The PLAYERS Championship: Course Insight

It’s the richest event on the PGA Tour. It’s the strongest field of any tournament played on the same course every year. It’s The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass, and it has all the hallmarks of a major championship. This year’s marquee field includes 48 of the top-50 players in the world, winners of the last eight Masters and U.S. Opens, winners of the last six Open Championships and PGA Championships, and the last 45 winners on the PGA Tour.

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one of the most complete courses in all of professional golf, testing every aspect of a player’s game, from the mechanical to the mental. No two holes run in the same direction. It’s designed to ensure any style of play can win here, and only five players in the past 35 years have won here more than once.No. 1 ranked Dustin Johnson is back in form after missing The Masters with a back injury, world No. 2 Rory McIlroy makes his first start as a married man, and No. 3 Jason Day, who went wire-to-wire winning here last year highlight a field of 147 of the most talented players on the planet.

View from behind the green on No.16

Every year The PLAYERS elicits compelling theatre. The hazards and angles of this Pete Dye designed course makes playing it a mental battle as well as a physical one. Bad results will happen to good shots, and the pressure of playing this historic venue, particularly on Saturday and Sunday, will unnerve even the best. Graeme McDowell might have summed up TPC Sawgrass best when he said a few years ago, “It’s going to ask you a lot of questions about your game, and you better have the answers.”

The par-72, 7,215 yard course has undergone changes this year, adding even more excitement to the event. The most significant change is making the 12th hole a drivable par-4. The hole was shortened from 360 yards to one that will play anywhere between 290 to 320 yards, creating more dramatic risk-reward situations.

All the greens were also resurfaced and expanded with a robust strain of Bermuda grass for a more consistent putting surface and greater options in pin placement. New mounding has been created on almost half of the holes. And true to Dye’s modus operandi of creating visually intimidating appearances, a massive pond was placed between the 6th and 7th holes, making this potential disaster impossible for players to ignore off the tee on the par-4 6th.

The par-5 16th, par-3 17th, and par-4 18th are three of the most climactic and iconic closing holes in golf, and have historically produced some of the most bitter disappointments and thrilling finishes in golf. No. 16 is a hole that surrenders birdie and eagle easily, and almost 75-percent of players go for the green in two. At only 523 yards, it’s a short par-5, and anywhere in the fairway gives players a realistic shot at reaching the green. Water down the right side is the most obvious defense on this hole. However, a series of pot bunkers and undulations to the right can create unwelcome headaches with a green that feeds back down to the water.

In-app GPS view of The Island hole

You’d think a hole that’s only 137 yards wouldn’t give professionals many problems, but the befuddling par-3 17th gets in players’ heads every year, and the water surrounding this island green acts like a virtual ball magnet. The safe play is always middle of the green, but things get tricky and heart-rates get ramped up when the wind comes in from the right or left. Prop bets for the highest score here this week is over/under seven.

No. 18 is a brutally hard finishing hole. The 462-yard par-4 fairway begins wide but narrows as the hole starts bending to the left. Potential disaster awaits off the tee on both sides with water extending along the entire left side, and spectator mounds, sand and trees along the right. Approach shots are usually downwind, and Sunday pin positions tucked back and left bring the water into play and make hitting the green extremely tough. It’s consistently the hardest hole to get up-and-down from on the course.

Players to Watch

THE PLAYERS is always one of the most difficult events to predict a winner because any given style of play can succeed here. Historically the course favors players who arrive here hot, and no one’s been hotter than Dustin Johnson. Going back to February, in his last five events, DJ has gone up against 592 players and lost to only three of them. Johnson could play on a course specifically designed to torment him and I still wouldn’t pick against him. Johnson’s first in driving distance, first in greens-in-regulation, and third in birdie average so far this season on Tour. Still, I’m not sure he’s completely healed from his back injury prior to The Masters, even though he came within one shot of winning his fourth consecutive tournament last week at the Wells Fargo Championship. I’m picking him for a top-5 finish.

Rory McIlroy makes his first start since getting married a few weeks ago in an A-List, lavish ceremony at home in Ireland. Rory’s notched four top-10 finishes in five events this season, and his play tee-to-green has been stellar this season. McIlroy’s finished top-15 in his four previous appearances here, and I’d have him down for another top-15 finish if not for my possibly overthinking his new TaylorMade equipment contract. Rory will play a new driver, new irons, and a new ball this week, and I’m not sure he’s had enough time with it yet to be successful. Testing is one thing, putting it in play in a tournament environment is a different beast. I can’t fault McIlroy for tinkering to improve his aspects of his game he believes need improving, but there will be a learning curve. McIlroy to finish top-15 to top-20.

Winner Prediction

Sergio Garcia’s had his share of heartbreak and jubilation at The PLAYERS, but this is a different Sergio now that he’s finally knocked the “best player to never win a major” monkey off his back with a victory last month at The Masters. Garcia will be playing his first event as a major champion, and I think we’re going to see Garcia at his absolute and worry-free best. Sergio’s always had the game, and now his fighting spirit is completely unleashed and unencumbered. A victory this week could open the floodgates to one of the best seasons in PGA Tour history.

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