Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What To Look For: 2020 The PLAYERS Championship

Tyrell Hatton won the Arnold Palmer Invitational:

The past couple of weeks have seen high scores on Tour and it made me think of the issues the USGA and the PGA Championship have had over the past few years whether it be super low scores or the 3rd round debacle at Shinnecock.

By looking at these courses and the data it's pretty simple to see...scores rise when the course is firm and there is an ample supply of rough.  But in order to not make the course a debacle like Shinnecock and Chambers Bay were, there's an issue...particularly with the getting the course to play firm, but fair.

Usually what occurs in the US Open is that the course plays way too firm and then almost nothing holds the greens, even quality strikes from the fairway or tee box.  The other issue with the US Open is that since it is a big field, firm greens tend to get very bumpy due to the foot traffic.  I think in this case the USGA may be better served narrowing the fairways, lengthening the rough and firming up the fairways while keeping some softness of the greens.


This week the Tour plays their largest purse event of the year, The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

I was just at TPC Sawgrass today.  As a fan (and golf statistician), I tend to prefer the experience at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as that is the ultimate in fan-friendly tournaments outside of The Masters.  API is a very casual experience where you can get right close to the players and can easily walk to different holes and watch tee shots and incoming approach shots.  It's sorta like going to Wrigley Field and Sawgrass is more like going to Dodgers Stadium.

The best thing that happened to The PLAYERS Championship was moving it from May to March.  Moving it to March means more ideal weather where it can easily get into the 90's in May.  The course is more difficult to keep in tip-top shape in May (many of the greens get killed by the heat) and it's unlikely that there will be significant rainfall in March whereas May is when those infamous summer Florida storms of the century tend to occur.

The course is in immaculate condition.  It's playing much softer than Bay Hill and PGA National.  I'm sure that people will give the Tour flak for 'softening up the course', but with some rain the past couple of days and then the humidity being at 70-80% and the winds under 12 mph there's not much that could be done.

TPC Sawgrass is a unique design because almost every tee shot is a dogleg and they have an equal amount of dogleg rights as they have dogleg lefts.  I'm not a big fan of players trying to actively work the ball both ways on their shots and in reality it does not occur that often.  But the doglegs both right and left mean that the players have to hit it very straight.  This is not a course for the Bubba Watson's and Brendon de Jonge's of the world that hit large curving tee shots.

The other unique part of the design is that the front nine is very driving oriented with difficult drives on #2, #4, #5, #6, #7 and #9.  But the back nine is more approach shot oriented with difficult approaches on #11, #13, #14, #17 and #18.  To win at Sawgrass, the player is going to have to drive it effectively and do it more with accuracy than power and be able to hit long approach shots well and make some putts and save themselves from disaster.

The final critical hole on the course is the 18th, but everybody wants to talk about the famous 17th hole.

What's interesting about 17 is that it has the closest proximity to the cut on any par-4 or par-3 on the course. But it's the most difficult approach on the course in terms of strokes lost due to the high frequency of shots that end up in the water. typically, about 10% of the shots for the event will end up in the water. However, I did get to witness Tommy Fleetwood have ace the 17th today.

Projected Winning Score: -11


Rory McIlroy +750
Jon Rahm +1,200
Bryson DeChambeau +2,000
Tommy Fleetwood +2,200
Patrick Cantlay +2,200
Sung-Jae Im +2,500


Tyrrell Hatton +4,000
Daniel Berger +6,000
Billy Horschel +8,000
Shane Lowry +9,000


Wednesday, March 4, 2020

What To Look For: 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational

Sung-Jae Im gets his first Tour victory at the Honda Classic:

Im was the #4 player on my rankings to win and was one of my favorites to win at 28/1 odds.  He played more events than anybody on Tour last season and continues to play a heavy schedule.  it's probably not a bad move for him given that he's young and he can determine what courses suit his game and eye the best, but he should want to cut back his schedule a bit in the near future.


This week the Tour comes back to the homeland...the Arnold Palmer Invitation at Bay Hill.

The predecessor to the API was the Citrus Open and that used to be held at Rio Pinar Country Club.  I was a former member at Rio Pinar.  They moved the event to Bay Hill and Mr. Palmer re-designed the course while Rio Pinar became frozen in time and now the Rio Pinar area has fallen on hard times while Bay Hill is in the trendy Dr. Phillips neighborhood of Orlando.

This is still a popular stop with Tour players as they generally like the course and so many players either live in Orlando (or used to live in Orlando) or they live in Jupiter which is about a little over two hours away.  Now that the event is the week prior to Sawgrass and has a fairly large purse ($9.3 million) it's kind of a no-brainer to play the event.

The weather and conditions can dramatically change the course.  If it's soft, it plays really soft because much of the course sits in a bowl.  And when that happens it greatly fits bombers because the course is fairly long and they can keep more tee shots in the fairway.  But, if it's crusty the course starts to sway more towards shorter and more accurate players.

Last year the course played moderately soft until the last day where it became very firm and Francesco Molinari, a shorter but accurate driver of the ball who greatly improved his short game put up a stellar final round to win the event.

At its heart, Bay Hill is still a fairly long iron course and the 3-wood certainly comes into play quite often.

This week it is supposed to get breezy and the course is already playing a bit firm to begin with.  So I expect scores to rise and more shorter hitters to get into contention. 

ON a side note, I always recommend people that have never been to a Tour event or had a bad experience going to a Tour event to give Bay Hill a try as outside of the majors and Sawgrass, it's arguably the best even to go to on Tour from a fan-friendly experience.  Scottsdale has its own carzy experience and that looks incredible.  But from a fan friendly experience Bay Hill is as good as it gets with easy parking during practice rounds, the bleachers and chair seating right behind the driving range, the practice green so close that you can almost touch the players, the great merchandise booths and the course is quite easy to walk thru and go to different holes.

The final critical hole on the course is the par-4 18th. 

It plays to 460 yards.  The fairway is pretty wide (35 yards wide) which is a smart design with form following function because not only is the approach shot difficult, but the tee shot is blind and it's often difficult to get a good target to aim at thus the wider fairway suits the hole nicely.  Missing the fairway to the right can be death about 50% of the time.  Missing it left and there are still a lot of shots available.

It has led to a lot of incredible winning shots over the years from Robert Gamez's eagle, to all of the crazy putts Tiger has made on the hole over the years to Matt Every's big putt in 2015, Rory's big putt in 2018 and Molinari's monster putt last year.

Projected Winning Score: -8

Rory McIlroy +500
Tommy Fleetwood +1,400
Bryson DeChambeau +1,800
Hideki Matsuyama +2,200
Sung-Jae Im +2,800
Jason Day +2,800

Collin Morikawa +5,000
Billy Horschel +6,600
Kevin Kisner +8,000
Joel Dahmen +10,000