PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP

Commonly known as the 5th Major and previously played in the build up to the Masters, the TPC at Sawgrass now moves to its new mid-May schedule. With the exceptions of the two Open Championships, this is my favourite event of the year for very simple reasons. The field is always every bit as strong as the Majors ? often more so ? and there is no more exciting, volatile golf course in the world than Sawgrass.

There are potentially disastrous hazards on every hole, particularly the notorious closing stretch, but unlike some of the most brutal, unrelenting tracks used for the US Open, birdies are also very possible throughout. The legendary island 17th is a classic case in point. At 137 yards and just a short-iron, birdie should theoretically be a realistic target for every player in the field. But the fact the green is an island makes this one of the most daunting shots in golf, nothing short of treacherous if there is a crosswind. Many a fortune has been won and lost there over the years, as with the reachable par-5 16th, also an island green, and the long par-4 18th with water all the way down the left hand side threatening both tee and approach shot.

This event nearly always used to produce a top-class winner, generally a Major winner, but in recent years the picture has been mixed. Fred Funk, and even more so Craig Perks, made this a bookies? benefit, Stephen Ames was a backable 66/1 chance while Adam Scott and Davis Love were fairly obvious. Over the years several trends have emerged with regard to course form, but as Sawgrass has been significantly redesigned, much of it is of dubious

relevance.

The most important change is how hard and fast the course will play, making accuracy and course management even more important than usual. Up to 25mph winds are forecast which will emphasise this further, and a sure putting touch is essential on lightning fast greens. So, even if course form is treated with scepticism, the new test should resemble the old in that driving accuracy and greens in regulation are likely to be the most useful stats.

Length of no great importance here, which might explain Tiger Woods? moderate record. When I say moderate, I mean only by his standards as Woods did win in 2001 and finished runner-up the year before. Other than those two years though he?s never looked like winning, so for a change it is worth taking Tiger on in the main outright market. Speaking of moderate course records, Tiger?s is still vastly superior to that of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, who have only made the top ten seven times between them over their long careers. Other stars such as Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk have only shown intermittent form at best here, and haven?t been in the most convincing form of late.

With none of my selections being in the short-priced bracket, instead I?m going into battle at Sawgrass with a team of 10 players across a variety of markets. Firstly to the outright market. I know its becoming a cliché, but a European winner of a Major or its equivalent here is long overdue. Its not as if there is a dearth of European talent, the complete opposite in fact. With the likes of Henrik Stenson, PADRAIG HARRINGTON, LUKE DONALD, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia and a dozen other decent representatives, it will surely happen very soon.

After a decent warm-up at Quail Hollow, his only start since contending at the Masters, Harrington has ideal conditions now on a course where he has plenty of previous. Runner-up consecutively in 2003 and 2004, I think Pod will be even more suited now the course is running hard and fast. Add in 25mph winds and lightning fast greens and there are few more suited to this test than the Irish star.

Donald too has finished runner-up at Sawgrass in 2005, but has surprisingly failed on all other visits. Again, its hard to think of many courses that suit Donald better than this, as he is so consistent at hitting greens in regulations and avoiding the hazards. The only downside is that we have to forgive him a very poor, nervy finish to throw victory away on his

penultimate start at Harbour Town. So long as Luke is past that, he must be there or thereabouts over the weekend.

The hard and fast nature of the course could well suit the Australian players, who are experienced in such conditions. Their best chance in my view lies with GEOFF OGILVY, with whom I?m determined to keep the faith. His aptitude for such conditions has served him well in Major championships and, if as I suspect, this turns out to be something akin to US Open style conditions, there are few better equipped than the reigning US Open champion.

Prior to missing the cut at the weekend, VAUGHN TAYLOR had looked a winner waiting to happen on the PGA Tour. Fourth at Harbour Town, 10th in the Masters and 3rd at Bay Hill were the highlights of a very consistent set of finishes. His stats in all the key areas of driving accuracy, greens in regulation and putting all read very well so I expect him to bounce back quickly.

I don?t particularly fancy any of the leading players in the Top US player without Woods market, so this could be the best means of backing JOHN ROLLINS. Rollins has enjoyed a very consistent year without winning, twice finishing runner-up on the PGA Tour. Rather like Taylor, all of his relevant statistics read well and furthermore, the pair were tied in 8th place in this event last year.

It would surely be asking too much for ZACH JOHNSON to add the Players? Championship to his Masters triumph, but he looks set for another good week in ideal conditions. Despite starting at 150/1 for Augusta, Zach?s win wasn?t the massive shock that the odds imply, as Johnson has been rated as one of the best prospects on the PGA Tour. He is always bound to be a factor on courses that reward accuracy. It was notable that he managed to carry

over that form from Augusta, making the top-10 at Harbour Town. 6/1 about him repeating that achievement looks a very reasonable price.

