Big-hitting Bob to shine
Ben Coley previews the Quicken Loans National and fancies big-hitting Robert Garrigus to go close in an event he loves.
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All eyes are on Tiger Woods this week as he returns from surgery which has kept him out of action since the end of March.
As little as three weeks ago Woods described his rehabilitation "slow and tedious", stating that he could only work on his short game, so it's still something of a surprise that he returns for this week's Quicken Loans National and while his agent says otherwise, his appearance here may reflect the fact that his charity foundation hosts the event as opposed to being a true indicator of his well-being.
This isn't to say Woods will be taking any risks in teeing up at Congressional - he's been through too many big injury setbacks to fall into that trap - but I can't see how he's 100 percent even before allowing for a lack of match sharpness as he returns to tournament conditions.
All in all, the decision to oppose him even at 18/1 is an easy one, despite the fact that when last here in 2012 Woods produced a six-under-par weekend to win by two shots from Bo Van Pelt to take his record at the course to two wins from four visits.
Congressional's Blue Course is a monster par-71 that stretches beyond 7,500 yards and has done since modifications were made in advance of the 2011 US Open, in which Rory McIlroy destroyed the field on a rain-softened platform which played to his strengths. The key shift has been relaying of greens from poa annua - which not everyone likes - to the more amenable bentgrass surfaces we'll see running quickly this week.
In the two subsequent tour visits to Congressional, the phrase 'it's like a US Open' has popped up in multiple interviews and with winning scores of eight- and 12-under that's not far from the truth. Last year, this event ranked as the eighth toughest on the calendar - fourth if you exclude the four majors - and the par-four 11th was the most difficult of all non-major holes. Clearly, this 120-strong field is in for a grind.
I tend to think that when this is the case, statistics become a little less relevant even if greens in regulation would look to be the obvious starting point. Ultimately if one area of a player's game is off they will struggle this week unless able to fire with all others.
That said, length off the tee is a clear advantage here if it can be harnessed and just about every player asked has spoken of the importance of avoiding the really thick rough which guards these fairways, factors which point me towards total driving which is clearly a strength of Haas, McIlroy and course specialist Hunter Mahan.
Another factor worth mentioning is the importance of very good recent form - until Haas won here last year all other champions already had a title to their name that season - and especially a good performance at Muirfield Village in The Memorial.
Muirfield Village may be a par-72 but it plays to a very similar yardage and difficulty level as this week's venue, and form ties between the two are plentiful. Woods obviously dominates at both courses but KJ Choi won both titles in 2007, Haas had just finished fourth there before winning here and Kevin Chappell has been placed at both.
The first name on my list is Robert Garrigus who looks well worth a bet.
That last year's disappointing 64th placed finish was comfortably the worst return from his six visits to Congressional tells you plenty, with finishes of third in the 2011 US Open and fourth in this event the following year advertising a love for the layout.
"You know, everything about this course fits my eye," he told reporters in 2011. "There's a lot of places on the greens that you can err and make a par or even have a chance at birdie, and they're big enough where you have a hole to hit it to.
"That's one of the biggest things. I love the way all the tee shots set up. If I'm playing well and swinging it good, I feel like I can hit every fairway, just the way everything sets up. It's set up ‑ the rough cuts and everything, they give you perfect targets, everything out here. There's stuff to aim at. That's what I love. I just love the place."
It must be pointed out that in both 2011 and 2012 the course had been softened by rain, but Garrigus had already put together three top-30s from three previous visits to the course and, whatever the weather, he'll be relishing a return here.
Last time out he started badly and withdrew from the weather-affected St Jude Classic citing a wrist injury but I would speculate that he simply didn't want to hang around having played himself out of the event on day one; the fact that he was at Congressional taking part in a charity event yesterday suggests all is well in that regard.
Previously, the monstrously long 36-year-old had produced a career-best 28th at Muirfield Village and his best finish this season came at the Valspar Championship, played on another par-71 layout that was almost identical to Congressional last year in terms of scoring average.
He'll have more options from the tee this week than any other player in the field and if he's back in the form that also saw him place at the Zurich, this must be a great opportunity for win number two on the PGA Tour.
