Kurt. Kitayama. I never thought I’d see the day a 200-1 long shot would stare down and outgun some of the best players on the planet around Bay Hill. Credit to the 30-year-old Californian however, who overcame a back-breaking triple bogey on his ninth hole, and went bogey-free around Bay Hill’s treacherous back-nine to win by a single shot.
From relative obscurity a week ago, and just a few years removed from grinding on Asian developmental Tours; Kurt now finds himself inside the Top 20 in the World Golf Rankings, and very much in the conversation for a coveted 2023 Ryder Cup spot.
How can you not be romantic about golf?
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On to the task at hand, and if you loved the unpredictability on display all weekend around Arnie’s place, the PGA Tour has the perfect event lined up for you this week: a trip to TPC Sawgrass for the 49th iteration of the PLAYERS Championship. The flagship event of the PGA Tour has been held in Ponte Vedra since 1982, and in recent years, the PLAYERS has presented golf bettors with one of the greatest opportunities they’ll have all season to cash a big ticket in the outright market.
Seven of the last 12 PLAYERS champions have closed at deeper than 40-1 on odds boards. And even as some of golf’s household names have begun to take back the reigns over the last three years (Cameron Smith, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy), they’ve all had to hold off stiff charges from guys that were far from pre-tournament favorites (Anirban Lahiri, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk).
Why does one of the stronger fields we get all year produce so much volatility on leaderboards? That will become abundantly clear as we break down the venue. A venue that some have deemed the masterpiece of one of golf’s greatest architects, and the virtual playground of every kid that owned a copy of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004: Welcome to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
The Golf Course
No disrespect to Whistling Straits and Kiawah Island, but when I think of Pete Dye, I’m not exactly thinking of a 7500-yard, wide-open pasture where bombers like Jason Day, Bryson DeChambeau, and a 50-year-old Phil Mickelson can put on the type of airshows that are typically reserved for the after-hours at the back of a driving range.
Instead, my mind turns to an old-school, positional brand of golf; where thoughtless aggression is acutely punished, and tight doglegs and tricky angles force even the most skilled contestants to play by the designer’s rules. There is perhaps no better example of Dye’s overarching philosophy than TPC Sawgrass: an eclectic mix of double-doglegs, expansive bunkering, and vertical wooden bulkheads that meanders 7200 yards through the North Florida treeline.
Variance has long been a defining feature of the PLAYERS Championship. Unlike the last two stops we’ve made in Florida (PGA National & Bay Hill), birdies are quite readily available around Sawgrass. 10 of the 18 holes this week carry Birdie or Better rates over 15%, and only four holes at this course would be classified as “Bogey Avoidance Opportunites,” where par would cut the average field by around two-tenths of a stroke.
However, if you were to flip the script to include Bogey or Worse rates, Sawgrass really begins to show its teeth. 10 holes on the golf course carry a Bogey or Worse rate of over 20%, and a whopping eight of those holes cause Tour Pros to card a Double Bogey or worse at a >3% clip.
Simply put, there isn’t another stop on Tour where the margins between a solid round and a disaster are so minute. Play well around this place and a round in the low 60s is very attainable, but be just a fraction off on a couple of crucial shots, and you’ll be staring down the barrel of a sizable penalty.
As frustrating as this variance can be in the handicapping process, the wild swings we routinely see on Sawgrass’s leaderboards can present a benefit to a certain segment of the golf betting population: live bettors. Three of the last five PLAYERS Champions have entered the weekend with a deficit of three shots or more – headlined by Justin Thomas in 2021, who roared back from 7 down to Lee Westwood with 36 holes to play.
Si Woo Kim benefitted from a final round 84 by 54-hole leader J.B. Holmes, and who could forget Rickie Fowler’s back-nine run in 2015? Rickie shot (-6) on his final six holes in 2015 to jump from 5 back of Sergio Garcia into the decisive playoff that produced the biggest win of his career to date.
