Players Championship: Molinari capable of holding his form in Florida

Golfer Francesco Molinari
Francesco Molinari - can he go back-to-back in Florida?
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We're off to Sawgrass on Thursday for the Players Championship and our man has the early lowdown on the so-called fifth major event here...

"The Wyndham only returned to Sedgefield in 2008, after a break of more than 30 years, but we’ve now seen six men win at both venues recently and Tim Clark, the 2010 Players Champion, was runner-up at the 2012 Wyndham. It looks like a great angle-in."

Tournament History

Originally known as the Tournament Players Championship, the Players Championship began life in 1974 when Jack Nicklaus won the first of his three titles. He's still the only man to achieve the feat and only five other players have won the tournament twice - Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Hal Sutton, Davis Love and Tiger Woods.

Universally referred to as the fifth major, the Players Championship is one of the most prestigious tournaments staged throughout the year and if you're thinking it seems to have come around quick this year, you'd be right. The Players has been played in May for 12 years in-a-row but it reverts back to its old March slot this year.

Venue


TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Course Details

Par 72 -7,189 yards
Stroke Index in 2018 - 71.41

Constructed in 1980, specifically for the purpose of hosting this event, the Stadium Course at Sawgrass has been the tournament's venue since 1982. It's a Bermuda-grass Pete Dye design and it's one of the most renowned courses in the world.

With its dramatic island green, the par 3 17th is one of the most recognised holes in golf.

TPC SAWGRASS 2018.jpg

Described as a balanced course, with dog-legged holes going both ways and holes routed so that no two consecutive ever play in the same direction, it's a true test that doesn't tend to favour any one type of player.

In 2006, just before the event moved to its May slot, all the tees, fairways and greens were stripped and new drainage, irrigation, and sub-air systems were installed. The changes meant that the firmness of the smaller than average sized greens can be controlled in any weather conditions and they're usually set to run at around 13 on the stimpmeter.

The course underwent a further renovation after the 2016 renewal and the yardage was reduced slightly as a result. All the greens were changed from mini verde to TifEagle Bermudagrass, holes one, four, eight, nine, 11, 13 and 14 underwent modifications to their greens, to better absorb wear and tear, and in some cases, to increase the number of available pin positions.

Holes six and seven were both changed to improve spectator viewing via the removal of mounding between the two holes and a body of water was added but the biggest change to the course came at the par four 12th.

Water and bunkering were added and the hole length was reduced from 360 yards off the back tee to just 302 yards. In 2016 it averaged 3.94, was the 14th hardest on the course, and it produced just one eagle and 109 birdies and in 2017, post changes, it averaged 3.83, was the 15th toughest but there were just two eagles and 127 birdies, so the reduction of length didn't make it much easier. However, the hole was tweaked again before last year's renewal.

The landing area adjacent to the water on the left was lifted and flattened to reduce the chances of a tee ball rolling into the hazard, the primary rough on that side was made wider as an additional defence and the fairway bunker was elongated nearer the green.

The right side of the fairway was also opened to accentuate the value of that angle of approach and it made a difference. Last year the hole averaged 3.62, there were 60 more birdies than in 2017 and nine more eagles.

Phil Mickelson has tweeted that there is very little rough this year but we can still expect it to play tougher than last year given the below tweet. It's going to be colder and tougher in March than it is in May.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days. Featured Groups coverage begins at 11:30 UK time on Thursday with full coverage starting at 17:00.

Last Five Winners

2018 - Webb Simpson -18
2017 - Si Woo Kim -10
2016 - Jason Day -15
2015 - Rickie Fowler -7 (playoff)
2014 - Martin Kaymer -13

What Will it Take to Win the Players Championship?

The 2017 winner, Si Woo Kim, ranked 10th for Driving Distance and nobody hit it further off the tee than the 2016 champ, Jason Day. But length off the tee is far from essential and the shorter hitters have enjoyed success here in the past.

Webb Simpson only ranked 71st for DD but first for Driving Accuracy and Jason Dufner, who finished tied for fifth, ranked second for DA. Looking back further, Tim Clark only ranked 59th for DD when he won in 2010, Fred Funk caused a shock when he took the title in 2005, ranking just 80th for DD, and Ken Duke and Colt Knost finished tied for third three years ago, ranking only 51st and 72nd for DD, so although length off the tee is always a plus, it doesn't appear to have been an essential prerequisite here.

Simpson ranked fifth for Greens In Regulation and that used to be a really important stat. In the decade between 2005 and 2014, the ten winners had an average GIR ranking of just 7.5 but the three winners before Webb ranked 51st, 15th and 37th so it's debatable whether that's a stat to concentrate on now.

Simpson ranked third for Putting Average but the five winners before him only had an average Putting Average ranking of 18 so it's possible to win without a terrific putting performance but the vast majority of winners scramble well around these much smaller than average greens and that's definitely a key indicator.

Simpson only ranked 24th but the two winners before him both topped the Scrambling stats and only two other winners, Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar, have ranked outside the top-10 for scrambling in the last 14 years.

