COMMENTARY | Perhaps more so than any other tournament, predicting the winner of The Players Championship is a daunting task.
No player has ever repeated as champion at TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course. Only four have won there more than once, and only one of them (Davis Love III) is in the field this week in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Since its move to May in 2007, identifying the winner ahead of time has been arguably more difficult. With the exception of Phil Mickelson in that first spring Players, the winner that emerges has not been a total head-scratcher, but certainly not an obvious name either.
So, throwing out a bunch of favorites based on form or hunches doesn't make a lot of sense. But the performance of Players champions in recent memory could suggest some names that stand a good chance to prevail.
Let's look at the rubric, starting with the most important factor.
Scoring well on the par 4s
Since the move to May, the Players champion has been in the top five in par-4 scoring that week, with Tim Clark by far the best-performing winner with a 12-under score on them in 2010. Typically, getting around Sawgrass four times and playing the par 4s under par is a good sign.
Through the first four months of the 2013 PGA Tour season, the top five in par-4 scoring average are Brandt Snedeker, Bill Haas, Jimmy Walker, Chris Kirk and Billy Horschel.
Tiger Woods has a scoring average over par on every Stadium Course par 4, except the short 12th. Maybe that's why he has won just once, in 2001.
Hit the ball about 280 yards off the tee
Long hitters do not have much of an advantage at the Stadium, while short hitters are not punished excessively for their lack of punch off the tee. On average, Players winners drive the ball about 280 yards.
To account for roll, give, wind and other factors, the swath of the field that could fit in that range this week is pretty vast. In fact, looking at the range of players who hit the ball on average between 270-290 yards off the tee, that would only eliminate about 50 players from the entire PGA Tour.
For what it's worth, the only guy knocked out from our first five is Jimmy Walker, who averages 298.6 yards from the tee. He's never cracked the top 25 at The Players.
Get off to a good start on Day 1
Winning at The Players requires momentum and confidence, helping a contender to remove the physical distractions Pete Dye winds through his design from their mental game. Those who raise The Players crystal trophy get there with a great start. Starting with Phil Mickelson in '07 and his 67 on Day 1, every champion since but one has broken 70 in the opening round. The exception is K.J. Choi, who began with 2-under 70.
For as much as it helps to get off on the right foot at The Players, it hurts to be in the driver's seat through 54 holes. In the last six years, none of the leaders through three rounds have shot better than 74 on the final day since the May move.
Not making a mess of the 17th hole
It sounds a little cliche, but it does a player no favors to drop shots at the infamous par-3 17th at the Stadium Course. A winner doesn't have to set the hole ablaze, but they certainly cannot hand the tournament away with careless shots.
By and large, the May winners of The Players have made par their friend for the four rounds combined at the 17th hole.
2007 - Phil Mickelson (E)
2008 - Sergio Garcia (+3)
2009 - Henrik Stenson (E)
2010 - Tim Clark (E)
2011 - K.J. Choi (-1)
2012 - Matt Kuchar (+1)
However, that doesn't mean bogeys at the baffling short hole are a bad thing. Sergio Garcia made a bogey and a double bogey in the middle rounds of the '08 Players. Then again, his most important shot at the 17th came in the sudden-death playoff against Paul Goydos. When Goydos dunked his tee ball, Garcia found dry land and the dividing ridge on the top shelf of the green, leading to a tournament-clinching par.
The Players is often compared to the Masters because the same course hosts the tournament every year. The field and fans build familiarity and a tepid comfort with the track.
However, maybe it's better to compare The Players to the U.S. Open because the winner of both is so hard to pick ahead of time. Perhaps that's what makes the PGA Tour's crown jewel so fun to watch.
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
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