This week the golfing year slips into top gear with the PGA Tour’s premier tournament THE PLAYERS Championship, writes Matt Cooper.
It’s a week when the PR machinery thumps away in the background, promoting the circuit, the performers, the course and the event as absolutely top drawer. In their words, nothing more or less than the “fifth major”.
This week has an added touch of relish in the form of a much-anticipated press conference hosted by commissioner Jay Monahan on Tuesday which will address the on-going threat of the Saudi Golf League. The PGA always promises fireworks on the course and Monahan won’t want to overshadow those, but the response from Greg Norman, figurehead of the Saudi operation, won’t hold back. He’s spoiling for a fight and this week will provide a massive audience for him.
On the Stadium Course itself we can expect more drama. The layout is famously fiendish, the creation of architect Pete Dye, featuring lots of water and many of his well-known quirks. Tiger Woods was always rather guarded in his appraisal of Sawgrass; he was irked that almost everyone in the field was forced to hit to the same spots from the tee.
The famous island green on the par-3 17th hole is not, strictly speaking, an island since it has a narrow point of access at the back and it crossing it rather resembles walking the plank, which is actually rather apt. The players are tip-toeing all week towards the 72nd green, knowing that just one false move will see them take a tournament-ending tumble down the leaderboard.
It’s why so many players have such volatile records there. The World No. 1 Jon Rahm, for example, has gone sub-70 in half of his 14 laps of the course, but also carded a 76, a 77 and an 82.
Each Way – Patrick Cantlay at +2000
In winning last year’s FedExCup Patrick Cantlay proved himself a world-class performer, but within that all-round excellence he has always been notably strong on Pete Dye designs. On his PGA Tour debut he was the solo halfway leader at TPC River Highlands and he has added four top 15s there since; his form dip this time last year was halted by a brief flirtation with the lead in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island; and he has twice finished third at Harbour Town. About the latter he said in 2018: “I really like (Sawgrass), it reminds me of Harbour Town which I also like. I’m very comfortable here.”
A year earlier he’d revealed that he was a regular competitor at Sawgrass as a junior, he also very nearly won at the venue (but not on the Stadium Course) on the second tier Korn Ferry Tour, and in 2017 and 2018 editions of this event he was in the top 10 through 18, 36 and 54 holes before finishing T22nd and T23rd. A pair of missed cuts have followed, but his game and mindset look a superb fit for the track. He’s solid in all aspects of his game and makes very few mistakes.
We ready. pic.twitter.com/SeqQcttMNh
— THE PLAYERS (@THEPLAYERSChamp) March 7, 2022
Each Way – Matt Fitzpatrick at +2800
For the second pick let’s stick with a player who likes Harbour Town and also enjoys playing golf in Florida (a common theme for winners at Sawgrass). Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick holidayed on Hilton Head as a kid and has often referenced his love of Harbour Town off the back of those experiences. In seven professional visits there he’s landed four top 25 finishes with three top 15s in his last four starts including tied fourth last April.
With the exception of the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational – which he briefly threatened to win – his early forays to the Sunshine State were underwhelming. But his last seven appearances have seen him register six finishes of T11th or better, including second at Bay Hill in 2019 and tied ninth at Sawgrass last year, when he was in the top three through 18 and 36 holes. He was also tied ninth last week in Orlando, neat form (a fourth top 10 in a row) and it might also have left him wanting more. A few who were bang in-contention (especially those who also played well at PGA National) might find another grind this week overly exhausting.
Each Way – Daniel Berger at +3300
I was keen on Russell Henley for third pick, but so is the compiler. We’ll look elsewhere, therefore, and I’ve always quite liked a player off a failure to convert a good chance. I recall Justin Rose explaining a few years ago, shortly after fluffing a big lead, that if you can quickly get back into contention the lessons are fresh in the mind.
So I’ll give Daniel Berger the chance to atone for leading by five at PGA National and finishing fifth. He’s been in superb form since the start of 2020, placing in 13 of 39 strokeplay starts, winning twice and being particularly good at avoiding bogeys in that period. That’s a good asset at Sawgrass and he can build successfully on his best finish of tied ninth, achieved in 2016 and repeated last year.