After a near-miss at 175/1 on Sunday, Ben Coley returns to preview the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
2pts e.w. Viktor Hovland at 30/1 (William Hill, bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Jordan Spieth at 40/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
1.5pts e.w. Cameron Young at 40/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Rickie Fowler at 70/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Justin Suh at 200/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
0.5pt e.w. Ryan Brehm at 1000/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Florida has never hosted the US Open, but if it ever does, chances are it will look a lot like the Arnold Palmer Invitational. This event has revelled as a put-up-or-shut-up precursor to The PLAYERS Championship in recent times, although I do wonder whether some might have felt it was becoming detrimental to their chances at Sawgrass to have spent a weekend here at Bay Hill.
Rory McIlroy could be one of them. A winner here in 2018, shooting 18-under, McIlroy remains a course specialist on paper, but the reality is he's found it really tough going except for on Thursdays. In 2021, he led with a 66 but fell to 10th. A year later, he opened with a 65 to again lead, but shot a pair of weekend 76s to finish 13th. "The weekend, it's like crazy golf," he bemoaned. "I feel punch drunk."
And he's not alone. At halfway last year, Viktor Hovland was nine-under; come Sunday night he was four-under, losing out by one. Scottie Scheffler managed the rare feat of entering the final round in fourth place, failing to break par, yet winning. Lucas Herbert's final-round 68 was one of just two sub-70s and saw him climb from mid-table to fifth; Tyrrell Hatton was one shot worse and almost stole the title he'd seemingly lost with a Saturday 78.
The formula has become well-established: see what they do to the course early on, and then gradually turn the screw. That again calls to mind the US Open – remember when people complained that it was too easy after one round at Winged Foot? – and perhaps it's little wonder that the reigning US Open champion, Bryson DeChambeau, so famously won here, and that the latest one, Matt Fitzpatrick, also boasts a fine course record.
With wind forecast for Orlando this week, we should expect another brutal test, with greens which will be described as glassy, rough which will be described as brutal, and Bay Hill's trademark array of hazards to add to the entertainment-slash-misery.
Last year, Cam Smith had his feet up while a handful of world-class players battled it out for this title, and he went on to win at Sawgrass the following week. This time around, the API is event four of those which are 'designated', so there's not a lot of choice. I think that might just be the best way to filter the elite players, and I'd go as far as to say that there's even a chance the favourites might all falter, which just hasn't seemed on the cards in the previous three.
To my mind, it is potentially significant that the Tournament of Champions (Jon Rahm), the Phoenix Open (Scottie Scheffler) and the Genesis Invitational (Rahm) were all dominated by players who would've been there anyway, designated event or not. Players might not have total control over their schedules anymore, but we should be able to spot those who are here because they have to be, and those who would've wanted to be.
One whose motivations are clear is Will Zalatoris, who played on an Arnold Palmer scholarship at Wake Forest, and the early support for him is not at all surprising. In fact he'd been top of my shortlist, too, but I keep going over his comments at Riviera and combined with a rapidly shortening price, they're enough to put me off.
"I mean the big thing is really just being 100 percent by April," he confessed after finishing fourth there. "I think that's something that when I talked to my doctor, he just said, look, you're on the right path, you're going to feel really good, but you're not going to be 100 percent really until April."
Hacking out of thick rough might not be ideal right now, even if conditions are otherwise perfect, so I'll opt instead for VIKTOR HOVLAND as the headline selection.
Hovland once said that he wasn't overly keen on Florida courses in general, which is off-putting, but he's started to build up a nice record which includes second here a year ago, a top-10 finish in The PLAYERS, second in the WGC-Workday and third at the Valspar.
It should really be his bag, because we know thanks to his wins in the Bahamas and Mexico that he enjoys exposed courses and coping with the wind, and as for grinding it out has has some sneaky encouragement hidden in his US Open record, which began with 12th as an amateur at Pebble Beach and then 13th at Winged Foot.
His win in Dubai last year came in just 12-under so he's not totally reliant on a shootout, and to be frank we don't really need to speculate as to how well Bay Hill suits. Not only was he out in front and arguably a little unfortunate to be collared by Scheffler, but he'd been third at halfway here a year earlier, too.