The point being: as the possibilities increase for those at the top to crater down the leaderboard, opportunities also emerge for a member of the chase pack to find their way back into contention with one solid round.
I’ve made sure to leave plenty of room in my weekly outright budget to accommodate these potential chasers, and even more so this week than last, I would proceed with real caution to those of you that insist on venturing too far up the board at TPC Sawgrass. Many a “sure thing,” have had their title hopes quickly dashed a few feet from the pin on 17.
The Winning Profile
Pete Dye was adamant in the construction of this golf course that he didn’t want the design to favor any particular style of player. Taking a look at the past champions list, it’s clear he succeeded in that mission, as you’ll see a multitude of different playstyles have found their way to the forefront in recent years.
Cameron Smith won this event last year whilst losing over five shots off-the-tee. He never looked comfortable with his driver all week, but the combination of elite iron play (6.7 Strokes Gained on Approach), and his world-class flat stick (+11.5 SG: Putting), were enough to carry him to a 1-shot win.
The two proceeding Champions, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy found their winning formula on the back of elite ball striking: gaining 10.1 and 11.8 shots respectively with their driving and iron play. Although they each gained marginally with the putter, it was from tee to green that they really separated themselves.
Finally, before those two came Webb Simpson and Si Woo Kim. Webb went blackout on and around the greens for four days – gaining a whopping 14.4 shots with his chipping and putting on route to a four-shot win. Si Woo played really solid golf all-around in one of the more difficult PLAYERS iterations in recent memory. While he was no slouch in the ball-striking department, it was Si Woo’s short game that shone through most in his three-shot victory. His aggressive playstyle and the windy conditions that weekend tested his scrambling acumen in many crucial moments, but the 21-year-old Korean never blinked and scored his biggest career win to date.
However, despite some incongruencies among the past champions, there has been a well-defined profile laid out by some of Sawgrass’s more consistent recent performers. Over the last five years, the Total Strokes Gained leader here at TPC Sawgrass is Keegan Bradley, having made all five cuts, with four consecutive top 30s and two finishes inside the top seven.
Tommy Fleetwood, Webb Simpson, Si Woo Kim, Corey Conners, and Doug Ghim all rank inside of the top ten in SG: Total here since 2017 with very similar T2G profiles to Keegan: all are accurate drivers of the ball who use iron play as their primary calling card. That is the basic formula I’ll be relying upon this week.
Although many stops on the PGA Tour give a sizable leg up to the bigger hitters, we certainly aren’t without examples of similar strategic setups to what players will face this week.
Harbour Town is another Pete Dye course we play every year on Tour, and one of the few examples of a design that’s even more “old-school” than TPC Sawgrass. Many a tournament at Harbour Town has been won by playing to the corner of the dogleg, approaching to the center of the green, and putting uphill to the corners. A far cry from the bomb-and-gauge “TrackMan golf” that much of the newer generation employs.
Colonial, Waialae, Sedgefield, and PGA West are some other examples of PGA courses that cater more to disciplined, strategic play – particularly off the tee. I believe a player’s driving aptitude on courses like this can be a tell-tale sign when projecting them for this week. Therefore, a lot of the driving metrics I’ll be referencing in my player breakdowns will be based specifically on performances at positional venues such as these.
Moving onto iron play, where we can be a bit more general in our data sets. Unlike Bay Hill last week, Sawgrass features a fairly balanced proximity distribution. No 25-yard approach range has historically crested the 20% mark of shots hit, so I’ll be relying on more basic iron stats like SG: APP and Opportunities Gained. This isn’t to say that iron play isn’t as important as last week, as winners at TPC Sawgrass over the last three years have finished no worse than 6th for the week on Approach.
The importance of a short game around TPC Sawgrass might be the most contentious issue of the week. At 5,500 square feet on Average, Sawgrass features below-average green sizes and a GIR % that’s nearly three points lower than the Tour average.
