Back to its traditional place in the PGA Tour schedule, the most anticipated event of the season so far tees off this week: THE PLAYERS Championship at iconic TPC Sawgrass. The unofficial “fifth major” has a field that resembles an official major: the entire top-50 of the Official World Golf Rankings is on hand.
Last year’s PLAYERS surprisingly became a one-man show, as Webb Simpson obliterated an equally-talented field, but we expect a much, much closer finish for what is perennially one of the most exciting events on TOUR.
It is difficult to rank such an absurdly-phenomenal field, but if we have to pick a top 15, it is this:
The PLAYERS Championship Power Rankings is presented by Caddies Golf Wipes.
15. Patrick Cantlay
Last year’s PLAYERS may have been the Webb Simpson Show, but Cantlay made early waves with a 6-under 66 in the first round that gave him the co-lead, followed by a 68 that had him in the runner-up position at the tournament’s halfway point.
In addition to his promising past in this event (he also contended through three rounds in his 2017 PLAYERS debut), the 26-year-old has been tremendous in the 2019 season, with 6 of his 7 starts resulting in a finish of 17th or better.
In his last start, he bogeyed just two holes over his final three rounds in Mexico, leading to a T6 finish.
World Rank: 18th
Last Six: 6, 15, MC, 9, 5, 2
14. Bryson DeChambeau
DeChambeau is coming off two surprisingly poor starts: a T46 at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational (although he putted the lights out on Sunday) and a T56 at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
As disappointing as it has to be for the confident 25-year-old, there is a reason he is ranked No. 5 in the world, and a large part of that is the four victories he posted in his 10 starts prior to the WGC-Mexico.
He opened his PLAYERS debut with an encouraging 70-67 start, and has grown tremendously since. Look for his two-week slump to come to a close at TPC Sawgrass.
World Rank: 5th
Last Six: 46, 56, 15, 6, 1, 10
13. Tiger Woods
Of the 144 players in this week’s field, only Tiger has won THE PLAYERS multiple times, taking the 2001 and 2013 titles. A neck strain forced the 80-time PGA Tour winner to withdraw from last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament he has won eight times, but it sounds like it was more a case of Tiger being extra cautious than anything that should be a concern through the near future; an excellent sign given his recent injury history.
The 43-year-old has now made three starts in the 2019 season, and while none of them were prime-Tiger like finishes (T20, T151, T10), he has improved each week and has yet to post a single round worse than a 72.
At No. 11 in the world rankings, a great outing this week could get him back into that top 10 for the first time since 2014, which might be a tremendous motivator.
He was T11 in this event last year, starting slow before vaulting up the leaderboard with a 65-69 weekend.
World Rank: 11th
Last Six: 10, 15, 20, 17, 1, 6
12. Webb Simpson
Smashing a five-year winless drought, Simpson seemed to be playing a completely different game than the rest of the field at last year’s PLAYERS, taking a seven(!) stroke advantage into the final round, before employing prevent defense and (only) winning by four.
It was easily his highlight of a bounceback season where he notched nine top 10s, and banked $5.37 million. Nobody has ever gone back-to-back at TPC Sawgrass, which is really surprising given the talent that comes here every year, and we are not sure Webb is the one to break the streak: he displayed an absurd mastery of this course last year, but he has not looked the same as of late, as he has gone T36, T39, and T20 respectively, in his last three starts.
His irons were a disaster over the weekend in his last start, at the Honda Classic two weeks ago, losing nearly 5 strokes to the field on approaches over the final two days. A T36 was disappointing given he led the field in strokes gained: around-the-green.
World Rank: 21st
Last Six: 36, 39, 20, 8, 3, 15
11. Tommy Fleetwood
The suave Brit is very, very good, but wow, he just cannot put together four rounds, especially on the bigger stages. He looks dominant at times, but when a round gets away from him, it really gets away from him.
That troubling habit of inconsistency was on display again last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he opened with tremendous rounds of 69 and 66 to capture the 36-hole co-lead, but then he came off the rails with a third round 76, and a Sunday 68 was not quite enough to get him his first victory on U.S. soil, although a T3 still looks pretty good.
This will be Fleetwood’s third attempt at TPC Sawgrass, he was T7 last year (granted, it was actually a very stable effort), one year after going 67-76 in the middle rounds of his debut.
