LONG ISLAND, New York – The battle between the PGA Tour and rival LIV Golf League is sure to be a hot topic at the Players Championship from Mar. 9-12 at TPC Sawgrass because defending champion Cameron Smith is not in the field after defecting to LIV. The Australian reportedly joked that he might attend the event anyway as a spectator. Despite Smith’s absence, the so-called “fifth major” promises to provide a great show because it has the strongest field on the PGA Tour every year since it isn’t cluttered with survivors of qualifying tournaments.
The iconic finishing stretch of the par-5 16th, which lies just across a pond from the par-3 17th “island green”, and then the par-4 18th, which has a lake down the entire left side, is one of golf’s grand stages. Pre-tournament headlines are bound to focus on golf’s emerging “Big Three” of Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler.
Rahm has five wins in his past 10 tournaments, but he struggled over the final three rounds of the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week. McIlroy was the leader with five holes to go before dropping to second, but he won the Players in 2019. Scheffler has finished T-12 or better in his past eight straight tournaments, including a February win at Phoenix.
Although Rahm, McIlroy and Scheffler all figure to contend at TPC Sawgrass, I’m going a different direction. My projected 2023 Players champion is Jason Day, who is in the midst of an inspiring career resurgence that simply can’t be dismissed. Day actually won the 2016 TPC and finished in the top 10 in 2018 and 2019 before going into a slump related to back problems. But he’s healthy now and lately has been tearing it up.
Day has five top-10 finishes, including his past four straight events, and he has made nine of 11 cuts with a worst finish of T-21 in the nine events he completed. So, if defending Players champion Smith really does attend, maybe he will root for his fellow Australian Day, who is going off with attractive Draft Kings odds to win of 2,800-1.
The Draft Kings favorites are McIlroy at 900-1 followed by Rahm and Scheffler each at 1000-1. Of those three, I would steer clear of Rahm. My top five picks to win include Day, Scheffler, McIlroy, Max Homa (2200-1) and longshot Keegan Bradley (5000-1), who has played well recently and owns a stellar record at TPC Sawgrass. Bradley returned to the winner’s circle last October and has four top-10 finishes in the 2022-23 season, including solo second in Los Angeles and a T10 last week at Bay Hill. He was solo 5th at last year’s Players, T-29 (-4) in 2021, T-16 (-10) in 2019 and T7 (-12) in 2018.
When it comes to choosing a six-man Draft Kings team, you can’t pick all favorites because of the salary cap. My two lineups both will include the quartet of Day, Bradley, Victor Hovland and Keith Mitchell. Hovland has three top-10 finishes this season, including last week at Bay Hill, and Mitchell also has three top-10s, including two of his past four events, and he was T-13 at last year’s Players.
I chose to round out my first 72-hole Draft Kings lineup with Scheffler and Sahith Theegala, who has made 11 of 12 cuts and recorded five top-10 finishes plus a T-14 last week at Bay Hill. I completed my second team by choosing Homa along with Tyrell Hatton, who has two T-10 finishes in his past three events.
Enjoy the TPC show even without defending champ Smith.
Take a look at all of the Players Championship tee times for Thursday and Friday:
ROUND ONE TEE TIMES – PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP 2023
1st tee (all times local, ET)
6.50am Robby Shelton, Austin Smotherman, Min Woo Lee
7:01am Kevin Streelman, Denny McCarthy, Matthew NeSmith
7.12am Byeong Hun An, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Doug Ghim
7.23am Michael Thompson, Brendon Todd, Keith Mitchell
7.34am Kevin Kisner, Nick Taylor, Corey Conners
7.45am Trey Mullinax, Cam Davis, Tyler Duncan
7.56am Adam Svensson, Joel Dahmen, Robert Streb
8.07am J.J. Spaun, Chad Ramey, Luke List
8.18am Russell Henley, Mackenzie Hughes, Brian Harman
8.29am Emiliano Grillo, Mark Hubbard, Matt Wallace
8.40am Nate Lashley, Troy Merritt, Kelly Kraft
8.51am Aaron Baddeley, David Lingmerth, Ben Martin
11.50am Kevin Tway, Russell Knox, Chesson Hadley
12.01pm Andrew Putnam, Maverick McNealy, Doc Redman
12.12pm Beau Hossler, Adam Schenk, Stephan Jaeger
12.23pm Lucas Herbert, Aaron Wise, Jason Day
12.34pm Matt Fitzpatrick, Viktor Hovland, Shane Lowry
12.45pm Kurt Kitayama, Will Zalatoris, Xander Schauffele
12.56pm Max Homa, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth
1.07pm Sam Burns, Cameron Young, Sahith Theegala
1.18pm Chris Kirk, Seamus Power, Keegan Bradley
1.29pm Sam Ryder, Davis Riley, Taylor Moore
1.40pm Alex Noren, Thomas Detry, Max McGreevy
1.51pm Joseph Bramlett, Justin Suh, Andrew Novak
10th tee (all times local, ET)
6.50am Danny Willett, Brandon Wu, Davis Thompson
7.01am Adam Long, Hayden Buckley, Taylor Montgomery
7.12am Tommy Fleetwood, Taylor Pendrith, Callum Tarren
7.23am Si Woo Kim, Webb Simpson, Tyrrell Hatton
7.34am Tony Finau, Tom Kim, Patrick Cantlay
7.45am Collin Morikawa, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler
7.56am Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy
8.07am Justin Rose, Billy Horschel, Hideki Matsuyama
8.18am Nico Echavarria, Sungjae Im, Harris English
8.29am Jhonattan Vegas, Peter Malnati, Ryan Fox
8.40am Adam Hadwin, Patrick Rodgers, Greyson Sigg
8.51am Nick Hardy, Eric Cole, Harrison Endycott
11.50am David Lipsky, S.H. Kim, Tyson Alexander
12.01pm Kramer Hickok, Lee Hodges, Will Gordon
12.12pm Ben Griffin, Matthias Schwab, Justin Lower
12.23pm Sepp Straka, Garrick Higgo, Stewart Cink
12.34pm Chez Reavie, Tom Hoge, Francesco Molinari
12.45pm J.T. Poston, Lucas Glover, Matt Kuchar
12.56pm K.H. Lee, Martin Laird, Gary Woodland
1.07pm Ryan Brehm, Lanto Griffin, Scott Stallings
1.18pm Ryan Palmer, Patton Kizzire, Alex Smalley
1.29pm Dylan Frittelli, Jerry Kelly, Wyndham Clark
1.40pm Scott Piercy, James Hahn, Nick Watney
1.51pm Aaron Rai, Dylan Wu, Erik Barnes