The Punter's In-Play Blog: Can Schauffele defy the stats?

Golfers Xander Schauffele and Wyndham Clark
Xander Schauffele and Wyndham Clark in action in round three at Sawgrass

Xander Schauffele has hit the front at the Players Championship with a round to go so our man's back with his final in-running thoughts at Sawgrass here...

  • Stats suggest leader worth taking on

  • Clark looking to bounce back

  • Harman the value play with a round to go

10:40 - March 17, 2024

The four-stroke halfway leader, Wyndham Clark, didn't do an awful lot wrong in round three of the Players Championship, until he reached the 17th tee, but on a benign day in Florida, where the scoring average was just 70.29 around Sawgrass, his two-under-par 70 has seen him caught and passed by Xander Schauffele, who fired an impressive seven-under-par 65. Here's the 54-hole leaderboard with prices to back at 10:30.

Xander Schauffele -17 2.447/5
Wyndham Clark -16 4.1
Brian Harman -15 6.611/2
Matt Fitzpatrick -14 17.5
Maverick McNealy -13 42.041/1
Scottie Scheffler -12 13.5
Sahith Theegala -12 40.039/1
Nate Lashley -11 220.0219/1
Hideki Matsuyama -10 130.0129/1
JT Poston -10 360.0359/1
Taylor Montgomery -10 660.0659/1
Rory McIlroy -9 140.0139/1
-9 and 260.0259/1 bar

Schauffele played his first 14 holes of round three in seven-under-par, and he went odds-on (touched 1.855/6) when the halfway leader, Clark, hit this absolute stinker off the tee at the notorious par three 17th.

Clark had just drawn back level with Schauffele with a straightforward birdie four at the par five 16th but it looked highly likely that Schauffele would take a two-stroke lead into today's final round.

Clark had literally just thrown two strokes away as he stood over his third shot from the same spot he'd hit his first shot from but to his credit, he hit a brilliant third and holed the bogey putt from six and half feet.

Schauffele backers will be encouraged by his record when leading. He's converted each of his last three 54-hole lead or co-leads, but he's never really been convincing in-contention, and the stats are very much against him.

In the previous 50 renewals of the Players Championship, only 21 third round leaders have gone on to win and out in front is clearly a tough place to be at Sawgrass. And leading by one appears particularly precarious...

Since Steve Elkington won the second of his two titles back in 1997, by seven strokes after a 69 on Sunday, as many as 30 players have led or co-led through 54 holes and only three of them (Scottie Scheffler last year, Stephen Ames in 2006 and the unfortunate Anirban Lahiri in 2022) has shot a round in the 60s on Sunday.

Ames fired a 67 to win by six having led by one 18 years ago and Scheffler moved from two clear to five in front with a 69 in round four 12 months ago.

With all that in mind, Schauffele is short enough at around 11/82.38 and I've already layed some of my pre-event wager back to secure a profit. He's been drifting all morning and I can see why.

Although the leader looks short, we can't really look too far down the leaderboard. Rickie Fowler, who sat tied for 11th, is the only winner since 1996 to be outside the top-six places after three rounds but he only trailed by three and five strokes is the furthest back any winner at Sawgrass has trailed by.

Justin Leonard trailed by five in third place in 1998 and Henrik Stenson was five back in second in 2009 but both had poor final rounds by the third-round leaders to thank.

Lee Janzen, who had been three clear in '98, and Alex Cjeka, who had been five in front in 2009, both shot 79 on Sunday.

After looking likely to miss the cut after a level-par 72 saw him sitting tied for 72nd after round one, the Open champ, Brian Harman, has been extremely impressive over the last two days, shooting 65 on Friday and 64 yesterday.

If he shoots the best round of the day for the third day in-a-row he's highly likely to close the gap of two strokes and take the title and it's no surprise to see that he's been shortening up all morning.

Clark bouncing back to win after yesterday's ordinary third round is the most likely outcome should the leader struggle and odds in excess of 3/14.00 look fair.

We can't dismiss the defending champ, Scottie Scheffler, who birdied the last three holes in round three to keep his chance alive, or Matt Fitzpatrick, who recovered brilliantly after a poor start to round three but given the level of his play over the last two days, the value sits with Harman with a round to go.

