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The Players Championship: Cantlay Makes Sense at Sawgrass

Patrick Cantlay

Patrick Cantlay

Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

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DJ put “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks on repeat as the 40th edition of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass is set to get underway this week. Contested on the Pete Dye design every year since 1982 – not including Hideki Matsuyama’s (+2800) victory in 2020 – the world’s best have long traveled to the year’s “fifth major.”

This year will be no different as the top-11 in the official world golf rankings will be making an appearance with world No. 12 Bryson DeChambeau sidelined due to injury. Last year’s bronze medalist may be cashing checks from YouTube these days, but he ought to be kicking himself for missing out on this week.

With a purse of $20 million, $3.6 million of which goes to the eventual winner, big game hunters have their ears pinned back. Gamers should as well as a victory here has the potential to propel you to the top of your One and Done pools heading into the summer months.

Surpassing major championships in prize money, one only needs to look to those leaderboards for inspirations for their selections. The odds board at PointsBet Sportsbook is thus unsurprising with world No. 1 and reigning U.S. Open Champion Jon Rahm (+1200) leading the way. Followed closely by two-time major winner Collin Morikawa (+1300), defending champion Justin Thomas (+1300), and 2019 champion Rory McIlroy (+1600) all of whom present winning upside.

When diving into what led Thomas and McIlroy to their success, I came across an interesting tidbit. Yes, tee-to-green prowess is a prerequisite as both led the field the week of their victories – in fact, since 2015 only Webb Simpson (+6600) has finished outside the top-5 in SG: Tee-to-Green and gone onto win.

However, a big deal is often made of par-4 scoring at TPC Sawgrass, specifically from 450 to 500 yards, and while surely important, it is not the end all be all. With 6-of-9 winners playing the par-4s in 3-under or worse for the week, the advantage is often had on the par-5s.

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Thomas is the perfect example as the 2017 PGA champion finished last year’s tournament at 14-under, playing the par-5s in, you guessed it, 14-under. With this in mind, it was a no brainer – which never turns out well – to begin this week’s selections with Patrick Cantlay (+2500).

Seeing his price drop as my fingers typed away was bothersome, but +2500 is more than fair for the reigning Player of the Year. As according to our NBC Sports EDGE+ Driver Tool, Cantlay leads the field in SG: Par-5 over the last 24 rounds.

Only the tip of the iceberg, since his memorable run in last summer’s postseason, all Cantlay has done is contend, contend, and contend. Solo fourth-place at the Sentry Tournament of Champions was followed up with a top-10 effort at The American Express and close calls at both the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the WM Phoenix Open.

A poor showing at the Genesis Invitational was seen from a mile away as back-to-back pressure packed Sundays were inevitably going to affect the American. Unfortunate to be in his backyard, I love the fact Cantlay was away from tournament golf last weekend as players struggled at Bay Hill. Refreshed and ready to contend once again, a victory at a tournament such as The Players is the logical next step in his career progression.

A FedEx Cup champion and winner of elevated events on the PGA Tour, the 29-year-old’s name has inexplicably been missing on major championship leaderboards. Yet this year appears to be different. Possessing a new found confidence, Cantlay has pitter pattered his way around golf courses even when playing competitors have asked him to stop.

Now a six-time winner on the PGA Tour, the drift in his price compared to recent weeks is extremely enticing. Proving the last 10 months to be capable of what some at the top are not, the lack of form in previous Players Championships is not concerning.

The same theory was tested in Scottsdale last month when he made his tournament debut and was immediately disproven. While not his first time around TPC Sawgrass, the world No. 4 has taken to other Pete Dye designs throughout his career. Between TPC River Highlands, where he made a memorable amateur appearance, to his play at Harbour Town, Cantlay has long been considered a student of the game.

Comfortable with the subtle nuances Dye will present, I would be surprised to not see Cantlay’s name near the top come Sunday. If the case, there is a certain comfort level to be had with him as rarely are mistakes made when the lights are the brightest.

Which is something to keep in mind as the finishing stretch of holes at TPC Sawgrass makes for an anxiety induced ending. A reachable par-5, dangerous par-3, and difficult par-4, we saw just last year how high a player’s heart rate can spike as Thomas was a left bounce away from finding water on the 72nd hole.

A miss which would have resembled Louis Oosthuizen’s (+5000) from the 71st hole at Torrey Pines, a certain mental fortitude is required for The Players. We have seen players arrive to TPC Sawgrass with chips on their shoulders as McIlroy “could not finish” and Rickie Fowler was voted the “most overrated” player on the PGA Tour by his peers before his victory in 2015.

Impossible to quantify, the chip on Brooks Koepka’s (+5000) is arguably the largest. Now whether it is warranted or not is a conversation for a different day, but the four-time major champion is unsurprisingly rounding into form ahead of major season.

A week which will surely capture his full attention, the Floridian’s return to his home state for the Honda Classic provided plenty to be excited about. Falling short on the greens, Koepka finished the week in a tie for 16th, posting not only +5.6 SG: Tee-to-Green, but ranking 10th in Bogey Avoidance as well.

The second of such performances in 2022, this accompanied his third-place finish at the WM Phoenix Open where he posted a similar result of +5.9 SG: Tee-to-Green. With two notable efforts in his last three tournaments, the regularity in which Koepka contended this past summer very much went underappreciated.

Collecting a victory, two runners-up, and three top-6 finishes in a 10-tournament span, Koepka’s ability to play himself into the mix is still very apparent. While the fear factor of seeing his name on the leaderboard is likely gone, his name nevertheless remains present.

The first half of the battle, we are now more than a year removed from his latest victory. A return to TPC Sawgrass should be the perfect medicine as often times it has been the putter which has disappointed the embarrassed world No. 18.

