After landing the place money in last week's Sony Open, Ben Coley looks for value in a fascinating edition of the American Express.
There's been very little to be thankful for over the last year, very few positives even for the most annoyingly optimistic person you know. Celebrating the small wins - reading that book you wanted to read, sorting the garden, remaining married - has become especially important. Big wins, like the Bob Hope Classic a.k.a. the American Express a.k.a. the AmEx being forced to change its format, deserve the full treatment.
Usually, this event is a difficult watch with three courses, amateur playing partners and Pacific Standard Time pushing us Europeans to breaking point after a fortnight in Hawaii. Winners have been especially hard to find - 500/1 in 2019, 200/1 last year - and television coverage through the first three days is slow, piecemeal and unsatisfactory.
Now, they've not changed PST - that is still a thing - but there are no amateurs here, and two has become three, with the Stadium Course hosting for 54 of the 72 holes. That is helpful, because it makes the stats built up since Pete Dye's layout first took over as host in 2016 all the more relevant. With La Quinta stepping aside, we lose the easiest course and there's a chance that pin placements and green speeds are adjusted somewhat now that we don't have to worry about some no-mark celebrity or some of the actual worst people in the world playing.
Certainly, the Stadium Course has played as the toughest of the three, and with La Quinta the easiest, the dynamics shift somewhat regardless of set-up. Perhaps that reduces the volatility of a point-and-shoot event at an immaculate resort, although let's not dismiss big-priced winners as totally random. In fact from 2016 to 2020 inclusive, I would call each champion a very strong driver of the ball - even if that's in a more traditional sense than by strokes-gained measurements. In other words, total driving has been a reliable indicator and that's logical, because power doesn't help all that much on a trickier-than-usual set of par-fives, and accuracy is more valuable here than it can be elsewhere.
Jason Dufner took the 2016 renewal at the expense of David Lingmerth, both among the most solid drivers on the circuit, before Hudson Swafford - who ended the year ranked 16th in total driving - won his first PGA Tour event. Adam Long and Andrew Landry are above-average for accuracy from the tee and the latter might have won this twice but for losing a play-off to Jon Rahm in 2018. Rahm, of course, is just... Rahm. It's through the lesser-known players on leaderboards that we really learn about what's required.
Landry got the better of ABRAHAM ANCER last January and the Mexican might just be able to make up for that by winning his first PGA Tour title at what looks a decent each-way price.
Ancer was the best player in the field at the Stadium Course last year, shooting 66-63 over the weekend, and it's possible to argue that a first-round 68 at La Quinta - where Landry shot 64 - was his undoing. Certainly, this former Australian Open winner who contended in the Masters ought to be better suited by a general toughening of conditions, and the way he played the host layout bodes extremely well.
At 28th in total driving last season and 43rd so far this - next to Landry again, by the way - Ancer certainly fits the bill from an accuracy standpoint and I'm not at all concerned by last week's missed cut at the Sony Open. He absolutely flushed it over the first two rounds, gaining around four strokes with his ball-striking, and to put that into perspective had he continued over the weekend he would've been up there with Hideki Matsuyama and Charley Hoffman as the best ball-strikers in the field.
Ancer simply had a shocker on and around the greens, and not for the first time at Waialae. In fact, four visits so far have all ended disappointingly, some good work off the tee completely undone by woeful putting, and each time he's moved on quickly with some strong performances over the next fortnight - not least when following second place here with sixth in Saudi Arabia last year, a path he treads again.
It seems clear that he's far better suited to this event and with Rahm out, it looks no stronger than the Sony Open, where all the best players were ideal types for the course. Here, Patrick Reed will have to leave behind a bad start to the year having had some foot trouble in the Tournament of Champions, Brooks Koepka makes his debut and remains well short of his best, and Patrick Cantlay is a worthy favourite but not one to be particularly fearful of.
This looks a good opportunity for the world number 26 to shed his maiden tag and he rates a strong fancy.
So too does RUSSELL HENLEY, whose price is being held up nicely by some form figures which have become less relevant now that the event has fundamentally changed in nature.
Henley has never been a factor here except for when firing a first-round 64 back in 2013, when he'd won the Sony a week earlier. That came at the Nicklaus course, which remains in operation for one round, and it's the removal of La Quinta which looks like it could be a huge plus. For whatever reason, Henley has struggled there since the Stadium came on board in 2016, shooting 71-74-72-71 and giving up far too much ground.
At the Stadium Course he shot 68 in 2017, and across 2019 and 2020 he made 11 birdies, playing the par-fives in four-over en route to a 72 on the first occasion. He's not been scintillating by any means, but hasn't yet shot over-par and don't forget that his overall form in both those recent examples was very poor, including in the Sony Open.
This time, he arrives on the back of a rust-shedding 11th place, most of those ahead of him having already played a week earlier, and with stacks of good form from the back-end of 2020 to his name. From outside the world's top 200 when the PGA Tour returned in June he's now back on the verge of the top 50, and we know he's got the tenacity to win when a clear goal emerges - that's what he did in Houston four years ago, earning an 11th-hour Masters invite.
Henley is the best iron player in this field on 2020 and 2021 form and I'm convinced he can score around the Stadium Course, especially as his wider record on Dye designs includes sixth at Harbour Town and River Highlands, some solid performances at Sawgrass, and a victory on the Korn Ferry Tour.
It's been the putter which has kept him from winning his fourth PGA Tour title, but he's been working hard at it and said last week: "I feel really good with my putter. I'm feeling it better and better with the irons. Yeah I'm just excited to be playing I'm excited to be here and I feel good with my putter again. So that seems to be the inconsistent thing with me over the last few years."
