It’s not a major championship, but it’s still a big deal with a lot of cash at stake. The 50th edition of the Players Championship is set for this week at the famed Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
There are 144 players seeking to make the 36-hole cut of top 65 and ties. If they stick around to play the weekend, they’ll be vying to get a chunk of a whopping $25 million purse. The winner gets a healthy $4.25 million.
Who will be contending for those funds, you ask?
I will try to suss that out here in due time, but even the most experienced of prognosticators will admit one thing:
The Players Championship is a tough nut for bettors to crack.
It primarily has to do with the venue, which has been in play since 1982. What was once a bit of a scruffy, more natural-looking course built on swamp land now plays as a tough, manicured, overseeded outfit.
Pete Dye is the Stadium course architect, with assistance, of course, from wife Alice, who came up with the idea for the par-3 17th island green hole.
The short hole is a wedge for most players these days, but the green looks like a postage stamp on even the best of days. Plenty of tournaments are won and lost here, but the course isn’t overly forgiving elsewhere, either.
Dye is known for creating blind shots, especially off the tees. It’s an execution test that requires players to focus on game plan and execution. It’s hard to freewheel it around here, as water, wind, and thick rough are just part of the equation that frustrate players who may just be a tad off.
A wide variety of playing styles can get it done here. There are areas where a distance advantage can be flexed, but relying too much on driver can backfire.
Few players have an extensive history of dominance at the Players Championship.
It more matters how you’re playing on that given week.
The Stadium course measures around PGA Tour average at 7,189 yards for a par 72.
Stats to watch include bogey avoidance, strokes gained approach, and par-5 scoring. If you can get your hands on putting stats on Bermuda grass, that can also come in handy.
Keep in mind, the Players moved from May to March in 2019. The course now tends to play softer and longer with conditions not as toasty.
Honing in on stats and results from 2019 and on is a wise decision, though having a lot of reps even before then on this difficult layout can help, too.
Aside from Tiger Woods, there are notable absences in the field among those who are eligible.
Defending champion Cam Smith will not be present as his defection to LIV makes him ineligible.
Also not present will be the cool, rainy, and windy weather in play last year. It could still be a bit breezy and it looks like there’s a chance for rain mid-tournament, but nothing that should necessitate a Monday finish; as was the case last year.
Let’s get down to brass tacks and determine who will hoist the gold trophy come Sunday (or Monday, in last year’s case).
It was a crapshoot trying to determine who to slot in at No. 10, so I’m riding with the hot hand.
Conventional wisdom says that veteran players with experience at a demanding course like TPC Sawgrass are best suited. That may be true, but I like Kurt Kitayama to at least squeak out a top 10 in his Players Championship debut.
The 30-year-old journeyman out of Chico, California, had the week of his life to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week. He beat out an elite field at this designated event, including Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, and Jordan Spieth just to name a few in the top 10.
This looked destined to be another close call for a player who’s won on the Asian Tour, DP World Tour, and more, but never on the PGA Tour.
Last year, Kitayama finished in second by a shot to Xander Schauffele at the Genesis Scottish Open, and second by a shot to Rory McIlroy at the CJ Cup.
"“I would like to say my iron game has jumped a level, and then my short game has seen a big level of increase,” Kitayama was transcribed by ASAP Sports describing how he’s elevated his performance, “like how I’ve been kind of managing myself around the greens.”"
The former UNLV Rebel has made four of seven cuts this season with the high finish at the CJ Cup and T-23rd at a designated event, the WM Phoenix Open.
Kitayama is in the top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time. He began 2022 well outside the top 200.
He’s in the positive in every strokes gained per round category, including 39th on the PGA Tour from tee-to-green (.631). While short in stature, Kitayama can hit it high and far. He’s 34th in driving distance (307.8).