Ben Coley has put up the last two winners of the Phoenix Open at odds of 45/1 and 30/1. Can he land the hat-trick at TPC Scottsdale?
3pts win Xander Schauffele at 16/1 (General)
3pts win Collin Morikawa at 18/1 (General)
2pts e.w. Tom Kim at 30/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Shane Lowry at 70/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Corey Conners at 70/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
If you're going to give yourself a month off the PGA Tour, make it January. January starts with 3am finishes in Hawaii, moves to the California desert for three humdrum desert courses, hints at something meaningful at Torrey Pines, and then relies heavily on the fact that Pebble Beach is indeed Pebble Beach. We could probably all live without January.
But now it is February, and February is when the season begins in earnest. First, we have the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a living, breathing, drinking, vomiting harmony of time, place and purpose. Then we have the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, where history and genuine prestige make for a golfing red carpet in LA.
Between these two tournaments, both of them elevated or designated or promulgated or whatever they call it, there are most things that make professional golf fantastic.
One of them is the opportunity to see all of the game's best players in the same place, at the same time, and that's almost the case this week. Without Cam Smith, Dustin Johnson and one or two others, we're not quite at major-like field strength, but then again, without their defections to LIV Golf, this would likely have remained the Phoenix Open as we knew it: a fine spectacle, but not necessarily for everyone.
Only Will Zalatoris is absent among the elite players who were eligible and while that's fantastic for the sport, which will draw more eyeballs for the fact that Rory McIlroy and others are here, it's not necessarily good news for the punter.
Last year's majors went to players priced up between 12/1 and 25/1 and only at the US PGA was there almost a shock. We've not had one so far in 2023, either, but Sam Ryder and Davis Thompson were both very close to changing that. How likely is it here?
Not very seems to be the answer. Not only is there such depth that two-time course winner Hideki Matsuyama is chalked up at 33/1, but Scottsdale accentuates the things that make golfers truly great. This course, which would be humdrum at times but for an explosive finish and the fact it fits this tournament like a glove, demands quality ball-striking more so that just about any other on the circuit.
That is made clear by winners like Kyle Stanley and Kevin Stadler, not to mention Matsuyama himself, but it's also revealed in the statistics. Eight of the last 13 winners, dating back to 2010, ranked fourth or better in strokes-gained approach, and no fewer than four of them led the field.
In covering a nine-shot halfway deficit while somehow losing strokes with his irons, Scottie Scheffler very much bucked the trend a year ago.
Aside from the nature of the course itself, which stretches to flat, easy-to-read greens and some trouble spots which absolutely must be avoided, the nature of the tournament and its massive crowds surely also plays a part. Winning here requires real steel and has proven beyond some star names when they've been presented with big chances, the likes of Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth and Tony Finau among them.
No wonder four-time major winner Brooks Koepka is twice on the roll-of-honour, and that as the tournament has grown, the quality of champion has improved. Seven of the last eight have gone to an existing or subsequent major champion, with Rickie Fowler the odd one out. If you do win here, as Gary Woodland did before capturing the US Open the following season, you know you have what it takes to do so at the very highest level.
As such the task is to unravel the top of the market and my view is that Jon Rahm, who went to college here in Arizona and has an impeccable record at the course, ought to shade favouritism from McIlroy. The latter though is perfectly suited to the course, as he demonstrated despite a nightmare start on his sole previous visit two years ago, and who knows just what that defeat of Patrick Reed in Dubai could do for his season.
Scheffler was more tempting at the prices when generally 14/1 but that's largely gone now. The main positive, bar his ability and the fact he's in good form despite some putting issues, is the fact that two of his very best putting displays have come here in Scottsdale. Perhaps the simplicity of these greens has been a factor in that and if he again holes his share then he'll likely threaten to defend his title.
But the two I've settled on yet cannot separate are XANDER SCHAUFFELE and COLLIN MORIKAWA, so I'll split stakes on the pair – effectively making for an 8/1 chance or thereabouts.
Schauffele's record in Phoenix is absurdly good and to be frank he probably ought to have won this title already. In five visits so far he's had four chances to do that, including when tied for the lead in 2021, and he was the best player in the field from tee-to-green when ultimately settling for third place a year ago.
Unlike previous renewals and indeed several other tournaments during a fallow period, the Olympic champion didn't do anything wrong behind Scheffler, except that he couldn't get a putt to drop in the final round including when missing from inside 10 feet at the final hole. In truth it was Saturday when things got away from him a little during a poor back-nine, but he rallied and could easily have won.