Tellingly, Hovland has produced three good short-game performances in four Arnold Palmer starts, and I wonder if the thick rough around the greens has something to do with that. Many will argue that it removes much of the skill, and I would certainly prefer Hovland under either extreme, when he can either pop one out of the rough, or reach for the putter as he so often did at St Andrews.
His long-game stats at Bay Hill have been typically excellent, ranking third off-the-tee last year and ninth with his approaches, and with the latter department improving at Riviera last time out, all aspects of his game should be ready to fire over the next fortnight and into the Match Play.
Hovland has been playing well ever since the Open last July and of course successfully defended his Hero Challenge title in December, where he fended off Scheffler. It's about time he managed a first win in mainland USA and having undergone much of his golfing education in Oklahoma, this week's forecast wind is a positive.
It's Scheffler who appeals most of the top three in the market and as for the second tier, if we can call it that, there are a number of players who don't play in Florida unless they really have to. These are world-class golfers we're talking about and any one of them could win, but I'd much rather side with those for whom conditions are a positive.
Justin Thomas played well here in 2015 and is the other elite name I considered strongly, but I'll sit tight and hope for some signs of encouragement heading into Sawgrass, a more suitable course. He's not got the best of US Open records for one of his ability, his short-game skills are somewhat nullified this week, and the drift from 16/1 to 20s after a poor effort at Riviera isn't enough to tempt me back in.
By contrast I am happy to chance JORDAN SPIETH again, because it was only the putter that cost him in the Genesis Invitational where he narrowly missed the cut.
That's been something of a running theme for the three-time major champion, but his best performances so far this season came on bermuda greens in Hawaii and while his stats say he can putt well anywhere, when he's searching for answers he's most likely to find them close to home.
Spieth putted nicely here on his course debut when fourth in 2021, a result he felt ought to have been even better, and he got away with a modest driving performance that week. "I love bermuda, I love windy conditions, difficult golf courses," he said early on, only to later bemoan a final round that saw him go unrewarded for what he felt was a string of quality shots.
There is of course a nagging worry about not only his putter but the various hazards in play here, yet Spieth has produced back-to-back displays of top-notch approach play and really looks to have turned a corner with the key aspect of his game.
Providing he can drive the ball to a decent standard, Spieth could do as he did last year and follow a high-profile missed cut with another win out here on the east coast. We know he loves a grind and playing in the wind, just as he demonstrated that week in the Heritage, and he could easily have won the Phoenix Open two starts ago had the putter shown up.
Driver has often been important here, it must be said, and it's partly why I think CAMERON YOUNG ought to go really well.
Like Zalatoris, he showed himself capable of contending in elite company last year, finishing third behind his former Wake Forest teammate in the PGA Championship at Southern Hills before going one better thanks to a closing eagle at St Andrews.
Those were two of seven top-three finishes, also including the extremely difficult Wells Fargo, and he was again forced to settle for second behind Abraham Ancer in the Saudi International last month.
Young can be forgiven a slow start in Phoenix having flown from the Middle East for that event, and his long-game was back on track at Riviera where he finished 20th owing to a poor week on and around the greens.
We can draw some encouragement from two slightly above-average putting displays here and at the Honda Classic last year, good for finishes of 16th and 13th, and I felt there was plenty to like about his Bay Hill debut which came during a busy period.
Young was a rookie back then, compelled to play where he could, but this time he ought to be refreshed and ready to attack this course off the tee once again.
One of the best drivers on the PGA Tour, a difficult par 72 like this one looks ideal and he's already shown himself to be highly capable in the wind, not just at St Andrews and in the Heritage but in the Bahamas late last year.
Shane Lowry has quickly rediscovered his game and I wouldn't be overly worried by a poor course record. However, last week was a draining one following the death of his uncle and given that he's yet to make a weekend at Bay Hill, I don't think there's any way he'd be playing were this event as it was before. That's not ideal and a slow start might see him gladly recharge for Sawgrass.
Tommy Fleetwood loves it here and is one to watch for the first-round lead and in various sub-markets, but the player I've found hardest to leave out is Hideki Matsuyama. As big as 66/1 in a place, here we've someone who always plays Bay Hill and has made eight cuts out of eight, a record not dissimilar to the one he boasts in the US Open.
Matsuyama flushed it during round one of the Genesis, too, only to go on to miss the cut by a shot. He'll need to find improvement on the greens but many will recall his stupendous display on bermuda in last year's Sony Open, and he's drifted a heck of a long way down the market for a major winner who likes the course.
