Ben Coley sets the scene ahead of the PLAYERS Championship, where Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods carry outright confidence and Jason Kokrak can get off to a flier.
If you’re still with me, I think Jason Kokrak (yes, I know) is a smashing bet to win his three-ball on Thursday. It’s amazing what that break between Sunday night and Thursday morning can do for confidence, isn’t it?
Confidence is something Kokrak has in abundance, because he’s playing as well as he ever has right now and if he can hold his nerve and hole a putt during the same week, he’ll win a tournament soon.
Whether that can happen here at the PLAYERS, I’m not sure, but I would certainly be inclined to read very little into his poor course form. Good golf works anywhere, and Kokrak is playing borderline sensational golf from tee-to-green right now.
Besides, he was fourth in approach play on his last visit and he’ll love the cooler, softer conditions, all of which is why he was the last man off my list. A hair bigger and he’d have been the sixth selection.
Kokrak is 5/4 to beat Danny Lee and Scott Langley because Lee played well here last year and maybe even because Langley now calls Florida home, but the way the three are playing now there’s a strong case for the favourite being well overpriced.
Lee shot 70-77 last week and has been behind Kokrak on all five occasions they’ve played in the same tournament this year. Kokrak holds a commanding lead if we take a round-by-round view, too, and while over 18 holes there’s no margin for error, their expected scores here are some way apart.
Langley signed off with a round of 80 at Bay Hill and hasn’t been particularly effective here in the past. A better golfer by the coast, and one who could find this a slog if the course does play long, he’s readily opposed.
Kokrak boasts a form and power advantage and with Lee’s course form holding up the price, the Canadian-born American is best bet on the three-ball coupon by some distance.
Betting on an unnamed wire-to-wire winner has never really appealed to me. There’s just too much random, and at the end of the first round you’re left with a player or players who you’re tied to thereafter – whatever you happen to think about them.
But if you have a fancy towards the top of the market this week – say, Justin Thomas or Tiger Woods – it could be worth considering a small press-up on them to lead after every round and win the event.
It’s something that has happened here at the PLAYERS Championship in three of the last five years, and while there’s a good chunk of the aforementioned random in there, I can also see some logic. Sawgrass is a test of execution and focus and if there’s a course where getting ‘in the zone’ can quickly make for separation, it could well be this one.
Thomas has led from the start on the PGA Tour once before, when that opening 59 in Hawaii paved the way for a seven-shot annihilation. On three other occasions he’s won tournaments having led after two of the first three rounds, and as a world-class player so accepting of this course’s subtleties, he looks the most likely candidate to turn this into a procession.
As for Woods, the greatest front-runner in history, perhaps he’s not all that far behind.
Go back to September, and Woods led from wire-to-wire at East Lake to end a five-year trophy drought. Back in 2013, he made all in the WGC-Cadillac Championship and his strike-rate having led after the first round is an absurd 52.9 per cent. In other words, history suggests that if he takes the first-round lead, he’s odds-on to go on and win.
Of course, leading after rounds one and four is only half the trick, but it’s one Tiger has performed some 15 times in his career. It’s difficult to say whether odds of 300/1 with Sky Bet fairly reflect the chances of number 16 occurring here, but if you backed Tiger Roll you must surely spend some of the winnings backing Tiger to roll.
If your deadline is tee-off rather than, say, Monday evening, perhaps waiting for the press conferences was a particularly wise play this week.
After all, all that Sawgrass form of the last decade comes with a caveat; that it was built in May, not March, and is now vulnerable to being undermined by significantly different conditions.
Much of what I read a week ago suggested that Sawgrass was wet and therefore playing longer and softer than has been the case since 2006, when last it featured around this time of year. Yet on Sunday and Monday, reports filtered through which suggested greens still had their firmness and over-seeded rough was throwing out all kinds of lies.
The players, though, have been unanimous in their verdict: it’s long, it’s soft, and everything has changed. Rory McIlroy said he had to swap wedge for six-iron for his approach to the final hole; Tiger Woods went from nine to three.
“It's soft, it's wet,” said Woods on Tuesday. “We had the rain last night; we were getting mud balls and it's back to how it used to play… ball’s not going as far.”
When Woods continued to say players would have to club up from the tee, I must admit some of my faith in his chances this week disappeared. But then he explained that he thinks his regular visits here in March will be in his favour and that, crucially, his neck isn’t an issue. You win some, you lose some.
Adam Scott, like Woods a past March winner, couldn’t hide his excitement at the schedule switch while Justin Thomas said he planned to ‘swing it and ding it’. If that means ‘shoot four rounds of 65 and see where that gets me’, then he has my full support.
Oh, and if you’re in that awful collection of sycophants who insist this ought to be the fifth major, consider this: Justin Rose had to be reminded that he carded six birdies in succession here last year. I promise you, nobody who makes six birdies in succession in the Masters or the Open forgets about it in (less than) 12 months. Play it as it lies.
My selections: Thomas, Woods, Stenson, Kisner, Knox
Dave Tindall: Cabrera Bello, Glover, Mitchell
Steve Palmer: Woods, Schauffele, Poulter, Cantlay
Steve Rawlings: Molinari, Poulter, Fitzpatrick, Glover, Mitchell
Niall Lyons: Leishman, Knox, Glover, Palmer, Hadley, Baddeley
Steve Bamford: Fleetwood, Matsuyama, Poulter, Wallace (T10)