The PLAYERS Championship Preview

            The PGA Tour continues the Florida swing with a trip to TPC Sawgrass for the PLAYERS Championship. The PLAYERS Championship is often referred to as golf’s “fifth major” due to the elite field that will be in attendance and the $15 million purse. 48 of the top 50 ranked golfers in the world will be teeing it up this week. The field will be 154 golfers and is the strongest field we’ve seen so far this year. TPC Sawgrass is a Pete Dye designed course that is a short Par 72, measuring less than 7,200 yards. The greens will consist of bermudagrass overseeded with poa trivialis and velvet bentgrass. There are only five holes on the course that have traditionally played under par, including all four Par 5s. The event last year was abruptly canceled after the first round, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My handicapping process for the week began by reviewing the scorecards of former winners to search for which stats will matter the most. Scoring will be important this week, particularly on the Par 4s and Par 5s. The last five winners have scored on a combined 42 of the 80 total Par 5s they played, including five eagles. Accuracy Off-the-Tee and on Approach shots will be vital this week. There are 17 water hazards that are in play, which means danger lurks on nearly every shot for golfers. The former winners have exceled in their Tee-to-Green play with four of the last five winners being ranked inside the top five in that category the week they won. I will be looking for golfers who are excellent ball-strikers who have also shown the ability to save Par with their short game.

Recent winners of this event are Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Si Woo Kim, Jason Day, and Rickie Fowler. Since 2003, six winners were ranked inside the Top 10 OWGR heading into the week they won. Ten winners were ranked inside the Top 20, 12 were ranked inside the Top 40, and ALL of them were ranked inside the Top 75. This is not a week to be diving too far down the betting board. The cream usually rises to the top.

Correlated courses I looked this week were Sherwood (2020 ZoZo), Muirfield Village (the Memorial), Quail Hollow (Wells Fargo Championship), and Sedgefield Country Club (Wyndham Championship). Sherwood was the most highly correlated course per DataGolf’s Course Fit Tool. Sherwood requires golfers to be accurate Off-the-Tee, and to have the ability to scramble. Muirfield Village is a golf course where golfers need to be precise with their approach shots, and bad iron play will take golfers right out of contention. Four of the last nine winners at Quail Hollow have also won the PLAYERS (Day, Rory, Fowler, Rory). Five of the last ten winners at Sedgefield have won the PLAYERS (Stenson, Kim, Love, Garcia, and Webb).

Other courses I looked at were Pete Dye courses. Pete Dye courses on Tour include the RBC Heritage, American Express, and the Travlers Championship.

Key Stats: Off-the-Tee, Around, Tee-to-Green, Putting Average, Approach, Greens-in-Regulation, and Strokes Gained Total

Scoring Upside: Birdie Average, Bogey Avoidance, Par 5 Birdie or Better Percentage, Par 4 Birdie or Better Percentage, Par 3 Efficiency 150-175 yards, Par 4 Efficiency 450-500 yards

The PLAYERS Championship Tips

Justin Thomas 22-1 (DraftKings)

Thomas has had a roller-coaster start to 2021 with multiple off-course issues. A hot mic moment led to Thomas losing his title sponsor Ralph Lauren. A few weeks later, Thomas’s grandfather passed away. This affected Thomas’s on-course play with missed cuts on both the European Tour and the PGA Tour. Thomas continued his downward trend with an awful start to the WGC-Workday. However, Thomas started trending in the right direction by storming up the leaderboard over his next three rounds and finishing T15. Thomas took last week off to prepare for this event.

Thomas won at Quail Hollow back in 2017, and finished runner-up at Sherwood in October. Thomas also has good finishes at Muirfield, recording a T18 in 2020, and a T8 in 2018. At TPC Sawgrass, Thomas has made the cut each time and has three Top 25 finishes. Using 2020 ShotLink data, in this field Thomas ranks: first Tee-to-Green, first in Approach, 12th in Around-the-Green, 12th in Putting Average, 20th in Off-the-Tee, and 24th in Greens-in-Regulation. Thomas also has the scoring ability to contend this week with 2020 ranks of: first in Par 5 Birdie or Better Percentage, second in Birdie Average, fifth in Par 4 Birdie or Better Percentage, seventh in Par 4 Efficiency from 450-500 yards, and eighth in Bogey Avoidance. Thomas is a world class player, who’s currently ranked #3 in the world. 22-1 is a price that you rarely see on Thomas, and while it’s available I’m taking it.

Patrick Cantlay 29-1 (Fanduel)

             Cantlay was the first golfer I bet on when odds were posted last week. I was lucky to grab a 29-1 ticket on Cantlay, who’s price is now hovering around 25-1. Cantlay has been one of the hottest golfers for a few months now. His last six events dating back to October, he has finishes of: 1, T17, T13, 2, T3, and T15. Cantlay has incredible scoring abilities, and he showed the golf world just how dominant he can be. In the final round of the American Express, Cantlay tied the course record and then followed it up by shooting the course record during the first round of Pebble Beach. Cantlay withdrew from the WGC-Workday due to dehydration issues, however Cantlay is also a guy who can’t play too many weeks in a row due to previous injuries. The two-week hiatus for Cantlay should serve him well, as he is fully rested and in peak form.

Cantlay has wins at both Muirfield Village and Sherwood. At the Travelers Championship, Cantlay has recent finishes of: T11, T15, and T15. At the American Express, Cantlay has finishes of T2 in 2021, and T9 in 2019. At the RBC Heritage, Cantlay has finishes of T3 in 2019 and T7 in 2018. Cantlay loves Pete Dye courses. Over his 42 rounds on Pete Dye courses, Cantlay is gaining 2.02 total strokes per round. At TPC Sawgrass, Cantlay has finishes of: MC, 23, and 22. Using 2020 ShotLink data, in this field Cantlay ranks: 10th in Total Strokes Gained, 10th in Par 5 Birdie or Better Percentage, 12th in Tee-to-Green, 13th in Putting Average, 16th in Birdie Average, 17th in Approach, and 21st Off-the-Tee. Cantlay is a really solid golfer, and has the ability to get on birdie streaks.

