Matt Cooper stands in for Ben Coley this week and he has four selections for the Wells Fargo Championship.
1.5pts e.w Viktor Hovland at 22/1 (bet365, VBet 1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
1pt e.w. Will Zalatoris at 33/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Emiliano Grillo at 70/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Joel Dahmen at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Tough gig this week, eh? What was originally a straightforward case of doing Ben a favour while he has a paddle in the North Sea had reached George Lazenby/David Moyes/Thabo Mbeki/Jodie Whittaker levels of bloody-big-boots-to-fill by midnight Sunday. Remarkable scenes and wonderful reward for all the hard work, but remember: be kind.
Not least because the Wells Fargo Championship at the Quail Hollow Club has proved something of a rum enigma in the past. Take the last winner there, Max Homa in 2019. In many ways he confirmed to type. He was the fourth course winner in five to top the Par-4 Scoring and, as with the three winners before him, he excelled in both Strokes Gained Putting and Putting Average.
On the other hand, he provided very few clues that he might do such things beforehand. Indeed, he ranked outside the top 100 in the field for Putting Average and Par-4 Scoring, had missed the cut in his only previous course start and had only once finish better than T20th in the 15 starts prior to the win.
And Homa doesn’t even touch the sides when it comes to unexpected winners on this track. James Hahn in 2016? A best finish of T50th in three previous tournament starts and then he triumphed fresh from eight consecutive missed cuts. And even he’s arguably not the toughest call of them all because in 2013 Derek Ernst won without ever having made a top 40 on the PGA Tour – his best professional finish being T38th in the Johor Open on the Asian Tour.
If those latter two results strike fear in the hearts of punters, there is plenty of hope elsewhere because the majority of winners here have possessed a touch of class, something Homa has proved since his triumph here with a second win at Riviera early this season. The other notable factor about winners here is that they tend to be long, an issue Angel Cabrera identified early in the tournament’s life when he said: “It’s a course that let’s me hit driver a lot and for that reason it fits my game well, it’s why I play well here.”
Viewing that situation in reverse, as a short-hitter, Peter Malnati said in 2018, after getting into contention during the first 36 holes: “The course is amazing, but it’s really difficult. I’m not known for my distance off the tee and this is a long course so I had to show off my hybrid prowess today. I was hitting a lot of long shots into the par-4s and even some of the par-3s. A tough test, a really tough test.” The stress on his approach game became too great and he drifted backwards at the weekend.
Like Cabrera, Rory McIlroy has always loved the George Cobb-designed test, even saying in 2019: “I feel like I don't even have to play that good and I can still get it round.” That, of course, is something he might put to the test this week, given that he’s averaged 76.00 in his last five rounds of strokeplay.
The words he used following the third round 61 that set up his second win on the course in 2015 might prompt some to believe that this week’s test is exactly what he needs to kickstart his year: “There's great flow to this golf course. It allows you to get out of your own way and I've got great memories here. I've probably birdied every hole so figure there's no reason why I shouldn't do it again.”
After completing that success he added: “The course sets up perfectly for me. With my length and the way I'm driving it, it's a big advantage around here and it showed.” The question is: has his work with Peter Cowen over the last month addressed the issues that left his spirits look so wretched at Bay Hill, Sawgrass and Augusta National? I expect improvement, and I hope for it too because the game is a better one for a bouncy McIlroy, but I’m cautious of backing him for the win just yet.
I share different wariness over many of the others at the head of the market. Jon Rahm’s still getting to grips with fatherhood, Justin Thomas won THE PLAYERS in style but has been a little groggy converting, Xander Schauffele’s course efforts don’t inspire, Webb Simpson has got close here but is length the difference between that and winning? Bryson DeChambeau is ever-interesting, yet there are enough doubts to swerve.
Instead, I’ll take a two-pronged attack with two youngsters who could complete a breakthrough win – VIKTOR HOVLAND and WILL ZALATORIS. Of course, the first reaction to that thought is that the Norwegian already has two wins, but neither of them were high grade fields. Victory this week would be a statement of intent at elite level and you sense it is coming.
From his second win at the Mayakoba Classic in early December through the halfway stage of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Hovland was little short of superb. On the European Tour he was third in the DP World Tour Championship and sixth in the Saudi International. On the PGA, second at Torrey Pines, fifth at Riviera, second at The Concession (despite a chaotic quadruple eight) and was then third through 36 holes at Bay Hill.
Whereupon everything seemed to catch up with him. He ended that week T49th, missed the cut at Sawgrass and was unconvincing in the Match Play. But T21st at the Masters was better and he finished like a train with a Sunday 65 last week at Innisbrook for third. He can hit the ball long enough to contend here, he putted superbly at Augusta, ranked third for SG Tee to Green last week and eighth for Approach. A big win is in him and it could be this week.
Zalatoris doesn’t need much introduction. Sixth in the US Open last September, second at the Masters last month, seventh at Torrey Pines, T10th at Bay Hill, T15th at Riviera – big tests all of them and he seems to love every second of them. With the exception of Bay Hill they are also all major championship venues, like Quail Hollow (and even Bay Hill is often described as having major conditions).
Why, therefore, should he not thrive again? He doesn’t look like a fellow who might pound the ball long distances, but those looks are deceiving and he can also drain plenty of birdie putts, as he did at Riviera and last time out at Harbour Town.
Final thought about this whizz kid? He’s not a kid any more – in fact he’s newly engaged and flying high on happiness. If he wins this week that’ll be the wedding paid for.
In recent months EMILIANO GRILLO has been playing well and he ought to be excited about returning to Quail Hollow. The Argentine golfer was ninth in this tournament back in 2018, when his tee to green game was outstanding (sixth for SG tee to Green, third for Greens in Regulation) and that quality was to the fore when he was second behind Stewart Cink at Harbour Town in April.
Before that he was eighth behind Hovland in Mexico, posted top 25s at TPC Scottsdale and Bay Hill, T11th in Puerto Rico and sixth in the Dominican Republic. He also got off to a nice start last week (66) before an outlandish 76 saw him miss the cut. That might easily keep expectations realistic and it’s helped keep him under the radar. You wouldn’t want to take him much shorter but the current price is good for a man who has enjoyed the task and has a lot of good rounds under his belt in the last few weeks.
Final selection is JOEL DAHMEN and there is very little clever about the pick: it’s the simple suggestion that a recent winner with excellent course form is too good to miss at the available three figures.
There’s absolutely no doubt that his win in March was both second-grade (the Corales Puntacana Championship when most attention was on the WGC Dell Match Play) and also a bolt from the blue (he hadn’t finished better than T60th in his previous seven starts and was T74th in his only appearance since), but a win is a win.
Moreover, his course form is not fleeting. Had he made one decent finish based on a couple of good rounds I’d have been wary. But he was in the top 25 all week on debut in 2018 when T16th and in the top two all week in 2019 when second behind Homa. He’s also a bigger price this week than he was in 2019 despite now being a winner.
Posted at 2300 BST on 03/05/21
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