Since then, he has shaken the monkey off his back with victories in the Travelers and the Scottish Open, and I'd be pretty hopeful he'll do his bit if he is in the mix again. Certainly he's looked more assured in that situation since he was a tad fortunate at River Highlands and there's a sense he could do as Fowler did and get his own back on Scottsdale, a course made for his game.
The one question mark had concerned his back, which forced a rare withdrawal from the Tournament of Champions, but Schauffele was back at it a fortnight later with third place in the AmEx, before 13th at Torrey Pines. There, he spoke at length about the discovery mission he and his team went on and in the end the problem was muscular. "I already took my fair share of whacks out of the rough the last two days, so I'm beyond fine," he said.
With that question answered he looks a rock-solid investment here and it will be a surprise if he's not thereabouts on Sunday as he almost always has been in this unique event.
Morikawa certainly has been close to the lead almost every time he's teed it up lately, sitting inside the top 20 with a round to go in nine of his last 10 PGA Tour starts. More recently, he was in there pitching in the Hero Challenge before blowing a big lead in the Tournament of Champions, and he was in contention at Torrey Pines last time out, too.
His return to form after a barren 2022 is the result of better approach play, which had gone missing by his standards during this time last year, some improved driving displays, and hopefully a solution to his putting woes. The latter is particularly significant and since adding a putting coach to his team, he's ranked second in Hawaii and 27th last time out in the Farmers Insurance Open.
Morikawa ranked third in strokes-gained off-the-tee and with his approaches there, and his numbers would be even more impressive had the North Course counted. His first-round 67 could've been a good deal lower and while that also means we have to acknowledge that gremlins still lurk on the greens, the main message is that his long-game is back at its absolute best.
That makes him a huge danger and Scottsdale, where his relative lack of distance isn't a big issue, could be the ideal place to properly lay to rest those ghosts of Kapalua. He's certainly got plenty of desert experience as he lives in Las Vegas and plays out of The Summit, where he was second to McIlroy in 2021 before gaining revenge in the Middle East at another desert course with certain similarities to this one.
He's also shown what he can do here, finishing 25th on his debut in 2020, so far his only start in the tournament. Morikawa ranked second in strokes-gained approach and was the best player in the field from tee-to-green only to putt poorly, and it's worth remembering that at the time he was a young pup whose form was patchy and whose sole win had come in a low-grade event close to home. In fact, he wasn't even inside the world's top 50.
That suggests Scottsdale is as good a fit in reality as it is on paper and if he putts to a decent standard, there's surely every chance that he gets back to winning ways before a return home to Riviera next week.
As regular readers will know, siding with more than one player from the head of the betting isn't my usual approach, let alone three, but at this course and in this field I want to add TOM KIM to the staking plan.
Although a debutant, Sahith Theegala and Patrick Cantlay both could've defied that theoretical handicap last year and it's just not a worry where Kim is concerned, given that he's won twice at long-established venues which were new to him and that's just in the last six months.
Between those victories in the Wyndham Championship and at the Shriners, Kim was a real star for the International side at the Presidents Cup and it was clear there, as had been hinted at in the US Open and the Open Championship, that he wasn't going to fail for the magnitude of the situation. He's just built for it.
I also believe he could well be built for this course, because he's won at a similar enough desert track in Vegas, and he's quickly established himself as one of the leading iron players in the game. In fact he's somewhat Morikawa-like in that he doesn't hit the ball a mile, only in Kim's case there's plenty of evidence that putting will be a strength rather than a potential weakness.
Of course, that club goes missing from time to time and it did so spectacularly when sent off favourite for the Sony Open, but he's been fifth and sixth either side, latterly in the AmEx to give us some more evidence of desert golf suiting him nicely. All this success comes courtesy of that approach play, a category in which he's gained strokes on each and every start since July.
Providing Kim can produce a solid week off the tee and avoid the sort of putting week which hurt him in Hawaii and in the BMW Championship last August, he looks a likely contender in a tournament I believe will bring out the absolute best in him. As such he's preferred to compatriot Sungjae Im at a slightly bigger price, the latter maybe just not quite as well suited to the occasion.
Sam Burns stands out at close to the 50/1 mark but he's got a pretty poor course record and hasn't been producing tee-to-green performances of the quality he'll require, so my search for a world-class, major-proven player expands to SHANE LOWRY at 66s.
There are some negatives here, chiefly that he missed the cut in Dubai last time and subsequently split with his caddie, Bo Martin. That suggests a reset was needed and there's no doubt he's just dipped a little lately, ever since he won for the first time since the Open Championship when deservedly triumphing at Wentworth.
