The Players Championship: It's Justin time!

Justin Thomas is a huge fan of TPC Sawgrass
Justin Thomas is a huge fan of TPC Sawgrass

Dave Tindall is back to preview the Players Championship at Sawgrass...

"While Johnson has huffed and puffed at this venue, Justin Thomas has already posted a pair of seven-under 65s in his two starts here. That’s three shots lower than DJ’s best."

Main Bet: Back Justin Thomas @ 29.028/1

Each-way terms: 1/5 odds, 7 places


Main Bet: Back Justin Thomas e/w @ 28/1

If there's one course where you're probably not going to back Dustin Johnson at the moment, it would have to be TPC Sawgrass.

This is DJ's ninth appearance in the Players Championship and he's yet to crack the top 25.

Perhaps his closing 68 - just his second sub-70 round at the Florida venue - suggests he'll kick on this year but, despite his brilliant play of late, it's still some leap to jump from pack to podium.

By contrast, my headline pick has taken to TPC Sawgrass like a duck to water.

While Johnson has huffed and puffed at this venue, Justin Thomas has already posted a pair of seven-under 65s in his two starts here. That's three shots lower than DJ's best.

Thomas' first 65 came on 'Moving Day' in 2015, his stunning third-round lap taking him to into a tie for fifth with 18 holes to play before he went backwards on Sunday with a 75.

Last year, he improved his final-round score by 10, adding another 65 to rocket to tied third.

"I love this place," he said later. "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.

"It's right in front of you, but you just have to execute. That's what I love about this golf course where, if you don't play well, you're probably going to shoot over par but if you're driving it well you have control of everything, you can make some birdies out there.

"It really is one of my favourite courses to play when it gets in this tournament condition. You just can't fake it around here."

Not that he left anyone in any doubt but he's reiterated his thoughts this week on Twitter, saying: "My favorite event of the year. LOVE @THEPLAYERSChamp! Such a well designed course."

Since last year's tied third here, Thomas has taken his game to a new level, winning three times in 26 starts since then and adding a further seven top 10s.

There's an argument to say that he won those (CIMB, Tournament of Champions and Sony Open) with scores of -23, -22 and -27 so he's something of a flat-track bully but perhaps it's just a case of these are the events he's won so far and we shouldn't read too much into it.

After all, his one Web.com victory was achieved with a winning score of just -6 and he was third at last year's Honda Classic with -5.

Anyhow, the last seven winning scores at Sawgrass are -15, -12-, -13, -13, -13, -13 and -16 and that's definitely in his wheelhouse. It's billed as one of the toughest courses on Tour and yet it's certainly scorable.

Thomas is the ideal man to cash in as he's 1st in Birdie Average, 1st in Eagles and, notably, 1st in both Par 4 stats (Par 4 Scoring Average and Par 4 Birdie or Better leaders).

Why so important? Playing the par 4s well at TPC Sawgrass is crucial. Looking at the last 10 winners of the Players Championship shows that six of them were in the top two for Par 4 scoring in the week of their victory. Only one was outside the top 12 (Kaymer T13).

Another really strong stat is Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green. The last four winners here ranked 3rd, 5th, 2nd and 1st in that category. Thomas is 5th for SG: TTG so the more you look at it, the more he looks the perfect fit.


Next Best: Back Martin Kaymer @ 60/1

Next up is 2014 champion Martin Kaymer.

The German went wire-to-wire here three years ago after opening with a 63.

He's never missed the cut in eight appearances - some feat when you go through all the top players' records and find lots of MCs - and also made the top 20 in 2011 and 2012.

True, after the win, T15 is his next best performance at the course but it's pretty obvious he's comfortable on the Florida layout.

"I enjoy playing those golf courses a lot. Pete Dye, I think he's doing great golf courses. I have done well on Whistling Straights, he did that, and then obviously here."

That was a reference to his victory in the 2010 USPGA when he ousted Bubba Watson in a play-off on another Dye par 72.

Kaymer has since added the 2014 U.S. Open and when you add in THAT putt in the 2012 Ryder Cup, the 32-year-old has already shown his mettle on the big occasions.

