Players Championship: R3 preview including two-ball tips

Last Updated May 12 2018, 18:14Golf
Webb Simpson in action at Sawgrass
Webb Simpson in action at Sawgrass

Ben Coley looks at the state of play at TPC Sawgrass, where 66/1 tip Patrick Cantlay is tied for second - but trails the leader by five.

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4pts win Webb Simpson at 7/4

3pts Ryan Moore to beat Chris Kirk at evens

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Webb Simpson's second-round 63 presented punters assessing the outright market at the PLAYERS Championship with their starter question: are you with or against the 7/4 favourite, who has opened up a five-stroke lead?

The case for rests on the size of the lead and the nature of the course. TPC Sawgrass has typically been kind to front-runners, especially those with healthy advantages, and that may be due to the fact that once those in pursuit take risks they would not ordinarily take, big numbers are brought into play.

Although Simpson's double-bogey at the par-three 17th demonstrates that no player is immune to a costly mistake, much of this layout can be navigated fairly safely by a confident front-runner who knows that par is his friend. Simpson, whose career high came with victory in the US Open six years ago, is well versed in avoiding errors - in fact he's sixth in bogey avoidance this season and was 13th last.

It's rare for a player to lead by five at halfway of any event, not least on the world's most competitive tour. In fact there have been just 17 instances of precisely five-stroke leads over the last 20 years, and 13 of them have been converted. The only recent exceptions were Jason Kokrak and Spencer Levin, two non-winners who were faced with the prospect of achieving a lifetime's ambition. Simpson is not yet a PLAYERS champion, but he is a major champion and that means he's better equipped for the challenge ahead.

Sung Kang, Jhonattan Vegas and Adam Scott have all blown even bigger halfway leads in recent years, but more often than not players convert from here and these bare numbers, along with the fact that this is the biggest advantage anyone has ever established at this stage of the PLAYERS, point towards Simpson being an excellent price at 7/4. The market says that the prospects of the field beating the leader are in excess of 60 per cent and that cannot be true.

The case against is largely two-fold: it is a long time since Simpson has won, and his lead is the product of one of the most sensational short-game performances in modern PGA Tour history. He's produced two of his own career top-10 putting rounds in succession and what's clear is that he has at last overcome the anchoring ban which threatened to completely derail him completely.

Some may wonder why the latter point adds to the case against, and the answer is that it is unlikely that Simpson continues in this vein - in fact it would be unprecedented. And given that he ranks 34th off the tee and 50th with approach shots this week, it may be that his long-game has to come to the party if, as expected, there is a regression in his short-game.

That being said, there is no reason he cannot find those improvements from tee to green. Simpson is a rock-solid 20th on the PGA Tour in approach play this year and while his off-the-tee stats will always be modest, that's because he doesn't hit the ball very far. All that we know about Sawgrass, even when it's playing fairly easy, is that power is of little advantage and these season-long numbers are therefore little cause for concern.

Balancing the cases for and against leaves me firmly in the camp that Simpson is a big price, and that feeling is enhanced by a look at those in closest pursuit. Yes, Patrick Cantlay is an enormous talent and those of us who backed him pre-tournament will hope he's in for a big moving day. Yes, Charl Schwartzel is a major champion and yes, Alex Noren is a prolific winner on the European Tour and on the fringes of the game's elite.

But they are not Jordan Spieth, or Justin Thomas, or Dustin Johnson or Jason Day. The latter is second favourite and just two shots off second, with Johnson just one further back, but Spieth and Thomas are surely out of the conversation while Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler certainly are, both having clumsily missed the cut.

The point is that while there was bound to be someone of immense talent within striking distance in a field as strong as this one, a seven-shot gap back to the first of those players is huge. Simpson is an under-par weekend away from posting a target which would be exceptionally hard to pass, and while his third-round scoring average at Sawgrass is poor - his last two Saturday rounds have been 78 and 77 - he's a different beast this week.

If Simpson shoots 72 today, his price will have contracted. That's an indication of the strength of his position and he's a bet at 7/4.

Moore the pick of the two-balls

Ryan Moore is a solid even-money favourite to beat Chris Kirk in their mid-afternoon two-ball.

Moore putted abysmally in the first round but showed definite signs of improvement on Friday as he produced a near blemish-free round, taking advantage of the par-fives to move comfortably inside the cut line.

Kirk sits alongside him and is comfortable at Sawgrass, but his putting woes have continued and of the two, it's Kirk who depends most on the flat stick - Moore is fairly well-versed in scoring without relying on it.

Moore is a better player than Kirk by whichever measure you choose and his long-game this week has been excellent. We can expect the course to toughen up over the weekend and that should make his approach play an even more valuable asset.

Kirk played really nicely in the first round but it was Moore who looked to have taken the step forward on Friday, and an evens he looks a bet to assert his superiority.

Beau Hossler has been far more consistent than the dangerous but often self-destructive Grayson Murray and is also tempting, but best of the rest might be Noren to outscore Day at 13/8.

There are few negatives where Day is concerned, but the price discrepancy looks a shade big here given how well-suited to Sawgrass the Swede undoubtedly is, and the fact that he's outscored the Aussie - albeit only by one - so far this week.

Noren shot 69 despite playing in the afternoon and putting poorly on Friday and the unflappable world number 18 is more than capable of stealing the limelight.

Posted at 1005 BST on 12/05/18.

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