We head to the third and final stop on the PGA Tour’s Florida Swing for the 50th edition of the Players Championship. Damien Kayat previews.
2022/2023 US PGA Tour
The Players Championship
The Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Verde Beach, Florida
It feels as if we are currently being spoilt by the drama provided by the PGA Tour. Kurt Kitayama’s maiden US PGA Tour victory at Bay Hill had a bit of everything.
The destiny of the World No.1 ranking remained a mystery until the very last moments of the event. Who would have thought that Jon Rahm- who led by two shots after day one- would be the one nervously watching monitors to see if he retained the ranking.
The metronomic Scottie Scheffler just couldn’t quite make it happen over the final round while Rory missed a ten-footer on the last that would have led to a playoff.
Elsewhere, Jordan Spieth snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a disastrous back-nine putting display that was frankly baffling to behold. And who was the man to survive the carnage?
Kurt Kitayama managed to hold his nerve with a steely back-nine after carding a disastrous triple-bogey on the ninth. Bay Hill really showed its teeth in another exhilarating finish in what is turning into a legendary PGA Tour season.
The moment @Kurt_Kitayama became a PGA TOUR champion @APInv 🏆 pic.twitter.com/LEr5doBs8e— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 5, 2023
The Players Championship
The Tour now heads to the third and most prestigious stop in its Florida Swing: the Players Championship. This will actually be the 50th edition of the tour’s flagship event.
They will, however, only crown the 49th champion this year: the 2020 event was abandoned after 18 holes due to the pandemic.
Originally known as the Tournament Players Championship, the Players began life in pretty auspicious fashion, with the ‘Golden Bear’ Jack Nicklaus winning the first of his three titles in 1974 (he is still the only man to have won this event on three occasions).
Only six players in the event’s history have won it on multiple occasions. The last three winners, Smith, Thomas and McIlroy, hit the ball a considerable distance. But then you have champions of the Webb Simpson-Tim Clark ilk: surgical operators who can’t overpower a course.
This is one of the most difficult events to predict and bears testament to just how well-balanced this course is. Having said that, I think the tour’s decision to switch the event back to March four years ago has certainly favoured the bigger hitters.
There is less run on the fairways and the ball doesn’t travel as far through the cooler air.
The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass
Constructed in 1980, this Pete-Dye design was purpose-built to host this event (it took over hosting duties in 1982). This classic Bermuda-grass layout has dog-legged holes that snake in both directions.
This obviously suits the players who can shape it both ways (it’s little wonder that Tiger Woods is a two-time champion here). It’s also critical to find these smaller-than-average TifEagle Bermuda greens.
The ten winners between 2005 and 2014 averaged 7.5 in GIR. If you don’t consistently find these greens you will need to scramble like man possessed.
All this basically illustrates just how difficult it is to predict success around the Stadium Course. And it could all come unravelled on the last trio of holes, with water lurking menacingly around every corner. This is best exemplified by the iconic, island-green 17th.
The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was built to showcase the talents of the best golfers in the world.— The Fried Egg (@the_fried_egg) March 6, 2023
Our video on the Players Championship venue provides a look at Pete Dye’s design process, the course’s evolution, and its purpose.
Watch on YouTube: https://t.co/1vaTHPoxfU pic.twitter.com/nqgbIbFCa0
Obviously, Cam Smith won’t be back to defend his title following his high-profile defection to LIV Golf. But it matters little when you look at how exhilarating the US PGA Tour is at present.
The battle for the World No.1 spot approaches fever pitch this week, with Rahm, Scheffler and McIlroy competing in the same blockbuster grouping for the first two days.
It will be interesting to see which one of these stars blinks first. The likes of Xander Schauffele and Viktor Hovland have flirted with contention lately without sealing the deal.
Elsewhere, former Sawgrass champs such as Thomas and Day have to be reckoned with. And it will be interesting to see how Jordan Spieth bounces back following his poor Bay Hill back-nine.
There is no shortage of possible contenders in what essentially boils down to Major Championship stakes at TPC Sawgrass.
2022: Cam Smith
2021: Justin Thomas (-14)
2020: no event (cancelled due to Covid)
2019: Rory McIlroy (-16)
2018: Webb Simpson (-18)
2017: Si Woo Kim (-10)
2016: Jason Day (-15)
To Win Outright:
Jon Rahm 17/2 | Rory McIlroy 9/1 | Scottie Scheffler 11/1 | Justin Thomas 18/1 | Patrick Cantlay 20/1
Keegan Bradley- To Win 55/1 | To Place 11/1
Keegan Bradley is certainly not a name who is going to jump out at many this week. But look closer. The 2011 PGA Championship winner has quietly re-entered the world’s top 20 courtesy of really consistent golf. He finished runner-up to Max Homa at Torrey Pines earlier this year (which is another shot-shaper’s paradise). And he is fresh off a very impressive T10 finish at Bay Hill (he finished just four shots back of eventual winner Kurt Kitayama in a congested leaderboard). He won his first event in four years in October and he finished in a tie for fifth at TPC Sawgrass last year. The stars seem to be aligning for this wizard of the irons.
Sungjae Im- To Win 35/1 | To Place 7/1
Im just strikes me as the sort of shoot-shaper who should thrive at TPC Sawgrass. He has made two of three cuts here, with a best finish of 17th in 2021. He finished 55th last year (but you can forgive that given the general pandemonium caused by the weather). He is playing ultra-consistent golf, with two top 10s and three top 25s in his last five starts. His ball-striking and gentle touch around the greens make him an ideal candidate for a surprise title push this week. Can he match countrymen K.J Choi and Si-Woo Kim with victory at Sawgrass?
The Man to Beat- Collin Morikawa- To Win 25/1 | To Place 5/1
I’m actually opting to swerve the ‘Big Three’ in an event that often turns a blind eye to form. Iron specialist Collin Morikawa represents much greater value at 25/1. He ended 2022 with a 6th place at the Hero World Challenge. He then produced a spectacular start to 2023, ultimately settling for a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He made some late bogeys while Rahm went on a tear on the Sunday back-nine. Still, it showed that the two-time Major Champion was ready to get back in contention. He was third at the Farmers and 6th at Riviera. He has already won a PGA Tour event in Florida (the 2021 WGC at Concession). I think he will possibly benefit from missing the cut by one shot last week. He didn’t have to go through the mental torture that many others experienced on Sunday.
First-Round Leader- Hideki Matsuyama- 75/1
The former Masters champ hasn’t been in the greatest of form, cut in his last two events at Riviera and Bay Hill. But this is an event that produces unexpected results. And the 31-year-old Japanese is one of the most gifted players on the planet. He was the first-round leader when the event was stopped after 18 holes in 2020. I think 75/1 for a Matsuyama surge is a decent longshot bet.