The Players Championship analysis: What to know on Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy, more


Long marketed as “The Strongest Field in Golf,” The Players Championship cannot roll out that slogan with a straight face in the game’s current predicament.

But this week can still be great.

TPC Sawgrass provides one of the most consistently entertaining canvases in the sport, genuinely testing every part of a player’s game. Statistically, it’s the most unpredictable event on the PGA Tour: a list of the last five winners includes players ranked first (Scottie Scheffler) and 71st (Webb Simpson) in driving distance the week they won.

Superstars and journeymen alike have bested Pete and Alice Dye’s test. World number ones have captured victories, but the best single round in the strokes gained era belongs to Ken Duke (+10.59 in the third round in 2016). At a time when the word ‘meritocracy’ is being thrown around weekly regarding the future of pro golf, this course makes players earn their success.

Here are the 10 notes to know entering the 2024 Players Championship.

1. For more than two years, Scottie Scheffler has been the most consistent ball striker on the PGA Tour. Since his breakthrough win at the 2022 WM Phoenix Open, he leads the circuit in strokes gained approach per round, and it’s not particularly close. He’s topped the tour in greens in regulation percentage the last two seasons and enters this week first in that statistic again in 2024. Nobody has done that for three consecutive years since Calvin Peete from 1981-83.

The approach play superlatives about Scheffler are seemingly endless. And in his brilliant win last week at Bay Hill, it was the worst part of his game.

Gulp.

At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Scheffler ranked first in the field in strokes gained off the tee, first in around the green, fifth in putting and 12th in approach play. In the more than 20 years ShotLink data has been available at Bay Hill, Scheffler is the only player to rank in the top 12 in all four metrics. His excellence was comprehensive in a rare manner, even in victory for the world’s best.

2. When Scheffler putts well, he’s virtually impossible to beat. Since the beginning of the 2022 season, Scheffler has gained four or more strokes on the greens — one per round — just four times. He won every one of those tournaments. A year ago, Scheffler ranked 48th among players to make the cut at TPC Sawgrass in strokes gained putting and still won by five. The prospect of merely an average-putting Scheffler is nightmare fuel for the competition.

There has famously never been a back-to-back winner at TPC Sawgrass. A defending champ has not even finished in the top five since Hal Sutton 23 years ago. Scheffler, who has not shot over par in a round on the PGA Tour since last August, has as good a shot as there will ever be to go back-to-back.

3. The reasons why there has never been a back-to-back winner here – and why such a vast dichotomy of players have had success at this event – speaks to the demanding design of TPC Sawgrass. This layout tests every facet of a player’s game.

While danger lurks everywhere, great shots are also rewarded: last year, this course yielded more birdies per round than the Wyndham Championship, yet the 254 double bogeys or worse trailed only the PGA Championship at Oak Hill for most of any course all season. Over the last 10 editions of The Players, there have been the same number of rounds of 83 or higher (13) as 64s or better (also 13).

Some trends have started to unearth themselves, though, especially since the move from May back to March. In the four Players Championships played since 2019, top-10 finishers at The Players have gained 58.4 percent of their strokes against the field with their ball striking. In the last four Players held in May, that number was significantly lower — 48.3 percent. Each of the last four winners here ranked sixth or better for the week in strokes gained approach, with three of the four leading in strokes gained tee-to-green.

4. The closing three holes at TPC Sawgrass comprise arguably the most diverse finishing stretch in American pro golf. Not only are all three pars different – 5, 3, then 4 – but a massive array of score outcomes are on the table. Over the last three years, the stretch of 16-17-18 at Sawgrass have yielded scores other than par 48.2 percent of the time. That’s the highest rate of any closing three holes on the PGA Tour in that span, and more than 9 percent higher than the tour average.

As for 17, few players have been better there over the years than Chris Kirk. In 39 rounds, Kirk has never hit the ball in the water, the second-most times playing 17 without a water ball since tracking began in 2003. Kirk can potentially pass the man atop that list, Jason Dufner, who is 41-of-41 avoiding the agua there in his career. Kirk is 7-under on the famed 17th, the best of anyone in the field this week.

No. 17 is perennially the toughest par 3 under 150 yards on Tour, and last year was no different. In fact, over the last two years, the 17th at TPC Sawgrass has played to a combined score of 169 over par (3.20 scoring average). All of the other par 3s under 150 yards averaged 2.92 strokes – adding up to 615-under-par.

