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The Players Championship: Preview & DFS Picks

Golf’s best descend to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida this week for the 45th edition of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass’s Stadium Course. Home to the infamous 17th Island Green, the course has seen a host of heroic performances and shots- from Tiger Woods’ “Better than Most Putt” in 2001 and Rickie Fowler’s 2015 surge, to Rafa Cabrera-Bello’s ridiculous albatross in 2017 and Fred Couples’ “Hole-in-3” in 1999. This year’s edition will be a battle of the old vs. new generations. On the one side, you have Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia who have played well in the last 12+months, and on the other it appears every month a new golfer from the 30-and-under group makes a move. Rory McIlroy seems to be a favorite each week, Justin Thomas is coming off one of the best August-October stretches in history, Jordan Spieth is a putt or two away from being a contender every week, and Jason Day? Well he just won the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday and is the 2016 Players Champion. All this, and I didn’t even mention Dustin Johsnon (the world #1), Patrick Reed (The Masters champ) and Jon Rahm (the best international player outside the US).

The Par-72 layout will test every facet of a player’s game. Important statistics will be putting, strokes gained around the green, and greens in regulation. Last year TPC Sawgrass was ranked the 5th toughest out of the 50 courses played on Tour in terms of greens. The Pete Dye designed course features small greens that have been a staple of the architect’s designs over the years. Other PGA Tour events on Dye-designed courses include: Harbour Town Links (RBC Heritage), TPC River Highlands (Travelers Championship), TPC Louisiana (Zurich Classic) and Austin Country Club (2016/2017/2018 WGC: Dell Technologies Match Play). A major stat you might see throughout the week is balls lost in the water- 69 were lost last year at 17. The biggest reason for this was wind, and last year’s tournament featured 20+ mph gusts that made the 130-yard hole much more difficult. Expect similar results if its a windy week in Florida.

As the PGA Tour’s unofficial “5th Major”, it’s no surprise that the field this week is an elite class of American and international players. In fact, prior to Paul Casey backing out earlier this week due to a back injury, every player in the top 5o of the Official World Golf Rankings was slated to make the start Thursday. The strategies for the top players in the world coming into this week have been polarizing. World number 1 Dustin Johnson last played in a PGA Tour event a month ago at the RBC Heritage, finishing T16 a week after making a top-10 finish at The Masters. Similarly, John Rahm (#3) last played an individual event at the Open de Espana, where he won by 2 strokes over Paul Dunne- also a week after The Masters. Jordan Spieth (#4) and Justin Rose (#5) have only played once since The Masters- each competing at the team-format Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana in late April. On the flip side, the other 6 top-10 players in the world all opted to play in last week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, won by world #7 Jason Day. Patrick Reed (#10) finished in solo 8th, 2-time champ Rory McIlroy (#8) tied for 16th, and Justin Thomas (#2) and Rickie Fowler (#6) both finished T21. Hideki Matsuyama (9) had a DNF.

Vegas Odds

Jason Day 16/1
Jordan Spieth 16/1
Justin Thomas 16/1
Rory McIlroy 16/1
Dustin Johnson 18/1
Rickie Fowler 18/1
Jon Rahm 22/1
Tiger Woods 25/1
Henrik Stenson 28/1
Justin Rose 28/1
Patrick Reed 30/1
Phil Mickelson 35/1
Sergio Garcia 40/1
Bryson Dechambeau 45/1
Hideki Matsuyama 45/1
Billy Horschel 50/1
Patrick Cantlay 55/1
Tommy Fleetwood 55/1
Alex Noren 60/1
Emiliano Grillo 60/1
Francesco Molinari 60/1
Matt Kuchar 60/1
Tony Finau 60/1
Zach Johnson 60/1
Bubba Watson 65/1
Cameron Smith 65/1
Marc Leishman 65/1
Ian Poulter 70/1
Kevin Kisner 70/1
Branden Grace 75/1
Louis Oosthuizen 85/1
Brooks Koepka 90/1
Luke List 90/1
Si Woo Kim 90/1

Power Rankings

5. Francesco Molinari

In my traditional #5/darkhorse slot I’m going with the Italian, who played well last week at Quail Hollow to shoot a 281 (-3) to place T16. Molinari withdrew from the Valero Texas Open in mid-April due to a shoulder injury, but played well last week and is still a good price at just $8,100. He’s 12/13 on made cuts this year, has 2 top-10s, and has finished outside the top-26 just once since February (he also hasn’t shot worse than a 73 in the same time frame). Molinari brings you consistency and a guaranteed made-cut, but his inability to go really low can be attributed to his putter. He was 70th in strokes gained putting last week- and has been outside the top 100 in that category the past 4 seasons. The upside? Molinari has dominated TPC Sawgrass in his last 3 events. In 2017 he finished T6 at -5, in 2016 T7 at -9, and before skipping The Players in 2015 he finished T6 at -9 in 2014. If Molinari can buy some putts and use some of his veteran knowledge to help him navigate the course, he can be an outside pick to win it all this week.

