The Players Championship: Don't duck in-form Donald at Sawgrass, says The Punter

Luke Donald - one of The Punter's picks at Sawgrass
Luke Donald - one of The Punter's picks at Sawgrass

It's the game's so-called Fifth Major this week and our man's taken a good look at what it will take to win the Floridian showpiece. Read Steve's in-depth Players Championship preview here...

“With both strong current and course form, Luke Donald looks to have a solid chance this week and I thought he was impossible to leave out.”


Tournament History

The Players Championship began life as the Tournament Players Championship in 1974. With $10 million up for grabs it's the richest tournament in golf and it's universally known as the "fifth major".


Venue

TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida


Course Details

Par 72 -7,215 yards 
Stroke Index in 2013 - 72.32

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 yet another Bermuda-grass Pete Dye design and it's one of the most renowned courses in the world. The par 3 17th, with its dramatic island green, is one of the most recognised 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 result being that the firmness of the, smaller than average sized, greens can be controlled in any weather conditions. This week they'll be set to run at around 12.5 on the stimpmeter. 


Useful Sites

Course Site
Twitter Link
Tee Times
Weather Forecast
Alternative Weather Forecast


TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 18:00


Last Five Winners

2013 - Tiger Woods -13
2012 - Matt Kuchar -13
2011 - K.J Choi -13 (playoff) 
2010 - Tim Clark -16
2009 - Henrik Stenson -12


What will it take to win the Players Championship?

This is one of those rare weeks when the shorter hitters have a chance of bagging a big title. Six of the last 10 winners have ranked 41st or worse for driving distance and when Fred Funk sneaked past everyone in 2005 he ranked 80th. 

When length is relatively unimportant accuracy off the tee usually counts for plenty but that's not necessarily the case at Sawgrass. Three of the last ten winners have ranked first for driving accuracy but Matt Kuchar, in 2012, ranked 37th, Adam Scott, ten years ago, ranked 42nd and Phil Mickelson, when he won in 2007, ranked as poorly as 65th. 

With seven of the last 10 winners ranking fourth or better for greens in regulation and with four of the last five winners ranking no worse than seventh for scrambling, what you do after you've hit your tee shot is what counts here, although you can get away with only putting OK...

In 2008, Sergio Garcia ranked just 69th for putting, as did Funk three years earlier, and only two of the last 10 winners have ranked inside the top-10 for putting.

To clarify and simplify the stats over the last 10 years, here are the average ratings for the last 10 winners in all the key stats.

Driving Accuracy - 19.4
Driving Distance - 40.9
G.I.R - 7.2
Scrambling - 15.9
Total Putts - 29.5

It's quite clear that by some distance the most important stat to consider is greens in regulation.


Is there an angle in?

You might want to wait until the draw has been made before placing your bets as ever since the event moved from March to May, an early tee-time on day one has been highly advantageous. Tiger Woods, 12 months ago, is the only winner in the last seven years to be drawn in the afternoon on Thursday. 


Is there an identikit winner?

Course experience is a big plus. When Adam Scott took the title a decade ago he did so on just his third start and Henrik Stenson won on only his fourth appearance at Sawgrass but they're the exception and no the rule. The average number of appearances for the last ten winners is 9.3 and you don't even need lots of good form in the book to perform well, just plenty of experience. Matt Kuchar had a withdrawal, a couple of missed cuts and no top-tens on his CV when he won and plenty of players suddenly do well here after years of seemingly just turning up. If you fancy someone with the right profile and plenty of course experience but no strong course form, don't be put off.

Given you usually need plenty of course experience and that length of the tee isn't imperative, it's perhaps not surprising to see that veterans have an admirable record here. Funk was no spring chicken when he won in 2005 and when the 40-year-old K.J Choi won in 2011; he beat 44-year old David Toms in a playoff. Fellow vets, Kenny Perry and Paul Goydos, have both come very close to winning here recently and only last year, 49-year-old, Jeff Maggert, finished runner-up. Discount the oldies at your peril. 

Although Tiger went off as favourite last year, he was chased home by un-fancied players and outsiders have a decent record here. Choi and Clark weren't obvious recent winners, Stephen Ames went off at 170.0169/1 in 2006, Fred Funk was at least twice that price 12 months earlier and that can't be too many people that can lay claim to having backed the 2002 winner, Craig Perks - that was his one and only win anywhere!


