THE PLAYERS Championship Preview

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The PGA TOUR heads to their home base of Ponte Vedra Beach for this week’s PLAYERS Championship.

Known by many to be the “Fifth Major” this is certainly one of the biggest events with one of the deepest fields, on the entire schedule.

Speaking of the field, there will be 144 golfers lined up to start the week while the top 65 and ties will advance through the cutline after 36 holes.

Let’s hop right in and talk about the host course.

The Course

THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is the host venue. This will be the 40th time it has hosted this event.

This Pete Dye design is a par 72 that plays to 7,256 yards. You may notice that’s a 67-yard increase from last year. Nothing has actually changed on the course, though, as the increased yardage all comes at the par-4 12th which now lists the yardage from the back tee which they used during the first two rounds last year.

The best ways to quickly describe the course are “risk/reward” and “high volatility.”

The volatility comes from water being on all but one hole. There are big numbers lurking everywhere at TPC Sawgrass. Over the last seven years the field have averaged 2.08 double bogeys or worse per 72 holes which is second only to PGA National and just ahead of Muirfield Village GC over that same time frame.

All of that high volatility leads to highly volatile leaderboards, as well. There hasn’t been a single back-to-back winner at THE PLAYERS. This is actually the longest-run event on TOUR without a back-to-back champ anywhere on the tournament logs. Does that mean we are due for a B2B winner?

The risk-reward portion of the course description is also highly linked to all of the water hazards. Golfers will need to decide when to attack and when to play away from the danger. To take it low here, you need to execute on a few high-risk shots or catch fire with the short game.

Off the tee, golfers often lay back and take less than driver on quite a few par 4s due to cross bunkers and water hazards. However, the move back to March has changed the course setup in a way that big hitters can attack more with the driver compared to May, without the fear of their drives really scooting and landing in trouble. The overseeded March conditions slow down the golf course a bit.

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As I just alluded to, the turf here is bermudagrass but at this time of year, we see overseeded rye from tee-to-green with TifEagle Bermuda greens that are overseeded with Poa Triv and Velvet Bent. Those greens are smaller than TOUR average and are generally prepared to run at 12+ feet on the stimp, very speedy. With lots of rain in the forecast this week, we should expect to see the Precision Air system really working overtime.

Looking at the overall scoring environment here, the field average sits at 72.68 (+0.68 RTP) since 2015. That makes it one of the tougher courses they play all year but at the same time the birdie-or-better rate is above TOUR average so there is plenty of fantasy scoring available but also plenty of carnage you need to avoid.

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Quotes on the Course

Matt Fitzpatrick: “it’s just a demanding golf course. In particular visually off the tee. I think some of the fairways are actually wider than they look once you get — yeah, wider than they look from off the tee, so I think it sort of plays a little bit like that, and I personally think the straighter hitters probably have a bit of advantage around here. Gives you more of a chance to hit more greens really.”

Sergio Garcia: “You have to drive the ball well, fairways are not massive, greens are not very big, so you have to be accurate with your irons. It feels like if you are hitting greens you are having birdie chances, you’re not like struggling from 50, 60, 70 feet like some of the other courses we play where the greens are just huge.

Justin Thomas: “I feel like it’s not like a lot of courses where you can — even if you’re playing bad you can just kind of skank it around and hit it on one side. I know if I’m going to miss this fairway I can at least hit it over here and get it on this part of the green. It doesn’t play like that. You really have to step up on each tee, on each par-3, par-4, par-5 and just hit the golf shot that it requires, and then just keep going.”

Robert MacIntyre: “If you play good golf, if you hit good shots, you’ll be rewarded, hit bad shots you’re going to be punished, and that’s the sort of golf courses I like. If you drive it well out here, you’ve got a good chance of scoring well. If you don’t drive it well, you’ve almost got no chance unless you’re hitting it Bryson distances.”

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Patrick Cantlay: “It’s definitely a course that favors precision, so if you can hit your driver in the fairway, you can have lots of scoring opportunities. You can take advantage of the par-5s if you play from the fairway. Even some of the harder holes are gettable if you drive the ball well. A Pete Dye golf course, I feel like it will show you one side with trouble and you almost have to ignore the big flashy trouble and hug the trouble, because the worst side will be the bailout side and once you bail out into the wrong, into the fat side, then the troubles start mounting.”

