Known popularly as the ‘Fifth Major‘, the Players Championship is thoroughly worthy of the hype. Certainly nobody could argue with the guaranteed strength of the field, which is deeper than seen at either the Masters or USPGA. 27 of the world’s leading 30 players are in this year’s line-up. The rollcall of past champions is pretty impressive too. 13 of the last 20 were also Major champions, and only two started the week as rank outsiders.
Nevertheless, while the winners haven’t been impossible to pick, many of the favourites have relatively poor course records and there has always been plenty of mileage in backing outsiders at Sawgrass. Of the 28 players to make the frame in the past five renewals, 16 started the week at 100/1 or over.
In fact, while there are always several attractive pre-tournament bets, the very best strategy lies in playing the in-running markets. I suspect the lead changes hands more often on this course than any other.
COURSE AND KEY STATS
As we saw over the weekend at Quail Hollow, there are plenty of top courses that build their reputation around a brutal, potentially game-changing closing stretch. Nothing compares to Sawgrass, though. The par-3 island 17th is one of the most famous holes in world golf, but the 16th and 18th have also turned many a Players Championship on it’s head. The former is a reachable par 5, the latter a long par 4. Water is a massive threat on both, particularly the final hole where anything left is wet.
The key to Sawgrass is accuracy, rather than power. Those keeping the ball in play will enjoy plenty of birdie and eagle opportunities, particularly on the four reachable par 5 holes. One stray tee-shot can destroy a round though, with water a constant threat. As one would expect, greens in regulation has proved the most important stat.
One caveat to consider when evaluating previous course form is how these brutal closing holes can ruin an otherwise excellent scorecard. So when noting, for instance, that Sean O’Hair finished 11th in 2007, we must remember that Sean was bang in contention on the 71st tee, before that famous island hole claimed another victim.
2pts ew LEE WESTWOOD @ 25/1 (GENERAL, 28/1 EXPEKT)
If there is a top golf course where Westwood can bridge the gap with Woods and Mickelson, Sawgrass is it. Whereas the world’s leading pair have mixed records here, primarily because their power and short game brilliance is less relevant around this tight layout than elsewhere, this greater emphasis on tee to green accuracy is ideal for Westwood.
Nobody looks stronger in that respect right now. Lee has struck me as a plausible Sawgrass winner ever since making consecutive top six finishes here in the 1990s, and even though his recent visits have been disappointing, he did hold the lead at one stage in 2005 before collapsing to 22nd.
2pts ew IAN POULTER @ 28/1 (GENERAL)
There has never been a greater prospect of an English winner of the ‘Fifth Major’. Besides Westwood, Ian Poulter is fancied, and that’s before considering the likes of Casey, Donald and Fisher. Ian was runner-up last year, and continues to go from strength to strength. He’s been relentlessly consistent from tee to green for the last 18 months, and has already won the World Matchplay this year. I like the fact he comes here fresh, having opted out of the Quail Hollow Championship.
1pt ew STEPHEN AMES @ 55/1 (GENERAL, 66/1 EXPEKT)
Ames produced arguably the best ever Sawgrass performance when winning this title by six shots in 2006. With five top 20s, including three top fives, in the last eight years, he deserves the course-specialist tag. He owes this column a few quid this season, but has been playing pretty well just off the pace without reward, hitting a high percentage of greens in regulation.
1pt ew ROBERT ALLENBY @ 80/1 (SKYBET, SPORTINGBET)
Normally I would prefer to back someone with better previous course form than Allenby, whose fourth in 2003 remains his only Sawgrass top ten. However, I’m prepared to overlook that record because it makes no sense. Everything about Sawgrass; emphasis on tee to green accuracy, the threat of wind, even the Florida location given his strong record in the state; suits Allenby. Moreover, this prolific winner is overdue a fifth PGA Tour title. He’s already gone agonisingly close this season at the Sony Open, and has decent returns of six top 20s from his last ten starts.
1pt ew KEVIN NA @ 80/1 (GENERAL, 90/1 BET365)
Having been earmarked a while ago as one of the best PGA Tour maidens, Na is proving quite expensive to follow. Nevertheless, he has rewarded each-way backers with better timing than me, most recently when finishing runner-up at Bay Hill. He was also third at a big price here last year, and on the basis of last weekend’s greens in regulation stats, looks a live contender once again.