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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

Matsuyama primed for assault at Players title

Japanese beast ready to roar again

Hideki Matsuyama is eyeing Sawgrass glory
1 of 1

Starts 12.10pm Thursday
Live on Sky Sports 4 from 6pm

Palmer's top tip
Hideki Matsuyama 25-1
The status of 'fifth Major' may have waned for the Players Championship in this era of mega-bucks WGC events and the FedEx Cup playoffs, but there is still no more compelling finish to a golf course than that of TPC Sawgrass.

The dimensions of the back-nine at this legendary Florida venue almost guarantee thrills and spills, and punters who are on the leader on Sunday night know that they are not able to count chickens or cash until their man has safely negotiated the water-strewn final holes.

The Sawgrass home straight has become even more gripping this year with changes made to the previously humdrum 12th hole. It will be a driveable par-four for the first time this week, with a lake to the left, so anything from a two to a ten can go on the scorecard.

World number one and tournament favourite Dustin Johnson has miserable Sawgrass form figures of MC-79-34-57-WD-59-69-28, so this is a puzzle which traditionally bemuses him. Johnson finished tied second in the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday and continues to perform superbly, but this is not an ideal time to be taking short prices about the Carolinan giant.

Rory McIlroy, next in the betting, has not been seen since the Masters. He got married in Ireland in his time off, had a ten-day honeymoon in the Caribbean, then returned to the practice ground on Sunday using a TaylorMade driver, having apparently ditched his Callaway one. It is reasonable to expect a rusty Rory.

Defending champion Jason Day has been unimpressive this term, while Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler suffered ugly, confidence-denting final-round Masters meltdowns. It may also be a while before Justin Rose gets over his Masters disappointment to produce his best. Rose missed the cut in the Zurich Classic last time out, alongside Henrik Stenson, who has missed four cuts in a row.

Jon Rahm is making his Sawgrass debut and the most difficult player to dismiss from the top end of the market is his compatriot Sergio Garcia. Masters glory seems bound to have a positive effect on the previously uptight Spaniard and the Augusta hero is proven at Sawgrass, where he won in 2008. It may pay to not expect too much too soon, though, from a man who has been jetsetting since the Masters and has hardly touched a golf club.

Hideki Matsuyama is a bigger price than Garcia and the most appealing option for the Florida showpiece. Sawgrass has been baking in hot sunshine over the last few days, guaranteeing firm, fast conditions, and demanding tee-to-green control. Matsuyama could handle the assignment better than anyone.

From the end of September to the start of February, Matsuyama was the best player on the planet, winning five tournaments and twice finishing runner-up. His form dipped for a few weeks, an inevitability given the standard he was producing, but the Japanese beast bounced back with a final-round 67 for 11th place at Augusta. Nobody bettered that score on Masters Sunday.

Matsuyama finished 32nd of 80 runners when teamed with Hideto Tanihara in the Zurich Classic pairs event last time out. Matsuyama carried Tanihara for much of the Zurich, their challenge ending when both struggled in a round-three foursomes score of 75. Matsuyama closed the final-round fourballs with three consecutive birdies, leaving New Orleans with his game in order.

Three Players starts have shown a gradual progression for Matsuyama – 23rd, 17th and seventh – and that trend could continue this week. The world number four can hang tough while savage Sawgrass takes no prisoners.

Next best
Justin Thomas 30-1
Another man who left New Orleans full of self-belief is Justin Thomas. Not that he needed much of a lift. Thomas, winner of three US Tour titles this season, combined with Bud Cauley to fire a spectacular final-round 61 in the Zurich fourballs, an effort which hauled the young guns into a tie for fifth place.

Thomas, who lives in Florida, has made no secret of his affection for TPC Sawgrass. He tweeted recently that he expects to win the Players “multiple times” in his career. Those are bold words from this cocksure character, who turned 24 last month, but his prediction has foundation in two excellent previous Players performances.

On his Players debut in 2015, Thomas opened with a nervous 73 as a US Tour rookie maiden, but two days later he carded the best round of the week. Nobody bettered his third-round 65, which hauled the newcomer only two shots off the lead, before a Sunday 75 dropped him to 24th.

Last year, Thomas reversed those weekend scores, shrugging off two months of poor form to follow a Saturday 75 with a Sunday 65 at Sawgrass, rocketing up to third spot. Given how consistently impressive Thomas has been in the 12 months that have followed, more fireworks in his adopted home state seem likely this week.

Other selections
Russell Henley 80-1
Luke Donald 200-1
Those with magic fingers – touch and feel on and around the greens – must be considered for a tournament where scrambling and putting skills are severely examined. Run-off areas and lightning-fast dancefloors provide a headache for the competitors until their ball is holed.

