PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP: While the “fifth major” moniker may be a bit overdone, there’s no doubt that The Players Championship remains one of the premier events in golf, and its purse– a whopping $12.5 million, with $2.25 mil going to the winner– is once again the PGA Tour’s largest.
The star of the show this week will be the course, and it needs no introduction for any golf fan: TPC Sawgrass was built by Pete Dye 40 years ago for the express purpose of hosting this tournament, and it’s become one of the most famous courses in the world thanks in large part to the iconic island green par-3 17th, a hole that measures only 140 yards but makes the best players in the world grip the club a little tighter on Sunday afternoon. But even if you calm your nerves and find the putting surface on 17, you still have to contend with the 18th, a long, brutal par-4 that doglegs around a lake. It’s truly a high-stress finish at TPC Sawgrass, which makes for a fantastic viewing experience.
The rest of the course may not be quite as flashy, but it sticks to Pete Dye’s philosophy of being visually intimidating and not favoring any one particular shot shape. At 7,190 yards, it isn’t long by Tour standards, and both bombers and short-knockers have prospered here (case in point: Adam Scott’s win in 2004 was followed by Fred Funk in 2005. Funk is 25 years older than Scott and about 40 yards behind him off the tee). There’s trouble everywhere you turn, though, so you’d better strike the ball well if you hope to contend.
This tournament had been held in May for the past few years, but it now returns to its traditional timeslot in March to accommodate the PGA Championship’s move from August to May. Speaking as a Ponte Vedra resident, I certainly prefer the tournament in March, as it at least allows for the chance of pleasant weather, rather than the 95-degree sweat-fest that you’re sure to get every May. The course plays a bit softer and therefore longer this time of year, and the grass is overseed rye mixed with bermuda, as opposed to the firm, fast all-bermuda that you get in May. But the basic challenge remains the same: consistency off the tee and precision with the short and mid-irons is what will be required this week.
BETDAQ’s Win Market has been lively, and the names you would expect are at the top: Johnson (15.0), McIlroy (17.0), Thomas (17.0), Woods (24.0), Koepka (26.0), Rose (29.0), etc. But as is always the case with a field of this caliber, there are plenty of intriguing options a bit further down the board, and I’ve highlighted a couple of my favorites below. Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Thomas (17.0)- Among those at the top of the market, I sure like the looks of Thomas, who is only three starts removed from a runner-up finish at the Genesis Open and has already logged four top-5s this season. The softer conditions should serve Thomas well this week, not that he needs any help at TPC Sawgrass– his record here includes a 3rd-place showing in 2016 and a T11 last year, and in just four career appearances in this event he’s already carded four rounds of 66 or better. His nose for the finish line is well-documented, but he’s yet to close the deal this year despite being around the lead nearly every time he tees it up. He’ll be back in the winner’s circle soon, and at a price like 16/1, I’m willing to bet it’ll happen this week.
Patrick Cantlay (43.0)- Though he’s not generating a whole lot of buzz in a field chock-full of big names, Cantlay is one to watch this week. He’s been playing very well lately, finding the top-15 in 4 of his 5 PGA Tour starts this season and finishing 6th in his last outing, the WGC-Mexico. Though this will be just his third career appearance in this tournament, he’s put together some nice rounds, including a Thursday 66 last year that left him tied for the lead, and has yet to finish outside the top-25. Moreover, he spoke last year of his affinity for TPC Sawgrass, saying, “I really like this golf course. I think it does a great job of demanding accuracy off the tee… it reminds me a lot of Hilton Head, and I like that golf course, as well. So I feel really comfortable around here.” Those are strong words, and when you take into consideration his recent form, Cantlay begins to feel like a must-bet at better than 40/1.
Byeong-Hun An (130.0)- Though his putting has been inconsistent at times, An is one of the more underrated ball-strikers in the world– a rock-solid fairways-and-greens type who can work the ball both ways and is particularly deadly with his irons. He currently ranks 4th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green, and he’s coming off a nice week at Bay Hill, where he finished 10th. He doesn’t have a whole lot of experience at TPC Sawgrass, but he’s a good fit stylistically, and he fared well last year, breaking par in all four rounds en route to a top-30 finish. A win this week would be life-changing for An, but we’ve seen long-odds types hoist the trophy at The Players before, and An is a world-class player who won’t be unnerved by some Sunday pressure. He’s my favorite bet among those priced at 100.0 or longer.