The 'Fifth Major' is upon us and Steve Rawlings takes an in-depth look at the test awaiting the world's best at Sawgrass this week...
"Grace is a quite brilliant scrambler with really impressive recent GIR stats and if he's refreshed and he can hold his form, he's a major player this week. He's currently the 11th best player in the world according to the official world rankings and I couldn't quite work out why he was as big as 60.059/1."
Jack Nicklaus won the inaugural Players Championship in 1974 and he went on to take the title in 1976 and 1978 as well. He's still the only man to win the tournament three times. With a first prize of $1,800,000, the winner will collect the same amount of cash as Danny Willett did in Augusta. The Players is a huge and prestigious tournament, considered by many to be the fifth major.
TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Par 72 - 7,215 yards
Stroke Index in 2015 - 72.08
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 recognisable holes in golf.
Described as a balanced course, with doglegged 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 now regular May date, 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 12.5 on the stimpmeter.
Live on Sky all four days
Last Five Winners
2015 - Rickie Fowler -7 (playoff)
2014 - Martin Kaymer -13
2013 - Tiger Woods -13
2012 - Matt Kuchar -13
2011 - K.J Choi -13 (playoff)
What Will it Take to Win The Players Championship?
A study of the stats at previous renewals suggests that we shouldn't get too hung up about what the players do off the tee. It appears you don't need to be too long or too straight.
Rickie Fowler ranked 11th for Driving Distance last year and that's the best any winner has ranked since Adam Scott won in 2004 when ranking fifth for DD. And only two winners have ranked inside the top-20 in-between 2004 and 2015. Martin Kaymer was 19th two years ago and Henrik Stenson 20th in 2009. Tim Clark only ranked 59th for DD when he won in 2010 and Fred Funk caused a shock when he took the title in 2005 ranking just 80th for DD so power off the tee is by no means an essential prerequisite. And neither is accuracy. The average driving Accuracy ranking of the last two winners is 23.5 and the last two winners have both ranked 43rd.
Fowler ranked 11th for Greens In Regulation 12 months ago but had either of the two men he beat in the playoff prevailed then the last four winners would have ranked third for that stat. The three winners that preceded Fowler all ranked third or tied third for GIR and so did Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner last year. Fowler did really well to win given he only ranked 55th for GIR and that the ten winners that preceded him had an average ranking of just 7.5.
Rickie putted brilliantly to compensate and he scrambled well too. He ranked second for putting and tenth for Scrambling and although a good week with the flatstick is always rewarded, I'd just favour Scrambling this week. Only two winners in the last 11 years have ranked outside the top-ten for Scrambling.
Is There an Angle In?
Previous event form appears important, even if the form isn't especially strong. Fowler's form figures now read MC-MC-2-MC-MC-1 so don't be put off if someone you fancy has a few missed cuts or has a couple of poor finishes, but seeing the place a few times does look essential.
Like Fowler, the 2014 winner, Martin Kaymer, was also playing TPC Sawgrass for the sixth time and his form figures were failing uninspiring too. His form figures prior to winning read 55-34-19-15-43.
It's a strange event that's hard to predict with all sorts of types winning and the title tends to get spread around too. Nobody has ever defended, Nicklaus is the only three-time winner, and when Tiger Woods won three years ago, he became just the fifth to do so twice. And in the 20 years prior to that victory, 20 different men had taken the title.
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 they're also played on Pete Dye-designed courses.
I like an early tee-time on Thursday 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.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The list of past champions contains plenty of shock winners so don't 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 ten years, as he went off at 170.0169/1. Fowler wasn't exactly well-fancied last year either as he was matched at 70.069/1 before the off and Kaymer was matched at a triple-figure price two 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 the 40-year-old K.J Choi won in 2011, beating 44-year old David Toms in a playoff. Fellow vets, Kenny Perry and Paul Goydos, have both come very close to winning recently. Jim Furyk traded at just 1.774/5 two years ago and two three years ago, 49-year-old, Jeff Maggert, finished runner-up. Discount the oldies at your peril.
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 six of the last 14 renewals.
