Bulldogs up to the Challenge

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: January 15 2013, 16:38 GMT

Ben Coley is backing the red-hot Russell Henley to make it two wins in two starts this season in this week's Humana Challenge.

  • Russell Henley could go in again
  • Harris English threatened here last year 
  • California has been kind to Jimmy Walker 
  • Chris Kirk makes birdies for fun 
  • At 250/1 Jason Kokrak looks worth a bet 

California is the venue for this week's Humana Challenge and birdies are firmly on the agenda.

Three courses combine to host a pro-am format over the first three rounds, with the professionals taking centre stage for the fourth and final round on the host Palmer Course at PGA West.

That layout once saw David Duval fire a stunning 59 and last year ranked 46th toughest of 49 courses used on the PGA Tour. Our other tracks - the Nicklaus Course and La Quinta - ranked 49th and 41st respectively despite uncharacteristically high winds, to underline that low numbers are guaranteed.

It's important to note when looking through past form that last year's event was the first time the tournament had been reduced to a standard 72 holes from a previous 90, but otherwise, like the courses, everything is in front of us here.

None of the three courses require brute strength, and as Pat Perez once said this event is all about putting. Those who make the most will probably fare the best, and therefore those who hit plenty of greens and hit it close will be at a huge advantage.

Interestingly, Mark Wilson won this event last year and he leads me to a pretty solid angle here. Wilson is also a winner of the Phoenix Open, an event similar in dynamics, and when previewing that event last year I noted that then-defending champion Wilson had produced excellent wedge stats during the season of his victory.

With that in mind, this week's aim is to find good putters who are aggressive from tee-to-green, hit it close with wedges, and of course ideally are playing well and perhaps have a bit of positive form in this event to call upon.

Put all that together, and it's hard to oppose Tim Clark.

One of the best wedge players in the business, second last week and fourth on his final start of 2012, placed on every visit to the venue and capable of exceptionally low numbers, his chance is the most obvious of any in this field.

And to be honest, I don't think the 18/1 that is available at the time of writing is too bad, I just don't think I can rely on a player with just one PGA Tour win in over 300 starts at anything under 20/1 even if I expect he'll make the frame.

With a slightly out-of-sorts Webb Simpson, infrequent winner Matt Kuchar and likely to be rusty Phil Mickelson also helping shape the market, there's reason to expect a minor upset here, especially as arguably the most likely winner Brandt Snedeker may have half an eye on his Farmers Insurance Open defence next week.

When I say upset, if my headline selection does land the odds then it'll be hard to say there wasn't a warning, as I'm backing Russell Henley to make it two wins from as many starts as a full PGA Tour member.

I know what you're thinking, something along the lines of 'he can't win again straight after Hawaii', but my question is why not?

He's 23 years old for starters so fatigue won't be an issue, and I highly doubt that he's been drinking himself under a table to celebrate that superb success last week as he's a good deal more sensible than that.

Indeed, Henley has confirmed that he'll take a week off at some point soon now that he's qualified for the Masters and gained a two-year PGA Tour exemption, so the very fact that he's teeing it up at the Humana suggests to me that he's confident that he can compete here.

It's worth going back to last week to underline just how impressive he was, and that this wasn't just another Tour victory for another Tour pro.

Henley shot three rounds of 63 alongside one round of 67 to post 24-under, leaving him a good nine shots in hand of those who failed to make the frame for each-way backers.

He ranked first by a distance for strokes gained putting, only one man in the top 10 hit more fairways and only one man in the entire field hit more greens.

In short, in his first start as a PGA Tour member he outclassed a strong field on a course that usually favours those with much more experience.

Even more impressive was his Sunday performance.

Eventual second Tim Clark shot 63 in the final round, and Henley responded to each and every blow, matching Clark's round, one that nobody in the entire field beat.

Come the end of the season, I doubt we'll see a more impressive final 18 holes from a leader in any event outside the majors, especially given the circumstances.

Sure, none of this guarantees he'll produce the goods again, but at 50/1 I'll certainly chance him. Don't forget, Henley won two of his last four starts last season and was third in-between those victories, so holding form is something he can do.

And last year, Johnson Wagner arrived at the Humana Challenge as the new Sony Open champion, and went on to finish second. It can be done, so back this potential superstar at a price that may not last.

