Golf,

It’s Justin time for Sawgrass repeat

THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP


Best bets
2pts each-way Justin Thomas @ 12/1
2pts each-way Tyrrell Hatton @ 40/1
1pt each-way Si Woo Kim @ 80/1
0.5pts each-way Lee Westwood @ 125/1
0.5pts each-way Adam Scott @ 40/1
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Paying EIGHT places at the Players Championship!


Money and power, two subjects which have fascinated folk since time began, come under the microscope this week when the so-called fifth major, the Players Championship, takes centre stage at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.

Let’s start with the cash: $20m, the richest prize fund ever, and $3.6m for the winner. That’s a massive $5m hike from last year when Justin Thomas just came out on top after a protracted duel with Lee Westwood, while the winner’s takeaway has soared from $2.7m to $3.6m.

It was the threat of the proposed Saudi-financed new, rebel tour that prompted the PGA to raise its game so rapidly. So the 144 who tee it up on Pete Dye’s signature course, and those that follow, have much to be grateful for. When the Players was launched back in 1974 – Jack Nicklaus the first winner – the total prize pool was a puny $250,000 with $50,000 going to the Golden Bear. Now the prize money at Sawgrass outstrips by a distance what’s on the table for the four real majors.

Whodathunk the rewards for hitting a little white ball round a big field could be so lucrative!

Turning to power, the No. 1 for long driving last year at 323 yards, Bryson DeChambeau, is still not 100 per cent after rib and hip problems but the No. 2, Cameron Champ (322) will be there on a unique course that favours hitting fairways.

That’s what Fred Funk, the 2005 winner and No. 1 on the driving accuracy table, did so perfectly to become at 48 the oldest Players champion.

Funk’s record could come under fire from last year’s runner-up Lee Westwood, now in his 50th year. What an incentive that is for the Worksop Wonder because who knows how many more chances he’ll get.

That shock 200/1 victory by Funk proved designer Dye’s contention that Sawgrass, a 7250-yard par 72, is for every type of golfer, not just bombers. The 2005 champion’s average 270 yards ranked him 197th on the long-driving table so it can be done.

That said, it has to be admitted that the two most recent Sawgrass winners, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, were pound-for-pound the longest hitters in the field. Both are 5ft 9in, both weigh in at just 11st 6lb, both drive the ball in excess of 315 yards. Mighty mice indeed!

Defending champion Thomas is selected to go where no man has ever before – by making a successful title defence. Many have tried but nobody got closer than Nicklaus himself, champion in 1974-76-78. Where were you the odd-number years, Jack?

At 12/1 JT shares top spot on this week’s staking plan with English bulldog Tyrrell Hatton who fell just shy of giving Fitzdares followers a tasty 33/1 winner at Bay Hill on Sunday. But with every member of the world’s top ten in an amazing line-up, it’s going to take something special for anyone to come away with this monster prize.

Scottie Scheffler’s two victories in the past three weeks have catapulted the 26-year-old into the limelight but he’s so laidback that the fact he’s won the best part of $4m in three short weeks won’t go to his head.

Sawgrass, it has be said, is not every golfer’s cup of tea but the Stadium course is perfect for viewing, which is why, over the weekend, 25,000 spectators who love a car crash will surround the notorious Island Green, the tiny 17th, barely 137 yards long, hoping to see carnage. They certainly got what they came for when Bob Tway ran up a 12 in 2005 while only last year Ben An needed to hole a missable putt for an 11.

Last year 27 balls found a watery grave on a little terror that’s no bargain even with sunny skies and no wind, but when it blows, watch out!

Scheffler’s previous visit lasted only two days as he missed the cut. But breaking through at Phoenix has taken a monkey off his back. The Dallas-based, New Jersey-born 26-year-old no longer needed to hang that ‘loser’ tag around his neck no longer.

And with that weight off his mind, the 20/1 shot kept it together under pressure but it has not always been that way.

Hatton finished like a lion on Sunday to set the early target which only Scheffler could pass so all credit to Tyrrell for hitting back after Saturday’s X-rated 78.

Second place only a month after a bone graft jaw operation was admirable and the 40/1 with Fitzdares looks a tad generous despite Hatton’s lack of Sawgrass form.

After two fine finishes in the Gulf to kick-start his year, his 2022 profile reads 6-4-2 so he has plenty to go to war with.

If there’s a McIlroy v Hatton match bet, go for Hatton as Rory’s body language over the last round was as wretched as his golf. As a course winner, you can’t rule him out but he won’t be carrying my money.

Nor will Jon Rahm whose putting is a concern and the chief reason behind his disappointing 17th and 21st on his latest outings. He didn’t break 70 in any round at Bay Hill and I would sooner be on two past champions, Thomas and 2017 winner, Si Woo Kim.

JT’s flat stick isn’t quite firing either but he’s still 6-8-20-5-5 for five 2022 starts.