A fast start is extremely beneficial. In the previous 42 renewals, as many as 13 winners have been leading after round one, more than half of the winners (22) have been positioned inside the top-three after day one and 20 winners have either been leading or one off the pace after round one.
Interestingly, 13 first round leaders have gone on to victory but only 18 third round leaders have won. Kaymer won wire-to-wire two years ago but he was the first to do so since Hal Sutton achieved it in 2000 and being out in front through 54-holes isn't necessarily a big plus. Only four of the last 15 winners were in front with a round to go a really fast start followed by a couple of days of lurking and a late swoop looks the way to do it at Sawgrass.
Fowler took the late swoop to extremes last year when he was matched at 790.0789/1 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 short par four 12th offer up chances to make birdie but after that, the only hole to average below par 12 months ago was the par five 16th. At only 523 yards, it's an outside eagle chance (17 were made there last year) and very good birdie opportunity. Averaging just 4.54, it was the easiest hole on the course last year but it's the only real opportunity in the last six holes.
After three straight missed cuts, the penny dropped for Rory McIlroy here and he's finished inside the top-10 at Sawgrass in each of his last three starts. He finished the Wells Fargo Championship in fine style yesterday, so he appears in good shape, but he always plays well at Quail Hollow and that could be a bit misleading.
He's now won just once worldwide in the last 12 months and it's now more than a year since he won on American soil. I was more than happy to take 6.25/1 about him on a course he loves in a field not as strong as this last week but he makes no appeal this week at a single-figure price.
Second favourite, Jordan Spieth, is already a two-time Major winner and he needs no introduction but he does need to overcome that horrific finish at Augusta. He's not been sighted since his Masters meltdown and for that reason alone I'm happy to leave him out. He's the consummate pro but whether he can come out with all guns blazing after that major hiccup is debatable. This is his third appearance at TPC Sawgrass. He finished fourth on debut after a fast start in 2014 but he missed the cut here last year.
After back-to-back victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC - World Match Play, world number one Jason Day has gone a fraction cold. He could only muster a disappointing 10th place finish at Augusta and he lost his way completely in the RBC Heritage before he finished fifth in New Orleans a fortnight ago. With course form figures reading MC-6-MC-19-MC, it's anyone's guess what we'll see from him this week but I'm happy to let him go un-backed.
Rickie Fowler is looking to be the first player to successively defend and that's a negative. And he also has to overcome yesterday's poor final round at Quail Hollow. He went into round four leading and trading at just a shade over evens but he was very soon out of the equation and he could very easily suffer from some sort of mental let down. He makes no appeal at all at around 20.019/1.
Given the last two PGA Tour winners have begun the week as 1000.0 shots, that this event often produces a shock winner, and that the in-running trends are strong, it makes little sense going overboard before the off but the one I really like here is Branden Grace.
The South African sat alongside Fowler in a tie for third at halfway last year but weekend rounds of 73 and 75 saw him slip to 42nd so his aptitude for the venue isn't immediately apparent. Two starts ago he won the RBC Heritage at the Pete Dye-designed Harbour Town and but for an understandably slow start a week later, he might well have followed up in the Valero Texas Open. Two opening rounds of 72 left him a lot to do but he managed ninth after firing 69-67 on the weekend.
He's a quite brilliant scrambler with really impressive recent GIR stats and if he's refreshed and he can hold his form, he's a major player this week. He's currently the 11th best player in the world according to the official world rankings and I couldn't quite work out why he was as big as 60.059/1.
Branden Grace @ 60.059/1
Fabian Gomez @ 500.0499/1
Update - 16.00 - May 10, 2016
Just a very quick update to say I've followed Ian at Sports Betting Index in with Fabian Gomez. He's a favorite of mine given I was on board at a triple figure price when he won the Sony Open in January anyway and as Ian quite rightly highlights on Twitter (@SBIdotcom) he played superbly after round one last week and the course really should suit.
You can read my AfrAsia Mauritius Open Betting Preview. behind the link.
You can read my colleague Dave Tindall's Players Championship each-way tips behind the link.
* You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter