1.5pts e.w. Tommy Fleetwood at 40/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Will Zalatoris at 45/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Christaan Bezuidenhout at 80/1 (bet365, Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Ian Poulter at 110/1 (bet365, Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Alex Noren at 125/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Will Gordon at 200/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
The absence of Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas coupled with the return to a happy hunting ground means Rory McIlroy is back at the top of the market for this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, and it will be fascinating to see how the world number eight (8!) goes over the fortnight to come.
McIlroy, who won here courtesy of a dazzling putting display in 2018, either means business or has an old calendar hanging on the wall or something else altogether, as in turning up at Bay Hill he effectively breaks one of his scheduling rules: don't play four in a row. Next week, at the PLAYERS, that's exactly what he'll do for just the third time since 2015, both in the interim having ended with obligations, whether collecting his cheque at the Omega European Masters, or hosting the Irish Open. Not since 2014 has he played a world-class tournament at the end of a four-week stretch.
For all the success he's enjoyed at Bay Hill down the years, however close it is to home, it's a little surprising that he's here and perhaps we'll find out the logic when he fulfils his media obligations. It's tempting to think that he's confident of contending, which he should be, at a course where his form figures read 11-27-4-1-6-5. Some will wonder whether he feels he's still short of where he needs to be ahead of the PLAYERS, which he's in effect defending after the 2020 edition was aborted.
Having put him up in Phoenix, at Riviera and again last week in the WGC Workday Championship, it would be fair to say that whatever the reasoning, I expect McIlroy to go well. Throughout this run there have been positives, and the specifics of his performance last week – second in birdies, strong through the bag, welcome putter switch, improvement for return to Florida – are hugely encouraging. As I type, the last of the 9/1 is beginning to disappear, and had it been available across the board he would have gone in as a win-only selection one more time.
But it is going, and I couldn't recommend taking any shorter, so I'll turn to TOMMY FLEETWOOD to win his first PGA Tour event at a price we seldom see, that 40/1 well worth taking at a course he too appears to adore.
Fleetwood was 10th on his debut here in 2017, right at the beginning of his climb towards the world's top 10, and there was plenty to like about 26th the following year and third place in 2019. On the latter occasion, he put on a ball-striking clinic to lead at halfway, suffered a nightmare third round in tough conditions, then rallied for third place behind Ryder Cup partner Francesco Molinari.
One bad round has been the way of things over these last few months, too, particularly throughout a frustrating Middle East run on the European Tour. As you'd expect, he entered events in Dubai (x3) and Abu Dhabi (x1) as one of the favourites and was bang in the mix in all four, only to shoot over-par third rounds in three of them, and labour to a final-round 73 in the fourth.
Perhaps that tells us something isn't quite right, and he did begin 2021 working with TaylorMade to get his bag where he wants it having become a full-time staffer. Evidence for this theory was provided last week when he finished 44th in the WGC Workday Championship, the same event – albeit at a very different location – where he was runner-up before his Bay Hill debut four years ago.
That being said, it's not a lot of golf to go on and I think the gap between him and Tyrrell Hatton in the market is probably too wide now, and the same goes for Matt Fitzpatrick. This pair have excellent course credentials, not least defending champion Hatton, who is tempting here at 16/1. He's successfully defended a title before, he's become pretty prolific, and it was only a career-worst set of around-the-green stats which undermined some quality golf last week.
But Fleetwood, who hit 16 of 18 greens in round one only to drop three shots on the two he missed, is really not that far behind him. I'm encouraged by the fact his strokes-gained ball-striking stats were at their strongest over the weekend, and form at The Concession might not be all that reliable anyway given the idiosyncratic nature of what was a completely new course to just about everyone.
If you take the view that the Fleetwood we have before us is not so very far from the one who led the way among English golfers a year ago, his strong record in Florida (five top-10 finishes in nine starts during this traditional Florida swing) and fondness for a course where friends of his own a property makes 40/1 with eight places in a field which is decidedly top-heavy look seriously tempting.
Last year's missed cut is easily excused as it came days after he'd found water on the final hole to narrowly miss out on winning the Honda Classic, and in previous years he'd shown how well this course sets up for him off the tee. It shares certain similarities with several venues where he's enjoyed success – others in Florida, but also the exposed, water-laden challenges of Le Golf National and Abu Dhabi – and he can get back down to business.