Patrick Cantlay’s classic game brings him into the conversation but he lacks the course form of Adam Scott, fourth at Riviera a couple of weeks ago, in contention again for a long way at Honda and back at the scene of his breakthrough PGA victory in 2004.

Kim is far from consistent but there was no fluke about his three-shot triumph five years ago. He made the top-ten at Sawgrass last time and two early top-12s this season have teed him up nicely for a track at which he has such a strong mental association.

The evergreen Westwood would have made it to a play-off last year had he not bogeyed the 17th. Back-to-back seconds at Bay Hill and Sawgrass last year suggest he is very much at home in his adopted state of Florida.

The power players may well come into their own when the heavens open up on the weekend, taking the sting out of the course. Nothing wrong, though, with the temperature as the forecasters call it at 27C.

Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele are all likely to be up there at the end of a starstudded week. Bring it on!

MYGOLFLIFE OPEN


Best bets
2pts each-way Bernd Wiesberger @ 18/1
1pt each-way JC Ritchie @ 40/1
1pt each-way George Coetzee @ 33/1
1pt each-way Jordan Smith @ 25/1
0.5pts each-way Seb Garcia Rodriguez @ 150/1
0.5pts each-way Francesco Laporta @ 80/1
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With 12 hours of Sky’s blanket coverage of the Players Championship to watch, it’s hard to imagine many golf fans outside friends, family and financially-involved punters will lose sleep over the outcome of the MyGolfLife Open in South Africa.
Yet victory at the Pecanwood Country Club in this DP World Tour newcomer will open doors for the guy who comes out on top, especially if he’s a first-time winner.

Sky’s heavy artillery is being deployed exclusively on Sawgrass which means not even a time slot for this first leg of a two-week shift in South Africa. The good news is that the second leg, the Steyn City Championship, will go out live on TV.
Win some, lose some, Pecanwood has drawn the short straw and punters will have to keep pace with the action via the internet.

It’s very much the blind leading the blind as there’s no course form to go on but if we do happen to land on the right square, the price of the winner will be a double-figure one in a very SA-heavy contest. Fitzdares are going 16/1 the field.

Dean Burmester getting the call ahead of European eight-time winner and Ryder Cup player Bernd Wiesberger comes as a surprise and even though all the 20/1 opening show for the Austrian has been hoovered up, the current 18/1 is still worth having.

Expect fireworks from local hero JC Ritchie who is on a tear following back-to-back Challenge Tour successes in Durban and Cape Town. This is a step up but not a big one and JC looked well capable with a main-tour top-ten at the Jo’burg Open the other side of Christmas. With those initials, he must surely have God on his side!

It should be a big week for the large South African contingent and nobody will know the par 72 Jack Nicklaus layout better than George Coetzee who hails from Pretoria, the nearest city to Pecanwood.

With three of his five tour victories coming in South Africa, Coetzee is very much in his comfort zone on home territory. He can play a big part in a tournament that won’t take that much winning.

Even if they use all of its 7687 yards, altitude and rarefied air ensure it will not play near its length. Competitors will scarcely believe how far they are hitting  it. Surrounded by mountains at Hartbeespoort, it has generous fairways like most Nicklaus courses and rewards dead-eye iron-play.

The signature short 13th – unlucky for some – runs alongside the dam with bunkers either side of a small green. The 170 bunkers are Pecanwood’s main defence along with the wind. Saturday is likely to be the windiest day, Sunday the steamiest  at 30C.

Local stars will have had more experience of Kikuyu but Wiesberger, with compatriot Sepp Straka’s recent stunning PGA Tour success as inspiration, can trump them all. He has taken time getting his act together since the turn of the year but, as they say, form is only temporary, class is forever. He’ll be back.

Burmester will have taken plenty of stick from his peers after his sextuple bogey nine on a par three in Kenya but is mighty powerful and knows how win. He was in with a shout at Muthaiga last week until the roof fell in with that card-wrecker.

He and fellow South Africans Justin Harding, Oliver Becker, Brandon Stone, Coetzee and Ritchie clearly mean business but the Wiesberger-led European challenge should have plenty to say about that.

Best of the raiding party could be Jordan Smith, who went close first time out, Scott Jamieson, in tip-top form but who often flatters to deceive, and British Masters champion Richard Bland, a late bloomer who seems to be a leaderboard regular these days.

The Spanish Armada of Adri Arnaus, Pablo Larrazabal, Jorge Campillo, Santiago Tarrio, Francesco Laporta and Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez are also of interest.

Senor Rodriguez is surely worth a little tickle at 150/1. His 17th in Nairobi was encouraging and while top-eights in Tenerife and Majorca last year don’t sound much, put them in the context of this week’s modest contest and a little each-way is worth a try.

Laporta, a superb iron player, shone for two days in Kenya but didn’t turn up at the weekend. He is better than that but needs to trust his putting if he is ever to open his main-tour account.

A reviving Ross Fisher, fresh from second place in Ras Al Khaimah, and exciting French newcomer Julien Brun look best of the rest.


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