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Congratulations to Brian Harman backers who landed a very nice 80/1 return last week as a change of course didn't stop the trend for big priced winners at the Wells Fargo Championship. But that was very much the hors d'oeuvre though as we now move on to The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass which is always a highlight of the golfing season. A top quality field of 146 players with 48 of the World's Top 50 players is a real treat and the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is the ultimate test of consistency, patience, aggression on key holes and bogey avoidance. Victory at The Players holds a 5-year PGA Tour exemption and 3-year exemptions to The Masters, US Open and Open Championship. Beware though, this is no ordinary PGA Tour tournament and The Players Championship is a title that all of golf's elite want on their CV.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Open de Portugal - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Guide: The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one of the most iconic courses in world golf. The Pete Dye design has always been a course where no particular type of player has a true advantage. The tournament's mantra has always been that the best player on the week wins the tournament. But back in 2015 the PGA Tour, who own TPC Sawgrass, knew that the MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens on the Stadium Course were well past their best and that definitely showed last year. So as soon as Jason Day lifted the trophy 12 months ago, a PGA Tour Design Services re-design kicked off with all green complexes being re-built and replanted with TifEagle Bermudagrass and the 6th, 7th and 12th holes being re-configured. However with 93 testing bunkers and 24 water hazards, make no mistake - this will still be a true Florida golf course test. The course's location close to the Atlantic coast makes wind a constant factor and although the track is relatively short in modern professional golf terms, the Stadium Course calls for a combination of both long distance approach accuracy and short game skills in abundance.
Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida: Designer: Pete Dye 1979, 2006 re-design, Steve Wenzloff re-design 2016; Course Type: Florida, Technical; Par: 72; Length: 7,189 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 14; Fairways Celebration Bermudagrass; Rough: 419 Bermudagrass 2.5"; Greens: 5,000 sq.ft. average TifEagle Bermudagrass; Tournament Stimp: 13ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 72.47 (+0.47), Difficulty Rank 19 of 49 courses. 2013: 72.32 (+0.32), Difficulty Rank 19 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.16 (+0.16), Rank 25 of 48 courses. 2015: 72.08 (+0.08), Rank 18 of 52 courses. 2016: 72.06 (+0.06), Rank 19 of 50 courses.
TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for Stadium Course and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on the PGA Tour:
Course Overview: Let's start with the Steve Wenzloff re-design. Pete Dye was consulted a number of times with all of the changes and the course will now play 28 yards shorter as a 7,187 yard par-72. The loss in yardage comes from the 12th hole which has been changed from a standard 358 yard par-4, to a driveable, dog-leg left, 302-yard hole with the same par. It's been designed in such a way to encourage all players to go for it, with no easy lay-up available. The new hole, which now features a pond to the left of a long green complex, also has a run-off area which takes stray approaches towards the hazard. This hole will undoubtedly see more excitement and scores overall should reduce. The par-4 7th and 15th holes have been lengthened by 9 and 21 yards respectively. Other changes have seen spectator mounds between the 6th and 7th removed, replaced by a new body of water which will only add to the distraction factor from off the tee.
All bunkers have been re-built and the player practice area has been expanded by 40%. Green complexes on the 1st, 4th, 8th, 9th, 11th, 13th and 14th have been modified to feature larger putting surfaces, with the aim of allowing more pin positions to reduce wear on the greens. Critically the tired MiniVerde Bermudagrass putting surfaces have been replaced by TifEagle Bermuda, which is far more heat tolerant and will allow for consistently fast greens speeds. Newly laid greens are likely to be pretty firm as well.
So what should we expect this week? Effectively the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass will still offer up the same kind of challenge. It's amongst the most controllable golf courses on the planet. Just a quick look at the winners' scores since 2010 highlights how organisers and Course Superintendant Tom Vlach can effectively manage the tournament to the target score they want in varying conditions. However we have seen a change in the standard approach to victory here across 2015 and 2016 where both Rickie Fowler (1 Eagle and 21 Birdies) and Jason Day (22 Birdies) have attacked their way to victory. Prior to this, the recipe for victory was to strategically hit plenty of fairways and greens, maximise the 12 attempts on the par-5s and minimise bogeys. But the real point here is that Pete Dye's design is brilliant in the fact that either controlled ball-strikers or short game specialists can win at the Stadium Course.
