The Desert Classic preview and betting tips from Ben Coley

Jon Rahm is this week's defending champion and firmly the man to beat
Jon Rahm is this week's defending champion and firmly the man to beat

Ben Coley has had a winner, runner-up and third already this year and he makes Si Woo Kim the best bet in The Desert Classic.

Recommended bets

1.5pts e.w. Si Woo Kim at 80/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Hudson Swafford at 50/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

0.5pt e.w. Sebastian Munoz at 250/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)

0.5pt e.w. Martin Piller at 250/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

0.5pt e.w. Alex Prugh at 300/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

0.5pt e.w. George Cunningham at 500/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

The Desert Classic represents a first, tentative step back onto the mainland for the PGA Tour for a multi-course pro-am which always struggles to attract the depth most sponsors would desire.

Defending champion Jon Rahm and world number one Justin Rose are the class acts on show this time and while there are a handful of youngsters in this field who could one day join them at the top of the sport, these two are simply much better than the opposition in the here and now. Why, then, are they 15/2 and 10/1 respectively?

Where Rahm is concerned, I can't find a negative. He spoke of his love for the host Stadium Course last year, on which 36 of the 72 holes are played, and compared it to another Pete Dye layout his grew fond of in college. Although he was given a scare by Andrew Landry, Rahm was always bang in the mix after a blistering 62 to open up and having ended 2018 with a win and started 2019 in promising fashion, he's the man to beat.

Rose has more questions to answer. Not only will this be his first appearance of the year, but his first since signing a high-profile deal with Japanese equipment manufacturer Honma, which has to represent a risk. He'll say all the right things, of course, but upheaval always brings forward unknowns and it's something Rose had previously avoided. I don't blame him for capitalising on his status, but in the short-term he's hard to support, particularly in a tournament like this.

Under its various guises, what was the Bob Hope has thrown up all sorts of winners and, with two easy courses, another which is only slightly tricky and pin positions to make things manageable for the celebrities on show, there's no set formula which works here. Broadly speaking, since the Stadium Course was added it's the ball-strikers who thrive under tougher conditions who have come to the fore despite scoring remaining low, but I wouldn't rule out any particular profile.

A prep in Hawaii, though, is definitely advantageous. Rahm, Jason Dufner and Hudson Swafford had all enjoyed a successful pipe-opener, finishing second, ninth and 13th respectively, so favouring those who played either the Tournament of Champions or the Sony Open would be a sensible starting point.

Indeed it's why I'm overlooking Patrick Cantlay, last seen finishing fifth in the Hero Challenge at the start of December. It shouldn't take him long to shake off the rust and he's playing on home turf here in California, but in an event which has more random than most, 20/1 isn't quite big enough to tempt me.

Instead, it's Si Woo Kim who looks an outstanding bet, even allowing for his propensity to frustrate when fancied.

The Korean narrowly missed the cut last week, but I'm hopeful that will have blown away the cobwebs and he's shown many times in the past that taking his last start as a guide to his next one is hardly a reliable policy.

Widening the focus reveals a profile which is extremely compelling and the evidence begins with ninth place here in 2016, at a time when he was not yet a PGA Tour winner and effectively lined up as a rookie.

Back then, he carded a pair of 67s on the Stadium Course, by a good margin the most difficult, and one bogey across those 36 holes is outstanding. He'd also played the course at Qualifying School back in 2012, where he also broke 70 each time, so he has a wealth of positive experience to call upon.

He's since gone on to suggest that he could prove to be a real Pete Dye specialist, too, firstly winning the PLAYERS Championship at Sawgrass before doing everything but when a play-off loser at the RBC Heritage last spring. Eight good rounds at TPC River Highlands further underline that suspicion.

While 2018 was ultimately a year of frustration, he did end it making birdies for fun and putting really well, while the fact he went an entire calendar year without withdrawing from a tournament (five withdrawals in 2017) suggests some concerning injury issues are well and truly behind him.

Looking ahead, he'll be keen to earn a Presidents Cup place and California, where he secured his sole Web.com Tour win in the Stonebrae Classic, looks set to offer up some chances - none more so than here.

The second section of the market, i.e. those separating Kim from the favourites, is distinctly unappealing in the main, although Aaron Wise is tempting at around the 30/1 mark, as a Californian-raised star in the making who has finished 34th and 17th in two starts here.

Wise was in last year's staking plan at 150/1 and the shift in price is explained by the fact he enjoyed a superb season, culminating in being named rookie of the year, but I just wanted to see a little more from him in the Tournament of Champions and he's left out as a result.

The likes of Adam Hadwin, Andrew Putnam and Abraham Ancer are of course solid, particularly the former, but when they're trading at around the 28/1 mark it tells you something about the event: in this case, that there is scope for some surprise names in the top six or seven.

We'll come to some potential candidates shortly, but first I see no reason why Hudson Swafford can't go close to doubling his PGA Tour tally in the event which gave him his breakthrough.

A self-confessed Dye fan, Swafford was excellent here in 2017 and while he's not really kicked on since, he arrives this time following a near identical preparation, that being a prolonged run of cuts made followed by a contending week in the Sony Open.

Third place behind Matt Kuchar was an ideal way to start the year and, as Swafford explained, it was also an ideal way to start the next chapter in his life.

