The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass is always a highlight of the golfing season. A top quality field of 144 players with 49 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 it's a title all of golf's elite want on their CV.
For the third-year running we're running our Players Championship competition in association with Betfred who are generously offering a £100 (or currency equivalent) free bet prize to the winner. All you need to do is guess how many balls end up in the water at the Island 17th hole this week (plus tie-breaker) - you can enter via email, Facebook or on Twitter, full entry details are here.
Players Championship Key Bookmaker Promotions
We all look forward to The Players with great anticipation every season. Online bookmakers are keen for your business so here are what I consider to be the best Players promotions to either grab up to 7 places each-way or to cover off Rory McIlroy/Jordan Spieth:
The European Tour action this week visits Mauritius set in the Indian Ocean. The AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open, as covered in Paul Williams' preview, sees an interesting mix of players from the European, Sunshine and Asian Tours meeting in a tri-sanctioned tournament, including George Coetzee, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Thomas Bjorn and Thorbjorn Olesen.
The Players Championship is one of those tournaments that's incredibly hard to nail down. A course designed to be neutral, i.e. offering no advantage to a particular type of player, the officials have amazing control over the tournament and the scoring. So here's my Players Championship preview which walks you through some interesting angles that have shaped my final selections:
Course Guide: The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one of the most iconic courses in world golf. The Pete Dye design features lightning fast (12.5 on the stimpmeter) MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens, 93 testing bunkers and 23 water hazards making this 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 accuracy and course management in abundance. You need more than just driving distance and aggressive play to compete here.
Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida: Designer: Pete Dye 1979 with 2006 re-design; Course Type: Florida, Technical; Par: 72; Length: 7,215 yards; Fairways Celebration Bermudagrass; Rough: 419 Bermudagrass 2.5"; Greens: 4,500 sq.ft. average MiniVerde Bermudagrass UltraDwarf Bermudagrass; Tournament Stimp: 12.5ft; 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.
Course Overview: Driving accuracy doesn't tend to count for too much on the PGA Tour these days, but on the Stadium Course finding the fairway is critical. The lush 2.5" Bermudagrass that surrounds only 20 acres of fairway makes attacking the pin extremely difficult and water lurks on the majority of holes for the wayward. Tie this in with green complexes that are only behind Pebble Beach and Harbour Town when it comes to the smallest greens the players face each season and you start to get your head around the challenge. Greens always 'crust up' in the afternoons and it's worth noting that the course will play much firmer and faster than it did 12 months ago due to light rainfall across the winter and early spring. Keeping the card clean across a host of challenging Par 3s is vital, but birdies can be made across both the sets of Par 4s and Par 5s. Fact is that eagles and birdies are makeable around the Stadium Course, but ultimately it's the player who minimises bogeys who tends to triumph.
Winners: 2014: Martin Kaymer (-13); 2013: Tiger Woods (-13); 2012: Matt Kuchar (-13); 2011: K.J. Choi (-13); 2010: Tim Clark (-16); 2009: Henrik Stenson (-6); 2008: Sergio Garcia (-5); 2007: Phil Mickelson (-11).
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 tailor-made model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Key players included in the Top 5 of the Predictor include Rory McIlroy (Predictor number 1), Jim Furyk, Henrik Stenson, Zach Johnson and Sergio Garcia.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the Northern Trust Open weekend and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2014: Kaymer 90/1; 2013: Woods 9/1; 2012: Kuchar 55/1; 2011: Choi 45/1; 2010: Clark 100/1; 2009: Stenson 50/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for TPC Sawgrass is here. Ponte Vedra Beach has been relatively dry so far in 2015 so conditions will return to what we expect at the Stadium Course: firm and fast. Wind conditions are always critical here so a forecast that has light breezes across Friday, Saturday and Sunday in tandem with no rain will be welcomed by the players. However the Thursday PM wave look set to play in winds gusting above 20 km/h for the whole of their rounds, which will be tricky with fast green conditions.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Top-line course form doesn't always translate to the winner. Martin Kaymer had finished 19th (2011) and 15th (2012) in 5 appearances here prior to capturing the title here in 2014. Kaymer 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 his 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 the only player to break this trend in recent times is Tiger Woods who was playing brilliantly prior to arriving at TPC Sawgrass in 2013. His strong play overcame his poor Stadium Course/Pete Dye design form to win one of his sweetest victories. Players like Tiger, Phil, Rory and Jordan transcend most trends! It's also worth mentioning that recent winners here have all had Major Championship Top 5 finishes.
Talking of Jordan Spieth, no player has won The Masters and then gone on to triumph at TPC Sawgrass since the tournament moved to its early May spot in the PGA Tour schedule back in 2007. Over the same time, only 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. The challenge is there for our exceptional joint-favourites this week.
Where immediate course form is not a must to win The Players, course experience is a key advantage. Both Jordan Spieth and David Lingmerth (a Sawgrass member) have contended and placed across the last 2 renewals in recent times 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.
Another angle to add into the equation this week is the fact that this will be the first time the World Match Play has been played in the week prior to the tournament. The Wednesday to Sunday format of the Match Play has always been a stretch for those getting to the business end of the tournament and the fact that this year's losing Quarter Finalists had to play 5 matches in 4 days adds to this potential fatigue angle.
So what's happened to World Match Play participants who've competed the week after at either the Honda Classic (2009 + 2011/14) or Phoenix Open (2010)? It's hardly a precise science, but fascinatingly only Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood in 2012 made it into the weekend's action at Dove Mountain (McIlroy finished runner up, Westwood finished 4th), before contending for victory at PGA National the week after. Rory won the Honda Classic, with Lee Westwood finishing 4th. Food for thought that 44 year-old Jim Furyk has played 3 tournaments in 4 weeks and played 7 matches at the World Match Play.
