Players Championship: A preview and best bets for the showdown at Sawgrass in Florida
By Dave Tindall
Last Updated: 07/05/14 8:58am
Outside of the majors, the Players Championship at Sawgrass remains one of the elite events of world golf.
With a total purse of $10m and a first prize of $1.8m - the biggest of the year - it's no wonder that only injury or illness keep the star names away.
This year defending champion and world No 1 Tiger Woods is on the injured list along with Jason Day (6th), so it's Rory McIlroy and 2004 Players champ Adam Scott who head the betting.
The Florida event moved from March to May in 2007 and, of course, features one of the most recognisable holes in golf - the 17th.
In theory it's just a short par three but the fact that it's an island hole surrounded by water and exposed to wind makes it a severe mental test, especially on the weekend when the stakes rise.
Over the last 10 years, the number of balls finding water there tallied: 30, 68, 57, 93, 64, 32, 29, 40, 39 and 44 (last year). It's easy to tell which the windy years were and, in fact, an amazing 50 balls ended up wet on day one in 2007 when the gusts were particularly strong.
Those most troubled by the hole include Phil Mickelson, who has dumped seven balls in the water there since 2003.
Two of the last six Players Championships have gone to a play-off and the excitement levels will be heightened if we get extra holes again this year.
In a new move that fans will relish, the tournament has switched to a three-hole play-off featuring the par five 16th (where eagle is possible), the nerve-jangling par three 17th and the tough par four 18th.
As usual, all four days of the tournament will be shown live on Sky Sports.
TPC Sawgrass is probably Pete Dye's most famous design. A 7,215-yard par 72, the Stadium course features doglegs in both directions while no two consecutive holes play in the same direction. The famous 17th is discussed above but a watery grave also beckons down the left of the dogleg left 18th (ranked the hardest hole last year) so the finish is one of the toughest in golf. The greens are smaller than standard Tour size. Speaking about the putting surfaces, Ernie Els said in his weekly blog: "The guys have had some issues with some of the greens, due to the cold and wet winter that we’ve had in Florida, but that’s not too much of a problem in the practice rounds because we’re all so familiar with the ins and outs of this golf course. Hopefully, with a bit of assistance from Mother Nature, they can get things right for the first round on Thursday."
For each of the last three years, the magic number has been -13 (Tiger Woods in 2013, Matt Kuchar in 2012 and KJ Choi in 2011). Before that, South African Tim Clark won with -16 while in 2008 Sergio Garcia took victory with just -5.
The leading contenders (with Sky Bet odds)
Rory McIlroy (14/1): The two-time major champion remains winless in 2014 after another strongish, if ultimately disappointing, eighth place at Quail Hollow last week. Rory has now finished 8th, 8th and 7th in his last three tournaments but, at his level, it's all about wins. His first three visits to Sawgrass were a nightmare as he missed the cut each time but last year's eighth place, which included an opening 66, did at least suggest he can compete around this tricky course. The key, he said, was embracing the need to be more conservative off the tee after initially thinking the course didn't suit him as he couldn't pull driver. That said, it doesn't exactly rank as his favourite venue.
Adam Scott (14/1): Scott won this event early in his career (2004) as he survived a pull into the water on 18 by getting up and down to win by a shot. Whereas some of the other elite players are lukewarm about Sawgrass, Scott said last year: "Overall my memories of this place are fantastic. I've played a lot of good golf here and I feel the course sets up well for me." Since that win he's had a sixth, an eighth and top 20s in each of the last two years so, despite his positive comments, that isn't exactly earth-shattering. This is his first outing since he finished 14th in defence of his Masters title. Prior to that he was third at Bay HIll.
Matt Kuchar (16/1): After a string of top 10 finishes, including a fifth at Augusta, Kuchar finally got his nose in front when holing from sand to win The Heritage at Hilton Head with a closing 64. He topped the greens in regulation stats there which is noteworthy as eight of the winners at Sawgrass since 2000 have finished in the top five for G.I.R. That group include Kuchar himself who produced a superb display to capture this title in 2012 with rounds of 68-68-69-70. His best prior to that was a 13th which again shows how hard it is to always play well on this track.
