Players Championship: Outsiders chanced at Sawgrass

Golfer Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy after last year's Sawgrass success
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The PGA Tour takes in the third leg of the Florida swing this week - the magnificent Players Championship at Sawgrass - and our man has the lowdown ahead of Thursday's start here...

"Sawgrass allows for all types to prosper so the Players Championship is a magnificent but very open tournament."

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.

Rory McIlroy took the title 12 months ago but that's bad news for favourite backers and Rory fans - nobody has ever defended the title. In fact, of the last 10 defending champions, only Webb Simpson, who finished tied 16th in 2019, has recorded a top-55 finish the following year.

Universally referred to as the fifth major, the Players Championship is one of the most prestigious tournaments staged throughout the year. This is the 49th edition.

Venue

TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Course Details

Par 72 -7,189 yards
Stroke Index in 2019 - 71.53

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.

SAWGRASS Original Stadium Course.jpg

Described as a balanced course, with dog-legged holes going both ways and holes routed so that no two consecutive holes 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 (which it occupied for 12 years before switching back to March last year) 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 and it 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 the 2018 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. The hole averaged 3.62, there were 60 more birdies than in 2017 and nine more eagles and looking at last year's averages, the players are really getting to grips with the new layout now.

The 13th was the easiest hole on the course 12 months ago, averaging just 3.54. The eagle count went down from 11 to eight but there were 217 birdies throughout the week. That's 20 more than 2018 and 80 more than 2016.

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

2014 - Rory McIlroy -16
2018 - Webb Simpson -18
2017 - Si Woo Kim -10
2016 - Jason Day -15
2015 - Rickie Fowler -7 (playoff)

What Will it Take to Win the Players Championship?

Sawgrass allows for all player types to prosper so the Players is a magnificent but very open tournament.

Jason Day ranked number one for Driving Distance when he won here in 2016 but the 2018 winner, Webb Simpson, ranked 71st. Simpson prospered because he found more fairways than anyone else. Day only ranked 54th for Driving Accuracy. And last year's result demonstrated perfectly how different players can fare well. Rory McIlroy won the event ranking 5th for DD and 49th for DA, with the veteran, Jim Furyk, ranking only 72nd for DD but third for DA, finishing second.

In the decade between 2005 and 2014, the 10 winners had an average Greens in Regulation ranking of just 7.5 and the last two winners have ranked third and fifth so that looks like a fairly key stat but the three victors before Simpson two years ago ranked 51st, 15th and 37th so it's not absolutely imperative to find greens with consistency...provided you scramble impeccably instead.

Rory ranked ninth for Putting Average and Simpson third but the five winners before Webb only had an average Putting Average ranking of 18 so it's possible to win here 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.

WEBB SIMPSON TROPHY 2018.jpg

Rory only ranked 40th and Simpson 24th but the two winners before them 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 15 years.

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 four 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 two of the last three Players Champions, Webb Simpson and Si Woo 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 form to peruse.

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 and the correlation was boosted again last year when the 2018 Wyndham winner, Brandt Snedeker, finished fifth in this event and the 2017 runner-up, Ollie Schniederjans, who was woefully out of form and a complete no-hoper before the off, finished tied for 16th having hit a low of [12.0] in-running.

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.

There was nothing in it over the first two days combined last year but the 2018 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 fewer than those drawn in the afternoon and three years ago it was almost two strokes. Given this tournament favours the frontrunners (see In-Play Tactic below) getting drawn early on Thursday is often a big plus even if the weather forecast, as it does this year, appears not to favour either side of the draw..

The tee-times have already been posted and here they are.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

First-timers don't have a great record at Sawgrass. In 48 previous renewals here, only two debutants have won - Hal Sutton in 1983 and huge outsider, Craig Perks in 2002.

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

Rory McIlroy 2019 - MC-MC-MC-8-6-8-12-35-MC
Webb Simpson 2018 - MC-MC-69-MC-15-MC-66-16
Jason Day 2016 - MC-6-MC-19-MC
Rickie Fowler 2015 - MC-MC-2-MC-MC
Martin Kaymer 2014 - 55-34-19-15-43

That could be extended further, as the vast majority of winners have lots appearances and plenty of missed cuts. It's a difficult event to predict with all sorts of types winning and course specialists are few and far between.

McIlroy was generally a [17.0] chance 12 months ago and Simpson was fairly well-backed in 2018. He opened up at [110.0] on the Monday but went off at around [80.0] and Day was well-fancied four years ago too but the list of past champions contains plenty of shock winners so don't be afraid to back an outsider or two and outsiders have a terrific record.

Kim was matched at [1000.0] before the off three years ago and 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 at [170.0].

Fowler wasn't exactly well-fancied five years ago, as he was matched at [70.0] before the off and Kaymer was matched at a triple-figure price six 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, have both nearly won recently and Jim Furyk came close again 12 months ago. He was matched at a low of [3.2] 12 months ago and he traded at just [1.77] six years ago. And 49-year-old, Jeff Maggert, finished runner-up seven 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 18 renewals. As touched upon in yesterday'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. Outsiders and overseas players tend to do well here.

In-Play Tactics

A fast start is extremely beneficial - hence why I like the early starters on day one. Last year's winner, Rory McIlroy, was tied for fifth and just two back after round one, tied for the lead at halfway, and second and one stroke back with a round to go. That was fairly typical but three of the last six - Simpson, Day and Kaymer - have won wire-to-wire!