I've mentioned already that this is a long par-71, and that leads nicely to my second tip at a massive price - Jhonattan Vegas.
The Venezuelan so nearly won the Farmers Insurance Open back in 2011 and that event is hosted by Torrey Pines, with three rounds played on their South Course - the only par-71 on the rotation which stretches beyond Congressional.
That perhaps helps explain why big-hitting Vegas finished fourth here on his sole visit back in 2012, an effort both preceded and followed by a pair of missed cuts. In doing so he ranked fifth for greens hit and fourth in putting average and it's a performance which hints at his game's suitability to the course.
Vegas hasn't placed on the PGA Tour since that week as he's battled injuries but he said at the Honda Classic earlier this year that he's healthy again, and it's finally beginning to show.
His last eight rounds have all been par or better and at tough courses, too, while he's ranked eighth and 10th for greens hit across that pair of events to demonstrate that he's striking the ball solidly once more.
With a player like Vegas it's easy to lose sight of what they'd achieved and looked set to achieve, and we mustn't forget that this is a player who had the world of golf purring in 2011 - a year which saw him win as a rookie in the Humana Challenge before giving it his best shot behind Bubba Watson at Torrey Pines.
A textbook swing that helps him rip the ball miles and a great attitude in contention mark Vegas out as a real talent and he looks on his way back towards the upper echelons of the tour.
Defending champions are usually opposable but Bill Haas is an exception and goes in at 25/1.
Haas was much the best here last year, winning by three having been the only player to reach double-digits under-par, and he's ticking over nicely for this return having made each of his last five cuts including a top-10 at Muirfield Village.
In that sense he's enjoyed much the same preparation as 12 months ago and at 23rd in greens in regulation, 42nd in strokes-gained putting and 59th in total driving he's showing the consistency which has long been the staple of his profile.
What I really like, though, is what he's done when defending titles. For various reasons he's only had the opportunity to do so twice despite now having five PGA Tour wins to his name, but both times he's come within a shot of winning and traded as an odds-on favourite.
The first of those was in the 2011 Humana Challenge when he lost a three-way play-off as Vegas eventually went on to win the title. Then, two years later he came up one shot short of a play-off in the Northern Trust Open, despite having led going into the final round. I tipped him there on the strength of how well he'd previously defended and while he spurned a three-shot lead to finish only third, it only strengthens the case going forward.
Haas has now won titles at some of America's oldest, classical golf courses such as Congressional, Riviera and East Lake, and on this type of layout he's always to be considered a threat - more so, it seems, when he's defending a title.
I've little doubt that Jason Day - runner-up here behind McIlroy in the 2011 US Open - is the man to beat this week but at 14/1 he's where he should be in the betting. We backed Day at more than twice the price for the US Open and for now I'd generally rather do that than support him to win events like this when only a win will really do.
Instead, I'll round off my selections with Billy Horschel at 40/1.
I say that because I backed Horschel for this event last year at just 25/1, and I'm struggling to see why he's twice the price this time around. Yes, he had won in 2013 and hasn't yet done so this season but with four top-25 finishes on the spin he's rediscovered his form just in time for a test which should very much suit.
As I wrote last year, Horschel has extra incentive to do well this week as he received an invite from Woods to play this event straight out of college. Several times since he's commented on the importance of that invite in helping kick-start his career and I expect he'll go close to winning this title at some point to repay the faith shown in him.
In addition, like 2012 nearly-man Billy Hurley III, Horschel has strong military ties and this event does too. It may seem irrelevant but Hurley is a former member of the US Navy and it was here where he produced what remains by far his best finish on the PGA Tour. Horschel's brother is a military man and as a proud American he'll be desperate to do well as an event which gives a lot back to servicemen and women.
Of course, all of that information merely rounds off what's actually a rather more straightforward case. This US Open-like test will surely suit a player whose strengths lie in ball-striking and whose two US Open starts as a professional have resulted in finishes of fourth and 23rd, the latter coming last time out at Pinehurst.
The Floridian has ranked first and second for greens hit in his last two regulation PGA Tour events, putted well in the US Open, and is fancied to improve on last year's start here which proved a disappointment after he'd sat second through 18 holes.
- Posted at 1200 BST on 24/06/2014.