Farm profits with Fowler
Rickie Fowler can get off the mark for 2013 by winning this week's Farmers Insurance Open says our Ben Coley.
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For many, the Farmers Insurance Open represents the start of the PGA Tour season proper.
Tiger Woods regularly makes this his first PGA Tour start of the season and Phil Mickelson uses the Humana Challenge simply to prepare for the Farmers, an event that ranks among the upper echelons of those outside majors in terms of prestige.
Part of the reason for that is the venue. Torrey Pines is a beautiful layout and the South Course one of the toughest in the US. Last year, only four par-72s outside of those used in majors played to a higher average score than the 72.364 registered here.
However, unlike when the South hosted the 2008 US Open - won by a one-legged Woods - in this event it has a companion, the North Course, which ranked the second easiest of all par-72s last season at an average of 69.551.
Players will split their time between the two venues on Thursday and Friday before sticking to the South at the weekend, and it's going to be important to take advantage of the easier layout. Last year's champion Brandt Snedeker shot 64 there and the man he so cruelly beat, Kyle Stanley, went two shots better.
That these courses are so different in their difficulty perhaps explains why there's been a real mix of champions here. Snedeker and Ben Crane are two of the deadliest putters on Tour, whereas Bubba Watson overpowered this venue by leading the field in distance and greens hit.
The likes of straight-hitting John Huh and wild man John Daly have performed well at Torrey Pines so getting a firm grip on what is required is plainly not easy.
Stats say course form is crucial - 10 of the last 11 champions had finished in the top 10 in one of the two years prior to their success - but had Stanley made even a seven on the final hole last year that wouldn't have worked out so again it's not something to completely rely upon.
I do look at the list of recent champions and see streaky putters, so an ability to hole out goes towards the top of my criteria but above all I'm after a class golfer with form on the course who has made a bright start to 2013.
Step forward Rickie Fowler, who for me rates the best bet on offer at 33/1.
Born and raised in California, Fowler is at home here as he confirmed a year ago. He said: "Well, I definitely have a lot of great fans and supporters, especially here in southern California.
"A lot of friends and family come out as well. It's fun for me. I get to see some people I don't get to see all the time and play in front of people that are here to support me."
Fowler hasn't disappointed those who've come to see him, with finishes of fifth, 20th and 13th in this event as well as a breakthrough share of 60th when playing the US Open here as an amateur, when he sat seventh after the first round.
His game certainly looks to fit the course on paper, too. Fowler is a proven performer on Championship layouts that require all aspects of a player's game to perform, and the improvement he made off the tee last year will really help on a course that requires strong driving to open up small greens.
What I really like is the steady improvement Fowler has shown of late, and it's steady improvement that coincides with his recovery from an injury which held him back after he won at Quail Hollow last year.
Speaking of Quail Hollow, that's a par-72 layout that requires very similar attributes to Torrey Pines and plays to a similar level of difficulty to the South Course.
No surprise, perhaps, that DA Points was placed behind Fowler having put together three top-10 finishes in as many years here, while the likes of Lucas Glover and Bill Haas further tie in that good drivers of the ball can prevail at both venues.
Fowler closed with a round of 67 to finish sixth in Hawaii on his sole start this season to follow up a fourth at Sherwood Country Club to close out last year, and with his health improving take him to be a factor again at a venue he calls one of his "favourite stops on tour".
Next on my list is Bo Van Pelt who makes plenty of appeal at the price.
Van Pelt is a frustrating player in that he hasn't won as many events as he perhaps should have, but he does have three wins in under four years around the world and perhaps gets a slightly tough time of it compared to some.
There's no doubt in my mind that he's playing the best golf of his life right now and it was noticeable how keen course-side reporters were last week to comment on how confident he is feeling ahead of the new season.
That tie for 27th in the Humana Challenge - his first start of 2013 - was Van Pelt's worst finish since last July, which is a quite remarkable fact given the amount of tournaments he's played and the quality of the fields he's faced since he missed the cut in our Open Championship.
It's evidence that the quality of his ball-striking is now being complemented by an excellent putting stroke and from a stats perspective there really are few better players on Tour. Last year Van Pelt ranked fourth in the All Around and nobody on the PGA Tour put together more top-10 finishes.
So, we can say that Van Pelt is just about as good as any of these on his day, and there are just two concerns: does the course fit, and can he win?
For me the answer is yes on both fronts. Recent Torrey Pines form is uninspiring at best, but Van Pelt was fourth here back in 2004 and has been in the frame at Quail Hollow too. He's never arrived here in such fine shape and the fact that he returns says to me that he likes how the set-up looks.
As for the win part, well, I thought he was excellent up until the 17th hole when going nose-to-nose with Woods at Congressional last year, and although it wasn't enough in the end surely that effort has something to do with how well he's played since.
Van Pelt is confident and having hit 80 per cent of greens on his first start of 2013 last week, all he needs is for the putter to warm up and while not as prolific as some of the market leaders, he's right up there with the best players on Tour at the moment and looks good value.
Of the others towards the head of the betting, I have to back the most likely winner of this tournament in my opinion given that he's 16/1.
Yes, I'm already on Dustin Johnson for the Money List and victory here would mean two in three starts and a very healthy position, but that shouldn't mean we ignore him week-to-week.
Quite simply, a coastal par-72 with small, poa annua greens in California is just what DJ wants and while this isn't his beloved Pebble Beach, it's still a venue he loves.
"Yeah, I really like the South course. I've been playing here for quite a few years now," he said last year.
"I really enjoyed playing it. It's a little bit tougher than the North. I usually tend to play really well out there."
Unfortunately, DJ's performance last year was at a time when he wasn't at all fit and he struggled all week, but in 2011 he finished third to advertise that his game fits this course perfectly.
And having won the Tournament Of Champions in Hawaii, he's full of confidence for what's a massive year in his career. Forget his withdrawal from the Sony Open - DJ was tired and wanted to spent some time with his new girlfriend, and who can blame him?
Johnson just needs to putt well to contend most places and he was excellent in that regard in Hawaii, particularly from close range, so having excelled the last time he played this course healthy, he should go close.
To complete the staking plan there are a few younger players who make appeal.
Bud Cauley's iron play reminds me of Hunter Mahan's and the former could go well at 80/1, Cameron Tringale showed a glimmer of promise last time and was fifth here last year while Kevin Chappell is has top-10 finishes in a pair of US Opens and a second in the Texas Open, so a tough test will suit and he caught the eye last week.
However, the one for me is Kyle Stanley as I really didn't expect to see him chalked up at 125/1.
Let's get the negatives out of the way first. Stanley has switched to Nike and his first start in Hawaii was abysmal, while he also missed the cut last week.
However, he missed the cut in the Humana Challenge last year too and in-between he at least showed a little bit of something in the Sony Open, particularly when shooting a bogey-free 65 in round two.
It's reasonable to expect that he'll improve further the more he gets used to the new clubs - just like stablemate Thorbjorn Olesen who made a giant leap forward last week - and it has to be worth chancing his obvious liking for this course.
It's impossible to overstate how much better than the field Stanley was for 71 of the 72 holes last season. An opening 62 on the North Course laid the foundations for a week that saw him lead the field in putting, rank second in distance and third in greens. He was a class apart.
Obviously, making eight on the last and losing a play-off leaves him with demons to battle, but remember this is a guy who got up and won the very next week in Phoenix.
Indeed, I imagine this event will have been the focus of his early-season plans and I'm of the opinion that Stanley has the ability to become a top, top player, so on a venue that he demolished last year when arriving in similar form I can't leave him out at the price.