This article is part of our DraftKings PGA series.
THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP
Winner's Share: $2.25M
FedEx Cup Points: 600 to the Winner
Location: Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Course: TPC Sawgrass, Stadium Course
2018 champion: Webb Simpson
Two months earlier than usual, the world's best players will face the most intimidating shot in all of golf, 137 yards of sheer terror. A measly 137, that's all it is. A wedge, for crying out loud. But the famed 17th at TPC Sawgrass, perhaps the most famous golf hole on the planet, makes grown men tremble as they stare at the island green. All that stands in their way is the otherwise beautiful crystal blue water.
THE PLAYERS Championship has moved to March in one of the biggest changes to the PGA Tour calendar, giving golf a marquee event every month from now through July. The tournament actually was played in March for the first 33 years of its existence, beginning with Jack Nicklaus winning in 1974. Phil Mickelson, who was vacillating whether to play this week before finally deciding he's in, won the first foray into May in 2007. Two players in this 144-man field won THE PLAYERS in March, Adam Scott in 2004 and Tiger Woods in 2001. Of course, we're all keeping an eye on Woods, who pulled out of Bay Hill last week with a neck strain. Woods is the No. 4 golfer on the DraftKings board, behind only Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy. The field also includes No. 12-ranked and 2016 champion Jason Day, who withdrew from Bay Hill in the first round with a back injury. Webb Simpson, the runaway winner a year ago, will be bidding to become the first PLAYERS champion ever to go back-to-back.
One of the trickier jobs we all have this week is determining how much differently TPC Sawgrass will play in late winter as opposed to the middle of spring. The weather will not be quite as nice, but that could be somewhat offset by tournament organizers overseeding the course. Information provided by the PGA Tour shows that since 1995, scores have been an average of almost one shot lower in May as opposed to March (72.48 vs. 73.40). And there have been many more rounds under par in May. Which makes sense in the warmer clime. But the last time they played in March was more than a decade ago, and golf, golf equipment and the golfers themselves have changed exponentially since then.
Even though all of that sends us some mixed messages, the most confounding issue at hand really is figuring out who will play well this week. Sure, that's the case every week, but get this: None of the top-6 golfers in the current world rankings, and only one in the top-10, has ever won at TPC Sawgrass. That was No. 7 Rickie Fowler in 2015. Dustin Johnson never has finished in the top-10; neither has Brooks Koepka. Justin Rose has one top-10 in 15 visits. The tournament does boast a Hall of Fame roster of former champions – besides Woods, Mickelson, Scott, Day and Nicklaus, the likes of Couples, Love, Duval, Norman, Trevino, Floyd, Lyle and Price have all hoisted the trophy. But it's not so simple. Woods has won twice, but he has only five top-10s in 18 tries. Mickelson has missed the cut five of the past six years and has only three top-10s in 25 visits. And since Fowler's victory, he's gone MC-T60-MC. That's crazy. This doesn't happen often, maybe nowhere else on Tour, but you really can't label anyone as a true horse for this course. Guys who have played well here have alternately been awful, too. We can theorize a couple of reasons. One, it's not a bombers' track; just about any type of golfer can win and has won here through the years (yes, we're looking at you Fred Funk and Tim Clark). Golfers will need every club in their bag. Second, the field is so strong. The top-50 in the OWGR are entered (not meaning to slight Lucas Bjerregaard, but it's actually 51). The majors and WGCs all let in secondary- or even tertiary-level players, be they aging ex-champs, amateurs, international players from lesser tours or even club pros. Not at The PLAYERS.
The good thing about formulating a DFS lineup is that TPC Sawgrass, despite having its quirks here and there, tends to be a pretty standard tee-to-green golf course, which we'll delve into deeper in the key stats and Champion's Profile below. The course usually ranks middle of the road among the toughest tracks on Tour – last year, it was 29th of 51. Sawgrass features water on 17 of the 18 holes and offers a brutal two-hole finish. But the hardest hole on the course a year ago was not 17 or even 18, but the 237-yard eighth, exactly 100 yards shorter than its more famous fellow par-3. After 8 came 18, 14 and 17, which still led to 29 scores of double bogey and 13 even worse, the dreaded "other." There were 54 water balls at 17 last year, second most in the past decade behind only the 69 in 2017.
Weather-wise, there is little chance of rain during the four days, but the forecast is calling for two different sets of conditions: very warm with wind largely out of the south on Thursday and Friday, much cooler with the wind coming from the north on Saturday and Sunday. Northerly wind could really make things dicey for the golfers, blowing in their face for 17 and 18.
