Players Championship analysis: Notes to know on Xander Schauffele, Wyndham Clark, more


Entering last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, there had not been a winner on the PGA Tour in 2024 with shorter pre-tournament odds than 40-to-1.

After Scottie Scheffler authored a dominant Sunday in Orlando, many of the best in the world followed his lead Thursday at TPC Sawgrass.

Three competitors in last year’s Ryder Cup – Xander Schauffele, Rory McIlroy and Wyndham Clark – share the lead after Day 1 with nine players still to complete their round. Numerous world-class players are within striking distance, including Scheffler after a seemingly effortless 67.

Here are the top notes to know from Day 1 of the 2024 Players Championship.

1. About the only thing Rory McIlroy has been wildly successful at on the PGA Tour so far in 2024 is pummeling his driver. In the limited spring sample size, McIlroy has struggled some on the greens (129th in strokes gained putting), a familiar discussion point throughout this career. The more surprising issue has been with his irons: after ranking in the top 10 on tour last season in strokes gained approach per round, McIlroy headed to TPC Sawgrass outside the top 150 in that metric this year.

All that changed on Thursday. McIlroy was dialed in with his irons, ranking second in the field on Day 1 in strokes gained approach. He was able to pay that off in surplus, leading the tournament in putting. McIlroy has had nearly 700 rounds on the PGA Tour measured by ShotLink. It’s just the third time he has gained three or more strokes with both his approach play and on the greens.

McIlroy’s 10 birdies in Round 1 tie the record for most in a single round at Sawgrass. He made six birdies in his first eight holes, the first time he has done that to begin a tournament in his PGA Tour career.

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GO DEEPER

Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and the awkward tension at The Players Championship

2. Xander Schauffele shares the lead after Thursday thanks to his first career bogey-free trip around TPC Sawgrass. After gaining just over three-tenths of a stroke per round with his approach play in his career here, Schauffele led all players on Thursday in that statistic, picking up more than 3.5 shots.

Schauffele’s form bests most of his PIP-receiving peers so far in ’24: he has four top-10 finishes and sits in the top 20 currently in scoring average. But the San Diego State product has not found the winner’s circle on tour since July of 2022 at the Scottish Open. Over the last two PGA Tour seasons, Schauffele has finished in the top 10 15 times, four more than any other player without a victory in that span.

3. Wyndham Clark, among the most consistent players in the sport during the last year, rounds out the trio of co-leaders. In our preview, we mused that Clark’s previous form at Sawgrass probably didn’t mean much. Through one day that’s come to fruition, as Clark bettered his previous career-low round at The Players by four shots.

After ranking third in the field Thursday in strokes gained putting, Clark continues to build a justified reputation as a player that can get scorching-hot on the greens. Thursday marked the ninth time in the last two PGA Tour seasons Clark has gained three or more strokes on the field putting. Only Taylor Montgomery has more such rounds in that stretch (10).

4. The inevitability of Scottie Scheffler hovers over Ponte Vedra Beach on Thursday evening. The defending champ strolled to a round of 67, rarely looking like his heart rate rose to the high double-digits. When the first round concludes Friday morning, it will be the 108th time in the last three PGA Tour seasons Scottie has been in the top 10 following a round. That’s 34 more than anyone else in that span.

Scheffler didn’t have his best day in terms of proximity to the hole but found the green in regulation 15 times on Thursday. Since the beginning of the 2022 season, Scottie has hit 15 or more G.I.R. in 33 percent of his rounds played. The rest of the PGA Tour has done that 14.1 percent of the time in that same span.

Maybe the most ominous trend for the field on Day 1 was Scheffler’s continued success on the greens. Entering last week’s final round at Bay Hill, Scheffler had averaged 4.5 missed putts per round from 15 feet and in. He’s now 41-of-42 inside 15 feet in his last 36 competitive holes played. Scheffler has now gained strokes on the field putting in each of his last four rounds.

5. A pair of recent national open champions share fourth place, each 6-under. Last year, Nick Taylor ended a near-seven-decade drought of Canadian players winning their home Open by making a 72-footer to win a playoff. Taylor flashed every facet of his world-class game Thursday, gaining strokes on the field in every category in a bogey-free round of 66.

Two summers ago at Brookline, Matt Fitzpatrick broke through with his first major victory, joining Jack Nicklaus as the only player to win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open at the same venue. The Englishman could be rediscovering the elite ball-striking form of that summer, as he led all players in strokes gained off the tee Thursday. Fitzpatrick has just one top-10 finish in seven previous career trips to TPC Sawgrass.

6. Tom Hoge’s presence on the first page of the leaderboard won’t be taken lightly by some of the more decorated names around him. After all, Hoge’s 67 Thursday makes him 21-under-par in his last four rounds at TPC Sawgrass, a stretch that included the only 62 in this championship’s history. Hoge, the PGA Tour’s leader this season in strokes gained approach per round, racked up more than three shots on the field with his irons Thursday. Over the last three PGA Tour seasons, the TCU product has had 18 rounds where he gained at least three strokes with his approach play, five more than anyone else in that span (Scheffler, 13).

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Max Homa’s putting at TPC Sawgrass is dramatically better than it has been in past seasons. (David Yeazell / USA Today Sports)

7. New Zealander Ryan Fox made Players Championship history on Thursday, going 3-1 on holes 16 and 17. Not only is he the first in Players history to make eagle on both of those holes in the same round, it’s the first instance of anyone making back-to-back eagles anywhere in a round since The Players moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982.

Later in the day, Chris Kirk found dry land with his tee ball at 17 for the 40th time in his Players Championship career. Kirk is now one shy of Jason Dufner for most career times playing the 17th without a single ball in the water since it started being tracked more than 20 years ago.

8. Scores on Day 1 were relatively low, but nothing that rewrote the TPC Sawgrass record books. The field averaged 71.53 (with nine players yet to finish), on pace for the lowest Round 1 since 2016. In addition to ’16, five other opening rounds at TPC Sawgrass yielded scoring averages lower than what we saw Thursday.

The 18th was the most difficult on the course at nearly three-tenths of a stroke over par. That’s a bit gentler than recent years – it played to an average of 4.35 in 2023 in both the first round and for the week. Only 10 balls found the water at 17 on Thursday, on pace for the fewest in the opening round in eight years.

9. Each of the last three winners here has been at least three back after Round 1. Among the large group at 4-under is Max Homa, who has seemingly found something on the greens at TPC Sawgrass. In his first 10 career rounds at The Players, Homa made only 43 percent of his putts from five to 10 feet and lost on average 0.37 strokes per round putting. Thursday, he was 4-of-5 from that range, picking up nearly three shots on the field.

10. Since 1990, two-thirds of eventual Players Championship winners have been inside the top 10 after the opening round. The first-round scoring average of the last 15 Players winners is a stout 67.5. The only player to win at TPC Sawgrass after recording a first-round score worse than par was Hal Sutton, all the way back in 1983.

(Top photo of Xander Schauffele: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)





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