PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP: Commonly known as the “fifth major,” The Players Championship has all the ingredients of a great tournament: a top-notch field, a mind-boggling purse, an iconic venue, and the type of electric atmosphere that makes things more enjoyable for players and spectators alike.
That exciting atmosphere is exactly what Pete Dye was aiming for when he designed TPC Sawgrass back in 1980, and he sure did hit the mark. The course was built for the specific purpose of hosting this event, so it’s possibly the most spectator-friendly course in the world, with optimized viewing areas around most greens and tee boxes and built-in “natural” stadium-like seating on many holes. It’s also located in lovely Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, which is
the largest old-folks home where the best-looking and most talented people in the world tend to live (and also me).
The star of the show, of course, is the island green par-3 17th, which is possibly the most iconic hole in all of golf. It’s only a 9-iron or a wedge for the pros, but when things firm up and the wind starts swirling it can get quite interesting. The spectators who hang out there all day are golf’s equivalent of NASCAR fans– they say they’re not there to see a wreck, but you and I know better, don’t we? At any rate, the 17th has produced both spectacular meltdowns and moments of heroism throughout the years, and players are fond of saying that there’s no lonelier walk in golf than the 50-yard trek from the 16th green to the 17th tee when in contention on Sunday.
TPC Sawgrass is about much more than one hole, however– it’s a tight, demanding ball-striker’s layout with smallish greens that can test every aspect of a player’s game. When the wind picks up and the greens dry out it can be very difficult, and it’s the type of place where length off the tee is an asset but not a necessity. It’s covered in Bermuda grass from tee to green and is stylistically similar to a lot of the golf in places like Australia and South Africa, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Aussies in particular have had great success in this tournament over the years– Jason Day, last year’s champion, being just the latest example.
Day is back to defend and is currently trading at 26.0 at BETDAQ, which seems rather generous until you remember that he hasn’t exactly been lighting it up over these past couple of months, with only one top-10 in his last nine starts. Dustin Johnson is the market leader, as he should be considering the run he’s been on, but he has an abysmal record at this tournament, with just one top-30 in eight appearances, so I’m quite happy to invest elsewhere this week.
Where might that be, you ask? Well, there’s plenty of talent to choose from in a field like this, and WE’RE STILL COUNTING OUR MONEY AFTER CASHING ON BRIAN HARMAN AT 100.0 LAST WEEK (what kind of “tipster” would I be if I didn’t toot my own horn on that one?), so you’ll have to excuse me if I’m rather optimistic about these three selections:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Thomas (32.0)- Thomas has been pretty quiet since his back-to-back wins in January, but that’s mostly been due to inactivity, as he’s only played in three tournaments since February. And while none of those three starts resulted in a victory, one of them was a top-5 at the WGC-Mexico and another was a T22 at the Masters, so his game hasn’t shown any signs of rust. His brilliance off the tee, with the ability to hit it both long and straight, has helped him master TPC Sawgrass in his two career appearances at this event, as he finished 24th here on debut in 2015 and followed that up with a 3rd-place showing last year. He may have had a quiet past couple of months, but Thomas has an opportunity to make a big splash this week at a course he obviously likes. He’s a great value at better than 30/1.
Francesco Molinari (60.0)- Molinari is a threat anytime he plays a course where length off the tee is not a necessity, but accuracy is critically important. TPC Sawgrass fits the bill, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Molinari has had great success in this tournament in recent years, logging top-10 finishes in each of his past two appearances (T6 in 2014, T7 last year). And I’m not sure he’s ever come into this tournament playing as well as he is at the moment, with five top-25 finishes in his last six PGA Tour starts. Plus, the state of Florida agrees with him, as his two trips to the Sunshine State this year have resulted in a T14 at the Honda Classic and a 7th-place showing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He’s flying under the radar this week, but he shouldn’t be, which makes him my favorite bet on the board at a price like 60.0.
Lee Westwood (156.0)- Westwood is past his prime now and is starting to play a more relaxed schedule, but when he tees it up it’s evident that he still has plenty of good golf left in him, as he’s found the top 30 in six of his seven worldwide starts this year. We haven’t seen him since the Masters but he was in good form there, finishing 18th despite a final-round 74, and he sounded very comfortable with the current state of his game in an interview I heard last week. Most importantly, he has a tremendous record at TPC Sawgrass, making the cut nine times in this event and logging three top-10s in his last five appearances. He’s obviously a bit of a longshot at this point in his career, but he’s perfectly capable of winning this week and is well worth a bet at the current price.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Jon Rahm (1.91) vs. Rickie Fowler (1.91)
Regular readers of this column know how much I love Rahm, and I did seriously consider backing him in the overall market this week before shying away due to the fact that this will be his first look at TPC Sawgrass. The first-time thing hasn’t been much of a problem for him in his 9-month pro career, however, as he’s been fed a steady diet of “new” courses yet nearly wins every week anyway. Last week was the latest example, as he finished solo 4th in his debut appearance at the Wells Fargo, his fifth top-10 in his last seven starts (the other two were a T16 and a T27). Fowler is a past champion of this event but his overall record here is a bit uneven, with four missed cuts in 7 starts to go along with the win and a runner-up. Bottom line: Rahm is simply a better player than Fowler right now. Truthfully, he’s probably a better player than everyone not named Dustin Johnson at the moment. Recommendation: Rahm at 1.91
Jordan Spieth (1.91) vs. Rory McIlroy (1.91)
We haven’t seen Spieth since his Sunday fade at Augusta, and he surely views this week as a potential springboard to a huge summer. Given what we’ve seen out of him over the past couple of years, it would hardly be a surprise if he spent most of the week on the first page of the leaderboard, but it should be noted that he’s missed back-to-back cuts in this tournament, so success is not a guarantee. The same could be said of McIlroy, who will be breaking in both new equipment and a new wife this week, adding some uncertainty to his outlook. But he isn’t coming off two missed cuts here; on the contrary, he’s finished 12th or better in each of his past four starts in this event, demonstrating a comfort level with TPC Sawgrass that few in the field can match. Recommendation: McIlroy at 1.91