7:45 - March 16, 2024

The pre-event favourite and defending champion, Scottie Scheffler, was matched at a low of 3.39/4 to win the Players Championship when he hit the front early on in round two yesterday, but it soon became apparent that there was a problem with his left shoulder.

Having teed off at the 10th hole yesterday morning and having played his first four holes in two-under-par, a physio started work on his shoulder on the 14th tee.

The joint continued to cause him grief but he was still able to play his remaining 14 holes in one-under-par and at the halfway stage he sits tied for sixth, trailing by six.

While Scheffler was struggling with his injury, last year's US Open winner, Wyndham Clark, who had finished second to the world number one at Bay Hill last Sunday, made a huge move, posting a seven-under-par 65 for the second day in-a-row.

Wyndham Clark at Sawgrass round two.jpg

Playing in the afternoon, my pre-event fancy, Xander Schauffele, recovered nicely after a dreadful double-bogey at the par five 11th and my Find Me a 100 winner, Nick Taylor, now sits alongside him in a tie for second after his impressive four-under-par late in the day but Clark still holds a healthy four-stroke lead.

Play was suspended due to darkness before play could get done again but it's only the final three-ball that didn't get finished and none them are in-the-mix so here's the current state of play with prices to back at 7:40.

Wyndham Clark -14 2.8415/8
Xander Schauffele -10 7.413/2
Nick Taylor -10 15.014/1
Matt Fitzpatrick -9 17.016/1
Maverick McNealy -9 50.049/1
Scottie Scheffler -8 7.26/1
Corey Connors -8 32.031/1
Tom Hoge -8 42.041/1
Matti Schmid -8 180.0179/1
Brian Harman -7 48.047/1
Sahith Theegala -7 65.064/1
J.T Poston -7 120.0119/1
C.T Pan -7 260.0259/1
Rory McIlroy -6 25.024/1
Hideki Matsuyama -6 60.059/1
Jason Day -6 70.069/1
-6 and 150.0149/1 bar

Scheffler sat second and just two off the lead last year and five of the last 11 winners were leading or tied for the lead but being up with the pace at this stage isn't imperative.

Cam Smith sat tied for 11th and three adrift two years, Justin Thomas was tied for 22nd and seven back three years ago and Si Woo Kim was 16th and six off the lead in 2017 before he went on to win by three. Clark, however, is in a commanding position.

Jason Day, back in 2016, is the only previous player this century to be leading the Players by four at this stage and he went on to win by four, despite shooting 73-71 over the weekend, and four stroke 54-hole leaders on the PGA Tour have a solid enough record.

Clark is the 55th man to hold a four-stroke lead on the PGA Tour since 1996 and 23 of the previous 54 went on to win.

That's a 43% strike-rate suggesting Clark is slightly bigger than he should be at around 7/42.75.

Whether they play in two or three balls today won't really make a lot of difference to Clark as he'll get to play with Schauffele regardless and that will bring back happy memories.

The pair played together over the weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship in May last year when Clark won the first of his three PGA Tour titles.

This is the sixth time he's led or co-led after two rounds on either the Korn Ferry Tour or the PGA Tour and that maiden win at Quail Hollow last year was the only occasion that he went on to win but I wouldn't for a second question his temperament.

He was brilliant in-contention when winning the US Open last year and he's a very fair price to collect his fourth title in less than a year, although he's shortened up considerably overnight, having been a 3.02/1 chance on the exchange when I went to bed.

Scheffler is the most likely man to win according to the market at this stage, should Clark stumble, but I'm not convinced.

I know the old adage says 'beware the injured golfer' but in addition to his shoulder injury, Scheffler also needs to overcome the hoodoo of defending the title (no defending champ has won the Players) and he's also looking to win back-to-back after his victory last week.

Scottie Scheffler at Sawgrass.jpg

I obviously haven't given up on Schauffele and Taylor played very nicely for much of yesterday, but the value sits with the leader.

I've backed Clark at an average of 3.3512/5 and I also felt compelled to get Matt Fitzpatrick onside in-running yesterday after backing him last week when he missed the cut!

