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Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Warm putter could help Billy Horschel gallop to home win

Zach Johnson can upstage his namesake at Sawgrass

Billy Horschel reacts to a putt on the 18th hole at TPC Louisiana
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Starts 12.10pm Thursday
Sky Sports Golf, 12.30pm Thursday

Jason Day is sitting at the top table of golf again after winning the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday and the former world number one has been jostling for Players Championship favouritism since his Quail Hollow heroics.

Day won the Wells Fargo with a late surge and the 2016 Sawgrass champion has been chalked up at a similar price to Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas for the Players. World number one Dustin Johnson is slightly behind the front four in the market due to his poor Sawgrass record.

There are nine players at 28-1 or shorter in a hugely competitive betting heat for the tournament known as the fifth Major. All of the top 50 in the world are in attendance.

Palmer's top tip
Billy Horschel 66-1

It may be wise to ignore the market principals for the Players Championship and delve deeper into the betting for each-way options. Nearly every bookmaker is offering extra places for Sawgrass – Paddy Power are paying down to tenth spot – and all the big names look beatable on this quirky layout.

Dustin Johnson has miserable Sawgrass form of MC-79-34-57-WD-59-69-28-12, while Jordan Spieth has missed the cut for the last three years. Rory McIlroy could manage only 16th place on one of his favourite tracks last week and seems to have lost some self-belief, while Justin Thomas has suddenly been hit with a crisis of confidence on the greens.

Day should arguably be clear favourite – his short game is in mint condition and two victories this year mean the Aussie is slowly but surely recovering the old swagger – but this assignment is much different from that of last week. Quail Hollow has become a powerhouses' paradise, while Sawgrass is about control, strategy and patience. If Day gets his two-iron in a groove, he could repeat his 2016 success, but the odds are not quite generous enough to justify an investment.

Preference is for five players at much juicier prices, targeting healthy each-way gains even if one of the elite clicks into top gear. First up, Billy Horschel is well capable of forcing his name on to the leaderboard at the course he uses as a practice base.

Horschel, born in Florida and a resident of Jacksonville Beach, a 16-minute drive from TPC Sawgrass, starred for the University of Florida before becoming a US Tour star, and nobody in this field is more comfortable on this terrain. The course is an extreme tee-to-green examination which plays to Horschel's strengths and he has found form at the perfect time to be a factor.

Fifth place in the Heritage a month ago was a tonic for Horschel after a barren run, then he followed up with 11th spot in the Texas Open before winning the Zurich Classic pairs event last time out alongside Scott Piercy. Putting is traditionally a bugbear of Horschel, but he holed the lion's share of putts in his partnership with Piercy and will be thrilled with his flat-stick form.

Horschel is a proven champion at elite level – he lifted the FedEx Cup in 2014 – and it was less than a year ago that he won his fourth US Tour title as an individual, beating Day in a playoff for the AT&T Byron Nelson. Tough layouts in Florida are his best hopes – he was fourth in the Honda Classic last year – and five spins at Sawgrass have yielded steady but unspectacular results.

He was 13th in 2015 and would probably have registered another top-20 finish the following year had he not been handed a two-shot penalty in round two for moving a metal fence which was deemed a temporary immovable obstruction behind the ninth green.

Next best
Zach Johnson 66-1

Another accurate American well suited to the demands of Sawgrass is Zach Johnson, who could use this event to end a victory drought stretching back to the 2015 Open. The two-time Major champion is eager to retain his place on the US Ryder Cup team and still has plenty to offer at 42.

Johnson contended in the Texas Open last month, finishing fifth on a long track where his lack of power was a significant handicap. Sawgrass, where big-hitters are forced to leave their drivers in their bags, levels the playing field. Precision, course-management and grit – attributes on which Johnson has built a borderline Hall of Fame career – are the keys to success.

Johnson finished eighth on his Players debut in 2005 and has missed the cut just once in 13 visits. He tied for second in 2012, beaten by two shots, and has also been a regular contender at Bay Hill, another difficult Florida layout. The 12-time US Tour winner, who took 15th place with a weak partner (Jonathan Byrd) in the Zurich last time out, is putting like a champion again and should be ready take advantage if his namesake Dustin and the rest of the market leaders flop.

Other selections
Cameron Smith 70-1
Russell Henley 100-1
Webb Simpson 80-1

Home advantage provides an edge for Horschel, but also to Cameron Smith, who is based in Jacksonville and has got countless practice rounds under his belt at Sawgrass. Smith is an improving 24-year-old who is becoming one of the most well-rounded operators on the circuit and he can be expected to get his name on the Players trophy one day.

