If you found last weekend’s carnage at Bay Hill enjoyable, be sure to clear your couch Sunday afternoon, stock the refrigerator and the pantry.
A cold front is scheduled to roll into Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida on Saturday evening and the final round of the Players Championship could be beautifully horrific. If the weather follows its current forecast, a stiff north wind will blow into the pros’ faces at the island green 17th and harrowing par-4 18th for the first time all week. By late in the day, the temperature will struggle to reach 50 degrees. The conditions should produce the drama Pete Dye envisioned when he built this course 40 years ago. Club selection and course management will be magnified. Unsolid strikes punished. Frayed nerves exposed.
We can only hope.
The Florida swing has become the most difficult scoring stretch on the PGA Tour schedule in the last decade yet the tournament billed as the fifth major and offering a record $20 million purse has often yielded the lowest scores in the Sunshine State. Each of the last 12 champions finished 12-under par or better.
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Still, the 7,256-yard par-72 layout reveals Pete Dye in his nastiest form. Awkward angles off the tees. Annoying bunker placement. Water lurking on 17 holes and prominent at the end. Dye enjoyed making the best players in the world uncomfortable. At TPC Sawgrass he attained his goal. But the course needs wind to bare its full teeth and the forecast calls for a wet, windy week.
The Bermuda greens are overseeded with poatrivialis and bentgrass and per early reconnaissance are smooth and pure. The fairways are overseeded with ryegrass as well and the 2.5” rough is just enough to alter spin and force players to make wise decisions on approach.
I read through years of quotes from contenders in recent years and can boil them down to this: The pro who drives his golf ball well at TPC Sawgrass can attack the flags on the smallish greens. The overseeded golf course is softer and greener than what the players faced when the tournament was in May (pre-2019), so distance is helpful. But the high volume of doglegs allows longer hitters to leave the driver in the bag and focus on finding the fairway.
Confidence is a valuable tool. Playing safe – either out of necessity because the tee shot found the rough or because there’s an ounce of doubt – leaves difficult shots around the greens and creates a stressful week.
Historically, this is a difficult field to handicap. With 48 of the top 50 players in the world there are many candidates who can contend. Disaster is often one swing away. Players can be climbing the leaderboard at noon and cleaning out their locker at 2:30, racing to the airport and wondering how their round went awry.
I focused heavily on recent form – you want to arrive firing darts – and not as much on course history, SG: Tee-to-Green, Good Drives Gained and SG: Off-the-Tee, SG: Approach, proximity from 100-150 yards, and above average scoring on the par 4s and par 5s.
Pay close attention to the forecast as Thursday approaches and try to discern if one particular tee-time wave has an advantage over the first two days.
In general, I’m all aboard on the PGA Tour youth movement. That being said, I shifted toward the veterans this week. Experience at TPC Sawgrass in a variety of conditions should be an asset over the four tournament rounds. If the forecast holds, mental toughness will be the most important skill in a player’s arsenal on Sunday and the reward for courage will be a gigantic stack of cash.
As always, good luck.
Keegan Bradley, Joel Dahmen, Dylan Frittelli, Adam Hadwin, Mackenzie Hughes, K.H. Lee, Sebastian Munoz, Mito Pereira, Pat Perez, Jhonattan Vegas, Aaron Wise.
Golfer power rankings
25. Abraham Ancer – After a rather lackluster West Coast swing (4 of 5 cuts made, best finish 35th) he’s a low-priced candidate to break out this week. Gained shots Tee-to-Green in three of the last four starts and 0.9 shots on approach last time out at Riviera. Top 25 in his last two Players.
24. Tom Hoge – Ranks 11th in Scrambling over the last 50 rounds, hits good drives and leads the field in proximity from 100-125 yards in a 100-round span. Exempt beyond the current season for first time in his career. That matters.
23. Chris Kirk – Can’t quit him now. Racked up his second consecutive top 10 last week, gaining 9.4 shots Tee-to-Green. Has bettered the field average in each significant Strokes Gained stat for three weeks in a row and is solid from 100-150 yards.
22. Brian Harman – Putter betrayed the little lefty at the Honda but the rest of his game remained in tiptop shape and his all-around skill set has produced back-to-back top 10s at TPC Sawgrass, including a handsome third-place check a year ago. Gritty grinder will embrace difficult conditions.
21. Patrick Cantlay – Generally avoid the Californian in Florida, where he rarely plays. Hard to argue with his current form although it’s worth noting he’s lost shots on approach in three of the last four starts. Does have a pair of top 25s here and leads the field in par-5 scoring and scrambling.
20. Talor Gooch – Had some adventures on the greens at Bay Hill in a T-7 but can’t overlook the 6.3 shots he gained on approach. Paired with a top-35 ranking in Good Drives Gained along with elite par-5 efficiency and Gooch could be in contention yet again.
19. Russell Henley – He’s let two PGA Tour events slip from his grasp on Sunday in the last six months or so yet could rinse those disappointments by winning the one that pays more than double a regular tournament. Remains the only player in the field in top 10 in proximity from 100-125 and 125-150 yards.
