The fire burns for Bradley
Keegan Bradley can stake his claim for a Ryder Cup spot with a second win in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, writes Ben Coley.
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Most of the world's best line up for the no-cut, limited-field Bridgestone Invitational at the monstrously long and difficult Firestone Country Club.
This Robert Trent Jones redesign has provided the platform for a Tiger Woods benefit down the years and the great man goes for a remarkable ninth win in the event. Not only that, but he does so as defending champion and a 16/1 chance which is verging on the paradoxical.
However, 12 months is a long time in golf and, having shown limited promise since returning from back surgery, victory for Woods would be something of a surprise even at one of his favourite haunts.
- 2pts e.w. Keegan Bradley at 28/1 (General 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - loves it here and can raise his game for a Ryder Cup spot
- 1pt e.w. Jason Day at 45/1 (General 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - too big a price on everything bar last two events which are easily excused
- 1pt e.w. Jason Dufner at 55/1 (Betfair Sportsbook 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - local favourite whose driving is a massive asset here
- 1pt e.w. Hideki Matsuyama at 50/1 (General 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - won nearby, 21st here last year, drives it well and solid efforts of late
- 1pt e.w. Stephen Gallacher to be top European at 50/1 (Boylesports 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - game looks suited to this test and he's in fine form
It's less of a surprise then that the layers make Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott the men to beat.
These are currently the best two players on the planet, and they were the best two players in the Open Championship where Scott's chance was undone by luck of the draw as McIlroy dominated the headlines.
They also have the benefit of being long, accurate drivers able to lean on the big-stick and that more than anything strikes me as the key attribute at a course which Scott conquered in 2011 and McIlroy calls one of his favourites.
As ever, it's just a question of where you draw the line with price and with all the 14s and 12s gone about Scott and Rory no bigger than 7/1 despite never quite marrying love for the course with top-class golf on it, they can be taken on.
I'll do so with Keegan Bradley, with 28/1 looking a more than reasonable price about the 2012 champion.
First and foremost, Firestone is just about Bradley's most-liked stop on the PGA Tour and it shows in his results.
On debut in 2011 he did what rookies don't do here and contended before a disappointing Sunday, only to demonstrate what a tough, brilliant talent he is by winning a first major title the very next week.
A year later, he capitalised on Jim Furyk's collapse to win his first World Golf Championship and 12 months ago he was tied for second with Henrik Stenson as Woods ran riot from the off.
All of that comes with some compelling stats.
Bradley has ranked first, seventh and fourth in total driving and fourth, first and sixth in the all-around, working backwards, while 10 of 12 rounds under par at one of the toughest par-70s on the circuit help produce a scoring average of 67.5 - Tiger's is almost a full shot higher.
No surprise, then, that even before another good effort last year he was keen to stress how much this course suits him both off the tee and on the greens.
"Yeah, the course is perfect for me," he said. "You must drive the ball well there. If you don't, you're not going to be able to score.
"I think that you've got to putt well, and the greens there are the type of grass I grew up on in New England. It's a course that I've felt comfortable on the last two years, and one that I feel like every time I play, that I should have a decent shot to win the tournament."
All of this, as well as his solid run of form which includes a top 20 at the Open and three places in 11 starts on home soil, is in the form book. But with such strength at the head of the market and the fact that Bradley has an added incentive, the price still looks very fair.
That incentive is the Ryder Cup, and it's interesting that if we rewind two years, Bradley came to Firestone needing to play well to get into the side. He was, by his own admission, obsessed with qualifying and, while that may stop some players, I think it makes Keegan much more dangerous as he returns in exactly the same boat.
Throw in the fact that he's inside the top 10 for total driving over the last few months and tends to repeat form at certain courses, and I think he's a fine bet.
Speaking of courses at which Bradley performs, I can't get away from the idea that TPC Las Colinas, host of the Byron Nelson, is a worthwhile guide to this event.
