Big-time Billy to win again
Our golf expert Ben Coley fancies fast-improving Billy Horschel to win the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club.
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It's fair to say that the AT&T National has lost some of it's charm.
Tournament host and would-be defending champion Tiger Woods is out with an elbow problem and has been joined on the sidelines by US Open hero Justin Rose who, quite rightly, needs a break as he prepares for the Open Championship.
It's a shame for two reasons. Firstly because two of the game's stars always make for great viewing, and secondly because they'd have taken out a good quarter of the market and, for various reasons, would've been opposable.
That being said, what we're left with remains a fine tournament which, for the fifth time in what will be the seventh renewal, heads to Congressional Country Club in Maryland.
It's a venue most famous among modern golf fans for hosting the US Open in 2011, a tournament which didn't pan out how organisers would've liked as Rory McIlroy was able to romp to victory in 16-under par.
That's just what can happen when rain softens a track like this, but last year's AT&T National saw Congressional offer the sort of test we've come to expect and while storms are possible this week, the course should play tough. In 2012, Woods won with a score of eight-under and just 14 players broke par as the course ranked the most difficult non-major venue on the schedule.
Although the 2010 and 2011 renewals were held at Aronimink in Pennsylvania, they help to confirm some common threads that run through this event. All five winners - Woods (twice), K.J. Choi, Anthony Kim, Justin Rose and Nick Watney - are, at their best, top-class golfers with excellent pedigrees.
Moreover, for one reason or another they arrived at Congressional in supremely confident mood and all had won earlier in the year.
While Choi had just missed the cut in the US Open, prior to that he was a winner in the Memorial Tournament. So too was Rose, who had also gone close at the Travelers in-between having missed the US Open. Kim had not long ago gained his first win on the PGA Tour at Quail Hollow, Watney had earlier become a WGC winner at Doral and Woods, on both occasions, had won the Memorial Tournament a month earlier.
These victories all came at what you'd call championship layouts and they suggest that, come Sunday, we'll witness another top-class winner of this invitation-only event.
The question is, which one? For various reasons, every player at the head of the market ticks the confidence box. Adam Scott now carries the tag of major winner, Jason Day is nothing if not confident and showed it once more in the US Open, Brandt Snedeker played better there and is enjoying a breakthrough 12 months, Hunter Mahan secured his best major finish at Merion and Rickie Fowler closed out the Travelers last week with a superb Sunday knock.
But for me, the best bet in the event is Billy Horschel at 25/1 generally.
A superb amateur, it's taken time for Horschel to find the right blend of confidence and what's perceived as arrogance, and, as he puts it, to get out of his own way and let his undoubted talents shine through.
This season, thanks to some home truths from those around him, Horschel has found that blend in no uncertain terms. Six top-10 finishes in his last eight starts underline his rapid progress given he'd managed seven from his previous 45, and a deserved victory in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans - when he showed incredible steel - was surely the first of many.
Wherever you look, there are stats to support Horschel's position among the best players in the world right now. He ranks 11th in ball-striking, fifth in total putting, second for birdie conversion on par-fours, sixth on par-fives and 28th on par-threes. He's first in total birdies, 10th in scoring average and all this puts him sixth in the all-around. There should be no doubting how good he is right now.
The question is what reasons are there to expect him to bring this to Congressional? Well, first of all he fits the bill of all previous champions in that he has won already this season. Day, Fowler and Mahan haven't and while that's not to say they can't or won't put that right this week, it's definitely to Horschel's advantage.
Next, his last start was an incredibly impressive one. I'm sure you all read about his second round at Merion, where Horschel hit all 18 greens in one of the most remarkable knocks in the event's history. Perhaps not all expected him to stick around for fourth on what was his professional major debut, but that's exactly what he did.
We do have to question the course's suitability because Horschel has played this event once and missed the cut, but it's set-up to be a US Open-type test and his supreme ball-striking is always going to be rewarded on tracks like this one. We saw at Merion that while his win was courtesy of those birdie stats, he can grind too.
But what I really like, on top of what's probably the strongest bank of current form in the event, is that Horschel has two reasons to specifically target this event having wisely taken a break after Merion.
The first of those is that the missed cut I alluded to came in 2009, after he'd been given an invite to play the event from Woods. It meant the world to Horschel - he's talked about it often since - given that he'd only just finished college. It gave him further belief that he would one day be winning on the PGA Tour.
The second is that this event is played in honour of the US armed forces and Horschel has very strong ties in that area.
