The Players Championship: Frontrunners, Dark Horses, and That Daunting 17th Hole
For many years, the PGA Tour has wanted you to believe that The Players Championship, the highest-profile tournament under the tour’s control, is akin to “a fifth major.” The tour does not govern The Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, or the Open Championship, and The Players is the best thing it has.
I usually roll my eyes at this branding effort, not because The Players Championship isn’t a great tournament but because you can’t brand something into a status that’s reserved for just four events. And according to nearly every golf expert, The Players is still a cut behind at least The Masters, Open Championship, and U.S. Open, if not the PGA as well. But it’s getting closer. Take Rory McIlroy’s word for it, not mine.
“The four majors are sacred in this game, but it’s very close to being among them with the way it’s going,” he said this week. He mentioned the $20 million purse, including $3.6 million to the winner, as an indicator of the TPC Sawgrass event’s prominence.
Here’s what to look forward to at The Players Championship 2022, which begins on March 10.
The Players Championship 2022 Preview
.@JustinThomas34 was a human highlight reel over the weekend at @TPCSawgrass. pic.twitter.com/3A1UODFrxg
— THE PLAYERS (@THEPLAYERSChamp) January 24, 2022
1. There won’t be a much better field in a men’s golf tournament all year.
The Players now tends to rank among the majors in the Official World Golf Ranking’s “Strength of Field” metric. This year’s 144-man field includes 47 of the world’s 50 highest-ranked players, with the only absences being Bryson DeChambeau and Harris English (due to injuries) and Phil Mickelson (due to controversy surrounding his involvement with Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated pro golf league).
The favorites for this event are familiar faces. Betting markets have World No. 1 Jon Rahm and defending Players champ Justin Thomas as the frontrunners; Thomas will try to become the first back-to-back winner in a tournament history that dates to 1974. McIlroy and Collin Morikawa are next, followed by Scottie Scheffler (who just won his second tournament out of his last three), Viktor Hovland, and Patrick Cantlay. In all likelihood, a mega-elite player will probably win.
What are you hitting on the 137-yard 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass? pic.twitter.com/XgHNYwbrPN
— Golf Digest (@GolfDigest) March 14, 2021
2. The course puts a premium on accuracy rather than distance.
The best distillation of that point is the 17th hole at Sawgrass. It only plays at 137 yards, which means a 9-iron or a wedge shot for tour pros. But the hole isn’t famous for being short. It’s famous for its island green, which is surrounded by water on almost all sides. Players make a lot of birdies on the 17th hole, but they also hit a bunch of balls in the water, which is why the 17th played as the third-hardest hole on the course in 2021 despite all those birdies.
It’s not just the par-3 holes. At 7,123 yards total, Sawgrass is a little bit shorter than the average PGA Tour venue. That means contenders don’t have to boast massive driving distance, though it can certainly help. Accuracy, on the other hand, is critical. The best bet this week might be Morikawa, the world No. 2, who is 12th on the PGA Tour this season in driving accuracy. Morikawa has hit 68.3 percent of his fairways this season, and maintaining that level on the relatively narrow fairways at Sawgrass would put him in prime position in this tournament.
If you’re looking for a dark horse, consider world No. 20 Daniel Berger. He blew a five-shot lead in the final round at the Honda Classic two weeks ago, but he’s fourth in driving accuracy and has a well-rounded game. Another dark horse: world No. 41 Kevin Kisner, who leads everyone in driving accuracy at 71.7 percent. Kisner knows he can’t win on the longest courses in the world, but he can win at a place like Sawgrass.
Gutsy par save.
Scottie Scheffler maintains a one-shot lead. pic.twitter.com/NMndd4YpKM
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 6, 2022
3. Scottie Scheffler is the hottest player in the field right now.
The last few weeks have had an “open the floodgates” feel for Scheffler. The 25-year-old won at the WM Phoenix Open in February, tied for seventh at the Genesis Invitational later that month, and won again on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to move into the top five of the world ranking for the first time. He’s one of two players (along with Hideki Matsuyama) to have two wins this season, and both of Scheffler’s wins are difficult victories against some of the most challenging non-major fields of the year.
Scheffler is not a natural fit for the course at Sawgrass, and he missed the cut there last year. He’s a huge hitter with pedestrian accuracy off the tee. But he’s playing so well right now that elementary concepts like “course fit” might not matter. His iron game and putting were both brilliant in his win at the API, and hitting fairways was critical to his win in a playoff in Phoenix. He has everything he needs to win again.