Ah yes! THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass. The one they call the 5th major. And ya, it's all caps. THE PLAYERS Championship. Don't ask me why, it just is.
We're at one of golf's most iconic venues. Behind the eden that is Augusta National, this is the most well known annual stop on the PGA Tour. It's their premier event, as the Tour's main headquarters reside right here in Ponta Vedra Beach. It's also the single event (East Lake notwithstanding) where the Tour gives out the most coin - a record purse of $25 MILLION is up for grabs, including $4.5M to the winner.
For comparison's sake, the Masters is only giving out $15 million. So yeah, this is a big one where you're sure to see a lot of hubbub about the guy late on Sunday whose lipout on the 72nd hole costs him $450k.
Last year's tournament was a wild and weird one marred by wacky weather that more or less carpet-bombed half of the field. Wet weather kept the 1st round from being completed until Saturday morning, where the late-early half of the tee time draw were forced to finish their 1st rounds in frigid and borderline monsoon conditions and then head back out there immediately for their 2nd rounds to get their asses kicked all over again. The other half had the benefit of having played nearly their entire 1st round on a soft and mild Thursday, and weren't forced to go back out there until late Saturday or early Sunday when the conditions had subsided.
The result was a scoring average of 72.4 for the early/late golfers, and an average of 73.9 for late/early. Only 27 of the 71 golfers who made the cut came from that late/early group, and those who did were significantly behind the ball for the final rounds.
Tee time draws are an inherent aspect of stroke play golf and we usually see its biggest impact at the Open every year, but that tournament was one of the more inequitable draws of any tournament I can ever remember.
Regardless, it was Cam Smith who took home the grand prize and $3.6M with an unconscious putting performance from a guy who would know one. His 42 one-putts smashed KJ Choi's tournament record of 38.
Just as notably, the guy scrambled his balls off after ranking DEAD LAST among those who made the cut in fairways hit. His 43% if fairways hit made him the only champ to ever fall under 50%, and he played the final 3 holes like an absolute psychopath.
In particular, his baffling decision to punch out aggressively holding a 2-shot lead over Anirban Lahiri on the 72nd hole brought us some serious dramatics (as if his tee shot on 17 didn't already), and naturally he was able to get up and down for a tournament-winning bogey.
Of course, Cam won't be here to defend his title as he's since moved along to LIV Golf. The Tour and TPC Sawgrass made their feelings known about that by revoking his champions parking spot with this:
And now… the guy has said he may show up just to kick it. What a wild scene that would be.
Anyways… last year's leaderboard and recent winners…
Recent Winners Of THE PLAYERS Championship
TPC Sawgrass is one of Pete Dye's greatest masterpieces and easily his most well known. Those who know the game well know a Pete Dye design immediately when they see one and this course exemplifies everything they tend to feature - long fairway bunkers, bulkhead-lined greens protected by water, and thoughtful holes of a variety of lengths. His objective was often to make his golf courses visually imposing and this course has that by the truckloads.
It's also an immaculate golf course. I had the pleasure of going to last year's tournament and the property is glorious. Perfectly manicured and every little detail tended to a T. Just a mow pattern clinic out there. I haven't had the delight of going to a Masters (plz send me Dave or anyone else…) but I have to imagine the condition of this golf course is the next best thing. And the range… chef's kiss. Look at this place.
Sawgrass measures 7,275 yards and is your traditional par 72 with par 36 on each side. It's not terribly long, but there are a good handful of holes where driver may not be the play off the tee. The 4th is probably the best example of that. All four par 5's are reachable in two, with the 583 yard par 5 9th being the most challenging with trees protecting the green short left and some bodacious grass bunkers to the right. The finishing 18th is a menace, one of the most intimidating final tee shots in all of golf that always makes for great drama. They always play it up on TV how scary it is, but you really cannot grasp how small the margin of error is until you see it in person.
What I find most interesting is that this course historically does not favor any one type of golfer. It's extraordinarily balanced. Bombers have won here, ball-strikers have won here, guys with incredible short games and hot putters have won here… there's hardly one area of expertise to target. Since THE PLAYERS moved to this course in 1982, no golfer has ever defended his title and no one has ever won here 3 times. Only Tiger, DLIII, Steve Elkington, Hal Sutton, and Freddie Couples have won here twice. Nobody should be walking on to the property this week thinking that they own the place. If you play good golf, you'll have a chance and if you don't, you won't. Crazy how simple that is, right?
Best Hole - 17th Hole, Par 3 137 yards
I mean, could it really be anything but the island green? It's one of golf's most iconic holes. I think its status as "one of a kind" is a little bit overblown (PGA West #17 says hi), but in terms of the stage that it's on and what's at stake, there might be nothing better in golf. The stadium atmosphere surrounding the lake delivers on TV and after going in 2021 I'm so jealous of anybody who will be there this weekend.
