PGA Tour best bets: The Players Championship

March 8, 2022 08:02 PM
USATSI_17589416

Scottie Scheffler survived a weekend battle of attrition at a difficult Bay Hill to win his second PGA Tour event in three weeks at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. His 5-under score was one stroke better than Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton and Billy Horschel. Scheffler, 16-1 last week, led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach but won with the putter on Sunday, making several tough par saves while hitting only five fairways and nine greens in regulation. This column tipped runners-up Hovland (20-1 this week), who was at 10-under with a four-shot lead on Saturday, and Horschel (55-1 this week), plus fifth-place finisher Chris Kirk (100-1 this week). Scheffler (25-1 this week) will attempt to win his third career event in four starts this week at The Players Championship. 

The Players Championship, the unofficial fifth major, brings arguably the best field of the year. World No. 1 Jon Rahm (12-1, market high of 14-1) ranked third last week for Strokes Gained: Tee To Green, second for Strokes Gained: Approach and fifth for Strokes Gained: Off The Tee but was just 68th out of 77 players in Strokes Gained: Putting, leading to a 17th-place finish. Defending Players champion Justin Thomas (14-1) was a winner for this column last year at 22-1 and has three finishes of eighth or better in four events in 2022. World No. 2 Collin Morikawa (16-1) finished second three weeks ago at the Genesis Invitational. 

2019 Players champion Rory McIlroy (18-1) was the first-round leader last week at Bay Hill but finished 13th. World No. 4 Patrick Cantlay (22-1) has finished fourth or better in five of his last seven starts dating to his BMW Championship victory in August. Cantlay is part of an OWGR top five in which all five players are under the age of 30 (Rahm, Morikawa, Hovland, Cantlay, Scheffler), a first since the Official World Golf Rankings were created in 1986.

The Event 

The Players Championship was conceived by then-PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman in 1974, with Jack Nicklaus winning the inaugural event at the Atlanta Country Club. The tournament eventually moved to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida (18 miles from downtown Jacksonville), and Sawgrass Country Club in 1977 before moving to the adjacent TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in 1982. The Players offers the largest purse in golf at $20 million and is considered the unofficial “fifth major” due to arguably having the best field in golf. The winner receives 80 OWGR points, a five-year PGA Tour exemption and three years of exemptions to all four majors. 

The field consists of 144 players from the following criteria: 

— Winners of PGA Tour events since last Players 

— Top 125 from previous season's FedEx Cup points list 

— Major champions from the past five years 

— Players Championship winners from the past five years 

— Tour Championship winners from the past three years 

— World Golf Championship winners from the past three years 

— Memorial Tournament and Arnold Palmer Invitational winners from the past three years 

— Top 50 from the Official World Golf Ranking 

— Senior Players champion from prior year 

— Korn Ferry Tour money leader from prior season 

— Money leader during the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, if not the regular-season money leader 

— Top 10 current year FedEx Cup points leaders 

— Remaining positions and alternates filled through current year FedEx Cup standings 

There have only been six multiple winners of The Players: Jack Nicklaus (1974, 1976, 1978), Fred Couples (1984, 1996), Steve Elkington (1991, 1997), Hal Sutton (1983, 2000), Davis Love III (1992, 2003) and Tiger Woods (2001, 2013). Outside of that list, 23 other major champions have won this event including recent ones such as Justin Thomas (2021), Rory McIlroy (2019), Webb Simpson (2018), Jason Day (2016), Martin Kaymer (2014), Henrik Stenson (2009), Sergio Garcia (2008), Phil Mickelson (2007) and Adam Scott (2004). 

The Course 

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one of the world’s most iconic courses, designed by the legendary Pete Dye in 1979 (with a Steve Wenzloff and Dye redesign in 2017). It tests all facets of the game and has never favored any type of player. In 2019, the event returned to March, where it was on the schedule from 1977-2006 before being moved to mid-May from 2007-2018. 

The track is a par-72 of 7,256 yards. The layout features 88 Scottish-style bunkers, 17 water holes (including the famous island-green 17th) and a variety of waste areas. The course is unique in that no consecutive holes play in the same direction and there are left and right doglegs throughout. The fairways and rough (2.5 inches) are overseeded Ryegrass. The 100% Poa Trivialis greens are 5,500 square feet on average and fairly fast (13 on the Stimpmeter). In the past, the greens have been Bermudagrass overseeded with Poa and Velvet Bentgrass. They still have a Bermuda base, but the Bentgrass is gone for an exclusive Poa overseed. 

