With a new season underway amidst rapidly changing tournament schedules, a rival tour and a Netflix documentary, the fifth “elevated” PGA Tour event of the year returns to TPC Sawgrass without last year’s champ Cameron Smith or Tiger Woods to include in our 2023 Players Championship picks.
TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is a 7,256-yard, par-72 course from the mind of golf architect Pete Dye, who is known for his thought-provoking designs that allow for plenty of scoring while also punishing players for getting out of position. From a viewing experience, Dye’s courses are always a good time.
Scorecards are filled with circles, squares, double squares, and even a couple of double-digit numbers throughout the week, which makes for exciting viewing.
Part of what makes the course so exciting is the importance of each shot whether it be fairway percentage off the tee, the short game or performance with the putter. Using our hole simulator we can assess the importance of each shot by looking at the variability of a hole and combining it with the hole’s par.
At TPC Sawgrass, the two most exciting holes come at the end of a player’s round on 16 and 17.
Hole 16 is a reachable par 5 with a water-protected green. It has a projected birdie or better rate above 50% and is the last opportunity for golfers to move up the leaderboard on their own. Seventeen is the famous island par 3 featured in all the commercials for The Players Championship. Keeping the ball out of the water tee to green is a top priority and not doing so can lead to some epic meltdowns throughout the tournament.
As a tuneup of sorts for The Masters, the field is always strong at The Players. Despite some big names leaving for LIV Golf, it’s the strongest field of any tournament worldwide this season. Using one of our new, and not yet released, field strength models, we would award the winner of The Players 35% more points than the winner of the second-strongest field of 2023, last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in Bay Hill, Florida.
The field strength and course variance make this an incredibly tough tournament to win. In the chart below, we have the projected hole-by-hole scoring percentage (pars excluded) for TPC Sawgrass. Eagles are in orange, birdies are red, bogeys are black and double bogeys or worse are blue.
After 100,000 simulations of the tournament, a familiar name sits atop our projected win percentage. Rory McIlroy won the FedEx Cup at the Tour Championship in 2022 and has already secured one worldwide victory in 2023 on the DP World Tour.
After a pair of finishes outside the top 25 in his first two PGA starts of the year, he finished in a tie for second last week at the Palmer Invite and appears back in form.
Jon Rahm, No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, actually has a higher FRACAS rating heading into the week, but our simulations take into account player volatility and McIlroy’s volatility gives him the edge over Rahm.
The rest of the top 10 features the world’s best, though it may be surprising to see Patrick Cantlay ahead of Scottie Scheffler. It comes down to course fit, where Cantlay has a bit of an advantage over Scheffler. Both had top-10 finishes at the Palmer Invitational last weekend.
A glaring absence is Max Homa, who has started 2023 on a heater and trails only Rahm, last week’s winner Kurt Kitayama, and Scheffler in our yet-to-be-released ranking points for the 2023 calendar year. His ranking behind Justin Thomas, Tony Finau, Viktor Hovland, Sungjae Im, Collin Morikawa and Will Zalatoris (2.5%) and out of the top 10 is due to our simulation model taking a longer-term look at golfers, and his long-term values are a little lower than how he has started 2023.
Behind Homa, Cameron Young (1.9%), Matthew Fitzpatrick (1.7%), Tyrrell Hatton (1.6%), Jason Day (1.3%), Jordan Spieth (1.3%), Sam Burns (1.0%), Keegan Bradley (1.0%) and Taylor Montgomery (0.9%) round out the top 20. The full projections can be found on our leaderboard page.
FRACAS Value Plays
Despite last week’s long-shot winner, big events and strong fields usually produce a winner who is among the best in the world.
It’s tough to find a lot of value down the board when trying to pick winners. At the top of the board, Cantlay and Xander Schauffele are two of the best bets. Neither has had much success at The Players in the past, but the model likes how each golfer is trending heading into the week.
Cantlay missed the cut on the number at the Phoenix Open, but he’s excelled in each of the last two elevated events with a third-place finish at The Genesis Invitational and a fourth-place showing at last week’s API. Sawgrass is one of his better course matchups because of his ability to score on par 5s. With three of the four par 5s clustered into the “easy and variable” bucket of par 5s, his best-in-the-world performance on those types of holes should lead to some great scoring chances.
In terms of Players Championship odds, he’s listed at 15-1 in the consensus market and our model thinks that’s just slightly longer than what it should be.
Unlike Cantlay, Schauffele isn’t coming in on fire. He dealt with some back issues to start the year, but he has made appearances on the first page of the leaderboard in his last few tournaments. While the finishing positions have left a lot to be desired for a player of Schauffele’s quality, he’s been undone by a handful of bad rounds.
Like Cantlay, the model also sees Sawgrass as a good course for Schauffele. Though not as good as Cantlay on the scorable par 5s, Schauffele is excellent on what could be called “consistent par 4s.” These par 4s that are not particularly difficult and feature a lot of pars. Schauffele has the ability to rack up birdies on these types of holes, with an expected birdie rate 4.2% better than the field average on Sawgrass par 4s.
Sawgrass has, depending on the weather, between five and eight of these hole types. If the weather is mild, as it is currently projected to be this week, Schauffele should fare better here than he has in the past. Listed at around 21-1 in the expert picks market, our models have him at around 18-1.
Though there isn’t much else the model likes from an outright perspective, there is a longer-odds golfer worth looking at in the placement markets. Patrick Rodgers is one of the sleepers at a touch over 7-1 in the top-20 market, and we like his chances even though he hasn’t been consistent since the league year turned over. He’s had five finishes inside the top 20 in 13 appearances in the 2023 season, but he’s also missed the cut five times. Fortunately, volatility is something we can take advantage of in the placement markets, as a 40th-place finish is the same as a missed cut when looking for a top-20 showing.
When looking at the FRACAS data of how Rodgers scores on different hole types, there’s an eerie similarity to Cantlay though scaled down to a player who is not as good. He excels on scorable par 5s and difficult par 4s above all else, and as we touched on with Cantlay, it’s scoring on par 5s that could be the difference this week.
Though he’s expected to score at almost exactly field average on the par 3s and 4s, his birdie or better rate on the par 5s is expected to be about 5% over the field average. We have him around 5-1 to make the top 20.