In the global game that golf is, there are four Major Championships. The Masters is run by Augusta National Golf Club. The U.S. Open is put on by The USGA. The R&A administers The British Open and The PGA of America conducts The PGA Championship. This week in golf, we have The Players Championship, held at The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida and the governing body in this case is The PGA Tour. This is The Tour’s crown jewel. It boasts the largest purse in golf, is played on one of the world’s most challenging courses, and assembles arguably the best field of players for any tournament anywhere. Thus, The Players Championship has been dubbed golf’s “5th Major.”
And rightfully so. It began in 1974 and only one player, Jack Nicklaus, has won it three times, none of which however, were at this course which began hosting The PLAYERS in 1982. Davis Love III, Fred Couples, Hal Sutton, Steve Elkington, and Tiger Woods have won it twice but nobody has ever won it in back to back years.
The Stadium Course was designed by Pete Dye and was done specifically for this championship. It is a remarkable creation that tests the players with a little bit of everything. Sand Bunkers are everywhere. Water comes into play on all 18-holes. There are dogleg right holes, there are dogleg left holes, there is a drivable Par 4, no two consecutive holes run in the same direction, and oh yes, there is that loveable little but treacherous, 137-yard Par 3 17th hole which is an island green and stands as one of the most recognizable holes in the entire sport.
With the lack of consistent winners and the number of different challenges the course and the tournament present, it is difficult to isolate certain skill sets that work time and time again at The PLAYERS – and that is a sign of a golf course that is of Major Championship caliber. For many years, the shorter hitters, the accurate, ball striking grinders made quite a bit of hay here but in recent years, the bigger hitters have been getting their share. The tournament was moved to the month of May twelve years ago after originally being a part of The Florida Swing in March. The wind in the Jacksonville area tends to blow more in March and made an already difficult course, that much harder. The Players Championship will move back to March in 2019 as The PGA Championship switches from August to May. The forecast calls for breezes in the neighborhood of 12 MPH this week which is right on the borderline of being a legitimate hinderence to a Tour player.
The golf course has smaller, firm, Bermuda Grass greens, that run extremely fast. Hitting them in regulation is important, putting them well is necessary, and Scrambling is imperative. Scoring well on the Par 4’s is another area that has always been crucial at TPC Sawgrass.
Jason Day (+16.32 Pinnacle) Your Wells Fargo champion from last week was also a winner here at Sawgrass in 2016. He has won The Match Play on a Dye designed course and also The PGA Championship at Whistling Straights in 2015, another Pete Dye creation.
Rory McIlroy (+16.32 Pinnacle) McIlroy won The PGA Championship in 2012 when it was played at The Ocean Course at Kiawah, a Pete Dye design. At The PLAYERS, he’s made the cut the last five years straight with three Top 10 finishes and a Top 15.
Jordan Spieth (+16.81 Pinnacle) Struggles have been the norm at The Stadium Course for Jordan Spieth, having missed the cut the last three years in a row after finishing 4th in 2014. He was 2nd to Day however at Whistling Straights and won The Travelers last year, yet another Dye design. Spieth is number one on Tour in Scrambling.
Rickie Fowler (+21.56 Bookmaker) In what will likely be the most popular pairing on the golf course Thursday and Friday, Fowler will play the first two days with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. All three have won here before, Rickie in 2015. Fowler also took 2nd here in 2012. He was 2nd at The Masters this year and 21st last week at The Wells Fargo.
Patrick Reed (+37.99 Bookmaker) Your Masters champion has played this event four times, twice missing the cut and twice finishing Top 25. He has been one of the hottest players in golf coming in, with six straight Top 10 finishes.
Tiger Woods (+41.50 Bookmaker) This will be just the 2nd time that Tiger has played here in the last five years. Prior to that, he won in 2013. He also won it in 2001. His short game has been excellent this season, ranking 29th on Tour in Scrambling and 53rd in Strokes Gained: Putting. He has cooled off a bit since The Florida Swing – but he is back in Florida again this week.
The Long Shots
Francesco Molinari (+5000 5Dimes) Molinari has been one of the more consistent performers at The PLAYERS, collecting Top 10 finishes in three of the last four years. He also took 9th here in 2010. He fits the mold of the accurate, plodding, ball striker, and is coming off of a 16th last week at The Wells Fargo.
Zach Johnson (+6600 5Dimes) Another accurate, shorter, grinder who has seen tremendous consistency at TPC Sawgrass, having missed only one cut in thirteen appearances. He was 2nd here in 2012. Speaking of cuts, Zach hasn’t missed one on Tour in almost nine months.
Ian Poulter (+75.50 Bookmaker) This rounds out the trifecta of players that have almost always fared well at The PLAYERS. Poulter has finished runner up here twice, including last year, and has missed just three cuts in fourteen trips to Ponte Vedra. Two other Pete Dye courses this season, Poulter was 5th at The Match Play at 7th at The RBC Heritage.
Henrik Stenson (+31.53 Pinnacle) The 2016 Champion Golfer of the Year has been playing some excellent golf in 2018. On yet another Dye design, Stenson teamed with Justin Rose to take 19th two weeks ago in New Orleans. Prior to that, he was 5th at The Masters, 6th in Houston, and 4th at The Arnold Palmer Invitational, another Florida course with Bermuda greens. He is number one on Tour in Driving Accuracy, Greens in Regulation, and Par 4 Scoring. Stenson has three Top 20 finishes here and four Top 10’s, including a win in 2009. I’ll back him this week at what looks to be a nice price. When he won The British Open at Royal Troon in 2016, he was trading at right around the same number.
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