The Players Championship (Thurs 14th – Sun 17th March)

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The Players Championship (Thurs 14th – Sun 17th March)
Sawgrass, Florida

After decades of course fine-tuning, timetable-tweaking and towering hype (“the biggest prize fund pro golf has ever seen”), the Players Championship has finally found a spot in the golfing schedule which befits its self-styled status as the game’s “fifth major”. For this new March start date now kick starts a five-month spell of tentpole events, with The Masters, PGA, US Open and The Open all set to follow from April to July.

Has it finally been accepted into the golfing pantheon? Well, while some golfers may choose to deride its overblown, occasionally gimmicky credentials, you can’t argue with its rollcall of honour over time. Nor the fact that it gives players of different shapes and sizes the chance to compete on a fair, risk-reward layout which rails against the prevalent trend in golf to merely reward the heaviest hitters.

Sawgrass assembles the strongest field in the game (certainly adding to its major championship creds) and is a track where anyone can get on a roll if they’re finding the fairways and greens in regulation. Every hole is “birdieable” (sure, it’s a word) but most also house a watery grave which can blight any scorecard. Devilish designer Pete Dye created a set-up which tests your nerve with a dunk tank lurking on every hole. However, this unique challenge also pays out on purely-struck approaches with many a scoring opportunity.

A measured assault is therefore the order of the day, which perhaps explains why the big-bombing likes of Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy have seen their thin patience frayed once too often to be relied upon round here, despite their dazzling recent form.

Selections:

Rickie Fowler 25-1
All hat and no cattle: it’s the ultimate cowboy insult in the West, implying a triumph for style over substance. On the PGA Tour, Rickie Fowler has long been viewed as the circuit’s roguish rancher, lassoing wild major courses with a flashy swing and a flashier smile. He even sports the bright oversized orange cap to match. But he invariably comes up short. Indeed, this classy Californian became one of only three players (Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus being the others) to have recorded top-fives in all the majors during a solar cycle. Trouble is, Fowler simply doesn’t win enough, whereas Woods and Nicklaus are golf’s pre-eminent powerhouses. Sawgrass finally changed his record in the big ones in 2015, however, and Rick has improved his wins-to-run consistency with the subsequent injection of confidence. Runner-up also in 2012, the recent WMPO victor can generate some more warm and fuzzies this week and heads the staking plan.

Patrick Cantlay 40-1
Blessed of a simple, repeating swing and never afraid to go low, this often-overlooked crowd-pleaser also has the length and accuracy to bring Sawgrass to its knees. Remember, Cantlay was Uncle Sam’s next big thing from the collegiate ranks – way ahead of Messrs Fowler, Thomas, Spieth and Koepka – before injury and the tragic loss of a close friend got in the way. But in recent seasons, Cantlay has returned to rude health and form. He charts seventh on tour in the key Players stat of “strokes gained: tee-to-green” and second in “adjusted scoring”. With a couple of “never nearer” top 30s, he is trending in the right direction and is poised to pounce this weekend.

Henrik Stenson 55-1
The ice-cool Swede went from the green shoots of recovery to full bloom at Bay Hill over the weekend on the back of some tee-to-green excellence (third in a stacked field). And in a week where many will be expecting Frankie Molinari to back up his recent win around a course that plays to the Italian’s strengths, two of his Ryder Cup teammates could steal his thunder. Stenson, a winner here a decade ago, is the first off the tee around one of his favourite tracks where he has also posted third, fifth and 10th placings, alongside a staggering nine top-25s in 13 outings. Enough said.

Sergio Garcia 33-1
The other Eurostar who invariably runs to Sawgrass schedule is Garcia, who has topped the field in strokes gained tee-to-green here four times, and never missed a cut. After an encouraging brace of top 10s from his past two stateside starts, the 2008 champion can get back to winning ways at a venue which doesn’t overly punish his recalcitrant putter.

Lay of the week:

Dustin Johnson 11-1
As we alluded to in the preamble, Johnson is not to be trusted at Sawgrass. That may seem a little churlish after he did us a huge favour on his last start at the WGC–Mexico where he won in a landslide at 11-1. However, we couldn’t back him with counterfeit at the same price this week. DJ is still to record a top 10 in 10 previous visits, and desperately needs to find a defence on a layout that clearly challenges him strategically. Until this slow learner works it out, let’s give him the swerve until April’s Masters. He’s been off for three weeks, too, in an attempt to not to “over-golf” before the first real major of the year.

The FSB blog will return for the WGC Matchplay (27th – 31st March)