The Players Championship kicks off Thursday at TPC Sawgrass. Here's why Tiger will win.
Golf's First Non-Major kicks off on Thursday, and exactly 50 of the world's top 50 players are scheduled to tee it up at Pete Dye's famously treacherous TPC Sawgrass.
This week's Players Championship is the first time since 2006 that the tournament will be played in March, as the last 12 editions of this non-major championship have taken place in May. The switch will result in a different golf course—the Bermuda fairways and greens have been overseeded with rye grass, and that, combined with cooler early-spring weather should see Sawgrass play softer (and longer) than we've grown accustomed to in recent years.
Webb Simpson enters as the defending champion after he put an exclamation point on a career resurgence with a four-shot victory last year. Simpson entered the final round with a seven-shot advantage a year ago, rendering the final round as not much more than procedural...despite an electric early run from Tiger Woods, then still in the fledgling stages of this most recent comeback.
Speaking of Woods: he will indeed compete after pulling out of last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational with a neck strain. Phil Mickelson, who made headlines by saying he didn't feel this non-major is a must-play, has also decided to give it a go. So has Jason Day, who pulled out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational after just six holes.
All non-major jokes aside, the Players is undoubtedly the fifth biggest golf tournament in the world—one that features the best field in the sport, an iconic golf course and a rich history. Get pumped.
The host venue this week is officially named the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, as there's actually 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, which is particularly impressive given he also designed Hilton Head, Whistling Straits and Kiawah.
Architecturally, it's a classic Florida course. By that I mean—Dye took a flat piece of land and added dramatic elements: water hazards, deep bunkers, small greens and stout 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 short iron for most players. The 17th could actually play more difficult this year than in recent years, as the prevailing March wind will be in and off the left, rather than a slightly helping breeze. Any fanned shot will surely find the water short or right of the green.
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 17th is part of a famous, finishing three-hole stretch. The 16th is a reachable par 5 with water guarding the right side of the green—it's the same lake that surrounds 17—and 18 is a dogleg left with water all along the left side. Like 17, the closing hole will play into the wind this year, making it that much more difficult.
The rest of the course is demanding off the tee and demands good ballstriking all around, though it historically has not favored 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 (Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar, Tim Clark). That makes picking a winner this week particularly difficult.
You might think the majors would boast more impressive fields, but 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 20 club professionals get to tee it up in the PGA Championship (and virtually none make the cut). The Masters is a smaller field that a number of quality players fail to get in, and Augusta hosts a number of top amateurs each and every year.
These players, and the quirky ways they qualify, are part of what makes these majors, majors, but that's a discussion for another time.
The Players has none of that. No backdoor ways in, no amateurs, no club pros. That lack of obligation, ccombined with a $12.5 million purse/$2.25 million winner's check that entices every eligible player to accept his invitation, results in the best field you'll see all year. Again: every single player in the top 50 of the world rankings is scheduled to play, which speaks equally well to this tournament and how generally injury-free this sport is.
Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari...they're all there. The highest ranked player who will not be there is world No. 52 Justin Harding.
There is no grouping this year quite as spicy as last year's Tiger/Phil/Rickie supergroup—where the wheels of The Match were set in motion—but there are still some very notable threesomes. Here's a full list of tee times.
Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele — 8:32 a.m.* Thursday/1:27 p.m. Friday
Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia — 8:53 a.m.*/1:48 p.m.
Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Rory McIlroy — 9:04 a.m.*/1:59 p.m.
Tiger Woods, Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson — 1:27 p.m./8:32 a.m.*
Francesco Molinari, Jason Day, Tony Finau — 1:48 p.m./8:53 a.m.*
Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth — 1:59 p.m./9:04 a.m.*
All times EST.
Thursday, Friday — 1-7 p.m. on Golf Channel
Saturday — 2-7 on NBC
Sunday — 1-6 on NBC
2018 — Webb Simpson (-18)
2017 — Si Woo Kim (-10)
2016 — Jason Day (-15)
2015 — Rickie Fowler (-12)
2014 — Martin Kaymer (-13)
2013 — Tiger Woods (-13)
2012 — Matt Kuchar (-13)
2011 — K.J. Choi (-13)
2010 — Tim Clark (-16)
2009 — Henrik Stenson (-12)
Dustin Johnson +1200
Rory McIlroy +1200
Justin Thomas +1600
Justin Rose +2000
Rickie Fowler +2000
Brooks Koepka +2200
Francesco Molinari +2200
Tiger Woods +2200
Bryson DeChambeau +2500
Jon Rahm +2500
Xander Schauffele +2500
Tommy Fleetwood +2800
Sergio Garcia +3300
Adam Scott +4000
Hideki Matsuyama +4000
Jason Day +4000
Patrick Cantlay +4000
Paul Casey +4500
Henrik Stenson +5000
Jordan Spieth +5000
Marc Leishman +5000
Tony Finau +5000
Webb Simpson +5000
Gary Woodland +5500
Ian Poulter +5500
Matt Kuchar +5500
Rafael Cabrera Bello +5500
Lucas Glover +6600
Patrick Reed +6600
Phil Mickelson +6600
Charles Howell III +7000
Matthew Fitzpatrick +7000
Si Woo Kim +7000
Bubba Watson +7500
Cameron Smith +7500
Billy Horschel +8000
Keegan Bradley +8000
Louis Oosthuizen +8000
Keith Mitchell +9000
Kevin Kisner +9000
Matt Wallace +9000
I've read a lot of prognosticators cite Tiger's absence from Bay Hill as a reason to avoid piccking him this week. I go the other way. In his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday, Woods said he'd been dealing with the injury since the Genesis Open, and that it affected his swing and, more notably, his putting at the WGC event in Mexico. He said his putting has improved as his neck has, and he's been working with putting instructor Matt Killen to improve what has been the weakest part of his game in 2019.
I'm going to take Tiger for his word. If he is to be believed, the absence and rest last week should benefit him...given he's feeling close to 100%, which it seems he is. The putting is really the only thing holding Tiger back thus far this year—he's second in strokes gained approaching the green, which is always crucial given Sawgrass' tiny putting surfaces, and he's developed a go-to shoot off the tee with a baby cut.
Sawgrass fits Woods' game nicely. You don't have to hit driver on every hole, and it's a track that rewards precise ballstriking. He's a two-time winner of this event—once in March (2001) and once in May (2013)—and would have finished much higher than T-11 if he didn't falter down the back nine on both Saturday and Sunday. Woods' swing is right where it needs to be, he's trending the right way (T20-T15-T10 in his three starts thus far) and he's obviously comfortable with his game plan to navigate this tricky course. If—and it's a sizable if—he's healthy, I quite like Tiger's chances to pick up his third Players title and 81st overall.