- The best field in golf descends upon TPC Sawgrass for the Players Championship this week. Here's a full preview, including tournament history, course information, tee times, field analysis, odds and predictions.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It's not a major, but it's the next best thing: The Players Championship.
The world's best are here at the (in)famous TPC Sawgrass this week for The Players, the PGA Tour's signature event and unofficially golf's fifth major. While a win at Sawgrass doesn't quite stack up to claiming a major championship, winning The Players is a giant boost to a player's resume.
The Players traditionally features the strongest field in golf—Tiger, Spieth, Phil, Rory, Jordan, Justin are all here—and tournament organizers this year have not hesitated to place some of the biggest names in the sport in the same group. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler will play together on Thursday and Friday, as will Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy. It's as star-studded as star-studded events come, and the winner this week will have topped a who's who of golfing elites.
As an aside, this is the last year the Players Championship will be played in May, as it's moving to March as part of the Tour's reshuffling of the schedule starting in 2018-19.
Here's everything you need to know about the best non-major of the year.
The golf course
The host venue this week is officially named the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, as there's another course at Sawgrass called the Valley Course, a track that hosted the Web.com Tour Championship from 2013-15. Pete Dye designed both courses, and the Stadium Course is arguably his most famous piece of work anywhere in the world. It features many of Dye's signature touches: deep bunkers, in-play water hazards, small greens and difficult par 4s.
The most famous hole on the golf course, and arguably the most famous golf hole in the world, is the par-3 17th, which features an "island green." The green is not actually an island, as the putting surface is connected to the rest of the golf course by a narrow strip of land, but I'm nitpicking. For all intents and purposes it's an island, and the water surrounding the green will gladly swallow plenty of golf balls this week, even though the shot requires just a nine iron for most players.
That hole has hosted a number of memorable moments throughout the years. Tiger Woods's bending "BETTER THAN MOST" birdie comes to mind. So does Rickie Fowler birdieing the hole three straight times (once in regulation, once in a three-hole playoff against Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia and once more in sudden-death against Kisner) to win in 2015, and Sean O'Hair misclubbing and finding the water in 2007.
The rest of the course is demanding off the tee and demands good ballstriking all around, though it does not favor a longer or shorter hitter, per se. That's evidenced by the list of prior winners. You've got guys who absolutely mash it off the tee (Jason Day, Tiger, Phil), but you've also got shorter hitters who rely on control (Si Woo Kim, Matt Kuchar, Tim Clark). That makes picking a winner this week particularly difficult.
The best in golf, bar none. You might think the majors would boast more impressive fields, but consider that all four majors feature non-elite players who get in through specific avenues. A number of players well outside the top-100 in the world get into the U.S. Open and British Open through truly open qualifiers (if you pay and have a low enough handicap, you can try to play in the U.S. Open), and 25 club professionals get to tee it up in the PGA Championship (and virtually none make the cut). The Masters is a small field that a number of quality players fail to get in, and Augusta hosts a number of top amateurs each and every year.
This week, there's none of that. No players who grinded through multiple qualifying stages. No club professionals. And no amateurs at all. Before Paul Casey pulled out due to a back injury on Wednesday morning, every single player in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking was set to tee it up. Usually in this section I list some big names that are in the field, but that would be academic this week. Apart from Casey, literally all of the biggest names are here—including the world's 92nd ranked player, a 14-time major champion by the name of Tiger Woods.
Tournament organizers often prefer to spread out big names across multiple different groups and times, aiming to maximize interest throughout the day. This week, not so much. The marquee grouping this week is Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, though the grouping of Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy is 1A.
Full tee times can be found here, but here are a few notable groupings:
Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler: 1:52 p.m. Thursday/8:27 a.m. Friday*
Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka: 8:05 a.m.*/1:30 p.m.
Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama: 1:30 p.m./8:05 a.m.*
Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia: 1:41 p.m./8:16 a.m.*
Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy: 8:27 a.m.*/1:52 p.m.
The past champions
The list of past champions features an interesting mix of world–class players (at the time) and virtual unknowns who put together the week of a lifetime. Of the former variety: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Greg Norman, David Duval, Davis Love III, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Nick Price, Tom Kite. Of the latter: Si Woo Kim, Craig Perks, Stephen Ames, Tim Clark, Jodie Mudd.
Kim, who is still just 22 years old, is the defending champ this week after he became the tournament's youngest winner ever last year. Other than that monumental win, Kim's stats from 2017 read like a player who struggled to keep his tour card—The Players title was just one of two top 10 finishes for him last year. He's been more consistent this year, having missed just two of 11 cuts after missing 10 of 30 last year and withdrawing from five tournaments where he wouldn't have made the weekend. He also picked up a solo second–place finish at the Heritage a few weeks ago.
The average winning score over the past five years has been 12.6-under-par. The forecast is calling for good weather this week, so I'd expect the winning score to fall somewhere around there.
Rory McIlroy +1600
Jason Day +1600 - Coming off a win at the Wells Fargo and seemingly on his way back to 2016 form.
Justin Thomas +1600
Jordan Spieth +1600
Dustin Johnson +2000 - The world No. 1 has played just once since the Masters, taking t16 at the Heritage
Rickie Fowler +2000 - 2015 Players Champion
Jon Rahm +2200
Henrik Stenson +2500
Justin Rose +3000 - Has cooled off a bit since torrid beginning of season, but good value for world No. 5
Phil Mickelson +3500 - Interesting to see Phil and Tiger listed evenly here
Tiger Woods +3500
Sergio Garcia +3500 - Missed three straight cuts since birth of daughter Azalea, but good history at Sawgrass
Patrick Reed +3500
Hideki Matsuyama +4000
Bryson DeChambeau +4000 - Two straight top-5 finishes coming in, feels like he's ready for that big breakthrough win
Tommy Fleetwood +5000
Alex Noren +5000
Patrick Cantlay +5000
Matt Kuchar +5000
Billy Horschel +5500 - Three straight top-11 finishes, including a win in team event in New Orleans
Zach Johnson +5500
Bubba Watson +6600
Kevin Kisner +6600 - Lost to Rickie Fowler in 2015 playoff here
Marc Leishman +6600
The Players is one of the hardest picks to make all year, given the strength of the field, how many guys are playing well coming in, and the diverse playing styles of players who have won this championship before. When in doubt, go with a well-rounded player who seemingly always puts himself in position on the weekend. I'm tempted to pick DeChambeau. The 24-year-old is brimming with confidence on the strength of terrific recent play, and it's only a matter of time before we start talking about him in the same sentence as his countryman and age-group peers like Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.
Instead, I'm going with Justin Rose this week, a player whose Hall of Fame resume could use a Players Championship boost. I just feel like his ability to put the ball in play will give him a ton of chances, and his putter will get hot down the stretch. He's overdue for his first win of 2018.