The Players Championship: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis
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 weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
Greg Norman stood there, two paces away.
He tilted his head downward, crossed those muscular forearms, peered over his angular, sun-freckled nose. His eyes were the last thing I saw, underneath the trademark wide-brimmed hat. The stare burnt a hole through my grip, my club, my soul, each second of inspection melting another shred of my fragile, fleeting confidence. Forget the couple thousand people around the tee on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, they may as well have been invisible. This was the Shark, in all his No. 1 in the world glory, watching me hit a golf shot.
Wednesday at the Players is a cool scene for the PGA Tour caddies. Each fires a shot from the tee on the island green 17th. There’s good-natured ribbing from pros and caddies. Shots are stiffed, shanked, pured. Nobody has made an ace yet but it’s bound to happen. Most balls find land and others do not. It’s not easy.
Go ahead, try hitting a shot to one of the world’s most famous and dangerous short par 3s in front of many spectators after walking 16 holes with a golf bag on your shoulder. No practice shots. Just a warmup swing or two with a foreign club and … good luck.
In the late 90s the whole affair was rather informal. Pros crammed cash in a jar on the tee box. Closest-to-the-hole at the end of the day won the pot, which was often three or four grand. I’m certain it’s more formal now and also remains a fun five-minute diversion in what can be a stressful week on a demanding course filled with Pete Dye’s favorite pitfalls.
The ball landed on the green. I blacked out for a few seconds. And I cannot verify the order in which those two events took place on that March afternoon two decades ago. Then or now, cannot confirm or deny. The club struck the ball, it had to. How else could it fly 140 yards in the air over water and land safely on the surface? I’m just telling you I don’t remember the swing or the strike. Not the backswing, nor the downswing, not impact. None of it.
“Good shot,” the Shark said.
That part, I remember.
The Players features Dye’s diabolical masterpiece and the strongest field of the year. The renowned architect, who passed away in January at the age of 94, unleashed all of his tricks at TPC Sawgrass. Awkward angles and lies. Tee boxes pointing in one direction while a hole bends in the other. Strange green shapes and of course, water on 12 of 18 holes. The course has been tweaked many times, but it’s still not long – 7,189 yards and par 72. Short hitters like Fred Funk have won here. So have bombers like Tiger and Rory.
Power is always an asset, especially when combined with accuracy, but blasting away wildly gets a golfer nowhere at TPC Sawgrass, where course management, precise iron play and short game skills are rewarded. Just because a golfer is pin high in two shots on a par 5 like No. 9 or No. 11, serious work still remains to secure a birdie.
The weather forecast is good – mid 70s with 10-15 mile per hour winds. Neither side of the draw seems to have a significant edge. The course is overseeded with rye this year, which was probably a great move in light of Florida’s abnormally cold winter, so it will look Augusta green on TV and should play softer than it did last year, the first since the tournament moved dates (again) from May-to-March.
Strokes gained on approach shots, scrambling and recent form were the primary factors considered this week. Also, birdies. TPC Sawgrass yields more than the average Tour venue. It’s those dastardly others that must be avoided.
Golfer power rankings
26. Denny McCarthy – He’s the best putter on the PGA Tour based on statistical and anecdotal evidence and must have friends in the pairings office because in the richest, most prestigious event on the schedule, he’s in the first group off No. 10 at 7:40 a.m., meaning the purest putter gets perfect greens in calm conditions. Great putters love smooth greens. Hot starts are good.
25. J.T. Poston – The 2019 Wyndham Championship winner played bad golf last Thursday. It happens. He handled his worst round on the PGA Tour (84) with class and humor. Now he returns to TPC Sawgrass, where he finished T-22 last year. Perhaps the golf spirits were paying attention. They usually are.
24. Mackenzie Hughes – Great week at the Honda ended in a solo second and helped the Canadian take a stride toward securing playing privileges for the 2020-21 campaign. Thrives on difficult courses that demand precision and two best Tour finishes have occurred on Bermuda greens. Recent confidence overrides poor season statistics.
23. Ian Poulter – Enters one of his favorite events (71.69 scoring average, two runner-ups) on a stretch of steady results. Iron play and short game have been on point (top 35 strokes gained). Experience is a valuable asset on a course that demands a player to manage his game and pay attention to the elements.
22. Sung Kang – Having a steady, experienced man like Damon Green on the bag is invaluable this week. Green steered Zach Johnson to a T-2 here in 2012. Kang is solid tee-to-green (63rd strokes gained) and survived to finish T-9 at Bay Hill, making him a good deep roster option this week.
21. Bryson DeChambeau – Beefy! Biceps! Bomber! DeChambeau 2.0 leads the PGA Tour in driving distance and has gained more than one shot per round with that club. While it’s not the most important this week, long, accurate tee balls are an advantage anywhere a man has ever chased a birdie. He’s 15th on Tour in scrambling, eighth in bunker play.
20. Adam Scott – Over his last 32 rounds at TPC Sawgrass leads this year’s field in SG: total and ranks in the top 20 in every significant category except putting (60th). Such excellence through the bag has produced four consecutive top 20s here and I’m willing to write off last week’s MC to being in the wrong wave Thursday and Friday.
