Ben Coley previews the Cadence Bank Houston Open, where a former world number one can upstage two strong market leaders.
2pts e.w. Jason Day at 28/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Davis Riley at 50/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Will Gordon at 70/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Wyndham Clark at 80/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Davis Thompson at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Whether or not Scottie Scheffler's return to form in Mexico had anything to do with losing top spot in the world rankings to Rory McIlroy, it certainly came at an ideal time. Fresh from that closing 62 (three shy of his career low, of course), Scheffler now heads home to Texas for the Houston Open, where by rights he should've earned his first win this time last year and is now just a 6/1 shot for redemption.
Had he done so, rather than opening the door for Jason Kokrak, would Scheffler's path still have led to Masters victory in the spring? Probably not, because life doesn't work like that. But the one he did take, accelerating along it into that fabulous spring with wins in Phoenix and at Bay Hill, can certainly be traced back to the valuable lessons he learned at Memorial Park when failing to convert his lead.
Those names, Kokrak and Scheffler, make perfect sense when we look closer at the course. This city municipal is a par 70 but stretches beyond 7,400 yards, and that's despite a couple of short par-threes. The core of it is meaty, with three par-fours in excess of 500 yards and a couple more close to it, including the tough first hole. Nothing is handed over easily, and it's going to be hard to compete here if you're a shorter hitter.
With Kevin Tway tied for second alongside Scheffler, and the above average in distance Carlos Ortiz edging out Dustin Johnson in 2020, I'm convinced this is going to be the domain of the power players going forward. That and the fact we're back on bermuda greens appear two of the key routes into a tournament which, as they all do at this time of year, lacks a little depth once we get past the big names in the betting.
The second of those is Sam Burns, who might've won here a year before Scheffler. These two friends and Presidents Cup partners made my staking plan for the CJ Cup two weeks ago, where Burns fared best in seventh, and they're a formidable duo at the top of the betting. Burns in particular merits respect at the odds, but Scheffler soared after returning to his Masters-winning putter midway through the Mayakoba, and he could so easily boss this field.
Anyone inclined towards cross doubles should consider them both with Nedbank Challenge favourite Tommy Fleetwood, but prices of 6s and 12s aren't giving a great deal away and there is at least a strong line of attack to take. In focusing largely on some of the best drivers in the field, my hope is we can find someone good enough to give them both a game.
First on the list is JASON DAY, whose resurgence continued on a rare trip to El Camaleon.
Despite sitting 115th after a poor first round, Day quickly rediscovered the form he's shown since the start of October with rounds of 64, 67 and 66 to close out the tournament, a share of 21st simultaneously satisfying and frustrating given that his race was run on Thursday.
Still, the bigger picture is that he's clearly feeling good, ready now for his sixth start of the season having once been the sort to pack the clubs away for a long time, and his performances have real substance to them. Back at the Shriners, where his form figures coming in read MC-64-17-WD-MC-MC, I had seen enough to take a chance at 100/1 and Day played beautifully for eighth. Now, I think there's been ample evidence to take much shorter prices.
The levels of approach play he's shown since July are key to believing Day is going to keep climbing the rankings, if not all the way to the top, where he used to be. Even at his best, Day wasn't necessarily the most reliable iron player around but this (relatively) new swing of his is delivering in that department, earning him a ranking of 14th at this early stage of the campaign.
Off the tee, his poor performance at the Fortinet Championship was proven to be all wrong when ranking fifth in the Shriners, and he backed that up when finishing 11th behind McIlroy and company in the high-class CJ Cup. This is much more like it, some of the very best golf he's played since last successful in 2019, and last week's display on a far less suitable course in Mexico does nothing to dissuade me.
Here at Memorial Park, Day was down the field last year when in no real form, but had shown already that the course suits. When the PGA Tour first came here in 2020, the Aussie was in the mix all week until fading a little to finish seventh, and back then his form coming in read MC-64-38-MC-WD-60 following a run of top-10s at the back-end of summer.
And while perhaps best known for his exploits on bentgrass or poa annua greens, such as when dominating at Torrey Pines for a couple of years and capturing the 2015 PGA Championship, let's not forget Day has wins at Sawgrass, Bay Hill, Quail Hollow and right here in Texas to his name. Indeed his second PGA Tour top-10 came in this event, his first win came in Dallas, and this feels a great chance to get back in the mix on Sunday.
