The Players Championship Preview: Who Wins the 'Fifth Major'?

Brady Kannon

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 10:01 PM UTC

Tuesday, May. 8, 2018 10:01 PM UTC

Split nearly down the middle on the calendar between The Masters and The U.S. Open, The Players Championship gives us a star-studded competition of major proportion.

In the global game that golf is, there are four major championships. The Masters is run by Augusta National Golf Club. The U.S. Open is put on by The USGA. The R&A administers The British Open and The PGA of America conducts The PGA Championship. This week in golf, we have The Players Championship, held at The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and the governing body in this case is The PGA Tour. This is The Tour's crown jewel. It boasts the largest purse in golf, is played on one of the world's most challenging courses and assembles arguably the best field of players for any tournament anywhere. Thus, The Players Championship has been dubbed golf's "5th Major."

And rightfully so. It began in 1974 and only one player, Jack Nicklaus, has won it three times, none of which, however, were at this course which began hosting The Players in 1982. Davis Love III, Fred Couples, Hal Sutton, Steve Elkington and Tiger Woods have won it twice but nobody has ever won it in back-to-back years.

The Stadium Course was designed by Pete Dye and was done specifically for this championship. It is a remarkable creation that tests the players with a little bit of everything. Bunkers are everywhere. Water comes into play on all 18 holes. There are dogleg right holes, there are dogleg left holes, there is a drivable par 4, no consecutive holes run in the same direction, and oh yes, there is that lovable little but treacherous 137-yard par 3-17th hole, which is an island green and stands as one of the most recognizable holes in the entire sport.

With the lack of consistent winners and the number of different challenges the course and the tournament present, it is difficult to isolate certain skill sets that work time and time again at The Players -- and that is a sign of a golf course that is of major championship caliber. For many years, the shorter hitters, the accurate, ball striking grinders made quite a bit of hay here but in recent years, the bigger hitters have been getting their share. The tournament was moved to the month of May 12 years ago after originally being a part of The Florida Swing in March. The wind in the Jacksonville area tends to blow more in March and made an already difficult course that much harder. The Players Championship will move back to March in 2019 as The PGA Championship switches from August to May. The forecast calls for breezes in the neighborhood of 12 mph this week, which is right on the borderline of being a legitimate hindrance to a Tour player.

The golf course has smaller, firm Bermuda Grass greens, that run extremely fast. Hitting them in regulation is important, putting them well is necessary, and Scrambling is imperative. Scoring well on the par 4s is another area that has always been crucial at TPC Sawgrass.

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The lowest score on one of golf's most famous par 3s.

It doesn't get better than this ace with @RickieFowler.#TOURVault

— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 8, 2018

The Favorites

Jason Day (+1632 Pinnacle): Your Wells Fargo champion from last week was also a winner at Sawgrass in 2016. He has won The Match Play on a Dye-designed course and also The PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2015, another Dye creation.

Rory McIlroy (+1632 Pinnacle): McIlroy won The PGA Championship in 2012 when it was played at The Ocean Course at Kiawah, a Dye design. At The Players, he has made the cut the last five years straight with three Top 10 finishes and a Top 15.

Jordan Spieth (+1681 Pinnacle): Struggles have been the norm at The Stadium Course for Spieth, having missed the cut the last three years in after finishing 4th in 2014. He was 2nd to Day, however, at Whistling Straits and won The Travelers last year, yet another Dye design. Spieth is No. 1 on Tour in Scrambling.

The Contenders

Rickie Fowler (+2156 Bookmaker): In what will likely be the most popular pairing on the golf course Thursday and Friday, Fowler will play the first two days with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. All three have won here before, Rickie in 2015. Fowler also took 2nd here in 2012. He was 2nd at The Masters this year and 21st last week at The Wells Fargo.

Patrick Reed (+3799 Bookmaker): Your Masters champion has played this event four times, twice missing the cut and twice finishing Top 25. He has been one of the hottest players in golf coming in, with six straight Top 10 finishes.

Tiger Woods (+4150 Bookmaker): This will be just the 2nd time that Tiger has played here in the last five years. Prior to that, he won in 2013. He also won it in 2001. His short game has been excellent this season, ranking 29th on Tour in Scrambling and 53rd in Strokes Gained: Putting. He has cooled off a bit since The Florida Swing.

The Long Shots

Francesco Molinari (+5000 5Dimes): Molinari has been one of the more consistent performers at The Players, Top 10 finishes in three of the last four years. He also took 9th here in 2010. He fits the mold of the accurate, plodding, ball striker, and is coming off of a 16th last week at The Wells Fargo.

Zach Johnson (+6600 5Dimes): Another accurate, shorter, grinder who has seen tremendous consistency at TPC Sawgrass, having missed only one cut in 13 appearances. He was 2nd here in 2012. Speaking of cuts, Zach hasn't missed one on Tour in almost nine months.

Ian Poulter (+7550 Bookmaker): This rounds out the trifecta of players who have almost always fared well at The Players. Poulter has finished runner up here twice, including last year, and has missed just three cuts in 14 trips to Ponte Vedra. At two other Pete Dye courses this season, Poulter was 5th at The Match Play at 7th at The RBC Heritage.

The Pick

Henrik Stenson (+3153 Pinnacle): The 2016 Champion Golfer of the Year has been playing some excellent golf in 2018. On yet another Dye design, Stenson teamed with Justin Rose to take 19th two weeks ago in New Orleans. Prior to that, he was 5th at The Masters, 6th in Houston, and 4th at The Arnold Palmer Invitational, another Florida course with Bermuda greens. He is No. 1 on Tour in Driving Accuracy, Greens in Regulation, and Par 4 Scoring. Stenson has three Top 20 finishes here and four Top 10s, including a win in 2009. I'll back him this week at what looks to be a nice price. When he won The British Open at Royal Troon in 2016, he was trading at right around the same number.

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