5. Since winning at TPC Sawgrass in 2019, Rory McIlroy has struggled here, missing the cut twice in three starts. The shortest club in the bag has plagued him most: he’s lost 1.75 strokes putting per round and made just 32.3 percent of his looks from five to 10 feet away. Of the 126 players with six or more rounds in that span, those two numbers rank a bleak 123rd and 126th, respectively.

But while McIlroy’s putting typically gets the lion’s share of the blame when he’s not at his best, it’s been another facet of his performance that slipped most so far on the PGA Tour in 2024. Rory was brilliant with his irons last season, ranking sixth in strokes gained approach per round, his best result in a dozen years. He’s currently 152nd on Tour in that metric this season, losing more than half a shot to the field every 18 holes.

You can’t fake it around Sawgrass with your approach play. McIlroy needs a massive reversal in that trend to win his second Players title.

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Rory McIlroy’s play with his irons has been less than his standard so far in 2024. (Reinhold Matay / USA Today Sports)

6. Viktor Hovland has a short, dense book of terrific course history that should give him confidence entering the week. He’s the only player to finish in the top 10 each of the last two years at TPC Sawgrass. Since 2021, nobody has averaged more strokes gained ball striking per round at this event (2.45 per round). Last year, he torched the back nine, playing it in 13-under-par, best of anyone in the field.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the same Viktor Hovland arriving in Ponte Vedra this week. Hovland parted ways with swing coach Joe Mayo ahead of the 2024 season, and is now working with Grant Waite, a PGA Tour winner himself. The results haven’t been fully actualized yet with the new approach. Hovland ranked in the top 15 on Tour in strokes gained approach each of the previous four seasons. He’s currently 121st in that statistic in 2024.

7. Entering the 2023 Players Championship, Wyndham Clark was ranked outside the top 100 in the world and had yet to win a PGA Tour event. This week, he’s the reigning U.S. Open champion, a Ryder Cup veteran and coming off a runner-up finish to Scheffler at Bay Hill. He’s made one cut in four previous starts at TPC Sawgrass, but it feels like a fool’s errand to put significant stock in that considering the player he’s become in the last ten months.

Perhaps even more impressive in Clark’s ascent is the consistent statistical gains that have provided the backbone to the results. 2024 is the third consecutive season that Clark has improved upon his ranking from the previous year in strokes gained tee to green, greens in regulation and strokes gained total. Last week, nobody in the field averaged closer to the hole on approach shots from the fairway. If Clark can stay out of the penalizing TPC Sawgrass rough, he could be in for another big week.

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8. With several star players off to either slow starts or playing on LIV Golf, the door has swung open for longshot winners so far this season on the PGA Tour. Scheffler’s win last week not only marked the first time a pre-tournament favorite won on Tour in 2024, it was the first player to win with odds shorter than 40-to-1.

The Players is no stranger to the unexpected champion. When Si Woo Kim won in 2017, he entered that week ranked 200th of 203 qualified players in scoring average. Fred Funk was 48 years old with one top 10 all season before he won in 2005. Craig Perks was 203rd in the World Ranking when he won it in 2002.

If you are looking a little down the board for someone who might make a splash this week, there’s a player at 60-to-1 who has been one of golf’s most underrated ball strikers for the last several seasons: Tom Hoge. The TCU product leads the tour in strokes gained approach this season and was top 10 last year. He’s made the cut every time he’s teed it up here – oh, and he shot a tournament course record 62 here in the second round in 2023.

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Tommy Fleetwood typically finds a way to content at The Players Championship. (Reinhold Matay / USA Today Sports)

9. One of the more consistent presences in recent years on leaderboards at Sawgrass has been that of Tommy Fleetwood. He’s finished in the top 10 twice, and in the top 30 another two times. Fleetwood is 33-under-par in the last five editions of this championship, tied with Justin Thomas for best in that span. Of all players with 20 or more rounds all-time at this tournament, no player has a better scoring average than Fleetwood (70.64).

Fleetwood will go out early on Thursday, a harbinger of success recently at this event. Each of the last eight winners at TPC Sawgrass came out of the early-late wave of tee times in the first two rounds. Fleetwood missed the cut last week in Orlando but has a win (Dubai Invitational) and top 10 (Genesis Invitational) already in 2024.

10. Eight of the last 11 winners of The Players Championship have been T7 or better after the opening round. Perhaps even more significant: no player has started their week with a round over par and gone on to win at TPC Sawgrass in 41 years, when Hal Sutton opened in 73.





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