It's worth stressing that the putter has been Henley's strongest club in this event and while his west coast record in general isn't good, these bermuda greens are very different to those he'll face at places like Torrey Pines and Riviera. They appear to suit him very nicely and everything is in place for a big week for a player who at his best is an excellent driver of the ball.
There aren't many others I'm tempted by at the top end of the market, except for Sungjae Im who nevertheless will have to strike his irons better and may prefer a more demanding test. Rickie Fowler would be the one who interests me slightly but at bigger odds, Si-Woo Kim and ZACH JOHNSON are preferred options.
Kim is something of a Dye specialist having won at Sawgrass and lost a play-off at Harbour Town, and I'm generally positive about the state of his game. He's done a heck of a lot right since starting with Claude Harmon and is a player who can climb the rankings now that his health issues appear behind him, although I just have nagging doubts as to whether he can be relied on to make his share here.
Johnson is therefore preferred after an encouraging enough return at the Sony Open, having signed off 2020 contending for the RSM Classic where he looked like the man to beat before one shocking drive and a couple of compounding errors cost him all chance in what's another multi-course event.
The former Open and Masters champion had been hinting at an overdue return to winning ways before then with a combination of quality iron play and improved putting making him dangerous at the right sort of course. No doubt Waialae is one such course, but he had been off for two months and can step up markedly on a share of 62nd with that now behind him.
Johnson finished 28th here in 2019, but he was sixth-best at the Stadium Course thanks in no small part to an opening 64. He shot 67 around the host layout in 2016, too, and between these two efforts made it pretty clear which of the existing rotation he feels suits him best.
"I'm excited about (playing the Stadium Course) and what that course brings, it's probably the most difficult test of the bunch, but you can get it too. So it's a beautiful Pete Dye, I've always been a big Pete Dye fan. Certainly to my eye I like his designs and excited about the opportunity."
Johnson has been second at Sawgrass and Harbour Town, third at River Highlands and Whistling Straits and 12th at Crooked Stick, so his Dye record stands up to close scrutiny and he's exactly the sort of neat and tidy player who has thrived in this event in recent years.
Hoffman is somewhat tempting given how well he's been hitting the ball and James Hahn is a Californian with a strong record in his home state, which includes a top-five finish in this event - albeit before the latest change to the rotation. Still, Hahn has actually played the Stadium Course nicely, he's driving it really well, and he's another I could see leaving behind a decent but low-key return to action in the Sony Open.
Those who played either last week or at the Tournament of Champions ought to be at an advantage and that logic leads me to three at massive odds in a tournament which has thrown up some remarkable results down the years.
First, I like the way KRAMER HICKOK is playing and back-to-back 65s over the weekend at the Sony set him up for a big week here.
Hickok, like Henley, should prefer these greens to just about any others he finds on the west coast and he looks ready to deliver on his potential, having seemingly turned a corner towards the end of 2020. Four of his last 16 rounds have been 65s and one of them helped him to lead the Bermuda Championship where a mistake at the ninth hole on Sunday proved costly for both him and us at a three-figure price.
That was his first taste in the mix for a PGA Tour title, though, and he generally handled himself quite well. Since then he's defied a first-round 75 to make the weekend in Houston - only one player managed that with a worse start - and he was pounding fairways on his way to a 15-under-par total at Waialae, stepping up on his two previous visits.
In fact his form there - MC-45-19 - is a nice indication of his overall trajectory and this solid driver, who was 51st in total driving last season and is 57th so far this, looks to have built a platform for a big performance when presented with a suitable test. This should be exactly that and he's shot rounds of 68, 71 and 72 at the Stadium when not in the sort of form he looks capable of producing now.
Maverick McNealy can putt the lights out and this Californian youngster will tempt many, while Max Homa flew through the field when last we saw him and sounds positive about the progress he's making. That said, he's struggled badly at the Stadium Course and 54 holes on it this week will expose anyone who isn't up to building a score there.
My final two selections have both shown that they are capable of doing so and at 250/1 and bigger, both KH LEE and NATE LASHLEY are worth playing to small stakes.
Lee averages 68.67 at the Stadium Course and there's reason for hope at the Nicklaus layout, as he's produced some of his most promising golf at PGA National and Muirfield Village, two Golden Bear designs.
He led the field in fairways here last year and ranked second in strokes-gained off-the-tee - only the Stadium counts towards those stats - and has putted particularly well, ranking 11th in 2020 and gaining 2.342 strokes in his sole round in 2019.
Ultimately finishing 21st in this last year, that's a performance we can mark up given his worst round came at La Quinta, and I like the fact he's been back to a couple of PGA Tour courses and built on previous promise - most notably Riviera, where he was 25th on debut and then 13th on his return, both times in much stronger fields than this.
Also fifth in a two-course event at the RSM Classic and ranked 31st in total driving last season, Lee looks dangerous at a big price following weekend rounds of 66 and 64 at Waialae.
Lashley was terrible last week, but he was playing well before Christmas and he's popped up on several occasions to either win or place at this level. Last year in fact he shot 77 and then withdrew from this event, only to take third in Phoenix on his next start a fortnight later, at a course which by the way has been a good guide through Dufner, Swafford, Mark Wilson and others.
Fourth in the Dominican Republic after missing eight of his previous 10 cuts and each of his last two further demonstrates that Lashley is in-and-out, and it's worth backing him to be 'in' here having finished 29th and 12th across his first two starts in the event.
Through that run he shot 67-69-72-65 at the Stadium Course and 68-66 at Nicklaus, and all this despite putting poorly - that's the club he usually relies on for all it's just another aspect of his game which is best described as volatile.
Tee-to-green, there's hardly anyone in this field who has proven as comfortable at the course which now hosts three rounds instead of two, and that alone makes Lashley one of the more lively outsiders in an event where almost everyone is more Bob Hope than no hope.
Posted at 1215 GMT on 19/01/21
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