It is known as the Fifth Major, because of the quality of the field and huge purse (at $9.5 million, it’s the biggest anywhere). The Players Championship, held at TCP Sawgrass, Ponte Vedre Beach , Florida, which plays at 7,215 yards with four par 5s.

Sawgrass is one of the toughest courses used on Tour. On the final three holes water comes into play, and players need nerves of steel to finish with two pars on the 137-yard par-3 17th, which features and island green, and the par-4 18th, a hole that is nearly always ranked in the top 10 of the hardest on Tour (in nearly 1,000 played) – so if betting in running, beware of that final stretch.

players300The greens are smaller than average and the key to winning is hitting the fairways and the putting surfaces in regulation. In short, it is better to be straight than long off the tee.

There has never been a first-time winner at The Players (although Tim Clark’s win in 2010 was his first PGA Tour win) and if the trends hold true, it will come as a relief to many golf punters, who have seen no less than seven first-time winners on Tour this year from 19 events.

Tour rookie David Ernst was the latest, overcoming difficult conditions and dreadful greens to beat David Lynn in a playoff in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow.

Robert Garrigus and Rory McIlroy gave this column’s bettors a good run for their money last week, but as we know, winners are not guaranteed.

No statistics can explain away how Ernst, a rookie playing his ninth tournament could win the Wells Fargo, how Russell Henley, who made two prior starts on the PGA Tour as an amateur, became the first player in 12 years to win in his debut as a Tour rookie member in the Sony Open, or how Martin Laird, 157th in the FedEx Cup standings, could shoot a final-round nine-under-par 63 to hold off Rory McIlroy in the Valero Texas Open.

Nothing is quite so strange as seeing Michael Thompson, who had missed three of four cuts including a 78-80 at Riviera two weeks previously, a man who wondered if he’d ever make another cut, land The Honda Classic. Yet these events were startling enough to put embattled punters behind the eight-ball. It has been a relatively tough spring for bettors so far.

But if there is one statistic we should be able to rely upon, it is this: seven of the last eight winners of The Players had a minimum of seven appearances at the TPC Sawgrass prior to their victories, so it is a course that favours experience.

Matt Kuchar is the defending champion. He is just one of three Americans to win at Sawgrass in the last nine years.

tigerwoodsTiger Woods is the BETDAQ favourite for the tournament with the deepest field this year. He has won twice on this course before – in the 1994 Amateur Championship, and again in 2001 in The Players. His course form figures in this event read: T31-T35-T10-2-1-T14-T11-T16-T53-T22-T37-8-WD-T40 – that makes it one top-10 finish (8th in ’09) since his victory in 12 years ago. TCP Sawgrass isn’t his favourite track.

However, bettors will note that while he has had his usual three-week break since playing at Augusta, his form figures coming into this event read: 1-1-T4. His fine performance at The Masters was no big surprise, as he invariably does well there. Tiger plays well on courses he likes and plays like a mere mortal on those he doesn’t. You can usually set your clock by that.

So his odds of 9.2 look a little short – but you can never rule out a happy Tiger Woods, and he does seem at ease with himself more this season than he has for a very long time, as three Tour wins would attest. Other established stars to have won this season include Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott.

One established star who has yet to win this year is Rory McIlroy, who was just four shots behind Ernst and Lynn at Quail Hollow, putting himself in great positions, only for his flat stick to let him down, although the greens were playing soft and not particularly running true.

McIlroy has missed the cut in all his three starts here and while he is hitting a highly commendable 71.16% of the greens in regulation (fourth behind Henrik Stenson’s 73.89%), his short game has really yet to catch fire this year and while he does appear to be trending upwards, there are still doubts about his swing. Those doubts, along with the problems he has had conquering this Pete Dye course with its lightning-quick Bermuda grass greens, are certainly enough to think we should take on the Northern Irishman.

Lee Westwood invariably struggles to get his nose over the line but is very capable of notching a Top-10 finish. He has top 10s in each of his last three starts and finished with a T4 at Quail Hollow last week. His course form is solid, with three top 10s and a top 25 from 10 starts, with seven cuts made. He will interest the trend merchants more than McIlroy, but it is unlikely either that duo or Woods will get anywhere near close to Greg Norman’s incredible tournament record of 24-under (1994); the average winning score here is -12.

