Justin Thomas could be the man to spoil Scheff’s Sawgrass recipe

Justin Thomas got his hands on the silverware at The Players Championship in 2021 and could go very close to repeating the feat at Sawgrass this week (Gerald Herbert/AP)

OVER the course of this Cheltenham week, with a host of short-priced favourites going to post, you will hear pundits and trainers say time and again that “you should never be scared of one horse”.

It’s a mantra that gets trotted out to give outsiders some hope against a hotpot, and it is a phrase that perhaps should be in the minds of some of the leading men on the PGA Tour at present too.

For most of the last year Scottie Scheffler has been producing long game magic not seen since the days of Tiger Woods in his pomp, only to be let down by his struggles on the greens.

It was only a matter of time before the world number one found a formula, and a new putter worked the oracle in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill over the weekend, with the Texan topping the putting stats on Sunday on his way to a five-shot romp ahead of a star-studded field.

It is ominous for the rest, who have long been saying that if Scheffler is even decent on the greens, they could all be playing for second.

And it is particularly ominous given the time of year, with the big events now coming thick and fast and the start of the Major season at The Masters just a month away.

‘The Fifth Major’ is the offering this week, as the bandwagon stays in Florida for The Players Championship at Sawgrass, where Scheffler just happens to be the defending champion, having strolled to a five-shot success last term.

The similarities with that win were striking at Bay Hill, and there is bound to be a bit of fear amongst the rest of the 144-man line-up, as well as the bookies.

Indeed, I was slightly surprised to see Scheffler priced up at as big as 11/2 generally, with a number of his main rivals struggling to find top gear, notably Rory McIlroy who back-tracked badly on Sunday having played himself into contention.

The Holywood man is a 14/1 shot here, but shrewder – and richer – punters will look at the market leader and feel he falls into the ‘each-way banker’ category.

That said, one great putting week doesn’t mean all the ills have been cured, while nobody has ever successfully defended their title at the iconic Sawgrass.

Scheffler is undoubtedly the man to beat, but there are reasons to take him on, and his Ryder Cup team-mate Justin Thomas could prove the main danger.

Since The Players moved back to a March slot from May in 2019, the champions have all been truly elite performers, with Thomas’ success in 2021 following McIlroy in 2019, with the 2020 renewal cancelled after one round due to Covid.

In 2022 it was the turn of Cameron Smith, before Scheffler took the coveted title 12 months ago, so we should be looking at proven performers, and more often than not Major champions.

Thomas fits that bill, and he is getting very close to his brilliant best after a poor 2023 by his lofty standards.

There were signs towards the end of last year that things were turning, and he has played well in the Amex (third), and Pebble Beach (sixth), before finishing 12th in Phoenix and again at Bay Hill.

Thomas was on the fringes of contention at one stage on the final day at Bay Hill before making a couple of mistakes when pushing hard late on, but his game was great and he is undoubtedly suited to a Sawgrass puzzle that nobody has ever fully mastered.

Everyone has a patchy record at a venue that is about far more than the iconic 17th hole, with strategy and old-fashioned course management required, while quality approach play is a must.

And Thomas has those qualities in abundance, having never missed the cut here and won three years ago.

At his best, there are no better iron players around, and Thomas could become the sixth man to win at Sawgrass twice, the last being his mentor Tiger Woods, who took the title in 2001 and 2013.

At 22/1, ‘JT’ is the main pick to put it up to Scheffler.

Max Homa looks well placed to claim a maiden Major success at the US Open in his native Los Angeles this week  Picture by PA
Max Homa can build on his fine Sawgrass pedigree

Elsewhere, I’m very reluctant to leave Shane Lowry (33/1) out given his current form, while Will Zalatoris is playing beautifully and must be considered at 25s.

However, my second vote goes to Max Homa at 28/1 (Paddy Power), who is more proven on his native west coast of America but has shown in the last year that his game can travel anywhere.

Homa played very well at Bay Hill for a share of eighth, when his irons were dialled in and he found a rhythm with his putting, and he will be relishing a return to Sawgrass.

The Californian was sixth here last term, following on from 13th in 2022, when he was on the wrong side of the draw and had to play in the worst of the weather.

Homa has been bubbling under since winning in South Africa before Christmas, but he is cool in the heat of battle and won’t be found wanting at all should he be in contention for the biggest title of his career thus far.

Hideki Matsuyama, meanwhile, is already a Major champion, and the signs are clear that he is rounding back into the form that delivered Augusta glory.

A famed ball-striker, the Japanese superstar delivered a Sunday clinic to win the Genesis Invitational last month, before playing his way into the hunt after a lay-off at Bay Hill.

A closing 76 was not what he wanted, but loads of players struggled on Sunday, and the overall picture is of a quality operator playing superbly.

Matsuyama also has a fine course record at Sawgrass, with top 10s in 2016 and 2019, and a fifth last term when he had been in dreadful form everywhere else.

He also fired a nine-under 63 in the first – and only – round of the ill-fated 2020 edition, so it all adds up to a very lively contender at 33/1 (Sky Bet).

That round of 63 was bettered by one by Tom Hoge last term as he set a new course record in the third round on his way to third, and it might be worth chancing the American again here at 66/1 generally.

Hoge leads the approach play stats on the PGA Tour, just ahead of Scheffler, and his results have been very good recently, with a share of 12th at Bay Hill following on from eighth at the Genesis and sixth at Pebble Beach.

I’ve certainly seen worse 66/1 shots, and an event as good as The Players can never just be about one runner.