OOOHHH-WEEEE! It’s The Players Championship week! Commonly considered the 5th major and the strongest field in golf, The Players needs little introduction. Jordan Spieth will finally make his return after the well-documented Master’s meltdown, as will Master’s winner Danny Willet (and his twitter-fingered brother). With such a star-studded field, the difficulty in making picks gets amped up, so let’s get to it.
At the top
Like in majors, you have to assume that winner will most likely come out of the high-end range, AKA one of the elite players in the field. It is at least safer to assume so than in tournaments with overall weaker fields.
Jon: The two names at the top are Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth at $11,700 and $11,400, respectively. I don’t think you can go wrong with Rory, however I know my esteemed colleague Tom might have different feelings on the matter. Jordan is who I really want to talk about. Sandwiched between McIlroy and Day, I am guessing that Spieth might have unprecedented low ownership, and I believe that is a mistake. The headlines for Jordan are all about whether or not the Master’s collapse will haunt him this week, or whether he’s ready to contend after the lengthy break. Let me tell you one thing about hyper-competitive people: the second people start to doubt them, they show up, and they show up big. And Jordan has the hyper-competitive card in spades. Along with Spieth, I like Justin Rose coming off of a top five finish at Quail Hollow. If he can get his putter working, admittedly a tall task for Rosey, I expect to see him get his GIR on, in order to contend.
Tom: My aforementioned disagreement with Rory stems from two things: His popularity vs. his inconsistency. Do I think Rory is a bad play? No. What I do think is that he’s already being crowned the favorite and will be highly popular, yet he’s been wildly inconsistent this year. Most people are interpreting his 66 on Sunday at the Wells Fargo as Rory “finding his form at the perfect time.” But I see it as Rory not being able to put 4 rounds together this season. Before his 73-69-73-66 last week, he also put up a 75-67-75-65 at the Arnold Palmer, and a 71-65-68-74 at WGC-Cadillac (remember that forgettable Sunday round when Adam Scott won it all??). So I see a Rory fade as an opportunity to save money for more dependable guys. For example, I think Jason Day is far more worthy of a roster spot. Due to his mixed results (to put it nicely) in this tournament, no one is really talking about JDay. That provides a great opportunity to take the world number 1/hottest player in golf when his ownership % likely won’t reflect it.
Jon: I will not be exposed to Rickie Fowler at all this week. It could be a good move, it could be a bad move, but I don’t like that he hasn’t been able to finish off a tournament on the tour this year, and I definitely don’t like that he blew up on Sunday at Quail Hollow. I also don’t like taking a defending champion. While I haven’t worked out the math, I’m pretty sure there is some Bayesian rule(statistics are fun!) about the probability of winning an event, given that a player has won the year before, that makes it a more unlikely scenario. Phil also makes for an interesting decision this week. Having been cut the last three years I could see playing him being a risky decision. I will most likely fade him, unless I use him as a contrarian play.
Tom: I agree with Rickie being the best fade option up top, but next down on the list for me is Branden Grace. I see below that my colleague and dear friend Jon disagrees with me, and makes a strong case for Grace. I can’t argue with the support of him, and my choice to fade is purely an eye-ball test. Grace has been playing great golf, but the Players is a war of attrition, at a tough course with one of the toughest fields in golf. While Grace has benefited from easy fields with his win at the RBC Heritage and T9 at the Valero, I think his results here will more likely mirror the Master’s where he did not even scare the cut line. *Grace has made the cut in his only two Players starts – T42 in 2015 and T48 in 2013.* Finally, many people will be taking Martin Kaymer as a recent past winner at 7.2K. I’m going to use that as a perfect fade option, applying the “what have you done for me lately?” thought process.
Jon: Spieth & Rory – mentioned above.
Sergio Garcia – Consistent cut maker at TPC Sawgrass. 3 top-10 finishes the last three years, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s playing really well right now. It’s always a gamble to see if Sergio’s ownership will reflect the “can’t finish” stigma that follows him around, even in a tournament where he’s considered the ultimate course horse.
Henrik Stenson – If there’s one thing I like, it’s a bounce back play. Vegas and Rose have both come through for me the past two weeks, and I like Stenson to make it 3-for-3. After burning a few people last week, this course sets up well for him, I like the Swede this week, hopefully with some low ownership as well — although don’t expect it.
Tom: I really like Justin Rose mentioned above, but also am high on these two:
Adam Scott – Not so much because “he’s won here before” (that was way back in 2004 when Usher/Lil Jon/Ludacris’ Yeah! was topping the charts), but because of his play this year. Scott has won twice in Florida with tough fields, and on tough courses with a lot of water that will be similar to this week’s test. I think calling on him to win is a stretch, but counting on him for a top 15 with good scoring is safe.
