Here we are again, back in Ponte Vedra Beach for the Players Championship. We won’t talk about what happened last time the world of golf convened here. We all know what happened last time.
The PGA Tour’s ultimate regular season prize will never be the Masters or The Open. That’s fine. In roughly 40 years, the tournament has produced incredible, dramatic finishes and surprise winners. Low scoring, high scoring and sad disasters late on a Sunday afternoon. Four majors is plenty, anyway.
The two obvious assets of the Players are the field – deep and strong, a treat for fans early in the season. And the course, with its triumvirate of exciting holes to close the round. It’s truly a great setting for tournament golf. People play there every day. Everybody probably should play the course once, if they have the means and desire. All the pros show up if they’re healthy and able. Even the ones who despise all 18 holes.
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Yet, the true, lasting legacy of the Players lies well beyond the island green, the $15 million purse or Jerry Pate tossing the commissioner in the lake.
Many years ago, the Players set the standard for proper caddie treatment. It was so long ago there were newspapers lying around each morning. You know, the sports page. Also televisions and warm meals and soft couches. Each is nice. The rest of the details are fuzzy but slowly, glacially even, the other tournaments on Tour started to follow suit. The hot dog tickets drifted off in the wind. The (now) Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte played a significant role in upgrading the treatment as well, but the Players, right there at the Tour headquarters, was the first tournament to place a premium on caddie comfort and provide hospitable service.
Now, back to the tournament. The forecast calls for ideal scoring conditions. Temperatures in the low 70s with light winds out of the Northeast, typical for March in North Florida. The course is par 72, 7,189 yards.
Did I mention the purse?
The greens are more difficult to hit than the average Tour event. The scrambling is more difficult, the average approach shot finishes farther from the hole, hence there are more 3 putts than the average week on Tour.
Pete Dye’s courses don’t suit everybody. I believe Ernie Els said something to the effect of, Dye tries to make players uncomfortable on every shot. Nothing is quite as it may seem. Because of that we weighted our model toward players who have thrived on Dye courses in the recent past, factored in other similar layouts and emphasized those with an all-around skill set. Accurate ballstriking is more important than power, although par-5 scoring has been a strong indicator in recent years. There are ample opportunities for scoring from inside 150 yards.
It’s a tricky event to handicap because the winners run the gamut from Craig Perks to Si Woo Kim, Tim Clark to Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia to Fred Funk, and all points in between. There have been many random or unexpected top-5 or top-10 finishers in recent years. There are many routes to success at TPC Sawgrass. None are easy to travel.
Because the field is expanded from the typical 144 players to 154 this year, I threw in an extra pick.
As always, good luck.
Golfer power rankings
26. Corey Conners – He’s been significantly better than the field in the significant ballstriking categories in all four starts in 2021. That’s not surprising. What’s promising is the improvement he’s showing on and around the greens. Putts his best on Bermuda and finished T-41 in lone Players start.
25. Jordan Spieth – Finished fourth at Bay Hill for his third top 5 in four starts. Even more impressive, he gained 7.5 shots Tee-to-Green including 5.5 shots on approach. Mixed bag of results at TPC Sawgrass includes four missed cuts and a T-4 in six starts.
24. Keegan Bradley – Crippled by the anchoring ban, so must hold your breath and hope for the best when he’s on the greens. His ballstriking, however, is so consistent he’s worth a shot this week. Has been better than the field average in SG: Tee-to-Green in 13 consecutive tournaments and enjoyed his best short game effort in 18 months at Bay Hill. Top 20 at the Players in last two appearances.
23. Adam Scott – Allowed myself two ‘wildcard’ outside the model selections this week and opted to give one of the spots to Scott, who has a stellar record at the biggest events. Has made eight consecutive Players cuts and finished in the top 12 each of the last four years.
22. Hideki Matsuyama – Starting to find form with consecutive top-20 finishes and gained 1.7 strokes on similar greens at Bay Hill last week. Don’t forget he tied the course record with 63 in the first round of the 2020 Players before it was canceled. Has two top 10s in six trips to TPC Sawgrass.
21. Bryson DeChambeau – Finished T-20 here in 2019. He’s a different player now. Will be interesting to watch how he attacks Pete Dye’s masterpiece. Will he really aim for the ninth fairway off the 18th tee? I wouldn’t be surprised. Leads the field in SG: Ballstriking and SG: OTT over the last 24 rounds. Can assault the par 5s, a key to low scoring at TPC Sawgrass
20. Tommy Fleetwood – Making his third consecutive start in Florida and the Englishman relishes the challenge of TPC Sawgrass, landing in the top 10 in 2018 and 2019. We’re always bullish on Fleetwood, and if he can drive it slightly better, he’ll contend. The rest of his game is sharp (10th at Bay Hill).
19. Chris Kirk – Pitching and chipping are vital to scoring at TPC Sawgrass and Kirk’s touch is among the best. He gained 4.2 strokes around the greens at Bay Hill to claim a second top 10 in five starts in 2021. Has made the cut in seven of nine Players starts with top 15s in 2015 and 2017.