Current forecasts are calling for an 80% chance of rain on Thursday and Friday, which could lead to some soft scoring conditions. However, weekend temperatures are projected to be in the mid-50s with sustained 20-30 mph winds. 

Correlated courses include PGA National, Innisbrook (Copperhead), PGA West Stadium (Dye design), Sedgefield (Dye renovation), TPC River Highlands (Dye design) and Harbour Town (Dye design).

Some Pete Dye designs on the PGA Tour with some recent winners: 

Harbour Town Golf Links (RBC Heritage): Stewart Cink (2021), Webb Simpson (2020), C.T. Pan (2019), Branden Grace (2016), Matt Kuchar (2014), Graeme McDowell (2013), Brandt Snedeker (2011).

TPC River Highlands (Travelers Championship): Dustin Johnson (2020), Chez Reavie (2019), Bubba Watson (2010, 2015, 2018), Jordan Spieth (2017), Russell Knox (2016), Kevin Streelman (2014), Marc Leishman (2012).

TPC Louisiana (Zurich Classic): Marc Leishman/Cameron Smith (2021), Ryan Palmer/Jon Rahm (2019), Billy Horschel/Scott Piercy (2018), Cameron Smith (2017), Brian Stuard (2016), Justin Rose (2015), Billy Horschel (2013), Bubba Watson (2011).

Austin Country Club (WGC Match Play): Billy Horschel (2021), Kevin Kisner (2019), Bubba Watson (2018), Dustin Johnson (2017), Jason Day (2016). 

TPC Stadium Course at La Quinta (American Express): Hudson Swafford (2017, 2022), Si Woo Kim (2021), Adam Long (2019), Jon Rahm (2018), Patrick Reed (2014), Brian Gay (2013), Jhonattan Vegas (2011).

Crooked Stick (BMW Championship): Dustin Johnson (2016), Jason Day (2012). 

Whistling Straits (PGA Championship): Jason Day (2015), Martin Kaymer (2010). 

Kiawah Island (PGA Championship): Rory McIlroy (2012). 

Recent History/Winners

— 2021: Justin Thomas (-14/274); 20-1

— 2020: Tournament canceled (COVID-19) 

— 2019: Rory McIlroy (-16/272); 14-1 

— 2018: Webb Simpson (-18/270); 100-1 

— 2017: Si Woo Kim (-10/278); 500-1 

— 2016: Jason Day (-15/273); 12-1 

— 2015: Rickie Fowler (-12/276); 66-1* 

— 2014: Martin Kaymer (-15/273); 90-1 

— 2013: Tiger Woods (-13/275); 9-1 

— 2012: Matt Kuchar (-13/275); 55-1 

— 2011: K.J. Choi (-13/275); 45-1** 

— 2010: Tim Clark (-16/272); 100-1 

Playoff over Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner*

Playoff over David Toms**

Trends and Angles 

— 9 of the last 11 Players winners already had a finish of fourth or better on the PGA Tour that calendar year.

— The last 14 winners had a finish of 23rd or better at The Players in a previous appearance.

— The last five winners all finished 22nd or better in their previous start.

— The last 10 winners all made the cut in their previous start, with only one finishing worse than 29th.

— Only twice since 1983 has a player won on their course debut (Hal Sutton, 1983; Craig Perks, 2002). 

Statistical Leaders

Good Drives Gained (Last 24 Rounds)

​The rough is not all that penal at Sawgrass, but it’s still paramount to put yourself in a good position off the tee.

— Martin Laird, 35.2

— Corey Conners, 30.7

— Russell Knox, 30.2

— Jon Rahm, 28.5

— Brian Stuard, 26.6

— Matthew NeSmith, 23.8

— Daniel Berger, 22.9

— Joel Dahmen, 22.6

— Adam Hadwin, 22.4

— James Hahn, 21.9

— Sungjae Im, 18

— Victor Hovland, 17.6

Strokes Gained: Off The Tee (Last 24 Rounds)

While distance is not paramount, it should at least be somewhat accounted for in your models this week.

