Golf

Rickie Fowler's a major player for more Sawgrass success

Rickie Fowler claimed a thrilling victory in The Players Championship at Sawgrass two years ago and could repeat the feat in Florida this week

THE debate has rumbled on for years about whether golf has room for a fifth Major, but in that time The Players Championship has unofficially assumed the title.

There can be no debate about the prestige that comes with being the Players champion, given that the field assembled at Sawgrass each year is the equal, if not better, than anything else seen all season.

In addition, The Players carries the same amount of FedEx Cup points as any of the big four events, while the prize fund is the largest outside of those top-tier tournaments.

All-in-all, therefore, the main men will be going all-out for victory at Sawgrass this week, when they will encounter something of a different Stadium Course than in the past.

This event is most famous for the world-renowned 17th hole, a short par three to an island green that makes even the best around quake in their boots, especially when it is windy.

There was no need to tweak that hole, but there have been major changes elsewhere, with seven new greens in use and the 12th hole being totally revamped into a driveable par four of just over 300 yards.

Therefore, there will be an element of the unknown for all of those teeing it up in Florida from tomorrow, but the qualities required to succeed at Sawgrass remain much the same.

This course has always heavily punished stray shots, so accuracy is very important, while the fact that the new greens are expected to be lightning quick means a sure touch on and around the putting surfaces wouldn't go amiss.

All of the best players in the world are in attendance and at the very top of that list these days is Dustin Johnson, who is surging clear at the head of the rankings.

‘DJ' was only second at the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday, having won his previous three events, and he is a very worthy jolly this week at a best-priced 15/2 with Sky Bet.

Indeed, that possibly looks a big enough quote, although it has to be pointed out that he has a dreadful Sawgrass record, his 28th last year being Johnson's best result in eight attempts.

The course form puts me off, and I'll have to look elsewhere.

Next in the betting is Rory McIlroy, who can be backed at 11/1 with a number of firms.

This is the Holywood man's first outing since the Masters, when he racked up his eighth successive

top-10 finish in strokeplay events.

He is always on the premises when he tees it up, but McIlroy is just back in action after getting married and whether he is fully tuned-up is open to debate, while he also has a new driver in the bag.

I think he will go well, as he has done in each of the last four years at Sawgrass, when his record reads, eighth, sixth, eighth, and 12th last term, but it might be asking a bit much for him to win given how little golf he has played in 2017.

That said, if you have a few quid in your account, there might just be a bit of juice in the 5/4 offered by Sky Bet about a top-10 finish.

I can't have Jordan Spieth at the minute and he is too short at 14s, while Jason Day would have to see off the curse of the defending Players champion to go in again.

No player has successfully defended this title in the 36-year history at Sawgrass, and while I'm not a fan of Day at present, I can't help but like his predecessor when looking for the winner here.

That man is Rickie Fowler, who played his last six holes in six-under here in 2015 before seeing off Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a

play-off.

That was a big breakthrough for Fowler, who has won four times since, most recently at the Honda Classic, also in Florida, at the end of February.

He is in great form generally at present, and was right in the hunt at the Masters before a poor final round saw him fall back into a tie for 11th.

He still recorded a fifth top-15 in his last six starts, however, while he has a Sawgrass victory and a second in 2012 to his name.

Fowler is very much an elite player these days, and the recent trend is for men from the upper echelons winning The Players.

He hits the ball long and straight and also has a brilliant short game so I can't get away from him at 22/1 with Betfred.

Another man I simply can't leave out is Sergio Garcia, the all-time leading money winner at Sawgrass.

This is the Spaniard's first outing since finally claiming a maiden Major win at Augusta and while that inactivity is a bit of a worry, there is no getting away from the fact the win will fill Garcia (right) with renewed belief.

He has been a more relaxed figure in recent times anyway but his massive natural talent should come even more to the fore with the major monkey off his back.

And there is no better event for Garcia to get back in the mix than this one, which has the intensity of a Major and is played on a course that is made for him.

He won here as far back as 2008, a year after finishing second to Phil Mickelson, while he also lost a play-off to Fowler two years ago.

When you factor in a third in 2014, it is very hard not to be on his side and while the 18/1 generally on offer isn't huge, it is a realistic reflection of Garcia's chances.

At bigger odds, I'd suggest

each-way punts on Kevin Chappell (55/1, Bet365) and Matt Kuchar (66/1, Betfred).

Chappell finally claimed his first PGA Tour win last time out at the Valero Texas Open, ending a frustrating run that included four runner-up finishes last term, all on tough courses.

Chappell was tipped in this column at 33/1 ahead of the Texas event, and now that he has claimed a title, he should be an even more regular face on leaderboards.

He was seventh at Augusta prior to his victory, while he was also second to Day at Sawgrass 12 months ago, so Chappell ticks a lot of boxes.

Kuchar won this title in 2012 and was joint-third last term to underline his liking for the test, while he is also in fine form.

A fourth at Augusta was followed by an 11th at the RBC Heritage, when he closed with a 64, and the 66/1 definitely underestimates his claims.

Finally, I think Graeme McDowell is going to have a big week soon,

and there could be a couple of routes to profit with the Portrush man here.

He is playing really well without quite getting the job done and was in the mix at the Wells Fargo on Sunday before three bogeys late on saw him fall away.

McDowell hits fairways for fun and is a great putter, while the amount of birdies he is making suggests good days are around the corner.

He registered a best ever Sawgrass finish of ninth last term and he could easily go better this season so the 140/1 offered by Bet365 is very tempting.

I also like the look of an each-way tickle at the 22/1 quoted by Sky Bet about him in the top Great Britain and Ireland market.

He actually won that race, just ahead of McIlroy, a year ago and is in far better nick now so a repeat is not out of the question and with three places available he is well worth considering.

Selections

Rickie Fowler, e/w, 22/1 (Betfred)

Sergio Garcia, e/w, 18/1 (General)

Kevin Chappell, e/w, 55/1 (Bet365)

Matt Kuchar, e/w, 66/1 (Betfred)

Graeme McDowell, e/w, 140/1 (Bet365); top GB&I, e/w, 22/1 (Sky Bet)

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