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Last year’s Players Championship wasn’t technically won by Mother Nature, but her name may as well be on the trophy.

The second round wasn’t completed until after 3 p.m. local time on Sunday. Which wave of tee times a player was dropped into had a gigantic impact on scoring: one side of the draw ended up with a more than three-stroke advantage over the other across the first two rounds. When the cut was finally made, more than 60 percent of players to move on came from the early/late half.

A gentler forecast this week offers promise we won’t entertain the possibility of a Tuesday finish in 2023, something that was definitely on the table a year ago. Here are the top notes and numbers to know as the 2022 Players Championship gets underway Thursday at TPC Sawgrass.

1. Last year’s Players champion Cameron Smith has long since departed for LIV Golf, inarguably the most in-form player to defect to the rival circuit. In 2022, the Aussie joined Jack Nicklaus in 1978 as the only players to win The Players Championship and The Open in the same season. It’s not just Smith, either — many of last year’s primary characters at TPC Sawgrass have departed, including the men who finished runner-up (Anirban Lahiri) and third (Paul Casey). Harold Varner III (tied for sixth) and Dustin Johnson (tied for ninth) are also gone.

But even with all the defections, handwringing, schedule chatter and original streaming series, the actual golf on the PGA Tour in 2023 has been through-the-roof good. Maui saw one star of the game (Jon Rahm) chase down another star (Collin Morikawa) in dramatic fashion. Scottie Scheffler beat the field and the beer-soaked crowds in Phoenix to go back-to-back. At Riviera, more Rahm, a dash of Max Homa and the competitive return of Tiger Woods. Bay Hill had more than a half-dozen players within a shot of the lead in the closing hour.

Hey, no player has ever won in back-to-back years at TPC Sawgrass anyway, right? The Players Championship might be the toughest tournament all year to predict, but we can assure you that statistic stays intact this week.

2. Despite a rough weekend at Bay Hill, Jon Rahm has been the best player in the world so far in 2023. In the four designated events so far this season, Rahm leads all players in score to par (57-under) and birdie average (5.56 per round). With his win at Riviera, he became the fastest player to reach three PGA Tour wins in a calendar year since Johnny Miller in 1975.

His time so far at TPC Sawgrass is a lot like what many of the top players have experienced here over the last four decades. Rahm has had flashes of brilliance: eight rounds in the 60s, including a third-round 64 in 2019. He has also experienced his share of disaster – most notably the day after that 64, when he carded 76 and finished tied for 12th. Rahm’s career scoring average here goes up, round by round, as the week progresses. In his career, he’s 24-under at The Players Championship in Rounds 1 and 2, gaining nearly six full strokes putting. In Rounds 3 and 4, he’s 10-over, and lost a whopping 13 strokes to the field on the greens. Can he put four rounds together this week?

3. Rory McIlroy’s missed birdie putt on the 72nd green last week at Bay Hill (just over 10 feet) was emblematic of his PGA Tour season to date from a statistical perspective. A year ago, McIlroy ranked second on the Tour in putting from 10 to 20 feet away, rolling them in at a clip of 33.9 percent. This season, he’s making just 17.9 percent of his attempts from that range, 182nd among qualified players.

That he still ranks second on Tour for the season in scoring average is a testament to how brilliant his ball striking has been. McIlroy is gaining 2.28 strokes tee-to-green per round in 2022-23, far and away the best of any player. Oh, and no player has averaged more strokes gained tee-to-green per round at TPC Sawgrass over the last decade than McIlroy. An improvement simply to the PGA Tour average make percentage from that range (25.5 percent) and Rory could be a tough man to beat this week in Florida.

4. Scottie Scheffler doesn’t have much of a TPC Sawgrass resume to speak of. In two previous starts here, he’s missed the cut and finished in a tie for 55th place. Of course, he didn’t have a great history of winning on the PGA Tour before rattling off four victories last spring, ascending from “best without a win” to world number one in record time.