However, I don’t believe greens will be nearly as difficult to hit as we’ve seen at recent stops like Bay Hill or Riviera. We’ve also routinely seen some of the more gifted ball-strikers in the field crest the 75-80% GIR mark here in recent years – a near impossibility in the conditions we saw last week. I’m treating Around the Green play as more of a tiebreaker than a core element of my decision-making process.
And finally, since we’ve moved the PLAYERS Championship from May to March (starting in 2019), the greens here have shifted from a typical Florida Bermudagrass into a less granular, overseeded strain that’s more akin to what we see at TPC Scottsdale, PGA West, and the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook. If you are interested in delving down the SG: Putting rabbit hole, be my guest, but be careful when expecting pure Bermudagrass splits to correlate to the greens we’ll be seeing this week.
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2017 +54.26 Units
2018 +55.88 Units
2019 +27.743 Units
2020 + 37.015 Units
2021 + 68.846 Units
2022 +67.485 Units
Total Winnings: +311.229 Units
Total Outright Wins Since 2017: 36
H2H Totals Inside Thread… https://t.co/pNQrSK1rFE
— Spencer Aguiar (@TeeOffSports) December 12, 2022
The Betting Card
Tony Finau (30-1): Tony might not have the fondest memories around TPC Sawgrass to this point in his career (four MCs in six starts; no finish better than 22nd), but what he lacks in course history, he makes up for in spades with recent form.
Since last year’s U.S. Open, Finau has as many wins (3), then finishes outside the Top 25, and he’s currently on a seven-start made-cut streak where he’s gained an average of 3.8 strokes to the field on approach per tournament.
In fact, over the course of the 2023 PGA Tour Season, nobody’s been better than Tony Finau at creating birdie chances with his iron play (2nd SG: APP, 1st in Opportunities Gained), and despite the sub-par results around here in the past, Finau’s also proven to be a phenomenal driver of the ball on these positional golf courses. He’s never lost strokes off the tee at Sawgrass and has gained strokes to the field in 16 of his 20 starts at the corollary tracks we mentioned earlier (Harbour Town, Colonial, PGA West, Innisbrook).
I mentioned at Bay Hill how Tony hadn’t really done a lot wrong to find his way to 25-1 on betting boards, and I very much echo that sentiment as he’s drifted into the 30s this week. The ball striking continues to be stellar, and although he’s proven more than capable at difficult golf courses, the sweet spot for Tony always feels like it should be in more scorable conditions where he’s not entirely at the mercy of the elements.
I think Sawgrass is a great spot for Big Tone, and 30-1 is more than fair enough to give it another go.
Viktor Hovland (33-1): Although Hovland’s short game will once again find heavy scrutiny after a disastrous final round at Bay Hill, I’m more inclined to take a glass-half-full approach to Viktor’s week in Orlando.
First and foremost, the ball-striking is back in peak form for the Norwegian, as he gained over ten strokes on the week between his driving and approach play. His best mark since, you guessed it, the 2022 PLAYERS Championship. Viktor has also proven himself extremely adept on these positional golf courses: ranking 6th in SG: OTT and 1st in Good Drive % on our corollary tracks.
He’s one of the most prolific birdie makers in this field, and he’s one of the few players on Tour who can circumvent his greatest weakness with his greatest strength. Viktor led the field with an 82% GIR Percentage here last year but was done in by a balky putter (-3.1 SG: Putting on the week). He hasn’t had a week on the greens nearly that bad since, and given the way he’s swinging it, I can easily see Hovland equaling his ball-striking splits from last year. If he does, I don’t believe the flat stick will fail him again.
Tom Kim (45-1): It’s been over five years since a twenty-something-year-old Korean phenom took down the biggest prize on the PGA Tour. Now in 2023, we may have another candidate who’s even better suited to repeat that trick.