So many great moments here over the years:
"Better than most"
Freddie's birdie in '96.
Rickie's epic showing in '15 (he's back in the field this week after having not even qualified last year)
Gold Man bringing down the house
Trent hitting the dancefloor
And so many more.
Can't wait to watch the havoc unfold.
Mostly consistent, but could get a little hairy on Friday afternoon. Good breeze throughout but nothing too crazy.
Wall to wall golf baby!!!
Tour is really going on all in on THE PLAYERS. It's on site at their HQ so it makes sense. NBC takes us home this week.
We're lucky enough to have some MONSTER featured groups this week, including the current big 3. Oooo mama.
For a long time the prize here was Waterford crystal, which I guess was nice and shiny and all, but at the end of the day it's just a hunk of crystal.
Starting in 2019 with Rory's win, they unveiled a new trophy that takes after the logo for THE PLAYERS, which is an awesome and easily recognizable logo.
What I learned last year is that the face on the trophy is actually a composite grafting of the previous 38 champions? Pretty whack.
Where this trophy really brings it is the fact that the player is standing on an outline of the 17th island green.
BAM. That's an instant 2 point boost to what was already a very solid trophy. I'm giving this trophy a 9.2/10. You won't want to swap it out for a hockey guy on top.
Ahead of Bay Hill, Jon Rahm was the solo favorite here, but Rory's T-2 finish on Sunday along with Rahm's abysmal (for him) T-39 finish have shifted the odds. The two of them are co-favorites as of Monday afternoon at +800 at the Barstool Sportsbook.
Rory won here at 2019, but has struggled with a MC and T-33 in his two appearances since. Rahm finished T-9 two years ago, but otherwise has no other Top 10's in his 5 starts at Sawgrass. Having said that, he was in the lead on the back 9 on Sunday when Rory ultimately won in 2019, but infamously ignored his caddie's pleas to play the safe shot from a fairway bunker on 11 and spiraled his way to a 76 and T-12 finish.
I'm not picking either of these two, but if I had to I would go with Rahm. Just feels like he's mowing down boxes on his career checklist and this would certainly be another.
I'm gonna go back to the well here with the 2021 champ and take Justin Thomas at +2000. Love that value. JT is flying under the radar a bit right now. He hasn't quite been in contention on a recent Sunday when so many big names have dominated the headlines, but he's still cobbling together good results. He was one of those few who made the cut last year from the tougher side of the draw, and his 2nd round 69 in impossible conditions was regarded as one of the great rounds of golf he's ever played.
I wrote above that there's not a style of golf that Sawgrass necessarily favors, but JT's a guy with all the shots in the bag. When in doubt, trust in a ball-striker. Take him Top 10 too.
Scottie Scheffler To Win +1100/Top 5 +300 - He's playing with Rahm and Rory and can strike it as well as JT can. If they had even odds I'd take Scottie over JT, but JT is only the official pick because of that value at +2000.
Xander Schauffele To Win +2200/Top 10 +225 - Guy hasn't missed a cut since last year's Masters and has finished Top 20 in 14 of his 18 events since then. Remarkable consistency. Is a Gold Man trophy a greater feat than Olympic gold? I'd take the one with the paycheck attached but that's just me.
Tom Kim To Win +4000/Top 10 +400 - Tom obviously came out of the gates hot but has been relatively quiet the past few weeks. I think he'll bounce back here. If there's one knock on his game, it's that he's not terribly long off the tee. Sawgrass is a place that can mitigate that weakness, much like Sedgefield and Summerlin where he notched his two PGA Tour wins.
Trey Mullinax Top 20 +800 - Only 13 players have made the cut in all 4 designated events so far this year. Trey is one of them, coming off a T-8 at the API last week.
Kevin Kisner To Win +35000/Top 30 +450 - Kis is in an absoulte freefall and finished DFL last week going 77-80 at Bay Hill. But he's a former winner and that price is too damn tantalizing too ignore.
Stewart Cink Top 40 +350 - Sawgrass seems to have a reputation for having old farts find themselves in contention on Sunday. Furyk and Westwood are recent examples of that. Heck, Paul Casey wasn't quite as old as those two but he came out of nowhere to threaten Cam Smith last year. Cink is almost two years removed from that little blip where he won twice in a few months and hasn't really done anything of note since, but he's far enough down the list to warrant a flier.
Cameron Young To Win +4000 - FOMO pick here. Riding Cam til he breaks through and we cash a big ticket.
Sahith Theegala To Win +7000 - Sahith is like my FOMO Lite guy. He's on deck once Cam wins. And now that the possibility of Sahith beating him to the punch has popped into my head, I guess I've got two FOMO guys now.
Should be an incredible week as always. Good luck, and enjoy THE PLAYERS Championship.