A case for the defence

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: May 23 2013, 15:25 BST

Our Ben Coley fancies Zach Johnson to put up a stout defence of his Crowne Plaza Invitational title at Colonial Country Club.

Zach Johnson: Could be peaking at the right time

The PGA Tour remains in Texas for one more week and the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

At 7,204-yards, the venue is a par 70 renowned for rewarding experience and ball-striking. Ben Hogan won five times here and along with Riviera it's a course that gets labelled Hogan's Alley, so it's no surprise that a strong field arrives year upon year for one of the Tour's longest standing events.

Tight, tree-lined holes require a player to shape the ball both ways, particularly off the tee, and hitting fairways and greens is extremely difficult. Only players who strike it well are likely to end up competing for an event that's gone the way of some seasoned professionals.

Indeed, you have to go back to 2001 for the last time a player under the age of 30 won and that man, Sergio Garcia, is clearly a little bit special. He's also the last man to win the event on his debut at Colonial which further underlines the value of experience.

Of the last five winners, four ranked among the top six in greens hit for the week while all of them were either first or second in par-four performance. It's fair to assume that most of the field will capitalise on the two par-fives and it'll be the shorter holes which separate the players here.

So, the identikit winner is a player who has been here before and played the course well, who typically hits fairways and greens regularly and scores well on the par-fours.

I can't get away from defending champion Zach Johnson and although I wouldn't want to go much lower than 16s, with that price available generally he's top of my list.

Johnson clearly thrives at Colonial. In seven visits he's made seven cuts, 23 of his 28 rounds have been par or better, and he's never shot worse than 73.

His form figures at the course are therefore exceptional, and they've gotten better with time, too. Never outside the top 30, he's finished ninth, first, fourth and first on his last four visits and had an active streak of 15 rounds of 69 or better prior to a closing 72 last year when the wind blew harder than usual.

Clearly, then, his claims from a course form perspective are second to none, but the case gets stronger when we look at his wider form in this part of the world and his record defending titles.

Johnson has played 13 PGA Tour events in Texas and he's won four of them - two editions of this event and two editions of the Valero Texas Open. Thirty-six of his 48 rounds have been better than 70 - he simply loves playing in the Lone Star State.

And what's particularly interesting about those Valero Texas Open wins is that they were back-to-back. Some players struggle when defending titles, but not Johnson. Indeed, he was well on course to place on defence of his Masters title before a poor final round and so few Augusta champions have produced such efforts a year after their Green Jacket win.

Of course, this all counts for nothing if he can't be relied on to play close to his best this week - nobody wins on the PGA Tour these days at 90 per cent, bar perhaps one Tiger Woods.

But while this season's form figures aren't inspiring, it's interesting to note significant improvements in key stats. Since the Masters, he's played three events, hitting 58, 62 and 69 per cent of greens. And while his driving accuracy dipped at Quail Hollow, it took a big leap forward at Sawgrass where he played well for three rounds.

Most eye-catching, though, is his putting improvement. Back in the Tampa Bay Championship, Johnson lost close to two strokes per round on the field. Since then, he's improved through each event and picked up close to a stroke last time.

All of this leads me to think that Johnson could peak at the perfect time and if that's the case 16/1 is big. Even if we ignore all stats and form, backing him blindly at 16/1 both here and in Texas in general is a clear money-maker and I'm not sure he should be the same price this year as he was last, given that he won the thing again.

In punting as in life it's best to try to forgive and forget when you can and that's partly why Robert Karlsson is back on my list this week.

I was really sweet on his prospects in the HP Byron Nelson Championship last week and an opening round of six-under confirmed to me that he's on his way back. Then he shot 78 and missed the cut. I wasn't particularly pleased.

But now that the dust has settled I'm keen to look at the bigger picture and that's one which shows Karlsson has played nine good rounds in his last 10 having qualified for the Open Championship on Monday and finished fourth at Quail Hollow.

