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Viktor Hovland E/W
Sahith Theegala E/W
Sam Burns E/W

In almost a month to the day, the golfing world celebrates the start of The Masters.

Traditionally, this is the week when the hype really ramps up, with The Players Championship being the first sighting of a top-class full field. That has changed, of course, with the introduction of the PGA Tour’s elevated events, a series of lucrative tournaments that have managed to tempt those that previously might have felt like a week off.

Since January, there have been four such tournaments with season-long contenders for the world number one slot winning three.

Jon Rahm won the opening Tournament of Champions and the Genesis, whilst Scottie Scheffler defended his Phoenix Open crown. Yes, Kurt Kitayama won the most recent – the Arnold Palmer Invitational – but he had to hold a host of challengers, including Scheffler, Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth amongst others. When the best are present, it takes an almighty effort to beat them.

Such are the financial rewards (let’s park ‘legacy’ for the moment), players can no longer aim themselves at Augusta week and need to be ready weeks before. And that’s what makes this week’s ‘fifth’ major so fascinating given we have seen many of the best show their hand.

To the event itself, and Sawgrass never fails to enthrall. Indeed, with the constant that is Pete Dye’s feature track, it has far more in common with Augusta than just quality of field.

Sawgrass asks players to find the right part of the fairway, to have their irons on point and to scramble like a demon should they miss the dancefloor.

At under 7200-yards, there are lessons for all designers that want to make a challenging course that doesn’t succumb to bombers, although distance can never hurt. Certainly it can be said to have aided the three winners since the event moved to a windier and wetter March, the trio averaging 14th for driving distance.

Overwhelmingly, though, this is a second shot course.

The last two champions Cam Smith and Justin Thomas ranked fifth for strokes-gained approach, whilst McIlroy was listed as just one place behind those in sixth.

Indeed, it is Rory that gives the best clue to this event after the move in month and the change in greens:

“So just to be a little more aggressive, get a shorter club in your hand, and even when you are aggressive and you miss, it’s a touch easier to get yourself back into position. The rough isn’t as long or as gnarly. You’re running into that pine straw and you still have some sort of a shot and some control of your ball. And then when you miss the greens, you’re not having to contend with that Bermuda, you’re not having to guess, how is this going to come out, whatever. So it lends itself to more aggressive play. I don’t know if the course is easier or not. We’ll see what the stroke average is at the end of the day. But because I think it’s playing longer, it’ll play longer for most of the guys, and I think it should all even out. But I definitely like the golf course the way it is in March.”

Best bet – Viktor Hovland

Current joint-favourite Rory McIlroy makes far more appeal than Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler from the top of the market.

The Irishman could easily have won at Bay Hill on Sunday, a final hole putt going close enough to give his fans a shout. That would have made it three wins in his last six events, and having won here in 2019, and ranking top-10 for tee-to-green in almost every event since time began, he looks a lot more solid that world number one Rahm, who has to put a poor Bay Hill behind him.

The Spaniard was going for his sixth win in ten starts and after an opening 65, looked very much the one to beat. His fade away to 39th, plus moderate course form is enough to give him the elbow at single figures.

Scheffler also just missed out at the Arnold Palmer, his birdie putt on 17 giving the hole a look as it went by, and maybe affecting his play on 18. He looks unflappable in the most part but will need to overcome last season’s 55th place finish, surprising given he went into Sawgrass off a run of 1/7/1, and won back-to-back straight after, including at the Dye-designed Austin CC.

‘NOOOO’ shout the masses as the name Viktor Hovland is put up this week, but I reckon this is the time he steps up in similar fashion to Cam Smith.

Buoyed by the likes of Keegan Bradley (in seventh and fifth in his last four starts here) and even Russell Knox (two life-time top-20s here and sixth last year) this course rewards quality ball-strikers. Those, amongst others,  show that even those with frailties on the greens can do something here, and the 25-year-old Norwegian is a perfect fit.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the Norwegian’s game from tee-to-green, ranking an average of 5th for driving since Pebble Beach, and 25th for ball-striking over the last three months. The issue is clearly with the short game and it’s one that many cannot overlook, but I’m happy enough to take the chance at the price, for a contender for a place amongst the elite.