— Jon Rahm, 28.6

— Cameron Young, 22

— Keith Mitchell, 19.9

— Corey Conners, 17.9

— Rory McIlroy, 17.1

— Sergio Garcia, 16.5

— Luke List, 15.9

— Patrick Cantlay, 15.6

— Sungjae Im, 15.1

— Brendan Steele, 14.5

— Si Woo Kim, 14.4

— Jhonattan Vegas, 13.9

Strokes Gained: Approach (Last 24 Rounds)

The last two winners here have ranked fifth (Thomas, 2021) and sixth (McIlroy, 2019) in the field for Strokes Gained: Approach.

— Jon Rahm, 25.1

— Russell Knox, 25

— Will Zalatoris, 24.6

— Scottie Scheffler, 21.4 

— Viktor Hovland, 21

— Justin Thomas, 20.3

— Daniel Berger, 20.3

— Tom Hoge, 20

— Hideki Matsuyama, 19.9

— Luke List, 19.6

— Paul Casey, 19.4

— Tony Finau, 17.8

Greens In Regulation Gained (Last 24 Rounds)

Greens In Regulation Gained adds to the context of shot positioning. Players have to position their tee shots one way and then go the opposite way into the greens on dogleg holes.

— Jon Rahm, 46.1

— Russell Knox, 36.6

— Scottie Scheffler, 31.1

— Corey Conners, 30.4

— Jhonattan Vegas, 27.1

— Will Zalatoris, 25.7

— Taylor Pendrith, 23.9

— Luke List, 23.5

— Lucas Glover, 22.7

— Paul Casey, 22.3

— Sungjae Im, 21.9

— Bubba Watson, 20.8

Proximity Gained (Last 24 Rounds) 

Proximity to the hole is more than 20% tougher due to the smaller greens. Below is total feet gained over the last 24 rounds.

— Russell Knox, 1673.2

— Jon Rahm, 1671.1

— Cameron Young, 1629.2

— Adam Hadwin, 1568

— Shane Lowry, 1426

— Chez Reavie, 1378.6

— Doug Ghim, 1286.8

— Paul Casey, 1250.4

— Joel Dahmen, 1210.2

— Tony Finau, 1206.6

— Russell Henley, 1146.9

— Sam Burns, 1143.6 

Strokes Gained: Par-4s (Last 24 Rounds)

The 10 par-4s are evenly split between 450-500 yards and shorter than 450 yards (including three shorter than 400 yards). 

— Jon Rahm, 36.4

— Justin Thomas, 32.1

— Cameron Young, 30.3

— Mackenzie Hughes, 28.9

— Scottie Scheffler, 28.2

— Russell Henley, 27.3

— Billy Horschel, 26.6

— Shane Lowry, 25.5

— Tom Hoge, 24.7

— Mito Pereira, 23.3

— Brian Harman, 22

— Hideki Matsuyama, 21.8

Bogey Avoidance (Last 24 Rounds)

Of the 15 players that earned at least a share of a top-10 finish here last year, seven of them finished last season in the top 20 in bogey avoidance.

— Sungjae Im, 22.4

— Tom Hoge, 18.8

— Mito Pereira, 18.7

— Shane Lowry, 16.9

— Jon Rahm, 16.6

— Gary Woodland, 16

— Brian Harman, 16

— Billy Horschel, 14.6

— Sam Burns, 14.2

— Beau Hossler, 14.1

— Seamus Power, 13.4

— Marc Leishman, 13

Strokes Gained: Short Game (Last 24 Rounds)

At 5,500 square feet on average, these greens are on the smaller side, so some good shots will miss greens. Strokes Gained: Short Game combines Strokes Gained: Putting and Strokes Gained: Around The Green.

— Brendon Todd, 31.4

— Brian Gay, 31.2

— Denny McCarthy, 30.2

— Patrick Cantlay, 28.4

— Rory McIlroy, 26.5

— Scottie Scheffler, 25.6

— Mackenzie Hughes, 24.2

— Billy Horschel, 23.4

— Beau Hossler, 23

— Matt Kuchar, 22.4

— Russell Henley, 22

— Tyrrell Hatton, 21.4

Scrambling Gained (Last 24 Rounds)

The tour average for scrambling over the last five years is 57.9%. At Sawgrass over the last three years, it's only 53.6%.

