It’s the crown jewel of professional golf (or at least that’s what the PGA Tour wants you to think). 144 of the best of the best take on the legendary TPC Sawgrass for the 2021 Players Championship. As always, here is your early deep-dive on The Players Championship and TPC Sawgrass Preview.
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TPC Sawgrass: The Field
The field this week is statistically the strongest of any golf event in the world. The exemption list for this event narrows the field to truly the best 144 players in the world. They’ll all tee it up this week and vie for a whopping $15 million purse.
49 of the Top 50 golfers in the world will play this week. The lone exception is Matthew Wolff. The last we saw Wolff was in the first round of the WGC – Workday Championship at Concession. Wolff had…a rough day. Between several water balls to accidentally hitting his own ball on a practice putting stroke, Wolff embarrassingly withdrew after a first-round 83.
While many have piled on, Ryan Lavner of Golf Channel hinted to something a little more serious to the source of Wolff’s struggles. Wolff was thrust into the spotlight before he may have been mature enough to handle it. Between that and the lonely isolation, many of us have experienced during COVID, he may not be taking it too well. The fact he’s not in the field in one of the biggest events in golf is a telling sign that things are not going well both on and off the course for Matthew Wolff. Hopefully, he rights the ship soon. He’s an electrifying golfer when firing on all cylinders.
Otherwise, if you have a favorite golfer not named Tiger Woods chances are they’re in the field. Dustin Johnson. Jordan Spieth. Rory McIlroy. Jon Rahm. Justin Thomas. Maybe you’re reading this and you’re a rabid Bo Hoag fan. All of them will vie for the 2021 Players Championship this week.
For a preview of the whole field at TPC Sawgrass, click here.
TPC Sawgrass: The Golf Course
The late Pete and Alice Dye have created some of the most iconic golf courses in the world. TPC Sawgrass is their crown jewel achievement and a joy to preview. The golf course opened in 1980 after then PGA Tour commissioner Deane Berman sought to find a permanent home for a new illustrious event. The PGA Tour lacked a defining tournament on its schedule. Berman hoped the creation of the Players Championship would someday rival that of the other four majors.
After several Jacksonville clubs rebuked his offer, Berman built his own course for his ideal tournament. He purchased 415 acres of wooded swampland from two prominent landowners in Ponte Vedra for $1. He then hired Pete and Alice Dye to fulfill his dream of creating a challenging and iconic golf course that could deliver drama and provide spectators with a stadium-like atmosphere to enjoy the proceedings.
And with that, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was born:
For mere mortals, this golf course can be a nightmare (as Golf Gambling Podcast co-host Boston Capper can attest to). But in terms of a test for the best players in the world, this golf course is perfect. There’s a very wide variance of scores at the Stadium Course because of its layout. Those who play smart and strike the ball well will be handsomely rewarded with great angles into pin positions. Others who play foolish or loose with their tee shots and irons will have tough sledding.
Many holes at the Stadium Course utilize hazards very well. Some courses position hazards to punish bad shots even further. There’s little incentive to hit towards them with the reward of a perfect angle for their second. Not the Stadium Course. Pete Dye positioned hazards (particularly the long, elongated bunkers hugging the fairways) in harmony with the angle of the green from front to back to encourage the bold to hit towards them off the tee. Here’s a few examples of this as we preview TPC Sawgrass:
The 1st Hole
Hybrid or three wood off the tee down the right side of the fairway towards the bunker is the ideal shot. From there, the green is wide open for anyone, whether they prefer to hit a draw or a fade-in. Anything down the left is “safe”, but the second requires a carry over two bunkers and limits the landing zone onto the green, particularly on the back left pin locations.
The 7th Hole
Here, players are free to pull driver, but those who challenge the left side of the fairway towards the elongated bunker and the water hazard have better access to the green. They also can eliminate the collection area on the back left of the green. Tee shots down the right are safe, but requires carries over bunkers.
The 11th Hole
This is a tricky Par 5. There’s a large bunker complex down the left side of the fairway that players don’t want to be in (more on this in a second). For those who take it on and keep it in the fairway, they have the most optimal angle into the green to get on in two. Players may opt for a safe tee shot down the right, away from the bunkers. Overhanging branches from an oak tree may obstruct their view on the second shot. It also requires a much longer approach to the green over water and a boomerang bunker.
You may be wondering why there’s a pushpin called “Jon Rahm” in the above Google Earth imagery of the hole. When I think about this hole, I’ll always remember what transpired with him in the final round of the 2019 Players Championship.
