3pts win Ian Poulter at 16/1 (General, 20+ available on exchanges)
2pts win Branden Grace at 20/1 (General)
1pt e.w. Kramer Hickok at 55/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Bronson Burgoon at 55/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Anirban Lahiri at 70/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Michael Kim at 275/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
It's difficult to know where to start with the Puerto Rico Open, a staple of the PGA Tour's 'opposite' schedule – a term used to cover all tournaments which take place alongside a WGC or major. Always, fields are eclectic, but the 2021 edition feels especially so, a mixture of Ryder Cup hopefuls, Korn Ferry standouts, and veterans that at first appears really hard to unpick.
Generally speaking, it has paid to think creatively and there have been winners at enormous prices here, like Martin Trainer, DA Points and Alex Cejka, just as there have in Bermuda (Brian Gay, Brendon Todd) and in the Dominican Republic, where Hudson Swafford found something from nothing last year. So often, these surprise winners have a degree of back-class which should always entitle a player to respect, but they've nevertheless been hard to find.
Last year reminded us that when a world-class player does show up, they have to be taken seriously. Despite plainly struggling with his short-game under pressure, Viktor Hovland holed an excellent birdie putt on the final hole to beat journeyman Josh Teater in the sort of finish which adds to the charm. Wind back further and Jordan Spieth and Jason Day both finished runner-up early in their careers, while Puerto Rico is, infamously, the scene of Tony Finau's sole PGA Tour victory to date.
There is no one-size fits all policy but I do think it's important to clear the mental hurdle which says the best players in the field are underpriced, because the more I look at this field, the less accurate I think that is. Around 12th in the betting is Ollie Schniederjans, who doesn't have a PGA Tour card and only crept inside the world's top 300 on Monday. The gap between him and Matt Wallace or Thomas Pieters is, for now, actually quite significant.
That's why I am going to begin by siding with two from the very top of the betting, and it's IAN POULTER and BRANDEN GRACE who look the best options.
Although Grace was the first name onto my shortlist, it's Poulter who I've particularly warmed to and he really should get into the mix here, with the consistent breeze which is forecast set to strengthen his claims while perhaps working against some of the younger, raw talents in the field who I will come to later.
Poulter was third here in 2016, missing the play-off won by Finau by a single shot, and when returning a year later said: "It's a good course. It sets up well for me in the wind. If we get decent wind over the four days, I'll be pretty happy with that."
Although he'd go on to miss the cut that week, he was in really poor form at the time following some fitness issues, but it wasn't long after that he found something out of nothing to finish second in the PLAYERS Championship. At the time, Poulter needed that to keep hold of his card, and it's when his back is against the wall that he's at his most dangerous.
Right now, he's 58th in the world and, in a Ryder Cup year, a long way down the qualification standings. He is far from certain to be part of Padraig Harrington's team, and while in three of the four majors plus the PLAYERS, he'll know that returning to the top 50 remains vitally important so that he can be in the WGCs like the one he's missing in Florida, where several potential rivals for a spot will pick up cheap world ranking points.
Poulter has won a good number of tournaments – 15 in total, dating back to 2000 – but it strikes me as interesting that three of them came when just on the fringes of the top 50, in a Ryder Cup year. That happened in 2004 (55th), 2006 (53rd) and as recently as 2018, when he needed to win the Houston Open to qualify for the following week's Masters, and entered Ryder Cup mode to cruelly deny Beau Hossler.
The fact that he's here in Puerto Rico tells us all we need to know about his motivation to conjure something similar, and while I felt he exaggerated just a little in Saudi Arabia last time we saw him (T18), what's clear is that he left that event fuming that he wasn't much closer to Dustin Johnson at the top of the leaderboard.
"Well, I can't play better golf; you can't put it in a position to have 11 to birdie inside 20 feet and most of those were comfortably inside 20 feet," he said on Saturday.
"I can't really do more than I'm doing. It's just really annoying. I was in a position to make the cut last week and to shoot five-under on the back nine and to miss a three-foot putt to make the cut and I shouldn't be in that position, either. It's annoying. You catch me right after a round of golf, and I could smash the living daylight of everything right now.
"But that's golf. It's a great game. I'm trying to push to get back inside the top 50 in the world rankings. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well, and I haven't performed well the last two weeks and I put myself in a position to perform great this week and I'm missing some chances. Just keep doing what I'm doing and maybe tomorrow they will go in."
All of this makes it an ideal time to get Poulter on-side and, while seeing him as favourite to win on the PGA Tour at first appears odd, the reality is he's one of the most capable players in the field however you dress it. He also brings that course form to the table, an event during which his tee-to-green game was outstanding, and his wider, correlating form at Bay Hill in particular is excellent.
