Jon Rahm is the star attraction at the Fortinet Championship, where Ben Coley is taking him on with the newly-crowned PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
3pts e.w. Will Zalatoris at 28/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Chez Reavie at 66/1 (Sky Bet, Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Doug Ghim at 70/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Taylor Pendrith at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Sepp Straka at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
0.5pt e.w. Andrew Landry at 250/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Golf fans don't agree on much, as evidenced by the outcry that *checks notes* Ian Poulter got selected for the Ryder Cup ahead of Justin Rose. But they appear to agree on it being a little odd that Jon Rahm plays in the Fortinet Championship. Twenty-three of the 24 team members are taking this week off. Number 24, or should that be number one, is instead taking part in the PGA Tour's low-key season opener.
I was in agreement at first, but having seen the US team minus Brooks Koepka spend Sunday and Monday at Whistling Straits, I'm coming to the view that Rahm's way might be better. As Ryder Cup stalwart Lee Westwood said last week, the event is exhausting. It begins in effect on Monday, but players have to wait until Friday to get going. Imagine being a rookie like Harris English, and containing your excitement, when you are on the grounds almost two full weeks before the competition begins.
There's certainly a risk of over-preparing and it's worth noting that in 2016 and 2018, the TOUR Championship took place a week before the Ryder Cup, and featured players from both sides. In 2014, Jamie Donaldson warmed up for his famous debut with a top-five finish at Celtic Manor. Delaying the switch to Ryder Cup mode might be a stroke of genius on the part of Europe's most important player.
Nevertheless, full focus on four days in California might be asking a bit much, and bookmakers are giving nothing away for that element of doubt. Rahm is a 9/2 shot, as short as I recall him being on the PGA Tour, and while he's almost bound to play well, what if he starts slowly? Is there a chance, however small, that he's here for reasons unrelated to the pursuit of trophies, and a rare missed cut wouldn't bother him in the slightest?
We don't know precisely his motivation, but we do know he takes out a big chunk of the market, and at 14/1 and 22/1 there's no need to dwell on whether Webb Simpson or Kevin Na might follow Billy Horschel's lead, either. Horschel used his Ryder Cup rejection as motivation to win at Wentworth, but this doesn't look a great course for Simpson (MC-MC-17), and Na doesn't look particularly good value.
The next three names in the betting are Hideki Matsuyama, WILL ZALATORIS and Cameron Tringale and without being rude to the latter, who arrives on the back of his best ever season, that tells you there's a drop-off from player five to six. It's a pretty steep one in terms of stature, but not so in the market, and Zalatoris looks a knocking bet.
Second in the Masters back in the spring having been in the top 10 at the US Open this time last year, the rise of Zalatoris was one of the stories of the season, cut short by misfortune and mismanagement. The youngster was cruelly injured during an otherwise good start to the Open, before he was denied the chance to feature in the FedEx Cup Playoffs due to a system so rigid and lacking in foresight that it made things worse for everyone.
Interestingly, the fact Zalatoris was not deemed a full PGA Tour member didn't stop them naming him PGA Tour Rookie of the Year at the beginning of the week. At least we can now draw a line under things at the Fortinet Championship which, somehow, will effectively be his debut as a cardholder, and Zalatoris can play wherever he's good enough to play. Everywhere, in other words.
Silverado, hosting for the eighth year in succession, looks an ideal fit ahead of his course debut. Tight in places and tree-lined, once upon a time it looked a course for accuracy over power (see Na's play-off defeat to Emiliano Grillo), but wins for Brendan Steele (x2), Kevin Tway, Cameron Champ and Stewart Cink say otherwise.
Steele has for a decade now been one of the best drivers on the PGA Tour. Champ is pound-for-pound the longest, right up there with DeChambeau, and while Cink is closing on 50, do not mistake him for a short hitter. Tway meanwhile made a promising start on the circuit largely because of what he does off the tee and while the stats tell you all of them scrambled well to win, we learn more about what's required in recognising the type of player that they are.
The play-off between Na and Grillo also helps inform decisions, because both lost strokes with the putter. That's pretty remarkable, and it would be fair to say no champion at this course is renowned for what they do on the greens. None of this is to say that poor putting will do, Cink having ranked just outside the top 10, but the fact two of the last four winners led in strokes-gained off the tee is more informative.
It also helps make the case for Zalatoris, who was 31st in strokes-gained off-the-tee last season and won't mind a course where everyone is going to miss fairways. That's when his power becomes all the more beneficial and nobody in this field, not Rahm, not Matsuyama, was better with their approach shots over the season just gone.
Putting from close range is clearly a big problem he's going to have to solve if he's to make the absolute most of his talent, but he's been making up for it from range and it's not likely to keep him from winning. Here in his home state of California, he can follow the lead of Champ and Steele and land a popular local victory even if he does now live in Texas.
Powerful driving equals good driving in this day and age, but there's room for shorter hitters at this course if they can keep finding those tight, firm fairways and gain strokes that way, and I'm hopeful both CHEZ REAVIE and DOUG GHIM can do exactly that.
Reavie boasts a fabulous course record. Seven times he's played here, seven times he's made the cut, and having found form following the PGA Championship in May this looks the ideal way to kickstart the new season.
His record here is enough to tell you all you need to know about him, as he's often been away from the heat of battle because his putter hasn't behaved. In fact in five of his last six visits he's ranked inside the top 10 in strokes-gained approach, which says so much about how comfortable he is taking aim at Silverado's greens, usually from the fairway.
Last year a decent putting performance saw him finish third and if we are going to get a good one, the bentgrass and poa annua blend you often find in these parts is probably best. Both of Reavie's PGA Tour wins came under similar conditions, as did his standout third place in the 2019 US Open behind Gary Woodland, and whereas over the course of his career he's lost strokes putting, on poa annua he's around about average.