Responding to a question on his website, Horschel wrote: "My older brother Chris served in the Navy and one of my uncle's was in the Vietnam War. Also, my teacher, Todd Anderson's son, Taylor is currently a Marine!
"I'm very passionate about the history of America, and understand without the sacrifices that men and women have made, that there would be no United States of America.
"The men and women who give their lives for their countries are truly amazing. They are truly heroes in my eyes and always will be.
"Whatever I can do to help support people in the military I am willing to do. I'm hoping to possibly make a trip overseas later this year, or possibly next year, to visit our troops."
You might not think this is at all relevant but I'd encourage you to check last year's leaderboard, which saw Billy Hurley III - a former lieutenant in the US Navy - finish fourth. It was and remains his best finish on tour and I'm sure it had more than a little to do with what this event means to the military.
Put all that together and Horschel stands out to me. I acknowledge that this is a player who was 100/1 for events like this six months ago, but his price reflects how far he's come and if, like me, you think he's here to stay, it's not bad at all - don't forget, he's won just as many PGA Tour events as Day and Fowler for one thing.
In an event where I'm confident the winner will come from the head of the market I make no apology for having two on-side and Adam Scott is the second of them.
It came down to a choice between Scott and course-specialist Mahan, and I have to go with the Masters champion. Plain and simple, he wins more often than Mahan - Scott has nine PGA Tour titles to Mahan's five in fewer starts and they of course include a win this year, which remains lacking from Mahan.
Furthermore, while Mahan is clearly in decent form and played better than Scott in the US Open, he's entitled to be running on empty now and that looked like it might be the case last weekend. Begrudgingly, he's left out although the more cautious could combine this trio at close to 6/1, which really isn't bad value at all.
But it's Scott for me, a man who perhaps should've won this event last year. An opening 75, courtesy of a missed alarm which meant Scott had to go straight to the first tee and wasn't able to warm-up, left him with too much to do - indeed, at one stage he was five-over.
It was then really impressive that he could finish five-under, three back of Woods, and it's the second time he's gone close here - Scott was third in the 2005 Booz Allen Classic which switched to Congressional while its regular venue was renovated.
Scott's caddie Steve Williams is a fine asset at Congressional, a course he conquered when on Woods' bag, and it was actually here in the 2011 US Open that his relationship with Scott began, while it was also after this event that Woods sacked him.
Williams will therefore be determined to win and that should translate to Scott, whose two victories alongside Williams have come at two of Tiger's favourite layouts in Firestone and Augusta National.
The impressive Australian is third in the all-around ranking and has the complete package, so coupled with a really impressive strike-rate of around one win every 20 starts which would be better but for a lengthy spell in the doldrums, he's clearly the man to beat.
Although I do expect the winner to come from one of those at the head of the betting, there are two players further down the list who look good each-way value so they're included to smaller stakes.
First is Kevin Chappell at a general 66/1.
A fortnight ago, Chappell went into the US Open as an extremely well-backed 100/1 shot, with some firms quoting him as short as the 66/1 we can have this week.
That was on account of a great US Open record and a previous runner-up finish at the Memorial and was therefore justified. Why, then, should he be a similar price here given that he played well at Merion, has course form to call upon this time having been third here in the 2011 US Open, and is teeing up in a significantly weaker field? I can't find the answer.
Chappell is a former winner of the Haskins Award given to the outstanding collegiate golfer and it really shouldn't be long before he wins on the PGA Tour. All that's missing is consistency, because we've seen on more than one occasion that when he's on, he's more than good enough.
The way he closed out the Memorial Tournament suggested he has what it takes between the ears, too. On just about as tough a par-72 as players face all year, he was bogey-free playing in the final group and made birdies on 13, 15, 17 and 18 to pile pressure on Matt Kuchar, who to his credit responded brilliantly.
That performance owed plenty to what was a razor-sharp short game, and I refuse to believe a share of 32nd in the US Open - when he ranked eighth for driving accuracy and 22nd for greens hit - represents a step backwards in his career.
What's more, every winner of the Memorial Tournament who went on to play in the AT&T National landed the double. With Kuchar not in the field, perhaps the runner-up at Muirfield Village can continue that trend to some extent.
Finally, David Lingmerth could take to this test and is worth a small play.
The Swede has already finished second twice in his rookie season on the PGA Tour and the more recent of those, at TPC Sawgrass, really showed us what he can do.
Last time out he finished 17th in the US Open, a fine effort on his major debut, and he's now made four cuts on the spin for the first time in his short career at the top level.
Throw in the fact that his Web.com Tour win came nearby in Maryland with a winning score of eight-under and there are reasons enough to take three-figure prices.