Gaining strokes on the field with the putter in hand each time around this par-72, this more than makes up for his potential to get squirrely off-the-tee. Especially when considering the past six champions have ranked 32nd, 49th, 1st, 15th, 51st, and 43rd in Driving Accuracy.

A spectator for last year’s tournament due to injury, Koepka will relish a return to a major championship type setting. Despite previous outings of T-16 in 2017 and T-11 in 2018, the 31-year-old has yet to be there on the back-nine on Sunday (shot 9-under in final round of 2018), something I see changing this week.

Koepka is not the only major winner to check in at this range as Shane Lowry (+4000), Jordan Spieth (+4000), and Adam Scott (+5000) all find their names at similar prices. An area of the odds board I typically invest most in, between the money tied up in Cantlay and Koepka, it is more than enough to go to battle with those two premier names alone.

As despite the likelihood of one of the top-20 players in the world coming through, we have seen some surprise winners at TPC Sawgrass in the past, namely Si Woo Kim (+8000) in 2017. While I do not think anyone would classify him as a young unknown like Kim, this is the type of course and field where Justin Rose (+16000) has the tendency to pop up.

With fellow countrymen Paul Casey (+6000), Tommy Fleetwood (+7000), Lee Westwood (+12500), Ian Poulter (+12500), and Eddie Pepperell making title runs in recent years, I do not mind taking a chance on the 41-year-old.

Content with his missed cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the best of Rose recently has occurred at the likes of Sea Island, Sedgefield Country Club, and on the major stage. With finishes of T-12 at the RSM Classic, T-10 at the Wyndham Championship, and top-10 efforts at the PGA Championship and Masters, the wily vet has proven he has some gas left in the tank.

Proficient from 125 to 150 yards, the man who was once considered the best wedge player on the PGA Tour may be trending in that direction once again. Making up nearly 20% of the approach shots this week, it is no surprise to see Rose’s results in The Players since 2014.

Last playing in 2019, the former U.S. Open champion has collected a top-5, top-10, and two additional top-25 results in his six most recent appearances. With a clear comfort level around Sawgrass, Rose’s week will be predicated on his par-5 play. More than holding his own on par-4s, if unable to take advantage of his scoring opportunities, Rose’s path to victory will likely need to mirror that of McIlroy’s in 2019 when he played the par-3s in 5-under, the best of any champion in Players history.

There are a few names who have contended in the last two editions of The Players in Brian Harman (+12500) and Jhonattan Vegas (+15000). Pretty dissimilar from the perspective of their statistical profiles, Harman would fall into a bucket with fellow Georgia Bulldog Kevin Kisner (+10000), while Vegas may draw parallels to Keith Mitchell (+16000).

The fatigue factor is certainly on my mind with Mitchell after participating in the first two legs of the Florida Swing. Losing steam over the weekend at Arnie’s Place, I am simply making the play on the number. Last clicking his name at an almost identical price at the WM Phoenix Open, not enough has changed over the last month to consider looking in a different direction.

A fantastic driver of the golf ball, past winners in McIlroy and Jason Day (+8000) as well as DeChambeau’s close call last year set the stage for Mitchell. With four top-12 finishes in 2022 alone, the shorter courses where accuracy is perceived as a necessity are the venues where the 30-year-old has thrived throughout his career.

Quality results have come to fruition at Sea Island, Waialae CC, Colonial CC, TPC Twin Cities, the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, and of course, PGA National. Much like Cantlay, albeit a bit behind, Mitchell is a far different player this season compared to those past. Adding members to his team by the week, the inclusion of analytics and a new style of course management has transformed him into a player who can contend in an event of this caliber.

Top-25 in this field in SG: Tee-to-Green, SG: Par-5s, SG: Putting, Scrambling, and Greens in Regulation over the last 24 rounds, I am willing to overlook his less-than-stellar history at TPC Sawgrass as he has never arrived in form quite like this.

The inclusion of “bombers” like Koepka and Mitchell is not to say plodders cannot contend. In fact, it was only three years ago when McIlroy’s closest pursuer was then 48-year-old Jim Furyk. Along with a revolving door of European players who seemingly appear each and every year and there is a pathway for shorter hitters to play well at TPC Sawgrass.

While the margin for error is smaller – especially given the strength of the field – the steadiness one possesses is attractive. Having liked his chances at PGA National, the same sentiment rings true again for Mackenzie Hughes (+28000).

A surprise fixture on major championship leaderboards in 2021, the Canadian captured a T-15 result at Torrey Pines – which does not accurately depict the level to which he played – and a T-6 effort at The Open. Venues one would not necessarily consider in Hughes’ wheelhouse, TPC Sawgrass plays to many, if not all, of his strengths.

Extremely well off on par-4s in particular, the Olympian ranks inside the top-30 in this field in SG: Around-the-Green, SG: Putting, Scrambling, Driving Accuracy, Greens in Regulation, and Proximity from 125 to 150 yards over his last 24 rounds.

His par-5 scoring does leave some to be desired, but it tends to come alive on these shorter, positional based golf courses such as a Sea Island. A tournament which Simpson may name his next child after; Hughes’ will likely need to take a page out of the 2018 champion’s playbook. Getting up-and-down from just about everywhere, the 31-year-old is capable of putting together a similar performance and surprising many in the process.

Outright Selections:

Patrick Cantlay +2500 at Caesars (1.32 units)

Brooks Koepka +5000 at DraftKings (0.66 units)

Justin Rose +16000 at FanDuel (0.21 units)

Keith Mitchell +16000 at FanDuel (0.21 units)

Mackenzie Hughes +28000 at FanDuel (0.12 units)

Future Selections:

Billy Horschel +13000 at PointsBet (0.25 units)

Outrights YTD: +77.03 units, +319.94%

Total YTD: +58.53 units, +91.19%

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