Key Stats to Winning at TPC Sawgrass (in order of importance)
Note - The most important indicators every week are current form and course history. "Key stats" follow in importance.
• Strokes gained: tee to green
• Greens in regulation/strokes gained: approach
• Scrambling/strokes gained: around the green
• Bogey avoidance/bogey average
There is very little rough in comparison to past years, as Tweeted by Phil Mickelson on Sunday. But there is water virtually everywhere. There were nearly 200 double bogeys or worse last year. We don't need any cowboys in our lineups. This week's key stat shouldn't be bogey avoidance, it should be double-bogey avoidance. Last year, Simpson played it very safe. Get this: He was dead-last in the field in driving distance but first in accuracy. And he won in a romp. The year before, Kim won at 10-under and had only four bogeys, none of them a double. That's asking a lot of anyone, but you get the picture. Simpson was also first in strokes gained: putting, but more times than not, the winners have ranked outside the top-10.
DRAFTKINGS VALUE PICKS (Based on Standard $50K Salary Cap)
Tier 1 Values
Justin Thomas - $11,100 (Winning odds at golfodds.com: 16-1)
As mentioned above, Dustin Johnson has never had so much as a top-10 at TPC Sawgrass, so we start with Thomas. He was T3 here in 2016, T11 last year. It's a bit surprising considering we think of Thomas as such a go-for-it guy off the tee. But he's impressively ranked 12th in bogey average. And we all know about the rest of his game: first in strokes gained: approach, sixth in greens in regulation, 16th in SG around the green and second in SG tee to green. Thomas' recent run is not quite as impressive as Rory McIlroy's, but he's gone 3-T16-3-2-9-T30 in 2019.
Rory McIlroy - $10,800 (12-1)
There's no denying that what McIlroy has done of late is impressive. Top-6s in five straight events. By now, his inability to win even one of those is what stands out. Still, he's worth the price. McIlroy missed the Sawgrass cut a year ago, but had a run of three straight top-8s in 2013-15 followed by a T12. Like with Thomas, we were surprised to see McIlroy's bogey average so low – he's tied for 16th on Tour. And he's the only player ahead of Thomas in strokes gained: tee to green.
Tiger Woods - $10,500 (25-1)
Well, here we go. Big Gamble. Not only did Woods miss last week with a neck injury, but his propensity to send tee balls to far-off places will concern us right up until the 72nd hole on Sunday. Still, he's progressed from T20 to T15 to T10 over his first three starts of 2019, thanks largely to his tee-to-green numbers. Woods doesn't have enough measured rounds to qualify, but he'd be ranked fourth in strokes gained: tee to green. He won The PLAYERS once before in March, albeit in 2001 (also in May 2013). Really, picking Woods is all about being able to stomach the potential for a big number at any moment. Webb Simpson had two doubles last year but still won handily. It can be done.
Brooks Koepka - $10,000 (20-1)
We mentioned earlier how Koepka has never had a top-10 here. But he does have a top-11! Koepka tied for 11th a year ago, continuing his upward pattern at TPC Sawgrass: MC-T35-T16-T11. That looks like someone who's finally figuring out the course. Koepka will have to take his foot off the gas pedal to avoid big numbers – he missed the cut at Bay Hill – but the course is short enough to allow him to club down often. Koepka is ranked 22nd on Tour in strokes gained: approach and 29th tee to green. He's a decent-but-not-great 69th in bogey average.
Tier 2 Values
Sergio Garcia - $9,100 (30-1)
Garcia has finished top-10 in his past two starts at the WGC-Mexico and the Honda. When he's on, he's still one of the best tee-to-green guys around. Like Woods, Garcia doesn't have enough measured rounds to qualify, but if he did, he'd be fourth on Tour in strokes gained: tee to green (slightly ahead of Woods). Garcia has made 15 straight cuts at Sawgrass and for a time he delivered almost annually, with a win, two runners-up and a third on his resume. The last three years haven't measured up, but we're obviously encouraged by his recent form.
Xander Schauffele - $9,000 (25-1)
Schauffele shared runner-up honors in his PLAYERS debut a year ago, yet another instance in which he's played well in the biggest tournaments. Since winning the Tournament of Champions in January, he's continued on with four straight top-25s, three of them inside the top-15. Schauffele is ranked 13th in strokes gained: tee to green and seventh in bogey avoidance.