In the previous 46 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 only 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 Jon Rahm last year - he finished tied for 12th having traded at [1.5] in-running before going on to shoot 76 and J.B Holmes, three years, shot 84 to finish tied for 41st!

Even with the three wire-to-wire winners, (who shot final rounds of 71, 71 and 73 to hang on) since 2007, 17 players have led or co-led and none of them have shot a round in the 60s. The 17 are a combined 51-over-par with a scoring average of 75. Up with the pace is definitely the place to be but you're clearly there to be shot at if you're leading at Sawgrass through 54 holes.

If you are planning to trade in-running, the first two holes are straightforward but it gets tough after that and the scoring section (if it can be classed as one) is between holes nine and 12. The final hole on the back nine is a par five that averaged 4.84 12 months ago, the par four 10th isn't too taxing, the 11th is another par five (averaged 4.66 last year) and the drivable 12th, as highlighted above in the course notes, is the easiest hole on the property now. It's a grind all the way in after that though with the only slight respite coming at the par five 16th.

Market Leaders

Since his somewhat sulky performance at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship way back in September, world number one and defending champion, Rory McIlroy, hasn't finished outside the top-five in any event and he hasn't been playing in tinpot tournaments.

His last seven starts have seen him finish third in the ZOZO Championship, first in the WGC- HSBC Champions, fourth in the DP World Championship in Dubai, third in the Farmers Insurance and fifth at the Genesis Open, the WGC Mexico Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday. That's an extremely impressive run but whether he's a value price most weeks is debatable and he looks one to swerve this week given the dire record of defending champions. As highlighted above, nobody has defended this title and Rory has never defended any title himself either.

Jon Rahm has developed into a winning machine on the European Tour and like Rory, his form figures are a model of consistency but he's less prolific on the PGA Tour and last year's finish is just enough to put me off. His overall form figures at Sawgrass read MC-63-12 and he may just need this year's tournament to get back in the groove. I could be doing him a big disservice as he's mentally robust but most players find it extremely hard to win at a venue where they'd previously messed up.

Jon Rahm watches drive 1280.jpg

At odds of around [20.0], Justin Thomas is my idea of the best value amongst the market leaders. His course form figures read 24-3-MC-11-35 which is broadly in line with what we've seen here with many previous winners and he's extremely prolific.

He missed the cut from the wrong side of the draw at the Sony Open but that came a week after winning the Sentry TOC and he had the weekend off at the Genesis Open in February but that's an example of why I'm reluctant to get involved with Rahm. Thomas had led the Genesis by four with a round to go in 2019 before getting beat so he had some bad memories to banish at Riviera. He's usually close to bombproof in-contention and in contrast to Rory, he gets more than his fair share of wins.

Selections

As already stated, this magnificent course gives everyone a chance so it's wide open and, with such strong in-running trends, it makes sense to keep most of your powder dry for the in-play market. There are so many quality players at juicy prices, however, that's easier said than done and I've finished up backing eight for small stakes before the off.

Nobody seems to like him but that doesn't bother Patrick Reed. He has an ordinary set of Sawgrass form figures, reading MC-24-MC-22-41-47 but his first PGA Tour victory came in the Wyndham in 2013 around the aforementioned Sedgefield Country Club and he arrives at Ponte Vedra Beach in fine order.

He was only 15th last week in the Arnold Palmer but he was one of a number of players to get caught out when the course hardened significantly on Saturday and he lost his way completely with a round of 80. He won the WGC-Mexico Championship in his penultimate start and that could very easily have been his fourth victory in 17 starts. Having won the Northern Trust in August, he should have won the Hero Challenge in December and he lost a playoff to Justin Thomas at the Sentry TOC in January. He's a terrific scrambler and looks just the type to take this title.

Marc Leishman's course form figures are also ordinary but he was eighth in 2013 and he did absolutely nothing wrong last week when finishing a stroke behind my next bet, Tyrrell Hatton.

Back-to-back winners are rare but given Hatton won the Italian Open a week after defending his Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and that he's won twice in four starts - either side of wrist surgery - I'm more than happy to leave a few chips on the table at the same price I backed him at last week.

Hatton wins ARnold Palmer.jpg

I thought Korea's Byeong-Hun An looked a big price at [120.0]. He's been playing nicely of late and his fourth at the Honda behind fellow countryman, Sungjae Im, was especially encouraging given he opened up the event with a round of 75. He was a bit disappointing last week but he'll be inspired by Im's win and can bounce back here on his fourth appearance at Sawgrass. His figures at the track read MC-30-26 so he's going in the right direction.

Last year's Honda Classic winner, Keith Mitchell, has returned to form, J.T Poston won the Wyndham last year, and Brian Harman also has form at Sedgefield so they've all been chanced at huge prices and I've even backed [1000.0] chance, C.T Pan. He was runner-up to Brandt Snedeker in the 2018 Wyndham and he won the RBC Heritage at the Pete Dye designed Harbour Town only last year. He's out of form and his course form is sparse and poor, reading 46-72 but he's still too big at that price.

Selections:
Patrick Reed @ [44.0]
Marc Leishman @ [60.0]
Tyrrell Hatton @ [70.0]
Byeong-Hun An @ [120.0]
Keith Mitchell @ [300.0]
J.T Poston @ [360.0]
Brian Harman @ [410.0]
C.T Pan @ [1000.0]

I'll be back on Friday morning with the In-Play Blog.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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