Jason Day 1pt each-way @ 40/1
Adam Scott 1pt each-way @ 50/1
Collin Morikawa 1pt each-way at 18/1
Tommy Fleetwood 1pt each-way @ 33/1
Sergio Garcia 1pt each-way @ 66/1
Hideki Matsuyama 1pt each-way @ 33/1
The biggest prize fund outside the obscene sums they play for at the FedEx Cup showdown in September means it must be the Players Championship, a Major in all but name with almost certainly the best field we shall see all year.
With $15m on the table and $2.7m to Sunday’s winner at fabled Sawgrass, it puts the Masters ($11.5m), US Open ($12.5m) and our Open ($10.75m) in the shade as regards monetary reward but as for prestige, well that’s another matter.
Only Matt Wolff, nursing injured pride and hand after shooting a score at the Workday Championship two weeks ago that England’s bewildered batsmen would have given their eye teeth for, is missing from the world’s top 50 – so too, sadly, the luminous presence of two-time winner Tiger Woods.
Last year no champion was crowned. It was the surreal week Covid took over a world that would never be the same again. They played just one round on the Stadium course, Hideki Matsuyama shot a record-equalling 63 to lead by two from Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Si Woo Kim and Harris English, and that was it.
The plug was pulled. Half of the $15m prize fund was paid out and all participants copped for $52,000 which, as it turned out, had to keep them going for three months until Daniel Berger won at an empty, silent Colonial in mid-June.
How superb it was to see even a limited crowd back at Bay Hill last week – there will be 20% spectators at Sawgrass too – and what a difference it made to the atmosphere with the fans goading Bryson DeChambeau to go for the huge carry across the lake at the par-five sixth.
He obliged twice on the weekend, the second one measuring 377 yards. Playing partner Lee Westwood went the long way round, was 168 yards behind. Both made birdie fours!
The Arnold Palmer Invitational turned into a real edge-of-the-seat thriller with the muscle-bound American edging home by a shot from the magnificent Lee Westwood, only a month short of his 48th birthday but locking up, if there was any doubt, yet another Ryder Cup spot with his seventh runner-up spot on the PGA Tour.
He last won in the States in 2010 but with his ladyfriend on the bag and a victory in Abu Dhabi under his belt, he looks a man blissfully content with life and his game. It was a poor show by DeChambeau not to mention Lee’s exceptional effort in his TV interview. Being a gracious winner is often harder than being a gracious loser. Having now won eight times, he should know how things are done. He divides opinion as all “characters” do but the public and most of the players seem to like this oddball and, to be fair, he seems to have speeded up and the game needs more like him.
DeChambeau, a 12-1 selection here last week, rises from 11th to sixth in the world rankings while Westwood is up eight spots to 31st.
The weekend produced two extraordinary collapses. After a brilliant start, Rory McIlroy got worse day by day and looks a lost soul while Viktor Hovland was as likely a winner as anybody at halfway but shot 155 on the weekend to plummet to 49th. Clearly being in contention three weeks in a row exhausted the young Norwegian.
As last year was cancelled, 2019 winner McIlroy is the reigning champion but bad news for Rory – no defender has finished better than fifth. Neither he nor Hovland will be figuring in this week’s calculations on this Pete and Alice Dye 7189-yard par 72 that gives every type of player a chance.
Bombers often get put back in their box. In 2005 Fred Funk was almost 49 and one of the shortest drivers in the field when he sprang a huge surprise and the last 16 winners have all been different with Si Woo Kim in 2017 almost as big a shock as Funk.
The last two holes, the notorious Island Green 17th, only 137 yards but a wedge up to a 6-iron depending on a wind you can’t feel on the tee, and the 462-yard 18th with water all the way down the left and tree trouble for bottling out to the right, can change the whole picture in half an hour of mayhem.
Bob Tway in 2005 holds the unwanted Players record of shooting the highest score, a 12, on the 17th, but that pales into insignificance beside Pittsburgh grocer Angelo Spagnolo who took 66 there in a 1986 contest to discover America’s Worst Avid Golfer, finally getting there with a putter along the narrow pathway that links tee to green.
As for this week’s winner, Dustin Johnson, despite a last-time-out blip, was fifth the last time we had the full 72 at Sawgrass and is entitled to be favourite but expect Aussies Adam Scott and Jason Day, both past winners, will go well at decent prices.
Scott’s last four visits read 12-11-6-12 and he showed plenty of game with a top-ten at Torrey Pines in January, Day won in 2015, placed eighth and fifth in the last two renewals and has been showing more than a smidgen of the form that made him world top dog five years ago.
It was good to see Tommy Fleetwood come back to something like his best with a top-ten last week. He is still short of confidence but will be in a better frame of mind now and is an ideal type for Sawgrass, having finished fifth and seventh in 2018-19.
PGA champion and WGC winner last time out Collin Morikawa will only have played one competitive there as a pro but looks a great fit for the course and must surely contend.
Webb Simpson, the 2018 winner, and Matsuyama, last year’s first-round leader, previously eighth and seventh, and top 20 the last two weeks, have to be considered while 2008 champion Sergio Garcia has plenty of good course form.
He and 125-1 shot Chris Kirk, who had his best finish at Bay Hill (8th) since finishing runner-up in Hawaii in January and has bits of worthwhile Sawgrass form, are the pick of the outsiders.
Rasmus Hojgaard 2pts each-way @ 28/1
George Coetzee 1.5pts each-way @ 25/1
Kalle Samooja 1pt each-way @ 33/1
Kurt Kitayama 1pt each-way @ 33/1
Jazz Janewattananond 0.5pt each-way @ 66/1
Sad to see the long-established Qatar Masters, won by top-drawer players of the calibre of Ernie Els, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia in the past, running alongside the Players and therefore attracting a field of diminished quality.
The tournament is being played for only the second time at Education City in Doha so we have just the one piece of form, Jorge Campillo putting like a demon last year to prevent long-server David Drysdale chalking up a fairytale first tour victory at 44.
South African George Coetzee was seventh, only three behind the winner, and also has an excellent record on the old Doha course. He is a five-time tour winner and has already posted excellent finishes this campaign in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.
He won twice in September, on his home Sunshine Tour and in the Portugal Masters.
Thomas Pieters often looks a million dollars but regularly disappoints. Ditto his young Belgian pal Thomas Detry. Yet they head the market, not mine though.
Preference is for teen prodigy Rasmus Hojgaard who knocked up two quick wins last year and has started 2021 well with top-tens in Dubai and Saudi. The Dane turns 20 on Friday and could give himself a substantial birthday present on this Jose Maria Olazabal 7037-yard par 71 which opened in 2018 and is no pushover.
Kalle Samooja ticks the right current-and-course form boxes. The Finn was third last year and impressed with fourth place in Dubai in January. He was also runner-up in the Cyprus Open in November.
Kurt Kitayama knows how to win in the Gulf – he scored his second European Tour victory in Oman two years ago – and caught the eye with 12th place against stronger opposition in Saudi last month.
Jazz Janewattananond, third in the Irish Open in September, is better than a 66-1 shot in this company. The unpronounceable Thai was on the leaderboard for much of the way against DeChambeau and company at Bay Hill but had a disastrous Sunday 84. If recovered from that and the big time-zone change, he can also take a hand.
Campillo, Brandon Stone, Andy Sullivan, Antoine Rozner, Ross Fisher, Adri Arnaus and Haotong Li look best of the rest in a wide-open contest.
Pic credit: Penn State Turfgrass/Vikas Panday