18. Adam Scott – Will he use a driver? Will he hit his irons better (-4.6 SG: Approach in T-26 at Bay Hill). We must wait to answer those questions but his experience and current form is good enough to earn a roster spot on a course where he has two top 15s in the last four years. Sharp inside 150 yards and top 30 in par-4 and par-5 scoring.
17. Louis Oosthuizen – Last missed a cut in November 2020. Interest level rises as the purse increases. Ranks second in par-4 scoring, eighth in scrambling and 18th in SG: Approach. Has gained strokes off the tee in the last four tournaments.
16. Matthew Fitzpatrick – Another player with ample experience grinding away in less than favorable weather conditions who arrives in perhaps the best ballstriking form of his career with a trio of top 10s and 14 shots gained Tee-to-Green in the span. His top-10 finish in the 2021 Players Championship is also encouraging.
15. Viktor Hovland – Last week’s runner up (10.4 shots gained Tee-to-Green) missed the cut in his Players debut a year ago. His scrambling (120th) and proximity from 125-150 (121st) are a touch troubling but we’ll never lose faith in our Norwegian Forest Cat.
14. Sungjae Im – Excels at every skill required to solve TPC Sawgrass but is well below the field average in proximity from 100-150 yards. Still, he’s the king of Florida, claiming one of his two career victories in the state and ranks top 20 in finding fairways and hitting greens.
13. Billy Horschel – Has gained at least 5.8 shots Tee-to-Green in his last three starts, finished 11-16-6-2 in his last four outings and made the cut in four of the last five Players Championships. Top 35 in Good Drives Gained and GIR gained while ranking eighth in proximity from 100-125 yards.
12. Justin Thomas – Not difficult to understand how he won here last year. His game is an ideal fit for Dye’s diabolical design. Among the world’s best from 100-150 yards, can gear down and hit fairways when necessary, top 5 in par-4 scoring and has three top 8s and a 20th in 2022. Different surface but gained 3.2 shots on the Riviera greens.
11. Xander Schauffele – Iron play was sharp in last two appearances on the West Coast, gaining 4.2 shots on approach in Scottsdale and 3.2 in LA. Only average in scrambling over the last 50 rounds but top 25 in just about every other important metric.
10. Rory McIlroy – Hopefully had some time to decompress after expressing his displeasure in the course setup at Bay Hill, where he gained 8.2 shots Tee-to-Green but lost one shot on the greens. Won here in 2019 and also has three other top 10s.
9. Corey Conners – Gained 11.3 shots Tee-to-Green last week – the fourth best effort of his career. Possesses the perfect combination of SG:OTT, Good Drives Gained and GIR gained. Pinpoint accuracy from 100-125 yards and finished top 10 here a year ago. Makes money this time of year.
8. Jon Rahm – He’s lost shots around the greens in five consecutive tournaments and at least two shots putting in the last three. Still, the ball could start finding the hole at any point. He was second to champion Scottie Scheffler in SG: Approach at Bay Hill (6.9).
7. Scottie Scheffler – Why can’t the hottest golfer in the world win again? Having the veteran voice of Ted Scott on the bag has enabled Scheffler to realize his potential, winning twice in his last three starts. Gained 8.1 shots on approach last week.
6. Brooks Koepka – Won’t be afraid to meet the challenge the finishing stretch presents. Everything was firing except the putter in a T-16 at the Honda and also gained 5.9 shots Tee-to-Green in a third-place finish in Scottsdale. Knows how to handle himself in golf’s biggest tournaments.
5. Hideki Matsuyama – Has gained at least 2.6 shots on approach in six of his last seven tournaments. On point from 125-150 yards (third in the field). If these greens are indeed similar to TPC Scottsdale, he’s always putted well there and has a pair of top 10s and five top 25s on his resume at the Players Championship.
4. Cameron Smith – Taking a slight risk here but will contend if he drives it well. His exquisite short game and wind prowess paired with blossoming confidence are promising as is his top-11 ranks on par-4 and par-5 scoring. Finished T-17 here last year.
3. Shane Lowry – Ran into a rainstorm on the final hole of the Honda, drowning his chances for victory. But any product of Ireland isn’t afraid of a little wind and rain. Ranks 23rd in Good Drives Gained, 22nd in Scrambling and seventh in SG: Approach. Has a pair of top 20s in the Players.
2. Collin Morikawa – Would surprise no one if he won by a wide margin. Will pepper the fairway with tight fades and leads the field in proximity from 100-125 yards. Has a win in Florida against an elite field. Top 10 in the field in par-4 and par-5 scoring.
1. Daniel Berger – Have pegged him for a championship here since January and will not let his final-round collapse at the Honda sway my opinion. Ranks seventh in Good Drives Gained over the last 50 rounds and leads the field in SG: Approach. His low, piercing fades should work well around TPC Sawgrass. Struggled with sleeping on the big lead but finishing early and posting may be the path to victory this week.