Reavie has made eight of his last 10 cuts, missing one of them by a shot, and now returns to the scene of his sole top-10 finish last season. There's every chance he's once again in the mix and given the shape of the market, he looks good value to land the place money at least.
Ghim is developing a similar reputation and there's no doubt we run the risk of a frustrating few days watching opportunities slide by.
However, he putted well here last year to be 14th and went on to establish himself as a highly promising PGA Tour maiden, not least when in the mix in The PLAYERS. By the end of the season he ranked 45th in strokes-gained off the tee, 21st in approaches and 21st in tee-to-green, and as far as old-fashioned ball-striking goes he hits fairways and greens for fun.
Given that it was driver which held him back on his debut at Silverado, I'm hopeful he can find improvement there and while the putter may let him down, it's notable that in these early stages of his career he's gaining strokes on poa annua. That may change, but it's encouraging and explains why he played so well in California during his second season, with finishes of 14-5-37-21-MC, latterly on the number at Riviera.
Speaking of Riviera, it's long been considered a good guide to Silverado and Ghim was second in the US Amateur there four years ago. That was partly why I put him up for this in 2020 and while a much shorter price now, that's merited. He'd just finished 184th on the FedEx Cup back then, and this time signed off in 83rd.
Certainly capable of winning this season if the cards fall right, Ghim is preferred to Californian rookie Sahith Theegala, who is bang in-form and looks to have the world at his feet, but is yet to demonstrate the same level of ball-striking at this level and in fact led the field in putting to share 14th with the selection 12 months ago.
Theegala, Alex Smalley, Davis Riley and Nick Hardy are among the names to watch out for as we at last welcome a new batch of Korn Ferry Tour graduates to the top table, but this assignment looks made for TAYLOR PENDRITH and he's preferred for now.
The Canadian is second only to Champ when it comes to raw power in this field and unlike some of his contemporaries, we've seen what it can do. He led the field in strokes-gained off the tee on his penultimate PGA Tour start in the Barbasol (11th), and after that seemingly drove the ball to a similar standard when 13th in the Barracuda.
Having been 23rd in the US Open a year ago, this time fourth off the tee in world-class company, Pendrith can do serious damage under the right conditions and he may well have them here. As a Canadian, poa annua greens are familiar and he's been close for a long time on the Korn Ferry Tour, where his last missed cut was in April.
He has the benefit of having played these couple of PGA Tour events, which some fellow rookies do not, and the latest of them came here in California just last month, when he sat fourth with a round to go. Whether he's ready to win perhaps we'll find out, but he has the tools go out and produce a field-leading performance with driver and that's been decisive in this twice in the last four years.
Joseph Bramlett is a Californian with power at his disposal and finally won his first tour-level title last time out in the Korn Ferry Tour Championship. Grillo won that event before doubling up here, and we've seen something similar happen in Europe, but for all the positives he's pretty exposed at this level and an injection of confidence may not be enough.
We know already that Mito Pereira is capable and a break should've done him good after seven weeks in succession, during which he contended for a medal in Japan. However, at a bigger price I'll side with the proven course form of SEPP STRAKA instead as it's been a nice, easy guide here over the years.
Like Pereira, Straka played really well in the Olympics (10th) and he backed it up with 15th place in the Wyndham Championship. A missed cut followed in The Northern Trust, but Liberty National is quirky and difficult and it's no surprise he was found out by it as he had been on his first visit two years earlier.
Crucially, Straka's approach play there was as good if not better as it had been in his previous two outings. He ranked fourth in Tokyo, among several of the world's best, and 11th in the Wyndham, before in fact producing marginally better figures in New Jersey only to suffer that early (and narrow) exit.
Having also been putting well in general, suddenly his form looks better than seven missed cuts in 10 might imply, and the rounds of 63 and 64 he's produced lately suggest he's ready to put everything together.
Straka shot 63 on his first look at Silverado before fading, missed the cut by a shot next time and was 14th last year despite a slow start, so the course looks a good fit. He's long, gains strokes off the tee and with his approaches, and his weakness around-the-greens isn't too much of a concern if he can bring his best ball-striking game with him to California, where he went close last season.
Brandon Hagy is another big-hitting local like Bramlett and I'm a fan of his, but shoddy approach work is too often his undoing and it has been in four poor efforts here. He's arriving off his best season yet but his flaws were in evidence during the Playoffs and I'll put forward ANDREW LANDRY as the final selection instead.
Landry hasn't been at his best but he hasn't had to be before winning in the past. In fact his 2020 victory at The American Express here in California came after a run of five missed cuts, his Texas Open win came at similar odds to those available now for similar reasons, and he was fourth in the RSM Classic last season having done nothing for a while beforehand.
Far from the longest but a good driver at his best, Landry is very much a horses-for-courses player, hence that was his second top-five in the RSM, and he'd previously lost a play-off to Rahm in the AmEx. As such, the fact he's made all three cuts here, finishing seventh on debut and 23rd when out of sorts in 2019, bodes particularly well.
Then there's the fact his first win came at TPC San Antonio, which for reasons unclear has always been a good guide to this. Steele has won his three PGA Tour titles across these two courses, Tway was third in Texas before he broke through here, and shock San Antonio winner Steven Bowditch had been runner-up at Silverado in 2014.
There are plenty of others who help strengthen ties between the two, Landry included, and having carded a pair of 65s on his last start this proven winner could spring yet another surprise. He's preferred to Trey Mullinax, a big-hitter he beat that day, but there's no denying there are myriad options here at big prices, against a short-priced favourite who looks there to take on.
Posted at 1100 BST on 14/09/21
We are committed in our support of safer gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline / GamCare on 0808 8020 133.