Golf’s ‘fifth major’, THE PLAYERS Championship, gets underway on Thursday with a stellar field of 144 pros teeing it up at TPC Sawgrass.
Si Woo Kim was a shock winner last year and the South Korean is seeking to become the first man to retain the title since its inception in 1974. The event moved around initially and then spent five years at the Sawgrass Country Club before relocating across the road to Pete Dye’s masterpiece, the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course, in 1982.
Only the US Open has a bigger prize fund with the Masters and the PLAYERS both boasting purses of 11 million US dollars. Unlike the majors, there are no amateurs and exemptions are more restrictive than the big four resulting in arguably the strongest field of the year.
Then there is the track which is one of the toughest in golf and rewards accuracy far more than length off the tee. However hard it is now, it was worse when it first hosted the PLAYERS with the howls of complaints from the players almost drowning out the noise of the crowd in the elevated banked seating.
The tournament’s only three-time winner, Jack Nicklaus, said, “I’ve never been very good at stopping a five-iron on the hood of a car.” Fuzzy Zoeller inquired, “Where are the windmills and the animals?” Dye took the criticism on board and widened some of the fairways, flattened out the greens a touch, and made it slightly less of a test. It should get easier still next year when it moves to March, slowing down the murderously quick putting surfaces.
And, of course, there is one of the most famous holes on the planet – the island green 17th. Pete Dye’s wife Alice inspired this fiendish creation which was meant to have more sand than water until they kept using the sand for other hazards on the course. Only Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp matches it for iconic status among par-3s in professional golf.
Twelve months ago, Kim showed composure beyond his 21 years as he shot a final round 69 in windy conditions to take Adam Scott’s record as the youngest winner of the PLAYERS. He finished three shots clear of Ian Poulter and Louis Oosthuizen.
Kim also joined an elite club with only Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth before him winning twice on the PGA Tour before turning 22. Despite being hindered by injuries since, he has two top-five finishes this season and lies 28th in the Fedex Cup standings.
Former world number one Jason Day (14/1) is just about favourite after claiming his second win of 2018 last weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship in North Carolina. The Australian went wire-to-wire at Sawgrass in 2016, opening with a course-record equalling 63, for his first PLAYERS title and his seventh victory in his previous 17 starts.
Also feared by the bookies is Justin Thomas (16/1) who looks set to end Dustin Johnson’s (16/1) stay of 64 weeks at the top of the rankings. The defending PGA champion already has two wins this season and was third behind Day at Sawgrass two years ago. This is a course Johnson has often struggled at with his best result, 12th, coming last year. He needs to finish in the top-11 to retain his place at the top of the pile.
Thomas will play alongside Rory McIlroy (14/1) and Jordan Spieth (16/1) in the first two rounds. McIlroy has a string on consistent placings in the PLAYERS without really contending, while Spieth has missed the cut for the last three years since tying for fourth on debut in 2014. That said, he has often spoken on his love of the course and is determined to take a more patient approach into this week.
On the other hand, golf’s newest major winner Patrick Reed (33/1) is keen to stick to his attacking game which may not be the wisest policy on a course which punishes errors as much as any other.
Spieth and Jon Rahm (25/1) are also in with a chance of taking over as world number one. Rahm’s big-hitting game certainly would not be suited to this track, but fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia (33/1) is never to be written off at Sawgrass with a win and two runner-up finishes.
In 2015, Garcia was subjected to loud heckling on the 17th tee before losing out in a play-off to Rickie Fowler (20/1). The brightly-attired American went birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie for his last four holes to tie Garcia and Kevin Kisner (66/1) in regulation.
Three years later, Fowler is still seeking that elusive first major. Now 29, he is without a win this season but demands respect this week.
Tiger Woods (33/1) is the only two-time winner of the PLAYERS this century with victories in 2001 and 2013. And on a course where his errant driver will barely come into the equation, he could be competitive. Old rival Phil Mickelson (33/1) scored his one success at Sawgrass back in 2007, and ‘Lefty’ is in decent form having tied for fifth in the Wells Fargo last weekend. Mickelson, Woods and Fowler comprise yet another star-studded three-ball for the first two days.
Sandy Lyle remains the sole Briton to have won the PLAYERS, back in 1987, but Ian Poulter (50/1) has twice been a runner-up. The Englishman is experiencing something of a revival of late and has missed the cut just three times in 14 appearances. For the first two rounds, he partners compatriots Justin Rose (25/1) and Tommy Fleetwood (50/1) who was 41st on debut last year. Rose was tied for fourth in 2014 behind Martin Kaymer (200/1), but has usually found life difficult at Sawgrass.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.