This week the PGA Tour lands in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida for the 2017 renewal of The Players. Often known as the fifth major, this event is the one outside the big four that every player wants to win. There are several reasons to want to win this event over all other regular Tour events, but perhaps the most important would be the $10.5m purse and the 600 FedEx Cup points on offer.
The purse here at TPC Sawgrass used to be the biggest of the year, until it was announced that the prize fund for the 2017 U.S. Open will be $12m.
The Course, notable changes and what it will take to win the Players Championship
TPC Sawgrass (Stadium Course), 7,189 yards, Par 72
Changes have been made at the Stadium Course, ahead of this year’s Players Championship, most notably on the 12th hole.
Steve Wenzloff, after consulting with original artchitect Pet Dye, has changed #12 into a driveable Par 4, which ranges from 285-320 yards dependent on the day. This will entice most players to go for it, however both the fairway and green slope to the left towards a water hazard.
Other changes include the replacement of all greens, which will now be TifEagle Bermudagrass instead of the Mini-Verde Bermuda laid here in 2006. Newly laid greens can cause some problems in their first year of use, and they could be a factor this week.
Lastly the spectator area between holes 6 and 7 has been removed and replaced by a large rectangular lake, which will distract players off the tee on both holes.
What you do off the tee here will largely remain unimportant as you have to be neither long nor straight to win round here, it is your approach game that needs to be on point.
Here are where the last five winners have ranked in SG: Approach-the-Green, the week they won:
Jason Day (2016): 9th
Rickie Fowler (2015): 5th
Martin Kaymer (2014): 4th
Tiger Woods (2013): 2nd
Matt Kuchar (2012): 12th
Of the last five, only Kuchar has ranked outside the top-10 for SG: Approach-the-Green and won.
Another key to winning at TPC Sawgrass is the way you play the Par 4’s, here is where the last five winners have ranked for Par 4 Performance the week they won:
Jason Day: 1st (-9)
Rickie Fowler: 7th (-2)
Martin Kaymer: 13th (-2)
Tiger Woods: 6th (-2)
Matt Kuchar: 2nd (-3)
Once again only one player (Kaymer this time) ranks outside the top-10 for this statistic, and it is clear you need to finish a couple under par at least, to get the job done here.
The Par 5’s are easy enough to score on so excelling on these holes alone won’t get the job done, and the only winner of the last five to rank inside the top-5 for Par 5 Performance is Tiger (1st).
Current form is important here to, with all of the last five winners having a top-20 in at least one of their last five starts leading into the Players and Martin Kaymer (31st) was the only winner of the last five to not have finished inside the top-12 at Augusta the year he won.
Bogey Avoidance always seems obvious when looking for a winner, but on some courses it is more important than others, and Sawgrass looks to be one of them. Day, Kaymer and Woods all ranked 1st in Bogey Avoidance the week they won, whilst Fowler and Kuchar ranked 15th and 4th respectively.
Fowler also bucked another pretty strong trend the year he won, being the only winner of the last five to be outside the top-10 after Round 1. Both Day and Kaymer went wire-to-wire whilst Kuchar and Woods were no worse than 6th after any round the week they won. Fowler strangely was 11th after the 1st and 3rd round, but generally speaking you don’t want to be too far off the lead, heading into the final day. Fowler who had earlier that week been voted the joint most overrated player on Tour alongside, Englishman, Ian Poulter, birdied the 13th and 15th hole, before going eagle-birdie-birdie to finish and post the clubhouse lead at -12.
Form at any other of Pete Dye’s courses over the years is a plus and may well be a good indicator should a player not have a lot of course form to speak of here. Here are the Pete Dye Courses used on the PGA Tour:
Harbour Town Golf Links (RBC Heritage)
TPC Louisiana (Zurich Classic)
TPC Stadium Course, PGA West (1/3 courses used at CareerBuilder Challenge)
TPC River Highlands (Travelers Championship)
Austin Country Club (WGC Match Play in both 2016 and 2017)
Crooked Stick (2012 and 2016 BMW Championship)
Whistling Straits (2005, 2010, 2015 PGA Championship)
Kiawah Island (2012 PGA Championahip)
Two players who highlight the Pete Dye links strongly in recent years are Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer.
Kuchar has won both here and at Harbour Town, whilst also finishing in the top-10 at both the 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships at Whistling Straits.
Kaymer has won both here and at Whistling Straits (2010 PGA Championship) and backed that up with a T12 finish in the 2015 renewal.
Jason Day will look to defend his title this week, and if he were to do so, he would be the only person to retain the Players Championship, since the event’s inception in 1974.
Jack Nicklaus won this event three times before it moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982, and since then only; Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Steve Elkington, Hal Sutton have won it twice.
The odds are well and truly stacked against Jason Day becoming the first to successfully defend his title, but after a T22 finish at Augusta, the Australian will be hoping to at least contend this week. It has been a tough start to 2017 for Day on and off the course, but with some positive news finally finding its way to Day’s family in recent weeks, his play on the course will no doubt pick up.
Nick Price put in the best finish by a defending champion back in 1994, when he finished in a tie for 5th, but Day will look to emulate that this week.
With all this in mind, here are my picks for the 2017 Players.
