Players Championship: Schauffele and Burns chanced at Sawgrass

Golfer Xander Scauffele
Xander Schauffele - fancied to go well at Sawgrass

The Florida Swing takes in its third and biggest event this week - the Players Championship aka "the Fifth Major" - and Steve Rawlings is back with his preview ahead of Thursday's start here...

  • Elite scrambling skills required

  • Sedgefield form worthy of consideration

  • Read Dave Tindall's Each-Way Column here


  • 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 that 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 this is the 50th edition.

    Following his defection to Liv Golf, the 2022 winner, Cam Smith, didn't defend his title but it probably wouldn't have mattered if he had played as nobody has successfully defended.

    The 2021 winner, Justin Thomas, finished only 33rd and we have to go all the way back to 2005, when Adam Scott finished eighth, to the last occasion when a defending champ finished inside the top-15. Not a great omen for the 2023 champ, Scottie Scheffler.

    Venue

    TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

    Course Details

    Par 72 -7,275 yards
    Stroke Index in 2023 - 72.45

    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 1.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 in 2019) 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. 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.

    A new back tee was built on the par five ninth before the off last year, stretching the hole 602 yards.


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    TV Coverage

    Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 11:30 (UK and Ireland) on Thursday

    Last Eight Winners with Pre-event Prices

    • 2023 - Scottie Scheffler -17 13.012/1
    • 2022 - Cam Smith -13 42.041/1
    • 2021 - Justin Thomas -14 23.022/1
    • 2020 - Tournament cancelled after round one
    • 2019 - Rory McIlroy -16 17.016/1
    • 2018 - Webb Simpson -18 80.079/1
    • 2017 - Si Woo Kim -10 900.0899/1
    • 2016 - Jason Day -15 14.013/1
    • 2015 - Rickie Fowler -7 65.064/1 (playoff)

    What Will it Take to Win the Players?

    Other than putting averagely, Scottie Scheffler did almost everything well last year, ranking first for Driving Distance, Greens In Regulation and Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, as well as 14th for Driving Accuracy and fourth for Scrambling. It's perhaps no surprise to see he won by five and he can arguably be considered an anomaly of excellence.

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

    Like Scheffler, Jason Day hit it further off the tee than anyone else in 2016 but the 2018 winner, Webb Simpson, ranked only 71st. Simpson prospered because he found more fairways than anyone else whereas Day only ranked 54th for DA. The 2019 result demonstrated perfectly how different long games can fare equally well.

    Rory McIlroy won the event ranking fifth for DD and 49th for DA, with the veteran, Jim Furyk, ranking only 72nd for DD but third for DA, finishing second.

    Rory McIlroy Cognizant day one.jpg

    In the decade between 2005 and 2014, the 10 winners had an average Greens In Regulation ranking of just 7.5 but recent history suggests it's no longer a key stat.

    The 2022 winner, Cam Smith, ranked only 52nd for GIR and the three victors before Simpson, six years ago, ranked 51st, 15th and 37th so it's not absolutely imperative to find greens with consistency, provided you scramble impeccably.

    The smaller than average greens are tough to hit with regularity so most winners scramble well around Sawgrass.

    Ordinarily, this is one of those rare events where putting isn't absolutely key. The 2021 winner, Justin Thomas, ranked only 14th for Putting Average and 42nd for Strokes Gained Putting and Scheffler ranked 34th and 47th for those two metrics. Smith really went against the grain two years ago.

    Smith was the first winner of the Players to hit less than 50% of the fairways throughout the week (43%) but he gained and incredible 11.5 strokes with the putter. His 45 one-putts throughout the week beat the record of any previous Players winner by seven!

    Unsurprisingly, Smith ranked first for both Putting Average and Strokes Gained Putting, but that's not the norm around here and players who aren't renowned for flatstick prowess can and do win.

    Is There an Angle In?

    The RBC Heritage, the Travelers Championship, and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans (now a pairs event) are also played on Pete Dye-designed courses and two of the four rounds at The American Express are played around Pete Dye Stadium Course.

    Other Pete Dye tracks to consider include: Austin Country Club, which hosted the last six editions of the now defunct WGC-Match Play; Whistling Straits, which staged the USPGA Championship in 2004, 2010 and 2015; Crooked Stick, which hosted the 2012 and 2016 BMW Championships; the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which hosted both the 2012 and 2021 US PGA Championships but the course that appears to correlate best with Sawgrass was designed by Donald Ross.

    Scheffler has never played Sedgefield Country Club, which hosts the Wyndham Championship. But two of the five Players champions before him, Webb Simpson and Si Woo Kim, have both won the Wyndham Championship and four other Players Champions, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Davis Love III and K.J Choi have also won both events.

    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. Both the 2010 and 2014 Players champions, Tim Clark and Adam Scott, have finished second at Sedgefield.

    Last year's Wyndham winner, Lucas Glover, has finished third here and the 2021 Wyndham winner, Kevin Kisner, was beaten in a playoff here in 2015. Kisner was also fourth two years ago and Luke Donald has finished runner-up at both venues.

