THE PLAYERS: Though it can no longer boast of the strongest field in golf or retain its informal “fifth major” status due to the LIV defections, which include defending champ Cam Smith, the Players Championship is still the PGA Tour’s crown jewel event, and with 46 of the top 50 players in the current World Golf Rankings set to tee it up this week, this year’s edition will be packing plenty of star power.
This is a true home game for the Tour, as the host course, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, is just steps away from the sleek, new(ish) PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The course was designed by Pete Dye for the express purpose of hosting this event, and so it was built with spectators in mind, with raised areas around tee boxes and greens for an optimized viewing experience and a great set of finishing holes that includes the most dramatic hole in all of golf, the island green par-3 17th. With few exceptions, TPC Sawgrass produces top-shelf champions, the recent list including names like Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Jason Day, and of course the aforementioned Cam Smith.
The players will all be very familiar with the tests that they’ll face this week: like most Pete Dye tracks, the Stadium Course is demanding off the tee and visually intimidating, with narrow fairways lined by trees and sticky Bermuda rough, and water hazards coming into play on more than half the holes. The greens are small and segmented, so the targets are particularly small, which is why strong iron players always thrive here and a deft touch around the greens is an absolute must, as even the best ball-strikers will be chipping at times. It’s a strenuous test of a player’s entire bag, as nearly every club will be used and nearly every shot-shape called upon, but at 7,250 yards it’s not particularly long by modern standards, so it’s a place where wily vets who can’t keep up with the bombers off the tee can still compete.
It feels like we’re in for an exciting week, and as Kurt Kitayama showed us at Bay Hill last week, the talent pool is so deep on Tour these days that just about anyone in the field is capable of hoisting the trophy, and maybe we’re due for another Craig Perks in the winner’s circle at this tournament. That being said, BETDAQ’s Win Market has identified three clear favorites: Rory McIlroy (11.0), Scottie Scheffler (12.5), and Jon Rahm (13.0), who just happen to be 1-2-3 in the world, with Rahm holding the top spot despite a rough go of it last week at the API. For what it’s worth, Scheffler is the only one of the three to have never cracked the top-10 at this event, going MC-T55 in two career starts.
After a long look at a very interesting market, here’s what I’m going with this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Max Homa (17.5)- Sitting just behind the top three in the market is Homa, who has been playing as well as anyone in the world over the past three months and showed with his T14 at Bay Hill last week that his recent run of form isn’t just a West Coast thing. Indeed, Homa has always fared well on the Florida Swing, and his T13 here last year in only his second career appearance would seem to indicate an affinity for TPC Sawgrass. Given that he’s a tee-to-green machine who currently ranks 2nd on Tour in total strokes gained and 6th in strokes gained on approach, he seems like a perfect fit for this course and this tournament, and he’s currently in the midst of the best run of his career, with his confidence at sky-high levels. He’s going to be tough to beat this week.
Tyrrell Hatton (44.0)- TPC Sawgrass frustrated Hatton for years, turning his renowned grumpiness up a few notches, but he seemed to have turned something of a corner with his T13 last year, battling back from a difficult second round to shoot 5-under over the weekend for his best career finish here. He spoke afterwards about learning the intricacies of the course and how best to attack it, and after watching his interview I distinctly recall thinking that he was going to be a contender in this tournament for years to come. Well, fast-forward to this year and Hatton is in peak form, with two finishes of 6th or better in his last three starts, including a T4 at the API last week, where he had to navigate another difficult, Bermuda-covered course. He feels like an excellent value here at better than 40/1.
Alex Noren (84.0)- Due to the manageable length of the course and its subtle nuances, grizzled vets have historically fared well in this tournament, and Noren is one of those vets, finishing 26th or better here three times since 2017, including last year. He’s been on a nice run to open this season, making 6 of 8 cuts and logging a top-5 in Houston just four starts ago, as his typically brilliant putting has carried him even when the swing has been a little sideways. Speaking of putting, Noren usually putts best on Bermuda, so it was no surprise to see him cashing a check at the API last week despite a couple of weeks of inactivity. He’s a dark horse this week for sure, but at a price like 84.0 I’m not sure you’ll find a better value.