An Aussie has won five of the last 27 editions and Smith, who plays tough tracks well, won the Australian PGA in December and finished fifth in the Masters last month, is good enough to follow the likes of Adam Scott and Day into the Sawgrass winner's enclosure.

Run-off areas and lightning-fast dancefloors provide a headache for the competitors, but short-game master Russell Henley will not fear the challenge. This putting wizard has added driving accuracy to his arsenal this term, lying 15th on the US Tour statistics, and Sawgrass could be at the mercy of the three-time US Tour champ. The last of his three Tour victories came at Sawgrass's neighbour course, Dye Valley, and another Florida triumph came in the 2014 Honda Classic.

Henley finished eighth in the Houston Open, then 15th in the Masters, closing with a 67 and bursting with confidence, before taking a month off to be with his newborn son. Understandably rusty last week, Henley missed the cut at Quail Hollow, but much better can be expected at Sawgrass.

Complete your attack with Webb Simpson, who has been revived with the putter and is consistently banking decent cheques. He was fourth in the Sony Open at the start of the year, then performed well in Florida, finishing fifth in the Honda and eighth in the Valspar. A final-round 67 delivered 20th spot in the Masters, then fifth place followed in the Heritage, before 21st spot on Sunday at the Quail Hollow bombers' playground.

Simpson, the 2012 US Open champion, is well suited to the grind of Sawgrass and can improve on his 16th place from last year.

Others to note
Francesco Molinari
The accurate Italian has form figures of 6-7-6 from his last three Players starts and steady recent efforts make him a lively runner.

Si Woo Kim
The defending champion had the Heritage title at his mercy last month before suffering a putting nightmare over the closing holes. Heb is hitting his ball well enough to threaten a repeat victory.

Patrick Cantlay
The Shriners Open champ shared 22nd place on his Players debut last year. He performed well in the Heritage and in the Zurich Classic on his last two outings, and could easily contend.

Bryson DeChambeau
The US Tour formhorse has finished second at Bay Hill, third in the Heritage and fourth at Quail Hollow in the last two months, but is making his Sawgrass debut.

Justin Rose
The Englishman is one of five players who could end the week as world number one if results go their way. A surprisingly patchy Sawgrass record is off-putting.

Tiger Woods
The modern Tiger is well suited to Sawgrass, where he can ignore his driver, and he is a two-time Players champion. This looked a possible venue for a comeback success, but he struggled at Quail Hollow, closing with a birdie-free 74 for 55th place.

Staking plan
B Horschel
2pts each-way 66-1 BoyleSports, Coral
Z Johnson
2pts each-way 66-1 BetBright
C Smith
1.5pts each-way 70-1 Sky Bet
R Henley
1pt each-way 100-1 Betway, Sky Bet
W Simpson
1pt each-way 80-1 Betway 

The Lowdown

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

Prize money $11m ($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 Tiger Woods (twice), Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar, Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Si Woo Kim

When to bet By 12.10pm Thursday

Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 12.30pm Thursday

Time difference Florida is five hours behind the UK and Ireland

Last week 1 J Day (20-1), T2 A Wise (250-1), N Watney (200-1), 4 B DeChambeau (55-1), T5 P Mickelson (28-1), P Casey (25-1), P Uihlein (225-1)

Course overview The famous Pete Dye design, which has hosted this tournament since 1982, can be a brutal test. The Championship became 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. The greens were changed prior to last year's event, the dancefloors becoming TifEagle grass rather than MiniVerde. Holes six, seven and 12 were redesigned. Mounds in between the sixth and seventh were removed, with a lake added, while the 12th became a 302-yard driveable par-four with water left

The story of last year Si Woo Kim carded a fearless final-round 69 to leave the rest of the field in his wake, the 21-year-old Korean cruising to a three-shot victory to become the youngest winner in the history of the event

Weather forecast Sunny with light breezes throughout, baking an already firm venue

Type of player suited to challenge Short but straight hitters traditionally shine at this venue. Tim Clark, KJ Choi, Matt Kuchar and Si Woo Kim are recent Sawgrass champions who fit that category. 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

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Horschel, born in Florida and a resident of Jacksonville Beach, a 16-minute drive from TPC Sawgrass, starred for the University of Florida
E.W. Terms
Sky bet