The one real blot on his career was a terrible record at the Masters. Augusta National messed with his head so much that Kaymer even tried to change his swing to have more success there.

Unfortunately, it made little difference to his Masters performances but seemed to affect his results everywhere else as he wasn't comfortable drawing the ball.

However, I can't help but think Kaymer is in a very good place right now having finally dome something good at Augusta. It wasn't earth-shattering but T16 beat his previous best of T31 and his 68s in rounds two and four were, amazingly, the first time he'd ever broken 70.

It didn't exactly come out of the blue as the 11-time European Tour winner has played some fine golf so far in 2017, finishing tied for fourth at both the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and the Honda Classic, the latter in his most recent start in Florida.

In his last seven worldwide starts, Kaymer has finished outside the top 25 just once and that was T32 at Hilton Head when he was still probably in shock at his good display at the Masters!

Kaymer, who was second in Putting Average at Augusta, is performing well in the statistical categories that point to him playing well this week.

He's 4th for Par 4 Birdie or Better Leaders and 33rd in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green while 8th for Driving Accuracy and 21st in Strokes Gained: Putting also bode well.

Kaymer has finished in the top 16 for Greens In Regulation in five of his eight Sawgrass appearances so if he can pepper them again and cash in on his currently hot putter, a big title challenge beckons.


Final Bet: Back Rory McIlroy e/w @ 10/1

I've been all around the houses trying to settle on a third pick.

The two Kevins - Kisner and Chappell - both came close at 50/1. Both are recent runners-up here (Chappell last year and Kisner in 2015) and both have lots of great recent form.

Chappell finally made the big breakthrough with victory at the Texas Open while Kisner took second place at the Zurich Classic when playing pairs and was also a tad unlucky to be pipped for victory at Bay Hill on his most recent trip to Florida.

Sergio Garcia is making his first appearance since winning the Masters and is the all-time leading money-winner in this event after taking the title in 2008 and finishing runner-up in both 2007 and 2015.

However, he dipped a little after his win in Dubai earlier this season and something similar would be no surprise.

But, just about all great players appear to have one Sawgrass win in them and this year I feel it could be the turn of Rory McIlroy.

The course toyed with him at first as he missed his first three cuts there. However, since then Rory has slowly started to turn the battle in his favour.

He started his improved form with T8 in the 2013 edition and he's followed it with 6-8-12. Last year he fired a 64 in round two to really show what he could do.

McIlroy isn't showing up yet in the PGA Tour's myriad lists of statistics but he'd be topping a number of them if he'd played the requisite amount of events.

Here's a few things why I like him this particular week.

This is his first event as a married man. Rory tied the knot with Erica Stoll in Ireland last month so he's clearly going to be in fine mood.

Secondly, the weather forecast is calm this week. Although he's battled away in windy conditions, I much prefer to put my cash on the Northern Irishman when his flowing swing isn't being buffeted around.

Thirdly, the 10/1 isn't too skinny. Looking at the pure numbers, Rory has won 15% of his last 46 worldwide starts (more recently, two of the last 10) so on that basis a double figure price is fine.

As stated, down the years, many of the great players have put a Players Championship on their CV.

Tiger struggled at first but won it on his fifth go. Jack Nicklaus landed the inaugural edition in 1974, former World No.1s Greg Norman, Nick Price, David Duval, Kaymer and Jason Day have all triumphed as have countless other major winners.

Rory can still get frustrated here but with a few doubts over some of his main rivals - DJ's poor record, Day's modest form, Spieth's two missed cuts here in 2015 and 2016 - the path could be clear for four-time major winner McIlroy to get his hands on the trophy.

Fourth at Bay Hill on his last start in Florida and T7 at Augusta National, he should be fresh as a daisy after his layoff earlier in the year.

With seven each-way slots available, I'll be surprised if he doesn't take one of them. And, if not Thomas or Kaymer, Rory's the man.

Dave's 2016/17 PGA Tour P/L (based on £5 e/w per selection outrights, £10 win top 5s/10s)

Staked: £720
Returned: £1619.06
P/L: +£899.06

(After the Wells Fargo Championship)

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