All being well, come Sunday night there would surely be nobody better to don the red cardigan awarded to champions here, in honour of the great Arnold Palmer. Fleetwood is more than capable.
One notable feature of this tournament has been its international flavour, something we see much more in Florida than we do on the west coast. Partly, this is a weights-and-measure exercise – there are more European players in these events, and this week's market is dominated by them. Nevertheless I also believe the courses in Florida, exposed and penal, tend to suit those who've grown up battling a breeze in the UK or Scandinavia or even in South Africa.
I wonder then whether former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen might build on a hit-and-miss record here, which includes a top-10 finish back in 2015 but some modest stuff too. I'm certain he'll draw some inspiration from the popular, emotional victory of Presidents Cup partner Branden Grace in Puerto Rico, and Oosthuizen has been playing superb golf for a long time now with all parts of his game firing.
My worry is he has a loose one in him, which is a far greater problem than the putter which has become a strength, and for that reason he's overlooked in favour of one of the brightest young talents in the world.
WILL ZALATORIS is the player in question and while California born and bred, he would be a fitting champion here having played on an Arnold Palmer scholarship at Wake Forest, where Palmer graduated many decades ago.
It took a while after he left school for Zalatoris to really blossom, but he's done so over the last year to dominate on the Korn Ferry Tour, place in the US Open, earn himself a PGA Tour card in double-quick time and produce quality golf, week after week, as a rookie on the circuit.
So rapid has been his ascent that, at 47 in the world, Zalatoris is on the verge of securing a Masters invite to add to last week's WGC debut, where he finished 22nd despite a double-bogey at the last, and a stone-cold putter throughout the tournament.
It's a bit of a concern that having been holing plenty on poa annua greens back home in California, suddenly last week he was suffering again, but there can be no more stark reminder than the exploits of Collin Morikawa that putting comes and goes. We can try and stay ahead of the curve, but generally speaking it pays to focus on more tangible, predictive elements, such as the world-class tee-to-green game he continues to display.
Bay Hill is a stock par 72 with four reachable par-fives, which often determine the outcome of the event – although Morikawa played them in 13-under last year, yet was 14-over for the rest and out of contention as a result. That digression aside, Zalatoris eats the longer holes alive and there's no reason I can see that he won't find this challenge to his liking, his approach play sure to set up plenty of opportunities.
There have been bumps in the road at what's still the beginning of his PGA Tour journey, but down in grade from last week we only need to see something a little better on the greens for a strong performance. And having witnessed another impressive victory from a 24-year-old former Walker Cup teammate, Zalatoris should be in no doubt that he's already capable of winning an event like this one.
Although the very front of this market is strong, the field soon begins to thin out and anything 40/1 and upwards about one of golf's most exciting players is considered good value.
Zalatoris plays a lot of golf in Texas with Jordan Spieth, who along with former champion Molinari is seeking to underline his resurgence here. Spieth makes his course debut on the back of three successive top-15 finishes, two of them from the final group on Sunday, and if he's made any further improvements in the interim he of course could go well. Molinari meanwhile looks ready to contend properly, and where better than the scene of his imperious win two years ago.
That being said neither appealed at the prices, and with Justin Rose having taken a backwards step last week and Sam Burns perhaps liable to bounce, you have to go a long way down the market to find others on my shortlist.
First, I'll reiterate the case for IAN POULTER, who is seeking to do something he's achieved three times before and win to earn a return to the world's top 50.
Although a shade disappointing under ideal conditions last week, Poulter produced four under-par rounds in Puerto Rico to take his run to nine in total and build on 18th place in Saudi Arabia, which is about as far down the leaderboard as he felt he could possibly have finished given the way he struck the ball at times.
Doubtless prone to getting carried away, there was nevertheless a feeling that the Ryder Cup stalwart has his game in the required shape to make a push for a place on Padraig Harrington's team, which won't be easily earned. It's hard to imagine him featuring if he is this far down the world rankings, and the events to come in Florida are probably his best chance to all but take care of business in just four rounds.
Here at Bay Hill, close to his long-time Florida base, Poulter has made every cut since 2011, including when finishing close behind Tiger Woods a year later. He's been hanging around on the fringes of contention almost every year since and all this without lighting up the greens in the way he did back in 2008. Instead, his success has been built on some really strong approach play figures and Bay Hill, which is in essence a positional golf course, definitely suits him.