JERRY KELLY also had a great Masters finishing a career-best 5th, the highlight of four consecutive top-9 finishes. Sawgrass has always been one of Kelly?s favourite haunts, twice contending and three times in the top-11 over the last six years. Accuracy has always been his strength and served him well here, but his great recent form is as much to do with putting. Kelly looks big value at 13/2 to make the top-10 again.

In the same market, I?m giving another chance to JEFF MAGGERT at an overpriced 18/1. As I said last week, Maggert has an outstanding record on tough, narrow golf courses with slick greens, especially in Majors. He played better than his finishing position suggested at Quail Hollow, playing well for 2 1/2 rounds and looking like challenging early on before the good

work was undone with a few disaster holes.

Again in the top-10, another couple of former Sawgrass heroes in FRED FUNK and TOM LEHMAN look worth a punt at 11/1 and 14/1 respectively. In 2005, the pair finished 1st and 2nd, the most recent of many a fine performance here. Funk has said he?d rather play this golf course than any other, and the course changes should favour his ultra-straight driving even more. Lehman, barely out of the top-10 at Sawgrass in the 1990s, struggled to keep up with the birdie-fest in Italy at the weekend, but will be a different player back on home turf. There?s nothing wrong with the former Ryder Cup captain?s form, finishing 5th at Bay Hill last month.

VALLE ROMANO OPEN

Considering this is effectively a Major week, the turnout for the European event, the Valle Romano Open de Andalucia, is more than reasonable. Home favourites Miguel-Angel Jiminez and last week?s winner Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano are present, while the UK and Ireland challenge is headed by Simon Dyson plus Ryder Cup pair Lee Westwood and Paul McGinley.

From a betting perspective, matters are clouded by the fact we have no previous course form to go on. Aloha GC looks to be a short, positional course which should reward the highest quality iron play. Miguel-Angel Jiminez is an honorary member of the course and heads the market as a consequence, but makes no appeal whatsoever on his most recent efforts. McGinley and Westwood similarly haven?t done enough recently to warrant

support, even more so Thomas Bjorn.

If he hadn?t won at the weekend, I would have certainly picked Fernandez-Castano but his price has now been slashed and back-to-back wins are rare. So of all the market leaders, SIMON DYSON is picked by process of elimination. He?s been in by far the best of these over the winter, narrowly missing out again in Spain last time as the putter went cold on the closing stretch. That was his fifth top-11 finish in eight starts, with no missed cuts, representing a far more consistent level of recent form than anyone else in the field.

Despite letting us down when missing the cut in Italy, ALEJANDRO CANIZARES is well worth persevering with. He hit?s a very high percentage of fairways and greens which should help on this course, and is fancied to lead the home contingent. Canizares remains an exciting prospect, by no means in the shadow of Castano and likely to make his mark frequently whilst contending at this low level.

Finally a couple of Englishmen make some each-way appeal at nice odds. DAVID LYNN looks worth a punt at 50/1 on a course that may suit his sound tee-to-green game. And PHILIP ARCHER made a return to form with three sub-70 rounds in Italy at the weekend. This time last year Archer was preparing for a tilt at the US Open where he performed quite heroically, and is always a threat at this level.

Good Luck!

PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP

2pts ew LUKE DONALD @ 33/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)

2pts ew PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 40/1 (GENERAL)

2pts ew GEOFF OGILVY @ 50/1 (GENERAL)

1pt ew VAUGHAN TAYLOR @ 80/1 (GENERAL)

TOP US WITHOUT WOODS

1pt ew JOHN ROLLINS @ 50/1 (BLUESQ, PADDY POWER, TOTE)

TOP-10 FINISH

4pts ZACH JOHNSON @ 6/1 (BET365, PADDY POWER)

4pts JERRY KELLY @ 13/2 (BET365)

2pts FRED FUNK @ 11/1 (BET365. 10/1 PADDY POWER)

2pts TOM LEHMAN @ 14/1 (BET365)

2pts JEFF MAGGERT @ 18/1 (BET365, 16/1 SKYBET)

VALLE ROMANO OPEN DU ANDALUCIA

3pts ew SIMON DYSON @ 12/1 (GENERAL, 14/1 VCBET)

2pts ew ALEJANDRO CANIZARES @ 33/1 (GENERAL)

1pt ew DAVID LYNN @ 40/1 (GENERAL, 50/1 CORAL)

1pt ew PHILIP ARCHER @ 66/1 (BETDIRECT, CORAL, TOTE)

2006/2007 STATS: -101pts

2005/2006 STATS: +144pts

ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED

VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT

5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1

5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1

3pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN GRAND SLAM IN 2007@ 40/1

10pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN 3 MAJORS IN 2007 @ 8/1

US MONEY LIST W/O TIGER WOODS

2pts ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 20/1