Keith Michell and RICKIE FOWLER though make marginally more appeal and I'll side with the latter, whose return to form now carries real substance.
Fowler has been back working with coach Butch Harmon for a while and Harmon says he'll win this year, potentially more than once. We should take those words with a pinch of salt of course but he's right about one thing: Fowler, his swing restored, is back playing his best golf in years.
Sixth at the Fortinet and then second when contending in the ZOZO Championship, Fowler ended 2022 on a high and he's largely backed it up, making every cut this year and producing a sustained run of high-class iron play. He's ranked ninth, third and ninth across his last three starts, and that's translated into finishes of 11th, 10th and 20th.
Two of these have been in almost identical fields and while 10th in Phoenix came at a course he adores, that's not the case for his performances either side. Torrey Pines has caused him many a headache down the years despite some early promise there, while 20th at Riviera matched his best finish and was by far his best score at that famous old course.
Bay Hill on the other hand is familiar, comfortable terrain. Fowler was third in 2013 when trying to chase down Tiger Woods, and from 2015 to 2020 produced five good displays including three top-20s. The fact that he's made the cut in each of the last two years, despite struggling for any kind of form, is no less encouraging, and he produced some of his best ball-striking numbers of the year on his latest visit.
Now with his confidence restored and improvement possible for a switch to bermuda greens, the longtime Florida resident has an excellent opportunity to win a tournament which is dear to him, one he's helped to host down the years. Doing so would see him return to the world's top 50 and he has that, a Masters place and more to play for.
All of these selections are, at their best, quality mid-iron players, and that's really important at Bay Hill. It holds the key to beating a tough set of par-threes, just as it does taking opportunities at the four par-fives, and it helps explain why McIlroy and DeChambeau once duelled for this title, why Fitzpatrick loves the course, and why Scheffler does too.
In time, I expect JUSTIN SUH to confirm himself an elite ball-striker through the bag but especially with his approach work, and after adding substance to that view with fifth place last week, I can't resist chancing him at huge prices.
Suh led the field in fairways and ranked second in greens at the Honda, ranking second also in strokes-gained tee-to-green. It was a performance which had been coming having made his previous eight cuts, and he's the most likely rookie of the year candidate now that he's bedded in.
A formerly top-class amateur, the sky really is the limit for the winner of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, and unlike most tournaments he's played so far, this one isn't new. Suh received an invite to compete in the API while still an amateur in 2019 and he did well, narrowly missing the cut after a solid opening round.
Suh was brilliant at PGA National, a serious challenge even if scoring was easier this year, and his over-par weekend can be blamed squarely on the putter. Perhaps the move out east explains that as Suh's home is on the west coast, but he did putt well at the AmEx and it's just too soon to be making any kind of diagnosis.
What I'm sure of is that he has a huge career in front of him and I'd rather chance his putting than that of Joel Dahmen, who plays tough courses well including this one (fifth in 2020), contended in the US Open, but does have a few questions to answer even at potentially generous odds of 200/1.
Dahmen and Davis Riley are among those shortlisted as is Kurt Kitayama, who contended at Pebble Beach, defied a slow start to finish close to the leaders in Phoenix, and then missed the cut by a single shot at Riviera. He too plays tough courses well, has form in Florida, hits it a long way, and could be among the surprise packages.
However I'll stick to five sensible outright selections and the smallest of speculative bets on RYAN BREHM, who is 1000/1 with most firms and is worth a risky play if you can get 500s or more.
Brehm has done very little to suggest he can win an event like this to be frank, but he did take his chance in Puerto Rico a year ago with a sensational front-running display to triumph by six shots.
The Puerto Rico Open does share some similarities with Bay Hill in terms of conditions, so it was interesting to see Brehm produce his best golf since that win when 14th in the Honda Classic last week, a nice primer on another tough, Florida-style course.
Three good rounds included a Saturday 64 and he is an enormous hitter, so if he turns up in the same form then it's not difficult to envisage him hanging around inside the top 20 all of a sudden.
That immediately makes him of interest at just about the maximum price so let's see if we can get Rahm and co beaten in the most spectacular way possible.
Posted at 2000 GMT on 27/02/23
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