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The Players Preview: The Fifth Major

Greg Vara

Vara is the lead golf writer at RotoWire. He was named the 2013 FSWA Golf Writer of the Year. In addition to producing the weekly preview and the bulk of the draft kit content, Vara participates in Yahoo!'s "Experts Picks" where he routinely dominates. He also picks college football games against the spread in his "College Capper" article.

Derek Ernst's win at the Wells Fargo Championship last week left more than a few people wondering just who this guy is, but the more pertinent question was how it happened in the first place. Entering Sunday, the leaderboard resembled one you might see at a major. Phil Mickelson was at the top, Lee Westwood was close behind and Rory McIlroy was in range. Midway through Sunday's round, Nick Watney even took the lead. So how in the world did this guy whom very few had heard of before Sunday walk away with the victory? I could bore you with the play-by-play of every wayward tee shot, errant approach shot and misread on the greens from those in the lead, but sometimes the simplest explanation is best. In poker when someone takes a bad beat, people say, "that's poker," meaning that even when you do everything right, you still can lose; it's simply a way to describe the inexplicable. While those ahead of Ernst on Sunday failed to do everything right, the end result seemed inexplicable. In other words, "that's golf." Even when everything points to one conclusion, in this case, that someone from the group of Mickelson, Watney, Westwood and McIlroy should come out on top, something completely unexpected can happen - that's golf.

This week:
The Players Championship

Last Year:
Matt Kuchar shot a final-round 70 on his way to a two-stroke victory over four players.

Players to Consider:

1. Adam Scott

Unlike many PGA TOUR tournaments, no player has dominated this event, but many top names have won here. Scott is one, as he broke through with a big win in 2004. At the time, it was his biggest victory; that's not the case anymore, and the new-found freedom may result in his best play yet.

2. Tiger Woods

Woods' track record here pales in comparison to some stops on the PGA TOUR, but it's still pretty solid. He's not a great pick this week in one-and-done leagues as he'll have more value at the U.S. Open, but in any other format, he has plenty of value.

3. Zach Johnson

Johnson isn't the first name that comes to mind when you think of Sawgrass, but his history here is sneaky good. He finished runner-up last year and T12 the year before. He's not having a great year, but a good showing here could kick-start his season.

4. Tim Clark

Clark has three top-25s here in his last three tries, including a win in 2011. With all the big names in the field this week, Clark is a good under-the-radar option this week.

5. Luke Donald

Donald has yet to win here, but outside that fact, he's played exceptionally well. Donald has finished in the top 30 in five of his past six starts here, including consecutive top-10s entering this year.

Players to Avoid:

1. Ben Curtis

Curtis finished runner-up here last year, but his game was in much better form at that time. Curtis is tough to rely on when he's playing well, let alone when he's not.

2. Matt Kuchar

It's the "fifth major," so of course I'm going big on my Avoid List. Let me explain this one, though. For some reason, defending champions really struggle here the following year, and although Kuchar is as solid as it gets, I can't argue with 10 years of data.

3. Justin Leonard

It's not that Leonard's track record here is poor, it's just not that good. Leonard has made his fair share of cuts here, but in 18 career starts at Sawgrass, Leonard has only one top-10 finish.

4. Vijay Singh

On the whole, Singh's track record here is pretty solid, but recently he's struggled. Singh has missed the cut here in four of his last five tries, including three in a row entering this year. With the deer antler situation behind him, his play is likely to improve, but he's not worth the risk this week.

5. Charles Howell III

Howell III has played well for most of this season, but that likely won't matter this week as he's struggled mightily on Sawgrass over the years. Howell III has missed five consecutive cuts here and zero top-10s in 11 tries at Sawgrass.


Group A

1. Tiger Woods
2. Tim Clark

There are certainly more tantalizing options than Tim Clark this week, but considering that he's paired with Tiger this week, there's really no need to grab another big name. If I did feel the need to take two big names here, Mickelson would probably be the choice.

Group B

1. Luke Donald
2. Zach Johnson
3. Bo Van Pelt
4. Aaron Baddeley

With these four players, this is going to be a big week, one way or the other. I left a lot of big names off the roster in Group B this week, but there's a legitimate reason for everyone I've chosen. Donald is an easy pick this week; even if you are taking chalk, Donald should be on your team. The remaining three have had their moments at Sawgrass as well. Baddeley has two top-10s in his last four tries here. Van Pelt has two top-10s in his last three tries, and Johnson has finished in the top 20 in exactly half of his eight starts here.

Group C

1. Adam Scott
2. Billy Horschel

As a first-timer at The Players, Horschel is obviously a risky pick this week, but I paired him with Scott, so the risk is minimized. Horschel has been lights out for about two months now and is worth a roster spot even though he has no experience here. If he does falter, Scott will be there to pick up the pieces. Scott has missed the cut here just twice in the last 10 years.

Starters Round One

1. Tiger Woods
2. Luke Donald
3. Zach Johnson
4. Adam Scott

Although I'm taking some chances this week with my roster selections, I'm playing it safe with my first-round starters. Tiger is an easy call in Group A no matter with whom he's paired. Although he failed to win the Masters, he did capture another top-5, that's three in a row entering this week. Johnson and Donald are the easy choices to start in Group B. Both have a played well here the last few years, and there's no reason to think that will change this week. Scott is the obvious choice to start in Group C. Horschel has been on fire lately, but he is a first-timer and this course can eat up new players. It's probably wise to give him at least one round to get acclimated.

Round Two and Going Forward:

As is often the case when Tiger is involved, it will be hard to pull him at any point this week. If he starts poorly, you expect a bounceback. If he starts well, you think he might dominate the entire week. That is what makes it difficult to pull him. Saturday is always the most likely spot for the player behind Woods, and this week is no exception. If Clark plays well early, he could get a look Saturday. Group B is pretty firmly in the hands of Johnson and Donald to start, but a quick start by either Van Pelt or Baddeley and I'll likely find a spot for them Friday. Scott has a strong hold on the starting spot in Group C, but if Horschel plays well early I'll have to make room for him at some point, most likely Saturday. Weather is also a factor this week, and wind can wreak havoc on a scorecard at Sawgrass. As always, I'll keep you posted on lineup changes via Twitter - @gregvara - this week.

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