Woodland up to the Challenge
Ben Coley previews the Humana Challenge and has five selections, headed by in-form Gary Woodland.
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The California Swing (with a jaunt to Arizona thrown-in) begins this week with the Humana Challenge, now established as a four-round event played across a trio of courses at PGA West.
Palmer Private leads the way and that's where those who survive the cut will do battle on Sunday in a bid to succeed Brian Gay as champion. Gay's victory last year came at the expense of Charles Howell III and David Lingmerth, the trio doing battle in a play-off after runaway 54-hole leader Scott Stallings managed to miss out by a single shot.
The other two venues - Nicklaus Private and La Quinta - are cut from a similar cloth and anyone who wants to win had better be ready to make something in the region of 30 birdies. Gay made 27 in regulation play last year with just two bogeys, and any shots given back will hurt a lot.
Since the event reverted from a previous 90-hole slog to its current profile, Gay and Mark Wilson have won a title each. Both men are battle-hardened, experienced professionals who don't hit it far but do know how to win and are clearly capable of shooting some incredibly low numbers.
Prior to that, three relatively big-hitters had contested a play-off with Jhonattan Vegas coming out best and really, this is a difficult event in terms of profiling. The winner could be young, old, long or short and even the old formula of backing someone who has shaken off the rust in Hawaii isn't certain to pay off given the tweaks made to the ever evolving PGA Tour calendar.
What does seem certain is that par-four performance will again prove a key pointer - chiefly because the par-fives are in the main straightforward and should be taken care of by all who make the cut - while clearly he who tops the strokes-gained putting charts will be hard to keep out of the frame.
It's also worth casting a glance at leaderboards for similar events, most notably any low-scoring affairs in California and the Sandersons Farm Championship, which has proven to be an excellent guide over the last decade. It's another straightforward test which doesn't threaten golfers from the tee and therefore yields a lot of birdies.
Heading the betting is Zach Johnson and quite rightly. Under par for each of his 13 rounds in this tournament, Johnson arrives in the form of his life and is among the most deadly operators on the planet when it comes to making birdies from inside 150 yards.
However, he struggled to raise an effort on Sunday in Hawaii and although reluctant to rule out any player due to a perceived lack of petrol in the engine, he's short enough. Indeed, the two to consider at the head of the betting are Keegan Bradley and Brandt Snedeker; Snedeker on account of a fine California record and Bradley thanks to his sole start at the course when he finished seventh as a bright-eyed PGA Tour rookie.
The concerns are that Snedeker's record owes more to his love for Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach and he's probably vulnerable in an event which has seen market leaders struggle of late, while Bradley remains one to back in big events on tough courses which are, by his own admission, the ones he really wants.
So instead I'm going to make Gary Woodland the headline bet at more than twice the price.
Unlike the aforementioned trio, Woodland has been second here before when losing that play-off to Vegas. It was his first play-off as a professional and although disappointed not to win, he wasted no time in gaining redemption by landing a first PGA Tour title a few weeks later.
At that point the sky was the limit but, at the risk of treading over old ground, injury problems and a complete overhaul of his support team saw Woodland struggle. That is until he found the right balance last summer and again took advantage by winning the shootout that is the Reno-Tahoe Open, before finishing second in the BMW Championship a fortnight later and adding another runner-up finish in the CIMB Classic.
I'm of the belief that Woodland's aim to become a top golfer who competes in majors is one he can achieve. He's a stunningly talented all-round athlete who strikes the ball with real authority and seems to show no fear in contention; that in itself is impressive for a relative late-comer to the sport who hasn't had quite the lower-grade exposure of many of his rivals.
Woodland finished 13th on his seasonal debut in Hawaii before returning to Florida to work with coach Claude Harmon, who had noticed that the wind-swept conditions at Kapalua caused Woodland to make mistakes with ball position and set-up. With that in mind, his finishing position is a further indication of how good a player he is and, as he told Golf World recently, he feels like he's never been better.
Currently seventh in greens hit, the stats also show that Woodland is in form and while the putter can let him down, it's worth taking the chance that he can hole enough to compete in an event which suits him down to the ground.
Not every professional enjoys having to play with amateurs - this event is played in a pro-am format - but Woodland told reporters: "I relish it. I have a good time interacting with the guys. I play a lot of golf back home at the country club with members, so I think it's just a day at home. I have fun with it, a lot of guys, like you said, don't like it, and I think that that hurts them."
Woodland also has two missed cuts in three starts here but they're easily excused. One was during an extremely difficult year and the other was his first start of 2013 when Woodland was in the middle of comprehensive changes to his entire approach to the sport and even then was far from disgraced.
Back on an even keel and with sights locked on a Ryder Cup debut, the wonderfully talented Woodland can go very close here.
Jason Kokrak is a player I expect to break through and win on tour sooner rather than later and it could happen this week.
