Players Championship betting preview and tips from Ben Coley

Golf
Tiger Woods is part of Ben Coley's staking plan at Sawgrass
Tiger Woods is part of Ben Coley's staking plan at Sawgrass

Golf expert Ben Coley reckons Tiger Woods could go well in the PLAYERS Championship, where another major champion rates the best bet.

Recommended bets

1pt e.w. Zach Johnson at 80/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Patrick Cantlay at 66/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Branden Grace at 80/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

1pt e.w. Kevin Streelman at 125/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

1pt e.w. Tiger Woods at 40/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, visit our transparent tipping record

The PLAYERS Championship is the undoubted spring highlight on the PGA Tour, and this year's renewal comes with added lustre as Dustin Johnson requires his best ever performance in the event to hold onto the world number one ranking he's held for 64 weeks.

Johnson finished 12th at TPC Sawgrass last year, one week on from second place in the Wells Fargo Championship, but a two-way tie for 11th will be needed if he's to remain top dog and that's a result he's yet to achieve at a golf course which clearly does not play to his strengths.

Indeed, despite a win here for Jason Day and a string of top-10 finishes for Rory McIlroy, it's hard to argue that Pete Dye's masterpiece is suited to these modern-day golfers who continue to dominate the sport. This is no ordinary par 72 - some say it plays like a par 70 - and, unlike last week at Quail Hollow, driver just won't be in play often enough to hand the advantage to Day, McIlroy, Johnson and Justin Thomas.

McIlroy will carry a two-iron this week and will be forced to go against his all-out-attacking instincts so much of the time, and all these players who gain strokes off the tee (DJ first, Jon Rahm second in 2018) with 330-yard drives are going to have to find those shots somewhere else, often around greens if recent history is anything to go by.

Were this golf course hosting any old humdrum PGA Tour event, I suspect several of the above wouldn't be in the field, but this is the PLAYERS Championship, the so-called fifth major, the purse is huge and as it no longer clashes with the European Tour's BMW PGA, it is a ticket you do not tear up.

Plus, these are the best players in the sport and they can win anywhere. Day showed as much when he arrived at the peak of his powers and it's no surprise that he's back at the head of the market, while McIlroy's non-threatening consistency here, encouraging signs in his first start since Augusta and memories of his Bay Hill heroics entitle him to be 14/1, too. None appear to be a bad price - the market reflects their lack of suitability to the course - but none really tempt me.

The exception is Jordan Spieth, who very nearly made his way into the staking plan despite arriving on the back of three successive missed cuts at Sawgrass.

Although he's struggled a little in recent appearances here, it's telling that Spieth has said the same thing year on year. In 2015, he called Sawgrass "one of my favourite (courses) in the world", a message he echoed almost verbatim in 2016, while in 2017 he added: "I love this course and I think it fits my game well."

Spieth is right, and his struggles over this spell need to be balanced against a superb debut, in which he played the first 60 holes of one of the most mentally demanding courses on the planet without dropping a single shot. This was before he'd become a major champion, remember, and serves as evidence that he absolutely has the game and the mindset to win the event at some stage.

Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth could usurp Dustin Johnson as world number one this week

There's no question in my mind that of the best players in the world, it's Spieth who is best equipped to win at Sawgrass and I'm happy to completely ignore form in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a revamped team event, and instead encourage those who want to back him to focus on third place in the Masters when last playing on his own.

Spieth left Augusta delighted to have given himself a chance to win, rather than overly concerned with a bogey at the 72nd hole which ended that chance, and said "it very well could be a spark for a really solid year", words which I think we should take seriously.

It's well documented that the Texan superstar had endured a quiet start to the year, but don't forget he was ill over Christmas and it's basically all been down to a poor run with the putter, the like of which every player endures at some stage. Spieth, there's surely no doubt, will snap out of it and to that end he'll have gained great confidence from seeing so many putts drop in the Masters.