"New father, so life couldn't get much better," he said. "So it's great. Great to start the year like this. Did some good stuff over the holidays with my coach and swing is feeling good. Everything is feeling good."

As well as winning, Swafford was 25th here in 2014, significantly another result which came on the back of a big Sony Open performance, and 29th place as defending champion was an excellent effort - especially so given that it took until July for him to bag a first top-20 of the year.

There's no doubt he's back to his best now and this event, which can be forgiving to those who don't scramble well, comes at an ideal time.

Swafford's lookalike and close friend Harris English is worth a closer look and he'll feature in my eve-of-the-tournament preview on Wednesday, while California's Beau Hossler is another who I put up at a massive price in this last year and could go well on his return.

Hossler is a third of the price of 12 months ago but quite rightly so, however it's again that lack of a recent outing which might ultimately find him out.

Instead, take anything 200/1 and upwards about Sebastian Munoz on the back of 10th place in the Sony Open.

There's not much more to the case, except to say that this dynamite putter has shown in just a handful of opportunities that, while unreliable, he has what it takes to contend at this sort of level.

In the summer of 2017, he was distinctly unfortunate to bump into Xander Schauffele in the Greenbrier Classic and having wasted no time in winning on the Web.com Tour before that - on home soil no less - the Colombian has a bit about him.

He did play this event in 2017 and was out of it on day one, but it was his third start on the PGA Tour, his first of the year, and 13 birdies over the three rounds at least hints that he can do some damage if learning from his mistakes.

Ultimately, though, this isn't so much a case of course suitability or anything else. In what is still something of a shootout, riding the hot hand with an in-form player who also happens to be among the best putters in the field, at 250/1 in places, is a simple decision to make.

Others who caught the eye in the Sony Open include Sungjae Im and Carlos Ortiz, the latter in particular at the prices, but the other runner who did enough to merit inclusion here was Alex Prugh.

As readers with long memories may recall, I've written about Prugh and his west coast form before. Ultimately, the Seattle man has proven so much more effective during this portion of the season than the rest and it can be traced right back to his rookie season, where all four top-10s came in California.

The first of them was fifth place in this event, which was then played over 90 holes and saw him lead after both 54 and 72 before the occasion proved a little too much for him on Sunday.

More recently he's been down on the Web.com Tour, and again it's in California that he proved most reliable, finishing fifth, 20th and fourth at TPC Stonebrae, where last August he carded a round of 60.

Back on the PGA Tour, he'll know the time is now if he's to keep hold of his status and for much of the Safeway Open, played in Napa at the start of the season, he looked like securing another big cheque. Prugh was fourth after round one, eight at halfway and ninth with a round to go, before a poor Sunday saw him fall to 33rd.

Last week he produced back-to-back rounds of 65 across Friday and Saturday, climbing 100 places on the leaderboard in the process, and despite a negative figure on Sunday he ranked an excellent 15th in strokes-gained approach.

A repeat of that should ensure plenty of opportunities for this huge hitter, whose father and PGA professional says is putting better than ever, all of which combines to make him an interesting contender having found renewed focus since moving back to Spokane.

Nick Watney went 30 holes without a bogey on the Stadium Course last year and produced some excellent golf when last seen, so here's another west coast man to keep an eye on, but I'll sign off with two more at monster prices who could go well.

First, Martin Piller is a big fan of the Stadium Course and it has showed - since it was included in this event, he's finished 24th and third, during which time he's averaged an excellent 68.25 around the tougher track.

"Yeah, well I like the Stadium," he said last year. "I usually play well there. I played a bunch of Q-Schools there, just like I think a lot of guys in the field have, so I feel pretty comfortable on that course and I've always played it pretty well, so it suits my eye and I always like Pete Dye courses."

La Quinta had previously been his stumbling block but he played just fine there, too, and nobody in the field bettered his tally of 28 birdies as he finished just two shots behind Rahm.

Twelve months on and he's not really progressed, but a pair of 65s when last seen at the RSM Classic offer enough encouragement and at 250/1 there isn't quite the same need to get hung up on his lack of a recent spin - especially seeing as he can get plenty of competitive match practice at home with wife Gerina, an LPGA Tour player.

Piller has won six times on the Web.com Tour, four of those in scores ranging from 22- to 28-under, and he's worth a small bet.

Finally, George Cunningham could surprise a few and at least threaten the places.

Playing on an invite here, the 23-year-old has so far taken advantage of such opportunities with 29th place in a high-class Canadian Open won by Dustin Johnson, and 36th place in the Shriners won by Bryson DeChambeau.

After the latter he went to Japan for the competitive Dunlop Phoenix, where he finished one shot behind Brooks Koepka in 13th place, and whatever happens here he's one to keep a very close eye on when teeing it up on the Web.com Tour this year.

Cunningham won on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada in just his third start as a pro and has played well on a consistent basis since, while his maturity - he was a father at 19 and says it's helped him already in his burgeoning career - means he might be ahead of the curve when it comes to PGA Tour readiness.

It's hard to really set expectations here, which explains why he's as short as 110/1 in a place but 500/1 with several firms. Still, there's no downside to taking the upper end of the prices as he really could be anything and he'll have plenty of support.

Posted at 1250 GMT on 15/01/19

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