Winners: 2016: Jason Day (-15); 2015: Rickie Fowler (-12); 2014: Martin Kaymer (-15); 2013: Tiger Woods (-13); 2012: Matt Kuchar (-13); 2011: K.J. Choi (-13); 2010: Tim Clark (-16).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Players Championship predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Jordan Spieth (No.1), Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the WGC-Mexico Championship and includes PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2016: Day 12/1; 2015: Rickie Fowler 66/1; 2014: Kaymer 90/1; 2013: Woods 9/1; 2012: Kuchar 55/1; 2011: Choi 45/1; 2010: Clark 100/1. Average: 54/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida is here. Weather for The Players looks pretty typical. Think warm and pretty windy with the added bonus this year of a very low risk of any precipitation. Unless Tom Vlach and his team have other ideas, fairways should be pretty firm and fast as rainfall has been very low in this part of Florida in the build-up. How receptive the new greens will be is a question we won't find out until Thursday, but Vlach traditionally lets them get faster throughout the tournament.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 7 winners of this event since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how TPC Sawgrass has set up in the past and what specific skills it requires:
Jason Day: "It's a difficult golf course in regards that, for me, not so much trying to hit the driver off the tee, but there's a few 3-woods out there for me that I have to hit, and if there's one club in the bag that's uncomfortable for me at times, it's the 3-wood. That's why I might be hitting a few more 2-irons off the tee this week, just to try and get it in play, so that I can hit the fairways and try and get it on the green and give myself an opportunity at birdie.
Thursday: "The conditions are very hot, so the ball is going forever. Guys can dial it back a little bit and not hit certain clubs or drivers or 3-woods. They can hit irons off the tees, give yourself a lot more opportunities coming in from the fairway. And you can attack these pin locations, especially this morning. You can attack them coming in from the fairway or even the rough or the fairway bunker. But the greens are pure. They're so nice and they're rolling so perfect. It's kind of sad that they're going to rip the bloody greens up. I'm expecting it's going to be even better next year."
Saturday: "But it was just, the green speeds kind of took me by surprise. It was just such a drastic change from Thursday to Friday to now, this afternoon. I mean, the front nine was a bit borderline in my honest opinion, but I think a lot of the players probably think that, as well. I think it was, what, I think they said it was 71, the scoring average yesterday, and 76 today or something like that, which is just unbelievable. we were out there for nearly six hours today trying to play 18 holes. That was just, it was - talk about slow play, they made the course pretty much nearly unplayable. If they do make it like that, then I'm just going to have to grind my hardest to win the tournament, and I'm okay with that."
Sergio Garcia: "I think winning here is always challenging. It's the kind of golf course that's asking you for a lot of different shots. So it's the kind of golf course that you want to play. It's really pushing you to the limits. Greens are fairly small, so you have to be accurate, not only off the tee but into the greens. You're not going to have a lot of 50 footers on these greens. It's very rare that you have a long putt like that because it kind of reminds me a little bit of Valderrama. Obviously Valderrama maybe has a little bit more movement, but it's small greens; if you hit a good shot you're always going to have a birdie putt. It always feels like you're in range to make a birdie. And if you miss the greens, then chipping is very challenging, so it's a great golf course overall."
Jordan Spieth: "Yeah, I think this course is interesting because the way the holes shape, you normally need one shape off the tee and then the next shot calls for the other shape. And sometimes off of the slope that wants you to hit it the opposite way. So it certainly there is some imagination involved. I love this grass, too. I love this Bermuda, grainy Bermuda. It's what I grew up on. I think it's also an advantage for me. I think that the course plays well for me if I'm on my game, but if I go out there and I'm struggling with a certain ball flight, then it's going to eat you up out here. You really do have to have control of both of them."