The forecast wind is a key part of my reasoning for the top two selections in particular, and it's why I've cooled on the chances of Justin Suh and Brandon Wu. It's not that I'm assuming every young player is befuddled by a bit of breeze but such conditions do lend an edge to experience, and are enough on this occasion. Wu does have strong Pebble Beach form, which is a great pointer, while Suh's embryonic stats put him as the best player in the field by some measures. He has an extremely bright future and 50/1 is on the generous side regardless, but it's also a fragile price and I wouldn't want to take much shorter.
Speaking of Pebble Beach, it stands out along with Bay Hill as probably the best form guide we have and the closer you look, the more compelling those links between them become. Hovland was just the latest example and not the most relevant, having won the US Amateur at Pebble. Far more interesting is the fact that six of the last seven winners here finished between 10th and 38th in the tournament played there weeks earlier, which given the changes in field is extraordinary. It would be all seven had Steve Marino won the play-off with Finau.
Beyond that, Ted Potter, Nick Taylor, Vaughn Taylor, DA Points (won both), Alex Cejka, Chesson Hadley and a handful of others have won one of the two events and gone really well in the other, so there are few better starting points than the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am which took place a fortnight ago.
There are 11 players who finished in that arbitrary 10th-38th window and another 10 who made the cut, and among them Grace stands out.
His record at Pebble Beach now includes three finishes from 20th to 34th in his four appearances in the AT&T, and it stands to reason that he'd go well there: his sole PGA Tour win came by the coast at Harbour Town, after he'd firmly established himself as one of the very best seaside players on the European Tour.
Grace's effort at Pebble Beach followed on from an encouraging end to 2020, and was his return to action following the death of his father. To his credit, the South African has managed to build on the promise of eighth in Dubai and there was so much to like about his performance in the deeper waters of Riviera last week, where his approach play was as good as it has been for a year and 20th place represents one of the strongest pieces of form in this field.
Anything like that sort of performance and he should be in the mix on his debut at a course which is defined by conditions. Those we're forecast this week play right into his hands and again, while 20/1 might look skinny, look at the names of those who are 25/1 and 33/1 and 50/1 and you might conclude that Grace is on another level to most of them when somewhere near his best.
After these two, it gets complicated. Assessing the promise of these Korn Ferry Tour players, among whom Schniederjans does appear a viable option for all he's a short enough price, is difficult. But while these circumstances are unique (Wu and others would have PGA Tour cards in a normal year), it's a rare thing to win an event at this level without being a full member, and that's a barrier Wu, Suh and the rest will have to cross.
Instead, I prefer those who are on the other side of the coin and remain with cards in their pockets, with BRONSON BURGOON next.
This sweet-swinging Texan hasn't quite fulfilled his potential, having been a top-20 amateur little more than a decade ago – although it shouldn't be underestimated how difficult it is to go from there to the PGA Tour and stay put. Burgoon has just about managed to do so and since turning the corner in the RSM Classic last year, where he contended throughout the weekend, there's been a lot to like about his game.
Speaking after a second-round 63 at Sea Island, he explained that things were looking up, telling reporters: "So for the last six, seven months it's been pretty frustrating, but I'm working towards something and I felt it in Vegas coming along. Even though I missed my last couple cuts, but I've had some nice moments and yeah, it's good. I'm looking forward to the rest of the year, next year."
Since then, he's made three cuts in five starts but note that the two exceptions saw him miss by a single stroke. That makes for a strong body of work and, for the third time in as many visits, he played well at Pebble Beach to sit 25th at halfway and eventually finish 47th.
His sole missed cut this year saw him shoot 71-66, the latter bogey-free, at the low-scoring Sony Open so he seems in a really good place, very similar in fact to when he last played here and sat third at halfway.
Burgoon has placed form in the Barracuda to demonstrate what a slight dip in grade can do, and with his approach play much better before a blip last time out, he might be ready to break through at last.
KRAMER HICKOK and Roger Sloan both appeal from the same portion of the market, the latter having been second here in breezy conditions two years ago and played well since. Glance through the strokes-gained stats for the season and the case for Sloan becomes stronger still, but Hickok might just have a bit more about him and is preferred.
We have to accept back-to-back missed cuts, but this Texan is probably going to prove far more comfortable on the east coast and in places like Puerto Rico throughout his career. That's looked to be the case so far, and he was in front during the latter stages of the Bermuda Championship back in November.
Starting out this year he played really well in the Sony which, while in Hawaii, has those coastal, Florida-like characteristics which are in play in Puerto Rico, and he'll certainly enjoy the breeze having said as much more than once. In fact, he struck the ball really well when it blew here in 2019, but was less effective during a calmer 2020 renewal.