Luke Donald (20/1): On a course where it's better to plod and grind, Donald's steady game would seem ideally suited. And that's the case when you look at his past achievements at Sawgrass which show a second place in 2005, a fourth in 2011, a sixth in 2012 and a couple of other top 20s, including 19th last year. He comes into the event in fine form too having posted his best finish of the year - a second place - at Hilton Head while he posted a 4th, a 25th and an 8th in the three Florida events earlier in 2014 so is a strong performer in the Sunshine State.
Henrik Stenson (22/1): Like Scott and Kuchar, Stenson is a former winner of this event after a brilliant victory in 2009 when he prospered by hitting 3-wood off the tee all week. Only five players have ever won this event twice so history suggests it's a tough ask for the Swede to win it again. That said, he was also third in 2006, 10th in 2008 and fifth last year so it seems if anyone can, Stenson can. He sent out another positive sign with a closing 65 to finish fifth in the China Open a fortnight ago while he also made the top five on his last Florida start (Bay Hill) in March.
Justin Rose (22/1): After an injury-hit start to the season, Rose has been slowly going through the gears and followed up a 14th at Augusta and an eighth at Hilton Head with a 2014 best fifth place at the Well's Fargo last week. He was ranked 1st in the All-Around stat at Quail Hollow so everything looks in place. Now the big negative. His Sawgrass record is wretched with 10 visits showing five missed cuts and not a single top 20. It's hard to fathom why as he usually does well in Florida and, as a US Open winner, can handle tough challenges.
Sergio Garcia (22/1): As in the majors, Sergio has had a string of near misses at Sawgrass but he did get the job done here in 2008 when beating Paul Goydos in a play-off. Also second in 2007 and fourth in 2002, Garcia was tied for the lead with two holes to play last year before dunking two balls in the water at the infamous 17th and getting wet again at 18. That catapulted him all the way back to eighth. A winner in Qatar earlier this year, Augusta baffled him again (missed cut) but this course is right up his street so expect him to bounce back here.
This is always a trappy event to try and predict although many of the past winners were top quality stars, who had played in Ryder Cups or Presidents Cups,
Contrary to reasoned logic, it's also been a happy hunting ground for those who had lost or never found the winning habit.
Tim Clark somehow made this the scene of his first (and still only) PGA Tour win in 2010 while a year later KJ Choi ended a three-year win drought by edging David Toms out in a play-off.
Choi's win may bode well for Jim Furyk who is also struggling to convince us that he's a proven winner. His tally of PGA Tour titles has been stuck on 16 since his win in the 2010 Tour Championship despite him having numerous chances to end his drought since.
This is a home game for Furyk as he lives just around the corner and practices at TPC Sawgrass so he know every blade of grass on the course.
His Players Championship CV shows a third, a fourth and a fifth while, in his last four starts, he's finished sixth (Texas Open), 14th (Masters), seventh (Heritage) and second (Wells Fargo).
Furyk shot a superb closing 65 to finish runner-up last week and admits he's really enjoying his golf again after struggling mentally last year.
In an event where the trophy is shared around, there are strong signs that it's Furyk's turn. Take the 28/1.
Luke Donald is very much in the same boat as Furyk - a player in form, who is a due a win.
Donald says of Sawgrass: "I think it's a good golf course for me and one that I have a good chance of winning around."
With a fine record here and a wonderful run of high finishes in Florida - his last 13 starts in the Sunshine State show two wins and eight other top 10s - he looks primed for a big run.
Three of the Englishman's five PGA Tour wins have come in Florida so add that to his second place at Hilton Head last time and some positive reports from the range at Sawgrass and Luke could be the man.
Rickie Fowler could be an interesting contender at 55/1 in light of his second place at Sawgrass in 2012.
He loves the stellar events and played some great stuff when tied fifth at Augusta recently.
Fowler closed with a 67 at Quail Hollow last week and in a somewhat hit-or-miss season he could be ready to pull out one of his big performances.
Finally, how about taking Brendon de Jonge at 80/1.
The Zimbabwean produced a remarkable performance at Quail Hollow last week, opening with a disastrous 80, responding with a joint-course record 62 before finally finishing sixth after weekend rounds of 68-69.
He's finished 15th in the last two runnings of the Players Championship so plays the course well and is just the sort of unheralded type we've seen flourish in this event.
2pts e.w. Jim Furyk at 28/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
2pts e.w. Luke Donald at 20/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
1pt e.w. Rickie Fowler at 55/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
1pt e.w. Brendon de Jonge at 80/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)