Ben Coley previews the first round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where rising star Cameron Champ is tipped to make an impression.
While the Phoenix Open always develops into golf’s version of Old School, it might pay to side with youth in the opening round with Cameron Champ worth a small bet to win one of the marquee three-balls.
Grouped with Justin Thomas and Webb Simpson, Champ is very much in with the big boys here and he’s got something to prove after a low-key start to 2019, but Scottsdale should suit and he’s made some tweaks to his equipment which he hopes will trigger a quick turnaround.
One of the obvious and acceptable risks you take when siding with such a raw talent is that they’ll be inconsistent, but that could work in our favour here and he looks a good price at 3/1 with focus having temporarily shifted elsewhere.
Thomas can turn up anywhere and shoot the lights out, but he’s struggled just a little to really get to grips with this course and having been off for three weeks, if you’re prepared to take him on the time is probably now.
Simpson has some excellent form here, including second place in 2017, but missed the cut last year, and he too has been off since Hawaii – in fact he’s played just once in 2019.
It’s also worth noting that they’re out in the morning, when cool conditions can make this a very demanding place for an hour or two.
Champ’s low, long ball-flight is ideal for such a challenge and I wonder whether his opening round at the Sanderson Farms last year might prove prescient: it was cold and wet and he breezed round in 65 en route to the title.
For all the various little factors which could work in his favour this remains a speculative play so let’s keep the stakes small and also have a decent double on Keegan Bradley and Emiliano Grillo.
Bradley is nothing if not reliable, and his record in the first round is outstanding – both here and elsewhere. Last week he opened with a four-under 68 and he’s shot that score or better in six of his seven starts at Scottsdale.
By contrast, short-hitting Chris Stroud has never bettered 68 in nine first-rounds here and may find this a bit of a slog in the conditions, while Grayson Murray remains with serious form and fitness doubts despite showing just a little more at Torrey Pines, a course he knows well from his junior days.
As for Grillo, he’s also expected to put his strong driving to use and break par – which should be enough to take care of Freddie Jacobson and Meen Whee Kim with something to spare.
Jacobson makes his first start of the year and there has been very little to shout about since he returned to the professional circuit, while Kim is woefully out of sorts and can’t hit a fairway, which is usually a strength.
Grillo was a shade disappointing last week and wouldn’t be on my radar in the outright market, but he looks especially well-drawn here and 5/2 about the double looks a steal.
Finally, a word on Bubba Watson. His first-round record here is exceptional but because he's been a little out of sorts and is in with two players who've won since the start of December, he's quoted at 7/2 in places.
Given that Bubba is arguably the most horses-for-courses player on the PGA Tour, and that he's quite clearly as good as anyone on his day, there are worse chances to take.
Go Rickie or no Rickie?
Rickie Fowler’s record at Torrey Pines is bizarre. He started there with four top-20 finishes in the Farmers, not to mention a display of great promise in the 2008 US Open. More recently, he’s not managed a single top-60 finish in six visits.
By contrast, he’s maintained a level of consistency from his first Phoenix Open start to his last – even if it’s one which some might say represents his career in microcosm. In 2010 he lacked ruthlessness, turning first into second; in 2016, all he needed was a bit of luck. Had ruthlessness and luck been part of his game at the right time he might have won more than one major by now.
Still, his record at Scottsdale, where he’s oh so desperate to win, tells us that we needn’t worry at all about what happened last week, and that level of forgiveness is something you should consider applying to just about anyone in the field. Torrey Pines and Phoenix might be bedfellows on the schedule, but they’re otherwise unalike.
Where Fowler is concerned, the issue then becomes his change to a TaylorMade ball, having been impressed with foursomes partner Dustin Johnson’s at the Ryder Cup. And, of course, offered a lucrative sum – TaylorMade having lost Justin Rose to Honma and therefore recognising there was some budget to play with.
Rose, of course, took little time to adjust, winning on his second start with the Japanese manufacturer’s clubs, but there’s probably a reason: ex-Taylor Made chief Mark King made the switch before Rose and, it seems, played a key part in smoothing the transition.
And there’s just one other nagging doubt when it comes to Fowler. He confesses to being a "feel player" – part of the reason he’s won in Scotland, Abu Dhabi, the Bahamas and Korea, as well as the United States. Fowler’s game travels because he can adjust as necessary.
But in the short-term, when it comes down to numbers versus feel, I just wonder whether Fowler’s preference for the latter may leave him vulnerable for a week or two longer. There may yet be work to do.
A couple of years ago, I backed Byeong Hun An for the Phoenix Open on the basis of a loose theory: that his form in the European Tour’s desert events might just travel with him all the way to Arizona.
For a long way, the logic worked; An led after 36 and 54 holes, only to gradually let the title slip through his grasp with one of those Sundays, a round of 73 resulting in sixth place. I’m sure they were only paying five back then, too, but perhaps my memory deceives.
Two years on, An having further underlined that, for him at least, desert form does translate, the first thing I looked for this week was a player with a similar profile. Regrettably, I couldn’t find one.
Some will go with Tyrrell Hatton, who nearly won the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai back in 2016. He’d have been of interest, too, but for whispers of an elbow injury and the very real prospect of him starting a fight with various members of the crowd on the 16th hole.
Alex Noren has played well in the desert, but I think that speaks to how solid he is rather than a real fondness for the style. Yes, his runner-up finish to Rory when returning from injury in Dubai was very good, but basically he prefers a tougher, windier, more nuanced examination. He’s on the radar for Florida.
And then there’s Martin Kaymer. Regular readers will understand that he was hardest to ignore, not least because nobody hit more greens across the first two (desert) events of the European Tour season. I’m not sure what it will take for me to lose faith in Kaymer, but it probably involves him quitting the sport.
Another thing in his favour is the fact that Kaymer is one of the many players who has a winter home in Arizona and a membership at the nearby Whisper Rock to go with it. I strongly suspect he will therefore rock up here and keep pounding those greens. I just don’t know as it’ll be enough.
State of play
Last week I reported in this section that world number one Justin Rose was friendless, out to 20/1 on the exchanges. What do any of us know, really?
This time, you might say it’s the second-highest ranked player in the field who is failing to attract punters. Jon Rahm is 15/2 in a couple of places and 7/1 generally, but he could be about to go 10/1 on the machine and the gap between him and Justin Thomas is much smaller there.
I can see why. Rahm, as touched upon in my preview, might have the course form and the local ties, not to mention the form and the class and the collection of titles, but I just wonder whether he ran his race at Torrey Pines. Failure to really push Rose there will have stung and while that could spur him on, he exerts a lot of emotional energy and has been busy enough this year.
The real conundrum, though, is Hideki Matsuyama. He’s third-favourite at 12/1, right in from a 50/1 also-ran last week, but it was that top-10 finish at Torrey Pines which many feel will serve as a precursor to his third Phoenix Open title, to go with fourth, second and last year’s enforced withdrawal.
I am not so sure, but it’s easy to say why a player might not win, much harder to argue why they might, so all I need to state is that he wasn’t for me at the prices.
As for market movers, Matsuyama and Phil Mickelson have been strong and the aforementioned Fowler is perhaps surprisingly so, but the others centre around the selections of some of the more prominent tipsters, which can be found below.
Matt Kuchar has, as you’ll see, been popular. He’d have been among the first off my list. That’s not to deride any of the below, all of whom I highly respect; it’s merely to underline that betting on this sport is fabulous.
My selections: Mickelson, Finau, Glover, Stallings, Mullinax
Steve Palmer: Tway, Kokrak, Uihlein
Dave Tindall: Mickelson, Reavie, Baddeley
Niall Lyons: Simpson, Kuchar, Schauffele, Grace, Im, Gooch
Steve Rawlings: Mickelson, Kuchar, Steele, Piercy
Steve Bamford: Thomas, Matsuyama, Champ, Palmer