Here's a preview of The Players Championship, which begins Thursday, May 6 at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Let's start with the course. Northern Florida endured a particularly harsh winter in 2009-10, and the Bermuda grass hasn't snapped back as quickly as it has before. As a result, the course superintendent has trimmed the rough back from last year's 3½" to 2¾". That will make the course more favorable for those players who tend to bomb and gouge, as the penalty for missing the fairway will be noticeably smaller.
This difference may be offset slightly by the switch from square grooves to V-shaped, since the primary effect of the new grooves is to reduce backspin when coming out of the rough. But unless the area gets some rain Wednesday, the course will be hard and fast, extending further the advantage of the long hitters who might otherwise think about taking a 3-wood off the tee. (The current forecast calls for a 30|PERCENT| chance of isolated thunderstorms on Wednesday and Saturday, but no precipitation other than that.)
This factor favors big knockers like Tour driving-distance leader Bubba Watson, who averages fully 22 yards more than the field off the tee; Alvaro Quiros; Angel Cabrera; Dustin Johnson; and Phil Mickelson. All of these players average more than 300 yards per drive, and the absence of any extraordinarily long holes (only two par-4's exceed 450 yards, and the longer of those is just 467) will mean that those players won't have to take a long iron out of the bag except on par 3's and 5's.
At the other end of the spectrum, Brian Gay is among the Tour leaders in driving accuracy at nearly 74|PERCENT|, but ranks next-to-last (ahead of only Craig Bowden, who isn't in this week's field) in distance, at just over 260 yards. Gay is a terrific fairways-and-greens player, but he'll be yielding 40 or more yards per drive to the big hitters, and that difference will probably increase if the weather stays dry. (The real difference, by the way, will come on the approach shots: Watson, et al., will be hitting 8- or 9-irons into many par-4's, while the guys in the driving-distance dungeon will be reaching for their 4-irons and hybrids. Especially if the course stays dry, holding these greens will be supremely difficult unless you're hitting a highly lofted stick.) Similarly, Nick O'Hern is 7th in accuracy and 4th from the end in distance. If you're debating between two potential starters for this event, check their driving stats, go with the longer hitter, . . . and pray that there's no rain.
Might as well tackle a popular question right now: To Tiger, or not to Tiger? If you selected Tiger Woods as one of your starters for the Masters, he paid off handsomely; if you repeated that gamble last week at Quail Hollow, you got destroyed by an abysmal performance and an early trunk slam. Some fantasy players have stayed on the sidelines until he establishes some sort of baseline performance after his long, domestic-relations-inspired layoff.
In his two practice rounds this week at Sawgrass (nine holes each on Monday and Tuesday), Woods hasn't exactly shown that he's suddenly turned his game on. He hit five balls into water hazards while playing the back nine on Tuesday, and hasn't shown any sign that he's the dominant player he was before Thanksgiving's, . . . well, you know. The advice this year is 180 degrees from what it usually is. In normal situations, you pick Woods if you're in a fairly safe position in your league's rankings, because he represents a safe investment for your roster slot. You only pick someone else if you need to make up ground. This year, it's the other way around: If you're leading your league, you're probably better advised to pick a safer player than the now-erratic Woods; while the league's bottom-feeders need to think about taking him in the hope that he'll suddenly turn things around.
Let's move on to the foreign contingent. With the influx of foreign players into the PGA Tour, many of the names that would once have sounded strange are more familiar. And the guys from overseas have been doing well here lately: Sergio Garcia won the event in 2008, and Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter finished 1-2 here last year. Stenson's game isn't remotely where it was last year, and he has to be regarded as a longshot for this year's event; but Garcia and Poulter make solid choices. Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel also make intriguing choices. And Lee Westwood attracted plenty of attention by almost winning The Masters this year; that attention is fully warranted for this immense talent.
Health issues: Steve Stricker and Anthony Kim have already withdrawn from the event due to injuries, so if you have either player on your active roster, swap him out right now. Vijay Singh is in the tournament, but his back issues have hampered him all season; he has just two top-25 finishes in nine events this year. We advise against your starting him, both because he's been ineffective this season and because a sudden back-pain flare-up might leave you in a position with a withdrawn entrant that you can't replace.
Some dark horses: Paul Goydos is about as unsexy a player as you can get. He's built like a fireplug (5' 9", 190) instead of the lean, lithe look that typifies great athletes. He has a taciturn temperament, unlike popular favorites such as Garcia and Phil Mickelson. He hasn't won in quite a while (since 2007), and we don't think he'll win this week, either. In sum, he probably won't attract much attention in your league. But he stands an excellent chance of posting the low round on a given day, especially if it rains and softens up the course. We suspect you'd like to have that 20-point round in your account.
Jim Furyk might not qualify as your standard dark horse, since his name is fairly well known. But many fantasy players simply don't trust that wacky swing plane of his. Let them ignore him at their peril: He's won twice on Tour already this year, and rates in the top 10 in driving accuracy, scoring average, and putts per round. Watch him particularly on Moving Day (Saturday), on which he's the overall Tour scoring leader.
D.J. Trahan probably isn't on most fantasy owners' radars, but he should be. He hits nearly 72|PERCENT| of his greens in regulation and rates in the top 10 in several scoring and statistical categories, including total driving (combining distance and accuracy). He hasn't won in two years, but if he can roll the rock well and avoid trouble on the par-3's – his one Achilles' heel this year – then he'll be fighting for a spot on the Sunday leaderboard.
Finally, some of the blue-chip starters. Phil Mickelson, of course; his play this year has been first-rate, and his inventiveness will pay off as he and the rest of the field try to deal with Pete Dye's design treachery. Hunter Mahan combines better-than-average distance with outstanding accuracy; his putting has been his weakness this season, but if he masters the Sawgrass greens, the rest of his game makes him an event favorite. Ernie Els has two wins and four top-10's already this year, and belongs in any conversation about the tournament favorites. These are the guys you back if you're in a good position in your league and don't need to take chances.