Russell Henley and Luke Donald are short-game masters who have shown enough long-game form in recent weeks to make them serious Sawgrass contenders. Henley won the Houston Open in emphatic fashion last month, then followed up with 11th place in the Masters. He admitted to fatigue in the middle rounds of the Heritage next up, but closed with a solid 68 for 26th place.

Henley had a weak partner for the Zurich Classic last time out, missing the cut by a shot. That flop is easy to forgive and normal service should be resumed in individual competition this week. The last of Henley's three Web.com Tour victories came at Sawgrass's neighbour course – Dye Valley – and another Florida triumph came in the 2014 Honda Classic.

Donald has rededicated himself to practice after a fallow period and is determined to end his victory drought with a 40th birthday looming over Christmas. The Englishman was world number one for 56 weeks and could show his class this week to upset layers who have made him a Sawgrass rag.

Donald finished runner-up in the Heritage last month and can flourish on another Pete Dye design this week. On both layouts, Donald's lack of driving distance is not a handicap. He has finished in the top six three times at Sawgrass and three of his five US Tour victories have come in Florida.

Others to note
Matthew Fitzpatrick The Sheffield boy is suited to Sawgrass and could bounce back to form after a quiet spell, although he has been inactive since missing the Heritage cut.

Billy Horschel The Floridian's practice base is Sawgrass and he has more course knowledge than anyone, but dismal recent form means he may not be able to make home advantage count.

Ryan Moore The Ryder Cup star has taken his game to a new level over the last nine months and may be able to make an overdue Sawgrass impression.

Kevin Kisner The 2015 Sawgrass playoff loser has become a US Tour champion since. Loves performing on the East Coast and game is in order, but has spurned two golden winning chances in the last month.

Russell Knox The Jacksonville-based Scot knows Sawgrass well and contended last year until taking nine shots at the 17th in round three, dumping three balls in the water.

Patrick Cantlay The 24-year-old rising star has been making up for lost time after an injury plagued start to his career. He was second in the Valspar, third in the Heritage, and the future looks bright.

Staking plan
H Matsuyama
2.5pts each-way 25-1 BetBright
J Thomas
2pts each-way 30-1 bet365, Betfred
R Henley
1pt each-way 80-1 Hills
L Donald
0.5pt each-way 200-1 Betfred


The lowdown

Course Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Prize money $10.5m ($1.89m to the winner)

Length 7,189 yards Par 72 Field 144

Course records – 72 holes 264 Greg Norman (2004) 18 holes 63 Fred Couples (1992), Greg Norman (1994), Martin Kaymer (2014), Jason Day (2016), Colt Knost (2016)

Course winners taking part Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, KJ Choi, Matt Kuchar, Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day

When to bet By 12.10pm tomorrow

Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 6pm tomorrow

Time difference Florida is five hours behind the UK and Ireland

Last week – Wells Fargo Championship 1 B Harman (80-1), T2 D Johnson (5-1), P Perez (66-1), 4 J Rahm (12-1), T5 S Kaufman (250-1), K Tway (100-1), S Y Noh (250-1)

Course overview The famous Pete Dye design, which has hosted this tournament since 1982, can be a brutal test. The Championship has become known as the 'fifth Major' due to the quality of the field – all the elite usually tee up. Dangerous holes, one of the most talked about in golf being the island-green 17th, can see competitors card some big numbers and the event always makes for a fascinating spectacle. There is a bearpit atmosphere created by large galleries, many of whom gather at the 17th hole. The par-fives – the second, ninth, 11th and 16th – offer relief during a demanding round. The track has a state-of-the-art drainage system, so officials can usually guarantee the firm, fast conditions they desire. Precision is required throughout, while a deft touch is demanded on and around small, contoured greens, which are usually lightning fast. Changes have been made since last year's event, with all the greens becoming TifEagle grass rather than MiniVerde. Holes six, seven and 12 have been redesigned. Mounds in between the sixth and seventh have been removed and a lake added, while the 12th has become a 302-yard driveable par-four with water left. The 15th tee has been moved back 20 yards.

Story of last year Jason Day opened with a glorious 63 and claimed a wire-to-wire success, romping to a four-shot victory, leaving runner-up Kevin Chappell well behind.

Weather forecast Ponte Vedra Beach has been baking in the build-up to the tournament and is set to get even hotter for the competition days. Sunshine and light breezes for the most part, with a thunderstorm threat for Saturday.

Type of player suited to challenge Short but straight hitters traditionally shine at this venue. Tim Clark, KJ Choi and Matt Kuchar are recent Sawgrass champions. The likes of Stephen Ames, Fred Funk and Hal Sutton have also won this title through their fairway-finding prowess. Focus on controlled golfers who can avoid the water hazards and have the bottle to perform in a raucous atmosphere. Debutants are greatly disadvantaged at a quirky, long-established track.

Key attribute Accuracy

From the end of September to the start of February, Matsuyama was the best player on the planet
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