    Strong current form looks key

    Sawgrass isn't a venue where out of form players suddenly find something and win. Eleven of the last 13 winners have finished tied fourth or better in at least one event earlier in the calendar year.

    Cam Smith wins the Players.jpg

    The last two winners,Scheffler and Cam Smith, had won earlier in the year (Scheffler the Phoenix Open and Smith The Sentry) and 33rd (Smith two years ago) is the worst any of the last 12 winners have finished in their previous start.

    You can get latest form in Andy Swales' Players Championship article here.

    Is There an Identikit Winner?

    First-timers don't have a great record at Sawgrass. In 42 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 seven years ago, having finished 23rd in 2016. Scheffler had only been here twice before winning.

    He missed the cut on debut in 2021 before finishing tied for 55th in 2022 but the four winners before him - Smith, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson - and the three winners before Kim, all give us a nice indication of the sort of course form portfolios that are typical here.

    • Cam Smith 2022 - MC-MC-56-17
    • Justin Thomas 2021 - 24-3-MC-11-35
    • 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 of 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. But Scheffler was an unusual winner as there's nearly always at least one decent performance at the track in the portfolio.

    The 15 winners before Scheffler had all finished at least 23rd or better here previously.

    The last four winners have been well-fancied, and Simpson was fairly well-backed in 2018. He opened up at 110.0109/1 on the Monday but went off at around 80.079/1. Jason Day was well-fancied eight 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 as they have a terrific record.

    Kim was matched at 1000.0999/1 before the off seven years ago. 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 170.0169/1.

    Fowler wasn't exactly well-fancied nine years ago, as he was matched at 70.069/1 before the off, and Kaymer was matched at a triple-figure price 10 years ago.

    Rickie Fowler Rocket mortgage day three 23.jpg
    Wily old veterans, who know how to plot their way around Sawgrass, tend to do well here. Fred 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.

    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 nine of the last 21 renewals.

    Outsiders and overseas players tend to do well here.

    Winner's Position and Price Pre-Round Four

    • 2023 - Scottie Scheffler led by two strokes 1.4740/85
    • 2022 - Cameron Smith tied 2nd - trailing by two 9.417/2
    • 2021 - Justin Thomas - tied third - trailing by three 6.611/2
    • 2019 - Rory McIlroy tied 2nd - trailing by one 3.613/5
    • 2018 - Webb Simpson led by seven strokes 1.171/6
    • 2017 - Si Woo Kim solo 4th - trailing by two 17.016/1
    • 2016 - Jason Day led by four strokes 1.374/11
    • 2015 - Rickie Fowler tied 11th- trailing by three 20.019/1

    Early start on Thursday a huge plus

    It's hard to hang fire if you see the prices moving against you when the market first opens. But it may well be worth hanging fire, or at least keeping some powder dry, before the draw is made as there's been a significant draw bias here for many a year.

    There was a differential of 2.18 strokes between the two sides of the draw last year with the morning starters on day one once again enjoying the pristine early conditions.

    Scheffler was the eighth winner in-a-row to begin the tournament on Thursday morning. Tiger woods in 2013 and Martin Kaymer a year later, are the only winners in the last 17 years to be drawn PM-AM.

    It's often advantageous to begin the week early on day one but even more so here. Sawgrass gets fast and firm very quickly so Thursday morning is often the easiest time to play it - especially if the wind gets up in the afternoon.

    Given this tournament favours the frontrunners (see In-Play Tactics below) getting drawn early on Thursday is very often a big plus.

    Poor weather in 2022 caused the first suspension of play at Sawgrass since 2016 and it turned into a strange renewal. But the AM-PM wave still averaged 2.55 strokes less than those that were supposed to start the event on Friday afternoon.

    In-Play Tactics

    Scheffler sat tied fifth and just four off the lead after round one, and he sat second and two back at halfway. That was a far more typical route to victory than the previous two winners.

    Having sat tied for 15th after round one two years ago, Smith was still only tied for 11th at halfway and trading at 18.017/1 before moving into a tie for second after 54 holes.

    Like Scheffler, most winners are closer to the pace throughout than that but the 2021 winner, Justin Thomas, started even slower.

    Thomas was matched at a high of 210.0209/1 in-running before a rally on the back nine in round two saw him go in to the weekend tied for 22nd and trailing by seven strokes but his performance was very unusual.

    A fast start is extremely beneficial here - hence why I like the early starters on day one - and three of the last nine winners - Simpson, Day and Kaymer - have won wire-to-wire.

    In the previous 50 renewals, as many as 15 winners have been leading after round one, 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 21 third round leaders have won. Being out in front through 54-holes isn't necessarily a big plus.

    Even including the three wire-to-wire winners (who shot final rounds of 71, 71 and 73 to hang on), since Elkington won the second of his two titles back in 1997 by seven after a 69 on Sunday, as many as 30 players have led or co-led through 54 holes. Only three of them (Stricker last year, Stephen Ames in 2006 and the unfortunate Anirban Lahiri in 2022) shot a round in the 60s on Sunday.