Daniel Berger 44-1 (Fanduel)

            Daniel Berger still gets no respect in the betting market despite his recent success. Since the PGA Tour resumed last June, Berger has won twice. Since the restart, Berger has played 60 rounds of golf. He has gained total strokes in 42 of those 60 rounds, and is gaining 1.49 total strokes per round. Berger’s last five results have been: T35, 1, MC, T7, and 10. When he won at Pebble Beach a few weeks ago, Berger made four total eagles. Eagles will be important this week because the Par 5s are reachable in two. If half of the field scores a birdie on the Par 5s, the only way to gain on the field in those situations is to score an eagle.

Berger has played at TPC Sawgrass five times, missing the cut once and recording one Top 10 finish. Using 2020 ShotLink data, in this field Berger ranks: fifth in Birdie Average, sixth in total strokes gained, eighth in Par 4 Efficiency from 450-500 yards, 10th in Bogey Avoidance, 12th in Par 4 Birdie or Better Percentage, 15th in Tee-to-Green, 17th in Par 3 Efficiency from 150-175 yards, 19th in Putting Average, and 25th Off-the Tee. Berger is a scoring machine who has a balanced overall game that should translate well to TPC Sawgrass.

Scottie Scheffler 50-1 (DraftKings)

            Scheffler is an elite birdie-maker and flashed his upside in the final round of the WGC-Workday. Scheffler caught fire and catapulted up the leaderboard to give Collin Morikawa a brief scare, however Scheffler landed a tee shot in the water to wash away any chance he had at a win. Scheffler is often grouped together with Morikawa, Hovland, and Wolff because they are debuted on Tour at the same time. Scheffler is the only one in that group who has not found victory yet on the PGA Tour. However, Scheffler has been knocking on the door for his first win and I think there is a win coming for Scheffler very soon.

Since the 2021 PGA season began, Scheffler has been gaining 1.4 strokes per round. Last year, Scheffler did play in the first round the PLAYERS Championship before it was canceled. In that one round, Scheffler was -5 and gained 3.31 total strokes on the field. Scheffler’s last three finishes have been: 5, 20, 7. Using 2020 ShotLink data, in this field Scheffler ranks: third in Par 4 Birdie or Better Percentage, seventh in Birdie Average, 10th Tee-to-Green, 10th Off-the-Tee, and 15th in total strokes gained. Scheffler has the scoring ability to run away from the field, and if he can keep his ball dry, he should have a great chance to contend.

Will Zalatoris 75-1 (DraftKings)

            Zalatoris is an elite ball-striker. The 24-year-old has made his presence known on the PGA Tour. In his 12 starts this season, Zalatoris has nine Top 25 finishes, including five Top 10 finishes. In his PGA debut at the U.S. Open, he finished T6. Zalatoris is not scared of the moment, and has shown he has the physical talent and mental fortitude to compete amongst the very best.

Zalatoris has gained 1.33 strokes per round with his ball-striking since his debut. Over that span, only three golfers have been better ball-striking: Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm, and Dustin Johnson. Betting on Zalatoris this week might be premature, as he has never won on the PGA Tour. But, his style of play should translate well to this course. He has shown he can contend despite making debuts, and odds like this won’t last long on him. Zalatoris is here for the long haul, and a win this week would catapult the rookie to PGA stardom

Abraham Ancer 80-1 (Fanduel)

          Ancer is a Pete Dye specialist. Acner does not excel in one particular category, but he has no blatant weaknesses. Ancer lives in the fairway, and finds himself on the greens with birdie chances. He is the epitome of a balanced, consistent golfer. Ancer’s consistency is evident in his recent finishes. Ancer’s last seven starts have seen him miss the cut twice, and finish inside the Top 20 the other five times. Ancer has gained 1.4 total strokes per round over his last 40 rounds on Pete Dye courses.

At the American Express, Ancer has recent finishes of: T5, 2, and T18. At the Travelers Championship, Ancer has recent finishes of T11 and T8. Ancer finished runner-up at the RBC Heritage in 2020. In his only appearance at TPC Sawgrass, Ancer finished T12. Using 2020 ShotLink data, in this field Ancer ranks: sixth in Par 3 Efficiency from 150-175 yards, 12th in Bogey Avoidance, and 20th in total strokes gained. Ancer loves Pete Dye courses, and his game profiles well for this style of course.

Sergio Garcia 95-1 (Fanduel)

            At a course where there aren’t any real course history studs, Garcia is the exception. Garica has played this event 18 times, and has not missed a cut since 2003. Over his 18 appearances at TPC Sawgrass, Garcia has ten Top 25 finishes, six Top 10 finishes, and one win. Garcia finished T5 at the RBC Heritage in 2020, and T4 at the Wells Fargo Championship, the last time Quail Hollow was played on Tour. Garcia also has a win at Sedgefield back in 2012. Garcia won the third event of the 2021 PGA Tour season at Sanderson Farms. Using 2020 ShotLink data, in this field Garcia ranks: third Off-the-Tee, fourth Tee-to-Green, and 16th Around-the-Green. Garcia is an exceptional driver of the golf ball, and the facets of the game that he is best will matter the most this week. The 41-year-old, eleven-time PGA winner should not be priced this close to triple digits. I’ll take a chance on a player who has won this season, and has shown he loves this course.

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