PLAYERS Championship preview and betting tips including Tiger Woods

Ben Coley previews the PLAYERS Championship
Ben Coley previews the PLAYERS Championship

Find out why Ben Coley is backing Tiger Woods in his in-depth preview of the PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

Recommended bets

3pts win Justin Thomas at 16/1

2pts e.w. Tiger Woods at 25/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Henrik Stenson at 60/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Kevin Kisner at 125/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Russell Knox at 150/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

The revamped golf schedule means it's the PLAYERS Championship which kicks off a four-month spell of relentlessly high-class sport and, whether you believe the propaganda campaign or not, there's no denying this is just about as good as it gets outside the four (repeat: four) majors.

The PLAYERS is iconic in its own right, largely thanks to the fact that, like the Masters, it has a permanent home. TPC Sawgrass, the best-known creation of Pete and Alice Dye, is a course recognised the world over. The 17th in particular must rank among the most famous holes in golf and it plays a key role in a closing stretch built for excitement.

With a deep bank of course form, key to unlocking the event is to establish whether the move from May to March will change anything. I've come to the conclusion that perhaps its potential impact has been overplayed; that what has happened here in recent years remains a valid form guide.

Ben Coley previews the PLAYERS Championship, plus exclusive interviews
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Yes, the weather has been far cooler than it would've been two months down the line and there's been talk, including among players, that this par 72 will play longer and likely easier than can be the case in May. But reports on Monday suggested that firmness of the greens remains and that over-seeded rough would pose its own problems, namely a variety of lies, often hard to judge.

Besides, we've been here before. The event moved the other way, from a slightly later March slot to mid-May, ahead of the 2007 edition. Yet looking through champions up to 2006 reveals a similar profile, that is to say that the move back then did not appear to change much. Perhaps the same will be true here.

If so, watch for straight hitters having their say in the conversation. Stephen Ames was the 2006 winner and since then we've had Tim Clark and KJ Choi, plus near-misses for Paul Goydos, Kevin Kisner, Ben Curtis, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Kevin Na and David Toms. They say this par 72 plays like a par 70 and there's no doubt a technical test of execution, where simply hitting the ball as hard as you can doesn't seem to do the trick, brings more players into the reckoning.

Indeed to extend that thought, much of the appeal of the event from a punting perspective is in the fact that the very best players in the world just don't appear to be totally at ease here. Dustin Johnson has had 10 tries without a top-10, Rory McIlroy nine without a top-five; scaling back off the tee just doesn't come naturally.

Even Rickie Fowler, winner in 2015 and runner-up in 2012, has something to answer when it comes to course suitability - he won because of a remarkable burst of scoring which we'll likely never see again, and bar second place his other visits have all been miserable. Brooks Koepka has even more to prove and while it's early days, I wouldn't have this down as an ideal venue for Jon Rahm, either.

All of which helps strengthen the case for two big fancies - Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods.

Thomas showed an immediate affinity for the course when contending on his debut, sitting fifth through 54 holes when still seeking a first PGA Tour win. He faded on Sunday, but made amends for that a year later, a final-round 65 setting a target which briefly looked like it might threaten Jason Day.

"I love this place," he said on his way to what was ultimately third place. "I had a great chance to win last year, something about this track and just the atmosphere, it's a really fun tournament and I look forward to playing it every year."

You might think that's an off-the-shelf reply to a question about an event the PGA Tour players are very proud of, but many others from the top of the sport have declined to make such a glowing assessment. McIlroy in particular has talked about how he's been forced to adapt his style of play and while he thinks he's getting there, I'd much rather back him when he's free to swing hard with the driver as often as possible.

Thomas might have just a little more subtlety to his game and has certainly become more prolific, winning events at a strike-rate not far short of one in 10 for a couple of years now, and having improved his score every day for 11th last year he looks the pick of the market leaders at this specific golf course.

It was here 12 months ago that Thomas graduated to the top of the world rankings and at present there can only be one player considered more likely to win any given tournament - Dustin Johnson. Given DJ's obvious disliking for Sawgrass, Thomas has to be the call at the prices.

Justin Thomas - leads by one
Justin Thomas looks the man to beat at Sawgrass

As for Woods, once upon a time it would've been easy to argue that, like Johnson, he doesn't particularly like Sawgrass; that his victory here in 2001 was product of him being Tiger Woods rather than a demonstration of love for the layout.

Yet as he's got older, no longer one of the genuine powerhouses of the PGA Tour, Woods' approach to scoring has become even more surgical and it's absolutely no coincidence that the victory which capped a memorable comeback season came at East Lake, an old-school, technical course where thought and execution are required.

It's on these courses, where driver is not all that important, that Woods is at his most dangerous - because what's clear is that his iron play remains his chief weapon, arguably setting the standard in the sport even now.

When he goes to somewhere like the course used in Mexico for the World Golf Championship, which appears short and tight but actually encourages use of driver, Woods is on the back foot. He ranked 66th of 72 players off the tee on his way to 10th, yet led the field in strokes-gained approach; not hitting driver simply put him in a position where 10th was about as good as it was going to get. Perhaps he could've finished fifth if he'd putted better.

