This weekend sees what many experts believe is golf’s unofficial ‘fifth major’ when the world’s elite players head to Ponte Vedra Beach, a suburb of Jacksonville, Florida, to take on the mighty Stadium Course at Sawgrass, home of The Player’s Championship.
Many golfers and golfing experts now view this famous tournament as the fifth major championship of the season.
There are several reasons for this, including the largest purse of the golf season (outstripping the cash available to be won at any major), the largest first prize for a winning golfer, plus the fact it is one of the most difficult courses golfers play on each year.
A history of Sawgrass
There are two courses at Sawgrass, Valley and Stadium, though the Stadium Course is the one which Pete and Alice Dye designed expressly for this famous tournament. Dye used the 415 acres of Florida swamp to create a unique course with some unusual features including waste bunkers (which groundskeepers never maintain) as well as deeper, more strategically placed pot bunkers.
After being built, the first Players Championship was first held at Sawgrass in 1982 and the course received criticism from players due to its severity. J.C. Snead, who finished second in the first tournament (in 1972) to Jack Nicklaus, famously labelled the original Sawgrass “90 percent horse manure and 10 percent luck.”
Following the criticism, Dye made some changes to the course, tapering off some of the tougher slopes of the green and removing some bunkers, which made the course immeasurably more playable and a much fairer test of golf.
The famous 17th – “Island Green”
Without doubt the most famous hole on the course is the iconic 17th hole, the Island Green.
It is one of the shortest holes PGA Tour players will play during the season at only 132 yards, but it is the ultimate risk/reward hole. Your pro either hits the green (or the bunker and small rough that fringes it) or ends up in the water.
The swirling winds above the green can make club selection a huge problem here at times and each year the club fishes out around 100,000 golf balls from this lake alone.
Oddly enough, Pete Dye’s original design for the 17th was a traditional par three with a fairway leading up to the green. However, unusually sandy soil meant that by the time the course was complete, the 17th green lay in a large crater, which under the guidance of wife Alice, Pete Dye filled with water.
The result was one of the most dramatic and iconic holes in golf, where each year the fortunes of many players are decided by their ball landing on the green or splashing down into the water.
The Players Championship – a history of success
Only one player, the great Jack Nicklaus, has won this tournament more than twice, with the Golden Bear winning in 1974, 76 and 78. Five players have won twice, all at Sawgrass: Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Hal Sutton, Davis Love III and Tiger Woods.
The first non-American player to win the event was Sandy Lyle who won in a playoff in 1987. Other overseas winners include Nick Price, Greg Norman, Adam Scott, Stephen Ames, Sergio Garcia, Henrick Stenson, Tim Clark and K.J. Choi.
No other GB and Ireland player has ever won at Sawgrass other than Lyle in 1987. The biggest surprise victor was probably New Zealander Craig Perks, who came from nowhere to win in 2002 and take home a first prize of £1,080,000. In contrast, the top prize for the 2014 event is $1,800,000.
Americans have won the event in the past two years, with Matt Kuchar winning in 2012 and Tiger Woods winning his second TPC last year. The winning score in each of the past three events has been -13. The biggest ever winning score in the competition was Greg Norman’s -24 in 1994.
The 2014 Players Championship – preview and betting tips
Much has been made of Tiger Woods’ absence from the event, and this does open up the field somewhat.
The bookmakers have Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott as the joint-favourites for this event at present and both are in decent form coming into the event. The same can be said for Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia, while Phil Mickelson certainly looked back to his best last week.
American players have traditionally done very well here and hot on the heels of tipping Bubba Watson to successfully win The Masters last month, I am going to say my first choice here for a winner would be the hugely impressive Jordan Spieth (30/1).
The young American almost snatched the Masters crown from Bubba at Augusta and he has shown he has the fight and mettle to play on the highest stage. He’s in good form and I think due a big win and I see Sawgrass offering him the ideal opportunity to capitalise on that for this hugely talented player.
GB and Ireland players don’t have a history of success here as we’ve already established but if anybody is likely to break that streak then rather than Rory McIlroy, I think Florida resident Lee Westwood may be the best choice.
He played well at Augusta and then won in China and is starting to look very much like the golfer who was World Number 1 not so long ago. At 30/1 like Spieth, he is a good option if you fancy a wager on a UK-born player.
Lastly, if you are seeking a good longer odds shot for an each way place (most bookmakers will offer each way places to 6th on the TPC at Sawgrass) then Welshman Jamie Donaldson at 125/1 could be a good bet. The Pontypridd born ace finished tied 7th at the 2012 PGA Championship and this year finished Tied 14th at the Masters. He is right on his game at the moment too and could certainly trouble some of the more established names in the field this year.
Whoever you back for victory, one thins is sure, the Stadium Course, with its testing greens, narrow fairways and of course, the dreaded 17th Island Green, will offer drama and excitement in droves this weekend.
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