Euro stars look key Players

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: May 6 2014, 13:36 BST

Ben Coley is backing three of the finest golfers in Europe to upstage the US contingent in the Players Championship.

Graeme McDowell: Can put it all together at Sawgrass
Graeme McDowell: Can put it all together at Sawgrass

Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott headline a stellar field for the 41st Players Championship, and 33rd to be played on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

Pete Dye's magnificent creation is usually above criticism and with good reason. It's a wonderful layout that offers no let-up and does nothing unfairly, even if holes such as the iconic par-three 17th can occasionally seem barbaric.

This year, things are a little different. A cold, difficult winter in Florida combined with a mistake or two by the team preparing the course means that several greens remain closed for practice at the time of writing and it's likely that at least three of them will fall short of the standard we've come to expect on the PGA Tour.

It's hard to be any more specific than that and ultimately we'll only find out what - if any - impact this has once the tournament is well under way.

Some punters will rightly point to last year's Wells Fargo - won by any-price-you-like Derek Ernst on terrible greens - as evidence that bad surfaces equal unpredictable tournament. But then we could look back to the 2007 TOUR Championship at East Lake, played on abysmal greens but won in a hack canter by none other than Tiger Woods. You pay your money and take your choice.

My inclination is to trust that the damage will be minimal and treat this event like any other. It helps that Sawgrass is typically regarded as a tee-to-green examination so while the very best putters may cope better with the problems, their efforts will probably prove futile if they're unable to keep churning out greens in regulation.

To flesh out that belief, five of the last 15 champions have led the field in greens hit and a further six of them ranked inside the top 10. Rare exceptions include the Craig Perks shock in 2003, habitual rulebook burner Phil Mickelson in 2007 and 1999 winner David Duval, who was simply scoring brilliantly at the time.

It's also proved important to arrive at Sawgrass in something very close to peak form and that makes sense, as there is no hiding place here. Confidence is a huge weapon and you have to go back to Steve Elkington's 1997 win for the last time a would-be champion arrived on the back of a missed cut. Even then, Elkington had won his previous start and was a Sawgrass champion already.

So where do we start? At the head of the betting we've McIlroy, who is producing top-10 finishes without threatening to win, and Scott, a past champion here who is probably the more likely of the two. Neither are to be ruled out but nor does there look to be outstanding value in their prices.

The man for your one-and-done or Fantasy Golf list is surely Matt Kuchar, whose stellar play was rewarded with a remarkable (and, to this day, extremely painful) win in the RBC Heritage last month. That came at the expense of Luke Donald and he's another obvious contender, albeit I couldn't take 25s here when he was the same price in a much weaker field at Hilton Head.

I could go on as there's temptation in youngsters Harris English and Jordan Spieth - the latter having shown inexperience to be no barrier at Augusta; English having dropped hints here before - while Zach Johnson caught the eye last week and is understandably popular at a more suitable venue.

However, it's Graeme McDowell who headlines my staking plan and anything 66/1 or better looks well worth taking.

You'd be forgiven for doubting McDowell's credentials, given that he's never cracked the top 20 here let alone the top six we need him to on this occasion. But while it's not unreasonable to hold such a concern, it doesn't take much more digging to see that he in fact led this tournament after 54 holes in 2011 and that despite a double-bogey on the 18th at the end of round three, a blow from which he was unable to recover.

Back in 2005 he sat seventh at the halfway stage following a Friday 66 so, while final results suggest otherwise, we shouldn't be surprised that he does love coming back. "It's a golf course that fits my eye," he said. "This is always a golf course where I feel like I can get it round. Obviously, led briefly a couple years ago, and I know it's a golf course I can get around."

Once we're able to allay any concerns surrounding the course, the case for McDowell actually becomes straightforward. His two wins in the US have come on tight, twisting tests in Hilton Head (designed also by Dye) and Pebble Beach, and if we think back to his best achievements in Europe the likes of Valderrama and Le Golf National further underline that we're best backing him for what will be a thorough examination.

