Golf expert Ben Coley looks ahead to the 2019 majors with a trio of selections, including the elite yet underestimated Bryson DeChambeau.
Gary Woodland is a trap I'm guilty of falling into, but this really could be the year. It could. It definitely could.
Woodland is an enormous talent. Big, strong, athletic and skillful enough to have made it as a basketball player, he decided later than most that golf was his game and perhaps we need to give him a little more time as a result.
For some, that time was up before he won a play-off for the Phoenix Open last February, but he closed 2018 with his best major finish followed by a string of results of the class and consistency required to climb to a career-high world ranking. I don't think he's ever been a better player.
The Masters, of course, is months away, so it's important to try to establish that what's happening now is relevant; that, beyond the results, there's a body of evidence which suggests they are sustainable. And, when having a bet at reduced place terms, it's equally important to be able to hope for something to happen between now and the event which might alter the wider perception of a player's chance.
With Woodland, the first aspect is simple. Since the Open Championship, he's started working with Phil Kenyon, the wizard putting coach who helped Danny Willett to Masters glory in 2016, and while still lacking consistency there has undoubtedly been improvement. Woodland gained five strokes on the greens across the final two events of the season, also putted well en route to sixth at the PGA, and most importantly of all has faith in his new process.
Many a poor putter has won the Masters, anyway. Think Sergio Garcia, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott... all found a way to make the putts they needed to when they needed to, without constructing their score with putter first. Augusta is a ball-striker's paradise, a course where first and foremost you need to hit the ball well - ideally high, ideally far, but ultimately finding greens.
As for the second point, there is equal encouragement. Woodland will be defending his title in Phoenix, evidence of the damage he did early last year, while Torrey Pines and Riviera are other west-coast courses where he's thrived in the past. Then comes the move east, where he's been runner-up in the Honda Classic and has won elsewhere in Florida. Oh and before all this, he's a regular contender in Hawaii.
Returning to Augusta, Woodland's left-to-right shape wouldn't necessarily be an ideal fit, but such factors can be over-thought and there are a number of fade-preferring players who've thrived at the course. Garcia leans towards a fade off the tee and habitual Masters bridesmaid Lee Westwood certainly does. Right-to-left might be advantageous, but decisive it need not be.
Now, Woodland will have to improve on his recent efforts there whether he hits a draw or a fade. He shot 78-76 back in the spring, 75-80 in 2017 and 71-76 on his previous visit in 2015, each time missing the cut, while a third-round 85 in 2012 saw him withdraw - although it should be said he was injured at the time.
There are, however, some positives. He opened with a round of 69 on debut, qualifying him for one of the stronger Augusta trends, a sub-70 at the course. A share of 24th place was certainly promising, and on his second completed visit, in 2014, he also broke 70 when making a charge through the field and inside the top 15 during the third round, briefly flirting with the lead.
Most importantly, there is a chance that the biggest clue of all came at the PGA Championship, where he finished sixth, limping home a little but ultimately tasting major contention for the first time.
Rewind to 2017, and Patrick Reed signed off the majors with second place, his best effort to date, and he'd go on to win the Masters the following spring. Brooks Koepka is another whose major wins were preceded by hints, albeit more of them, and there's no doubt that Woodland will be able to stand on that first tee next April with the knowledge, rather than pure belief, that he can compete for the biggest prizes in the sport.
Another big performance in the rescheduled US PGA at Bethpage wouldn't be a surprise, but he's 80/1 for that and I've always considered him a potential Masters contender. Call it stubbornness but I'm willing to stick to that view for another year.
Recommended bet: 1pt e.w. Gary Woodland at 150/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
While there have been some upsets, including Keegan Bradley and Jimmy Walker recently and, to a greater extent, Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel towards the start of the century, the US PGA Championship has often been quite straightforward to unravel.
Perhaps that's because it's the easiest, typically, and has been played a week after a World Golf Championship, which means that the world's best players have gone through a high-pressure, high-class warm-up. Year on year, form at Firestone helped reveal the US PGA winner for most obvious reasons.
Now, things have changed and they have changed significantly, with the PGA Championship moved to May, just four events - one of which is a two-man team competition - separating it from the Masters. It's possible, in fact it's likely, that many of the world's best players will not tee it up between majors one and two, and in some ways that increases the likelihood of a surprise winner at Bethpage Black.
For that reason, the best policy at this stage is to tread carefully with the obvious course angles - Jason Day and Patrick Reed among them - largely covered off. Reed will be teeing it up on the back of what's bound to be a difficult Masters defence, remember, and while Day could thrive in the spring as he so often does, at 22/1 there's no real value in backing him this early regardless.
If there is one to consider, it may well be Sergio Garcia. Fourth, 10th and third in his three visits to Bethpage, the Spaniard has an ideal game for a course where ball-striker supreme Lucas Glover caused a US Open surprise in 2009.
On both his first and third appearances, Garcia ended every single round inside the top-five and his overall record in New York is strong - even in the face of some nastiness from raucous crowds which, hopefully, will now have subsided.
The Spaniard ended 2018 defying the critics to fully justify his Ryder Cup selection, win again on home soil and contend elsewhere, and were the PGA Championship taking place next week he'd surely be an extremely popular selection at 66/1.
Regrettably, it is not, and while Garcia has won in January two years running, it's hard to be confident about him lifting more silverware and therefore helping to contract these odds between now and the rehoused PGA. Hold your bets.