Hideki Matsuyama –
This is my “must play” of the week, and also my “if he burns me I will be forced to consider closing my DK account” play, because I am putting (nearly) all my eggs in the Hideki basket. I will hold him from 1 or 2 lineups to be safe, but I could not be higher on this guy. Based on how quiet his T11 was last week, I think people felt he burned them when he didn’t, and now he comes in priced between the two likely DFS favorites, Sergio and Henrik. So Hideki could be forgotten by many. In 2016, he is 7/9 in cuts (one being a WD), with 6 going for top 20s, 3 were top 10s, and 1 was an epic playoff win against Rickie. Last week’s Wells Fargo was his first tournament after a T7 at the Masters, and he got progressively better, shooting 74-71-70-69. On top of that, he has improved at the Players in each of his two starts, moving from a T23 in 2014 to a T17 last year. I think he is as safe as Scott for a top 15, and am personally predicting a top 5.
Branden Grace – Unlike stupid Tom(!), I like Grace a lot this week. Scrambling and GIR% are right there, and his average proximity for both rough and fairway — weighted equally — is around 37 feet, which is in the top 20 of the field. Couple that with recent form, and Grace looks like a good play this week.
Zach Johnson – Next to Sergio, ZJ seems to be a perennial cut maker at TPC. He is the quintessential course manager, and I’ll tell you a not-so-secret: He’s been playing really good golf as of late. He’s accurate off the tee, a great scrambler, and knows this course better than most. Love ZJ in both cash and GPP
Chris Kirk – In keeping with the theme, Kirk has great course history, and has been trending in the right direction, coming in T23, T13, and T5 in his last three events. He looks to be over his hand injury and merging form confidence with course confidence this week – always a deadly combo.
Russell Knox – Does everyone know that Russel Knox is 4th in the Fedex Cup standings? Does everyone also know that Knox is a Jacksonville resident and this is his home course? The Scotsman has stats that lineup really well at Sawgrass. My only hesitation is a win on the PGA tour tends to inflate statistics higher than their true mean. With that said, he has comes in with a win in a WGC event and two 2nd place finishes this season, so maybe he is just playing that well.
Rafa Cabrera-Bello – I honestly do not understand the $7,100 price tag this week. His lowest finish this year has been a T36. Although he has zero course history, I just don’t see him missing the cut this week, which makes him a huge upside pick since he’s also itching for a win. GPP play for sure.
Marc Leishman – Another cut maker at TPC, Leishman has notched a 24th, 23rd and an 8th place finish in his last three starts here. I also can’t ignore the high rankings in scrambling, GIR%, strokes gained putting, and our composite driving stat (made just for TPC). If there is one player who lines up for a win this week, for me it’s Leishman.
Honorable mentions: Russell Henley could be a great GPP play, but play at your own risk as he always seems to have those patented Russell Henley blow up days. Bill Haas is not a secret in the world of golf, but at 7.5K he’s obviously not deemed a favorite. But before his missed cut last week, Haas made 5 straight including a runner up, and T14 at the Heritage, the last Dye course played on Tour. Haas has made 3 of his last 4 cuts at the Players, including a T4 last year.
Ryan Moore – Call him a grinder, call him a plotter, call him whatever you want. Moore is not a long hitter, but can put the ball in position. That is what we’re looking for this week, in addition to guys coming in with form. Moore may be coming off 2 missed cuts, but he performed highly at the Matchplay (a Pete Dye course), on top of top 10s at the Valspar and Northern Trust earlier in the year.
Chris Stroud – Stroud is a sneaky play. Perhaps too sneaky, which could result in being burned. But he’s one of those needle-in-a-haystack guys where the numbers seem to line up way too well for a 5.8K priced guy. He’s coming off 6 straight cuts made (none higher than a T20), and is 5/6 at the Players, including a T10 in 2010 backed up with a T12 in 2011. You could do a lot worse at that price.
(I’ve ranked these in order of who I like the most to “I too like to live dangerously“)
David Hearn – If you want a low-priced cash game play, look no further than Hearn. He hasn’t missed a cut here, and even notched a top 10 in 2014. #FeeltheHearn.
Sean O’Hair – O’Hair has quietly had a pretty good season. Once again, the course management style play should bode well for him. He has course history, albeit not spectacular, but he’s earned a reputation for showing up on Dye courses.
K.J. Choi – Current form aside, here’s a low-end guy who’s golf game is built around course management, which is exactly what TPC Sawgrass demands. If he can find a way to hit the greens, Choi could be a nice value play at his price.
Alex Cejka – I would not use Cejka in cash game lineups. In fact, I’d be weary using him in GPP lineups, but everything is there for him to succeed. He can hit greens, and he is surprisingly high when it comes to hitting birdies or better/avoiding bogeys. Take it for what you will, but he will make it in at least a few of my lineups.