After a fortnight of near-misses on the PGA Tour, golf expert Ben Coley is backing Justin Thomas to win The PLAYERS Championship for a second time.
Golf betting tips: The PLAYERS Championship
3pts e.w. Patrick Cantlay at 18/1 (Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
3pts e.w. Justin Thomas at 20/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Shane Lowry at 45/1 (bet365, Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
0.5pt e.w. Matt Kuchar at 225/1 (Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
The PLAYERS Championship may no longer be the strongest tournament in men’s golf, a fact underlined by the absence of a defending champion this week, but it remains among the highlights of a packed spring calendar which culminates in the Masters just a month from now.
You’ve all seen the adverts and you all know the drill. TPC Sawgrass is among the most famous courses in the sport, and features one of its most famous holes. Pete and Alice Dye knew exactly what they were doing with the par-three 17th, where this tournament has been won and lost many times before, but even they perhaps didn’t realise quite how notorious it would become.
Throw in a risk-reward par-five 16th and then the fearsome 18th, where Justin Thomas almost lost this title with a pull and Cam Smith almost lost it with a push, and we have a guaranteed crescendo for a tournament with its own identity. I’ve always been less inclined to label The PLAYERS the fifth anything, and prefer to see it as unique: this is neither a major nor another PGA Tour event, and it’s all the better for both.
There’s a theoretical risk that this year’s renewal loses something for being the fifth designated event of the year, the latest gathering of the non-suspended elite, but I don’t think it does. We’ve seen some fabulous battles across the Tournament of Champions, the Phoenix Open and the Genesis Invitational, and on Sunday witnessed something rather more chaotic and widespread at Bay Hill, but it seems doubtful that anyone who loves watching this sport feels like they need a break.
Perhaps some of the top players might. This is new to them, the idea of all converging on the same place five times in 10 weeks, and those who’ve been in the heat of battle more than once could just find that they’re running out of gas. Then again, they’ll also know that things slow down a little before Augusta, and there are few courses better than this one when it comes to focusing the mind.
Are the big three vulnerable at Sawgrass?
That says a lot about what’s required. Sawgrass might build to something spectacular but the middle of the front nine is plain difficult, as is the first hole on the back. It’s penal, excessively so at times, it demands all kinds of shots, and it’s not especially vulnerable to attacking golf from the tee. Even since moving from May to March, a little accuracy has gone a long way – bar Cam Smith’s putting exhibition, of course – and there’s no set formula.
Put simply, it’s not a course the very best golfers in the sport have always enjoyed. Tiger Woods only managed to win twice at Sawgrass, which for him is a mediocre return, and for years it foxed Dustin Johnson, just as it has Jordan Spieth at times. Rory McIlroy was brilliant in 2019, certainly improving for the calendar switch, but his record is patchy. Scottie Scheffler’s so far amounts to virtually nothing, and Jon Rahm has a best of ninth from five tries.
Sawgrass is if nothing else a bit of a leveller. The roll-of-honour shows exclusively elite winners of late but could so easily read Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood, Anirban Lahiri. As well as being one of the strongest tournaments on the calendar, it is also one of the most open. Last year’s top eight featured three players from outside the world’s top 200 and just one of its top 25, although it should also be said that a big draw bias played its part in that.
As of now, the forecast for the week suggests ideal weather, little in the way of wind, and no prospect of the delays which have dogged the last two renewals and forced a Monday finish 12 months ago. It should therefore be a fabulous tournament for the viewer, and perhaps the one which kickstarts the season of JUSTIN THOMAS.
A fantastic winner here in 2021, when available at the same price he is today, Thomas is the one member of the sport’s elite who we know not only plays well at Sawgrass, but improves for it. McIlroy has won here but that’s more because he’s a modern great than any real affinity for the course and the way it plays, whereas for Thomas it’s perfect.
As for why, the fact that driver isn’t the be all and end all probably helps. Thomas can be very good off the tee but he’s seldom capable of McIlroy-style driving, and much of his best golf has come on defined, traditional courses where he can work the ball, which he infamously did during the latter stages of his knife-edge victory two years ago.
Last year’s title defence was rock solid given that he was on the wrong side of the draw. Not even that could prevent him from making it seven cuts made from seven appearances at Sawgrass, a course he loved from the moment he saw it and one where he shot rounds of 65 in each of his first two appearances, and has gone lower still since then.
His form at similar courses stacks up well and as for becoming a two-time champion, which would see him join an exclusive club with just six members, the fact that he’s won five different events more than once can’t be a bad thing.
