Bill Haas what it takes to defend
Bill Haas can defend his title in this week's Northern Trust Open according to our expert Ben Coley.
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The Northern Trust Open once again returns to Riviera Country Club for the final event of the West Coast Swing.
Phil Mickelson will start favourite but there's strength in depth here beyond that of just about any event for three months thanks to the return to action of Luke Donald, Adam Scott and Graeme McDowell, the arrival of Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel from Europe and a host of other top class players in what's a top class event.
Established in 1926 and with redesigns having been done with the aim of restoring rather than restructuring, Riviera is truly one of America's great classical tests.
Fairways are tight, targets are small and shaping the ball both ways is important on a track whose champions have tended either to produce close to a career-best ball-striking week or putted and scrambled superbly while avoiding big errors.
The rough is kept to a reasonable length for this event as the course doesn't need any help to show teeth. Recent winning scores range from six- to 17-under, with last year's scoring average the highest in over 15 years.
So, course management and patience is absolutely essential this week and a tidy short game is also a big positive, but the key to this event in recent years has been strangely straightforward: you have to be bang in form.
Bar the enigmatic Mickelson defending his title when out of sorts in 2009, the last eight winners (ignoring Adam Scott's unofficial 36-hole triumph) had all finished in the top six in one of their two starts prior to teeing it up at Riviera.
That's a very, very strong pointer and if we take out Aaron Baddeley, who was sixth prior to winning here two years ago, all those in that group had placed.
Better still, Charles Howell III, Rory Sabbatini and Mickelson (2008) had all been runner-up on one of their previous two starts, while Mike Weir's form prior to both successes was incredible: in 2003 he'd been first and third prior to Riviera, and a year later he'd been fifth and fourth.
In addition, very few champions have managed to take the title without offering a previous hint. Bill Haas put together a personal best 12th in 2011 before winning a year later while Baddeley had been seventh, but the previous six champions (again ignoring Scott) had either won the title already or been runner-up.
It goes without saying that current and course form are starting points for just about every golf punter, but rarely are they as vital as in this event. The clues have been in the form book and although the last two champions dilute trends slightly, I think it will pay to stay very close to the formula outlined.
With that in mind, and the fact that the last decade has seen both Weir and Mickelson successfully defend their titles, Bill Haas looks the standout bet to me.
Although yet to hit the frame this season, Haas has finished ninth and sixth in his last two starts in what must rank as close to a perfect preparation for his title defence.
A year ago, he recovered from the mental blow of seeing both Mickelson and Keegan Bradley birdie the tough closing hole to take him to a play-off, making a classy birdie on the delightful 10th hole to land his fourth PGA Tour title.
Interestingly, he's only had the opportunity to defend one of them so far, and the limited evidence on offer suggests he's got what it takes to cope with the extra pressure as he returned to California to lose a play-off for the Bob Hope Classic in 2011 having taken the title a year before.
That bodes really well for the task ahead and Haas understandably loves this layout, one he ranks among his favourites on Tour.
Statistically, Haas is hitting more greens than he did throughout last year and continues to drive the ball superbly, attributes that are essential here at Riviera. Encouragingly, though, it was his short game which won him the title last year and at 28th in scrambling so far in 2013 it's in good shape once more.
In addition, he ranked seventh for par four performance in 2012- often a key pointer on classical layouts like Riviera - and is up at 13th so far this season, so while his bare putting stats will need to improve there's not much more Haas could've done so far to point us towards his chances of defending.
He's 25/1 with Stan James if you want the security of six places but I'll take Coral's 33/1 about Haas winning his second Northern Trust Open title.
The other two I particularly like from the head of the betting are Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, with marginal preference going to the latter.
Sergio ended 2012 in fine style by romping to success in the Johor Open and he perhaps should've been on the board in 2013 already, having gone down by a single stroke in the Qatar Masters.
A week later he flattered to deceive when well-backed in Abu Dhabi but the emotional Garcia may have taken the previous week's defeat a little too hard, and he complained of shoulder pain too.
As yet there's no indication of how his shoulder is but he doesn't need to play this event and I'm willing to bank on a fully fit Garcia. To be frank, the issue couldn't have been that serious if it wasn't enough to see him withdraw in Abu Dhabi anyway.
So, we know he's in form, does he fit the course bill? Absolutely. Last year, Garcia blew his chance of winning here with a second-round 76 but his closing 64 was the round of the week and saw him vault into fourth, his second top six finish in just six visits.
"I love this course. It's one of my favorites on TOUR. I've always enjoyed Riviera," he said during that week and it's no surprise, as Sergio's supreme ball-striking is rewarded here.
Some may have concerns about his putting but they're fast becoming a myth in my opinion. Last year on Tour his close-range stats were superior to Luke Donald while he also ranked seventh in three-putt avoidance, crucial on a course which ranks among the toughest on the roster for proximity to the hole.
Garcia has two wins and three places from his last 10 starts and his love for a classical test like Riviera is plain to see. For me, he's the man most likely to win this and as such he's tipped to do just that.
Of the remainder, Scott would look a cracking price had he had some sort of preparation as this is right up his street, while Webb Simpson showed a little something last week and could build on his solid debut here.
However, I'm going to take a chance on Scott Piercy at twice the price.
A couple of seasons ago I'd never have anticipated tipping him at Riviera almost regardless of the odds offered, but his game has progressed rapidly and he deserves to be further up the list than the layers have him currently.
Piercy's last 15 starts show a win, three places and six further top 20s, and he dropped a big hint that he's ready to strike with a fine third in Phoenix last time out when closing with a sparkling 61.
Now, it must be said that the wide open fairways and generous pin placements of TPC Scottsdale have always seemed suited to Piercy's game but last year's victory in the RBC Canadian Open at Hamilton showed that he is capable of plotting his way to a title, too.
Forget that he claimed to have been bored during that tournament as he prefers to grip it and rip it, and focus instead on that fact that he ultimately won at what's a classical course with poa annua greens, not dissimilar to the test on offer at Riviera.
Interestingly, his success came exactly a fortnight after he'd finished third in the John Deere Classic so with identical preparation, back Piercy to leave behind a poor course record constructed when he was generally playing inferior golf.
Finally, I'll prefer Ryan Moore to previous Riviera champion Charles Howell III.
Likely Piercy, Moore's last start came in Phoenix where he carded an exceptionally strong 66-66-65-65 to finish fourth, having adapted to a new set of irons extremely quickly.
He then skipped Pebble Beach to prepare for this and that makes sense, given that last year's 17th followed a share of fourth in 2011 when he carded just six bogeys despite having started the season poorly.
Clearly he's in better shape right now having put together finishes of 24-10-10-3-1-28-MC-4 since the start of last year's play-offs.
Always a quality prospect whose strengths lie in ball-striking, Moore is finally living up to the promise shown as an amateur and classic designs tend to inspire his best golf.
Look at last season and you'll see that he was third at East Lake, fifth at Quail Hollow and fourth at Bay Hill, while the likes of Sedgefield, Cog Hill and Aronimink have seen him produce the goods in the past.
Every aspect of Moore's game is in good shape including his putting and he likes being in this part of the world too, so take the 40/1 about a player who fits the mould of recent Riviera winners.