— Mito Pereira, 11.7

— Ian Poulter, 10.5

— Kevin Streelman, 10.4

— Marc Leishman, 10.2

— Matt Kuchar, 10.1

— Cameron Tringale, 10

— Rory McIlroy, 9.3

— Shane Lowry, 9.1

— Gary Woodland, 9.1

— K.H. Lee, 9

— Seamus Power, 8.8

— Sepp Straka, 8.2

— Beau Hossler, 8.2

Strokes Gained Total Windy Conditions (Last 24 Rounds)

With the wind likely to pick up over the weekend, we can examine some of the players who tend to perform better in these tougher conditions, classified as “Windy AF” by Fantasy National Golf Club (where you can find all of these statistical numbers).

— Tony Finau, 64.4

— Shane Lowry, 45.3

— Patrick Cantlay, 45.2

— Webb Simpson, 39.3

— Dustin Johnson, 39

— Jon Rahm, 38.4

— Justin Thomas, 34.3

— Alex Noren, 34

— Daniel Berger, 34

— Keegan Bradley, 33.3

— Gary Woodland, 32.9

— Sergio Garcia, 31.6

Selections

Jon Rahm (14-1)

​Rahm continues to be one of the world's best off the tee but posted his best approach numbers since August last week at Bay Hill. The putter let him down, but putting has the most variance, so he can clearly turn it around at Sawgrass, where he was the 54-hole leader three years ago and finished ninth last year. The World No. 1 has won twice on Pete Dye designs (PGA West in 2018, TPC Louisiana in 2019) and is a fan of Dye layouts. He made his debut at Bay Hill last week and gained 11.4 strokes with his ball striking. 

Daniel Berger (35-1)

Berger is looking for redemption from two weeks ago at the Honda Classic. He led by six heading to the 18th on Saturday but carded a bogey on 18, and then faltered down the stretch on Sunday in tough conditions to drop to fourth. The ball-striking game is in excellent shape, rating fourth on the season for driving accuracy and third for Strokes Gained: Approach. Berger has two top-10 finishes here (2016, 2021) and has had several good runs on Dye designs, with two top-fives at River Highlands and a third at the RBC Heritage.

Brooks Koepka (41-1)

Koepka has drifted down enough in the market to make this an attractive price. He has shown some good recent form with a third in defense of his Phoenix Open title and a 16th at the Honda Classic. He is using new equipment (Srixon) this season and that always takes time to get accustomed to. He has a share of the course record at Sawgrass with a 63 in 2018. 

Sungjae Im (50-1)

Im has past success in the Sunshine State with a victory at the 2020 Honda Classic and top-four finishes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Valspar Championship. He already has a victory this season at the Shriners and three other top 10s (CJ Cup, Tournament of Champions, Farmers Insurance Open). Im finished 20th last week at Bay Hill but ranked fourth for Strokes Gained: Putting. 

Shane Lowry (50-1)

Lowry, like Berger, posted his best-ever Players finish last year with an eighth. The Irishman might have won two weeks ago at the Honda Classic if not for an ill-timed rain deluge on the 72nd hole as he stood on the tee. However, the weather is expected to play a factor over the weekend and Lowry is one of the world's best in inclement conditions, evident from his 2019 Open Championship victory at Royal Portrush. 

Gary Woodland (80-1)

Woodland looked like he was going to win at Bay Hill last week with an eagle at 16 but promptly gave it back with a double bogey at 17, eventually finishing fifth. In fact, he finished fifth each of the last two weeks. The former U.S. Open champion has gained with the putter in four straight events including 6.3 strokes last week in Orlando. He has missed six of his last eight cuts here but course form has long been proven to be irrelevant at Sawgrass and he is now injury-free and playing his best golf in about two-and-a-half years. 

Alex Noren (100-1)

Noren has finished in the top six in two of his last three events (Phoenix and the Honda). The Swede has improved with his irons in every start in 2022, including a gain of 5.4 strokes on approach two weeks ago at PGA National. He plays well on tough courses and in tough conditions, evident by his DP World Tour wins at Le Golf National and Celtic Manor.

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