TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Par 72 – 7215 yards
Stroke Index in 2012 – 72.47
THIS is widely regarded as golf's fifth Major but what will it take to win the Players' Championship at Sawgrass?
The odd big-hitter has obliged but driving distance is pretty much unimportant. Nine of the last 13 winners ranked in the top 10 for Greens In Regulation and Sergio Garcia and last year’s victor, Matt Kuchar, are the only winners in the last eight years to rank outside the top 10 for scrambling.
Plenty of course experience certainly helps and getting to know the gaff looks key. When Henrik Stenson took the title in 2009 he was playing in the event for just the fourth time but he’s the only Players champ in the last seven years to have previously played Sawgrass less than seven times prior to winning.
The chances are we’ll see another new winner of the event – in the last 20 years there have been 20 different winners. Jack Nicklaus is the only man to win The Players three times and Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Davis Love III and Hal Sutton are the only men to win it twice. And don’t back Matt Kuchar – nobody has ever defended.
Don’t be afraid to back an outsider – the list of past champions contains plenty of shock winners. I can’t imagine too many picked out the likes of Craig Perks or Fred Funk and although I have fond memories of backing Stephen Ames in 2006, he went off at 170.0.
I would favour the older, experienced players with an accurate approach game over the younger aggressive types. The wily old vet who knows how to plot his way around is just as likely to contend as any of the young guns. Funk won here in 2005 and the likes of Paul Goydos, Kenny Perry and David Toms have all come close to winning recently. But in truth, all sorts of players have triumphed and finding a single type of player to prosper is hard.
Being up on the pace from early on is certainly preferable. In the last 10 years only Stephen Ames and K.J Choi have won from outside the top 20 after day one. Between 2004 and 2008 that necessity for a fast start was advertised most strongly, with Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia all going on to win having led the field after round one. And Funk, the 2005 champ, had been second after the first day.
Third-round leaders are worth opposing though – the last six have all failed to convert.
Tiger Woods reserves all his best golf for the same venues nowadays but unfortunately for favourite backers Sawgrass isn’t one of them.
In 14 starts he’s won just once and has an average finishing position of 25th. That’s perfectly respectable form of course but when you consider he’s been the best player on the planet, and by some margin, over much of the last 15 years and it’s safe to assume he’s pitched up here on numerous occasions in his absolute pomp, then taking a single-figure price about him this week holds no appeal.
Scott and Rory McIlroy are vying for second favouritism and if I had to pick one it would be the latter. Scott, winner here in 2004, is making his first appearance since his dramatic US Masters play-off triumph and winning back-to-back is always tough, especially when you’re attempting to back up a Major!
The media will no doubt be all over him this week and although I expect a big upturn in the Aussie’s fortunes now that he’s won a Major I don’t expect it to be immediate.
McIlroy’s record here is poor to say the least. Causing much ado he swerved the event in 2011 and he’s only played here three times. He’s never made the cut, he’s never broken par and claims not to have got to grips with the place yet but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that change this week. Rickie Fowler finished runner-up last year after a couple of missed cuts so it can be done if you’re classy enough and Rory’s game was in tip-top order at Quail Hollow last week.
Luke Donald isn’t a terrific price this week but ticks all the right boxes so boldly I felt he had to be backed and I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t contend.
With 10 Sawgrass starts already in the bag he has plenty of vital course experience and his course form’s not bad either. Runner-up behind Funk in 2005, Luke also finished 4th in 2011 and 6th last year. He has an impressive record in Florida where he’s won twice recently and where he’s finished inside the top-six in eight of his last 11 starts and was third last time out in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head – another Pete Dye design.
I was more than happy to take 30.0 about 2007 champ, Phil Mickelson, whose putting at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, on greens most were struggling with, was quite simply sensational. He made 39 consecutive putts inside 10 feet at one stage and unsurprisingly topped the putting average stats for the week.
He snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with bogeys on two of the last three holes on Sunday but he’s just the sort of character to put that behind him immediately and bounce right back the following week. He comes here in fine form, has plenty of Sawgrass experience and at odds of 30.0, I fancy he’s slightly overlooked.
My third and final selection is Ben Crane who also has bags of Sawgrass form to call on. After running up a sequence of finishes here reading 6-5-4, he’s been a bit disappointing in the each of the last two renewals (tied 45th in 2011 and a missed cut in 2012) but he could easily find his Sawgrass swing again this time around and I thought he was well worth backing at 140.0.
Luke Donald @ 24.0
Phil Mickelson @ 30.0
Ben Crane @ 140.0
BACK TO LAY SHOTS
You won’t get many better opportunities on the golfing calendar to make money trading outsiders than the Players Championship. Sawgrass is leaderboards change fast, often meaning many more players than usual get into contention and shorten markedly in the betting. It is not unheard of for a dozen different players to hold weekend favouritism at some stage.
It also helps an elite field means no shortage of quality available within our price range. My plan is to back a trio of players all at well above 200.0 with a view to laying back for a sizeable profit should any of them hit the relatively unambitious target of 20.0.
First up a man who traded well below that mark in no lesser contest than the Masters on his penultimate start. Marc Leishman was mightily impressive at Augusta, standing his ground in contention for all four days, and maintained his good form with a top-10 the following week at Harbour Town. That marked improvement makes it easy to ignore three previous failures at Sawgrass, a course that takes plenty of learning.
Accurate driving is a pre-requisite for success around hazard-strewn Sawgrass, which leads me towards 280.0 chance John Huh, who has been hitting a high percentage of fairways lately. 11th on his penultimate start at the Masters was outstanding and last year’s Sawgrass debut was promising, fighting back from an opening 75 to make the top-25.
Finally, despite lacking any course form to recommend, Mark Wilson is simply too big to ignore at 400.0 after finishing third and ninth on his last two starts. Four PGA Tour victories is an outstanding for a player of Wilson’s calibre. All came at huge odds and there were no obvious course form clues available beforehand. In short, he’s precisely the type of rank outsider worth throwing a few pennies at, because he knows how to win.
Back Marc Leishman 2u @ 220.0
Back John Huh 1.5u @ 280.0
Back Mark Wilson 1u @ 400.0
1ST RD THREEBALL TIPS
Experience is key at TPC Sawgrass and recent Masters winner Scott has it in abundance. The Australian fulfilled his potential in devastating fashion at Augusta. Scott tees off in the first round with Rory McIlroy, who says Sawgrass doesn't suit him and Steve Stricker who may be the danger at a big price.
Tim Clark is another former Players champion and is perhaps a worthy favourite for his threeball. However, Kevin Streelman has been in superb form this season and he too has some good rounds at the Players on his CV. The American rates the bet at a nice price. DA Points makes up the trio – in three appearances here his form figures read M/M/WD.
Boo Weekley has bounced back to form with a bang this year and in a weak threeball stands out as a strong pick against first-round opponents Andres Romero, who is again struggling for form, and David Lingmerth who is making his debut in this event. Weekley was 21st here in 2008 when last in this kind of form.
Nick Watney took a little while to adjust to his new Nike clubs but has hit upon a real consistent run of results in recent months. The American's form figures at Sawgrass are at least as good as threeball favourite Lee Westwood's, if not better. Ian Poulter makes up the trio, the Englishman has some fine rounds here to his name but has been struggling for form this year.
Back Adam Scott @ 2.4
Back Kevin Streelman @ 2.75
Back Boo Weekley @ 1.9
Back Nick Watney @ 2.7