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Stat attack!: Players Championship preview

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 12: Tiger Woods holds the trophy after winning THE PLAYERS Championship at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 12, 2013 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Whether you believe the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass is worthy of fifth-major status or you think it’s just a regular PGA Tour event with a stellar field, there’s one thing you cannot dispute. It almost always crowns a worthy champion. Every winner since the tournament moved to May in 2007, led by top-ranked Tiger Woods (shown) a year ago, was ranked in the top 40 on the Official World Golf Ranking at the time of his victory. And not since 199th-ranked Craig Perks won in 2002 has the Players champ been outside the top 100.

World Ranking of Players Championship winners: 2007-2013

 Year Player World rank
 2013 Tiger Woods 1
 2012 Matt Kuchar 16
 2011 K.J. Choi 34
 2010 Tim Clark 40
 2009 Henrik Stenson 9
 2008 Sergio Garcia 18
 2007 Phil Mickelson 3

In 2013 Tiger Woods' 13-under 275 total was enough to beat Kevin Streelman, David Lingmerth and Jeff Maggert by two strokes. Woods was the third straight winner to finish at 13-under and the third winner in a row to shoot a 70 in the final round. But Woods, Matt Kuchar in 2012 and K.J. Choi in 2011 got there in different ways. 

Stats of past three Players champions

 Year Winner Accuracy GIR Scrambling

Str.gained
putting

 2013 Tiger Woods 67.86 (T-19) 76.39 (T-3) 70.59 (6) .445 (38)
 2012 Matt Kuchar 62.50 (T-37) 76.31 (T-3) 63.16 (21) 2.09 (2)
 2011 K.J. Choi 71.34 (T-10) 69.44 (T-21) 77.27 (3) 2.05 (2)

Choi and Kuchar had stellar weeks with the putter, while Woods was just average on the greens. Tiger and Kuchar, meanwhile, were among the best the field in greens in regulation, while Tiger and Choi were stellar scramblers. 

Hitting greens in regulation has always been a key statistic for the Players champion. In the last 10 years the winner has also been in the top four in greens hit. Since 1982, when stats were first kept, 10 Players champions have also led the field in greens in regulation.

Players winners who led the field in greens in regulation

 Year Player Greens hit
 2008 Sergio Garcia 56
 2006 Stephen Ames 52
 2005 Fred Funk 58
 2004 Adam Scott 54
 2000 Hal Sutton 54
 1993 Nick Price 61
 1991 Steve Elkington 64
 1988 Mark McCumber 57
 1985 Calvin Peete 57
 1982 Jerry Pate 54

With that in mind, let’s look at the current PGA Tour leaders in GIR. The group as a whole has had very little success at TPC Sawgrass. Of the eight players currently in the 2014 Players field, only Ryan Palmer has a previous top-10 finish at Ponte Vedra.  

PGA Tour leaders in greens in regulation

 GIR Rank Player GIR Pct. In Players

Players
starts

 1 Graham DeLaet 72.06 Yes 2
 2 Chad Campbell 72.63 No  
 3 Harris English 71.71 Yes 2
 4 Dustin Johnson 70.77 Yes 6
 5 Justin Hicks 70.37 Yes 0
 6 Boo Weekley 70.28 Yes 7
 7 Ryan Moore 70.28 Yes 7
 8 John Merrick 70.20 Yes 6
 9 Ryan Palmer 70.00 Yes 8
 10 Andrew Svoboda 69.97 Alternate 0

Lurking behind Svoboda is Masters champion Bubba Watson in 11th on the GIR list, and not much farther back is Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard has lamented his inability to win a major, but he’s had no such problem at the Players, winning the 2008 tournament at TPC Sawgrass. He finished second to Phil Mickelson a year earlier and is one of 12 players in this year’s field who have a subpar score scoring average at the Players in 20 or more rounds at TPC Sawgrass.  

Lowest scoring average at TPC Sawgrass: 20 or more rounds

 Player Scoring average Rounds
 Henrik Stenson 71.18 28
 Martin Kaymer 71.35 20
 Luke Donald 71.42 38
 Zach Johnson 71.44 34
 Matt Kuchar 71.45 29
 Ben Crane 71.56 32
 Adam Scott 71.64 42
 Sergio Garcia 71.71 52
 Hunter Mahan 71.83 23
 Jeff Overton 71.85 20
 J.B. Holmes 71.96 24
 Phil Mickelson 71.96 70

That’s a pretty impressive list, but only five players from this group – Stenson, Kuchar, Scott, Garcia and Mickelson - have won the Players title. Four players have won a major: Kaymer, Johnson, Scott and Mickelson. 

Taking a closer look at Mickelson, who is closing in on 500 career PGA Tour starts (the Players is his 498th), it’s worth noting that Lefty is one of seven players players who have won the Players, the U.S. Amateur and a major championship.

Players who have won the Players, the U.S. Amateur and a major title

 Player TPC win Amateur win Major titles
 Justin Leonard 1998 1992 1
 Phil Mickelson 2007 1990 5
 Jack Nicklaus 1974, 76, 78 1956, 61 18
 Jerry Pate 1982 1974 1
 Hal Sutton 2000 1980 1
 Lanny Wadkins 1979 1970 1
 Tiger Woods 2001, 13 1994, 95, 96 14

Former Amateur champ Matt Kuchar won the Players in 2012 and came close to joining this group at the Masters. Kuchar was one stroke off the 54-hole lead at Augusta National, before shooting 74 Sunday to finish T-5. But he rebounded with a win at the RBC Heritage and now has four consecutive top-five finishes on Tour inlcuding a playoff loss at Houston and a T-4 at the Valero Texas Open. Given his strong recent play and the fact he’s fifth on the Sawgrass scoring list, Kuchar might very well get is second Players crown before he wins his first major championship.

Kuchar made the most of his one start since the Masters, but six players in the field at Sawgrass have not played anywhere in the world since the first major of the year. Five of them are ranked in the top 20 on the Official World Golf Ranking, led by No. 2 Adam Scott. Does taking a month-long break between top-tier tournaments benefit the rested player? It sure helped Tiger Woods a year ago. The world No. 1 was T-4 at the Masters and didn’t play for another month before winning the Players. 

Players making their first appearance since the Masters

 Player Masters finish Current world rank Rank after Masters
 Adam Scott T-14 2 2
 Bubba Watson Won 4 4
 Sergio Garcia MC 9 7
 Dustin Johnson MC 13 13
 Steve Stricker T-31 16 15
 Joost Luiten T-26 41 44

One final thought: You cannot write a column about the Players Championship without mentioning the famed 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass' Stadium course. The par-3 with the island green is one of the most iconic golf holes on Tour and it never fails to raise the heart rate during Players week. Did you know, however, that since 2003 the 17th green is the second easiest to hit in regulation. But avoiding the water isn't the only obstacle facing the pros. You still have to make your putts, which is much easier said than done. The 17th has yielded 304 three-putts or worse since 2003, the second most of any hole on the course.