Scheffler’s growth in his approach game has been an enormous factor in his move upward in the sport. In 2020-21, Scheffler was below Tour average in proximity to the hole on shots from 50-125 yards, 150-175 yards and 175-200 yards away. Since the beginning of last season, he’s up more than 100 spots in each statistic. He led the Tour in greens in regulation in 2022, and is leading that traditional metric again this season. No player has gone back-to-back leading the Tour in greens hit in 13 years (John Senden, 2009 and 2010).

5. The most unique course trait of Pete and Alice Dye’s design is that there are many different ways to solve the puzzle from a statistical perspective. Each of the previous three winners here ranked in the top six in the field that week in strokes gained approach, but when Webb Simpson won in 2018, he ranked 62nd. In a span of four years, two winners led the tournament in strokes gained putting, while the other two ranked outside the top 40. Simpson led the field in driving accuracy when he won, while Smith was almost dead last in fairways hit. This type of contrast is pervasive when studying who’s been successful around TPC Sawgrass.

Scrambling is one element, though, that seems to always play a role in determining a champion. The last 12 winners here have ranked around 12th, on average, for the week in getting it up and down. That’s a bit stronger than the PGA Tour average over the last five years (17th). Even the top players will miss some greens this week – especially if the wind plays a significant role.

6. In most years, the perception of the 17th is more shaped by visual intimidation than actual difficulty. Four times in the last 10 years, it was actually the easiest par 3 on the golf course. That wasn’t the case in 2022, as it played more than a quarter of a stroke over par – its toughest week since 2008. Overall, despite playing less than 140 yards on the card, 17 played as the 10th-toughest par 3 on the PGA Tour for the entire season. The nine par 3s that played to a higher average score to par averaged 224 yards in length.

After not seeing a hole-in-one at 17 from 2003 through 2015, the crowds at The Stadium Course have enjoyed four since 2016. That includes Shane Lowry’s ace a year ago, the 10th all-time in tournament play.

7. Only five players have won twice at TPC Sawgrass, but if there’s one player who might have the best chance to join the group this week, it’s 2021 champion Justin Thomas. We previously mentioned the significance of scrambling around here: Thomas leads the Tour this season in strokes gained around the green. Among all players with 10 or more rounds at this event since 2017, nobody has averaged more birdies per round than Thomas has. Since 2019, Thomas is 25-under on the par 5s here, best of any player.

8. Depending on any alternates getting into the field, at least 30 players will be making their debut this week at The Players Championship. There’s something to be said about the value of a clear memory around this place – many of the top players in the game have had their best career finish here in their debut. Jordan Spieth nearly won this thing wire-to-wire in 2014, but hasn’t finished in the top 40 since. Xander Schauffele finished runner-up in his first start (2018) but has missed his last three cuts here. Patrick Cantlay’s best-ever finish? A tie for 22nd, back in his debut in 2017.

One Players rookie to keep an eye on this week is Taylor Montgomery. He’s quickly become one of the best putters on Tour statistically, ranking fourth this season in strokes gained on the greens. He’s also 10th in birdie average, 11th in scoring and third in par 4 birdie rate.

9. With its vast, deep field and indiscriminate evaluation of abilities, The Players Championship has been prone to the long shot champion more so than the four majors. Since 2000, 40 percent of winners here have been ranked outside the top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR). In that same span, about 33 percent of major winners have been outside that top group. Five times since 2005, a player ranked 59th or lower in the OWGR has won – we have seen that happen just once in the last decade in the majors.

Perhaps the juxtaposition of the 2016 and 2017 champions here illustrates the potential here best. In 2016, Jason Day was world number one, his victory at Sawgrass capping off a run of seven wins in 17 worldwide starts. The following year, Si Woo Kim entered the week ranked 200th on Tour in scoring average and won by three shots. Good luck picking a winner.

10. Looking for a high-ceiling player who might be under the radar a bit? How about Tommy Fleetwood, who has been as good as anyone around this place in recent years. Fleetwood is among the leaders here in the advanced metrics since 2018: third in both strokes gained total and strokes gained tee-to-green. Only five players have made more birdies or better than him here in that span, too. The Englishman is ranked fifth on Tour this season in strokes gained around the green, with some underlying statistics that aren’t necessarily reflected in his tournament finishes recently.

(Top photo of Justin Thomas, left, and Jordan Spieth: Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images)


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