Tommy Fleetwood - $8,800 (25-1)
Fleetwood has professed his love for Sawgrass, which always counts for a lot with us. Finishing tied for seventh in last year's PLAYERS and for third last week at Bay Hill also count for a lot with us. The Englishman is ranked ninth in both strokes gained: off the tee and tee to green, plus 27th in bogey average.
Hideki Matsuyama - $8,300 (30-1)
Last week at Bay Hill, Matsuyama was third in field in both strokes gained: tee to green and around the green, and fourth in approach. And he was dead last, 70th, in putting. He finished T33. He just ... can't ... putt. For the season, Matsuyama is ranked second in strokes gained: approach and third in tee to green. If he could putt only just a little bit. Well, when Matsuyama tied for seventh at TPC Sawgrass in 2016, part of a run of four straight top-25s there, he ranked fifth in the field in putting.
Tier 3 Values
Matt Kuchar - $8,000 (40-1)
Kuchar tied for 17th a year ago, continuing a quirky recent history at Sawgrass. Beginning in 2012, it goes like this: 1-T48-T17-MC-T3-MC-T17. So if you believe in this sort of thing, or are a San Francisco Giants fan, this isn't the year for you to pick Kuchar. We like that he's fifth in bogey avoidance, third in greens in regulation and, oh yeah, playing his best golf in years.
Paul Casey - $7,900 (40-1)
Casey has missed only three cuts in two years, including the Sony Open in January. Since then, he's played four tournaments with two runners-up, a tie for third (WGC Mexico) and a tie for 25th. He is just so steady. Casey is ranked 11th in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, 12th in strokes gained: tee to green. If he could only putt. He didn't play Sawgrass last year, but was top-25 the two previous years. He first played The PLAYERS in March 2004 and tied for 10th.
Henrik Stenson - $7,800 (50-1)
A week ago at this time, we steered clear of Stenson. He obviously found his comfort zone at Bay Hill, after opening 2019 with disaster after disaster. The 42-year-old Swede has five top-25s in the past seven years at TPC Sawgrass, and was the champion in 2009. Last week, Stenson ranked third in both greens in regulation and strokes gained: approach, and he was second in driving accuracy.
Rafa Cabrera Bello - $7,400 (50-1)
Cabrera Bello was dissed by DraftKings last week with a $7,500 price tag (not that he even is aware of it). After tying for third at Bay Hill, the Spaniard dips another hundred bucks. (What would happen if he won?) Cabrera Bello has finished top-25 in five of his six worldwide starts in 2019. He's done well at Sawgrass, too – T17 a year ago and T4 in 2017. He's ranked only 51st in strokes gained: off the tee and 48th tee to green, but he's ninth in strokes gained: total. Chalk that up to superior putting.
Jim Furyk - $7,100 (125-1)
Old Man Furyk has finished top-15 in half of his six starts this season, including T9 last time out at the Honda. He's had a number of high finishes at Sawgrass through the years, most recently a runner-up in 2014. Furyk is close to last in driving distance on Tour, but he's first in accuracy. Despite standing way back in the fairway, he's ranked eighth in greens in regulation and seventh in bogey average.
Lucas Glover - $7,100 (60-1)
The rejuvenated Glover rang up his third straight top-10 last week at Bay Hill. He's always been great tee to green, but now he's added a heavy dose of putting. Glover is ranked fourth in greens in regulation, 17th in strokes gained: tee to green and he leads the entire Tour in bogey avoidance. That will come in handy this week, and has in the past. Glover tied for sixth two years ago was third way back in 2010.
Chesson Hadley - $6,700 (Field, 12-1)
It was painful watching the normally steady Hadley put three straight tee balls in the water on a par-5 at Bay Hill. He ended up with a quad-9, and still he tied for 17th. Hadley tied for 11th at Sawgrass a year ago and for 24th in 2015. He's ranked an elite fourth on Tour in strokes gained: approach and is tied for 28th in bogey average.
Chris Kirk - $6,400 (Field, 12-1)
Kirk had been awful, missing 5-of-6 cuts, heading into Bay Hill. But he tied for 15th there, finding his game just in time for a tournament at which he's had some success. He's made seven straight cuts at Sawgrass, three of them top-15s (he withdrew after making the cut in 2016). For a guy who's 156th in the FedEx Cup point standings, ranking 73rd in strokes gained: tee to green is pretty sharp. Kirk is also ranked 42nd in strokes gained: approach and 31st around the green. He normally gets in trouble off the tee because he's so short, which should be minimized this week, and on the greens. We always look at Kirk's numbers and wonder: Why isn't this guy playing better?