A multiple winner at a lower level, Kokrak has really impressed me with pretty much all aspects of his game and what's most encouraging is the fact that, when faced with a pressure situation on Sunday, he hasn't shirked the issue.
So far he hasn't managed to win, but this is a player who produced a career-best finish on tour when he absolutely needed to back in 2012. A tie for third in the Frys.com Open at CordeValle - also in California - saw him secure his playing rights for 2013 when it looked like he'd be taking a swift drop in grade.
Last season we saw big-hitting Kokrak demonstrate the full range of his skills when third at Congressional in the AT&T and again, he simply looked to me like a player who can be relied upon under the intense pressure which goes with Sundays on the PGA Tour.
In terms of this event specifically, Kokrak has spoken of how much fun he has playing it and that was certainly the case last year, as he opened with a round of 63 on his way to eighth. Back in 2012, he'd started well with rounds of 68 and 66 but - by his own admission - let his concentration slip in round three and paid the price with a missed cut.
Kokrak closed out 2013 with a share of 10th in the McGladrey Classic and returned to action in Hawaii last week with a solid 20th on a course which wouldn't look to suit as much as the three in rotation here, while he's gone well at Pebble Beach too to create the foundations for what could be a very strong career record in California.
Kokrak also plays the par-fours well - he's currently 24th in par-four birdie or better - while only one of the par-fives across the three courses is out of two-shot range and only because he feels he's got a better chance of birdie by laying up.
It's also worth noting that Kokrak grew up playing the Nicklaus-designed Muirfield Village. I really like him at 80/1.
Next on my list is a real west coast specialist - Kevin Na.
The Korean-born 30-year-old gained his breakthrough victory in neighbouring Nevada just over two years ago but has since struggled with injuries to the point where he's currently playing on a major medical extension.
Prior to that he'd gone really close at Riviera in Los Angeles and he's also placed at Pebble Beach to confirm his love for a state which saw him gain his first win in America when he landed the Mark Christopher Charity Classic on what was the Nationwide Tour.
Twenty-five of his 27 rounds at this particular venue have been under-par, with a best overall finish of fifth, and whereas in the past he's often arrived out of form this time he can boast a finish of eighth last week when he struck the ball particularly well (second in GIR) for one better-known for his exploits on and around the greens. He's also one of the players who helps tie these courses with Annandale, where he's done really well in just a handful of starts including a share of third.
Na won't mind the near six-hour rounds that can be common in this pro-am event given how slow a player he is and if the putter warms up to match last week's ball-striking then he's a player to follow for the next month or so. With a season-long ranking of 18th for par-four birdie or better, a good week on the greens really should see him contend.
There are three players who haven't yet played in 2014 but caught my eye for one reason or another. Jason Bohn has placed on three of his last eight starts and goes really well at Annandale, while Matt Jones returned to form back home in Australia, lives not all that far away in Scottsdale and has a really solid record in the event - he could be poised to strike.
However it's the third - Luke Guthrie - who looks the one worth chancing at 100/1 because, with respect to the other two, he could prove to be a different gear in time.
Guthrie came to prominence with an excellent PGA Tour debut in what's effectively his home event, the John Deere Classic, before dropping down to the Web.com Tour and winning twice in a fortnight to gain full-time PGA status.
His first year was very much a learning experience and he's since admitted that playing 27 events put too much of a strain on him, which is why he opted not to play the Sony Open last week given the course is one he's not too keen on.
He'll no doubt be raring to go and unlike Bohn and Jones, the break could and should have done him some good. Guthrie certainly looked to be running on empty when he returned to play two PGA Tour events on the back of an impressive European Tour debut in China, which in turn came soon after he'd flown home for fourth in Nevada.
At this embryonic stage of the season, Guthrie ranks 10th for strokes-gained putting and while far less experienced his game is not dissimilar to that of the last two champions here in that he doesn't seek to overpower courses.
His birdie average and scoring stats are solid considering he didn't have his best golf with him on his last two starts of 2014 and his debut in this event last year showed abundant promise. Guthrie opened with a round of 73 - chiefly due to a quadruple bogey - but then clicked and made 22 birdies in three rounds to climb to 27th.
With that behind him it's worth chancing that Guthrie is ready to go at the first time of asking.
Finally, I can't resist a small bet on Brendon de Jonge at the price.
The negatives are that de Jonge doesn't have all that good a record in California and wasn't at his best last week, but those four rounds in the Sony Open should have set him up nicely for this event and it is one he's done well in, with five pay-cheques in as many visits and a best of 12th two years ago.
The Zimbabwean was fifth in South Africa on his final start of 2013 so we don't have to go back far for a performance which would make him a contender here, and while there are reservations surrounding his ability to get over the line this relaxed atmosphere should be a help in that regard.
Few players on tour make birdies with the frequency of de Jonge and he's too big a price.