Rahm entered the hole tied for the lead, but his drive ended up in the fairway bunker down the left side. His view to the green was blocked by a tree. The left to right wind also made trying to go for the green an impossibility. The sensible play was to hit a wedge back into the fairway and set up a short approach into a receptive green. Birdie was still a reasonable goal by laying up out of the bunker.
But sensibility sometimes eludes the fiery Spaniard. What transpired from there is some of the best camera and audio work ever captured in a golf tournament by NBC:
This is a textbook example of how stupidity and arrogance is punished at TPC Sawgrass. There are so many temptations around the golf course to play aggressively and try and be a hero. But it is those who pick and choose at the correct time when to go or pull back are the ones who fare best at TPC Sawgrass.
There have been several renovations away from Pete Dye’s original design for TPC Sawgrass I noticed as I worked on this preview. The most notable changes have come on the short Par 4 12th hole:
The 12th Hole
Old 12th Hole
New 12th Hole
Pete Dye never liked driveable Par 4’s, as he considered them just long Par 3’s. But the most recent renovation to this hole made it driveable. It pushed the tee box forward, removed the large bunker in front of the green added a water hazard left.
This hole was better thought of than executed. There’s not much incentive to go for the green. There is very little room to bail out right and no room left with the water hazard. There also isn’t any trouble in the layup zone that would cause problems for someone who takes less than driver. It’s a very easy three-wood and wedge onto the green for a birdie. This task is also easier now that the golf course is overseeded and plays much softer than the traditional Bermuda setup. The green is so receptive that players can stop the ball on a dime with a short wedge coming in.
While the golf course has some very good architectural traits, it’s the 17th hole that’s the most famous.
The hole isn’t an architectural masterpiece, but in my opinion, it’s the most famous hole in golf. When you ask casual golf fans, or even non-golf fans, what they know about the Players Championship, the first thing they’ll think of is the 17th. It’s iconic, it’s full of glory and failure, and from a spectator standpoint, it’s tough to beat. It’s a great viewing opportunity for anyone in attendance to witness high drama where a tournament can swing on just one bad shot.
There’s disaster lurking for anyone stepping up to the tee, as Sergio Garcia found out back in 2013 as he went toe to toe with Tiger:
It can also be the setting for one of the most incredible moments in golf:
TPC Sawgrass is a great golf course, but let’s not get carried away in this preview. It isn’t the caliber of the golf course that deserves to be held in the same esteem as places like Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills, or Oakmont. But it is iconic nonetheless. TPC Sawgrass has a great blend of challenging holes and mainstream appeal to play host for an always-exciting tournament.
As part of the viewing experience, the PGA Tour has announced its Every Shot Live platform. A camera will accompany every group to capture every shot from every player. Most weeks we’re treated to only featured group coverage as a supplement to the main broadcast. But this allows gamblers to sweat their head-to-head matchups without dealing with the dysfunctional PGA Tour app.
In addition, there may be live betting opportunities associated with it. For example, let’s say a player has a look to get to the green in two on a Par 5. A gambler interested in betting them live may have their bet queued up and wait for the result of the shot. As soon as it looks like the player may have a great look at birdie or eagle, the bettor might place the bet before the books can adjust the odds.
TPC Sawgrass Preview: Betting Strategies
The Players Championship is one of the hardest tournaments to handicap. TPC Sawgrass allows golfers of all walks of life to contend there. Players often lay up short of the trouble to play positional golf. That helps level the playing field overall. There is no faking it in a tournament like this. Those who play well are rewarded. Those who bring less than a B game are exposed.
The 2019 leaderboard perfectly encapsulates the parody that can result at TPC Sawgrass and provide a preview of 2021:
This leaderboard has a little bit of everything. Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson have superior advantages off the tee. While Jason Day has length off the tee, he gets by with wonderful putting and scrambling. Jhonattan Vegas typically is a bomb and gouge type player. Jim Furyk, Eddie Pepperell, Brandt Snedeker, and Brian Harman are short and accurate players tee-to-green. And Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Rose, and Hideki Matsuyama do a little bit of everything well.
Before getting into things to look for this week, let’s talk about pitfalls gamblers may fall into. It is very important to keep in mind that while TPC Sawgrass is a TifEagle Bermuda golf course, there will not be a single blade of bermudagrass on the golf course this week. Temperatures are not warm enough in Jacksonville to promote the healthy growth of Bermudagrass. Over the last month, temperatures have struggled to climb into the 60’s. Bermudagrass needs consistent soil temperatures in the 70’s before it starts growing again. Otherwise, it will be a dormant brown.