There are four par 5s and three of those are regularly reachable, with the par-5 ninth the only question mark. The par 3s and several of the par 4s can be very challenging, and there’s no shortage of water on the course.

Scoring might again be at a premium; in recent times the course has been soaked with heavy rainfall and was closed on Monday for that reason. But Sawgrass is unlikely to diminish its challenge to players, despite slowing those lightning greens. Little wind is forecast, so it should favour stroke-makers and whatever the elements, the iconic closing holes will make for another fantastic climax on Sunday evening.

So where do we look for the likely winners? Here’s our five to follow:

golfclubLuke Donald @ 21.0
No Englishman has ever won this tournament but Donald certainly has the right credentials to do so. He has back-to-back top-six finishes at Sawgrass, where he has made seven of eight cuts. He was T2 here in 2005 and he is starting the find his true form. He was a fine T3 on the Pete Dye-designed Hilton Head course in the RBC Heritage and recorded a T4 in Tampa. His short game and scrambling ability should see him contend through all four days.

Sergio Garcia @ 33.0
With three Top 10s from six completed tournaments, including a T8 at The Masters, the Spaniard is coming to a place he likes in cracking form. You cannot fault his record of six top 20 finishes this term. And while he is only hitting 67.39% of greens in regulation (50th), Garcia has made 11 of 13 cuts at Sawgrass and has finished first and second here.

Charl Schwartzel @ 42.0
A former major winner, Schwartzel will look to emulate fellow South African Tim Clark who won this in 2010, and in the form he is in, there’s no reason why it should not happen. He has not missed a cut in stroke play this season and has two top-10 finishes, including a best T3 PGA Tour finish at Riviera. He has also finished second in the European Tour’s Joburg Open and had a T4 in Malaysia.

Jason Day @ 48.0
Australians have a great record at Sawgrass, with Steve Elkington (twice), Greg Norman and recent Masters winner Adam Scott all recording victories. Course experience is vital here and that does not bode particularly well for Day, who has made the cut just once from three previous visits – but it was a T6 effort in 2011. His recent form is much better entering the tournament than it was this time last year – making nine cuts from nine starts and twice third in his four top-10 finishes. This may well not be his ideal course, but he has boom or bust potential.

Henrik Stenson @ 70.0
Stenson won The Players Championship in 2009 by four shots and has five top-25 finishes in seven tries at Sawgrass. He also leads the PGA Tour in total driving and greens in regulation. If you forgive his missed cut at Quail Hollow – which we should, since he’d had three top 20 finishes prior to that –his odds should be at least 20 points shorter. He has the short iron game that can live with the very best.

Top 10 Finish – Justin Leonard @ 32.0
Leonard reminds a little of Hal Sutton, who won here in 2000 for the second time – 17 years after first conquering Sawgrass. Leonard won here in 1998. It has been 15 years since he last won here, but if he plays as well as he did in Tampa (T4), he might be worth a small wager. Leonard has been over par just five times in 12 Tour tournaments this year.

Tournament Match bets
Billy Horschel to beat Brandt Snedeker
Fewer players have the confidence that Horschel is exuding at present and while he is a first-timer at Sawgrass, he fared well on two Pete Dye courses – winning in New Orleans and was T9 at RBC Heritage. Snedeker’s two missed cuts and a T59 at Harbour Town with a T6 at the Masters in between are a far cry from his early-season pre-rib injury form.

Lee Westwood to beat Justin Rose
Rose has been inventive with his shot-making and is hitting the ball really well at present. However, he simply isn’t putting anywhere near the standard he should be. Add to that his Sawgrass record of four cuts missed from nine starts and no top 20s, and Westwood is an easy selection.

Jim Furyk to beat Louis Oosthuizen
Furyk likes to sleep in his own bed, as 14 of 17 cuts made at Sawgrass suggests. He’s had three top fives and eight top 25s over the years, and given his recent form – he’d made every cut this year and has two top-10 finishes – there’s plenty to like in siding with Jim.

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