2023 The Players Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
AND so we arrive at TPC Sawgrass for The Players Championship. There are those who describe it as golf’s fifth major. Let’s be clear - it is no such thing. And those who make such claims are almost all American.
Don’t get me wrong, this is one fabulous golf tournament, boasting the strongest field of the year to date, and with huge financial rewards on offer. The winner this week will pick up a cheque for a mind-boggling $4.5m. But it is most certainly not our sport’s fifth major.
I suspect that many of you will disagree, but as good a course as Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at Sawgrass might be, the bottom line is that this is a stadium course.
But it is a venue that always provides fabulous drama, boasting one of golf’s great finishing stretches. The 16th is a par five with water all the way down the right. It is a proper risk-and-reward hole that can and does yield eagles. But get your approach wrong and it could all end in tears.
The 17th is one of the most iconic holes in golf, the world-famous island green par three. Over the years we have seen many, many golfers come to grief here. You can be sure that it isn’t one of Sergio Garcia’s favourite holes.
And then there is the 18th, a brutal par four with water all the way down the left. If you come to the last leading the Players Championship, your knees will be trembling until you see your drive land safely in the middle of the fairway. And then the nerves kick in all over again with your approach - the green slopes right to left, so tug your approach even slightly left and you are heading for a watery grave.
When Rickie Fowler won the tournament in 2015, he was five behind with six holes left to play. He finished birdie, par, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie to force a playoff with Garcia and Kevin Kisner. After a three-hole playoff, Fowler and Kisner were still tied so they headed back to the 17th - and Fowler birdied it again.
This week’s field will be dreaming of such a finish.
And there will be a new champion. The tournament was won last year by Cameron Smith - one of three PGA Tour victories, including the 150th Open Championship, before defecting to LIV Golf.
In 2022 the event was hit by bad weather and saw a Monday finish. And once again the 17th hole played a crucial part. Smith birdied the hole, giving him a three-shot lead at the time. He then put his approach to the 18th into the water and walked off with a bogey. Behind him, Anirban Lahiri birdied the 16th and 17th and came to the last needing a birdie to force a playoff but had to make do with a par.
You can guarantee that there will be more drama this time - it’s that sort of a golf course.
Rory McIlroy has a mixed record here. He won the tournament in 2019 but missed the cut as defending champion. He has admitted that Sawgrass is not his favourite course but that won’t stop him giving his all.
To do well here players need a combination of distance and accuracy and for that reason Collin Morikawa should be a real contender. We all know about his fabulous iron play but this season his accuracy from the tee has improved out of sight. He is finding 75% of fairways with a driver in his hand. There is a perception that he is a weak putter but these things are all relative. Nobody achieves the sort of success he has without behind able to hole a few putts along the way.
If you are looking for a good outside bet you could do an awful lot worse than having a flutter on Keith Mitchell. A renowned long hitter, it may surprise you to learn that Mitchell hits 71% of fairways. When you average 308 yards from the tee, as he does, to be able to find seven fairways out of 10 is a massive advantage.
The tournament was won in 2015 by Rickie Fowler, in 2016 by Jason Day, in 2017 by Si Woo Kim, in 2018 by Webb Simpson, in 2019 by Rory McIlroy, in 2021 by Justin Thomas and last year by Cameron Smith. It was abandoned after one round in 2020 because of the global pandemic.
The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was designed by Pete Dye. It is a par 72 and measures 7,245 yards. The iconic 17th, a par three measuring 137 yards, is one of the most iconic holes in golf. Completely surrounded by water, it claims an estimated 100,000 golf balls every year. The 16th is a par five with water running down the right - it is a hole where eagles can be scored, but a wayward approach could just as easily result in a double-bogey, or worse. And the 18th is a fearsome par four with water on the left.
Will Zalatoris is a fantastic iron player, and that is key to scoring well here. Scottie Scheffler is back to his best, successfully defending his Phoenix Open title, and this is a course that should suit him.
Collin Morikawa. Brilliant iron player
Will Zalatoris. Could become a serial winner
Scottie Scheffler. Will want this on his CV
Five to Follow:
Collin Morikawa. At his best, this course is made for him
Will Zalatoris. Loves a challenge
Scottie Scheffler. Great short game
Jon Rahm. On cloud nine
Justin Thomas. Former winner
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