Martin Kaymer: "Well it's a golf course where you can shoot very low scores. If you hit the fairways, you can go very low. If you make a few putts here and there, it's possible. Last year when I shot 9-under par the first round, I didn't do anything special. Yes, I mean you made a few putts here and there more, but I was playing well, I hit fairways, and I used my chances. So, I didn't do any extraordinary. If you miss the fairways, it's tough. You can easily shoot 2- or 3-over par without doing much wrong. I think that's the beauty about that golf course. Anything can happen until Sunday afternoon, and therefore it's a good score to have, you know, if the winning score is somewhere around 10-under par, I think it's always a good score to have to win a tournament."
Jim Furyk: "This Pete Dye course is visually intimidating, but the more you get to play it, you're able to realize that there's more room out there on certain shots. I think that's a typical trait of Dye golf courses. The Crooked Sticks, Kiawah, here, New Orleans, you stare out from the tee box, you look at the fairway, you look at the first fairway and it looks like it's about 10 yards wide. You get out there and you look around and you go, you know, there's actually plenty of room out here. And then you look at the green and it now looks like it's eight yards wide and you go, wow, you hit a shot up there and you look around and you go, well, actually there was plenty of room up here. Visually, though, it's deceiving. I'm not going to drive it into the little necks and areas I shouldn't. So there's ample room to hit the ball. I've grown to get used to it and I've grown to like it over the years. I'll be honest with you, I did not like this golf course."
Phil Mickelson: "I actually think that this tournament has a bigger challenge around the greens if you miss it and makes getting up and down a lot more difficult. So I feel like it puts a premium on ball striking and hitting the green. I feel like some of the mounding is so severe, and with the rough, that a lot of shots around the greens become almost impossible. If you can hit the greens and not stress out, put stress on your short game, I feel like that's kind of the best way to do well here. Whereas, at Augusta you can get up and down from all different places, if you happen to miss greens, and it's not as important as being on the correct side as chipping uphill. That's not the case here. You really just want to be on the surface."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
Course Designer Links: For research purposes, other Pete Dye designs include:
The web.com Tour Championship has been hosted at the Dye's Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass since 2013 - there was no tournament in 2016. Derek Fathauer (2014) and Emiliano Grillo (2015) have won on that course with Zac Blair, Jim Herman, David Lingmerth, Chez Reavie, Tyrone Van Aswegen, Kyle Stanley and Patton Kizzire, all finishing in the top 6. The Jacksonville Open was also hosted there from 2010-2012 featuring top-5 finishes from Kyle Reifers (2010), David Lingmerth (2011), Danny Lee (2011), Russell Henley (2012) and Ben Martin (2012).
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
Trends in terms of recent winners are interesting. Rickie Fowler had finished 2nd here in 2012 prior to winning in 2015. His form during that season had been mediocre to say the least, but a 12th at Augusta and last-16 place at the World Match Play the week prior to TPC Sawgrass was the precursor to his come-from-behind victory here. Fowler's last win had been at Quail Hollow in 2012 and despite his run of top Major Championship finishes in between, the American had been winless for 3 years worldwide.
However, strong course form doesn't always translate to the winner here. Martin Kaymer had finished 19th (2011) and 15th (2012) in 5 appearances prior to capturing the title here in 2014. The German had been through a tough spell prior to his win as he had to wait 18 months since his last worldwide victory. Matt Kuchar had finished 13th (2010) and 14th (2009) prior to capturing his first tournament victory for 21 months here in 2012. K.J. Choi had a TPC Sawgrass best of 16th set 5 years previous when he captured his first worldwide title in 18 months with his 2011 victory; Tim Clark incredibly broke his Tour maiden here in 2010 with inbound form of 63-MC-30.
Naturally though a couple of World Number 1s break this 'winless trend' since 2010. Jason Day had won the Bay Hill Invitational and Dell Match Play titles prior to Augusta where he'd finished 10th. Day had also finished 6th at TPC Sawgrass 5 years earlier and his win here 12 months ago was at 12/1. Tiger Woods was playing brilliantly prior to arriving at TPC Sawgrass in 2013. His strong play overcame his relatively poor Stadium Course/Pete Dye design form to win one of his sweetest victories at 9/1. It will be fascinating therefore to see how Dustin Johnson goes this week at a justified short price.