At Gleneagles Country Club, a short drive from this week's venue, Karlsson overcame a late wobble to hole a 15-foot putt to make the Open and that should act as a further step on his road to recovery, having almost given up the game two years ago.

It was in 2011 that he made his first and only visit to Colonial and a share of fifth, when he ranked 10th for fairways and seventh for greens, showed what he can do. It could've been so much better, too, were it not for three double-bogeys.

Karlsson needs to eliminate those big mistakes to challenge for titles again but with positive course memories and a huge step in the right direction on Monday, perhaps he can do that here.

He's 13th for par-four performance over the last three months and figures highly in scrambling too, so at 80/1 I'll back him to put it all together. He's clearly capable.

I also considered Jordan Spieth from those I backed last week because his price has suddenly doubled and he's played plenty of golf here, too. However, he's just passed over and instead I'll take John Huh as the best of the under-30 brigade.

As I mentioned earlier, history shows that experience is important here but Huh's game is a little bit old-school - unlike many of his peers, he's all about accuracy and doesn't rely on brute force to beat the golf course.

That was very much in evidence when he finished fifth on debut here last year, leading the field in fairways and ranking eighth in greens. It was all the more impressive given that he'd withdrawn from the Byron Nelson a week earlier citing an elbow injury.

His PGA Tour win also came in an event typically dominated by older, steadier players. He won the Mayakoba Classic last year and was the first 20-something to do so, beating the much more experienced Robert Allenby in a lengthy play-off.

So, I've no real concerns about his age and having taken a while to adapt to new equipment, he's finally found some solid form lately. Last week's eighth-placed finish saw him rank fourth in fairways and third in greens and was also his third top-10 finish in just seven starts in Texas.

Finally, Huh is good friends with Bae Sang-moon and his victory at nearby TPC Four Seasons could inspire a player who learned the game in Korea, even if he was born in the US. At 40/1 or bigger he's worth a bet.

Last of my outright selections is Bo Van Pelt.

While not everyone's favourite golfer on account of a thoroughly consistent profile which lacks as many wins as he and backers would like, Bo has won two of his last 41 events worldwide so he can clearly get over the line given the right set of circumstances.

And as a supreme ball-striker, it's no surprise that Colonial has become one of his favourite venues on Tour. Van Pelt has made the cut every time he's teed up here and has been 10th, third and 19th in his last three visits, the latter coming after he'd entered the weekend in third.

Across those three events he's ranked fourth, 11th and third in greens so he's no problem finding the surfaces here, and his last two PGA Tour events have seen him produce comfortably his best putting figures of 2013.

Last week, Van Pelt made the trip to Bulgaria to take part in the Volvo World Match Play Championship and I thought he performed well. Under-par for each of his first two matches, both of which were halved, he then lost to eventual winner Graeme McDowell and went down fighting, winning three of the last six holes.

His return to America will be an emotional one. Van Pelt was educated at Oklahoma State and calls Tulsa home, so the tragic events there this week will no doubt have had an impact upon him. Hopefully, he finds the inspiration to produce the goods for the people of Oklahoma as Keegan Bradley did for Boston last week.

Certainly, he has the game for it and a season-long ranking of 15th in par-four birdie or better percentage is particularly eye-catching given the need to take advantage of those holes at Colonial.

Finally, I'm backing Brian Davis for a top-10 finish at what looks a very generous 10/1.

We all know that Davis has found winning on Tour difficult. So far he's played 265 events and has been runner-up five times, failing to land that elusive success his efforts probably deserve.

Odds of 10/1 accurately reflect how often he gets inside the top-10, but not here in Texas. Davis has teed it up 24 times here and has seven top-10 finishes, including when second here in 2010.

Couple that with the fact he qualified for the Open on Monday and ranks 15th this season in driving accuracy and you have a decent case for a bet which covers the staking plan if successful.

  • Preview posted at 1035 BST on 21/05/2013.