Golfers talk a lot about how crucial driving the ball well is at TPC Sawgrass. As JT said, it’s not a course where you can usually scrap together a decent score if you don’t bring your B-game or better.

Correlated Courses

Using historical data from this week’s venue, we can look for other courses across the PGA TOUR schedule with crossover success (or failure). Here are the courses that pop up frequently:

Quail Hollow Club
Augusta National
Torrey Pines
Sheshan International
TPC Boston

We see most crossover coming from fast greens, strong fields, risk/reward, and water.

The Weather

Thursday: Strong chance of showers potentially storms with a high of 77 degrees. Winds around 10 MPH.

Friday:: Chance of rain early with light showers throughout the day and a high of 78 degrees. Winds at 5 to 10 MPH.

The threat of rain continues over the weekend and temperatures really drop off with sub-60 weather looking likely on Saturday and Sunday. There have been three previous Monday finishes at THE PLAYERS (2000, 2001, and 2005).

Golfers to Watch

Rory McIlroy
He won the 2019 PLAYERS and generally likes the March setup better at TPC Sawgrass, as we hear from so many of the bigger hitters. That didn’t help him last year as he missed the cut at THE PLAYERS and also arrives off a rough weekend at Bay Hill. The promising aspect of his API fade over the weekend? “I’m certainly playing better than shooting 8-over over the weekend. It’s just a matter of trying to regroup and forget about this week, and next week’s going to be a completely different test.”

Jon Rahm
Last week I talked about the Spaniard and how he’s yet to truly pop in the Sunshine State. TPC Sawgrass has been his best venue in Florida, though. Rahm was the 54-hole leader here in 2019 and was also T5 thru 54 holes last year. If he’s going to snag his first top 5 in Florida, this looks like the place to do it.

Justin Thomas
He’s the defending champ and as I talked about in the course preview section, nobody has gone back-to-back at THE PLAYERS. It won’t be easy but JT is a good candidate to get the job done. He’s won twice at Kapalua, twice at Nine Bridges, and twice at TPC Kuala Lumpur. When he likes a layout, we see lots of repeat success.

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Hideki Matsuyama
He cruised out to the first-round lead in 2020 before COVID-19 canceled the event. We know he can take it low at TPC Sawgrass despite missing the cut last year. More recently, he was one of just four golfers to post an under-par round on Sunday at Bay Hill.

Scottie Scheffler
The floodgates have opened for Scheffler who has now won two of his last three starts. Now he’ll turn his attention to TPC Sawgrass where his official tournament resume reads 0-for-1 with a canceled event in 2020 and missed cut last year on his log. That’s not a great course history book to see but if you want to ride the hot hand, it’s tough to argue.

Dustin Johnson
With a loaded field like this one we saw at THE PLAYERS, it’s easy for big names to get overlooked. I could definitely see that being the case for someone like DJ who missed the cut in his most recent start and posted a T48 last year at TPC Sawgrass. Zooming out a bit further, he has top 10s in three of his last six worldwide starts and also posted a T5 here in 2019, the first year returning to overseeded conditions which he’s on the record for liking better.

Jordan Spieth
The Texan landed a top 5 in his 2014 tournament debut but he’s yet to find anything else better than T41 in six return trips.

Brooks Koepka
It’s often boom or bust for Koepka but those booms usually come in the biggest events of the year. It’s hard to leave him off my top 20 list below but without any top 10s on his tournament resume, he was one of the first to drop outside of my rankings.

Ranking the Field

1. Justin Thomas
2. Jon Rahm
3. Patrick Cantlay
4. Rory McIlroy
5. Collin Morikawa
6. Viktor Hovland
7. Xander Schauffele
8. Scottie Scheffler
9. Cameron Smith
10. Hideki Matsuyama
11. Shane Lowry
12. Matt Fitzpatrick
13. Daniel Berger
14. Sungjae Im
15. Billy Horschel
16. Adam Scott
17. Dustin Johnson
18. Tyrrell Hatton
19. Will Zalatoris
20. Sam Burns

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