No player has won The Masters and then gone on to triumph at TPC Sawgrass since the tournament moved to its early May spot on the PGA Tour schedule back in 2007. The challenge is there for Sergio Garcia who absolutely thrives on the Stadium Course. Over the same period of time, only Jason Day (Bay Hill / Austin CC), Phil Mickelson (Pebble Beach) and Tiger Woods (Doral/Bay Hill) have won on the PGA Tour in the season prior to taking home The Players title.
Where immediate course form is not a must to win The Players, course experience is still a key advantage. Yes Kevin Kisner, Jordan Spieth and David Lingmerth (a Sawgrass member) have contended and placed across the last 3 renewals and Henrik Stenson finished 3rd on course debut back in 2006, but these are the real exceptions. Hal Sutton (1983) and Craig Perks (2002) won here on course debut, but that was in an age when The Players was scheduled a couple of weeks before Augusta.
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My selections are as follows:
Jordan Spieth leads the way for me this week at a juicy price we haven't seen about the Texan in quite some time. Top of this week's Predictor Model, he comes into this week very much under the radar - and I certainly don't mind that looking at past winner trends. 4th last time out when he partnered Ryan Palmer at TPC Louisiana, Spieth looked like he was in cruise control and now that he's past Augusta I can see him focussing this week at a tournament where he must fancy his chances.
Looking at the top of the betting market, World Number 1 Dustin Johnson may have won and played well at Doral on multiple occasions, but his form both here and in the Sunshine State in general is relatively poor. Rory McIlroy has never liked the Stadium Course and has been rather distracted of late. Defending champion Jason Day is well out of sorts, Sergio Garcia loves this tournament, but he undoubtedly has a huge task this week as no player has won The Masters and then gone on to triumph at TPC Sawgrass since the tournament moved to its May spot on the PGA Tour schedule back in 2007. Yes the Spaniard has traditionally followed up wins with strong form, but ultimately he may just come up shy. Jon Rahm makes his course debut and could fly of course, Hideki Matsuyama seems well off the boil and Rickie Fowler may suffer the same Players tournament doldrums as all recent champions have here.
Spieth on the other hand must be looking forward to his title defence in his native Dallas later this month and must also be looking positively towards visiting Erin Hills for the U.S. Open next month where he has plenty of experience from the 2011 US Amateur Championship. As Martin Kaymer proved in 2014, winning a huge event like The Players can be a real stepping stone to lifting the U.S. Open trophy and Spieth undoubtedly has the game to unlock the Stadium Course. Jordan was the 54-hole leader here on course debut, the year Kaymer took the title here at 90/1, so he can play the course, but I also like another huge factor this week which could well be pivotal. Spieth has won 4 Bermudagrass green titles on United States soil, 3 of which have been on TifEagle Bermuda putting surfaces, namely the 2014 Hero World Challenge, 2015 Valspar Championship and the 2016 Tournament of Champions. Naturally the victories at Isleworth and Innisbrook were also in Florida. RESULT: MC
Justin Rose is my next selection and I'm more than happy to back the World Number 8 who came so close to delivering a cracking Masters win for us a month ago. Now Justin's profile is pretty perfect for both the Stadium Course and The Players Championship in particular: Rose is winless this season, indeed he hasn't won in the United States since the Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana back in 2014. That success in New Orleans came off the back of a runner-up finish at Augusta and Justin has always been the kind of player who strings excellent results together. Asked recently about his reaction to losing in that play-off with Sergio at Augusta, he said, "I feel that the Masters is one that I can keep coming back to and keep creating those chances. From that point of view I'm incredibly positive, and also I think it's only really revealing at the end of the season. A major championship year is a career year when you win one. I might have the opportunity to win a couple more yet, so I'm not even willing to look back at this with any sort of regret until the season is done, and then we can re-evaluate and assess actually what it meant. For me it was another step forward in my career and my self-belief."