A winner at Dye's TPC River Highlands and the leader in scrambling this year, Spieth has all the tools required and it's rare we can back him at 16/1, in an event which doesn't necessarily suit his closest rivals. In that respect, it reminds me a little of last year's Open Championship and were there just a little more substance to his play this spring away from Augusta, he'd have been a bet.

While Spieth is my idea of the most likely winner, without question the best bet here is 80/1 chance Zach Johnson and with generous each-way terms on offer, we'll ignore the front of the market.

The two-time major champion has been on my radar all year, as regular readers may know, and it was therefore little surprise that he put it all together for fifth place in the Valero Texas Open last time, despite being no fan of the much longer TPC San Antonio.

By contrast, he can't get enough of TPC Sawgrass and his record here is almost without blemish, comparable in terms of consistency to the best in this field with 12 cuts made in 13 visits and a best of second place in 2012.

When runner-up six years ago, he arrived on a remarkably similar run of form, the early-season having been encouraging without quite yielding the expected rewards before he sprang to life with second place a couple of weeks earlier.

Having been in front at halfway and through 54 holes in Texas last time, there are signs that he's ready to strike again and it's been particularly encouraging to see the putter warm up. Since his Open triumph three years ago, Johnson has suffered more than at any other stage in his career on the greens and when you don't hit the ball far, that becomes a pretty serious issue.

Gladly, two top-15 putting performances in succession suggest that he's through the worst of it and Johnson has gained over a stroke per round on average throughout his last eight, which again resembles past form - prior to that victory at St Andrews, he'd gained almost exactly a stroke per round across the Travelers Championship and the John Deere Classic.

Scrambling has been a key pointer here - 2017 champion Si-Woo Kim led, while Ian Poulter ranked second as he finished runner-up, and Day also led the field en route to victory in 2016 - and Johnson continues to figure highly, not just because he has a fine short-game but because his iron play has been his key strength for a long time now, meaning when he does miss, it tends to be in the right place.

Missing in the right place is a requirement at all Dye designs, and Johnson has always been expert in it. That's why he managed to finish third at Whistling Straits in 2010 despite that course being longer than ideal, while he's also been third at River Highlands, second at Harbour Town and 12th at Crooked Stick, all created by Dye.

Bogey avoidance is a byproduct of missing in the right spots and Johnson continues to thrive there, too, so at a demanding, not-for-everyone course where concentration is king, he looks to have a much better chance than the price implies.

The reason he's on offer at 80/1 is that winless run which dates back to 2015, but all of Johnson's best Sawgrass form has come when he's been approaching his peak throughout the spring and that's very much the case yet again. I expect him to play really well.

Billy Horschel is a Dye-loving, Florida-living recent winner, having landed the Zurich with Scott Piercy, but the early birds have left very little of the worm behind and I can let him go at the price, while Chris Kirk's eye-catching form and course record aren't enough to overlook some deep-rooted putting woes.

Instead, I like the idea of backing Patrick Cantlay to follow home Si-Woo Kim as a top-class prospect winning this event when not at the top-end of the market.

Kim had been 23rd on debut when a poor final round saw him drop down the leaderboard, before returning to put four together in a display of poise which belied his inexperience.

Cantlay, then, was 22nd on his professional Sawgrass debut last year and his was an even more eye-catching display, as he sat fifth at halfway and seventh with a round to go only to struggle on Sunday with a disappointing 77.

That was still very early in Cantlay's return to the PGA Tour, by far the most prestigious event he'd played in, and it came about because of a nightmare stretch of four holes approaching the turn, but one year on and he's a winner who made it all the way to the TOUR Championship, one who is much better equipped to go through with his effort.

Cantlay could go well at 150/1
Cantlay could go well at 66/1

Seventh place last time in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans doesn't really interest me as a worthwhile form guide, but I do like the fact that he again teamed up with Patrick Reed, as playing alongside the Masters champion and in the heat of the media glare is another lesson which this enormous talent will put to use over the coming weeks and months.

