The 3 Best Golfers to Follow at THE PLAYERS Championship
This week the attention of the golf world is on the PGA Tour's headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Florida which hosts THE PLAYERS Championship, the self-styled "fifth major". Here are three golfers to follow:
"I love this place," the world number four insisted, talking about TPC Sawgrass ahead of the first round. "I just love this golf course." There is, however, a problem because his record doesn't tally with his affections. On debut in 2014 he got off to a flier, carding rounds of 67-66 to lie tied second at halfway and adding a Saturday 71 to share the 54-hole lead. Since then? A 74 to close out the tournament (finishing fourth) and then three missed cuts. Having played his first 36 holes at TPC Sawgrass in 11-under-par, Spieth is seven-over through the last eight laps and hasn't broken 70 once in that run.
How to explain it? Spieth has a theory: "This is not a place to force birdies and in the last few years that's got me into trouble. There are a lot of small areas. Small areas to hit your tee shots, small areas to hit your second shots, and you've really got to think through the place and let it come to you." His plan is to utilise his Augusta National mindset: "That means, if I'm out of position, how do I make par and then move on? This week is major championship calibre and I need a major game plan."
Beware, however, another thread of his pre-tournament press conference when he said of his debut: "It was softer that year, rainier, so you could get away with more than you can normally. In the last few years it's gotten really baked out here and it's going to continue this week." Spieth is 10/3 with Unibet to miss the cut this week against 11/10 to heed his own words, learn the lesson and make the top 20.
In contrast to Spieth, Francesco Molinari seems to have only a vague idea how to crack the Sawgrass enigma code. Instead he does it naturally and in the last five years no-one who has played at least 10 rounds betters his scoring average of 70.50. "I wish I knew the secret," the Italian said last year, of the Pete Dye designed course. "It's very tough for everyone, so even if you are suffering out there, you know that everyone is doing the same and you try your best. You just have to hit the ball well, hit fairways, hit greens, try to stay out of trouble."
Molinari has done that all right: in seven visits he has racked up four top tens, three of them in his last three visits. The key is that he knows how to find the small areas which spook Spieth. In the four times he made the cut he ranked top ten for Driving Accuracy three times and top 15 for Greens in Regulation three times also.
This season on the PGA Tour he ranks third for Strokes Gained: Off-the-tee and seventh for Strokes Gained: Tee-to-green. There is, in the circumstances, an odd similarity with Spieth because Molinari finished top ten on debut (in 2010) then missed three straight cuts. The hat-trick followed, we wait to see what happens next with Spieth. Molinari is 5/1 with Bet365 to make yet another top ten but, if you take the contrarian view that his consistency is due a break, he's 11/4 to miss the cut.
The PGA Tour like to create headlines and themed trios to enliven the early rounds. Stateside the focus will be on the blockbuster Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler group, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth not far behind. English eyes might linger on an early three-ball which includes Justin Rose, his good friend Ian Poulter and Tommy Fleetwood. It's a strong combination which might see Rose and Fleetwood reignite the dual they had for last year's Race to Dubai title. That might spur both on, it might also distract them a little.
Poulter's motivation will be more straightforward: he loves both the limelight and close-quarter battles. He also loves playing TPC Sawgrass, having twice finished second. He's also well capable of fast starts, breaking par eight times in 14 first rounds at the course and 17 in 28 pre-cuts laps. Rose has also played the track 14 times, breaking par five times on Thursday and 12 times before the weekend.
Fleetwood made his course debut last year and although he carded a second round 67, he failed to break 74 the rest of the week. On Thursdays this year there is nothing in it between the three: set against one another they've won two each. But with stronger Sawgrass form and a fondness to flutter his peacock feathers should Poulter be the outsider in the first round three-ball? He's 12/5 at top online bookies to claim the bragging rights on Thursday.
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