No recommended bets
There's little doubt that certain bookmakers have missed a trick in leaving Cameron Smith at 150/1 for the US Open despite his exploits over the closing months of the year.
First, the youngster sprang to life in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, twice finishing third, before heading home to defend his title in the Australian PGA Championship. Inbetween all that were a couple of top-10 finishes and a strong weekend in the TOUR Championship - it's clear that the golf he played towards the end of 2018 represents the strongest run of his burgeoning career.
Heading into 2019, a Presidents Cup year, Smith will have eyes on becoming the highest-ranked Australian in the sport and he's already right on the heels of Marc Leishman, who he out-battled to win on the Gold Coast. After that only Jason Day remains and to be mentioned among players of this calibre confirms that Smith, inside the top 30 himself, is closing in on world-class status.
Having been fourth on his major debut in the 2015 US Open and fifth on just his second Masters start, Smith has produced high-class golf in the deepest of fields despite his inexperience and having been raised on the Gold Coast, there's no reason he can reproduce that sort of form now the season's third major returns to the California coast and Pebble Beach.
Smith was 11th in the AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am on his second start in that event, sixth on his last visit to California and, with any luck, will continue to build on the promise he's shown since summer turned to autumn when returning in January.
Whatever the result, the price is bonkers. He's given an equal chance to Charley Hoffman, Paul Dunne and Peter Uihlein; he's bigger, remarkably, that Shane Lowry, now 50 places lower in the world rankings. Jimmy Walker, Daniel Berger, Russell Knox, Beau Hossler; there are all sorts of players who are not as good as Smith, largely less promising, arguably less suited to the course and certainly, Walker aside, less decorated at major level, yet considered to have stronger claims.
This is unfortunately one of those cases of a market generating little interest and therefore little attention from those offering it. Asked to price up the US Open from scratch, I'm sure most compilers would make Smith around a 66/1 chance. Still, they have the opportunity to do so as they please and until the price moves - and it will, I expect, take minutes - the hope is at least one or two of you get on. What a game.
Recommended bet: 1pt e.w. Cameron Smith at 150/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
The Open Championship
- World number one: 20/1
- World number two: 16/1
- World number three: 14/1
- World number four: 25/1
- World number five: 66/1
- World number six: 22/1
- World number seven: 25/1
- World number eight: 12/1 favourite
- World number nine: 66/1
- World number ten: 20/1
Sorry to go a bit weird on you but I remain of the belief that the Open Championship market is annually and wrongly dismissive of certain players, usually Americans, for reasons totally unclear to me.
The world number five is Bryson DeChambeau, who won three of his final six starts in 2018 and is now a five-time PGA Tour winner having completed just two full seasons on it. There should no longer be any doubt as to his quality, which ought to have been clear when he dominated the sport as an amateur, and while keeping up that recent strike-rate just won't be possible, he's not going anywhere.
So why is he 66/1? Because it's The Open, and there appears to be a feeling that until proven otherwise, it should be assumed that players like DeChambeau can't and won't play links golf to the required standards.
In fairness, form figures of MC-51 in the event aren't all that impressive, but the same is true of his US Open form (MC-15-MC-25) yet he's 33/1; the same is broadly true of his Masters form (21*-38) yet he's as short as 18/1 in a place; the same is certainly true of his US PGA form (33-MC) yet he's a general 25/1 chance. It's The Open where he's been quickly overlooked - but there's more to his chance than meets the eye.
Firstly, he's simply progressed rapidly - even since July and a so-so effort at Carnoustie. Secondly, he arrived there having withdrawn from the John Deere Classic, an event he'd won in 2017 to earn one of the final spots in the Open field. As preparations go, neither can be considered anything close to ideal.
For a world-class player like DeChambeau, either a week off or some links golf in Scotland would be much better - even if it's not essential, as Jordan Spieth has shown - and it's probably fair to assume that he's now fulfilled his obligations to the John Deere, which again sits on the eve of the Open Championship.
Finally, DeChambeau does in fact boast some links form and it's worth something at least. In the 2015 Walker Cup, played at Royal Lytham & St Anne's, he was the only player in a thumped United States side who went unbeaten, completing an excellent personal performance with a one-sided singles victory over Ireland's Gavin Moynihan.
So while DeChambeau has so far proven best on US, parkland courses, he has done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt here. If not, perhaps, at prices which sit next to the names of those surrounding him in golf's world rankings, then certainly at 50/1 and bigger.
The other slot highlighted above belongs to Tony Finau, who helps underline the point around American players being underestimated under links conditions.
Finau played well in The Open at Carnoustie, the most fearsome venue of them all, and he was not alone. Spieth was favourite heading into the final round; Kevin Kisner and Kevin Chappell made up the penultimate group; Xander Schauffele and Tiger Woods at various points looked like winners. Each of the final nine groups on the tee included an American. It happens every year.
Again, Finau is shorter for the other majors, though the 40/1 available for Augusta still makes some appeal. It's the 66/1 for The Open, though, which stands out as there's no reason he can't adapt to Portrush, where the Europeans' collective experience edge is negated as so few have played there in competition.
That being said, it's best not to go overboard antepost and it's clear to me that it's DeChambeau's price which is completely wrong, a point Finau himself helps to underline. If he wins a couple more events in the new year and plays well either at Augusta or in the PGA, all of which appears possible, even likely, then he really could be among the favourites.
Recommended bet: 1pt e.w. Bryson DeChambeau at 66/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
Posted at 1525 GMT on 07/12/18.