    Ames fired a 67 to win by six having led by one 18 years ago and Stricker moved from two clear to five in front with a 69 in round four 12 months ago.

    In contrast, Lahiri, who also fired 69 in round four, became only the third leader or co-leader to break 70 in 25 years and he was the first to do so and not win since D.A Weibring in 1985.

    Smith's 66 (to win by one) was just too good. The last two leaders have definitely bucked the trend given the 18 third round leaders/co/leaders in-between Ames and Lahiri were 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 4.85 last year, the 11th is another par five (averaged 4.68 last time) and the drivable 12th averaged below par (3.85).

    It's a grind all the way in after that, though, with the only respite coming at the par five 16th which was the easiest hole on the course last year (4.52).

    The famous 17th averaged 3.13 last year and was the sixth hardest on the course. The 18th played the toughest, averaging 4.35.

    Market Leaders

    The defending champ, Scottie Scheffler, has shortened up markedly from the high of 9.617/2 that he initially traded at but that's perfectly understandable given how impressive he was at Bay Hill on Sunday when winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five strokes.

    Scottie Scheffler with the API trophy.jpg

    With a mallet putter in the bag for the first time, he ranked 42nd for Putting Average and 55th for Strokes Gained: Putting after the opening round but as the week wore on the new putter warmed up, and he ended the week ranking first and fourth for those two metrics!

    If he can maintain the improvement on the greens and his long game remains as imperious as it's been all year, he's certainly the man to beat but there are definitely reasons to take him on.

    Scheffler won the US Masters straight after winning the now defunct WGC Match Play so he has won back-to-back tournaments before and big ones at that but he did have a week off in-between.

    Winning back-to-back is tough and doing so the following week is clearly tougher with no time to enjoy and reflect on the first success.

    The nobody defending the title is an odd stat and one that I don't give a massive amount of credence to but if we also add in the fact that he's been drawn in the afternoon on Thursday, things are starting to stack up against him and I'm happy to leave him out from the get-go.

    The 2019 winner, Rory McIlroy, kicks off the event early on Thursday and that's a big plus given how important a morning start on day one has been here recently and he's a winner this year, having successfully defended his Dubai Desert Classic title but that's where the positives start to dry up.

    Rory's going through his own putting woes at present (ranked 51st for Putting Average last week), he hasn't finished inside the top-20 since he won in Dubai, and he hasn't performed brilliantly since he won here either, producing figures reading MC-33-MC.

    The world number two didn't get to defend his title in 2020 as the tournament was abandoned after the first round as Covid took a grip (Hideki Matsuyama led on -9) but he shot 79 in round one in 2021 and his 66 in round four in 2022, which saw him climb to a tie for 33rd, is the only occasion that he's broken par here since he won.

    Justin Thomas, who won here from off the pace three years ago, is threatening a return to form and he played nicely at Bay Hill last week until a 40 on the back-nine on Sunday saw him slip to tied 12th, but he's short enough for me given he's drawn in the afternoon on day one.

    Selections

    The draw has been so significant here that I'm only happy playing the early starters on Thursday before the off and first up is the fourth in the betting - Xander Schauffele.

    Xander isn't someone I back often as he's not the most reliable in-contention (given how short he is in the betting most weeks) as he proved at the Genesis Invitational two starts ago when he never got going on Sunday having begun the day in second and just two off the lead.

    This is one of a few venues where I'm prepared to overlook players' in-contention record though as we've seen lots of golfers win here that weren't always the most resolute in-the-mix and I think that's down to just how tough the finish is.

    Schauffele eventually finished fourth at Riviera three weeks ago and that followed a tenth at The Sentry, a third at The American Express and a ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open so he's played well on numerous occasions this year already.

    He was never in the hunt last week, finished 25th, and he has a mixed bag of results here too but I thought he was worth chancing at 29.028/1.

    Back Xander Schauffele @ 29.028/1

    Bet here

    Xander finished second here on debut in 2018 before missing his next three cuts and he finished 19th last year after a slow start.

    I'll be back later today with the Find Me a 100 Winner selections but for now my only other pick is Sam Burns, whose early tee time on Thursday isn't the only plus.

    Sam Burns atthe American Express.jpg

    After a period of wet weather, the course will play softer than usual and the rough will be thicker so the fact that Burns has ranked no worse than 21st for Driving Accuracy in each of his last three starts is a plus.

    Burns has a set of ordinary Sawgrass numbers reading MC-26-35 but this is somewhere that should suit him, and he has 2024 form figures reading 33-6-10-3-10-30. And they would read a lot better if it wasn't for Sunday's 78 at Bay Hill, where he fell from four of the lead to outside the top-ten and 16 behind the winner, Scheffler.

    That was most definitely a poor round of golf, but it all started with a triple bogey seven, which altered his chance of victory from extremely remote to non-existent and I'm happy to ignore it.

    Back Sam Burns @ 55.054/1

    Bet now

    Read Dave Tindall's Each-Way Column here


    *You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter


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