More tangibly, I like the fact he both played well for large parts of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but wasn’t really in the heat of battle. Thomas played his first six holes in three-over on Sunday, trailing by as many as nine shots from a very early stage, and from that point on it became a preparation exercise. The way he struck the ball coming home suggests it might’ve been a very good one.
With the best Sawgrass scoring average in this field, even if we include players who’ve been here only once or twice, Thomas is a very good yardstick. He’s hitting a lot of greens again, his approach play is generally back on track, and having won this title with a negative strokes-gained putting figure, anything like a decent week on the greens should see him make a very bold bid to double up.
We are in the earliest stages of this new PGA Tour world, which will evolve again in 2024, but one thing that struck me from the first back-to-back events was how few players backed up from one week to the next. Rahm was the exception, winning at Riviera having squandered a chance in Phoenix, but the six players immediately behind him had all struggled in the preceding event bar Will Zalatoris, who had skipped it.
It’s very difficult to produce top-class golf in elite company in successive weeks, so perhaps Rahm himself will now benefit from a breather after everything ground to a halt for him on Friday. He remains the man to beat, but my eye is drawn to the preparation of PATRICK CANTLAY, which looks absolutely ideal.
Cantlay only missed out by two at Bay Hill, but he finished his round an hour and change before the winner, and with a birdie to reach seven-under. Given that the lead was at 10 or 11-under for a good while and that eight-under never looked like quite being enough, it’s hard to say he was really in contention at any stage.
Back-to-back top-fives from off the pace confirm that some off-season tweaks to his shafts is now bedded in but it’s the mere fact that he’s been able to prepare for The PLAYERS with an outing in Florida which could be the difference.
In each of the last three years, Cantlay has arrived here for his first east coast start of the campaign, and while he’s a longtime Florida resident, that has surely put him at a disadvantage. Smith overcame something similar but he lives here in Jacksonville and simply holed everything on greens he knows well; for a Californian like Cantlay it’s a big ask.
So while he did open with a round of 67 in the abandoned 2020 edition, we have to go back to 2017 and 2018, when this event was held in May, for the only two instances of Cantlay having already played competitive golf on bermuda greens. In 2017, as a debutant, he sat fifth at halfway only to fade to 22nd, while a year later he was 23rd having been second through 36 holes.
Those two performances confirm that Sawgrass suits him, just as it should. Like Thomas, as well as being something of an all-rounder, Cantlay is brilliant with wedge in hand from a tight lie around the green. He also boasts a fine record on other Dye designs, finishing runner-up at Harbour Town, winning the Zurich Classic, shooting 60 at River Highlands when still an amateur, contending there last year, and almost winning at PGA West.
Given that he was making his debut at Bay Hill, fourth place there was a really good effort and over the last two designated events, nobody tops Cantlay in the tee-to-green stats. Also ranking among the most accurate from the tee and with his best putting display so far this year having come on bermuda, he looks a prime candidate.
Viktor Hovland and Jordan Spieth have to be shortlisted despite their Sunday efforts at Bay Hill, the latter blowing a fine chance to capture his most significant non-major win, but I do worry how much it took out of both of them. Spieth was in the final group on Saturday, Hovland on Sunday, and they’ll do really well to shake it off for all I do believe Sawgrass ought to suit both of them.
As such the two others I considered were Tony Finau and Max Homa, both having struck the ball superbly but struggled with their short-games. Finau’s win at Liberty National came at Smith’s expense and that course correlates with Sawgrass, but it wouldn’t be an obvious fit on paper and Homa’s final-round 66 from the wrong side of the draw is probably a big clue as to which of them has the better chance.
Lowry to light up Sawgrass once more
The other obvious form guide comes courtesy of the Wyndham Championship, through names like Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Davis Love, Kevin Kisner, Webb Simpson, Si Woo Kim and Lahiri. It led me to Tom Kim, seeking to become the first debut winner in more than 20 years, but a market move suggests others were a few steps further along the same path by the time I got to writing this.
With 40/1 disappearing he has to be left out despite all the positives, and I’ll settle for SHANE LOWRY in preference to fellow major champion Matt Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick is another who was done by the draw last year and having been a contending ninth in 2019, one of several good efforts in Florida, he has to be considered.
Preference though is for Lowry, who has been eighth and 13th over the last two renewals, with five of his eight rounds under-par, and simply loves this winding, old-school test.
