Sobel’s Players Championship Preview: Fade the Favorites at Sawgrass

Sobel’s Players Championship Preview: Fade the Favorites at Sawgrass article feature image

Rob Kinnan, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Henrik Stensson

  • Dustin Johnson (+1200) and Rory McIlroy (+1200) are the betting favorites for the 2019 Players Championship.
  • Jason Sobel thinks the best strategy for handicapping The Players is to fade the favorites.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — I could spout all sorts of analytical research to support my theory that The Players Championship is the toughest event in golf to handicap. I could remind you that it features the strongest annual field, but remains wide open to potential contenders of every type.

Or I could just say this: It’s a tournament that’s been won by such polar opposites as Phil Mickelson and Fred Funk. Also: Tiger Woods and Craig Perks. And: Adam Scott and Tim Clark.

If you’re seeking a prototypical Players player who fits the mold of past champions, the answer is yes.

A long-hitter who can overpower TPC-Sawgrass? Jason Day did it. An accurate guy who rarely misses a fairway? There’s Henrik Stenson. A ball-striker who feathers approach shots into some tucked pins? Sounds like Rickie Fowler? A torrid putter who can’t miss the hole? That was Webb Simpson.

All of which simultaneously makes this week’s tournament at PGA Tour HQ both a fun watch and near-impossible to predict.

Throw in another variable this year, with the tourney moving back to March for the first time in 13 years, and it stands to be amongst the most incalculable events we’ll see all year.

(Note: I’ll have more Wednesday on what the move to March means from the players’ perspectives, but don’t be surprised to hear most of ‘em insist that it offers an advantage to the longer hitters.)

Because of the limitless potential so deep in the field, I’ve got a little slogan for the week: Fade the Favorites. I’m staying away from the top names on the board.

This strategy doesn’t always work, of course. Of those names I mentioned above, there are Hall of Famers and top-10ers and players ranked amongst the world’s elite.

Could co-favorites Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy finally win a first Players title? Absolutely. How about Justin Thomas or Justin Rose? No doubt.

The truth is, of those top-10 names, I might ride-or-die with Arnold Palmer Invitational champion Francesco Molinari, if anyone, just because he showed a propensity last summer to step on the gas pedal when he’s running hot.

That’s tempting, but his victory launched him into “favorite” territory and I’m not getting sucked in.

Instead, I’m looking for players who are at least inside the top-half in driving distance, own strong long-term ball-striking numbers and have some solid history on this course.

By the same measure, I’m hardly looking at any underdogs to pop up out of nowhere and steal this title. It’s been a while since Perks pulled that off and with this field strength, it’s tough to believe we’ll see that type of recurrence anytime soon at the, ahem, first minor.

(Quick rant before we move on: I’ve been covering this event for 15 years and somehow we’re still spinning our wheels with the same is-it-or-isn’t-it? fifth major major narrative. It’s a lazy discussion. There are four majors. This isn’t one of ‘em. There’s nothing wrong with being the “best of the rest,” which is exactly what this is. Let’s not keep trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.)

With that, let’s get right to the picks, skipping over the usual “Favorites” section and going straight to the “Mid-Tier.”


Xander Schauffele (+2500)

He’s a strong ball-striker and has fared well on TPC Sawgrass before, but my favorite thing about X-man in this event is that he’s a big-game hunter. He tends to play his best golf in the strongest fields – and there’s none stronger than this one, which means he can do his usual fly-under-the-radar thing for four days and still win the title.

Tommy Fleetwood (+2800)

Successfully continued his trend of one blow-up round per tourney at the API last week – he legitimately could have three wins there without the outliers – but I’m going to focus on the three solid ones. A tremendous ball-striker, this one should be right up his alley.

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