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Players Championship

Players 2022: Our 8 favorite pairings for Thursday and Friday at TPC Sawgrass

March 08, 2022

Sam Greenwood

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — It’s the best field in golf. But some pairings at the Players Championship are, dare we say, better than most.

Here are the eight groups we’re keeping tabs on during Thursday and Friday play at TPC Sawgrass.

7:18 a.m.: Tony Finau, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed
Finau usually brings it at the biggest events, boasting nine top-10 finishes at the majors since 2018. Unfortunately, that success hasn’t translated to Sawgrass; in five appearances Finau’s best finish is a T-22. He’s not coming in with any real form, entering the week 152nd in the FedEx Cup, but Finau’s too good not to eventually put it together—both here and this season. … Simpson is making his return from a bulging disc injury so perhaps too much shouldn’t be expected from the former U.S. Open champ. Conversely, given his resounding win here in 2018, a healthy Webb should be a factor. … Then there’s Reed, who has been a bit of an odd duck as of late (and to be clear we’re just referring to his play). In his last seven starts in full-field events Reed has finished no better than T-46 and comes in with three straight missed cuts. He also has a poor track record at Sawgrass, failing to break into the top 20 in seven career appearances. Though this course confounds the best, Reed usually excels when things get tough, so don’t be surprised if he shakes off the cobwebs.

7:51 a.m.: Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Viktor Hovland
You have the World No. 1, the player who thinks he should be World No. 1 (and has the POY and FedEx Cup titles to back it up) and the player who (at least since November) has unquestionably played like the World No. 1. … Rahm has broken par in 9 of 15 career rounds at TPC Sawgrass but has just one top-10 finish at the event in four starts. Of course that’s a record Cantlay would gladly take; he's missed his last two cuts here and has never finished better than T-22. … As for Hovland, he’s already reached that echelon where, going forward, he will be judged not by performance but performance at the big events. To the non-zealous fan, this will be his week to introduce himself with authority.

7:40 a.m.: Joaquin Niemann, Hideki Matsuyama, Cameron Smith
It’s been feast or famine for Niemann: In his last six starts he has three missed cuts and three finishes T-6 or better, highlighted by a win at Riviera. He’s one of the shakier putters on tour but his tee-to-green game is second to none (ninth in SG/tee-to-green; 10 in SG/around-the-green). Matsuyama … well, there’s been no famine about his campaign. Ten for 10 on cuts, four top-10s and two big-time wins at the Zozo Championship and Sony Open. The Masters champ has a solid record at Sawgrass with five top-25s in seven appearances, and given the state of his game should be among the week’s favorites. Finally, Smith began this season on a heater, finishing no worse than T-15 in his first four starts and winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He’s only played twice since Maui to forgettable results, yet with bad weather in the weekend forecast, Smith’s no-nonsense game and approach will make him a formidable contender.

11:50 a.m.: Chris Kirk, Lee Westwood, Matt Fitzpatrick

Kirk and Fitzpatrick are coming off strong performances in Orlando, but we’re putting this group here for Westwood and Westwood alone. Because Westwood, as you may remember, very publicly indicated he had an NDA with the Saudi-backed circuit … the circuit that’s trying to rival the PGA Tour … the tour that calls this area home and this event its flagship tournament … what we’re saying is don’t be surprised if Westwood is put on the clock before teeing it up and assigned a personal “Mashed Potatoes!” fan for his first 36 holes.

11:50 a.m.: Brian Stuard, Brandon Hagy, Harry Higgs
Poor Higgs. His glorious bare-skins display in Phoenix was a refreshing palate cleanser against the morally fraught overtones of the previous week's Saudi International. Unfortunately for Higgs, he is going to be beseeched with requests to do the same when he reaches the island green this week. Which is why we’re asking for Stuard and Hagy, in a move of solidarity and perhaps harkening “Spartacus” to take off their shirts instead.

Rob Carr

12:34 p.m.: Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger, Dustin Johnson
At what point do we get concerned about DJ? (Emphasis on we; considering the latest social videos of the man doing backflips off a boat, he seems to be doing just fine.) His last top-five finish came at the 2020 Masters—which, as a refresher, was a pretty darn big top-five finish—and he enters the week an eye-popping 200th in the FedEx Cup. For a guy whose game travels to every type of course and every type of event, DJ has just one top-10 at TPC Sawgrass in 12 starts, and turning 38 this summer, you do have to wonder how much gas is left in the tank. … Berger hasn’t played much this year but when he has, he has delivered, ranking third in SG/approach and sixth in SG/overall. While his second-shot prowess should make him a contender, the fact that Berger also keeps the big numbers at bay (fourth in bogey avoidance) has us circling Berger as one to be on the board come the weekend. … We don’t say this as much as whisper it but Spieth has just one top-10 since July, a near-miss at Pebble, and ranks 59th in strokes gained. Since a T-4 at this Sawgrass debut in 2014 he’s finished no better than T-41 in his last six starts. So what we're saying is this: expect Spieth to win by six.

12:45 p.m.: Scottie Scheffler, Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele
The only golfer as hot as Hovland is Scheffler, whose victory at Bay Hill gives him two wins in his last three starts with six finishes of T-7 or better in his last nine. He seems on the precipice of capital-S Stardom, a sentiment supported by the fact he has the chance to become World No. 1 at the Players. One of the fun aspects of watching a player discover newfound stardom are the checkpoints he passes to that destination. Playing alongside Koepka and Schauffele—two of the unquestionable alphas in the game—in one of the marquee groups will be a nice litmus into how Scheffler will handle an increase of eyeballs on his game. … We have no appetite in dabbling in “fifth major” talk. But if Koepka—who’s been so-so to start the year—considers this a major, well, go ahead and mark him down for one of the three final groups on Sunday. … As for Schauffele, he’s still just 28 and owns of one of the more well-rounded games in the sport. But he’s reaching that juncture of when his lack of wins, particularly a big win, becomes a question mark, especially with so many times in contention. Schauffele can silence those critics in a, ahem, major way this week.

12:56 p.m.: Rory McIlory, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas
The past two Players champs with the man who enters as the favorite. There is the contention that it might be better to separate the best players from themselves in order to spread the viewing experience across the course. But all this firepower, all this swagger in one pairing—that my friends is appointment viewing. … Thomas may not have the W next to his name this season but enters fourth in SG/tee-to-green and first in birdie average. His name is being somewhat lost among the “Who’s the best?” discussion; a title defense will rectify that. … Assuming he allows the past week to stay in the past, McIlroy is trending in the right direction, both for here and a certain Georgia tournament held in April. … As for Morikawa, we’ll leave it at this: His last finish outside the top seven came last fall.