It’s (Unofficial) Fifth Major time and Ollie Noonan has four runners at big prices that may pique your interest.
The revamped PGA Tour schedule allows the Players Championship to return to the March tee time it occupied for 30 years until 2006, meaning a slightly different set up for the pros to deal with at the majestic TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida this week. Now with a winner’s purse of over $2.2million, the games unofficial fifth major naturally attracts the very best field that golf has to offer, though the iconic par 72 course would likely see a similar strength of field even if the prize money was done away with for the week, given the kudos of being victorious at this event.
There is no doubt that TPC Sawgrass is most recognizable for the par 3 17th hole, the infamous island green, where players lose their bottle and their opportunity at victory year after year. However, the course is so much more than just that gimmicky hole as designer Pete Dye, regarded by all as one of the all-time great course architects, set out a great test that would present a fair challenge to all players regardless of their style of game. Numerous bunkers, water hazards, elevation changes, blind tee-shots, doglegs and the requirement to shape the ball both ways mean that all players get a thorough examination and no one player type is favoured, just as any classic course should be.
This year, in anticipation of the shift to March, the Bermudagrass greens have been overseeded, meaning potentially slower, more receptive putting surfaces than in years past, so it’s worth taking a look at those with success at other overseeded courses such as Sea Island (RSM Classic), TPC Scottsdale (Phoenix Open) and Innisbrook (Valspar). The rough has also been overseeded with fescue, creating an added layer of complexity for players alongside the potential increase in wind speeds given the seasonal change.
How Do We Attack The Outright Market?
Another angle of attack this week is to look at past performance at other Pete Dye designs, as it’s easy to draw a formline between some players who go well at various Dye creations. For example, Matt Kuchar won this event in 2012, and the Heritage at the Dye-designed Harbour Town course in 2014, and both 2018 winner Webb Simpson and 2017 winner Si Woo Kim have lost in playoffs at the same course. Similarly, past winners here this decade Jason Day and Martin Kaymer also happened to win the PGA Championships hosted at Whistling Straits, another Pete Dye design. Clearly, his layouts suit the eye of certain players so it’s a link worth working with.
Looking at the winners this decade, all have finished no worse than 21st on their prior start – with the sole exception being shock 501.0 shot Si Woo Kim in 2017. As such, generally speaking, it pays to side with players in good current form here, given the nature of the all-around test the course provides. This is not a place you want to be coming to find your swing.
Given the fact that the entirety of the worlds top 50 are currently scheduled to tee it up on Thursday, it is perhaps unsurprising to see the market led by a pair of 15.5 co-favourites (at the time of writing) in Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. Clearly, given their pedigree, both have chances but I prefer to look elsewhere for my bets and will generally looking at players at slightly longer odds, with the notable exception of last week’s winner Francesco Molinari.
Chico Is Oh So Hot Right Now
The 36 year old reigning Open champion shot a faultless 64 on Sunday at Bay Hill to capture the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his second stateside success in the past 9 months, leading the field for the week in strokes gained off the tee, whilst ranking 4th for strokes gained-putting, a pretty good combination for success at any course. Last season, he followed victories at the BMW PGA Championship and Quicken Loans National with runner up finishes in both of his following starts so clearly he holds his form, something that has been an established trend throughout his career given he followed victory at his home Italian Open in 2016 with a trio of consecutive top 6 finishes.
The world number 7 also has previous form at Sawgrass, with four top 10 finishes since 2010, so clearly, it’s a track at which he feels comfortable. At the head of the market, he’s the one with the most compelling blend of current form and course form and the 28.0 available looks very fair given its almost double the price of Rory McIlroy, whose struggles to get over the line are verging on chronic, and Dustin Johnson whose never finished in the top 10 here in 10 starts.
Poults Trending Upwards
My next bet is Ian Poulter. The 43 year old Englishman is experiencing a real career renaissance over the past 12 months, having won this time last year at the Golf Club of Houston (another overseeded Bermudagrass course) to secure his spot at the Masters and the Ryder Cup. Since that time, he’s recorded 16 top 25 finishes in 25 events, and he arrives here off the back of a very encouraging formline reading T6-T3-T6-T3-T23 worldwide. Last time out at Bay Hill, he ranked 10th for strokes gained off the tee and 4th in scrambling but lost almost a full stroke to the field with the putter, so the move overseeding should favour him.
He’s somewhat a Pete Dye specialist, ranking 8th on the list of top performers at his tracks since 2014, and he’s experienced success here in the past with runner up finishes in 2017 and 2009, plus last year’s 11th. Given his consistent recent performances and predilection for Pete Dye, he looks overpriced to me and I expect him to run a big race.
Matt Kuchar is a man marred by controversy currently, as he paid a local caddy less than 1% of his winnings after picking up the trophy at Mayakoba at the back end of 2018. He’s subsequently made amends for this grievous underpayment and will be keen to put the whole situation behind him but there’s no doubt it affected him in his most recent starts given all the questions directed at him by media and comments from crowds.
However, somewhat overlooked in the whole story, was the fact that Kuchar actually won a tournament to spark the controversy in the first place. He then followed up with another win three starts later at the Sony Open, and followed this with a fourth-place finish at the overseeded TPC Scottsdale so his game is clearly in a good place and a return to one of his favourite tracks should spark him again.
As mentioned earlier, Kuchar is very much a Pete Dye specialist, ranking third on Tour for strokes gained at Pete Dye tracks over the past five years, and he’s made no bones about his love for Dye’s technical layouts previously. Ordinarily, I’m not a huge fan of backing Kuchar but at Dye tracks, at prices in excess of 51.0, when he’s already won twice in his past eight events, he rates a solid value bet.
Grace Worth A Flier
My final selection is another Dye specialist, who plays his best stuff at overseeded tracks, Branden Grace. The stout South African claimed his sole PGA Tour victory at Harbour Town back in 2016, though he traded odds on at TPC Scottsdale on Superbowl Sunday last month, before dunking his drive at the short 17th to finish runner up behind Rickie Fowler. He’s not really contended in the month since but arguably none of those courses particularly suit a man who ranks fifth on Tour for strokes gained on overseeded tracks, and who plays his best when the wind blows as evidenced by his back-to-back victories at the blustery Doha Golf club a couple of years ago.
The Dye link is solidified by his 3rd place finish at Whistling Straits during the 2015 PGA Championship, and whilst his Sawgrass form shows no finishes better than 42nd in five tries, he was actually sat inside the top 10 coming to the 70th hole in 2013 before a disastrous finish knocked him down to 48th. There is a lot to like about the world number 41 at a long price, especially given his tendency to bring his best form to the biggest events (see five top 6 finishes in majors thus far in his career) and he is entitled to be a good few points shorter all things considered.
- Francesco Molinari – 2.5 points @ 28.0 (lay 5 points @ 7.0)
- Matt Kuchar – 1 point @ 66.0 (lay 5 points @ 7.0)
- Ian Poulter – 1 point @ 76.0 (lay 5 point @ 9.0)
- Brandon Grace – 1 point @ 91.0 (lay 5 points @ 11.0)