our card with one good effort before then going on to win.
Furthermore as a player whose undoubted strength is his long game, particulary his iron play, you really would think Hatton would enjoy the test of TPC Sawgrass, and with a current tee to green ranking of tenth on the PGA Tour we know his game is firing on this front at the moment.
Finally as noted earlier this event, which has become known as the ‘fifth Major’ over the years has become somewhat renowned as a venue where players who had played Ryder Cups/Presidents Cups and threatened to win Majors but not quite at that time got over the line in one, have notched there biggest win to date.
Obvious examples of this at the time of their first win here were Garcia, Stenson, Tim Clark, Choi, Kuchar, Fowler and more recently Cameron Smith. From that point of view then Hatton really does fit the profile of winners here perfectly and I can see him making a bold showing to add his name to that list this week.
JASON DAY – 28/1 – 2pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 12 - FINISHED 19th
One thing that has become clear about Sawgrass over the years is that if a player is ‘on their game’ they can take advantage around here, particularly on the par fives, equally though if a player is struggling for form they can easily be found out and this is why we have seen such a disparity of scores here over the years with players failing to break 80 while others are posting in the mid 60s.
Moving on from this and time and again players triumph here after a really strong run of form such as KJ Choi back in 2011 who won here on the back of three straight top eight finishes. More recently we saw this with Smith who had already won on the calendar year in his three starts or Simpson who had posted three top tens in his previous six stroke play starts and not finished outside the top 40 in that run.
All of the above then is a lead up to the fact that I cant ignore one man this week, Jason Day.
A former champion here Day is another who landed this trophy on the back of a really strong run of form as his victory here in 2016 was his third on the calendar year.
As has been well documented though Day has lost his way considerably over recent years largely due to back injuries, which have hugely hampered him.
Finally healthy again though after trending nicely in the back end of 2022 the Aussie has really put his foot on the gas this year finishing no worse than 18th to date and posting four consecutive top ten’s in his last four starts, most recently at Bay Hill.
A look at Jason’s stats for the season back up this stellar run of form as he is gaining strokes in all the key areas including rankings of 11th from tee to green, 21st in approach play and 26th in putting, while he sits fifth in strokes gained total. Basically Jason is doing everything really, really well at the moment.
The one thing of course that Day now needs to cap this comeback is a win, with his last title coming at the Wells Fargo in 2018, however as already noted this tournament has a history of champions ending long winless droughts with Simpson the most recent obvious example of this. From that point of view then Day again fits the profile really nicely.
To sum up then Jason arrives in superb form and with his strong history on the track, which includes three further top tens to go with his win, he is a must for me this week.
FRANCESCO MOLINARI – 100/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED 60th
Another player who catches the eye profile wise this week is Francesco Molinari.
The Italian whose biggest hour in the sun came in 2018 when he landed the Claret Jug has become something of a forgotten man over recent years and it is now over four years since his last victory on either tour, which came at Bay Hill.
Following that win though the Italian’s form tailed off hugely and in an attempt to regain the spark he relocated his family to California just around the time covid hit, which complicated things considerably on that front. Meanwhile his attempts to get back on track post covid were then hampered further in 2021 by a back problem which forced him to take some time off.
After a fairly low key early part of 2022 though things started to pick up in the latter part of the year for Francesco as he notched a 15th place at the Open before following that up with a top ten at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Encouraging signs then and ones that have continued to be there early in 2023 as Molinari posted a fifth place in Abu Dhabi in January while after missing the cut in Phoenix and at Riviera he bagged a 14th place last week at Bay Hill where he ranked fourth in Driving Accuracy, 17th in approach play, 24th in putting and 25th from tee to green.
On to this week then and Molinari has of course teed it up on numerous occasions at Sawgrass and not unsurprisingly when on song his neat and tidy play has been a good fit for the course, most notably when he posted three consecutive top tens here back in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Finally of course it is no huge surprise to see Molinari regaining form this year as he will be desperate to make the Ryder Cup team on his home soil later this year and from that point of view he needs to start catching Captain Donald’s eye with some big results.
Highly motivated then and having now turned 40 I expect a big year from Molinari and this week on a course where experience and past form counts seems a great opportunity for him to build on last week and post a big finish.
BEN MARTIN – 250/1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9. - FINISHED 54th
For my final pick this week I am going to roll the dice on Ben Martin at big each way odds.
A former amateur world number one Martin looked set for a lengthy spell in the higher echelons of the game after landing his maiden tour title at the Shriners way back in 2014.
Unfortunately though things haven’t gone hugely to plan since then for the Clemson grad and he has spent much of the recent years flitting between the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour as he tried to work his way fully back to the top table.
Last year Martin came incredibly close to regaining his full status at the Corales Puntacana event before agonisingly missing out there, however there was ultimately a happy ending on the year as he did enough in the Korn ferry finals to regain his card.
Moving on to this season then and after a ho-hum start, which saw Ben make five of his first ten cuts with a best of 21st the 35yr old has found his mojo over his past couple of starts posting a 13th place at the AT&T Pebble Beach event before notching a seasons best effort last time out at the Honda when fifth.
Arriving, you would have to think, at Sawgrass in a confident mood then there is plenty of encouragement to be had in Martin’s past history both here and at correlating tracks. Firstly in relation to form in this event Ben was fourth here way back in 2015 on debut, while he also has a third place finish to his name at the Pete Dye designed Hilton Head.
Spread the net wider then and we see that Ben’s CV is littered with strong performances at other wind effected events held on shorter tracks such as the aforementioned Corales, the Sony Open, the AT&T Pebble Beach, Puerto Rico, the RSM and of course most recently the Honda.
It is obviously a huge ask for Martin to win here in this company however with more each way places available than normal this week there is plenty to like about his profile to make me think that he can sneak a place at big juicy odds.
UPDATED 8th MARCH
FIRST ROUND LEADER
KEITH MITCHELL 1pt E/W 60/1 - 1/5 odds 1st 6 & RICKIE FOWLER 60/1 1pt E/W 1/5 1st 6 - NO RETURN
With four of the past ten first round leaders coming from the morning wave, while on five of the other six ocassions we have seen co leaders coming from the AM & PM waves it seems clear to me the morning starters as a rule get the better of things here.
This thought ties in with the fact that the winds always tend to pick up here in the afternoon and while there is not too much in it in tomorrow's forecast that appears set to be the case again this year.
From that point of view then I will focus on the AM wave in this market and take two against the field in the shape of Keith Mitchell and Rickie Fowler.
Mitchell has been in fine form of late and with a seasons ranking of 11th in Round One scoring it is clear he enjoys Thursdays. This is reflected in the fact that he has posted 67 or better on six ocassions on the opening day this season, a score he also posted on Thursday here last year on his way to 13th place. Most at home as we know on the Bermuda greens I'll take Keith to start quickly again this week.
Fowler meanwhile missed this event completely last year as he did three of the four Majors, something reflective of his ranking through 2022.
Now working with Butch Harmon again and clearly starting to rediscover some of his old form it is only a matter of time now you would think until he puts it all together one week and wins again. Whether that week is now is debatable however as a former champion here he clearly has strong vibes at Sawgrass and I'll take him to get out of the blocks quickly.