The last three winners have all smashed the par fours. Jason Day played them in nine-under-par in 2016, which was two better than anyone else, Kim played the par fours in seven-under-par and that was four better than his competitors and Simpson played them in 13-under-par, level best with Dufner and Ian Poulter, and that was despite playing them in two-over on Sunday thanks to a double-bogey at the 72nd hole!

The two stats I've concentrated on this year are Scrambling and Par 4 Performance but it's also worth having a gander at the Futureoffantasy's list of Bermuda grass specialists here.

Is There an Angle In?

If you like a course correlation angle in, check out form at the RBC Heritage, the Travelers Championship and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans as those three events are also played on Pete Dye-designed courses.

Other Pete Dyes to consider are Austin country Club, which has hosted the last three WGC-Match Plays, Whistling Straits, which staged the USPGA Championship in 2004, 2010 and 2015, Crooked Stick, which hosted the 2012 and 2016 BMW Championships and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which hosted the 2012 USPGA Championship.

Sedgefield Country Club is a Donald Ross track but given the last two Players Champions, Simpson and Kim, have won the Wyndham Championship there, as well as Players Champions, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Davis Love III and K.J Choi, that looks like the best tournament form to peruse.

Sergio Garcia (720).JPG

The Wyndham only returned to Sedgefield in 2008, after a break of more than 30 years, but we've now seen six men win at both venues recently and Tim Clark, the 2010 Players Champion, was runner-up at the 2012 Wyndham. And Luke Donald has finished runner-up at both venues. It looks like a great angle-in.

I like an early tee-time on day one at this event. It's often advantageous to begin the week early on day one but even more so here. Sawgrass soon dries out and gets fast and firm and Thursday morning is often the easiest time to play it - especially if the wind gets up in the afternoon.

Last year's morning starters averaged 1.39 strokes better on Thursday and 0.43 strokes over the first two days combined. The 2017 early starters on day one averaged 1.14 strokes less than those drawn in the afternoon and three years ago it was almost two strokes less. Given this tournament favours the frontrunners (see In-Play Tactic below) getting drawn early on Thursday is a big plus.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

First-timers don't have a great record at Sawgrass. In 37 previous renewals here, only two debutants have won - Hal Sutton in 1983 and huge outsider, Craig Perks in 2002. Xander Schauffele was a big eye-catcher last year, finishing tied for second on debut.

xander schauffele (720).JPG

Si Woo Kim, who was the youngest ever winner of the event at 21, was only playing the event for a second time two years ago, having finished 23rd in 2016, but last year's winner, Simpson, and the previous three winners give us a nice indication of the sort of course form portfolios that are typical.

Simpson's course form figures read MC-MC-69-MC-15-MC-66-16. Martin Kaymer had course form figures reading 55-34-19-15-43, Fowler's read MC-MC-2-MC-MC and Jason Day had also had a few weekends off here. His course form figures read MC-6-MC-19-MC, so they'd all had at least five previous outings and all had performed poorly at the course on at least a couple of occasions.

It's a difficult event to predict with all sorts of types winning and the title tends to get spread around too. Nobody has ever defended and as already mentioned, Nicklaus is the only three-time winner, so course specialists are few and far between.

Simpson was fairly well-backed 12 months ago. He opened up at [110.0] on the Monday before going off at around [80.0]. Kim was matched at [1000.0] before the off two years ago and outsiders have a terrific record. Day was well-fancied three years ago but the list of past champions contains plenty of shock winners so don't be afraid to back an outsider or two. I can't imagine too many picked out the likes of Craig Perks or Fred Funk and I have fond memories of backing Stephen Ames the last time we played here in March, as he went off at [170.0].

Fowler wasn't exactly well-fancied four years ago, as he was matched at [70.0] before the off and Kaymer was matched at a triple-figure price five years ago.

Wily old veterans, who know how to plot their way around Sawgrass, tend to do well here. Funk was no spring chicken when he won in 2005 and when 40-year-old K.J Choi won in 2011, he beat 44-year old David Toms in the playoff. Fellow vets, Kenny Perry and Paul Goydos, both come very close to winning recently. Jim Furyk traded at just [1.77] five years ago and 49-year-old, Jeff Maggert, finished runner-up six years ago.

Americans won the first 13 editions of the Players Championship and for a long time Americans, and to a lesser extent the Aussies, dominated the event but that's changed somewhat in recent years with Americans only winning seven of the last 17 renewals. As explored in today's De-brief, it's been a similar tale at last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, also held on demanding Florida layout. Jumping on the well-fancied Americans doesn't look like a great strategy this week. Outsider and overseas players tend to do well.

In-Play Tactics

Simpson was tied for the lead after the opening round last year and despite finding water on the notorious 17th to record a double-bogey during round two, he still tied the course record of 63 to lead the event by five at halfway. He extended the lead to six between rounds two and three and went on to win comfortably by four, despite a one-over par 73 on Sunday so three of the last five winners have now won wire-to-wire. Day and Kaymer both achieved the feat too and a fast start is extremely beneficial.