"I can compete against I think against the big boys around the place," he said a couple of years ago and having threatened to win this, the Honda and the PLAYERS, I can't bring myself to ditch him after one modest week.
Matt NeSmith and Emiliano Grillo are two sweet-swinging ball-strikers who are entitled to respect at similar odds, but I'm keen to add another European to the team in the shape of ALEX NOREN.
Like both Fleetwood and Poulter, he's another member of the successful Paris team with a bit of work to do to if he's to play at Whistling Straits, and 12th place at Riviera last time was a really encouraging step forward on his previous three starts in 2021.
Noren has in fact been playing some sneakily good golf for a while, but the missing ingredient has been his ball-striking, and without improvements in that department I tend to be a little sceptical. However, we definitely saw them at Riviera, where he produced his best strokes-gained ball-striking stats since January 2020, and when his iron play is firing he can be deadly at the right course.
Although yet to show it here, Noren's form ties in nicely with Fleetwood, Hatton, Molinari and McIlroy. The latter trio have all won at Wentworth, where dealing with a swirling breeze is vital, and like Fleetwood he's a winner at Sun City and Le Golf National, the latter where Molinari made history in the Ryder Cup.
Victories in these high-profile events on the European Tour confirm Noren is a world-class player at his best and this notoriously hard worker might just be able to build on a big step forward in California.
Returning to Florida, where he's based, is a positive as he's played well in the Honda (third) and the PLAYERS (10th and 17th). Bay Hill should be no less suitable and he's well worth chancing at three-figure prices.
At just slightly shorter, CHRISTIAAN BEZUIDENHOUT sneaks in under the radar and could be the one to make it back-to-back South African winners if Grace's victory does give them all a little bump.
Bezuidenhout is up to 37th in the world now after back-to-back wins of his own doing late in 2020, and the next task is to carry his form over to the PGA Tour, where so far he's shown promise without threatening to contend.
This week, he gets his first crack at a course he's seen before, and not only that his share of 18th in the 2020 edition is his best result yet. Clearly, he took to Bay Hill despite revealing that he did feel nervous on what was his debut in the USA, having played nicely in the World Golf Championship down in Mexico a week earlier.
Fast forward a year and in finishing 32nd at The Concession, he suggested he could be ready to put rare experience to use at a venue where his lack of firepower off the tee isn't much of a worry. To do so he'll need to improve his iron play but that strikes me as possible, especially as he'd been very good in a couple of Middle East events which don't really suit his game to kick off the year.
Bezuidenhout is at his best when conditions are tricky, when there's some breeze around, and when his dynamite short-game is a factor. That looks to be the case at Bay Hill, where winners have generally ranked high in scrambling, for all that the wind forecast this week is nothing compared to the brutal conditions of Hatton's renewal.
It was those conditions which found out Bezuidenhout in the end, nevertheless it remains his most promising effort on this side of the Atlantic. Last week's wasn't far behind and I quite like him to bag his first top-10 finish here.
Kyle Stanley is playing really well, and having won here as a junior and played nicely on three occasions as a professional, he's respected. A two-time PGA Tour winner who has been held back by the putter, even that club has behaved itself at Bay Hill for the most part and it's easy to see him being somewhere close to the leaders once more.
CT Pan may improve on what he's done here in the past and Steve Stricker is surely due respect having been fourth on his last PGA Tour start before third place on the Champions Tour last week, but I'll finish off at the other end of the experience scale with another youngster who should feel ready to win.
WILL GORDON showed us what he can do when contending for the Travelers last summer, an event won by Dustin Johnson, and this powerful driver has been right in the mix at the halfway stage of both the Farmers Insurance Open and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am recently.
It was only a slow start which kept him out of things in Puerto Rico, where he shot 69-67 over the weekend and ranked first in ball-striking, having been long and straight off the tee and hit 75 percent of greens in regulation.
All in all, while his finishing positions don't scream winner-in-waiting I don't think he's all that far away from putting four rounds together, and having been born and raised in North Carolina there's probably some potential for improvement now he's back on the east coast.
Gordon won a couple of big amateur titles in Florida during his time studying in Tennessee, and says he's learned plenty about managing his game thanks to the help of Webb Simpson back home in Charlotte.
Hopefully, he's wise enough to choose his moments here at Bay Hill, where he's more than capable of taking care of the par-fives and hauling himself into contention again as a result.
Posted at 2020 GMT on 01/03/21
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