19. Collin Morikawa – Rookies are wildcards at TPC Sawgrass but his game fits the (any?) course. Lost confidence in the young gun for a month or so, but it appears that was nothing more than the lull all golfers endure during a season. He cracked the top 10 at Bay Hill last week. Ranks fourth in SG: approach-the-green.
18. Matthew Fitzpatrick – One of the game’s most accurate drivers, he arrives in Ponte Vedra buoyed by a T-9 last week. Has been steady most of the 2019-20 season just hasn’t gone low, shooting lower than 68 once in 24 rounds. Made the cut here the last two years, finishing in the 40s.
17. Matt Kuchar – Can’t forget Kooch and his bag man, John Wood, one of the best in the business. The wily veteran won here in 2011, has made the cut in 11 of 15 Players starts, finds fairways consistently and has putted well this season, ranking 14th in strokes gained on the greens.
16. Dustin Johnson – I keep waiting for DJ to turn it around. If he couldn’t do it in Mexico on a course he’s destroyed in recent years, well, when is it going to happen? Perhaps this week. Johnson has three top 20s in a row at the Players and a triple-digit (111) FedEx Cup ranking just seems so strange for the 20-time Tour winner.
15. Kevin Kisner – Been a quiet year for the Kiz. He’s 76th in the FedEx Cup and his only top 10 came in Hawaii on Bermuda greens, the likes of which will be rolling 13 on the Stimpmeter this week at TPC Sawgrass. Tied for second in Players debut in 2015 and I have a good feeling he’ll crack the leaderboard early and hang around.
14. Hideki Matsuyama – Shot 157 in final two rounds at Bay Hill – a score familiar to many weekend golfers but not the man ranked 21st in the world. Forget about it. TPC Sawgrass may seem like a friendly muni after four days spent battling that beast. He’s 35th on Tour in proximity from outside 200 yards, which should be useful this week and ranks 13th in greens in regulation. Also in the top 25 in five of six Players starts.
13. Daniel Berger – Stringing together top 10s, so keep inserting him in the lineup. Has made the cut four times in five Players starts. Top 30 this season in SG: tee-to-green and SG: putting.
12. Marc Leishman – Last week’s runner-up is one of only six Tour players who gains a stroke per round on the field with his approach shots. Hasn’t scrambled his best consistently but when he’s on, has some of the best hands in the game.
11. Tommy Fleetwood – Last week was a 152-shot, 48-hole disaster on the heels of a 72nd hole flared fairway wood that ruined the Honda Classic. Still, I’m bullish on the young Englishman, who rises to the occasion in the biggest events such as this one, turning in back-to-back top 10s.
10. Tony Finau – Started strong in 2020 and would be ranked higher if not for a T-51 at Riviera and MC at Bay Hill in his last two outings. Tied for 22nd at Players last March. His profile fits the course – hits a ton of greens (10th in SG: approach) and saves par when he misses one (sixth in SG: around-the-green).
9. Gary Woodland – Closed with 67 to secure a top 10 at Honda and while his results aren’t great at TPC Sawgrass (T-11 in 2014 is best) his game fits the criteria required to succeed here – sixth on Tour in greens in regulation, 26th in birdie average, 36th in scrambling.
8. Justin Thomas – His veteran caddie Jimmy Johnson can leave the driver under the cover frequently this week and allow JT to let his strong iron play (eighth in SG: approach) generate the birdie opportunities he converts – second on tour with 4.93 per round. Closed with 66 in 2016 Players and tied for third.
7. Xander Schauffele – It doesn’t feel like he’s played ‘great’ this season and the 72nd hole 3-putt at Kapalua is probably the lasting image thus far. Yet he’s posted seven top 25s in eight starts including last week at Bay Hill and has fresh memories of finishing second here in 2018.
6. Patrick Reed – There’s more to Reed’s game than the stats – not that those are all bad. He’s third on Tour in SG: putting and top 40 in three significant SG ballstriking areas. But his value is worth more than the sum of his parts. Like Watson, Seve, Spieth, he simply scores, posts a number. He’s playing as well as anyone in the world right now and has never lacked confidence.
5. Webb Simpson – The 2018 Players champion ranks seventh on Tour in SG: approach-the-green this year. He’s 40th in finding fairways and leads the tour in birdie average, making five per round. Elite pitching and bunker game – checks all the boxes.
4. Patrick Cantlay – Hasn’t played since Riviera in mid-February, recovering from a procedure to repair a deviated septum. Have to love him this week because he’s finished top 25 twice in three starts and ranks sixth in SG: approach-the-green and third in birdies.
3. Jon Rahm – Held the 54-hole lead last year but an odd decision on No. 11 ignited his demise, resulting in a free fall down the leaderboard and T-12. He’s a different player now, though, maturing and more consistent in demeanor and performance. Posted top 10s in four of five 2019-20 starts.
2. Sungjae Im – Omit the South Korean superstar at your own peril. I expected a strong showing last week coming off his first career Tour victory and he didn’t disappoint, tying for third. The 22-year-old is a ballstriking wizard who can also chip, blast and putt with the game’s elite. Wait, I dug deep and found a weakness: eagles (he’s 143rd, making only one per 243 holes). Such a shame.
1. Rory McIlroy – Ugly weekend at Bay Hill for the Players defending champion, but ho-hum, he still posted a seventh consecutive top-5 finish, dating to last fall. Has three other top 10s at Sawgrass before the date switch. Any time, any where, he’s a favorite.