Obviously, Bradley is one example having won his first title down there in Texas and finished runner-up last year, but there are more. Scott has won both events, Jason Dufner has two top-10s here to go with a win at Las Colinas, Rory Sabbatini has two second-placed finishes here and he too is a former Byron Nelson winner, while Ryan Palmer has been second at both.
All are good drivers of the ball and both courses demand both distance and accuracy off the tee. Both also provide just two par-fives, and they consistently sit close to each other in terms of overall difficulty.
So, I like the chances of both Dufner and 2010 Byron Nelson champion, Jason Day.
Starting with the Australian, here we have a 2014 WGC winner whose game is tailor-made for tougher, longer courses, and who is a bigger price here than he was for the Open Championship.
By his own admission, Day has still to really work out links golf and he'll be much better suited to Firestone, where he finished fourth behind Scott in 2011 and has always struck the ball well.
Over the last three months he's ninth for total driving, just three places behind Bradley, and as mentioned this course requires skills similar to those he demonstrated when winning his first PGA Tour title four years ago.
The only reason I can find for this is what looks a modest couple of events, which doesn't concern me whatsoever, and another injury scare at Hoylake. Again, this isn't really a concern as he said he simply jarred his hand playing out of the rough and he was fit enough to both carry on and play in the Gary Player Invitational the following Monday.
Day also has the added benefit of owning a home not too far away in Ohio and always enjoys the support he receives here, and this big-time golfer deserves to be much shorter in the market.
Dufner's recent form would probably be more of a concern but it's factored into the price and, as touched upon, he's finished inside the top-10 here on both visits regardless of the state of his game.
Born in nearby Cleveland, the 37-year-old will receive even more support than is usually the case and his ability to shape the ball from the tee and find the centre of the fairway is a huge asset at this testing venue.
"You know, it's just pretty tight off the tee," he said last year. "I feel like I can be aggressive with my driver, which gives me some shorter clubs into these greens, and then some of the hole locations can be tough as the week goes on.
"I feel confident with my driver on this course, and that makes me be able to aggressive and have shorter clubs in."
Dufner would dearly love to win an event he's been attending for approaching 25 years, first as a fan and now as a player, and it's not too long ago that he returned to a ball-striking course he knows and loves and finished second to Scott in the Crowne Plaza.
The final place in my outright staking plan goes to Hideki Matsuyama at the expense of Graham DeLaet.
I can't help but feel the support and the way he finished at the Canadian Open will give DeLaet the push he needs to cross the line soon, and it's rare that we get the opportunity to back this brilliant ball-striker at around 70/1.
However, hopefully it'll pay to wait until the play-offs as he's disadvantaged by a lack of Firestone experience this week, which isn't the case with Japanese sensation Matsuyama.
The 22-year-old won the first of what will surely be many PGA Tour titles back in June, and it came at Ohio's other tour location in Muirfield Village.
Throw in a fine Presidents Cup debut at that course and there's plenty of reason to expect he'll relish a return to this part of the world, while a share of 21st on his debut here last year suggests Firestone is just as suitable as Muirfield.
Matsuyama is inside the top 30 on tour for total driving, he's played solidly throughout all three starts since winning and his record in big events is close to outstanding even at this early stage in his career.
Compatriot Ryo Ishikawa was placed here back in 2011 and the signs are that Matsuyama is able to progress past that and contend for the title - hopefully starting this week.
Finally, I'm going to chance Stephen Gallacher in the top European market.
McIlroy is a worthy favourite here but over the years there have been plenty of the European Tour's lesser lights who've proved capable of competing, even on their debut at the course.
Names such as Lee Slattery, Martin Laird, Peter Hanson and Chris Wood offer plenty of hope that Gallacher, who is fighting hard for a Ryder Cup spot and arrives in tip-top form, can get inside the top four or five Europeans just as those mentioned have managed.
The double Dubai winner was eighth of the Europeans in the Open, second in the WGC-Cadillac and 14th in the Masters, all of which help make the case, and there remain doubts over several of those ahead of him in the betting.
As for Firestone, it's the type of course which will reward his ball-striking and I'm hopeful he can cause something of an upset.