Events with deep fields can make it quite a challenge to narrow down a list of four or five golfers to win the tournament. But tournaments rich with talent also yield tremendous value and allow a bettor to cast a wider net than they normally could. This week at the Players Championship, there is certainly some great values to be had.
- 2018: Webb Simpson (-18)
- 2017: Siwoo Kim (-10)
- 2016: Jason Day (-15)
- 2015: Rickie Fowler (-12)
- 2014: Martin Kaymer (-13)
- 2013: Tiger Woods (-13)
TPC Sawgrass is not a bomb and gouge golf course. Of the recent winners, only Jason Day would consider himself as a bomber, and even he would say it was his short game and putting that put him over the top. The common link of all of the recent winners is that when each is playing at their top gear, they’re all premier iron players. Even Siwoo Kim, as inconsistent as he can be, is one of the best ball-strikers on tour when he’s at his peak performance.
But all of these results occurred in the month of May. Now that the tournament has moved back to March and has been overseeded with ryegrass, it will look and play differently than in year’s past.
This is one of the biggest challenges a bettor can face. A successful bettor relies not just on who has played well at the golf course, but how it plays and what works there. Minor tweaks to a golf course don’t normally move the needle much, but the overseeding of TPC Sawgrass qualifies as a material difference that can change strategies.
The million dollar question all week is how will the golf course play?
There are a few breadcrumbs to follow based on comments from both golfers and analysts:
- A few players had some interesting comments about the golf course, including Phil Mickelson who said the conditions are similar to that of Augusta. Now, take that with a grain of salt as Phil is ever the showman. With the push by the PGA Tour to elevate the status of the tournament to a major, Phil could just be toeing the company line. Still, with the greens not quite as firm and fast as they normally are, shot-makers will have their fair chance to go low.
- The overseeding of the golf course has lengthened it. In his press conference today, Tiger Woods said that last year on 18 he hit 3 iron/9 iron into the green. In his practice round today, he hit 3 wood/3 iron. The ball just isn’t rolling out in the fairways like it was last year because the overseeding has made the golf course much softer.
- Speaking of the overseeding, Geoff Shackelford had some thoughts about how the tour may have overdone it. While the golf course is spectacularly green, the rough is very thick. When players walk up to their ball, they’ll have a coin flip of facing a good lie or not.
Another factor that bettors will have to consider is the weather. The wind looks like it’ll be a factor on both Thursday and Sunday. On Thursday, winds will be manageable for those with AM tee times, but in the afternoon they’ll ramp up to 12-17 MPH. On Friday evening, a cold front will come through and the winds will switch directions from out of the South to out of the North, and on Sunday they could gust up to 20 MPH. That could make for a very interesting final round and bring in golfers from the back of the pack for a chance to win.
Who will win this year? Here are my picks (with odds courtesy of mybookie.ag):
Dustin Johnson – 12/1: With how the golf course has set up in prior years, DJ wouldn’t be my pick this week. While he’s had some solid finishes on a firm and fast TPC Sawgrass setup, he’s never truly been a threat to take home the crystal. But with the overseeding of the golf course, it’ll both widen up the fairways and lengthen it for the field. These types of setups always gives Dustin a great chance to win. He also historically has been a very good player in windy conditions in his career, which he’ll have to deal with if he wants to take home his first Players Championship. He’s my favorite pick of the Big 3 to win this weekend.
Brooks Koepka – 22/1: He’s on the wrong side of the draw on Thursday and he had a rough go of it at Bay Hill. But Koepka has proven to win big tournaments on any type of setup he faces. He took down a shot-makers haven at Erin Hills for his first major, a firm and fast grind at Shinnecock Hills for his second, and target practice at Charmin-soft Bellerive for his third. No setup will take him by surprise. Like DJ, the superficially wider fairways caused by the overseeding will work to his advantage, and he’s strong enough to get a ball out of the rough to salvage a good look for birdie. Even being on the wrong side of the draw might be an advantage for him – he loves challenges on a tough golf course and it makes him more engaged than at, say, a place like Bay Hill. And given how windy the conditions will be on Sunday, if he’s within a shot or two of the lead I’d feel very good holding a winning ticket on him.
Xander Schauffele – 28/1: Speaking of another golfer with a knack of rising to big occasions, Xander delivers when there’s a big purse or prestigious trophy on the line. Xander played well in his debut at TPC Sawgrass last year and given his strong play in 2019 he can certainly do one better. Everything is clicking for Xander in 2019 – he’s 13th in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green, 11th in Strokes Gained – Approach and he’s gaining over 0.8 strokes per round on the field putting in his last five tournament. He also has proven to be able to thrive in windy conditions as evidence with his win at Kapalua and his strong performance at a Carnoustie last year. With a win at the Players, he no longer will be in the shadows of other top players.
Sergio Garcia – 33/1: The former Players Champion won’t face the same golf course that he won at in 2008, but the state of his game suggests he’ll thrive just as much on the new incarnation of TPC Sawgrass. Sergio is coming in on the heels of back-to-back top 10 finishes, and over his last three tournaments he’s averaging 1.82 Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and 1.67 Strokes Gained – Approach. He’ll have to putt better than he has of late, but with the way he’s striking the ball he’ll put himself in positions to succeed.
