Chance another PGA surprise

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: March 18 2014, 8:22 GMT

Ben Coley previews the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and fancies Chris Kirk to go close at a big price.

Chris Kirk: Playing well and conditions suit
Chris Kirk: Playing well and conditions suit

The PGA Tour waves farewell to Florida with this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Country Club.

Like The Blue Monster at Doral, host of the WGC-Cadillac Championship won by Patrick Reed, this week's course was originally designed by Dick Wilson and rates what you'd call a typical Florida layout.

Also in keeping with Doral, Bay Hill underwent a redesign of sorts in 2010 and while less obvious to that which altered Doral so blatantly, Tiger Woods confirmed that the changes are clear to the players. "It's a very different golf course than what I played in a couple of years ago after the redo," he said, and while it hasn't stopped Woods winning, it's a point worth bearing in mind.

Now a par 72, Bay Hill played to an average of 72.93 last year and in the process ranked the fourth most difficult of its kind on the circuit, and 12th from 43 overall. The only par 72s which played tougher are Augusta, Quail Hollow and Muirfield Village, and they're worth including when looking for collateral form lines.

Other words worth noting are those of Justin Rose who says this course "tends to suit a right-to-left ball flight", and Ian Poulter, who said: "I felt the course was very, very good. I like the changes. I like the way they have created a lot of run-offs around the green. For me, I much prefer that, because the green consistency normally is pretty firm and pretty fast."

In keeping with Poulter's 2011 comments, scrambling is difficult at Bay Hill and those who excel on and around the greens are at a distinct advantage. That being said, top-notch scrambler Brandt Snedeker says the key to success here is driving the ball well and that rather sums up the fact that Bay Hill, complete with swirling Florida winds, is an all-round examination.

Woods starts favourite this week at almost three times the price he was a year ago, when a dominant display of putting and a best of the day 66 in round three allowed him to cruise to what was in the end a two-shot victory from Rose.

Having tipped him at 16/1 to win at Doral and seen him head into round four as second favourite, there's definitely some temptation to chance Woods again here. After all, he's eight-from-13 at the course since landing his first title at the turn of the century and reports suggest that his troublesome back is behaving much better now than was the case a week or so ago.

But to be quite honest, I'm not keen to take single figure prices about any golfer on the PGA Tour at the moment as, increasingly, 2014 is proving to be a season of surprises.

Yes, we've had a couple of multiple winners but even they have gone off big prices for their most recent wins - notably Reed, who was 80/1 prior to his imperious performance at Doral, while Jimmy Walker was upwards of 25/1 at Pebble Beach despite boasting an excellent course record.

John Senden's victory in the Valspar Championship on Sunday night provided yet another turn up for the books, following on from Reed (twice), Russell Henley, Scott Stallings, Kevin Stadler and, to a lesser extent, Chesson Hadley. All of these were way below the top of the market and in each instance, a better-fancied player looked likely to collect but failed to do so.

So the message has to be don't be afraid to try and get the market leaders beat and top of my list to do so this week is Chris Kirk.

Kirk is already a winner in this wrap-around season having landed the McGladrey Classic, a victory for which he perhaps didn't get the credit he deserved given the antics of habitual nearly-man Briny Baird, who clearly opened the door for the eventual champion.

Since then, the 28-year-old has added a runner-up finish in the Sony Open - another event which requires players to manage their ball in the wind - and while a couple of disappointing results arrived in February he's returned to form of late with a 12th in the difficult Honda Classic along with a solid effort at Doral.

Although finishing 40th in a limited field for the Cadillac, Kirk carded a superb 71 in round two, a score bettered only by Jamie Donaldson, and said afterwards: "I really, really was in control and really was flushing it and putted pretty well, too."

Hopefully he can carry that confidence to Bay Hill, where he finished in a share of 16th last year courtesy of four solid rounds. Encouragement as to the course's suitability can be found not only in that result, but those comments from Rose who says this course plays to the strengths of a right-handed golfer who hits a draw - just like Kirk.

I felt as a winner this season who has played some good golf in Florida, 80/1 looked too big a price about Kirk who will be in a good place this week as it was his son's birthday a couple of days ago and, as a Georgia boy, Augusta is now firmly on the horizon.

It may also be worth something that he was paired with Arnold Palmer in the recent Seminole Pro Member so he'll be extra eager to shake the great man's hand after the 72nd hole on Sunday. At the price, I'll back him to do just that.

