PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It’s still May, so I think it’s probably all right to go ahead with the Kentucky Derby theme here at the Players. And down the stretch they come!
Sunday’s final round at the Stadium Course looks like it’s going to be a real horse race. So let’s get right to the handicapping.
The Favorite. It’s Kenny Perry. (Fitting right in with our theme, he’s a son of the Bluegrass State.) This even though he trails leader Paul Goydos by one stroke. Why? For starters, Perry, 47, has won nine times on Tour. He’s been here and done this before. Second, he’s always been a streak player. “When I get hot, I’ll play good for a couple of months,” he said on Saturday. That’s true. He’s pretty long off the tee, a good iron player (though he hits just about every shot right to left) and when he putts well, as he’s doing this week, he contends for titles. Perry hasn’t won in three years but a main cause of the drought is the knee surgery he had two years ago. He’s just now getting back to making the swing that turned him into one of America’s top ten players. He’s very motivated to make this year’s Ryder Cup team because it’s being held in his home state. And one more thing. “I’m not afraid to win,” he said. I agree.
Perry’s odds: 3 to 1.
The Alternate Favorite. It’s Paul Goydos, 43. He seems an unlikely leader but there he is in his self-deprecating glory at seven under par, one ahead of Perry and three ahead of Sergio Garcia. Goydos has won in Hawaii and at Bay Hill but he’s never had a 54-hole tournament lead before. Here’s why he can win: The firm and fast greens at the Stadium Course are playing so tough that it’s not just a test of ballstriking, it’s also a test of getting up and down. Goydos has 31 one-putt greens in 54 holes-most beneficial, since he’s hit only 31 greens in regulation. (Perry has hit 35, Garcia has hit a remarkable 45.) There’s a chance of rain on Sunday, which could soften the greens and lead to lower scores. But with firm greens, Goydos and his hot putter will be difficult to catch. He’s not going to dominate with his length or (probably) outplay Sergio tee to green. But he shot 70 to Sergio’s 73 on Saturday) and when it comes down to making putts, Goydos is the man of this tournament so far.
Goydos’ odds: 5 to 1.
The Feared Challenger. It’s Sergio Garcia. He drove it like a genius in Friday’s round and overall, his ballstriking has been superior to everyone’s in the field . Putting has been his downfall the last two seasons and while he’s made strides in the right direction to correct that, this is the first giant test of the stroke rejigggered under the tutelage of Stan Utley. There’s a difference between missing putts because you’re stroking it poorly and missing putts when you’re rolling it well. Most of Sergio’s misses have been of the latter variety. The Sawgrass greens are quick and can make you look silly. Sergio’s rounds of 66, 73 and 73 have pretty much been the highest scores he could have shot—only a slight exaggeration. On Sunday the putts could start falling and Sergio could run away and hide. I just hope he doesn’t wear that banana-yellow outfit again tomorrow.
Garcia’s odds: 6 to 1.
The Lurking Champion. It’s Phil Mickelson. Take that double bogey at the 14th hole out of the picture and Phil would only be three behind Goydos. You can’t, of course, and it’s those one or two costly mistakes per day that have held back the defending champ. He’s still right there. If Goydos falters, Phil is only four shots out of second. One stat of concern: Phil is usually a birdie machine. He’s got 13 this week, tied for eighth. (Goydos, your fearless leader, has 15.) Mickelson has the all-star resume and is clearly the second-best player in the world. He’s the best player on the leader board. (Sergio is the best ballstriker on the board and thus far this week, Goydos is the best putter in the field.) A birdie-birdie start on Sunday by Phil might get the leaders looking over their shoulders. He’s got a chance to win but he needs to shoot in the 60s.
Mickelson’s odds: 8 to 1.
The Crafty Veteran. It’s Bernhard Langer. He’s only a Hall of Famer, a two-time Masters winner and one of the most dogged players in the game’s history. He showed his age (50) a bit during Saturday’s sweltering third round when he melted with three bogeys on the first six holes of the back nine, but he salvaged a 75 and stands five strokes back. Don’t forget about his second-round 67. Beating him is like trying to get a hit off craftsman pitcher Greg Maddux-it’s just hard.
Langer’s odds: 12 to 1.
The Dark Horse. It’s Tom Lehman. At 49, the former Ryder Cup captain may be past his prime, you think, but he’s got some good vibes at this course. He was second in ’98 and ’05, and has seven other top-15 finishes here. All right, he’s six shots back and he hasn’t won in seven years. But in the ’90s, he was one of the best U.S. Open course players in the world, and this week’s Stadium Course is playing like an Open setup with water hazards. Also, he’ll have a chance to post his score early and let the final groups try to survive Sawgrass’s Bermuda Triangle, the suggested nickname for the perilous last three holes.
Lehman’s odds: 25 to 1.
The Long Shot. It’s Jeff Quinney. It may qualify as a state secret that Quinney’s third-round 70 moved him up into a tie for fourth with Mickelson and Langer. With those two high-powered stars in position, no one is likely to give non-winner Quinney a snowball’s chance in Daytona Beach. Quinney has had a few opportunities to win in his relatively short Tour career and, to be honest, he’s dropped the ball once or twice. He led at Riviera this year with nine holes to play, then committed three straight bogeys and got passed by Mickelson. He’s good enough to win.
Quinney’s odds: 40 to 1.
The Field. That’s everybody else. I don’t like their chances. Not against the likes of the Mighty Goydos.
Field’s odds: 99 to 1.