It already feels like he’s been in our lives for some time, but we’re only just passing the eight-month mark of Tom Kim as a PGA Tour member. In that time, he’s already proven himself as one of the more accurate drivers of the ball on the planet (8th in Fairways Gained), as well as one of the more prolific iron players in the game (7th in SG: APP; 4th in Overall Proximity).
Tom has already won at a corollary track at Sedgefield, he’s come 6th at Pete Dye’s West Coast ode to TPC Sawgrass (PGA West), and in a small sample, he’s proven to be quite a reliable putter on this overseeded Bermudagrass (3.2 SG: Putting at Waste Management; 1.6 in two rounds at American Express).
It does seem like a big ask for a 20-year-old debutant to take down one of the biggest prizes in world golf, but the profile fits like a glove and he’s been proving people wrong for much longer than the eight months he’s been on Tour. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind getting one over on his friend and countryman by breaking Si Woo’s record as the youngest PLAYERS Champion in history.
Jason Day (80-1) *Placed 2/12/23 on Bovada – As a new member of the RB Staff, I believe I’m actually contractually obligated to bet Jason Day this week. It’s a unique hazing practice to say the least, just don’t tell Spencer and Joe that I’ve had a J-Day PLAYERS Future in my account well before I came on board.
But in all seriousness, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen to take advantage of the Sawgrass Futures markets on J-Day. I was able to nab an 80-1 on Super Bowl Sunday, but there were 65s hanging on a few prominent books as recently as last week.
Fast-forward to the week of and we’ve seen his outright number cut in half (down as low as 28-1 in some spots). It’s certainly a steep ask for those of y’all that weren’t able to hop on the inflated numbers listed earlier, but if the FOMO of Sunday night Twitter victory laps isn’t enough, let me make the case for Jason Day as the 2023 PLAYERS Champion:
First and foremost, the time of Jason Day as an elite putter is back. Over his last 5 tournaments, Jason has gained an average of 4.6 strokes per week with the flat-stick and has gained no less than 3.7 shots in any individual event. Nobody in this field comes close to that kind of consistency, and two of those performances came on very similar greens to the ones we’ll be seeing this week (Phoenix and AmEx).
Day also ranks inside the top 20 in both key ball-striking metrics, he’s sixth in Birdie or Better %, and 1st in Bogey Avoidance. It’s no wonder he hasn’t finished worse than 18th since the New Year began, and these aren’t exactly alternate field jabroni events he’s popping up in either: T10 at Bay Hill, T9 at Riviera, 5th at Waste Management, and T7 at Torrey Pines.
Couple this recent form with a stellar historic track record around TPC Sawgrass (Four Top 10s in 11 starts including a win in 2016), and you’ve got the perfect recipe to cap a career resurgence with a statement win.
I know we aren’t scheduled to play the final round on Mother’s Day anymore, but just over one year removed from his mother’s passing, who wouldn’t want to see J-Day rock the Sunday pink to victory around here once again?
For Dening <3
Corey Conners (100-1) *Placed 3/3/23 on BetMGM – There are certain golfers that pop up on leaderboards that you know will cost you money somewhere down the line. Corey Conners is my guy in that regard. As soon as he found his way into the mix at Bay Hill on Friday afternoon, I raced to find the best number available on the Canadian No. 1. I found a 100-1 that evening, made some calls out of state, and within 24 hours it was cut down to 50.
As I sit here Tuesday afternoon, there are still 66-1s available to those that shop around, and I fully endorse that price point for one of the PGA Tour’s premier ball-strikers. I say with full confidence that if Corey Conners is ever going to win a marquee event on the PGA Tour, it’s going to have to be right here at TPC Sawgrass.
Not only is Conners one of the more accomplished positional drivers of the ball we have in the game (2nd in SG: OTT; 1st in Good Drive % on corollary driving tracks), but he’s beginning to flash the iron play that tantalizes so many of us in the industry. Corey’s gained over half a shot per round with his irons over the last 10 tournaments and has only lost strokes on Approach once since the start of last year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs.
