Time for Jason's Day in the sun

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: January 23 2014, 17:01 GMT

The PGA Tour remains in California for the Farmers Insurance Open and Ben Coley is backing Jason Day.

Jason Day: Has the game to win at Torrey Pines
Jason Day: Has the game to win at Torrey Pines

Tiger Woods makes his return to action this week as Torrey Pines plays host to the Farmers Insurance Open.

Last year, Woods began his return to the top of the world rankings with victory here - that's despite having missed the cut in Abu Dhabi a week earlier.

It is, suffice to say, one of his favourite stops. Seven wins in this tournament plus that famous success in the 2008 US Open, played on the South Course, mean Woods is bidding to become the first man in history to win nine PGA Tour titles at one venue.

As with last week, there's a slightly unusual dynamic to this tournament in that two courses - the North and the South - are used. The South - which hosted that US Open - remains the longest course on the PGA Tour and players are required to play 54 holes there. It's a course which tends to average over-par.

The North is considerably shorter and a couple of shots easier, and it will be very difficult for a player to fail to fire there and still contend for the title.

Despite differences in scoring, the two courses are quite similar. They ranked first (North) and third (South) in difficulty when it comes to hitting fairways last year and when combined with small greens that means precision iron play tends to be important. Greens in regulation statistics might not appear to confirm that, but it's important to miss in the right spots and that's exactly what Woods does so brilliantly at courses he knows inside out.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that experience counts for plenty here. Eleven of the last 12 winners had been inside the top 10 on one of their previous two visits and while Woods skews those figures, it is very hard for a newcomer to keep it going for 72 holes while those to have struggled here before will ordinarily struggle here again.

Finally, there have been 62 PGA Tour events here and 60 have been won by Americans. Yes, the tour is evolving and there are more, better overseas players, but compare this event to something like the Honda Classic and the bias towards home players appears very strong. It's hard to fully explain but the positioning of this tournament on the calendar perhaps has something to do with it.

All of which should make the event reasonably straightforward to assess and I do expect we'll see a winner from the top section of the market. Unlike last week, this isn't an event in which it ordinarily pays to get too creative - it's simply a question of who, if anyone, you think is capable of taking on Woods and beating him.

Top of my list is Jason Day, even though he admittedly doesn't fit the criteria of being American.

Everything else about this confident Australian points to a big performance, however, and to my mind he's one of the few men who would choose to be playing alongside Woods in the final group on Sunday if given that opportunity. Back in 2008 when he made his debut here on just his second PGA Tour start, the then-20-year-old was asked if Woods intimidated him and replied, curtly: 'No.'

Day is also a winner already at Torrey Pines. Back in 2004, he won the Junior World Golf Championships on the South Course, carding three rounds of 69 to open up a massive advantage on the field before a poor back-nine in round four saw him win by two. Still, at seven-under he was one of just three to break par from a field of over 100 and it's experience which will stand him in good stead.

I accept that junior golf form isn't typically reliable nor should it ever be the cause for a bet, but if you look through the Junior World Golf Championship it's incredible how many clues to the Farmers Insurance Open can be found. The likes of Michael Sim, Martin Flores, John Merrick, Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and Jhonattan Vegas all played in it and have all since landed a top 10 here as a professional. Rickie Fowler and Kyle Stanley, too.

Day took a while to confirm his affinity for the layout but closed with an excellent 66 for ninth last year and finishes of sixth at Pebble Beach and third in the World Match Play underline that he's capable of making a quick start to the season.

His length off the tee is definitely an asset as is the fact he's both used to playing from the rough and very good at it. Day ranked 27th in greens hit from off the fairway last year and that stat is a very good pointer here, simply because so many approaches will be played from the rough. To underline its significance, Bubba Watson led the tour in the year of his win and the man he succeeded, Ben Crane, ranked second to him. 2009 winner Nick Watney is a regular feature towards the top of the stat and 2012 runner-up Kyle Stanley - who should've won - is too.

Day signed off 2013 with an important, poignant individual and team success in the World Cup at Royal Melbourne before finishing sixth in the Australian Open and ninth in the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, so recent form is there for all to see and my only slight issue is that he hasn't won enough tournaments for one of such talent.

