Guest Column

Who or what can predict PLAYERS winner? Only the Crystal Ball knows for sure


You’d think, with technology, it would be easier to tell you who will win THE PLAYERS. But no. According to our friend Google, anything searched with “prediction” is a medical problem or a weather forecast.

Worse yet, it’s spewing up AI stuff when all we want is some guidance for golf.

I’m getting “predictive modeling” or “regression modeling,” “equations that approximate interactions.” Modeling? Interactions? Regression? Who are these people? 

Sure, we could use a good weather forecast for the week of THE PLAYERS, but that other stuff is just word salad made up by somebody with a giant plate of synonyms.

But, Googs (only close friends call him that) did deliver something else really interesting: the most popular golfers by state, according to Vegas Insider. (If you look it up, you’ll have to pardon their bad grammar from time to time. I guess AI hasn’t passed advanced English yet.)

By popular, they mean most Google searched. Far and away, it’s still Tiger Woods. And guess what? There’s an outside chance Tiger will play at THE PLAYERS. The course is flat, so no problems walking. Of course, the problems are elsewhere. On the sides of the course and on the 4th green where something resembling part of the Himalayas is living. We won’t even discuss the lake at 17 because, really, nobody wants to.

If he plays, can Tiger win? Well, never bet against him is all we can say. But he should stay close to somebody who moves slower than he does in case the alligator decides to get up on the bank and chase him. You know the line: You only have to be faster than the person with you when a gator comes to call.

But I digress. You’ll never guess who the second most popular golfer is: Paige Spiranac. I don’t have to tell you why. But she’s not in the PLAYERS field. Many people probably wish she were.

After those two, it’s Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Tony Finau, Keegan Bradley and Tom Hoge. Of course, these were done by state, and Tony’s big in Utah, while Hoge — who shot a 62 in the third round of THE PLAYERS last year — is popular in North Dakota, and Keegan is top gun in Vermont. Rory is third — sorry Rory — after Paige. But like Tiger, he is popular in a lot of places.

While Vegas Insiders had picks for the Masters, the PGA, the U.S. Open and the British Open, nothing for THE PLAYERS. Hrummph! to that. 

One gambling site included a couple of the guys who have gone to the dark side (LIV), as if they would be allowed to play at the PGA Tour’s major!

And remember, as the line goes in Caddyshack, “Gambling is illegal at Bushwood …” But it’s not illegal in Florida anymore. If you are inclined to bet on THE PLAYERS, you can do it legally at the Hard Rock Casino that’s owned by the Seminole Tribe. The PGA Tour also has several “Official” betting partners, so take your pick.

I’m only a participant in one bit of betting lunacy called The Stupid Pool, which is a really, really stupid football pool run by a golf writer pal who used to cover some football a gazillion years ago. I almost never win anything in it, and yet I continue to torture myself by finding out how stupid I am at guessing who’s going to win at football.

For me, when it comes to finding out who will win anything, there’s only one source to trust. I went to find the cracked Crystal Ball, which has been hibernating under a fuzzy comforter in the coat closet since hurricane season ended. Since we almost never need coats here, it’s a perfect place to sleep. 

After the long nap, it was kind of a dull gray color, like that AI Smoke driver that Callaway has. I took it out gingerly. You have to be careful with something that predicts stuff. Also, remember, it has that crack down one side from when it did a back flip with two twists after Rickie won THE PLAYERS. 

I brushed it off and pulled out an orange drink and took a sip and let it watch the carbonation. Surely you remember orange is its favorite color because it likes Rickie Fowler so much.

I saw a momentary glow, and the two of us went to the living room and turned on golf. We watched the WM Phoenix Open and the Ball hummed a little over Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth. Texas has that burnt orange color after all. The Ball was coming to life. I thought surely with Scottie as defending champ the Ball would a least give me a pirouette. It was thrilled when he won last year.

However, the Ball turned its attention to Keith Mitchell who it remembered from last season. It would really like to know who supplies his sweaters, which are supposedly cashmere, if you can believe the announcers.

Well, the Ball and I both thought the weather in Phoenix was awful. Although it can be 50s and rainy here, no one has even mentioned hail during the 50 years of the tournament. Wind, yes. Rain, yes. Hail, no. The Ball asked if Keith had any orange sweaters. I said I didn’t know. It pouted, like what good are you? I didn’t tell it many people have wondered that, yet here I am, so there.

