Rory seeking unprecedented double at TPC Sawgrass

March 11, 2020
Justin Ray

It’s a piece of information ardent golf fans are well aware of, and one that defending champ Rory McIlroy has undoubtedly heard a dozen times this week at TPC Sawgrass: no player has ever won The Players Championship in back-to-back years.

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In fact, no player has ever got particularly close to repeating as champion here. The best finish by a defending champ at Sawgrass is a tie for fifth, by Tom Kite in 1990 and Hal Sutton in 2001. Kite started the final round that year three shots back but shot a Sunday front nine 39. Sutton finished seven strokes behind eventual winner Tiger Woods.

There hasn’t even been a defending champ to finish in the top-ten at TPC Sawgrass in 15 years: Adam Scott’s tie for eighth in 2005 is the most recent. Webb Simpson finished tied for 16th in his title defense last year, a pretty good result all things considered.

Though repeating as winner anywhere in professional golf is difficult, it’s anything but unprecedented. Since the first Players Championship in 1974, it’s happened at least twice at each of the four major championships – three times each at both the PGA and The Open. Since 2010, there have been 14 different instances of players winning a PGA Tour event in consecutive seasons. It happened twice in 2019 – Paul Casey at the Valspar and Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship.

There are only two active PGA Tour events that have gone longer without a back-to-back winner than The Players. The Wyndham Championship was last won in consecutive years by Sam Snead in 1955 and 1956, but that tournament has been held on three different courses since then. The Charles Schwab Challenge (what it’s now called) has been held at Colonial Country Club since the 1940s – Ben Hogan is the last repeat winner there, doing so in 1952 and 1953.

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This immovable object of a statistic meets the unstoppable force of McIlroy this week in Florida – the world number one has been in the top-ten following each of his last 14 PGA Tour rounds. Since The Open ended in July, Rory has made 14 starts worldwide, finished in the top-10 in 12 of them, and has a scoring average of 68.3.

As funny as it sounds, this is one week where the odds may be against the betting favorite.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

TPC Sawgrass perennially ranks among the toughest courses on the PGA Tour in scrambling percentage. Last year, the field got up and down just 55 percent of the time, 8th-toughest all season.

While the rough around the greens is penalizing, it’s even more so when missing the fairway off the tee. Each of the previous five years, Sawgrass has ranked sixth or tougher in approach shot proximity from the rough. The missed fairway penalty, on average, is 0.42 strokes per hole here over the last five years.

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This is year two since this championship moved back to the month of March. Though the winning score was 16-under-par a year ago, the larger body of work suggests tougher scoring conditions here than in May. Over the last 24 years, there have been 12 Players Championships in March, and 12 in May. The March scoring average is a little over half-a-stroke tougher in that span.

NOTES ON PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

Brooks Koepka has had the ultimate mixed bag in his career at TPC Sawgrass. Since making his debut five years ago, Koepka leads all players in par five scoring at 42-under-par. He’s also dead last in par three scoring in that span, at 18-over. Koepka has made 19 double bogeys or worse at TPC Sawgrass since 2015, the most of any player.

Brooks is clearly still working his way back into form after injuring his knee last fall. In his short window of results since returning, it’s his putter that his greatest weakness: Koepka is currently 208th of 231 eligible players on the PGA Tour this season in strokes gained putting, and ranks dead last in approach putt performance, a metric that measures lag putts.

– With Tommy Fleetwood’s missed cut last week in Orlando, Collin Morikawa now holds the longest active streak of PGA Tour starts without missing the weekend, at 21 in a row. That run actually stretches back into his amateur days; since he turned pro last season, the California product is a perfect 20-for-20. The last player with a longer run of made cuts immediately after turning professional was Tiger Woods, who made his first 25.

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– Speaking of Fleetwood, he should be a popular pick this week to win his first title on U.S. soil. His career scoring average of 70.17 is the best of any player in tournament history with at least 10 rounds played. He ranks first the last three years at TPC Sawgrass in strokes gained off the tee and second in strokes gained tee-to-green. Only Justin Thomas has averaged more birdies per round than Fleetwood has here over the last decade.

– One scary thought for Jon Rahm’s peers to ponder: he’s becoming one of the best putters in the world. Rahm is ranked fourth on the Tour this season in strokes gained putting and second in three-putt avoidance. One quantum leap he’s made has been putting from 10 to 15 feet: from a 24 percent make percentage in 2019 to nearly 44 percent this season. Oh, and Rahm leads all players in strokes gained approach per round at TPC Sawgrass over the last three years.

Dustin Johnson joined a club he didn’t want to be part of in this event last year: he became the third player ever to shoot in the 60s all four rounds at TPC Sawgrass and not win the tournament. The other two players to do it were Fuzzy Zoeller and Jeff Maggert, both in 1994.

Jason Dufner possesses one of the best quirky numbers at TPC Sawgrass: in 39 career times playing the 17th hole in his Players Championship career, he’s never hit a shot into the water. That’s the most of any player without a shot in the drink at 17 since the data tracking began 17 years ago.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Only one player has won The Players and the Masters in the same season: Tiger Woods in 2001.