Personally, I’d like to see these guys play a firm, fast dormant TPC Sawgrass. But the PGA Tour doesn’t share this feeling. They want their crown jewel event to pop spectacularly on television. As such, TPC Sawgrass is wall to wall overseeded with perennial ryegrass. This grass can thrive and grow in cooler conditions and give the PGA Tour the vibrant green appearance it wants. It also makes for a more forgiving playing turf for the professionals. The fairways, rough, and tee boxes all are ryegrass, while the greens are a mix of bentgrass and poa trivialis.
If you read or hear anyone try and incorporate bermudagrass performance into their gambling leans, either turn off the podcast or exit out of the column. None of that will have any bearing on the outcome of the tournament. The turf conditions this week more resemble the following places:
- TPC Scottsdale
- The Stadium Course -PGA West
- Muirfield Village
- Silverado Resort and Spa
- TPC River Highlands
The first two golf courses are traditional bermudagrass ones that are overseeded with ryegrass and poa trivialis for tournament play. The next three golf courses are traditional ryegrass or poa ones with permanent bentgrass and poa mixed greens. For anyone who refers to putting performance on particular grass types, rely on these.
It’s also important to keep in mind the condition the golf course will be in. Significant water needs to be applied to the greens, fairways, and rough to create playable conditions. This helps the grass take root. The result of the significant saturation of the golf course was heard from the players after last year’s first (and only) round. Players complained about mud balls due to the soggy conditions. But the soggy conditions weren’t from mother nature – it was the result of the efforts of the PGA Tour.
Final Thoughts Before you Bet
And that brings me to the final point. While certain principles tee-to-green remain constant, what gamblers have to account for this week is this incarnation of TPC Sawgrass is not the one we’ve bet on when the event was in May. It’s an entirely different turf. It will play much softer than when the golf course plays with the traditional bermudagrass. Even the rough isn’t as penal as prior years. While in May the thick Bermuda rough would allow balls to sink to the bottom, the PGA Tour cuts the rough to an inch and a half that allows balls to sit up a bit. And layers of pine needles have been spread under all the trees. It’s almost as if the PGA Tour wants to turn TPC Sawgrass into TPC Augusta National.
It’s probably not a coincidence that soft, inviting turf conditions allowed for Hideki Matsuyama to shoot the course record in the only round of the infamous canceled 2020 Players Championship. Low scores were everywhere on the leaderboard. Sure, there were players who did not bring their A-game that day and who had awful rounds. But much of the bite was taken out of the golf course in this setup.
So who are the types of golfers to target this week? It’s probably similar to those who had success at The Concession. While that golf course was a lot more penal than TPC Sawgrass will be, positional golf was the name of the game. Players laid up all week to avoid the trouble. When opting for the driver was necessary, those who had the best control over tee shots thrived.
As we preview TPC Sawgrass, the same holds true. You can’t miss here. And not only can you not miss, just being in the fairway isn’t good enough. On most holes, players have to hit the correct side of the fairway. That sets up a much easier approach shot. Those who find themselves out of position either have a much more difficult approach or have no chance to score anything less than par. Gamblers know which players miss small and those who miss big, so do not rely on misguided driving accuracy statistics on the PGA Tour. Missing big this week is a no-no.
While the scorecard yardage is just under 7,200 yards, this event is not a wedge fest. Players will have several long approach shots into the greens because of forced layups. Most of the approach distances into the Par 4’s are between 150-200 yards. And a handful of Par 3’s are in excess of 200 yards. Gamblers will have to identify who strikes their intermediate and long clubs the best in the field.
If conditions are as soft as last year, players will hit greens at a higher rate. That makes the penalty for missing greens significantly more. If players overall are hitting greens at a higher rate, this tournament might become a bit of a putting contest. While comically woeful putter Hideki Matsuyama sat atop the leaderboard after Round 1, several names behind him are some of the best putters in the world. They included the likes of Harris English, Webb Simpson, Daniel Berger, and Christiaan Bezuidenhout. All of them rely on their irons to give themselves great looks at birdies and then have the skill to convert.
Overall, TPC Sawgrass tests all of a player’s arsenal. There isn’t one way to play it. Target golfers who do a lot of things really well and have the ability to contend on a variety of golf courses. One-trick pony golfers will be exposed. The ones who play smart, heady golf ultimately will be at the top of the leaderboard.