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The PGA Tour returns to its Ponte Vedra HQ for golf’s “fifth major”
Pete Dye’s famous Stadium Course once again hosts
Cameron Smith doesn’t defend after defecting to LIV Golf
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The annual visit to TPC Sawgrass is always laced with excitement and potential carnage.
That’s because the final three-hole stretch of the devilish Pete Dye-designed course includes a par-5 protected by a lake, the famous island green of the par-3 17th, and yet more water all the way down the left-hand side of the par-4 18th.
To add to the intrigue the defending champion Cameron Smith is not in the field this week having left the PGA Tour for the riches of LIV Golf. This year’s intrigue the defending champion, Australia’s Cameron Smith, is not in attendance after he jumped ship to LIV Golf.
His absence, and that of Dustin Johnson and Joaquin Niemann, means that the field is not as strong as it could be, but the event’s claim to be the “fifth major championship” is not entirely without merit.
And, with the Masters just weeks away, this tournament also acts as a primer for the golfing world’s elite performers as they hone their game for the Augusta National test to come.
Pete Dye is not an architect whose courses suit every golfer. In fact, the phrase Dye-abolical has been coined to explain just how difficult his tests can be.
Sawgrass challenges every element of a golfer’s game but it would be fair to say that it is not a drivers course because almost all players are forced to play to the same spots from the tee box.
More than anything, the course demands that players are bold and errors can be catastrophic - the ability to limit damage on bad holes is every bit as important as collecting as many par breakers as possible.
Last week started well for World No. 1 Jon Rahm, with a 65 that clinched a two-shot first-round lead, but he followed it up with two 76s and ended the week in a share of 39th.
It was his first failure to finish in the top seven in a run that stretches back 10 events.
He’s only got a PLAYERS Championship best of ninth in five starts and, although he carded a third-round 64 in 2019, he has made four scores of 76+ in just nine-weekend rounds.
Rory McIlroy did claim victory in this tournament in 2019 and he’s landed five top-12 finishes in 12 starts, but other than the win he has never been better than 15th with 18 holes to play.
He bounced back to form last week at Bay Hill with second place, his eighth top-four finish in his last 10 starts.
The good news for Scottie Scheffler is that last year he carded a first Sawgrass score in the 60s, but he also added a pair of 76s to finish 55th.
In his only other event appearance, he missed the cut two years ago.
The current Masters champion headed into last week’s final round as the favorite but slipped back to fourth with a Sunday 73.
At first glance, Patrick Cantlay’s record at TPC Sawgrass is unimpressive.
He finished 22nd on debut in 2017, 23rd a year later, and has then missed three cuts in a row.
But dig deeper and that log book is not as bad as it appears.
First of all, he spent 54 holes of those first two starts in the top 10 on the leaderboard and he opened the 2020 event with a 67 before it was canceled because of COVID.
He’s also got a superb record on Pete Dye courses that includes low rounds at PGA West, a 60 and five top 15 finishes at TPC River Highlands, a hat trick of top threes at Harbour Town, and a victory at TPC Louisiana.
The clincher is his fine form: he was third (and first for Strokes Gained Tee to Green) at Riviera in the Genesis Invitational and fourth last week (when third for SG T2G) at Bay Hill in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Moreover, as we learned above, the front three in the betting are all vulnerable on this course and in this tournament.
Take Cantlay each way in the outright market at +1600 with Unibet which is the best price available and pays out seven places.
A long-standing trend at Sawgrass is for winners of the Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield to thrive.
In fact, of the last 11 winners there, five have won THE PLAYERS, another lost a playoff, and two more have finished top five.
Four years ago, JT Poston claimed his first PGA Tour win at Sedgefield and last year he added a second trophy to his cabinet in the John Deere Classic.
He also impressed on two Dye designs: third at Harbour Town and second at TPC River Highlands.
He’s registered two top 30 finishes at Sawgrass in three visits so far in his career and he’s a juicy +300 at bet365 to make it three in four.
There are only two Scots playing this week - Russell Knox and Martin Laird - and over the last 12 months the head-to-head count explains why the books are struggling to split them: Laird leads 9-8.
But this match-up might not be quite as straightforward as it looks.
Over their careers, for example, Knox leads 13-5 in Florida.
What about Dye courses? Again he dominates, this time 21-7.
At TPC Sawgrass the advantage is 5-2 and, what’s more, Knox is generally more consistent there.
True, Laird has recorded two top-five finishes but not one other top 50 in 10 starts.
Knox has five top-50 finishes in eight starts.
Back Knox to be Top Scot at -110 with Bet365.
Tournament: THE PLAYERS Championship
Location: Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass, Florida
Date: THURSDAY MAR. 9 - SUNDAY MAR. 12
How to watch: THURSDAY-FRIDAY 12-6 p.m. (Golf Channel). SATURDAY-SUNDAY 1-6 p.m. (NBC). And all four days on Sky Sports.
Matt Cooper has been a sports journalist since 2009 with his work appearing at ESPN, Sky Sports, NBC, Sporting Life and the Planet Sport Network among many others, in addition to guest appearances on the BBC and CNN. Although a specialist in golf, who has traveled the world to cover the sport, Matt has also covered rugby, cricket, football and the Olympics. Email: [email protected]More info on Matt Cooper
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