It really doesn’t matter whether or not you think of this week’s Players Championship as golf’s “fifth major”, it’s switch back to March from May last year repositioned the annual trip to Florida’s Ponte Vedra Beach as the first serious gathering of the game’s best players on the schedule and there’s a lot to like about that.
That the flagship event on the PGA Tour returns to TPC Sawgrass’s Stadium Course designed by the recently departed Pete Dye every year is about the only predictable thing about this tournament with a record $15 million purse that dwarfs the actual Majors.
Dye’s brilliant design, with no two consecutive holes playing in the same direction, has been described as the ultimate risk-reward course, capable of delivering low scores and some horrible numbers in equal measure.
The rollercoaster ride of the three closing holes helps to ensure that no player has ever gone bogey-free in all four rounds since The Players was added to the schedule in 1974 (moving to TPC Sawgrass in 1982).
With an unlikely list of champions to have negotiated this outstanding but fair test of golf over its 7,189 yards, picking a winner is no easy task. Paddy’s paying 10 places so we at least have a fighting chance. Here are 4 pointers to picking the winner.
1. FEELING RIGHT AT HOME
Jim Furyk’s runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy last year should have come as no surprise given he lives just around the corner in Ponte Vedra Beach, but TPC Sawgrass can stir as many bad memories as good ones and just a couple of nightmares.
For every nine-under-par, course-record 63 that lies out there on the Stadium Course there also lurks an 80, often for the same player. Jason Day laid the foundations for his 2016 victory with opening rounds of 63 and 66 having missed the cut 12 months earlier with a second-round 81.
That the sadly absent Tiger Woods would have been the only multiple Players champion in the field this week (2001, 2013) and no player has ever successfully defended their title at TPC Sawgrass, tells you that this is a tournament that does not lend itself to familiarity when it comes to picking a champion.
Nor does that fact that of the last five champions (2015-19), only 2017 winner Si Woo Kim had not missed a cut at The Players prior to his victory, the Korean having won at just his second attempt. That said, there may be interest in the following table of Sawgrass form horses.
Best Players’ records last five years
Rory McIlroy (2019 first): 1, MC, T35, T12, T8
Jason Day: T8, T5, T60, 1, MC
Adam Scott: T12, T11, T6, T12, T38
Hideki Matsuyama: T8, MC, T22, T7, T17
Tommy Fleetwood: T5, T7, T41 (only 3 apps)
Other champions in last five years
Webb Simpson (2018): T16, 1, DNP, T66, MC
Si Woo Kim (2017): T56, T63, 1st, T23
Rickie Fowler (2015): T47, MC, T60, MC, 1
2. FEELGOOD FACTOR
Great form and good vibes are obvious benefits going into any tournament but never more so than arriving at a familiar course that requires an all-around game firing on all cylinders.
While only two of the last 10 winners of The Players Championship pitched up at TPC Sawgrass with a victory in their previous five starts that season (Jason Day in 2016 and Tiger Woods in 2013 had both won twice), eight of the last 10 champions had recorded multiple top-10 finishes in the preceding weeks.
The outliers in this scenario are Si Woo Kim in 2017 and Tim Clark in 2010, who both could boast only a best performance of a T22 in their most recent five starts before The Players. Last year’s winner Rory McIlroy arrived at the Stadium Course with five successive top-six finishes under his belt.
Of the market leaders heading to Sawgrass, the clear form horse is world number one Rory McIlroy, who since missing the cut at last July’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush has only finished outside the top-10 in two of his 13 starts, a T19 at the BMW Championship during the FedEx Cup play-offs in the USA last August and T26 in the Alfred Dunhill Links a month later.
3. THE COURSE
With its tight fairways, numerous water and sand hazards, and visually intimidation from the tee boxes placing a premium on driving accuracy, its small greens rewarding skill around the greens and a demand for nerveless putting, Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is like Augusta National in the challenge it places on every facet of our contenders’ golf games.
The list of former winners and the variety of playing strengths it showcases strengthens that perspective with relatively short hitters like Webb Simpson and Tim Clark rubbing shoulders alongside bombers such as defending champion Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in the last decade.
Picking out key PGA Tour statistics for the season so far: Greens In Regulation, Strokes Gained: Off The Tee, SG: Approach The Green, Scrambling and SG: Putting, these are the men in The Players field who featured in the top 10 in most of those categories through to the Honda Classic.
4 – Xander Schauffele: GIR – 6th, SG: Off Tee – 9th, SG: App Green – 8th, Scrambling – 4th.
3 – Rory McIlroy: SG: Off Tee – 7th, SG: App Green – 3rd, Scrambling – 1st
3 – Webb Simpson: GIR – 10th, SG: App Green – 7th, Scrambling – 10th
2 – Patrick Cantlay: GIR – 3rd, SG: App Green – 2nd
2 – Tommy Fleetwood: GIR – 8th, SG: Off Tee – 5th
2 – Hideki Matsuyama: GIR – 7th, SG: App Green – 6th
2 – Jon Rahm: SG: Off Tee – 8th, SG: Putting – 5th
2 – Kevin Na: Scrambling – 7th, SG: Putting – 6th
4. THIS YEAR’S CONTENDERS
The defending champion has been a model of brilliant, all-around consistency since his 2019 victory at TPC Sawgrass and without the baggage that follows him into majors is in the form to make his return to The Players the first successful title defence in tournament history.
Has the game to tame the Stadium Course but his weekend return of 64-76 last March will be a tough lesson to overcome this time around.
A couple of missed cuts disrupt some lovely form coming into Sawgrass, including victory at the season-opening Sentry Tournament of Champions but JT will need to rediscover his touch at the Stadium Course, his best finish being a T3 in 2016.
The 2018 champion is ticking all the right boxes two years on. Finished T16 last year in defence of his title and is back in the world’s top-10 rankings thanks to victory in Phoenix earlier this year.
Won The Players in 2004 aged 24 and has not finished worse than T12 since 2015. Goes into this week’s event in great nick with a victory at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera last month.
Another with solid recent form backed by strong showings around TPC Sawgrass. Matsuyama finished T8 behind McIlroy last year and has two top-six finishes in recent weeks.
Ignore the Azinger jibes after he missed out at the Honda Classic, Fleetwood is in fine fettle and has been building nicely since his 2017 Players’ debut, returning T41, T7 and most recently a T5 finish. Could be in line for another pay increase in 2020.
*Prices correct at time of publishing but can change