The Players Championship: Thomas a fair price for another Sawgrass success

The final hole at TPC Sawgrass
The 18th at Sawgrass

The PGA Tour moves on to TPC Sawgrass this week for the third leg of the Florida swing - the Players Championship - and our man has the lowdown ahead of Thursday's start here...

  • Strong line-up for the 'fifth major'

  • Sedgefield the place to look for clues

  • Overseas players have a strong record

  • Outsiders fare well at Sawgrass


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, Cam Smith, won't be defending his title but it probably wouldn't have mattered if he did as nobody has successfully defended.

The 2021 winner, Justin Thomas, finished only 33rd last year 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!

Venue

TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Course Details

Par 72 -7,256 yards
Stroke Index in 2021 - 72.62

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, 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.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

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

Last Seven Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

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 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 the 2019 result demonstrated perfectly how different players can fare equally 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 ten winners had an average Greens In Regulation ranking of just 7.5 but recent history suggests it's no longer a key stat.

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

The top-five ranked 22nnd, fifth, first, 11th and fourth for Scrambling and the top-eight in 2021 all ranked inside the top-20 for that stat and most winners scramble well around these much smaller than average greens.

Ordinarily, this is one of those rare events where putting isn't absolutely key. Thomas ranked only 14th for Putting Average and 42nd for Strokes Gained Putting in 2021 but last year's winner went against the grain.

Ranking only 70th for Driving Accuracy, Smith hit only 43% of fairways throughout the week but he gained an incredible 11.5 strokes with the putter!

Smith was the first winner of the Players to hit less than 50% of the fairways throughout the week and with 45 one-putts, he beat the record of any previous Players winner by seven!

Cam Smith wins the Players.jpg

Unsurprisingly, he ranked first for both Putting Average and Strokes Gained Putting

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 six 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 both the 2012 and 2021 US PGA Championships.

Sedgefield Country Club is a Donald Ross track but given two of the last five Players Champions, Webb Simpson and Si Woo Kim, have won the Wyndham Championship there, as well as four other 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 both the 2010 and 2014 Players champions, Tim Clark and Adam Scott (missed a short putt for the title in 2021), have finished second at Sedgefield.

The 2021 Wyndham winner, Kevin Kisner, was beaten in a playoff here in 2015, as well as fourth last year, and Luke Donald has finished runner-up at both venues.

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.

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

Poor weather last year 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 and Smith became the seventh winner in-a-row to be assigned a morning tee-time on day one.

Strong current form looks key?

Having won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, Smith came into the event with 2022 form figures reading 1-MC-4-33 and the previous 11 Players winners had all performed admirably in their penultimate start, with 22nd being the worst any of them had finished in their previous start.

Smith let the side down with his tied 33rd at the Genesis Invitational in his last start before the Players but he checked another trend...

As many as ten of the last 12 winners have finished tied fourth or better in at least one event earlier in the calendar year.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

First-timers don't have a great record at Sawgrass. In 41 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 four winners, Smith, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson, and the previous three winners, give us a nice indication of the sort of course form portfolios that are typical.

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 there's nearly always at least one decent performance at the track. The last 15 winners have finished at least 23rd or better here previously.

The last three 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 and Jason Day was well-fancied seven 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 six 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 eight years ago, as he was matched at 70.069/1 before the off and Kaymer was matched at a triple-figure price nine years ago.

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 eight of the last 20 renewals.

Outsiders and overseas players tend to do well here.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

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

In-Play Tactics

Having sat tied for 15th after round one, Cam 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. 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 only 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 as many as three of the last eight winners - Simpson, Day and Kaymer - have won wire-to-wire!

In the previous 49 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 20 third round leaders have won so 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 in 1997 by seven after a 69 on Sunday, as many as 29 players have led or co-led through 54 holes and only two of them (Stephen Ames in 2006 and the unfortunate Anirban Lahiri last year) has shot a round in the 60s on Sunday.

Lahiri at teh Players.jpg

Ames fired a 67 to win by six having led by one 17 years ago and Lahiri became only the third leader or co-leader to break 70 in the last 25 years. And he was the first to do so and not win since D.A Weibring in 1985 but 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 4.9 last year, the the 11th is another par five (averaged 4.65 last time) and the drivable 12th averaged below par (3.95). It's a grind all the way in after that though with the only slight respite coming at the par five 16th. The famous 17th averaged 3.26 last year and was the second hardest on the course and the 18th played the toughest, averaging 4.53.

Market Leaders

After his near miss at Bay Hill on Sunday, where he traded at odds-on when he gave himself a chance from ten feet to hit the front on the 72nd hole, the 2019 winner, Rory McIlroy, shades favouritism over the man that arguably should have won four years, Jon Rahm, but neither make any appeal at around 10/1.

Having finished inside the top-four in seven straight starts, including three wins, Rory finished down the field at both the Phoenix Open and the Genesis Invitational (T32 & T29) after his victory in the Dubai Desert Classic at the end of January so Sunday's tied second in the Arnold Palmer Invitational was a welcomed return to form.

Rory has a very mixed set of results at Sawgrass, reading MC-MC-MC-8-6-8-12-35-MC-1-MC-33 so it's difficult to know what to expect, although the relatively benign forecast should help.

Rahm was matched at just 2.56/4 at the Arnold Palmer when leading by two strokes after round one but back-to-back 76s derailed him and it's difficult to know how he'll respond to a disappointing week.

Rahm went into last week's event with form figures reading 2-1-4-1-1-1-7-3-1 so the tied 39th at Bay Hill was completely unexpected, especially after the fast start.

The world number one has Sawgrass figures reading MC-63-12-9-55 but it's worth highlighting that he led here by a stroke with a round to go in 2019 before finishing 12th.

The world number three, Scottie Scheffler, is playing Sawgrass for only the third time and there's nothing in his first two visits to suggest he likes the place.

Scheffler shot 74-71 to miss the cut on debut in 2021 and rounds of 70, 76, 68 and 76 last year saw him finish tied for 55th.

Selection

Justin Thomas was a bit disappointing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, finishing tied for 21st after being bang in-contention halfway through the third round, but the exchange market may have overacted fractionally.

The 2021 winner and reigning US PGA Champ is no bigger than 20/1 on the High Street and that's more reflective of his chances than the 27.026/1 available on the exchange.

Justin Thomas drive blue sky 1280.jpg

As highlighted above, multiple winners aren't common, but Thomas is very well suited to the layout, he was also third here in 2016, and he has a habit of winning the same event twice.

Thomas has already won the CIMB Classic, the CJ Cup, the WGC Invitational, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, and the US PGA Championship twice so a second Players title wouldn't be a huge surprise.

I was also keen on Keegan Bradley, but he's been well-backed, and I've missed the price so I'll get him onside if he drifts back out and I can see the reigning Wyndham winner, Tom Kim, taking to the track, but the poor record of course debutants is off-putting.

Selection:
Justin Thomas @ 27.026/1

I'll have at least one selection here for the Find Me a 100 Winner column which I'll publish tomorrow.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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