The Players Championship: 74/1 Casey fits the bill for Sawgrass success

Golfer Paul Casey
Paul Casey - fancied to go well at Sawgrass

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...

"Since Elkington won the second of his two titles in 1997 by seven strokes, after a 69 on Sunday, as many as 27 players have led or co-led through 54 holes and only one of them (Stephen Ames in 2006) has shot a round in the 60s on Sunday.

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.

Rory McIlroy took the title two years ago and after last year's renewal was cancelled following just one round, as the COVID pandemic worsened, he's still the defending champion. But that's bad news for Rory fans.

Nobody has ever defended the title and of the last 10 defending champions, only Webb Simpson, who finished tied 16th in 2019, has recorded a top-55 finish. And it's highly unlikely that Rory would have defended last year if the event had been played to its conclusion. Rory started poorly, sitting tied for 83rd and nine strokes adrift of the leader, Hideki Matsuyama. For what it's worth, here's the leaderboard for last year's cancelled edition.

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 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.

The 17th at Sawgrass.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.

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 averages in 2019, the players are really getting to grips with the new layout now.

The 13th was the easiest hole on the course two years 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, beginning at 11:30 (UK and Ireland) on Thursday

Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

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 - a bit like Bryson DeChambeau and Lee Westwood last week. 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 GIR 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 three 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.

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 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 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 in 2019 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 12.011/1 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 in 2019 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 less than those drawn in the afternoon and four 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 often a big plus even if the weather forecast appears not to favour either side of the draw.

As Jason Sobel's tweet demonstrates below, a decent performance last time out looks key.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

First-timers don't have a great record at Sawgrass. In 38 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 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.

McIlroy was generally a 17.016/1 chance 12 months ago 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 Day was well-fancied five 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 1000.0 before the off four 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 six years ago, as he was matched at 70.069/1 before the off and Kaymer was backed at a triple-figure price seven 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 and Jim Furyk came close again two years ago. He was matched at a low of 3.211/5 and he traded at just 1.774/5 seven years ago. And 49-year-old, Jeff Maggert, finished runner-up eight 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.

Outsiders and overseas players tend to do well here.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

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

A fast start is extremely beneficial - hence why I like the early starters on day one. The 2019 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 in 2019 - he finished tied for 12th having traded at 1.51/2 in-running before going on to shoot 76 and J.B Holmes, four years ago, shot 84 to finish tied for 41st!

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 strokes, after a 69 on Sunday, as many as 27 players have led or co-led through 54 holes and only one of them (Stephen Ames in 2006) has shot a round in the 60s on Sunday.

Ames fired a 67 to win by six having led by one with a round to go 15 years ago but the 17 third round leaders and co/leaders since Ames won 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 in 2019, the par four 10th isn't too taxing, the 11th is another par five (averaged 4.66 last time) 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

World number one, Dustin Johnson, heads the market despite his ordinary bank of Florida form and his 54th placed finish in the state last time out at the WGC Workday Championship.

Dustin Johnson at Riviera.jpg

DJ's course form figures reads an unimpressive MC-MC-34-57-W-59-69-28-12-17-5 and he's won just once in 30 starts in Florida

Last week's winner, Bryson DeChambeau, has finished only 37th and 20th in his two starts here but he's impossible to ignore. He won back-to-back in the summer of 2018 and after Sunday's success at Bay Hill, he's seeking to win for the fourth time in just 16 starts. There's an argument to be made that his price is perfectly reasonable and he can't be ruled out readily.

Jon Rahm threw this event away two years ago and he hasn't quite got to grips with his new clubs having changed manufacturers so he looks easy to leave out before the off and so too does the defending champ, Rory McIlroy, who sounded quite despondent after a disappointing finish to the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week.

Selection

I like a few outsiders here but they'll feature in the Find Me a 100 Winner column tomorrow so I've got just the one pick for now - the recent Dubai Desert Classic winner - Paul Casey - who looks a great price at 75.074/1.

With current form reading 8-1-12-5-10, Casey's a very straightforward and obvious pick despite not having an impressive Sawgrass portfolio. His 10th on debut back in 2004 is still his best effort in 11 visits but as highlighted above, it's often a bank of course experience that counts here rather than a whole load of placed efforts and he's a two-time winner in Florida having won the Valspar back-to-back in 2018 and '19.

Casey has also finished runner-up at the Travelers twice (Pete Dye track) and he finished third at the Wyndham in 2015 so there's a lot to like about the world number 19.

Selection:
Paul Casey @ 75.074/1

I'll be back tomorrow with the Qatar Masters preview.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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