Paul Casey – 50/1: While I won’t go quite as far to say TPC Sawgrass has characteristics of Augusta National, Phil Mickelson’s overall point is valid – players will have an opportunity to fire at firm but gettable greens, even out of the rough. Golf courses like this is where Paul Casey has played well in the past. While Casey has struggled with his putting in 2019, he has enjoyed success at places like Innisbrook and Quail Hollow – two places that prominently feature overseeded greens. And as would be expected out of him, his ball-striking statistics are in tip-top shape heading into this weekend. With windy conditions expected on Sunday, anything is possible and if he’s close to the lead it’s tough to count him out.
Matt Kuchar – 60/1: Matt Kuchar heads into the Players Championship revitalized and sitting at a very nice value on the books. Like Casey, Kuchar is a long shot that is both playing well on the year and has a history of success on overseeded surfaces. Kuchar has enjoyed a couple weeks off after a lackluster tournament in Mexico, but before that he had been averaging 1.67 Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green before flatlining at Chapultepec. Kuchar isn’t the longest player off the tee, but with how well he’s striking the ball he’ll have plenty of chances to move up the leaderboard. You can do a lot worse than Kuchar at 60/1.
Matchups and Props
While the Players Championship isn’t a major, the books are treating it like one by offering up a multitude of tournament props. There’s more to bet on than just the matchups this week:
Matt Kuchar -105 over Tony Finau: I already discussed the reasons why I like Kuchar this week. As for Finau, he just hasn’t been clicking this year. His ball-striking was solid at Torrey Pines, but since then he’s only averaging 0.38 Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and has been spotty with his putting. While one would think the overseeding of the golf course would help him, he actually hasn’t fared well on those tracks in his career. Last year he missed the cut at Innisbrook and has struggled historically at TPC Scottsdale, another overseeded golf course. And the layout of TPC Sawgrass just doesn’t seem to fit his game. Unlike players like Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, his game suffers when he can’t hit driver as often as he would like. Kuchar is my pick head-to-head against him this week.
Lucas Glover -145 over Jordan Spieth: Shocking right? The golden boy himself matched up against a golfer who has spent the better part of this decade hanging on by a thread to keep his card. The truth of the matter, however, is that Lucas Glover is playing more like Jordan Spieth than Spieth himself is. Glover has averaged over a stroke gained tee-to-green in seven of nine tournaments played this year, only once losing strokes to the field. He notoriously has had trouble on the green, but he’s putting the ball very well of late.
Meanwhile, whatever it is that’s going on between the ears of Spieth is clearly infecting almost every aspect of his game. His woes on the greens are much talked about, but Spieth has lost strokes to the field tee-to-green in five of six tournaments this year – completely unfathomable given where his ball-striking was last year. It’s a little heavy on the juice, but considering Spieth looks lost and he has a poor track record at TPC Sawgrass, I’ll fade him until further notice.
Jon Rahm Missed Cut – +300: While he has success on overseeded golf courses, Jon Rahm is another guy who struggles when the driver is taken away from him. While 25/1 is a good value for him, he can’t take the aggressive lines off the tee at TPC Sawgrass that he would prefer. He also isn’t striking the ball well at the moment, accounting for most of his strokes gained statistics with the driver and not faring well with his irons. That’s not a recipe for success this week at TPC Sawgrass, and at 3/1 odds to miss the cut it’s a tempting proposition.
Will The Winner Be In Final Pairing in 4th Round – No +135: In the last six years, Siwoo Kim, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods were not in the final pairing on Sunday, while Jason Day, Webb Simpson and Martin Kaymer were. Given the changes to the golf course, however, we should put aside those considerations when contemplating this prop.
The X factor will be the windy conditions on Sunday. We’ve seen the wind play a significant factor in the final round in three of the last four tournaments, including the last two that saw a player put up a strong number from the back of the pack to come from behind and win. We could be in position for a similar type of finish this weekend. With the golf course being more receptive than in the past, it should bring more golfers into the fold and yield a more compact leaderboard heading into the final round. Blustery conditions on Sunday should shake things up and increase the odds someone from back in the pack can rise up and steal the win.
Tiger Woods Top 10 Finish – +275: What, you think I’d make it all the way through this column without mentioning Tiger?
Let’s get one thing out of the way – he’s fine. The neck injury isn’t a concern. There’s a chance he used it as an excuse to take another week off while not looking like a jerk for skipping Arnold Palmer’s tournament.
Much is being made about his struggles on the greens – and they’re valid. He’s not putting well inside of 10 feet to convert on birdie chances or clutch par saves as much as he needs to. But it’s not nearly as bad as folks think it is. While the statistics are mediocre, they’re not crippling like they are for, say, Jordan Spieth or Hideki Matsuyama. The most stokes he’s lost to the field in putting this year is only 0.05, and the WGC – Mexico Championship is the only tournament he has lost strokes to the field. It’s not doing damage enough to make his performance truly suffer where he’s not even relevant on Sunday.
Meanwhile, his ball-striking statistics remain elite. While he’s technically losing strokes to the field off the tee, it’s more due to the fact that he has kept the driver in the bag more often than he should be and lays farther back in the fairway. At TPC Sawgrass, it’s encouraged to leave the big stick in the bag. Meanwhile, he’s compensated for the lack of length off the tee by gaining 1.2 strokes per round on his approach shots to put himself in positions to score.
With more receptive greens to allow him to go pin hunting, Tiger will be a factor on the weekend at TPC Sawgrass – he just won’t win. But he’s certainly playing well enough on a track he has a great history on to finish inside the Top 10.