Preview: THE PLAYERS Championship

Preview – PGA Tour – THE PLAYERS Championship – TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course – Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida –

The flagship event for the PGA Tour takes center stage this week with THE PLAYERS Championship.

The event attracts the strongest field in golf with TPC Sawgrass near PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Verde Beach, Florida playing host. Many are heading in from San Francisco and last week’s WGC-Cadillac Match Play event.

The 144-player field features everyone in the Top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings along with familiar faces Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The field also boasts the Top 49 players in the world, as Justin Thomas replaces with withdrawn Victor Dubuisson.

The Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course plays to a par-72 and measures more than 7,200 yards. The layout’s famed island green at the par-3 17th hole is a “show” all by itself.

Precision shots and ball-striking are among the keys to winning at TPC Sawgrass – which pays out a $10 million prize pool this year including $1.8 to the champion. Most players plot their way around the layout and play into greens from the same approach spots.

Par 4 Performance will also be a key factor this week – thus watch for Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, who have been this season’s best players on the PGA Tour in the category. Both have victories already this season including Spieth’s triumph at The Masters.

Five of the last seven champions at THE PLAYERS have been international-born competitors including defending champion Martin Kaymer, K.J. Choi (2011), Tim Clark (2010), Henrik Stenson (2009), and Sergio Garcia (2008).

McIlroy is grouped with Spieth and Day in the opening two rounds at TPC Sawgrass. The trio tees at 8:39 a.m. local time. For Woods, he plays with Adam Scott and defending champion Martin Kaymer at 1:49 p.m..

2014 Recap:

  • After opening the week with a 63, Kaymer (13-under) won the title making a great par save at the 17th in the final round. He continued his hot play with a runaway victory at the U.S. Open just a few starts later. Jim Furyk finished a shot back, while Garcia was 11-under and solo third. Justin Rose was T-4 alongside Spieth, who shot 74 in the final round. McIlroy and Jimmy Walker were T-6 along with Lee Westwood.

Viewers can watch the opening two rounds on The Golf Channel, while NBC Sports handles the weekend coverage.

FANTASY: If healthy and strong consider Stenson, who won here in 2009 and has three Top 10s at this venue. His game stats are great: 2nd in Scoring Average, 3rd in Greens In Regulation Percentage and 1st in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green on tour. If you like horses-for-courses, take Garcia who won here in 2008 and contended last season but hasn’t won in the U.S since 2010. After struggling in match play, consider Ian Poulter in this spot. He was 6th at Masters and T-3 at the Honda Classic playing on this side of the U.S. He was runner-up here in 2009 to Stenson. If you want to ride hot hands from match play, consider Branden Grace (3-0 in his Group play) and been playing U.S. golf for weeks now and Westwood.

BETTING: McIlroy (7-to-1 odds to win) and Spieth (7 1/2-1) (Woods is the 66-1) are the favorites, but plenty of eyes on Woods at 66-1. But, Woods historically avoids TPC layouts and is having an emotional and distracting week for various reasons. At 16-1, take Rose, who is coming off a runner-up effort at the RBC Heritage and then a win at the Zurich Classic. Be weary of Day (25-1) who would seem to be a favorite after a solid early part to 2015 including a win at Torrey Pines, but he struggled at the Masters and during match play last week. He is T-1 in Par-4 Performance and Top 10 in Round 4 Scoring Average. Look for a bounce-back run at the title. Take Hunter Mahan (50-1), who is T-5 in Par 4 Performance, and looked good going 3-0 in three blowout wins in his Group Play last week. And, Hideki Matsuyama at 50-1 is a great fit considering this early-season stats — six Top 10s, 4th in Strokes Gaining Tee to Green and 3rd in Par 4 Performance.

Other Golf News:

  • The LPGA Tour returns to action next week for the Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Virginia. Lizette Salas won her maiden LPGA Tour title at the event last season.
  • Other players in the Top 1o of Par 4 Performance stats on the PGA Tour include Matsuyama, Mahan, Matt Kuchar and both Poulter and Stenson.
  • Furyk might be battling some fatigue heading into THE PLAYERS. He won the RBC three weeks ago and then beat Martin Kaymer, J.B. Holmes (a Shell Houston Open champion in April), Louis Oosthuizen before losing a tie match to eventually champ McIlroy in the semis. He ranks in the Top 5 on tour in Driving Accuracy at around 73 percent of Fairways in Regulation.
  • Brooke Henderson, who turns 18 in September, could earn her LPGA Tour card with a victory this season or high finish on the money list. She earned another sponsor’s exemption — this time for next week’s Kingsmill Championship.
  • Mickelson has missed the cut during his last two visits at THE PLAYERS. He won here in 2007.