At around 7,200 yards depending on the day’s setup, TPC Sawgrass is anything but a bomber’s paradise by today’s PGA Tour standards.
The primary reason no one has successfully defended at The Players Championship is that the course favors those who enter the week striking their irons well and displaying a great short game with a steady putter.
The past two champions, Webb Simpson and Si Woo Kim, weren’t on anyone’s radar entering the tournament. But they found their form – and a steely mental demeanor – around the water-laced course.
Kim won by three shots. Simpson by four.
The 2019 Players will be played in March for the first time since 2006. That means TPC Sawgrass will play wetter, and longer, than most in the field have experienced. Here are five dark horse candidates to win the title.
5. Ian Poulter, England (55/1 by sportsbook.ag): Poulter has four top-10s in seven events this year and has made the cut in 12 of 15 appearances at The Players. That includes a pair of runner-up finishes. He’s not overly long, but he’s extremely solid in every other facet of the game, which is exactly what it takes to be successful at TPC Sawgrass. He would be ranked higher on this list, but appeared to be battling his swing a bit during range and practice sessions this week.
4. Sungjae Im, South Korea (100/1): The PGA Tour rookie is up to No. 71 in the world rankings after his tie for third at Bay Hill last week. He was also the overnight leader at The Honda Classic the previous week before fading on the weekend. Im dominated the Web.com Tour last season and has all the tools — if he can handle the pressure of one of the game’s marquee events for four days.
3. Matthew Fitzpatrick, England (66/1): The 24-year-old rose 11 spots to No. 33 in the world following his second place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week. He was granted temporary PGA Tour membership through the end of the season on Wednesday. This is only his third start on American soil this year, but Fitzpatrick is a talented young player who posted consecutive top-5s in Asia just a few months ago and enters The Players in good form.
2. Branden Grace, South Africa (150/1): Fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen would be a worthy pick here as well if not for missed cuts at the Genesis Open and Arnold Palmer Invitational. Grace hasn’t played since tying for 33rd at the WGC – Mexico Championship in February, but he did take second at the Waste Management Phoenix Open earlier in the month. He has the bulldog mentality to handle the windy conditions forecasted throughout the tournament and tends to show up on the first page of the leaderboard in big events.
1. Billy Horschel, United States (80/1): The 32-year-old enters with modest recent results — no missed cuts but only one top-30 result in his past four starts. Horschel did finish eighth at Torrey Pines earlier this year and is another player who regularly rises to the occasion. The 2014 FedEx Cup champion came out of virtually nowhere to post three top-3 finishes in last year’s playoffs.
Horschel has tied for 37th and missed the cut in the past two Players, but he also the experience at TPC Sawgrass combined with the mental makeup to be a serious threat come Sunday.
–Derek Harper (@DerekAHarper), Field Level Media