It can't hurt that Reed said "nothing seems to phase this guy - he's got ice in his veins" when it comes to another injection of confidence, but truth be told cocksure Cantlay doesn't need that reinforcement and he's been playing well all year, bar a rare missed cut (his first since returning to the top level) at Augusta.

Prior to the Zurich, he played beautifully for seventh in the RBC Heritage, despite an unruly putter, and that was his first full-field PGA Tour start since fourth place in the Genesis Open at Riviera in February which was followed by two decent WGC displays.

An outstanding ball-striker who thrives when there's some thought required, something we saw at Copperhead last year, Cantlay is good enough around the greens to avoid serious mistakes and, like Spieth, he knows Sawgrass better than you might think having gone well in the Junior PLAYERs here in the past.

Now a Florida resident who is definitely capable of landing a big prize this year, he is worth a bet at prices north of 50/1.

Kevin Streelman and Branden Grace both look like they could outperform their prices despite one or two negatives and they also go in the staking plan.

For Streelman, the negative is that he missed the cut at Quail Hollow last week, but I was struck by how much of a bombers' paradise that course appears to have become and would rather judge short-hitting Streelman on his form earlier in the season.

Prior to the Wells Fargo, he'd putted well for a top-10 finish at the Heritage and putted poorly for a top-10 finish in Texas, continuing to show the quality tee-to-green play which has produced such consistent results over the last year or so.

Granted, he would be a surprise winner of this prestigious title, but there have been plenty of those in the past and Streelman at least has winning Dye form, having taken the Travelers Championship with a remarkable burst of scoring back in 2014.

His other victory came in Florida at the Valspar Championship, form which stacks up well here at Sawgrass, and Streelman demonstrated as much by finishing second here the same year behind Tiger Woods, a performance generated by his ball-striking.

If you're willing to forgive last week, as I am, then he looks a player more than capable of showing his best and that puts him in the conversation - even in a field as strong as this one.

As for Grace, my primary concern is that he hasn't played since the Masters, especially as the pick of his winning form has come when he's been fully wound up.

However, with that negative comes a positive - the reason for his absence from the course is that he became a father for the first time at the end of April, and as we saw with Andrew Landry in Texas, that can have an immediate and positive impact for the right person.

Never would I make a case solely around the so-called nappy factor, though, and the big reason for liking Grace is that he's got strong Dye form which includes a win at Harbour Town and third at Whistling Straits, while here at Sawgrass he's yet to miss a cut in four starts and was set for a debut top-15 until throwing away six shots over the closing four holes.

Last time was saw him in action, Grace finished with a flourish for 24th at Augusta - just about as good as you'd expect him to perform at a course which really isn't made for him - while earlier this spring he bagged a top-10 finish at the Valspar Championship as he continues to sit on the fringes of contention and ready to contend.

Whistling Straits in particular has been a good guide to this event and with close friend Louis Oosthuizen having been second here last year, I can see Grace producing a similar display if fatherhood does conjure a step forward on his past PLAYERS exploits, rather than a step backward.

The absence itself shouldn't be too big a concern as he was second off a four-week break in the Scottish Open a few years ago, and has twice hit the frame in the US Open after a month away. As with so much of his form, those efforts suggest that Sawgrass is a course he can work his way around and the price is big enough to take on board those risks.

Finally, I've had Tiger Woods in mind for this for a while now and not even a birdie-free Sunday at Quail Hollow has put me off.

Common consensus used to dictate that Woods isn't really suited to Sawgrass and that was once true, but his game is different now to a decade and a half ago and I just wonder whether it stacks up much better for this test.

Woods won here by two shots on his penultimate visit, remember, and I'd much rather side with him on a course where he doesn't have to reach for the driver, even if he did show one or two signs of improvement with it at Quail Hollow.

When last the PGA Tour was in Florida, Woods sprang to life with form figures of 12-2-5, twice having a genuine chance to win, and the quality of his approach play and scrambling make him a massive player this week if the putter improves just slightly.

Tiger Woods in action at the Honda Classic
Tiger Woods will relish a return to Florida

Posted at 1745 BST on 07/05/18.

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