As much as we just ripped on Fleetwood for his troubling Saturday at Bay Hill, it is promising to see a high finish after five straight finishes outside the top 16 to begin 2019.
World Rank: 13th
Last Six: 3, 19, 28, 45, 16, 42
10. Jon Rahm
Before a rough recent outing in Mexico City, the 24-year-old world No. 10 opened the 2019 season with five consecutive top-10 finishes, the same amount that he tallied the entire previous season in 20 starts.
The man whose game seems to translate everywhere has not yet deciphered TPC Sawgrass, but while his finishes of T63 and T72 in two PLAYERS starts looks terrible on the surface, it should be noted that he shot under par in four of the seven rounds that comprised those two starts. It is also an excellent sign that in 20 PGA Tour rounds in 2019, he has yet to post a round of worse than 72.
This course takes seasoning, but at the very least, this year should be easily his best performance.
World Rank: 10th
Last Six: 45, 9, 10, 5, 6, 8
9. Sergio Garcia
TPC Sawgrass is such a unique course, that nobody seems to really dominate it, but if there is a “horse for the course”, it is Sergio Garcia. The 2008 champion of that unforgettable playoff against “Sunshine” Paul Goydos, Sergio also took runner-up honors in 2007 and 2015.
Over the past three years, he has been, um…. much, much worse, but even in last year’s 70th place finish, he still opened 68-69 despite being smack-dab in the middle of the worst slump of his career, with that PLAYERS finish being the only weekend he made it to in a nightmare 8-start stretch.
That slump now feels long gone, with the 39-year-old Spaniard having finished in the top 10 in four of five 2019 starts worldwide (not counting the childish display that got him DQ’d in Saudi Arabia), including a T6 at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He may be safe to trust here again.
World Rank: 26th
Last Six: 9, 6, 37, DQ, 3, 7
8. Justin Rose
For most of the past two years, world No. 2 Rose has appeared incapable of a disappointing result, but suddenly, he has four in his past five outings, including a shocking T63 at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where his entire game seemed to be gone as he carded 15 holes of bogey or worse.
Still, that one great recent outing was phenomenal: a 21-under dominant victory at notoriously difficult Torrey Pines. Maybe his head was just not in it at Arnie’s Place last week, but if he is able to employ a short memory, which he often has done in the past, Rose is clearly among the favorites this week.
Like a number of other elite players here, his TPC Sawgrass record has been hit-or-miss, well-illustrated by his last three attempts, where he has two weekend rounds of 66, but also a 78 and an 80. It is difficult to know what to expect this time.
World Rank: 2nd
Last Six: 63, MC, 1, 34, 17, 3
7. Rickie Fowler
Rickie’s finish to get into a three-man playoff (which he won) at the 2015 PLAYERS (played the last five holes in 6-under) has to be the gold standard of how to play the closing stretch.
Since then, he is coming off three surprisingly poor TPC Sawgrass starts, but perhaps he can conjure up those good memories to bring him success in a year where he has a win and a T2 among his last four starts.
The 30-year-old has been putting the lights out in 2019, which is conducive to success here and he boasts the Tour’s third best scoring average. Also, he has been alternating great and mediocre finishes this year, and after a T40 at Arnie’s Place last week, this should be a great outing, if the trend holds.
World Rank: 9th
Last Six: 40, 2, 36, 1, 66, 5
6. Dustin Johnson
The current World No. 1 has won seemingly everywhere that isn’t a major, including in Mexico City the last time he teed up just a few weeks ago, but TPC Sawgrass seems to give the 20-time Tour winner fits.
In seven PLAYERS starts since 2010, DJ has finished: T34, T57, T59, T69, T28, T12, T17. He is getting better, but it is shocking that a player of his caliber has not as much as contended here.
Could this finally be the year? We are going to guess… probably not. He might be in phenomenal form at the moment, but he just has too little positive history in this event, and we are going to concede that his game just doesn’t work with it.
World Rank: 1st
Last Six: 1, 9, 45, 1, 16, 4
5. Brooks Koepka
Declaring his early-season slump over after an impressive T2 performance two weeks ago at the Honda Classic may have been premature, as he followed it up with a shocking missed cut last week at Arnie’s Place.