Prior to a missed cut at Augusta, a brutally long golf course that he may never fully get to grips with, McDowell's form had been extremely encouraging. Seventh at Pebble Beach, a quarter-final exit in the Match Play plus top-10 finishes at Doral and Bay Hill all read well while he put up a stout defence back at Hilton Head three weeks ago.

There are few in the game who are more accurate from the tee and the 34-year-old is 30th for greens and second in strokes-gained putting too, which helps explain why he sits sixth in scoring average this season despite generally choosing to play in the most difficult events.

Throw in the fact that McDowell often comes alive in a Ryder Cup year, lives not too far away and is one big week away from a return to the world's top 10 and there are many reasons to fancy a player who to my eye looks almost twice the right price.

Speaking of the Ryder Cup, who better to rubber-stamp a place at Gleneagles than the event's standout player, Ian Poulter?

I have to say, first and foremost, that part of the reason I fancy the Englishman is that his bullishness of late has me convinced. At the Masters he was effusive in his personal assessment and there's a lot of talk that his Trackman dedication over the last six months has really started to pay off. If nothing else, Poulter can generally be relied upon when it comes to honesty.

Of course, it's easy to get hung up on such things but he did without doubt produce some very good golf at Augusta and has since finished fifth in China, despite losing the plot for an hour in round two on Friday and in doing so losing all hope of winning. His fightback for fifth is all the more creditable with that in mind.

There's no doubt that Poulter does excel in the Far East and still has something to prove here in the US, but the mental test that is Sawgrass is one he says suits him and outside of match play his second here in 2009 is the best thing he's done on US soil.

"I enjoy the golf course," he said. "I enjoy the test. I enjoy some of the tee shots which capture your attention. You have to step up and hit a decent tee shot at certain times, you know, I enjoy playing under pressure."

Poulter is hitting the ball well enough at present, his putting stats remain excellent and this close-to-home event provides an ideal opportunity for him to confirm a Ryder Cup spot.

Henrik Stenson was the man who denied Poulter five years ago and of those at the head of the market he stands out to me.

The Swede has an excellent relationship with Sawgrass, dating back to his third on debut in 2006, and commented after winning the event that a switch to May from March was in his favour as it placed greater emphasis on ball-striking.

It's ball-striking which paved the way for a remarkable 2013, which saw Stenson win both the Race To Dubai and FedEx Cup finales courtesy of absolute dominance from tee-to-green, and it's therefore no surprise that as his iron play deserted him in early 2014 he was unable to produce the results we've grown used to.

However, minor equipment tweaks are probably to blame - at least in part - and there are signs now that he's getting back to his best. In China, Stenson ranked eighth for greens on his way to fifth while he ranked 13th at Augusta on his way to a career-best finish of 14th.

If he can bring that iron improvement here, where he has a win and two further places from eight starts, we may well be in business. That Stenson placed on his last start in Florida and was fifth here last year despite having missed the cut in his previous start adds to confidence and of all the big events this season, this may be the one best suited to his game.

I'm going to stick with just those three in the outright markets this week, that's despite temptation to chance Brandt Snedeker at a course he adores despite a mixed bag of results.

Instead, I'll finish off with two bets on Francesco Molinari who looks value to lead after round one and finish inside the top 10.

I backed Molinari in the first-round leader market at Augusta and he was 12th, a perfectly respectable effort and certainly not one which has me rushing to discard him.

The case was based around him having placed after round one in his three previous US starts and those figures are supported by several fast starts in majors and WGC events around the world.

The Italian led the field for greens hit in China and his game remains in great shape, to the point where I did consider him in the outright betting.

Ultimately, though, I feel he's likely to come up short but a second-round 65 in 2010 - in which he hit all 18 greens - offers hope that he could start quickly here and hopefully stick around for a similar finish to the ninth he produced that year.