The putter will always be the case against Corey, but he’s surprisingly gained on the greens here at Sawgrass in his last two trips and has managed to avoid enough landmines to go 3/3 in made cuts in his PLAYERS career.
- With these 5 names on the card, we’ve officially used up ~70% of our weekly outright budget. Unlike last week, it’s a bit more difficult to narrow down the shortlist at a place like Sawgrass where so many different profiles can find success. Because of this, I’ll be taking a bit of a broader approach to this section; outlining more names with less in-depth explanation.
Justin Thomas (20-1): No surprise that the 2021 PLAYERS Champion found his way into consideration at 20-1. JT showed some real ball-striking chops around Bay Hill last week (3.5 SG: OTT; 2.6 SG: APP), and his game is tailor-made for a course like Sawgrass. I don’t particularly like going to the top of the board at this venue pre-tournament, but you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be monitoring JT’s progress as closely as anyone should he get off to a sluggish start and drift a bit down the odds board.
Si Woo Kim (66-1): He’s the 2017 Champion of this event and a notable lover of short positional courses, but Si Woo’s stock has taken a hit in the betting market due to a recent run of poor iron play (lost on approach in 4 of his last 5 starts). However, we’re not that far removed from Si Woo gaining over 17 shots on approach in a two-start span (Houston & Sony), and the last time he showed up to Sawgrass, he posted the 4th best iron week of his career (+8.1 in 2021). Perhaps some friendlier confines will break him out of this mini-slump. If we see positive signs early, there’s no doubt in my mind what the upside is.
Shane Lowry (60-1): Shane’s not nearly as accomplished as the two names proceeding him around Sawgrass, but Lowry exemplifies everything you could possibly want on a week like this. He’s extremely reliable off-the-tee, prolific with the irons when he gets hot, and battle-tested on a variety of corollary venues (Two T3’s around Harbour Town since 2019, 2nd and 5th at Honda over the last two years, 7th at Wyndham, 8th and 13th in his last two starts here). In my opinion, he remains one of the more undervalued players on odds boards week over week. I’m not at all scared to go back to the well should we see an early rebound from the ball-striking we saw around Bay Hill.
Keegan Bradley (50-1): After referencing him as the most consistent player over the last five years at this venue, it’s only right to include him somewhere in my player write-ups. Keegan checks a lot of the boxes I’m looking for this week, and his case is only bolstered by a final round 67 he logged at Bay Hill (gaining 3.5 shots ball-striking in the process). However, an endorsement at 50-1 also denotes that you believe it to be the best number we’ll get all week, and I’ve ridden the Keegan train enough times to know it’s never a smooth ride. If he wins this thing wire-to-wire, I’ll hold my hand up and say I was wrong. Until then, I’ll be monitoring the triple digits closely for a chance to catch him at rock bottom.
Russell Henley (100-1): Moving onto the “bombs” section of the shortlist and I’m just looking for profiles I wouldn’t mind buying low on. When he’s on, Henley is still one of the better all-around iron players in the world and he lives for positional golf courses like this. He had a career-best iron performance here last year (11.5 SG: APP), and the last time we gave up on him as a community, he went on to win at Mayakoba.
Tom Hoge (150-1): Like Henley, Hoge still rates out as one of the best iron players on the PGA Tour (1st in SG: APP, 9th in Opportunities Gained, 3rd in overall proximity over his last 36 rounds). I don’t trust the driver nearly as much as I do with Russell, but three consecutive Top 30s around Sawgrass does showcase at least a bit of comfort around here (or maybe that’s just Tom showing us his ceiling).
Emiliano Grillo (200-1): Another classic #TeamNoPutt money pit, it just can’t be a coincidence that Grillo decides to lead the API field from tee-to-green the week right before the most obvious course fit on the schedule. I’m staying weary of Grillo, but I will say he’s not egregiously priced off of a stellar statistical week around Bay Hill. A few bucks at 200-1 never hurt anyone, right?..
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