However, Day will be aware of that and I really believe his World Cup win could prove a springboard for a tremendously successful 2014 campaign.

Another stat worth a glance is proximity to the hole from the rough and at this embryonic stage, Jordan Spieth leads the way. He's out to 40/1 on the back of a missed cut at the Sony Open and is tempting, as is local boy Rickie Fowler who blew his chance in round one here last year but thereafter played some excellent golf.

However, Spieth's lack of competitive experience here and Fowler's quite drastic swing changes are enough to put me off, and instead I'll get Hunter Mahan on side at 45/1.

Mahan is a five-time PGA Tour winner who went out in the final group in both the Open Championship and the US Open last year, so his quality can't be questioned. His victory in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational best demonstrates his class and Firestone wouldn't be a world away from this test, one which absolutely suits.

After an inauspicious start, he's developed a very strong record at Torrey Pines with eight consecutive cuts made and seven top-30 finishes on the spin, one of which came in that aforementioned US Open. More recently he's finished sixth (twice) and 15th in his last three visits and it seems a matter of time before this superb ball-striker at least hits the frame here.

Mahan was 22nd for greens hit from off the fairway last year so on the rare occasions he does miss his first target, we know he can find these greens. His short-range putting is another asset which doesn't get mentioned quite so often but that too will help as these California surfaces tend to get a little bumpy on the weekend, meaning a bold, confident putter will tend to fare best.

The worry with Mahan is that this will be his first competitive start of the season but he did play in Thailand in mid-December, so it'll only be five weeks off. One of those sixth-placed finishes came in similar circumstances and he's been placed on his seasonal debut in the past so we shouldn't be overly concerned about any potential rustiness - particularly when the 11/4 favourite is in the same position.

All in all, Mahan fits the bill in terms of being a classy, proven winner who hits it long and straight and won't mind if he does have to find a small target from the first cut of rough. At 45/1, he looks good each-way value.

Charles Howell III is a player to avoid on most occasions but at 66/1 I can cope with the fact he does find winning difficult.

Howell simply looks to have an outstanding chance to at least play well and while yes, two wins on tour is a poor return given his all-round game, his career highlight did come in California in the Northern Trust Open.

Indeed, Howell owns a very strong California record full-stop including a pair of runner-up finishes here and with both coming at the hands of Woods, it's hard to be too critical of his performances at Torrey Pines.

Howell has the benefit of plenty of match practice under his belt having played seven times already this season, securing four top-10 finishes, and he's 10th in greens hit from off the fairway to go with typically solid stats throughout the bag.

He has always been known for his long, straight driving and superb iron play, and the early evidence so far this season suggests he's on his game from tee to green. However, in recent years it's his short game which has really improved - he's currently second on tour in scrambling - and while that does further underline that his mental approach needs to get better, it also convinces he that he's overpriced at least to place in one of his favourite events.

Part of the reason that Georgia-born Howell has played so many tournaments already is that, at 75th in the world rankings, he's one big week away from a spot not just at Augusta but also the upcoming World Match Play. With Woods and co lining up here there are plenty to play for and he could go close.

The other American big-hitter with an excellent game from the rough who surely looks good value here is Bubba Watson, and he completes the staking plan.

As mentioned previously, Bubba is a past winner here but he's also been fourth, seventh and 13th from just eight starts and 40/1 looks an inflated price.

Part of that is because Woods is playing and part of it, presumably, is because Watson hasn't played so far this season. However, just like Mahan he played in Thailand in December while he also finished tied for third in Tiger's event at Sherwood, to show that his game is in good order.

There could of course be an element of rust this week but for a natural talent like Watson, who maintains that he has never and will never have a golf lesson, that doesn't really concern me. I'm more interested in the fact that he loves coming here with his family and has the perfect game for both courses.

Those looking for an upset could do worse than Brad Fritsch, who is a huge price considering last year's debut ninth and some solid play last week. His compatriot Graham DeLaet also made the shortlist, while Torrey Pines High School graduate Michael Kim is one to watch on his first professional start.

However, I'm expecting a top-class winner of this event and, in the hope that it isn't Woods, the above four look to hold outstanding claims.

  • Posted at 1115 GMT on 21/01/2014.