In the previous 45 renewals, as many as 15 winners have been leading after round one, more than half of the winners (24) have been positioned inside the top-three after day one and 22 winners have either been leading or one off the pace after round one.

Interestingly, 15 first round leaders have gone on to victory but only 20 third round leaders have won so being out in front through 54-holes isn't necessarily a big plus. It certainly wasn't for J.B Holmes two years ago - he shot 84 and finished tied for 41st!

Four of the last six winners were leading after 54 holes but they were all major champions and only two winners in the 12 years previous had been in front with a round to go so it's not an easy place to convert from the front.

Kim came from two back and solo fourth in 2017 and Fowler took the late swoop to extremes four years ago when he was matched at [790.0] in-running before he finished the tournament with a birdie at 13, a par at 14, a birdie at 15, a two-foot tap-in eagle at 16, a birdie at 17, and his first ever career birdie at 18. It was an incredible finish and one that shows us that anything can happen here.

If you are planning to trade in-running, despite what Rickie achieved, it is a tough finish. The par five 11th and the now drivable par four 12th offers up chances to make birdie but after that, the only hole to average below par in the last four years is the par five 16th. At only 523 yards, it's an outside eagle chance (14 were made there last year) and a very good birdie opportunity. Averaging just 4.57, it was the second easiest hole on the course last year (usually the easiest) but it's the only real opportunity in the last six holes. The par four 18th ranked the second hardest hole on the course last year (usually the hardest) and the par four 14th ranked third toughest.

The par three eighth was the hardest hole on the course last year but after that hole there's a slight chance of picking up a shot or two between nine and 13.

Market Leaders

The race for favouritism looks like it might be won by Rory McIlroy, who has course form figures reading MC-MC-MC-8-6-8-12-35-MC. He's been in solid form so far this year, finishing inside the top-six in all five tournaments played in 2019 but I'm happy to swerve him.

Rory will need to put his latest disappointing finish behind him quickly after Sunday's lacklustre effort at Bay Hill and even if does start well, will he be able to maintain his form all the way to the winning line? I looked at his recent performances in-contention in this morning's De-brief and it doesn't make great reading.

RORY McILROY 1280.jpg

Dustin Johnson plays Pete Dye designs well as a rule but his Sawgrass form is nothing to write home about. He's played here ten times so far and his 12th two years ago is his best effort to date. It's worth mentioning that his second best effort occurred last year (17th), so he's beginning to get to grips with the place, and he won the WGC-Mexico Championship last time out but I'm happy to leave him out too.

Justin Thomas has a fair strike, putts well on Bermuda and he finished third here three years ago so there's a lot to like about the world number four. A third at the Phoenix Open and a runners-up finish at Riviera in the Genesis Open suggested another win might be just around the corner but he needed to shoot 62 in round four to break in to the top-ten in Mexico next time out before finishing a disappointing 30th when defending his Honda Classic title last time out. Others are preferred.

Justin Thomas iron shot 1280.jpg

Selections

With such strong in-running trends, I didn't expect to playing more than one or two before the off and I have kept stakes to a minimum but I have picked out five.

Francesco Molinari turned up here 12 months ago with course form figures reading 9-MC-MC-MC-6-7-6 so hopes would have been high of another bold showing but instead of making the top-six for a fourth year in-a-row, he missed the cut for a fourth time at Sawgrass. The disappointment of that performance inspired him though...

Molinari won the BMW PGA at Wentworth in his next start and followed that up with a second in the Italian Open (when defending), 25th at the US Open, a win in the Quicken Loans National, a second at the John Deere Classic and the pièce de résistance, Open Championship success, all followed in his next six starts. My point being, he can hold his form when he finds it so I was happy to take [29.0] about last week's impressive winner. He could very easily contend again on that evidence.

Ian Poulter has both course and current form and at 43, he certainly fits the experienced type mould. Matthew Fitzpatrick did absolutely nothing wrong last week and is just too big at [100.0] and I was happy to take that price about Lucas Glover, who ticks all the stats boxes. The 2009 US Open winner has put in some poor efforts here but he was third in 2010 and sixth two years ago. He's not putting as bad as he normally does and he arrives on the back of three top-tens in-a-row.

And finally, I thought the surprise Honda Classic winner, Keith Mitchell, was playing too well to ignore after his sixth last week, despite a poor third round, but after a little digging, he looks an even better bet than I first thought. He sat fourth at halfway in his only outing at the aforementioned Wyndham Championship last year and he sat seventh after the first round here 12 months ago before missing the cut on debut. He could easily blow out this week but he's playing brilliantly at a venue that should suit. I was happy to throw a few pounds his way at [150.0].

Selections:
Francesco Molinari @ [29.0]
Ian Poulter @ [80.0]
Matthew Fitzpatrick @ [100.0]
Lucas Glover @ [100.0]
Keith Mitchell @ [150.0]

I'll be back tomorrow with my Magical Kenya Open preview.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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