Sawgrass right place to take on Big Three


Best bets

2pts each-way Keegan Bradley @ 50/1
1.5pts each-way Francesco Molinari @ 100/1
1.5pts each-way Jason Day @ 28/1
1.5pts each-way Max Homa @ 18/1
1pt each-way Adam Scott @ 80/1

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If the Players Championship, regarded by some as the fifth Major, is as enthralling as last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, won by big outsider Kurt Kitayama in a tournament that seven, including megastars Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler, had a realistic chance of winning right up to the 71st hole, nobody will be complaining.

The gutsy little Californian, at 5ft 7in one of the shortest on the PGA Tour but also one of the longest, defied four penalty shots in the last two rounds and a triple-bogey seven at the ninth on Sunday and held his nerve while all about him were losing theirs on a course every bit as difficult as most US Open venues.

Kitayama somehow recovered from the trauma of being two ahead standing on the ninth tee and one behind coming off the ninth green and broke the deadlock with a stunning birdie at the short 17th, sealing his first victory on home soil with a tap-in par at the last for a tasty $3.6m payday.

There’s even more on the table for this week’s winner, $4.5m, from the biggest purse of the year, $25m, but not being Major, the Players cannot have the strongest field of the year as the LIV stars headed by Open champion Cameron Smith, are barred whereas we shall see 12 of them at next month’s Masters and even more at The Open.

Their absence has ripped a particularly large hole here as the 1-2-3 from last year, Smith, Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey, and four of the top six from 2021, Lee Westwood, Bryson DeChambeau, Casey again and Talor Gooch, are all LIV men now.

After a week with a 200/1 shock at Bay Hill and a 125/1 winner, Colombian Nico Echavarria, in the Puerto Rico Open, it’s galling to say it but the bookies are beaming – and another upset could be in store on Pete Dye’s stunning Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass.

This is the tournament for sadists who love the drama of the villainous island 17th, just 137 yards long but a little terror for club selection when the wind gets up. And if the 17th doesn’t get you, then the long, sinewy par-four 18th and its unrelenting water hazard the length of the left side might well do, particularly if your brain is still in a spin after that par three from hell where, two years ago, 66 balls got wet and 64 last year.

That said, at 7275 yards par 72 Sawgrass is not quite as demanding as last week’s searching examination which had co-runner-up McIlroy wondering whether birdie-hungry fans really want to see their heroes struggling for pars and fighting not to three-putt on rock-hard greens. Yes Rory, they do! There’s far too much dartboard golf where the winner is the guy with the hottest putter.

Of the three men who dominate the betting, Jon Rahm, Scheffler and McIlroy, I fancy the Irishman most because he’s the one who has won there. Yet I am far from convinced any of that awesome threesome truly relishes a course not everyone looks forward to. In fact, McIlroy missed the cut on his first three visits – and twice more since).

Even so, there are more positives than negatives about our Rors which is hard to say about the others. The Sawgrass record (55-9-12-63-72) of Rahm, Fitzdares’ 8/1 favourite but a miserable 39th on Sunday, offers little encouragement and none of his ten PGA wins have come in Florida. Scheffler’s credentials, 55th and a missed cut, are even less convincing.

I’m looking elsewhere but not at the obvious dangers. Also rejected for betting:  Spieth who wasted a fabulous start on Sunday, Justin Thomas who looks short of confidence on the greens, Xander Schauffele who keeps folding like a pack of cards, Collin Morikawa whose putting stroke is faulty, and Patrick Cantlay who last made a Players cut in 2018.

Try instead Keegan Bradley, Max Homa and Francesco Molinari along with Australian duo Jason Day and Adam Scott.

Bradley and Day, both Major champions in their heyday, shared tenth at Bay Hill just four behind the winner and another step back to the upper echelons of the game. Bradley, the 2011 PGA champion, broke a four-year losing streak in the ZOZO Championship and confirmed he’s a serious contender again these days when runner-up to Rahm at Torrey Pines in January. He has course cred – fifth last year and sixth in 2018 – while Day is a past Sawgrass champion, by four in 2016, and has placed fifth and eighth since. He used to be a risky bet because of back problems but they seem under control and his self-belief has soared.