Then it caught a glimpse of Sahith Theegala and went nuts. Sahith was apparently born in Orange, California. The school colors at Pepperdine where he went to college are Orange and Blue. It’s possible that Sahith may overtake Rickie as far as the Ball is concerned. Jury’s out for now. That would be an unbelievable change of heart for the Ball. It’s probably a momentary dalliance. The thing is a little flighty, but do not tell it I said that.

Of course, that orange fetish the Ball has also brings in Florida golfers, like Billy Horschel. The Ball likes Billy’s go-getter attitude and was really happy for him when he won the Tour Championship. The Ball would like to see him win THE PLAYERS, that is if Rickie can’t.

Wyndham Clark showed everybody a thing or two last summer when he beat Rickie and Rory at LA CC in the US Open. The Ball was so excited about Rickie’s play, it didn’t know which way to roll or if it should hop instead. But of course, Wyndham overpowered everybody, which is hard to do when you are also up against Rory McIlroy. Wyndham also won recently at Pebble Beach, reinvented this year as a Signature event, although rain-shortened.

Even the guy who finished second at Pebble, Ludvig Aberg, is a gamer. His last name is said O-berg. Don’t ask. (The best is can do is a grandmother whose last name was Ludwig, but her family was mostly German and a titch Irish, so I guess they’d say the w like it was a v. Basically, the kid has two last names.) 

Aberg is from Sweden by way of Texas Tech, and he already won an event in Europe over the summer and then played the PGA Tour in the fall because of PGA Tour University program. He won the last PGA Tour event of the year, the RSM Classic. Some guys go two or three or four or more years without a victory.

Whether the Ball likes him or not, the Ball’s owner definitely thinks the kid has a chance. Anybody who wins two pro events in less than six months on two different tours after finishing college, you can’t turn your back on that. And guess what Texas Tech colors are? They look like Tiger colors: red and black. Aberg, one to watch!

The Ball, though, has another favorite. Well, not above Rickie, but a contender. You won’t believe his name: Cristobal Del Solar. Cristobal (really, the Ball couldn’t resist!) is 30 years old and is from Chile. He’s won four times on PGA Tour Latinoamérica. Not only that. He recently shot a 57 for 18 holes. Fifty flipping seven! That happened at Country Club de Bogota-Pacos, a par-70 of 6,254 yards. They were playing at nearly 9,000 feet. What that means is the golf ball goes more than 10% farther, distance-wise, due to the altitude. (Actually, that 10% was for just one mile up. Who knows what it does 9,000 feet up, 20%?)  We don’t know if Cristobal will be in THE PLAYERS field, but the Ball is putting in a good word.  Who am I to argue?

Now I’m getting down to serious conversations with the Ball on who is a likely winner. It’s hemming and hawing. It likes Viktor Hovland. (Naturally, another Rickie Fowler, Oklahoma State, orange guy.) Viktor had a good chance a couple of times at THE PLAYERS, even in bad weather. The Ball winked at me.  Yes, it definitely likes Viktor, if Rickie doesn’t win, that is.

Even though it doesn’t like UCLA, it likes Patrick Cantlay because he’s nearly unflappable. You’ve got to be that way to play four good rounds at TPC Sawgrass. The Ball isn’t stupid after all. In the final round at Genesis, Cantlay apparently had a temperature and some kind of illness — probably that same thing that everybody had between December and the end of February. Even so, Cantlay didn’t miss winning by much.

The Ball kind of rocked back and forth a couple times and said there’s no place like Homa. So, we should take that to mean Max Homa is in its sights. While Homa had a good finish last year, it wasn’t quite enough to overtake Scottie Scheffler. Really, nothing was. He was Scottie The Dominator at THE PLAYERS in 2023.

Do you like gold? The Ball does when it’s Olympic gold, like Xander Schauffele’s medal. (The Ball is still jealous is what it is.) It does like Xander’s fun attitude and his golf game. The Ball thinks he could win THE PLAYERS. Xander would need to be tough, which he can be. He won the Tour Championship in his first year as a pro, no easy feat. He has won on different continents. On different grasses. His scoring average is low-ish. He’s just versatile.

The Ball definitely looks revived at this point, so I’m going to press my luck and demand a name.

How about Brian Harmon? I asked it. Collin Morikawa? Cameron Young? Adam Scott? That Austrian who lives in Georgia, Sepp Straka?

It’s spinning but not giving me anything yet. 

The other gold medal winner, Justin Rose? Tom Kim? Kurt Kitayama? 

Would you look at that. Nick Taylor just won the WM Phoenix Open in a playoff and the Ball is bouncing up and down like a 2-year-old. 

That’s it. The Ball says so. Nick Taylor for THE PLAYERS! Even if his color is Canadian red.