The Players Championship preview with Skeeter McGillicuddy
The newly reformed PGA Tour season starts to kick in for real now with the 5th major, The Players Championship, moved to this week from May. beginning a series of events that peak with the Masters.
The Players owes as much to its status to the course and the 17th as much as anything – but would any player swap it for a Major? All day.
The advantage of the set fixture can’t be overstated so there are two schools of thought. One is to stick with proven course form and the second is to imagine, re-imagine, tee-imagine, an untried and tested player around the venue.
One factor that has to be considered is the conditions. Moving from May (hot / humid) to March (cooler and windier) has to have some impact on results. TPC Sawgrass is no monster – rather it’s a strategic course that rewards accuracy. The fact is that in the predicted conditions the ball will fly less and there is a big chance of wind. So does this invalidate previous course form? Another issue could be the condition of the course itself given the winter the US has experienced. The fairways will be thin and soft (relatively). Colder air, wind, less than ideal ground conditions suggest to me that the shorter hitters will struggle.
The event is littered with great winners but some of them were not the bombers we expect these days. Kaymer, Simpson, Spare Change, KJ and Tim Clark spring to mind – and the common denominator? They were modest hitters who won in the warmer month of May. Make no mistake, even the modern ball does not fly so far in the (relative cold). Poulter has finished 2nd twice here and is in great form but I can’t have him even with his increase in swing speed. Take Tiger who’s been a revelation with his super patient low power game. He knows his power days are over so how to win? Get it in the fairway and rely on a really good approach game. But this means he’s coming in from way back and in the end you may win with this strategy but how can you realistically expect to beat the hordes of other players who are coming in from much closer?
My premise, it could be argued, is flawed given TPC Sawgrass is not long at a touch over 7,180 yards. Possibly – but it’s going to be wet and cold on the weekend down to as low as 16. Any advantage conferred by softer conditions will be wiped out with the need to carry the ball much further with approach shots.
On this basis I can see a bomber winning. Not pounding the driver – just taking advantage of the ability to carry the ball longer distances both off the tee and into the greens.
It’s hardly surprising to see Rory and Dustbin heading the market and at double-digit prices. This event has depth. Thomas, Koepka, Schauffele, Rose, Bryson, Rahm, Hideki and Fowler – all of them a case can be made for.
Tiger has his neck problem and has never really loved this place. With the aforementioned strategic issues I can’t have him at 25/1. Jordan is a staggering price – way beyond where you could imagine him to be even a year ago – but since his game looks so inconsistent it’s hardly surprising.
Beyond the list above we can add a host of others too numerous to mention. So we will assume anyone can win with a touch of brilliance and with that in mind..
Rory McIlroy 1pt win at 17 BF
Sungjae Im 1pt win at 210 BF
Tyrell Hatton 1pt win at 140 BF
Aphibarnrat 1pt win at 340 BF
Rory McIlroy – (previously) has never won for us I’m told. We don’t give up that easy. With his newfound PGA Tour centric approach Rory has peeled off a 4th and 5th on courses he’d never seen. Three weeks off and totally focused on his schedule that is based on the first three majors his game looks in ominous shape. Two starts here have produced two 20ths but even here his form is progressive. Just 1 shot off the lead last year he posted his worst round on Sunday. At a venue that suits his game the expected soft conditions play even more to his strength. So Rory didn’t win for us again and we let him ride last week at the Arnie P on the basis he was 7/1. Because he is Rory and he’s 16/1 – in a stronger field admittedly – we will take another chance on him. He’s done all but win and while I suspect there is a duff performance in him this season is different. Focused with his PGA Tour schedule and around a course where he has really solid form it will come as no surprise to see him in the thick of it on the weekend…at which point he will not be 16/1.
Sung-Jae Im – (previously) is well entrenched in the stable and runs for us again. Maybe he didn’t like the cold at Pebble last week or the cheesy format – I suggested it might be a risk. So we will forgive him that and focus on his excellent form at Phoenix finishing 7th with all four rounds in the 60’s He has to buck the novice trend but at the price we will take that chance. Seems destined to win on Tour it’s just a case of when….and again….Sungjae Im gets another run for us purely on the basis we have pinned our colours to the mast with him. Like our third pick, Niemann, Im looks a winner in waiting. Seventh at the Waste Management he followed that with successive missed cuts at the AT&T and the Genesis. Despite those poor results Im boasts an across the board main stats positive figures including 25th in strokes gained total. Given the relative weakness of the field 129/1 for the Korean seems generous. Im lead at the 36 hole mark along with eventual winner Mitchell (who we left out) and eventually finished a fading 51st. He bounced back last week with an impressive charging 3rd at the Arnie P. Super talented with some great stats (18th strokes gained tee to green) and learning fast Im knows how to win.
Tyrrell Hatton – (previously) is another stable star who we’ll pin our hopes on despite making his debut here. The 30th best player on the planet goes off a big price given his ability to score. Yes he’s crackers but who cares? Hatton’s stats are almost as bonkers as he is. 9th in strokes gained off the tee he then plummets to 209th for strokes gained approaching the green. It looks to me as if he comes up and out of it but whatever it is it will be a temporary affliction or else he won’t be ranked 30th for long. Then we get to his 1st place in the stokes gained around the green, 6th strokes gained tee to green and 8th strokes gained total. His form reads: MC, 38th and 15th – looks good to me. If anyone can buck the novice trend it’s Hatton. Hatton fared well enough and then was doing quite well at the Arnie P after a weight distribution comment from his coach (and father). Four strokes off the lead on Sunday he did then come unstuck and went on the boil, like he can, but holed his last putt from off the green to at least leave on a positive note. Quite well ranked in the tee to green category (42nd) where we pin our hopes on Hatton is the putter – he has proven he can get hot – and not just under the collar. Hatton has the benefit of two excursions around TPC and while they only yielded a 41st and a MC he’s a better player now.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat – joins the stable based on some nice form shown over the last few weeks and a penchant for the big time. The Thai player has done his global apprenticeship with five international wins and is now plying his trade – for the most part – on the main tour. Ranked 39th in the OWGR and rising Aphibarnrat saves his best for high quality fields. His 3rd in the WGC in Mexico three weeks back was his best finish of the season and he hardly disgraced himself at the Arnie P with 23rd. On his second appearance at TPC Sawgrass he opened with a trio of 71’s and closed out with a fine final round 67. He looks progressive at 29 and while this is a very strong field I think 339/1 is way over priced.