Chance Charl to bounce back
The PGA Tour waves goodbye to California for the season with this week's Northern Trust Open.
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Played at the iconic Riviera Country Club, it's an event which provides a stiff test and attracts some of the very best the tour has to offer - even in the surprise absence of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and one or two others.
At short of 7,400 yards Riviera is not a long course by modern standards but what it lacks in length it makes up for in intricacy. To win requires a precise iron game at one of ball-striker-par-excellence Ben Hogan's favourite stops with an ability to work the ball both ways a definite plus.
One slight peculiarity with the course is the use of kikuyu grass - more commonly found in South Africa - which can prove extremely punishing. Players will enjoy hitting off the cut and prepared but straying into the rough brings with it all sorts of risks. Given that the venue typically ranks among the toughest in tour in finding fairways, those who manage their mistakes will therefore come out best as controlling the ball from the rough is a must.
A trawl through history shows some noteworthy trends in this event. With one or two exceptions - including a first PGA Tour win for local favourite John Merrick 12 months ago - winners have dropped a very recent hint and had shown something at the course before. Playing the course and current form card is therefore a simple decision, the only problem being that there's a mass of it at the head of the betting.
Dustin Johnson dropped a big hint on his return to competitive action last week and is a worthy market leader at around the 14/1 mark. DJ's power-fade is perfectly suited to the majority of holes and he's gone on record as marking this event as one of his favourites, so it would be no surprise whatsoever were this frequent winner to add this title to his collection having gone close before.
Graham DeLaet's turn is near but he looks short enough, particularly when considering that Bill Haas - who has been 12th, first and third on his last three visits and is a four-time tour winner - is a bigger price. Jimmy Walker is going for four wins in nine starts and rates this his favourite event of the year and Jordan Spieth produces quality performance after quality performance and is a contender wherever he goes; they appeal more but not quite enough to tempt me at the odds available.
Instead, I've a feeling that it might just pay to side with some slightly more established players here and top of my list is South Africa's Charl Schwartzel.
Rewind 12 months and Schwartzel arrived for his debut at Riviera as a well-backed 22/1 chance. Partly down to a run of two wins in four starts and doubtless something to do with his kikuyu comfort levels, a confident Schwartzel deserved his place in the market and duly delivered a share of third for backers, one which could've been better but for spurned chances on the closing nine.
Clearly, it didn't take a particularly shrewd judge to keep him in mind for future renewals of the Northern Trust Open but while there are reasons for it, I don't quite understand why he's basically twice the price now that we know rather than hope he likes this shot-maker's layout.
Of course, he doesn't quite arrive in the same sort of scintillating form but I get the impression he downed tools early on last week once he'd let go his chance of winning on Friday afternoon. Furthermore, he'd had a month off so was entitled to be a little rusty and you'd like to think that the former Masters champion feels like he has bigger fish to fry than the Joburg Open.
We only have to go back to the end of 2013 for a couple of recent wins and while clearly this requires more, an on-song Schwartzel is every bit as good as any player in this field in my opinion. As such, one modest week down in Johannesburg isn't enough to cast him aside so swiftly.
Digging deeper into his performance last year a ranking of sixth in greens hit despite missing over 50 per cent of fairways shows that he more than most knows how his ball is going to react from the kikuyu rough and at sixth in strokes gained putting he also had no trouble reading greens which Mickelson says took him years to figure out.
There's no doubt in my mind that Schwartzel does have a little more work to do to truly validate his 2011 Masters triumph because he hasn't really won a tournament of significance outside of Augusta, but equally I've absolutely no doubt he's capable of doing so and at 40/1 he looks well worth chancing here.
Along similar lines of logic, I'm also willing to take an even bigger price about Schwartzel's compatriot and close friend Louis Oosthuizen.
I suspect Oosthuizen and Schwartzel will spend plenty of time together this week and hopefully the latter's ability to score at the layout will rub off on Oosthuizen, who was way down the field even if he did make the cut on his sole start here three years ago.
That performance is something of a concern but less so when viewed in the context of his form at the time. As he so often does, Oosthuizen had started the year with victory in the Africa Open but followed that triumph with a modest Middle East swing, at which time injury problems that would plague him for six months arrived.
This time around he travels to California on the back of another victory in his homeland but is, crucially, fit and firing and desperate to make up for lost time. Like Schwartzel, Oosthuizen wins plenty of low-key titles but his form in big events has been a tad patchy since winning the Open Championship, although of course he so very nearly added the Masters to his collection, too.
That being said, he has placed in five of his 43 PGA Tour starts so there's a solid base for him to build from and I get the feeling he'll regard this as a big year, given that 2013 was virtually a write-off due to a back problem which was still bothering him somewhat when he won the Volvo Golf Champions in January.
I expect that to be behind him now with a mini-break having prepared Oosthuizen for a busy spell of events and both he and Schwartzel have the tee-to-green excellence to star at this classical layout providing the putts drop.
For different reasons, close friends Haas and Webb Simpson have obvious claims this week but the other two I like from towards the top-end of the market are Harris English and Ryan Moore, with the latter narrowly preferred.
Moore is a shot-maker who is fulfilling his amateur promise and victory in the CIMB Classic late last year appears to have given him a strong platform from which to launch a bid for a Ryder Cup spot.
The way he's playing right now, a place on Tom Watson's team for Gleneagles is very much a possibility. A tie for sixth in Phoenix came after a break which followed his 10th-placed finish in Hawaii and there's no obvious reason why that trajectory won't continue at Riviera - especially as he no longer has Seattle and the Super Bowl to distract him.
Both of Moore's wins have come on tree-lined tracks which reward his excellent ball-striking and in his last three visits to this course he's finished fourth, 17th and 27th, which represents a really solid bank of form. Nobody on tour has hit more greens over the last three months and as long as he putts reasonably, we can expect a good week.
Ultimately, having been around the same price last year and clearly taken his game to another level since, I was pleasantly surprised to see prices of 33/1 readily available and expect a strong performance from an underrated player.
While in a field of this strength it's hard to envisage a big upset, a play-off between Charlie Beljan and John Merrick last year shows that we shouldn't rule one out.
In that spirit, I'm willing to take a chance on Tim Wilkinson but will weight stakes across a trio of markets in a nod to the fact he basically hasn't won a recognised event as a professional in what's now a 10-year career.
The New Zealander appeals on the basic grounds that he finished seventh down the road at Pebble Beach last week and has produced some of his best PGA Tour performances at Harbour Town, another course which rewards absolute precision.
He's gone on record as stating that his best opportunities come when a lack of power isn't exposed and considers his main strength to be accuracy from tee-to-green - in that sense he's not dissimilar to last year's winner, Merrick.
There's some encouragement in three tries at Riviera as Wilkinson finished 20th here in 2010, one of just three appearances. While missing the cut on his other two visits, six of his eight rounds have been par or better and there's enough there to believe the venue is one he can score at.
Wilkinson has a pair of top-10 finishes from his last six PGA Tour starts which suggests last week's performance is not the flash-in-the-pan it may appear, and this upturn in fortunes coincides with a relocation to Florida and some hard work with coach TJ Yeaton.
A left-hander with a textboot technique, Wilkinson has potential to improve even at the age of 35 and could spring a surprise if building on last week's excellent effort.
Click here to listen to Ben discuss this week's action on Sky Sports News Radio.