Rose traditionally struggled here until 2014 when he realised he needed to be a little more conservative off the tee on some par-4s. In contention all that week, Justin eventually produced his best ever finish here of 4th despite running into a controversial ruling en route. Rounds of 65 (good enough for 2nd after Round 1) and 66 bookended disappointing middle rounds here 12 months ago, but Rose still finished 19th. That performance came when the Englishman was struggling with the putter, but the complete opposite is true right now which makes him a real danger on TifEagle Bermuda green surfaces he really likes. 3rd (2011), 4th (2013) and 5th (2012) at PGA National, 5th (2011) and 8th (2014) at Copperhead plus 1st (2012) and 8th (2013) at Doral highlight a player who's comfortable on TifEagle greens. 2 outings on Bermudagrass so far in 2017 have seen 2nd (Waialae) and 13th (Bay Hill) place finishes and I'm only taking the positives from TPC Louisiana where Justin shook off the Augusta cobwebs. RESULT: T65
Brooks Koepka comes into this with the kind of game I really like. A true star of the very near future, the World Number 19 has incoming form of 5(TPC Louisiana)-2(TPC San Antonio)-11(Augusta)-Last 16(Dell Match Play). Scratch the surface though and it's clear that Koepka has found his key ball-striking strength and that makes him highly dangerous. 1st for Greens in Regulation when finishing 2nd to Kevin Chappell in Texas, Brooks continued to strike the ball really well in New Orleans, ultimately finishing 4th with his inexperienced brother Chase. Koepka wins tend to come in this period when he's 100% confident with his approach play - check wins in Turkey, last autumn in Japan and his only PGA Tour victory at TPC Scottsdale in 2015.
It's hard to believe that a talent like Brooks has not won on the Tour for over 2 years, but I see that as a positive this week. You see this is often won by players who have multiple Major Championship top 10s, and who've gone through a period of title drought. Now Brooks was 4th in the 2014 U.S. Open, 10th at the 2015 Open Championship, 5th at the 2015 PGA Championship hosted on the Dye-designed Whistling Straits and 4th at last year's PGA Championship. He's certainly not shy when it comes to mixing it at the very top level and that's why I can see him being a factor this week at the Stadium Course. Yes, 2 visits to TPC Sawgrass have generated only a Missed Cut (2015) and 35th (2016), but the Floridian showed promise after opening rounds of 66-70 had him 7th and 12th over 18/36 holes. He has a real chance this week on TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces which have seen him finish 3rd in Dubai (2014) and 3rd in Kapalua (2016). RESULT: T16
At bigger prices Russell Henley, Cameron Smith and Patrick Cantlay amongst others have real chances, but I'm sticking to the proven Major calibre player who needs a change of fortune and that's quite possible with the change to TifEagle Bermudagrass greens for Paul Casey. You see Casey has never really got on with the green types which were here previously, namely MiniVerde Bermudagrass overseeded with Poa Trivialis. That can be seen by his record here where in 9 appearances he has never putted positively. However World Number 14 Casey is far more confident on pure Bermudagrass surfaces and his United States record across PGA National (4th 2010, 3rd 2015), Doral (9th 2007, 6th 2010, 7th 2016), Bay Hill (9th 2016), Sedgefield (3rd 2015) and East Lake (4th 2010, 5th 2015, 4th 2016) is top-drawer across top line tournaments.
Tough courses bring the best out of the Scottsdale, Arizona resident and it's also worth remembering that the Englishman can mix it at Major Championships. 6th (2015), 4th (2016) and 6th (2017) at Augusta is supported by 10th at the U.S. Open (2007), 7th (2007) and 3rd (2010) at the Open Championship and 10th at the Baltusrol-hosted PGA Championship last summer. So on the basis that despite a balky putter, Casey has finished 10th (on course debut 2007), 14th (2009) and 23rd (2016) here is encouraging. No win in the United States since 2009 must motivate Casey who finished last season with some brilliant performances across TPC Boston (2nd - beaten by McIlroy), Crooked Stick (2nd - beaten by Dustin Johnson on a Dye design) and East Lake (4th). 6th at Augusta was followed by 12th last week at Eagle Point where Casey finished with 34 holes without a bogey, putted and scrambled positively, plus finished 1st in the All-Round skill category. RESULT: T22
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