No Englishman has ever won the Players Championship so whether he's a fair price trailing by five and trading at 16/117.00 is debatable but I've backed him for sanity's sake.

If he goes on to edge out either Schauffele or Taylor on Sunday evening I won't be happy but at least I'll have a bit of compensation.

10:20 - March 15, 2024

Last year's Players Championship winner, Scottie Scheffler, was the eighth winner in-a-row to begin the tournament on Thursday morning. And Tiger Woods in 2013, and Martin Kaymer a year later, are the only winners in the last 17 years to be drawn PM-AM.

There was a differential of 2.18 strokes between the two sides of the draw last year, in favour of the early starters, and it made sense to concentrate hardest on those drawn early yesterday before the off but there doesn't appear to be much in it this year.

In fact, although the opening round hasn't finished yet (play suspended due to darkness), it looks like the afternoon starters will have a lower stroke average than the morning wave.

Early starter, Rory McIlroy, was the first to make a significant move and having teed off at the 10th, he was matched at a low of 4.216/5 when he played his first eight holes in six-under-par, but he found water off the tee on the tough 18th and again off the tee at the seventh.

That led to three dropped shots but he picked one up at the par five ninth (his last) to post seven-under-par.

Playing in the group in front of Rory, my pre-event pick, Xander Schauffele, shot an immaculate bogey-free seven-under-par to post the clubhouse lead, although I'm not quite sure how after his drive on the seventh, and he and Rory were joined by afternoon starter, Wyndham Clark, who birdied three of his last four holes.

Find Me a 100 Winner pick, Nick Taylor, is just one off the lead and he's alongside England's Matt Fitzpatrick on -6 but it's the defending champ, Scheffler, who shot -5, that still heads the market. Here's the latest leaderboard with prices to back at 10:15.

Rory McIlroy -7 6.25/1
Xander Schauffele -7 8.415/2
Wyndham Clark -7 13.5
Matt Fitzpatrick -6 24.023/1
Nick Taylor -6 40.039/1
Scottie Scheffler -5 4.94/1
Ludvig Aberg -5 23.022/1
Jason Day -5 34.033/1
Tom Hoge -5 38.037/1
Maverick McNealy -5 130.0129/1
Tyler Duncan -5 170.0169/1
Jimmy Stanger -5 230.0229/1 (played 16 holes R1)
Max Homa -4 24.023/1
-4 and 55.054/1 bar

I'm going to resist the temptation to back last week's fancy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Matt Fitzpatrick, who was hopeless at Bay Hill, but we should probably be concentrating on the leaders.

As many as three of the last nine winners - Webb Simpson, Jason Day, and Martin Kaymer - have won wire-to-wire and in the previous 50 renewals, as many as 15 winners have been leading after round one, 24 have been positioned inside the top-three places after day one and 22 winners have either been leading or only one off the pace after round one.

With Xander and Taylor up with the pace, I've got two in-the-mix, but I've added one more from a little further back.

Hideki Matsuyama finished fifth last year, despite trailing by ten and sitting tied for 94th after day one, and he finished eighth in 2019 after sitting tied for 53rd after round one.

He shot a nine-under-par 63 to lead in 2020 but the tournament was abandoned after round one due to Covid, so this is the first time in six visits that he's officially bettered 71 since he finished seventh eight years ago.

The Japanese clearly loves Sawgrass and he's generally a 45/146.00 chance on the High Street so I was happy to have a small bet at 55.054/1. He trails by four in a tie for 22nd after his three-under-par 69 yesterday afternoon so the stats suggest he has plenty to do but that's all in the price.

Pre-Event Picks:
Xander Schauffele @ 29.028/1
Sam Burns @ 55.054/1

In-Play Pick:
Hideki Matsuyama @ 55.054/1

Find Me a 100 Winner Selections:
Nick Taylor @ 160.0159/1
Place order to lay 8u @ 10.09/1 & 12u @ 2.01/1
Brendon Todd @ 200.0199/1
Place order to lay 8u @ 10.09/1 & 12u @ 2.01/1
Camilo Villegas @ 1000.0999/1
Place order to lay 8u @ 10.09/1 & 12u @ 2.01/1

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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