Even though the Players Championship isn’t even half as old as any of golf’s true four major championships, pretty much everyone refers to this tournament as the “fifth major” on Tour. And The Players Championship has two things no other event has: the iconic 17th island green – probably the most famous hole in the world but one which actually most players hate because they think it’s a gimmick that penalizes even a slightly awry shot – and the richest purse on Tour.
Overall most players love the course and it’s probably the third-most talked about track the Tour visits every year other than Augusta and Pebble Beach. But is the course getting easier? After 13 consecutive years of averaging over par, TPC Sawgrass checked in at 71.734 in 2010. It then landed at exactly 72.000 last year.
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While the official figure won’t be announced until later in the week, the total prize money for the Players this year is expected to be more than the $9.5 million awarded in 2011, with the winner taking home a check of more than $1.7 million. Thus, just about every big-name player is here except reigning Masters winner Bubba Watson (time with family), 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel (no reason given) and Dustin Johnson (still trying to get healthy from a back injury). Nine of the Top-10 players in the world and the last six players to have held the top spot, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, are all playing. Both McIlroy and Westwood skipped this tournament last year.
Americans used to own this event, but a U.S. player hasn’t won it since Phil Mickelson took his lone Players title back in 2007. Europeans have won twice in the past four years – Sweden’s Henrik Stenson in 2009 and Spain’s Sergio Garcia in 2008 – but no other European has won this event since it was officially changed to the Players Championship in 1988. Of the 144 players in the field this year, 52 were born outside of the United States with Australia leading the way with 10.
And here’s an interesting stat from the PGA Tour: Since Fred Funk won this tournament in his 15th appearance in 2005, the average number of starts of the seven champions is 9.57. All but Stenson, who won in his fourth visit in ‘09, had already played seven times in the tournament prior to winning.
PGA Tour Golf Odds: The Players Championship Favorites
McIlroy, who reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the world for the third time this year with last week’s runner-up in Charlotte, is the 9/1 favorite overall and 12/1 favorite to lead after Thursday’s first round. In one respect this makes sense considering McIlroy has finished outside the Top 3 just once this year – at the Masters. But McIlroy is 0-for-2 in making the cut at TPC Sawgrass.
Englishmen Westwood and Donald are both at 14/1. Westwood was the best player on the weekend last week in Charlotte but has never had a Top-3 finish in this tournament. Donald had a runner-up here in 2005 but also has missed three cuts. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are both at 20/1 to win and both at 10/1 to be the top American.
It’s hard to back Tiger considering he missed the cut last week and has looked lost since his win at Bay Hill. And here’s something to ponder: Tiger has played in only two different PGA Tour events at least 10 times and won just once or not at all. One is the Northern Trust Open, an event he hasn't won and hasn't finished since 2006. The other is the Players -- 14 career starts, four Top-10 finishes, and more withdrawals (two) than victories (one, way back in 2001).
How sweet would it be for Lefty to win here after just being inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame? He did have that ’07 victory but has just three career Top-10 finishes (including the victory) in 19 starts. Mickelson has been out of the Top 25 11 times.
PGA Tour Golf Odds: The Players Championship Predictions
There have been 19 different winners at TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course during the past 19 years, so that makes picking this week rather interesting. There has never been a repeat winner in the tournament’s history and there’s no way K.J. Choi repeats after his playoff win over David Toms a year ago. Choi is 80/1 because he’s not playing well right now.
In my props story for this tournament on Tuesday, I looked at nearly every “country” top finisher other than the U.S., so let’s go there first. I frankly don’t like either Phil or Tiger as those odds to be the top finishing American. I would go with Hunter Mahan at 14/1. He had his worst finish of the season last week at Charlotte (T53) but has two victories this year and has gotten progressively better at the Players, finishing T71, T17 and T6 the last three.
If you are looking for a longer-shot to take a flier on to win the tournament, go with Sergio Garcia at 40/1. He is first in all-time earnings at TPC Sawgrass and got the biggest U.S. win of his career here in ’08. He hasn’t missed a cut at this tournament since 2003 and was a solid T12 last year. And Garcia played well at his last PGA Tour stop, finishing T12 at the Masters.
But I think it’s finally time that Westwood gets his biggest win in the States. If you read my props story, I said of the top players that Westwood was the most likely to miss the cut and pay big on that prop. But with Westwood, it’s usually all or nothing. So I really would bet on him to miss out and also to win – that trend of different winners grows to 20 in the past 20 years.
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