Still, as the Tour’s prime “big game hunter”, the winner of three major championships over the past two seasons is a safe bet for a big week at TPC Sawgrass.
Koepka has not been super consistent at this course, but he has a plethora of great rounds, with the best being his most recent: he shot a final-round 63 in last year’s edition, a round that included zero bogeys, six birdies, and a double-eagle (not a typo). It tied the course record, and of the eight 63s shot at Sawgrass, it was the only one to occur in the final round.
If he can putt better than did in his two rounds last week, his legend could very well continue to grow at the “fifth major”.
World Rank: 3rd
Last Six: MC, 2, 27, 57, 9, 24
4. Rory McIlroy
It says a great deal about the standard set by Rory McIlroy that he is coming off five consecutive top-6 finishes, but we are all wondering what is wrong with him.
His win 12 months ago at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational was the 22nd of his career. Since, he has not won, despite racking up 12 finishes of T8 or better in that span. The problem is not that Rory is just getting beat on Sundays, but he seems to barely show up lately when gets in contention.
His defense of that aforementioned Arnold Palmer victory was yet another startling example: through 54 holes, Rory was in solo-second, just one stroke out of the lead, but his Sunday effort playing in the final group was very uninspired, as his even-par round of 72 dropped him into a share of 6th, and tied for the worst score of anyone who finished inside the top 15.
He seems likely to play well again this week at TPC Sawgrass, but what happens on Sunday this time? We figure he will win soon, but it would seem like a tall deal to pull that off against THIS field.
McIlroy has a strange all-or-nothing kind of history at TPC Sawgrass. He missed the cut last year and finished T35 the year before, but prior to that, he had finished in the top 12 four consecutive years. Helping his chances if he can overcome those Sunday yips: he currently ranks first on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee and strokes gained: tee-to-green.
World Rank: 6th
Last Six: 6, 2, 4, 5, 4, 20
3. Xander Schauffele
The current leader in the FedExCup standings had a phenomenal debut performance at last year’s PLAYERS, shooting three rounds of 68 or better to take co-runner-up honors.
Posting back-to-back great performances at TPC Sawgrass is surprisingly difficult, but Xander’s history shows unequivocally that he will not be intimidated by the strength of the field, and his current game is sporting nothing resembling a weakness.
In eight 2019 starts, he has finished at least 6-under par in seven of them (and even the sort-of outlier was a 3-under outing in South Korea). A let-down this week would seem very, very unlikely.
World Rank: 8th
Last Six: 14, 15, 10, 25, 1, 8
2. Justin Thomas
In the 13 starts Thomas has made since his last victory (the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August), he has finished in the top 10 eight times. The elite form is still there for the most part, but like Rory McIlroy, he suddenly appears uncomfortable holding the Sunday lead.
That is unlikely to plague him long though, and we are definitely not betting against him this week. The 25-year-old has been very hit-or-miss at TPC Sawgrass, with his “hits” including three rounds of 65 or 66 in his short history here. It is just a matter of avoiding that one high number, which we imagine happening as he continues to mature in this difficult event.
While he’s still looking for season victory No. 1, his best has been phenomenal: he currently leads the Tour in both scoring average and birdie average, and ranks second in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
World Rank: 4th
Last Six: 30, 9, 2, 3, 16, 3
1. Francesco Molinari
After six underwhelming finishes to start 2019, the Molinari that dominated the golf world for much of 2018 was back, as a flawless final-round 64 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational got him back into the winner’s circle. THAT Francesco was the one who won three times last year, closed The Open Championship ridiculously well for his first career major championship triumph, and went 5-0 for the Europeans at the Ryder Cup.
For a lot of players, winning so dramatically might lead us to expect a let-down the following week, but the 36-year-old Italian has shown that when he gets hot, he can stay hot. In one stretch last year, he went: WIN, 2, T25, WIN, T2, WIN. The tee-to-green dynamo seems to either finish THE PLAYERS inside the top 10, as he did in 2010, 2014, 2016, and 2017, or miss the cut entirely, which he did last year, in addition to 2011, 2012, and 2013.
It is very difficult to not see something closer to the former after the show he put on at Bay Hill.
World Rank: 7th
Last Six: 1, 17, 27, 26, 43, 56
Next Five: Ian Poulter, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Marc Leishman, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott