The PGA Tour stages its annual Super Bowl party at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and we're backing Jordan Spieth to delight huge crowds.
4pts e.w. Jordan Spieth at 18/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Hideki Matsuyama at 45/1 (Sky Bet, 888sport 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Shane Lowry at 70/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Erik van Rooyen at 100/1 (Sky Bet, William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
The thing with good parties is that while at first it might feel like they live and die on who turns up, by the end of the night you really don't remember who was meant to be there. Golf could do with one of those right now, so the timing of the Waste Management Phoenix Open could not be better in that respect.
The field absolutely could be better and that, too, is a matter of timing: the PGA Tour's rotating Signature Events for 2024 include Pebble Beach last week and Riviera next, so anyone with half a mind to skip Phoenix anyway had every excuse to do so.
Xander Schauffele and Viktor Hovland changed their minds after the entry deadline, which is either hilarious banter by both of them, a little bit insensitive in the current climate or yet more bad news, and they're joined by Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa, Tony Finau, Tommy Fleetwood, Jason Day and Ludvig Aberg in taking the week off.
Scottie Scheffler's prospects of landing a course hat-trick didn't exactly need a boost but they have one and at 5/1, you can certainly see the case for getting stuck into the favourite. The fact that Scottsdale might be the premiere ball-striking test on the PGA Tour, a place where decidedly ropey putters have often dominated, provides another layer of comfort.
I won't put anyone off. Nine of the last 14 winners here, dating back to 2010, ranked fourth or better in strokes-gained approach and that includes Scheffler a year ago. He undoubtedly boasts the best long-game in golf and it isn't especially close, so if you can swallow the odd shoved putt from inside five feet and aren't concerned about the various other high-class golfers who came up short in their own hat-trick bids lately, then this can all be made very simple.
Personally I'd rather take the chance to back JORDAN SPIETH at the same sort of price he went off when widely selected last week, where the only thing wrong with his display was how he putted.
That club is generally not what it once was but he had at his very best with it in The Sentry and, while it's not necessarily been the case here, is often more effective away from the bumpy, unreliable surfaces found at his beloved Pebble Beach.
I reckon Spieth is no less happy at Scottsdale. In fact, his tee-to-green stats at this golf course are superior to all his other places of comfort, such as Harbour Town, Copperhead, Pebble Beach and Colonial. That's why he has four top-10s, including when rediscovering his game three years ago, and all have come about because of top-class displays of approach work.
That's the real strength of Spieth's game when he's firing and it's improved throughout both starts this season, as has his driving, ranking third for the 36 holes played at Pebble Beach. No wonder he sounds so enthused with his game.
"I came out to California a little early and I've been trying to kind of get my game back to where I left it in Maui," he said a week ago. "And it feels really good, it's just a matter of going out and executing now.
"I'm excited about what this season can be for me. I feel like when I was in Maui I felt like when I was teeing it up I had a chance to win. I feel that way sitting here Wednesday afternoon and it's a good feeling to know that if I go out and do what I feel I'm perfectly capable of doing, there's nothing holding me back right now."
Spieth touches on the fact he arrived at Pebble Beach following a month off so he might now be primed for a return to Scottsdale, where for the first time anywhere in almost a decade he hit all 18 greens in a single round last year.
As has always been the case in seven career visits, he was again way better than average from tee-to-green, but so far only once has he produced a good putting week. Perhaps then there's something about these greens he can't quite figure out, but I'm not quite ready to draw that conclusion.
Given those absentees, given the fact he's ranked first or second in approach play four times here and that five of the last 14 champions led the field in that category, and given how well he hit it at Pebble Beach, Spieth looks to have a much better chance of winning this week than he did last, when I was quite close to siding with him.
It looks a fine opportunity if Scheffler's putter does let him down and while many of the same remarks also apply to Justin Thomas, the gap between their respective prices looks a bit too wide. I believe Spieth's suitability to Scottsdale and the way he's gone about playing well here in the past are both underestimated at 16/1 and bigger.
Matt Fitzpatrick's strong record in the DP World Tour Championship and two decent spins in this mark him down as one to be interested in. It was only a poor third round that hurt him last week (10th after 36 holes) and he's set to go off at about the same price despite a steep drop in grade, but I do just have some nagging concerns as to the state of his long-game.
I also considered Sam Burns, sixth last year, a contender in the California desert recently, 10th on a rare Pebble Beach start last week, and with his approach play improved. He's putting the lights out at the moment and will fancy his chances of a first victory out on this side of the US.
But at the prices I prefer to take a chance on HIDEKI MATSUYAMA, a two-time former champion looking to do what Brooks Koepka did for us three years ago and return to winning form at a big price.
Matsuyama has struggled a little since that golden 2021 and it's more than two years since he won the Sony Open, but he popped up following two missed cuts to finish fifth at Sawgrass last March and thereafter produced a sustained run of solid golf.