In-Play Tactics

Ames and Choi were both six shots adrift after round one when they won but they're the only two winners outside the top-14 and ties after day one in the last ten years. Over the last decade, three winners were in front after round one and Clark (23rd) and Choi (11th), in 2010 and '11, are the only winners in this century to be outside the top-ten at halfway so a fast start really helps, but being in front with a round to go is often a negative...

Tiger Woods was tied with Sergio Garcia and David Lingmerth after three rounds 12 months ago and he was the first third round leader or co-leader to win in seven years. Hanging around all week and sweeping past the leaders late on seems to be the way it's done around Sawgrass.

The finish here is one of the most dramatic in the world. The par 5 16th ranked the easiest on the course last year but with water in play it's no formality. The famous 17th seems to have a say in the outcome almost every year and the last is a brute of a hole with water in play right up until the final putt drops - it averaged 4.39 last year and was the hardest on the course.


Market Leaders

Following his fourth top-10 finish in five starts, Rory McIlroy heads the market but he's not for me. His Sawgrass form is far from spectacular - when he finished eighth last year, it was the first time he'd made the cut in four visits. He'd sat second after an opening 66 but he failed to break 70 over the next three days and after a disappointing week after a decent start again last week, if there's value in his price here, I can't see it.

After a disappointing defence of his US Masters title, the rest of nigh on a month has probably done Adam Scott a bit of good but I'm in no rush to get with him either. He goes well fresh but since winning here in 2004, his Sawgrass form has been somewhat disappointing with the best he's mustered in the last six years being a tie for 15th. 

The 2012 winner, Matt Kuchar, is arguably the most consistent in-form player on the planet at present and his run of fine form was finally rewarded last time out at the RBC Heritage Classic when he chipped in from a greenside bunker on the final hole to win. You could easily argue that he needed that slice of fortune to finally win again though and for someone who's really struggled in-contention of late; his price makes no appeal at all.

The mercurial Phil Mickelson was at his mystifying best and worst at the Wells Fargo Championship, constructing an eclectic four round score of seven-under-par with rounds of 67-75-62-76. You can never write Lefty off anywhere and he has won here before, in 2007, but he tends to drift every week before the off and although he's not on the radar yet, should the usual drift occur, I may well play him modestly late on Wednesday. 


Selections

With both strong current and course form, Luke Donald looks to have a solid chance this week. He perhaps didn't do quite enough to deserve victory at the Valspar Championship in March when his final round of 70 saw him finish fourth but he was a bit unlucky at The Heritage last time out when Matt Kuchar caught him at the death. He led here with a round to go in 2005 and his most recent Sawgrass form figures read 4-6-19. He's not a massive price at around 30.029/1 but all things considered, I thought he was impossible to leave out.

This will be the 10th year in-a-row that Bermuda greens specialist, Zach Johnson, has lined-up at Sawgrass and at around 50.049/1 he looks decent value. He sat in second place after round one on debut in 2005 before drifting down to 8th and he also sat in second place after the first round last year, before slipping to 19th. He finished runner-up to Matt Kuchar two years ago and last week's 14th place finish was very encouraging, given his Quail Hollow record isn't great.

Ryan Palmer looks well worth chancing at a triple figure price. He's already finished runner-up twice this season, at the Humana Challenge and the Honda Classic and his seventh placed finish at the Houston Open last month was a fair effort too. He missed the cut in six of his first seven visits to Sawgrass but appeared to 'get it' last year when he finished 5th.

There are some bets I don't think I'll ever stop having and Ben Crane in the Players Championship is one of them. He's woefully out of form this year but he has four top-eight finishes in his last six visits to Sawgrass and I can't leave him out at a monster price. He was going to win me a small fortune when he hit the front during round four in 2009 but he hit the buffers hard on the back-nine as Henrik Stenson came through to win. 


Selections:
Luke Donald @ 30.029/1
Zach Johnson @ 55.054/1
Ryan Palmer @ 130.0129/1
Ben Crane @ 360.0359/1


I'll be back tomorrow with my Madeira Islands Open preview.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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