Now we go to Sawgrass, where Woods could even gain strokes off the tee as he did last year and where he won for a second time in 2013 thanks to an imperious tee-to-green display, there is only one real concern: the neck.

Woods chose not to play at Bay Hill last week, a course where he's won eight times previously, because of an issue he said had been bothering him for some weeks. While the internet rumour mill went into overdrive just briefly, his alibi was supported by McIlroy who said Woods had been having treatment in Mexico City.

Monday's news was entirely positive, however, and seeing Woods blast drivers on the range put any concerns at ease. He doesn't need to be working hard this early in the week if there is an issue and the same goes for Thomas, who had strapping on his wrist at the Honda but said he simply wouldn't play, regardless of the tournament, if it remained an issue.

With both men perhaps benefiting from being fresh entering this busy spell, Thomas and Woods look the two standout candidates if we're to witness a truly top-class winner here.

Tiger Woods is a winner once more
Tiger Woods can add to last year's TOUR Championship win

Sergio Garcia has led the field in strokes gained tee-to-green here four times, and never finished worse than third. The way he's been hitting the ball this year suggests he's a candidate for a repeat and he was tempting enough at the prices as one of those who absolutely does enjoy this test.

Tommy Fleetwood should take great heart from Francesco Molinari's Sunday fireworks but I can't for one second get my head around the idea that he's got the same chance as Tiger, and the Italian is a better bet for the follow-up. Still, it does feel like the ship has sailed - he was around a 60/1 shot come tee-off last week.

Instead, I'm hoping the turnaround Henrik Stenson performed at Bay Hill came at precisely the right time as he bids to win his second PLAYERS Championship.

The Swede opened up with a round of 77 on a course where he's enjoyed much success in the past, and it appeared as though the funk in which he's started 2019 remained. Then, he shot 66 to climb more than 60 places, 69 to climb another 25 and a final-round 71 for a welcome top-20 finish.

Crucially, the performance was powered by strong approach play - he ranked third in the field - and it's that which makes Stenson a threat. Like Woods, he tends not to boss fields off the tee, however much we might admire the strong three-wood he fires down the middle of the fairway, but here at Sawgrass he can do so.

The Swede won by four here a decade ago, again thanks to an imperious display of ball-striking, and having also been third, fifth and 10th, it's clearly a golf course which suits his style. Anything around the 50/1 mark looks well worth taking.

Henrik Stenson
Henrik Stenson: Back in form at just the right time

Jordan Spieth contended here on debut and has to be considered at a remarkable 66/1 in places now back on bermuda greens, but his ball-striking remains a serious concern and I'll round off with two players at three-figure prices.

First, Russell Knox led the field in approach play at the Honda and a similar performance here would surely give him a strong each-way chance.

The Scot appears back to his best and having long made Florida his home, he's very familiar with Sawgrass - in fact he says he played it "all the time" when at college, even if his schedule no longer allows for that luxury.

During his early PLAYERS appearances, we saw evidence that the course suits Knox, who has won at TPC River Highlands - another Dye creation used on the circuit. He was 34th on debut followed by 17th and 19th and the latter ought to have been so much better, as he was in the mix before making a nine at the 17th during the third round.

Knox responded really well to that setback with a sub-70 final round and while subsequent visits haven't been anywhere near as encouraging, on both occasions he's arrived under a serious cloud.

That's not the case this time and having won a World Golf Championship plus the Irish Open, a high-class event which is part of the European Tour's Rolex Series, he clearly has enough about him to beat the world's best when presented with a suitable course.

At 29th in strokes-gained approach for the season and having been excellent in that department last time out, Knox looks worth siding with at three-figure prices.

Russell Knox: Contending again
Russell Knox has a solid record at a course he knows well

Finally, while Jason Kokrak's outstanding ball-striking is hard to ignore, I'm sticking with Kevin Kisner.

The American entered the final round of the Arnold Palmer with just two players ahead of him, but a three-putt bogey at the first hole set the tone for a wholly disappointing Sunday.

It was the putter which held him back all week, actually, and if you'd told me he'd rank 12th off the tee and 16th in approach play I'd have been convinced he'd nearly win the event. The expectation was that, back on bermuda, he'd rank highly on the greens having even putted well on poa annua to start the year.

Of course, golf makes a mockery of such lines of logic, however there's a very solid chance that Kisner improves on the greens and that makes him a potential contender in an event he so nearly won in 2015.

Back then, Kisner lost play-offs both here and at Harbour Town, two Dye layouts, and he also went close to winning at Dye's TPC Louisiana when partnering Scott Brown in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, again beaten in overtime.

That's a serious Dye-positive profile but more specifically, Sawgrass suits his straight driving and aggressive iron play and on this sort of golf course he is not far off being a genuinely world-class player.

Kisner has won twice on the PGA Tour, both on short, technical layouts with bermuda greens and the constant threat of wind, and I have to give him another chance at a similar price to last week.

Posted at 0800 GMT on 12/03/19.

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