Returning to the names we've seen in the mix here and Copperhead, home of the Valspar Championship, feels like a good guide. Robert Streb's last two top-10s have come across these two courses and the likes of Cameron Tringale, Joel Dahmen and Russell Henley tie them together further, as do habitual Copperhead contender Kokrak and two-time course winner Burns.
That's all good news for DAVIS RILEY, who lost a play-off to Burns there in the spring, the launchpad for a brilliant couple of months which also saw him feature on the PGA Championship leaderboard.
Riley cooled towards the end of summer, his rookie year petering out somewhat, but he still managed to drive it well at Southwind and finish just outside the top 10 at the Wyndham. These, along with a share of 19th at the Sanderson Farms last month which saw him trade as favourite, offer further proof that he's most comfortable and for now most effective on classical courses in the southern states, having grown up in Mississippi and gone to college in Alabama.
Bermuda greens are a part of this equation, too. Riley has so far proven to be almost half a stroke better per round on this surface versus poa annua or bentgrass and while he hardly lit them up in Jackson, ranking 28th, that was still a huge uplift on a miserable effort over in California the week before.
Truth be told, putter isn't the club we need to worry about – it's driver. Riley was all over the place when selected for the Sanderson Farms and worse still at the CJ Cup. The last four events for which we've strokes-gained data, he's given up ground to the field and been unable to put his brilliance in other departments to proper use. Had he driven the ball to a high-class standard in the SFC, the rest of his game was good enough to have won.
Hope lies in the fact that firstly, his best driving performances have come on these tree-lined, old-school courses such as Copperhead and TPC River Highlands, where he led the field. He was good too at Southern Hills and Southwind, again in his comfort zone. And then there's last week. While we've no SG data, he was far more accurate than had been the case, with his total driving stats similar to Southwind.
This is a longwinded way of saying Riley is capable of outstanding driving displays and has been playing pretty well without them. If he can get that club back under control, which his effort at El Camaleon suggests might already have happened, then the pieces will soon fall into place.
Throw in that Copperhead connection and potentially another with Colonial, where Burns beat Scheffler but where Riley looked like he might win, and it feels like a good time to back him. He played well at Memorial Park last year, too, finishing 29th at a time when he'd been without a top-10 since May despite having largely been playing on the Korn Ferry Tour during those months.
He's a better player now, he's back under conditions which are so familiar, and at 50/1 he represents the most exciting wager of the week all things considered. Now let's hope he can tidy up off the tee and take the next step in such a promising career.
Next to the first name on my list for the event, WYNDHAM CLARK.
I've been really quite taken with Clark's performances since the spring and while the best return he has for his efforts is seventh place in Canada (albeit in an elite field), there's a consistency to his play which had been missing for a long time.
Once one of the most promising players in the sport and similar in make-up to Burns, Clark has produced some of his best driving displays post-US Open and the very best of them in fact came last time out, when ranking third in world-class company at Congaree.
His approach play has been the issue, just as it was for Burns until the penny dropped, and yet we see signs of encouragement there, too. Clark still throws in the odd shocker but was rock solid in the CJ Cup, where a bad putting week kept him to 29th. Before that, he was 16th on unsuitable terrain in Japan.
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These two performance might just provide the foundations for a first win or at least for him to get back in the mix, at a course where he missed the cut by one on debut when hitting the ball well, and then sat seventh at halfway last year following rounds of 66 and 69.
Clark has climbed 50 spots in the world rankings since and is showing much stronger form coming in. One of the biggest hitters in the field and with some of his best performances having come in tough events like the Honda Classic and the Genesis Invitational, plus a play-off defeat at this time of year in 2020, I've high hopes he can step up.
I do like how Alex Noren is playing and he has a good record in Texas, where he contended for the Byron Nelson last year, but power remains my preferred choice and made Taylor Pendrith more interesting. The Canadian continues to hit the ball to an incredibly high standard and if he can overcome his troubles on and around the green, he should leave behind a poor first crack at this course.
At a slightly bigger price, however, WILL GORDON is preferred.
Gordon arrives on the back of third place in Mexico where every aspect of his game appeared in shape, for all that he couldn't quite keep tabs on Russell Henley. Still, that's five cuts made in five PGA Tour starts since earning his status again, and a couple more is all he needs to wrap it up for 2023-24 already.
It's been a real coming-of-age autumn for Gordon, who followed back-to-back top-fives with his first professional victory in Boise to start the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. He graduated that company as without doubt one of the most promising talents, something we all saw in 2020 when he contended behind Dustin Johnson at the Travelers, and he has the modern, long and strong game required to press on from here.