18. Emiliano Grillo – He’s 17 under in the last three Players with an 11th-place finish in 2017. Better than the field off the tee each of the last seven weeks and gained 2.4 strokes on approach en route to a T-21 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
17. Si Woo Kim – Won on a Pete Dye course in January in the California desert and of course, hoisted the Players trophy in 2017. Has also made the cut in each of his other three appearances. Don’t read too much into last week’s WD. He’s better than the field average in every significant category over the last 24 rounds.
16. Scottie Scheffler – Interested to see how he fares in his Players debut but so far has had no trouble performing at a peak level against the strongest fields. Putts his best on Bermuda and wouldn’t mind a brisk breeze. Iron game is sharp of late with top 10s in two of the last three starts.
15. Russell Henley – Has cooled off a little of late but should be recharged for his first start since Riviera. Pinpoint iron play is a staple of his game and thrives on Bermuda greens, gaining .373 strokes per round.
14. Cameron Smith – Has played great over the last six months yet it still feels like his best golf lies ahead. With a good driving week, expect him to contend. Has a strong short game to handle the inevitable missed greens at TPC Sawgrass and ranks top 20 in the field in SG: Total over the last 24 rounds.
13. Matthew Fitzpatrick – Maturing as a player and is a demon on Bermuda greens, gaining nearly 0.8 strokes per round on the field. Steady off the tee and while his irons were subpar last week should have shorter clubs in hand on approach this week. Three consecutive top-11 finishes and has made the cut in each of his last two Players appearances.
12. Viktor Hovland - Not going to let a dismal weekend at Bay Hill overshadow his terrific form. He’s ninth in the field in SG: Tee-to-Green over the last 24 rounds and the target golf required at TPC Sawgrass should suit his strengths as he makes his Players debut.
11. Will Zalatoris – Another week, another top-25 finish. Unafraid of any of the diabolical shots presented at TPC Sawgrass, his elite ballstriking should help him climb the leaderboard as the tournament unfolds. Has gained at least three shots on approach three weeks in a row.
10. Rory McIlroy – Hard to believe he’s no longer in the top 10 in the world (No. 11, now), but that’s the case after a disappointing Sunday at Bay Hill dropped him to T-10. Still, even when he’s obviously not sharp he can beat 90 percent of the field. And, he’s technically the defending champion. Perhaps the ranking dip is what he needs to ignite his game.
9. Abraham Ancer – Love the way his all-around game matches the layout. Finishes higher than the field average every week in good drives and approach shots. Has landed in the top 20 in five of the last seven starts. Tough competitor who wants to be in the mix.
8. Justin Thomas – Should have tremendous value in fantasy and betting markets this week. It’s been a tumultuous couple of months but he’s too young and talented to remain in a slump for long. Finished T-3 in the 2016 Players and T-11 in 2018. Gained 9.5 strokes on approach at the WGC-Workday but lost 5.9 strokes off the tee.
7. Jason Day – Like the way his game is trending and expect him to contend again at Augusta. But first he’d like to add a second Players trophy to the case and at the least a third consecutive top-10 finish. He’s been slightly worse than the field average in approach shots the last three weeks; much better than average everywhere else.
6. Collin Morikawa - Remember when everyone (including me) was worried about his putting. He answered those questions with a dominant showing at Concession and proved why he’s a unique talent. He’s also second in the field in SG: Tee-to-Green and 39th in SG: Around-the-Green over the last 24 rounds. Making Players debut, though he was here last year.
5. Daniel Berger – His short game was abysmal at Concession (-4.4 strokes) which is surprising for a Florida native. Imagine he addressed that shortcoming during his week off and is itching to contend for the Tour’s biggest prize. Such a strong driver and has gained two strokes or more on the greens in the last four tournaments. Has made the cut in four of five Players with one top 10.
4. Patrick Cantlay – Was on the leaderboard after one round last year before the world slammed shut. He’s in the top 40 in the field in every strokes gained category over the last 24 rounds. Has two top 25s in three Players appearances.
3. Dustin Johnson – Has learned how to solve Dye’s riddle through the years, firing 23-under over the last eight rounds for a T-17 and a T-5. Not putting as well as he was last fall (121st in field in SG over last 24 rounds) but that club can turn from foul to fair with one pure stroke.
2. Webb Simpson – As a fellow North Carolinian, I’ve heard tales about Simpson’s skills since he was a pre-teen, shooting in the 60s on the state’s finest courses. The strengths of his game are precise irons, exquisite pitching and extreme confidence. Or exactly what’s required to tame TPC Sawgrass, as he did in 2018.
1. Xander Schauffele – He’s overdue. Besides, his long streak of top 25s ended with a T-39 at Concession. So it’s time to start anew. Might as well go straight to the top. It’s incredible how consistently excellent he’s been from tee-to-green over the last year or so. Was the runner-up here in 2018 and has played well in the biggest events throughout his short, stellar career.