Henley leads me nicely to pick number two. As a former Georgia Bulldog who won on the Web.com Tour as an amateur, who might Henley inspire this week? The answer to that could well be Harris English.

English is a close friend of Henley from their time studying economics at the University of Georgia and he too won on the Web.com Tour as an amateur before getting through Q-School here at PGA West to gain full membership.

His first year on Tour was a success, with well over a million dollars banked and a run to the midway point of the FedEx Cup Playoff further showcasing his undoubted talents.

English finished 19th here last year, with a second-round 62 on the Nicklaus Course the undoubted highlight, and he posted the same score in round three last week before a closing 66 saw him finish ninth.

I particularly like that he hit more greens each day as the week progressed on what was his first start of 2012, and it should set him up well for a week which will see him playing a lot of wedges into greens.

Last year's wedge stats showed that part of game to be his weakness, but after his final start of 2012 English acknowledged that fact and said that was the area he'd look to improve upon during the off-season.

In the same interview, he commented on how Jonas Blixt's victory in the Frys.com Open inspired him and with more of the same coming courtesy of Henley, this supreme talent who ranked 19th on Tour for ball-striking in 2012 could be a big factor this week.

One player we always need to look out for on the West Coast is Jimmy Walker and he stands out to me at 80/1.

His form here is modest with a missed cut and a share of 54th, but on both occasions he arrived on the back of a missed cut and I can't think that these straightforward par-72s don't suit him.

For me, Walker should be at his best here. He hits it a mile and ranked 16th for strokes gained putting last year, while he was also fourth for total birdies and third for total eagles to show that going low is very much his modus operandi.

Bar that 54th here I mentioned, his last seven starts in California have all resulted in top-10 finishes, including a share of ninth at Pebble Beach in another event that uses a pro-am format across multiple courses.

Walker's last three starts on US soil show finishes of 10th, fourth and last week's 26th, while he was also sixth in the Callaway Invitational at Pebble Beach, results which suggest that coach Butch Harmon is right to expect a big year from one of his lesser-known players.

I believe Walker has the ability to win more than once on Tour and having closed with a bogey-free 64 in Hawaii last week, he arrives here in better shape than ever before.

Finally, he ranked ninth in GIR percentage from 75-100 yards last season so clearly has no difficulty producing the goods with wedge in hand, and there really are few players in this tournament more capable of producing a 62 than Walker.

Josh Teater could be another to watch out for having putted pretty well last week but my next vote goes to Chris Kirk instead.

Kirk is a former winner of the True South Classic, an event that's also been won by Bill Haas who has finished first and second here in the past.

The emphasis in both events is on making birdies and Kirk produced 18 of them plus a field-high three eagles on his way to fifth last week, with a round two 62 advertising his scoring skills.

He shot 68-63 to sit inside the top 10 here last year before fading on the weekend, while his 2011 tie for seventh saw him shoot 64 on the host course in round two, which bodes well now that it is used for half of the tournament.

Kirk ranked eighth in par-three birdie or better leaders in 2012 and fourth for the par-four equivalent, so it was really only his par-five scoring that let him down.

Given that he excelled on the par-fives for much of last week it's fair to say that shouldn't be much of a problem if he's in the same form, and like Walker he produced excellent stats from 75-100 yards both last year and in 2011.

Kirk hits greens for fun, has placed on two of his last three starts and has shown that when he returns to certain courses he can reproduce, so he makes plenty of appeal this week.

Like Henley and English, he's also a former Georgia Bulldog and at 105 in the Official World Golf Rankings, maybe he can follow Henley's lead in setting up the ultimate Georgia trip by winning a spot in the Masters.

Finally, I'm going to throw a few pennies at Jason Kokrak who could go close at 250/1.

The 27-year-old struggled for the most part during his debut PGA Tour season last year, but secured his playing rights for 2013 by finishing second in the Frys.com Open.

Given how much was on the line for him I was really impressed by how Kokrak handled himself, and it's notable that his only other top 10 also came in California.

Clearly, the West Coast has been kind to him so far and he was going nicely enough here last year too, with rounds of 68 and 66 to start with - a total which was better than two of the eventual top four - before a third round 78 saw him miss the cut.

He scraped through to the weekend on a less-than-ideal course in Hawaii last time and as a bomber with a solid wedge game, form in California's most high-profile pro-am and signs that he might enjoy these venues, I think he's worth chancing.


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