Another who'll be particularly eager to impress The King is Chris Stroud, and he too makes plenty of each-way appeal.

Stroud grew up playing on the Palmer-designed Woodlands course back in Texas, and when finishing second in the Travelers Championship last year made a point of telling reporters that his on-course demeanor is intended to pay homage to Palmer, who he describes as one of his heroes.

Of course, Stroud won't be the only player in this field who idolises Palmer but he might be one of the best placed to produce a big week having finished 19th, 12th and ninth throughout his last three starts.

As well as finishing 15th here in 2012, Stroud has a couple of top-15 finishes at Sawgrass to his name and says that shot-making courses with Bermuda greens are those which serve his game best - which is exactly what he'll get this week.

A couple of years ago, the former Georgia resident was asked to pick out an area of his game which needed attention and he said it was his short game, which has subsequently come on a long way. In 2011, he ranked 113th in scrambling, he was 112th the year after, but then jumped all the way to sixth last year. Currently, he sits fifth and that's a really strong pointer towards his prospects this week.

Improvement in the scrambling department allayed with a very strong ball-striking game should ensure that the form Stroud has shown so far this season continues, which in turn will mean he keeps getting chances to win. Perhaps he can take this opportunity at a big price.

Brian Harman is still a three-figure price despite hitting the frame at Riviera a couple of starts ago, and he's another outsider with live claims.

A former US Junior Amateur champion, Harman definitely has the game to win on the PGA Tour but has, by his own admission, failed to find the required consistency.

However, that's something he's addressed and having claimed to be hitting it as well as he ever has earlier this season, his putter has helped him to produce a solid bank of form including that share of third, plus two top-10s at the back-end of 2013 and a solid share of 25th last week.

Perhaps Harman's most notable achievement prior to placing at Riviera was a stunning round of 61 in the Honda Classic two years ago and that gives an indication of his suitability to this tough Florida test, as does the fact he finished three-under here in 2012 despite opening with a 77 - nobody else who shot 75 or worse broke par for the week.

Indeed, while all eyes were on Woods and his return to winning form that week, Harman's Sunday 68 was one of just two sub-70 rounds on the day and I'm in no doubt that he's improved all aspects of his game since, to the extent that we can reasonably hope he can show that sort of form for 72 holes.

With three outsiders on side and only one other - Kevin Chappell - making serious appeal, my final selections come from closer to the top of the market with Ryan Moore next up.

Moore isn't the most fashionable player - at least, not in terms of gaining the credit his achievements he deserves - but with three wins on the PGA Tour he's more than capable of mixing it with the very best on the circuit.

As well as finishing fourth here in 2012, when tied for first in greens hit, Moore has a couple of top-fives at Muirfield Village plus one at Quail Hollow, and has made the cut on every visit to Augusta including when leading amateur back in 2015, which shows that these tough par 72 layouts are to his liking.

So far this season he's managed a win in Malaysia, played well at the Match Play, tied for sixth in Phoenix and shared 25th last time out, so there appears to be nothing wrong with his game - a point underlined by the fact he's 10th in the PGA Tour's all-around statistic.

That's in complete contrast to this time last year when his game was in disarray so we can ignore a missed cut and focus instead on that share of fourth in 2012, which followed a 12th-placed finish in 2011, and providing he's not been knocked off course by the winds at Doral then there's no reason he won't continue to produce quality golf.

Finally, Graeme McDowell rates my idea of the best value from the head of the market.

Put simply, if you take 25s about McDowell on the right course you're likely to keep in front of the layers and Bay Hill - where he's twice been second - is exactly that.

Tough scoring conditions will always bring out the best in the 2010 US Open champion, who defied just about the strongest winds seen all year when winning the 2013 RBC Heritage and has started 2014 in the same sort of form.

Last time out he finished ninth at Doral which makes it six top-15 finishes from seven PGA Tour starts this season and if he carries on the form he's shown on the greens then he'll end the year with comfortably career-best putting figures.

Combine that with his strong driving and right-to-left preference, plus the fact that he can get it up and down from just about anywhere and has also gone close at Sawgrass and in the Honda Classic, and it's easy to argue that with the exception of Woods there's no player in this field better suited to Bay Hill than McDowell, who also has the advantage of living locally.

If Woods isn't on his game this week, McDowell is the man most likely to capitalise.


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