Placed at Dye’s Harbour Town and at Kiawah Island, there’s no disputing the fact that he’s particularly well suited to Sawgrass and I quite like the fact he was down the field at Bay Hill, where he made the cut for the first time in his career but suffered a difficult Saturday in strong winds.
Lowry bounced back on Sunday and a weekend free from contending pressure should be a good thing at the end of a draining fortnight, following the death of his uncle during the Honda Classic, where he considered withdrawing but played through the pain and was the best player in the field from tee-to-green.
Although his long-game struggled at Bay Hill it was good to see some encouragement on the greens, and he’ll be far more comfortable back here at Sawgrass where his top-10 finish two years ago came after a poor start to the year.
Lowry seems bullish about his new caddie relationship and just isn’t the type to let last Saturday bother him, so at 45/1 – almost twice the price he’s started the last three majors – he might be capable of adding another big title to a big-time CV.
Former champion worth chancing
Tommy Fleetwood’s course record demands respect and he leads the field in adjusted scoring, narrowly from Thomas. However, he had a nightmare week on the greens at Bay Hill and while I’d generally be in favour of glossing over such things, it’s a little troubling to see a new putter in the bag.
I’m happy to hunt further down the market and by far the most appealing outsider is MATT KUCHAR.
Eighth at Riviera following a solid 32nd in Phoenix, Kuchar’s form in designated events reads really well and he was second in strokes-gained tee-to-green in the former, only his putter keeping him from challenging Rahm.
That club was a little off again at the Honda, where a bad start resulted in a missed cut, but a second-round 69 suggested we ought to be focusing on positives which extend right back to the start of the season, when he was a contending 12th, and through to seventh place at the Sony before that Riviera performance.
Kuchar is playing as well as he has been in some time and while it’s four years since the 44-year-old last won an event on the PGA Tour, not only did he go close a couple of times last spring but in 2021 he was a semi-finalist in the WGC-Match Play.
That event is played at the Dye-designed Austin Country Club and Kuchar loves it, having also been second in 2019. With wins here and at the Heritage to his name, plus seventh place at Whistling Straits, he’s in specialist territory and his record at Sawgrass would look even better had he not putted abysmally in 2019, when he ranked second in SG: tee-to-green.
In fact the last three times he’s putted reasonably in The PLAYERS, Kuchar has finished no worse than 17th and as high as third, so with his trademark accuracy off the tee a big weapon, it’s a course where he can definitely still compete.
Seven top-20s down the years is a very strong return and he looks a big price at 175/1 with several firms, and Betfair Sportsbook going as big as 225s. The same firm will give you 12 places at 175/1 so there are plenty of options.
It’s interesting to note a big move for Webb Simpson, who is now shorter in the betting, yet when they both played the Honda a fortnight ago it was Kuchar challenging for the third spot in the market as Simpson went unbacked at three-times the price.
For my money, Kuchar would be 100/1 for this had he simply skipped that volatile event. As it happens he instead skipped Bay Hill, which could prove to be a blessing in disguise in terms of freshness, and at 150/1 and upwards he’s a must for the staking plan.
Simpson’s upturn in his approach game is notable but he won this because of his putter and in general has never gone round Sawgrass like someone particularly effective at the course. I’d much prefer Billy Horschel at the odds, another with strong Austin form, but I can’t stand the idea of hearing ‘swing changes’ as a player hits his approach to 17.
Emiliano Grillo’s putting woes are at Luke List levels which mean even a field-leading tee-to-green display at Bay Hill isn’t enough to sway me, whereas Tom Hoge certainly has the putter firing and it was the only club to keep him from sticking around longer last year, when leading at halfway. He’s easy to underestimate but a good fit for Sawgrass.
Justin Suh and Davis Riley are two likeable debutants and the former in particular carries appeal on the strength of his accuracy from the tee and quality approach work, and Robby Shelton is a former winner of the Junior PLAYERS who I could see continuing his steadily progressive form.
The hardest to leave out though was Wyndham Clark, my player to follow in 2023 and one who keeps suggesting he’ll do something special very soon. It would be beyond that were it to come at Sawgrass, however, given that his form figures read DQ-MC-MC, so despite more good signs at Bay Hill there’s no compelling case for him.
It should be said that Lahiri’s record was worse still before he finished second to Smith but, without the potential for another big draw bias and with the top players all sharp, the run of winners from inside the world’s top 10 may well extend to a fourth year.
Posted at 1720 GMT on 06/03/23
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