Course-wise the Stadium Course is as tricky as they come. All 4 Par 5s are reachable and yet still the winning score across 2011-14 has been a consistent -13/275. Water comes into play on 11 holes, 93 bunkers populate the course and green complexes are small at 4,500 sq.ft. The MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens, which feature sub-air, run to a season fast (for Bermuda) 12.5 on the stimpmeter. Put simply this is a tournament where consistency across 72 holes prevails and a fast start is essential. My selections are as follows:
A couple of comments from Rory grabbed my attention whilst researching this week. After lifting the Match Play trophy on Sunday Rory said "This victory gives me some momentum. I feel like the confidence has been there. I feel like my game is very close, it was even at the Masters. But right now I'm really happy with my 10th win. And I'm going to go after my 11th next week at TPC." It's worth remembering that Rory won at PGA National the week after finishing 2nd in the World Match Play back in 2012. A momentum player who's hard to beat once he's confident, 2012 also saw Rory win the PGA Championship (at Pete Dye's Kiawah Island) followed by back-to-back wins at TPC Boston and Crooked Stick (another Pete Dye track). Last year Rory won the Open Championship, had a week off at home in Florida, then won the WGC at Akron and the PGA Championship at Valhalla back-to-back.
The second comment I refer to came from Rory last year after he finished 6th (his second consecutive Players Top-10) at TPC Sawgrass despite entering the tournament with a real lack of confidence, "I feel like I figured this golf course out and I can play it much better than I have been able to in the past. It doesn't frustrate me quite as much as it used to. You know you're coming here and you're expecting to hit fairway woods off tees and irons and trying to position your ball." Rory finds himself in the same 3-ball as Jordan Spieth which will tee off from Number 10 (he shot -17 across the back 9 here last year) on Thursday morning. Expect a fast start from both in what could be the first of many classic head-to-heads.
It's fairly obvious that Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy go well on the same ball-striking courses, so backing Lee after the twin boosts of an Indonesian Open win and a huge Match Play victory over Jordan Spieth makes sense. The World Number 23, who has 10 Major Top 5 finishes to his name, loves TPC Sawgrass: 3 Top-8 finishes here in his last 4 appearances clearly highlights that and it's evident that a confident Westwood leaving the World Match Play can keep that good form going into a second consecutive week on a tough course in Florida. In a tournament where a fast start looks even more important this year, Westwood goes off in the second Thursday morning group and his strong finishes here have always followed a fast 1st Round start.
Zach Johnson is another experienced campaigner who I fancy to go well this week. Johnson has had a quiet 2015 to date, but 7th at Kapalua (Bermuda greens), 10th at TPC Scottsdale, 9th at Bay Hill (Florida & Bermuda greens) and 9th at Augusta highlight a player who is playing very nicely from tee-to-green. It's clear that Zach's game is close and the tight confines of the Stadium Course make it a venue where he can compete on a level with the power hitters. 4th in this week's Predictor Model, Zach was in the Top 10 for both Driving Accuracy and Greens in Regulation at Augusta 4 weeks ago and his campaign at TPC Harding Park last week saw him win 2 of 3 matches and miss out on the last 16 in a Sudden Death play-off. 2nd here in 2012 when in very similar form, The Players is the kind of tournament where an experienced Major performer wins after a period of drought. Winless in 16 months and with plenty of positive Dye design course form to boot, Johnson makes loads of sense this week.
Webb Simpson is into his 7th season on the PGA Tour and the 2012 US Open Champion, who has a Top 15 finish on the Stadium Course to his name, is undoubtedly striking the ball really well right now. A switch from a belly to a short putter is not an easy transition and Webb has struggled with the flat-stick across season 2014/15 where he currently sits 162nd in the Stokes gained Putting Tour category. However their are definite signs of life and it's no coincidence that his best finishes in 2015 have all been on Bermudagrass greens. Indeed Dye courses (2nd TPC Louisiana 2011, 2nd Harbour Town 2012) and MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens (TPC Louisiana, 5th and 4th East Lake 2012/13) hold no fears either. 7th at Doral in March, Simpson again showed form at WGC level last week when beating Jimmy Walker and Ian Poulter at the Match Play and was only beaten 1 Up by eventual finalist Gary Woodland. Webb has been given a nice early starting slot on Thursday and he has history of fast starting here in 2013 when he was 4th after Round 1.
Finally I like the look of Ben Martin this week who I reckon has a game that will go well on the Stadium Course. Martin impressed me last week when he beat Matt Kuchar, with the aid of an ace, and also defeated Ryder Cup star Stephen Gallagher before finally falling to Hunter Mahan. However a 2-1 record at your first World Match Play shows that the Clemson University graduate is a decent prospect. With an early Thursday morning draw, I think Martin will hit the ground running at TPC Sawgrass on his Players debut so I fancy him to give us a run for our money in the First Round Leader market. In the past 2 years both David Lingmerth and Russell Henley have placed after fast starts here and that makes sense as both had previously finished 3rd (Lingmerth) and 1st (Henley) on the web.com Tour event that's played on Sawgrass' Valley Course. Martin finished 3rd to Henley in the same 2010 tournament and he's already placed twice and finished in the Top 10 twice more after Round 1 in 2015.
Our predictions and final tips for the 2016 Players Championship will be published here on the Tuesday before the event.