What I like most of all is that he gets to play Memorial Park for the second time, having finished 38th on debut towards the end of that 2020 campaign. It was a mighty effort given that he'd sat 111th after an opening 76, going on to shoot the fifth-best Friday score and then the lowest of all on Saturday, a blistering 63 that came without the help of his driver, and instead courtesy of some of the best approach play and putting you'll see.
Ranking fourth in strokes-gained approach come the end of the week but a lowly 101st off the tee, Gordon's performance was one of real promise and he comes back now as a player who has been down to the Korn Ferry Tour, bagged his first significant win, and graduated in style.
Gordon mentioned last week how beneficial it had been to him to have already seen courses at that level, including Hillcrest, where he'd made his second ever KFT start and returned a couple of years later to win. The point was underlined on what was his third start at El Camaleon.
"This time around, too, on the Korn Ferry I got to play some golf courses I played before," he said. "Out here, this is my third time (in Mexico), so I feel like I'm pretty aware of what's going on out here so everything's not new this time around, so it's pretty nice."
Fresh off third place in Mexico having played better than appears in Bermuda, where he faded from eighth to 35th on Sunday, Gordon can do as he did last week and apply the lessons of a previous visit to get right in the mix.
At bigger prices, long-hitting South African duo MJ Daffue and Dylan Frittelli both earned a second glance. Daffue has lived in Texas for more than a decade and played here in 2021, opening with a rock-solid 68. Since having secured his PGA Tour card thanks to a strong season on the second-tier circuit, he's shown a bit of spark over the last fortnight and will have had this event circled in the calendar.
As for Frittelli, he's another with Texas ties courtesy of a fine college career and was selected on these pages for the Texas Open, where he was tied for the lead entering the final round only to struggle. His waywardness off the tee is the price he's paid for adding distance and much depends whether he can get away with it here, which he did a year ago to finish 19th despite holing very little.
I do have trouble siding with a player who ranked dead last in both fairways and greens among those who made the cut last week, however, and will instead side with another young talent in DAVIS THOMPSON.
Like Riley, he's a player who is considered capable of going all the way to the top and having unsurprisingly won his first pro title during his first Korn Ferry Tour campaign, he's a rookie who might well be this year's Cam Young, Sahith Theegala, or indeed Riley.
Already in three starts so far Thompson has managed finishes of ninth and 12th, making all three cuts and gaining strokes with his ball-striking each time. All this has come despite a couple of iffy putting displays and I think the very fact he skipped the Bermuda Championship and Mexico speaks to the self-assuredness of a youngster who doesn't expect to be fighting for his playing rights.
Born in Alabama and now living in Georgia, where he'll be among several aiming to put local knowledge to use in next week's RSM Classic, he should feel at home here in Texas. Yes, he putted badly in the Sanderson Farms, but that Korn Ferry Tour win I mentioned came on bermuda greens and in time he should prove his effectiveness on them. Prior to this season, his three best recorded putting displays from a very small sample had come on similar surfaces.
I certainly think his major strength, driving the ball, is likely to be particularly advantageous – more so than at home on Sea Island – and while it's his course debut, he's exactly the type of player I'm looking for this week. Anything 80/1 and upwards rates a bet, and it's worth noting that one firm goes a standout 150/1 if you're happy to take five places instead of the now standard eight.
Austin Cook isn't really of that profile I'm after, as he's a short hitter who can often find himself fighting an uphill battle. Still, I was drawn to his share of 24th place here in 2020, where he played really well over the weekend having only just made the cut. He's started to show a bit of life again recently, albeit on more obviously suitable courses, and has a win and a play-off defeat at this time of year.
The other point of interest is that Cook made just his second PGA Tour start in this event back in 2015, contending before a tough Sunday as a Monday qualifier. He's played the Houston Open just twice since, finishing 17th out of the blue and then 24th when it first came here, a week which ended with his daughter being born on the Sunday.
It is no doubt then a pretty special tournament for Cook, who might be a first-round leader option given his propensity for the odd hot putting day. So far in his career he has seven top-fives after day one on the PGA Tour and five have come in October or November, more a reflection of the strength of field than anything else but significant perhaps as we tackle another of these Fall events where the gap between the best players and the worst is particularly wide.
All five selections appear capable of bridging it under these conditions, with Riley the pick of them at the prices but Day very much expected to keep moving forward.
Posted at 0925 GMT on 08/11/22
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