4. Patrick Reed OR Bryson Dechambeau

This is the first time I’m doing this- but I’m picking 2 players in a single ranking this week because they both symbolize what the pick is- someone who is HOT right now on Tour. Dechambeau is arguably the hottest player on Tour to not win this season. He’s 11/14 on made cuts this year with 5 top-10s. In his last four events he has finished solo 2nd at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, T38 at The Masters (after going +4 on Thursday/Friday), T3 at the RBC Heritage and solo 4th at the Wells Fargo Championship last week. A big reason for his success thus far has been his ability to post low numbers. Excluding The Masters, he has had a round in each of his past 3 tournaments where he has shot 66 or better (including a 64 at Harbour Town Links). This is his 1st Players Championship of his young career but he has a chance to make a run with one low round. The other hot player on Tour right now is Patrick Reed, who hasn’t finished outside the top-10 in a tournament since the first week in March at the WGC Mexico Championship. Prior to his win at Augusta (-15), he finished T7 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and was a runner-up at the Valspar Championship a week prior. In his return after a one month hiatus he placed solo 8th at Quail Hollow. But Reed’s 4-year track record at TPC Sawgrass is iffy. He’s missed the cut twice (2014 & 2016) and placed outside the top-20 the other 2 years (2015 & 2017). So both players might not be the best picks for this tournament per say, but they are definitely 2 of the hottest golfers this season and are threats any given week.

3. Justin Thomas

Despite a Saturday MDF in 2017 (in which he was even Thursday/Friday but posted a Saturday 79), Thomas has played fairly well at TPC Sawgrass in his young career. In 2016 he tied for 3rd at -10, and in 2015 he finished T24 including a round of 65 (7-under). The world #2 had a decent week at Quail Hollow last week finishing T21 in his first individual tournament since The Masters- where he finished T17. Thomas is a perfect 11/11 on made cuts this year with 4 top-10s, and he has never finished outside the top-22 in any tournament. He also leads in FedEx Cup points and trails only Dustin Johnson in scoring average (69.2) in 2018. Additionally, he’s 5th this season on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green and 4th in strokes gained total. If he can putt well (46th in SG: putting) then he’s a top-10 lock every single week.

2. Jason Day

The 2016 Players Champion returns to TPC Sawgrass fresh off a victory at the Wells Fargo Championship. Day has looked great this season playing on a limited schedule- with 7/7 made cuts, 3 top-10s and two victories. He’s also been competitive in every tournament- never finishing outside the top 22 this season. While Day’s hot streak of 4 straight rounds in the 60s should be great for DFS pickers, his history at this course might be troubling (similarly to Rickie Fowler). In his 7 trips to Ponte Vedra Beach he has a win, a T6, and a T19, but has also missed 3 cuts and finished T60 last year shooting an 80 on Sunday. But Day should be able to make up for his hardships because of how well he is putting this year. In addition to being 4th in scoring average and 1st in strokes gained this season on the PGA Tour, Day is also 1st in strokes gained putting by nearly 1/2 a stroke (the nearest competitor is Phil Mickelson if you’re curious). If Day can keep it in the fairway (he’s T56 in driving accuracy this season), expect the putting guru to contend at TPC Sawgrass once again.

1. Rory McIlroy

McIlroy was the huge favorite last week and is still my #1 heading into this week. If it wasn’t for a terrible Friday round of 76 last week, McIlroy could have contended at Quail Hollow last week (he went 68-66-71 the other 3 rounds). Excluding the 76, in his last 12 rounds of golf he has never shot worse than a 71, and boasts 4 top-10s and a win this season. He hasn’t missed a cut since early March, and when he did he followed that up with a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a week later. The 3rd longest driver this season, McIlroy is also 7th in scoring average. He’s struggled to give himself good opportunities around the green though, as he’s 174th in greens in regulation on Tour this year. It won’t get easier for him this week on Sawgrass’s small greens, but history says he should be fine. Since 2013, at The Players he’s 5/5 on made cuts and only finished outside the top 12 once in that time span. He has one of the most consistent track record at this course and is my pick to win this week in Florida.

DFS Picks

Henrik Stenson -> $8,800

Patrick Reed -> $8,700

Tiger Woods -> $8,600

Phil Mickelson -> $8,400

Francesco Molinari -> $8,100

Si Woo Kim -> $7,200

Remaining Salary -> $200

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