Hickok has plenty of talent, and he might take a little something from watching his friend Jordan Spieth return to form. Whatever the case he's made big strides over the last six months, his accuracy off the tee should serve him particularly well in the conditions, and the shocking putting stats of Pebble Beach should be long forgotten now he's on paspalum greens.
Having also been 21st in the Dominican Republic and the AmEx recently, he's another who, like Burgoon, may just need this drop in grade to get really competitive. That's precisely what he did in Bermuda and his familiarity with Grand Reserve can help bring about a repeat, hopefully with a better final 10 holes.
I put up Martin Laird last year and Aaron Baddeley in 2019, both of them leading into the final round without going on to win. In both cases, the logic involved that drop in grade, their ability to win far better tournaments, and relevant bits and pieces of form by the coast. They're all at play with Baddeley once again and, three-times the price he was two years ago, with form figures here of 2-8, he's quite hard to leave out.
The Australian has been working with Butch Harmon since last August, and there have been some hints in his iron play that things are improving slowly. With his 40th birthday a couple of weeks from now there are enough reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I didn't think there was quite enough in the price.
Instead, take ANIRBAN LAHIRI to remind us all of his quality and contend for a PGA Tour breakthrough, something he's done in the Dominican Republic (sixth) and Bermuda (11th) on his last two 'opposite' starts.
That's a clear indication that the former Presidents Cup player is in a good enough place to capitalise on the right opportunity, and so is the fact he shot middle rounds of 65 and 64 in the Sony Open, and then sat 15th and 21st after the first rounds of his two subsequent starts in California.
On both occasions, Lahiri struggled during the second round but I can forgive him a tough day at Torrey Pines and his form on the whole this season is much better, with 36th in the Safeway and 37th in the Sanderson Farms both performances which translate nicely to this.
Paspalum greens are a big plus – he says he loves them, and has won on them including in Kuala Lumpur – and there wasn't much wrong with his debut spin here 12 months ago, at a time when he'd been in far worse form.
Back in 2019, Lahiri dropped down to the Korn Ferry Tour finals and finished seventh and fifth, and when he went back to India at the end of 2020 he was immediately competitive, as you would expect. In fact all four Korn Ferry starts have resulted in finishes of 16th or better and, with this event not a great deal stronger, he's taken to show us what he can do.
As you might have expected, the shortlist here was absurdly long and included Satoshi Kodaira, who is a better golfer right now than probably all those who are alongside him at 150/1. Also a fairly recent PGA Tour winner, and by the sea, too, the small signs of promise he's shown since returning to the USA in time for the start of the season caught my eye.
Rob Oppenheim has a strong Pebble Beach record and a top-10 finish here to his name, Lucas Glover is a rare class-dropper whose fifth in Mexico, record at Bay Hill and 63 in Phoenix stand out, and I wouldn't seek to talk you out of chancing David Lingmerth, who plays well in the wind, has a sneaky-good record here, and was 14th last week on his first start since the arrival of his second child.
Then there are those could-be-anything players like Carson Young and Bryson Nimmer, and the latter is interesting enough. Back in September, Nimmer had to withdraw from the Safeway Open because of Covid-19, and he'd been trimmed from an opening 200/1 to 125/1 having been in red-hot form in the LOCALiQ series. Formerly a top-20 amateur at Clemson, he now finds himself a bigger price in a considerably weaker event, owing to the fact his handful of subsequent starts haven't been quite so strong.
Had there been an expectation of calmer conditions and lower scoring, chances are I'd have put up Suh and Nimmer but whatever the weather, there was always going to be room in the staking plan for MICHAEL KIM at 250/1 generally and 275/1 with bet365.
I won't be alone in having noted the improvements Kim has shown lately, but I'm not at all convinced bookmakers have reacted appropriately. In January, Kim made his first cut in over two years and he's made two more in four starts since, missing narrowly at Pebble Beach last time out.
Notably he said that his game was 'rounding into form', quite a bullish statement for one who has been staring into the abyss, and while it's been a case of baby steps so far I do love the fact his turnaround in fortunes correlates directly with big improvements in his ball-striking.
Three events running now he's gained strokes with his approaches, and having spent two years driving it off the planet he's gained strokes in three of his last six starts and even ranked 13th in a strong Phoenix Open. I tend to believe him when he says things are looking up, and that has to put him on the radar in an event like this.
A one-time top-class amateur, Kim won the 2018 John Deere Classic by eight strokes before playing well in the following week's Open Championship at Carnoustie. Things went spectacularly wrong thereafter, but despite a missed cut here in 2016 there's been more than enough lately to take a chance at an enormous price. To my mind he deserves a little more respect, and the fact he has a top-20 at Bay Hill is a further boost.
Posted at 1200 GMT on 23/02/21
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