That's all well and good, but a caddie change could yet prove to be a positive move and it's not like he's been a mile away, given that just two starts ago Lowry was right in the mix and spent much of the week as favourite in Abu Dhabi. A poor final round there is a bit of a worry of course, but it hides what was a generally encouraging display.
Ultimately I think we're talking about the same golfer who started the majors at odds of 40/1, 25/1, 25/1 and 20/1 last year, and who is similarly priced for those upcoming. And while it's perfectly understandable to make adjustments based on the here and now, putting him in with the likes of Rickie Fowler, Taylor Montgomery, Jason Day and so on strikes me as a bit of an overreaction.
Lowry isn't just the right type for this, as a player who wins big when he wins, who is proven in majors and at Sawgrass, and who like his friend Padraig Harrington gets better when the moment gets bigger. He's actually been here and done it, leading after the first round of his 2016 debut during his first full PGA Tour season and spending the whole week inside the top 10 before eventually finishing sixth.
A year later, he ranked third in strokes-gained tee-to-green but finished 16th owing to a poor putter, which also kept him out of the action in 2018, but that means he's three-from-three in cuts made and has proven that he can handle Scottsdale and all it entails. "I just like it, it's a great event," he said. "The golf course is really nice. I like playing on firm greens. I like everything about it. It's great."
All of this would've put Lowry at around the 33-40/1 mark had he simply holed a few more putts over the opening weeks of the year, and at twice that he has to be worth chancing despite the unknowns which extend to who exactly will caddie for him.
Whoever it is, expect Lowry to have his game face back on for the type of occasion he lives for.
Keith Mitchell is a player I really like and he should also go well, but at a similar price I'll stick with the idea that COREY CONNERS could pop up at this event.
The Canadian wouldn't look an obvious fit in some ways, as he's found winning difficult since doing so as a Monday qualifier at the Texas Open. However, he has been in the mix for the Masters and The PLAYERS, both of which provide good clues to this event, while his victory came on a TPC course in the desert which is very similar in many ways.
We know as well that he's a fabulous ball-striker, one of the most reliable in the sport in fact. Since that breakthrough 2019 season he has been a permanent fixture in the top 30 of the strokes-gained approach charts and while he concedes a bit of distance to the very best drivers in the sport, he ranked fifth in strokes-gained off-the-tee last year to demonstrate that he can cover that gap.
With top-30 finishes in 10 of his last 11 starts, the exception coming on the eve of his Presidents Cup debut, Conners is undeniably at the top of his game and that was certainly the case when he flushed his way through the Sony Open last time out. Owing to a good course record, he was very close to the top of the betting there but he's always a player I'd rather back at a big price in a better field.
Conners has made all three cuts here, driving it particularly well, and his putting has improved with each visit. As with his compatriot Graham DeLaet, a similar player who came as close to winning here as he did just about anywhere, I wonder whether Conners finds these greens easier to read and putts therefore easier to commit to.
One way or another, I'd take another top-25 putting week as that would give him a big chance if his long-game fires. That's typically something we can rely upon and the likeable Canadian can at the very least threaten the places.
Aaron Wise makes some appeal at a best of 100/1 as does Maverick McNealy if you can access three-figure prices, while it's not difficult to envisage Davis Thompson being this year's Theegala and rubbing shoulders with the big boys as he did in the AmEx a couple of weeks ago.
I like what I've seen from Matt Wallace lately, too, but the only outsider who made genuine appeal until the weekend just gone was Trey Mullinax.
A big-hitter known for his long-game and runner-up at TPC San Antonio in 2018, Mullinax showed an immediate liking for Scottsdale when finishing 15th on debut in the following year. He opened 67-64 to lie third at halfway, too, before an over-par weekend saw him fade from contention.
With plenty of good golf in the AmEx to his name I do think this is a good set-up for something of a sleeping giant, someone who captured his first victory in the Barbasol last year and has hinted since then that he's going to use that as a springboard having been fifth and fourth in strong company during the subsequent months.
He drove the ball well on his return in the Tournament of Champions before an improved display with his irons at Torrey Pines, and while down the field before withdrawing due to the weather at Pebble Beach, that's not my idea of a suitable test for this southern slugger.
Scottsdale might be, but I can't quite bring myself to side with a player who made a 10 last Thursday, and who for all his promise does remain a little bit frustrating. Perhaps he'll improve for the change of scenery but I firmly expect this title to go to a member of the game's elite or someone very close to it, and I don't think there's much to be gained in playing for the one or two places they might leave open to the rest.
Posted at 1200 GMT on 07/02/23
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