Forelinx Fantasy Golf Preview ⏤ The PLAYERS Championship

Fantasy Golf


Perhaps the greatest field in golf assembles at one of the greatest tests in golf this week at the PLAYERS Championship hosted by the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. While the tournament is not considered a major championship, it is mostly certainly the next biggest event on the PGA TOUR behind only the four Grand Slam events. The quality of the field reflects the tournament's meaning to the best in the game, perhaps summarized best by the sentiments of the defending champion Rory McIlroy. "I wouldn't consider my career complete if I hadn't won a PLAYERS Championship," the Northern Irishman said of his victory here in 2019.

Rory remains the defending champion coming off a victory here in 2019 as this week marks what many consider the one-year anniversary of the arrival of COVID-19. It was this week that all the major sports leagues shut down, stay at home orders began to be issued and the PLAYERS Championship was cancelled in the middle of the second round. That cancellation kicked off roughly ten dark weeks on the PGA TOUR before the game returned to action at the Charles Schwab Championship in June. In between, the Masters was postponed to November, the PGA Championship rescheduled to August and the Open Championship cancelled outright.

While those were some dark days in the early goings of the pandemic, the sport has arguably been reborn in the time since. Golf participation is surging and professional golf as we used to know it is soon to return. We saw fans at roughly 25% capacity last week at Bay Hill and their presence was definitely noticeable. This week we're expected to get something in the same neighborhood, with some estimating that we might get fans numbering nearly 15,000 come Sunday.

The Field and the Favorites

A huge component of what makes the PLAYERS Championship the "fifth major" is the fact it consistently possesses the best field in golf. This week is no exception as the lone notable absence (besides Tiger Woods) will be Brooks Koepka in the wake of his withdrawal due to injury. Besides those two absences, nearly everyone else will be competing this week at TPC Sawgrass. 

Dustin Johnson (+1100) enters the week as the tournament favorite, but he comes in at significantly better odds this week in the wake of a couple of poor performances of late. He played terribly in the final round of the Genesis Invitational and then struggled all week at the WGC Workday Championship at Concession. A case can be made he shouldn't be the favorite, but the Masters Champion has amassed enough quality starts over the last six months such that he's earned some wiggle room after a few bad rounds.

After Dustin Johnson, there is a four-way tie for the second-favorite spot at +1600 between Bryson Dechambeau, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy. All four enter the week in somewhat different places with Dechambeau possessing the most cause for optimism. He had been driving the ball poorly going into the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but managed to find a few more fairways en route to his one-shot win over Lee Westwood. Fresh off the victory, it's hard to imagine he won't be brimming with confidence coming into this week. Rory was in contention last Sunday as well, but a final round 76 left him well off the pace. The defending champion feels like a surefire top-ten this week, but questions about his ability to finish off events still linger. Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have been quiet of late, but both possess the talent and capacity to manage their games successfully around this difficult golf course.

Momentum continues to build for Jordan Spieth (+2500) and he is starting to find himself near the top of the leaderboard on the consistent basis we became used to back in the mid-2010s. He's been a factor in nearly every one of his starts since he missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open and last week was no exception. A final round 75 left him a few shots off of Dechambeau's winning total of 277, but the performance represented his third top-five finish in four starts with the one outlier being a T15 finish at Riviera for the Genesis Open. It feels like a return to the winner's circle is not far off for Spieth and TPC Sawgrass' penchant for rewarding the cerebral player who can save pars should play right into his strengths.

The Golf Course

TPC Sawgrass is another Augusta-style golf course in its ability to polarize the results of good shots as compared to bad ones. Pete Dye has created a tournament golf course here that will most certainly yield to well-played shots, but the constant presence of water and railroad ties that bulkhead the fairways and greens right up against those hazards means that bad or marginal shots at the wrong time can be especially costly. The ability to keep a high number off your scorecard should go a long way here as many of the most dangerous holes have demonstrated how easily they can sink the chances of a hopeful PLAYERS champion on the back of just a couple of bad swings at the wrong time.

The closing stretch at TPC Sawgrass epitomizes the nature of the test this week. The final three holes encapsulate the ethos of the golf course as all three can yield birdies (and eagles at sixteen) but can also yield doubles or worse to the wayward player. They contain a par-five at the sixteenth, the famous island green par-three seventeenth and the difficult par-four eighteenth. It's not inconceivable that a player could run through these holes in three or four under par, but so too will a few of the players find themselves three, four or five over par in this stretch as well.

The sixteenth is especially pivotal as it is a short five-par that is reachable for nearly the entire field. The tee shot must be shaped right-to-left around the corner of the dogleg before a second shot is played to a greensite fortified by water along its entire right side and wrapping behind the putting surface. The Sunday hole location is usually in the front-right nearest the water but on the low side of a bowl in the green that can be used to feed shots towards the hole. This hole location in particular yields the most eagles, but its proximity to the water means that it is also the most likely to yield bogies or worse. Three-shot swings are not uncommon at this hole when the pressure gets high in the final round.

The island green par-three seventeenth hole is the most iconic on the property. The hole measures just 130 yards or so depending on the hole location and the green is built up on a bulkhead that makes the green appear to be floating atop the water that surrounds it on all sides. The green itself is no shrinking violet as it possesses three distinct sections in the front-left, the middle and the back-right. The Sunday hole location in the back-right is by far the hardest as it is not only the smallest section of the green but also visually the least accessible behind the small pot bunker built into the island bulkhead. Many a player has missed that hole location long or right and found the watery grave that ends their PLAYERS Championship chances.

Even if you can get through those two challenges, the home hole at TPC Sawgrass presents one last test for the man who hopes to be the PLAYERS Champion. It is a Pete Dye classic finishing hole with water running down the entire left side of a fairway that curls around to the left. The brave player will want to draw his tee shot as far down the left as possible without running off into the water as that will yield the best angle into the majority of the hole locations on this putting surface. A ball in the fairway can yield a birdie opportunity, but the pulled tee shot will be nearly an automatic double or worse while the bailed-out shot to the right will nearly always yield an automatic bogey.

Perhaps the highest compliment to TPC Sawgrass is that it favors no particular type of player. There are a number of ways to skin the cat here and that dynamic is reflected in the eclectic list of players who have won here. Precision iron play from Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Webb Simpson, Nick Price and Davis Love has been a winning formula while a hot putter, go-for-broke style and touch around the greens has yielded wins for players like Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson. There is no player in the field whose style can't be made to fit here.