Molinari was just behind that pair on Sunday and boasts consistent Sawgrass form (6th, 7th, 8th, 8th and 9th) from the days when he was a major force. Those days are on the way back as he presses to regain his Ryder Cup place, an important mission with the match in his home country.

Homa, 13th last year but absolutely bubbling after a great Presidents Cup and three victories since, is a very fine golfer at the top of his game and Scott, with a swing to die for and still ambitious at 42, likes Sawgrass. He had a nice 12-6-11-12 run there between 2016-19. The putter, for long his bete noire, looks much more reliable this year.


Best bets

2pts each-way Antoine Rozner @ 16/1
2pts each-way Shubhankar Sharma @ 28/1
1pt each-way Alexander Knappe @ 50/1
1pt each-way Justin Harding @ 80/1
0.5pt each-way Oliver Bekker @ 25/1
0.5pt each-way Julien Brun @ 28/1

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When the cats are away, the mice come out to play and after the DP World Tour’s week break, we have three weeks of modest purses and bread-and-butter golfers in Africa, starting with this week Magical Kenya Open.

Not one player inside the world’s top 80 but victory at the Muthaiga club just outside Nairobi or in South Africa the following fortnight opens plenty of doors and, more importantly for the winner if he’s European, enhances his chances of making the Ryder Cup side for Rome in September.

Very much in that category come ambitious Scot Bob MacIntyre and Frenchman Antoine Rozner, both picked for the Hero Cup at the start of the year, a sure sign they were on captain Luke Donald’s shopping list.

And although Bobby Mac is ahead of the swarthy Parisian in Fitzdares’ betting, there are signs that the all-consuming desire for that Ryder debut is getting to him and he is trying too hard to impress. How else to explain underwhelming 2023 form figures reading 20-38-MC-57-37?

Maybe the man from Oban will have found something in that week’s break but the case for Rozner is stronger. Victory in Mauritius in December and top-six finishes in Singapore and Thailand on his two latest starts suggest he is the man to beat.

The biggest danger could be Shubhankar Sharma, 13th at Muthaiga last year when Ashun Wu won by four. The Chinese is back with his game in good nick and won’t be far away but the Indian No. 1 holds greater appeal.

Third at the Nedbank and seventh in Abu Dhabi either side of Christmas, Sharma’s 13th in his national Open in New Delhi last time out underpins the feeling that a third tour win is not far away after a couple of years of struggle. With more than 100,000 Indians living in Kenya, this is almost a home game for Sharma who will not be short of support.

Steady Oliver Bekker, an eight-time winner on his home Sunshine Tour but still awaiting a breakthrough at European level, was eighth at 7228-yard par 71 Muthaiga last year and will be brimful of confidence after last month’s Dimension Data Pro-Am wide-margin victory. This is barely harder.

Another South African, Justin Harding has win and place form in Nairobi but at the Karen course which hosted the 2019 and 2021 Kenya Opens.

He was runner-up in 2019 and went one better next time (not played in 2020 because of the pandemic) when his chief victim was none other than Sunday’s Bay Hill hero Kurt Kitayama. Even though trying for a repeat at Muthaiga last year didn’t work (only 42nd), he doesn’t have the burden of being defending champion this time.

Harding signed up for the rebel LIV circuit and played the first three tournaments with them (two top-tens) but was surplus to requirements when bigger names joined, didn’t play after July, and was back with the DPWT for two inconclusive outings in the Gulf.

A second Frenchman, Julien Brun, 13th last year and with two top-fives from his five latest outings, the reliable Spaniard Adrian Otaegui, young Irish prodigy Tom McKibbin and golden oldie Marcel Siem who showed he still had plenty to offer by winning for the first time in eight years in New Delhi also come into the conversation.

Siem isn’t Germany’s lone hope as Alexander Knappe’s eyecatching third in Thailand and sixth in India represent strong up-to-date form and this 33-year-old late bloomer, twice a winner on the satellite Challenge Tour last year, should not be far away. Now he’s discovered he belongs on the main circuit, a breakthrough in this weak contest is by no means out of the question.

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