The Players Championship: Expert picks and best bets

Xander Schauffele, Austin Kaiser
Keep a close eye on Xander Schauffele (here with caddie Austin Kaiser) this week at the Players Championship, says our resident expert Brian Mull. Credit: Eric Sucar-USA TODAY Sports

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a gambling picks piece — as well as a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.

The strongest field in professional golf assembles this week at TPC Sawgrass for the Players and because all the best players are there it’s natural to assume the field is wide open and loaded with possibilities for wagers.

There are more prop options this week compared to a normal week on the PGA Tour. For example, you can bet on how many balls will find the water at the island green 17th (over / under of 43.5) and there are more head-to-head selections available.

RELATED: The Players Championship fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Still, a close examination of the 144-man field reveals a good chunk of the competitors have fared poorly at TPC Sawgrass in recent years. It’s not surprising. The course features awkward shots from start-to-finish. Pete Dye, the legendary architect, aimed to make players feel uncomfortable and challenged their ability from tee-to-green. Want the best angle to the green? You’ll have to challenge the trouble. Want the best birdie putt? You’ll have to risk missing on the short side and bringing bogey into play.

Cautious golf is not rewarded. Players hitting their targets can go deep in red numbers. Players missing their targets go home.

Ordinarily, if a course doesn’t suit a golfer’s taste, he marks it off the list for next year and moves on. But the Players is different in $12.5 million ways. It’s the Tour’s premier event. Tour pros feel obligated to keep coming back. Only injury or illness keeps an eligible player out of the field.

Charles Howell III has 95 top-10 finishes in 564 career starts (16.8 percent). He’s competed in the Players 17 times and never finished in the top 10, missing the cut on nine occasions. Harris English, playing the most consistent golf of his career, has played in eight Players, missing the cut in six. There are 25 or so competitors who have teed it up in the Players at least four times and never cracked the top 10. Bubba Watson keeps coming back – this is his 13th start without a top 10 – in search of a breakthrough. His average finish is 63.8 with four missed cuts.

READ: 20 years later, Hal Sutton and caddie Freddie Burns reflect on showdown with Tiger Woods at the Players Championship

There are also 19 first-timers in the field. History says they face an uphill climb. It takes a trip or two around TPC Sawgrass to grasp the nuance and understand a safe miss.

English could be one to buck the trend this week. It hasn’t mattered where he’s played in 2019-20. A player or two foreign to the Players leaderboard is certain to appear there. But for the most part, focus your attention on those with a good track record who enter the week in good form.

Becoming comfortable on the PGA Tour is an important step toward having a successful career. The penal misses at TPC Sawgrass can make comfort hard to find.

As always, good luck.

Odds on the favorites (via golfodds.com):

Rory McIlroy +800
Jon Rahm +1200
Justin Thomas +1600
Patrick Cantlay +2000
Bryson DeChambeau +2000
Dustin Johnson +2500
Tommy Fleetwood +2500
Sungjae Im +3000
Xander Schauffele +3000
Hideki Matsuyama +3000
Webb Simpson +3000
Adam Scott +3000
Rickie Fowler +3000
Patrick Reed +3000
Brooks Koepka +4000
Marc Leishman +4000

Props: Winning score 274.5 (13.5 under); Cut 143.5 (0.5 under); Lowest score 64.5

Expert picks and best bets

The Pick

Xander Schauffele (+3000): He’s won the Tour Championship and contended in majors. He’ll be a popular pick next month at Augusta, aiming to improve upon his runner-up last year. First, he’s the smart value choice to claim another career-defining title this week. The putter has held Schauffele back this season, if you can call seven top 25s in eight starts a disappointment. He’s 119th in SG: putting. Of late, quality ballstriking has been more important than superior putting at TPC Sawgrass. The champions have gained most of their shots on the field by finding the right sections of the greens. Schauffele is ninth in greens in regulation and 14th in SG: approach-the-hole. Despite struggling with proximity (220th) he’s still top 25 in birdie average. It all comes together for the man who loves the big events this week.

Last Week: Jason Day (+3000). WD – back injury.

The Longshot

Kevin Kisner (+12500): Craig Perks, Si Woo Kim, even Stephen Ames – the Players has produced longshot winners in the past. Tim Clark, the perennial contender, was a surprise when he captured the trophy in 2010. Let’s get wild. The Kiz loves Bermuda greens. He tied for second in 2015, his debut, and tied for 22nd last year. The course suits his game, built around accuracy and putting.

Last Week: Harris English (+10000) Entered Sunday with a chance to win. Shot +4 and T-9.

The Fade

Rickie Fowler (+3000): Fowler played better last week (T-18 at Bay Hill), won here in 2015 on the strength of a furious Sunday finish and also finished runner-up in 2012. Still, his iron game has been mediocre and his bunker play has been horrific – averaging 11 feet, 11 inches per blast, to rank outside the top 200 on Tour. Other than the friendly forum of Palm Desert, he’s struggled to put together four solid rounds. He’s overpriced here.

Last Week: Hideki Matsuyama (+2000) Tied for 56th

Head-to-Head

Matt Kuchar (-115) over Paul Casey (-105): Casey keeps trying his hand at the Players and has little to show. He’s missed eight cuts in 12 starts and withdrawn twice in the last decade. His precise iron play would seem to fit well at TPC Sawgrass, but his lone top 10 occurred in his first start in 2004. Kuchar, on the other hand, not only won the event in 2012, but he’s missed the cut only once since 2009. Making it to the weekend is the first piece of identifying a sage head-to-head option. Kuchar has the advantage in this one.

Last Week: Henrik Stenson (-120) over Justin Rose (EVEN). Both players missed the cut. Push.

Season: 4-4-2

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