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It has almost been a year since The Players Championship was cancelled after the first round due to concerns over the embryonic stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. I don’t think anyone could have forecast what happened in the subsequent 12 months.
Golf was suspended for 91 days before returning in June. But, if you are a golf fan, finding welcome distractions has been relatively easy. Tournaments have been taking place over four days with 12 hours of play each day.
The 2021 golf season has not disappointed in terms of drama and storylines, and I don’t see that trend stopping this week. Fans being allowed back into the stadium course, where holes can feel like amphitheaters, should make for excellent viewing. Sawgrass is one of the most idiosyncratic golf courses in the world, and the finishing stretch of 16,17 and 18 – mixed with the world’s best trying to grab one of the sport’s biggest crowns – makes it an enthralling location.
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The change back to March in 2019 meant that the course played longer than normal. The cool conditions also meant that the longer hitters on Tour were primed to excel. Rory McIlroy eventually took down the title after a final six-hole tussle against Jim Furyk.
This year conditions look set to play similar to when the tournament was in its original May slot. Temperatures should be in the low to mid-20s all week, with middle levels of humidity. This usually means an opportunity to take on the front end of the market, and here’s four I reckon could land the unofficial fifth major:
Justin Thomas finished 15th at the WGC Workday Championship last time out and digging a little deeper into his stats for the week makes for interesting reading. Thomas put in his worst Strokes Gained Off The Tee performance of his entire career – losing almost six shots to the field. However, it was his second-best Strokes Gained Approach performance ever.
In the main, Thomas gains strokes off the tee at almost every event, so last week’s showing just looks a massive outlier for the American and I’m willing to forgive that. Approach play is a key stat needed to contend at Sawgrass and Thomas is trending in the right direction in that regard.
Thomas has put up two of his best approach performances on Tour his career in his last four events. He’s also has had five appearances here and he has made the cut every single time.
His best showing was a fast-finishing third place in 2016 and I feel he can go a couple of places better this week to become the Players Champion.
Collin Morikawa was a winner at the WGC Workday mentioned above and he put in an imperious tee-to-green performance, gaining nearly 10 strokes on the field with his approach play. That is just a ridiculous number!
His approach figures have been incredible the past six weeks and diving a little more into the stats, in this field he’s playing against this week, he is gaining nearly two shots a round against them.
The nearest player to him is Paul Casey, who is 0.8 of a stroke behind him. We haven’t seen performances levels of iron play like this since peak Tiger Woods back in the early 2000s.
Course experience is the only real negative for Morikawa this week, as he has had one competitive round at the course. That was last year before the event was cancelled due to Covid-19, but in that one round he shot -4 and that is another small snippet of encouragement. I can just see him putting in a really strong performance this week.
The experienced Spaniard was 32nd at the WGC Workday, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of how he actually played. He just had a terrible week on the greens, losing 6.5 strokes putting to the field. However, his tee-to-green game was excellent. He ranked eighth in Shots Gained Off the Tee and fourth in Shots Gained Approach and he was only behind Morikawa, Thomas and Viktor Hovland in that regard last time out.
Garcia has had 20 appearances at The Players Championship and has got all the know-how about the course that you would want. Has had five top 5 finishes in that timeframe, including a memorable win back in 2008. The stats all indicate that he is poised to put up another big showing this week.
I’ve put up Russell Henley quite a bit over the last couple of months and that’s because he’s just playing so well. He had some good showings over the West Coast Swing, but he really starts to play some of his best golf when he comes over to the eastern side of the United States.
He has lost strokes off the tee in his last three starts, but his approach play was excellent. That is a continuing trend over the last nine months where he has been one of the best iron players in the world. Sawgrass is a course that is really going to reward strong iron play too.
He has had two top 25 finishes here in seven appearances and although his Players Championship form is patchy, he is a much better player now and has improved greatly since his last appearance in 2019.
The strengths of the game he now possessed should be well suited to the challenge Sawgrass represents and I can see him outplaying his tempting odds.
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