Justin Rose 30/1 (Betfred 1/4 6 places) 1.5pts e/w:
A man who has plenty of starts here at TPC Sawgrass – Justin Rose would have been hoping for more than one top-5 and a measly two total top-20’s to his name.
In 13 starts, his best finish here is a T4 in 2014, and his 19th last year was his next best finish, but I still think he has every chance of winning this week.
Rose is only five weeks removed from his agonising play-off loss to fellow European, Sergio Garcia at the Masters but he can bounce back here with a win.
Despite being fairly indifferent here over the years, it is at least promising that his two best finishes have come on his last four starts, suggesting he has found a way of playing well here.
In the lead up to Augusta, Rose had finished T13 at Bay Hill and T15 a week later in Houston, so he has been in great form in recent starts. If he can carry that form over to this week, he could well make an impact at the top of the leaderboard.
Rose won the 2015 renewal of the Zurich Classic and also finished 4th at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits that same year, so he has some good recent form at Pete Dye designs.
In terms of Par 4 Performance, Rose ranks 8th on Tour, and also 17th in Par 4 Efficiency 450-500 yards, which is an important range for this course.
At 30/1 you are getting the one of the best players in the world (currently #8 in the Official World Golf Rankings) and someone who is desperate to make up for that near miss at the Masters.
Justin Thomas 35/1 (Betfred 1/4 6 places) 1pt e/w:
A three-time winner this season already, Thomas will look to make it four at a course he clearly loves. In two starts here, he has finished 24th and 3rd and he also tweeted today saying “My favourite event of the year, LOVE @THEPLAYERSChamp! New Facilities and conditions are (emojis). Such a well designed course”.
A T3 finish at the Travelers Championship and a T18 at Whistling Straits in 2015 are both further evidence that he likes courses design by Dye and this may present the best opportunity for the Jupiter, Florida resident to win in his home state.
Thomas ranks 1st in Par 4 Performance, and at -49 is a whole 16 strokes better than his nearest rival, Jon Rahm. In that pivotal range of 450-500 yards he ranks T17 as well, so he should relish a a test where good play on these holes is rewarded. Lastly, Thomas ranks T13 in SG: Approach-the-Green this season, another key stat this week.
There is not much else to say about Thomas really, he has been one of the standout performers of the season, despite getting each of his three wins early on and he can get back to his very best again this week.
Since his last win in Hawaii, he does have three missed cuts in seven starts, but he did also post a T5 at the WGC in Mexico and finished T22 at Augusta, on his individual last start. A top-5 at the Zurich with partner, Bud Cauley also proves his game is in good enough shape.
At 35/1 I thought he was tempting enough, especially as he is a much improved player since his 3rd place finish 12 months ago.
Daniel Berger 100/1 (Betfred 1/4 6 places) 0.5pt e/w:
Daniel Berger got his first win on the PGA Tour last year, winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic, and despite not yet following that up, looks every bit ready to contend at this sort of event.
Since his win, Berger has top-5’s at the Travelers Championship (Pete Dye design), and the WGC – HSBC Champions (T2), as well as a T7 at the Phoenix Open and a T5 the week before the Masters, in Houston.
A T9 last year, on just his second start at this course gives a lot of hope, and hopefully he can emulate that success this week. Since his T5 in Houston, Berger has finished T27 at the Masters and T36 at the Wells Fargo last week, where he seemingly failed to get out of cruise control.
One of the stats which always comes up here, even if it doesn’t rank as my most important is Scrambling and Berger ranks 12th in that area this season. He also ranks 38th in Par 4 Performance, which could well be key to him contending here.
At 100/1 I really like Berger’s chances of threatening the top of the leaderboard, as he looks to add a second PGA Tour title in as many years.
Branden Grace 100/1 (SkyBet 1/4 7 Places) 0.5pt e/w:
The South African is one of those players that you would have expected to have a much better record here at TPC Sawgrass, especially given his record on Pete Dye Courses.
Grace has a great record at Harbour Town with a win, a 7th and an 11th place finish to his name there, and also finished 3rd at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
His form here makes pretty grim reading, despite making 3/3 cuts. Grace has not managed to finish better than T42, as he seemingly struggles to put four rounds together here.
In 2013 he posted a final round 77, to fall 30 places, after getting inside the top-10 earlier in the round. He also posted a 78 in 2016 and a 75 in 2015, and 2015 was the year he posted that career-best T42 around this track.
Given the form he has been in since finishing T27 at Augusta, I think there is every reason to believe Grace is ready to finally put four rounds together around Sawgrass.
After opening the Masters with a 76, Grace went 74, 71, 70 to climb the leaderboard and he has not looked back since. He finished T11 at Harbour Town a week later, and then posted his first top-10 of the season the following week at the Valero Texas Open.
Statistically Grace doesn’t tick all the boxes, but he does rank 22nd in Par 4 efficiency 450-500 yards which is a nice bonus. His early season form means he doesn’t stand out elsewhere, but in his current form he has the game to go well here.
At 100/1 I think he is too big, given his form around Pete Dye courses and his undeniable ability. Grace loves a big event, highlighted by the four top-5 finishes he has posted at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open over the last two years, and he can add he can add a second PGA Tour title to his collection this week.
Total Points Staked this week: 7
Profit/Loss for 2017: +6 (Winners this year: Kevin Chappell 40/1 @ Valero Texas Open)