There really didn't look to be much wrong with his game for the most part, bar that putter of his of course, and finishes of 30th in the Sony and then an improved 13th at Torrey Pines to begin 2024 suggested he might be able to press on in the coming months.
Finishing 71st of 80 players at Pebble Beach is a problem but Matsuyama had never played in that event and for the second time in three starts, he showed promise off the tee. We know all about his scope to lead any field in the approach stats, something he last did at the US Open, and he's sublime around the greens, too.
Returning to Scottsdale in a weak field represents by far the best time to chance him and it's worth saying that he ranked 29th and 47th in putting for his wins here, 55th when fourth on debut, 27th when second, and 17th when eighth. Two other top-20s saw him putt particularly poorly and he may not need much better than average.
We've no guarantee he can bring his best long-game but if it's going to happen it may well be here, and I feel amply compensated for the risks attached to his name when we're talking 50/1. If you can't access the 45/1 with eight places, take 50s with five or six.
I've often felt this should be a good place for Corey Conners but he's yet to show it, while Eric Cole could do with driving it a bit better and Si Woo Kim is going to need to hole a putt or two. All three were considered at similar odds to Matsuyama, but the former Masters champion is the one we can afford to risk in the circumstances.
Next for me is the classy SHANE LOWRY, who is being underestimated at 66/1.
Without going over old ground, I felt the discourse around his Ryder Cup selection underlined where some people can go wrong in assessing form. Instead of looking at field strength and consistency, some pundits talked about a lack of top-10s, failing to recognise that 12th in the US PGA is significant better than say ninth in a 3M Open.
Anyway, the point is Lowry played a lot of good golf last year. He managed three major top-20s, plus others at Riviera, Memorial, the Travelers, the Scottish Open, the BMW PGA Championship and the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, all of them in very good company.
This is much weaker than last year's Phoenix Open, for which he was the same price. I selected him then, taking on board the risks associated with the fact he'd just ditched his caddie after a missed cut in Dubai, and while it didn't work out there's a definite chance perseverance pays off this time.
Lowry returns to Phoenix after following a narrow missed cut in the AmEx with 25th at Torrey Pines. The former was his first start after a long break and one of the very least suitable events on the schedule for him, and having been forced to sit out Pebble Beach having failed to qualify for it, he should be raring to go at a course he really likes.
The fact that Lowry has just dropped out of the world's 50 is also notable, as his Masters and US Open exemptions will expire this year. Ambitions of an away Ryder Cup at Bethpage will depend on access to the majors and that's the sort of thing I could see sparking this big-time player into life over the coming weeks.
His wins are rare but typically big, such as a WGC, the Open, and the BMW PGA Championship, and he's precisely the sort of character to revel in Super Bowl Sunday atmosphere if he does find his way into the mix.
Sixth on debut when leading after round one, then 16th on his return, Lowry has course form and he's a smashing bet down to 50/1. He's a better golfer than a handful of those ahead of him, you just have to look beyond the arbitrary to find it.
Kurt Kitayama did well to finish 23rd on his Phoenix Open debut after a nightmare start and has gone up a level since, but he's not gained strokes with the putter since May and that's surely going to have to change if he's to win, even allowing for a roll-of-honour which features the likes of Kevin Stadler, Bubba Watson and Gary Woodland.
Hopefully the latter can build on signs of encouragement following surgery but for betting purposes I like the look of ERIK VAN ROOYEN.
An emotional winner in November, van Rooyen had been playing well in the run-up to Mexico and has continued to do so since. His form figures read 8-16-30-16-23-1-32-22-52-25-20 and as far as 2024 goes, he's played 15 rounds so far and each has been under-par.
Finishing 20th last week represented a marked improvement on a return of 43-MC at Pebble Beach and over his four starts so far this season, he's been excellent either off the tee or with his approaches, but so far hasn't married those two.
That could change at Scottsdale, where he gained strokes in both ball-striking departments last year at a time when his game was more miss than hit. His previous appearance, a missed cut, came during a poor run to begin 2021, and on the face of it this should be a really good course for his powerful game.
Van Rooyen has top-25s at Summerlin, PGA West, San Antonio, two events in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi which represents a solid bank of desert form, and his first PGA Tour win came on the border between California and Arizona and under similar enough conditions to these.
Certainly, I feel Scottsdale is far more suitable than Pebble Beach and, coupled with the weaker field, that means he only need keep the wheels turning to be threatening the places. Rarely are things that simple but at 100/1 he's the best outsider on the board.
Among those at even bigger prices, Jhonattan Vegas is getting closer following his return from an injury absence. He's been in the top 10 for strokes-gained tee-to-green on his last two visits, including a year ago, and having missed the cut by one in the AmEx, shot a second-round 65 at Torrey Pines' North Course.
Another step forward could make him a factor while Las Vegas resident Harry Hall is another who might be playing better than his results suggest, but the run of big-priced PGA Tour winners must end soon and I'm hopeful it might be with Spieth, rather than Scheffler.
Posted at 1300 GMT on 06/02/24
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