Despite ranking down the bottom for his short game – particularly during rounds one and two – Hovland was beaten just four shots by Kitayama, a player that found more than his A1 game from tee to green. Given that, and his efforts in top-class PGA Tour competition, and I’m happy to be the outlier.

Twice winner at Mayakoba, where finding the fairway is a big advantage, and also at the Hero World Challenge – knockabout, maybe, but much of the world’s best were behind – he brings in a runner-up at Bay Hill in 2022 to go alongside Sunday’s top-10, top-five finishes at Riviera and a fourth place at Sedgefield where half-a-dozen Players champions have also won.

Pete Dye form is scant but Hovland has an 11th at River Highlands in his second of two starts there, and was top-30 when the USPGA was held at Kiawah Island.

In two outings here, the Norwegian star missed the cut on debut before finishing in the top 10 last year, leading the field in tee-to-green. Sure, his short game cost him nearly six shots of the 14 he made but he’s just a good chip short of being back in the world’s top-10. He can start here.

Max Homa is a player that, for some reason, seems easy to read. Classic, shot-makers tracks suit, and with an ability to grind out pars, the 32-year-old can confirm his startling improvement by contending here, but I felt he was also worth serious consideration for Augusta, for which he is currently 10 points bigger.

Equally, in their own way Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Tony Finau must have claims should everything click for four days, but it’s tough to choose between them.

Dangers – Sahith Theegala and Sam Burns 

Instead, I’m leaving that illustrious group and taking a chance that Sam Burns comes alive again in Florida.

Winning here after two missed-cuts would be unusual, but his price has drifted to a big enough number to take the chance that this two-time winner of the Valspar Championship can also repeat an admirable effort of just 12 months ago.

Innisbrook clearly suits the 26-year-old, who beat Keegan Bradley (two top-10s here) to his first Valspar, whilst, before his ownback-to-back efforts, Paul Casey (3rd and 5th at Sawgrass) did the same, beating Jason Kokrak (top-10 2021) and Louis Oosthuizen (runner-up), and Patrick Reed and Tiger Woods (twice Players champion).

Burns has never really taken to Bay Hill, a ninth place the definite highlight from a handful of outings, but he was 26th here last year on his second event outing, leading at halfway after an opening 68/69, and finding the putter his best club.

Two weekends off look poor, but a glance back just a month ago sees Burns finish a fast-finishing sixth at Phoenix and 11th at the American Express, where rounds of 64 (twice) make his current performance hard to fathom.

Burns is playing around with drivers at the moment, but as a long-term member of the top-20 club for all-round driving, he will figure it out, and, at the price offered,  it’s worth taking the chance it will be this week.

This will be a tough event for a maiden to win so, even if might be ‘unofficial’, Sahith Theegala‘s victory at the team QBE Shootout gives some backing to his chance.

The 25-year-old college superstar should have been at home with at least one trophy before his win in Naples (Florida) having led both the 2021 Fortinet Championship and last season’s Phoenix Open well into the finishing straight.

Both those efforts showed an understandable naivety in his game, but he showed he belonged at the top with a 13/15/28 finish at the big-money FedEx Cup events.

Since then, apart from the victory alongside Tom Hoge, the Pepperdine graduate has made 11 from 12 cuts, including finishing in sixth place back at the Fortinet, a fast-closing fifth and second at the Zozo and RSM respectively, fourth at Torrey Pines, sixth at Riviera and last week’s 14th at Bay Hill.

The latest result sits nicely with a seventh at Valspar, his ranking of 30th for greens over the last three months, top-10 for par-4s over the same period, and a solid pair of top-five listings for irons and tee-to-green at both the Farmers and Genesis.

With the likes of Homa now established away from the bunch, we are looking for the next star to shine, and Theegala, reminding me of the early days of Rickie Fowler with his confident short game, could very well be the one.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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