Golf writer Ben Coley talks good luck, bad luck, winners and losers as we look at life as a tipster.
My biggest stroke of luck was...
Probably at the McGladrey Classic in 2013, where Chris Kirk was one of the most obvious 40/1 winners you'll ever find, and yet should have been one of the most obvious 40/1 runners-up.
All had gone to plan over the course of the first three rounds, to the extent that not only was Kirk leading, but the person he shared that lead with happened to be Briny Baird. Nothing to worry about. Kirk, a previous winner who reckoned he'd played a thousand rounds at Sea Island, would surely take care of the man in the silly hat, who had always found the winning line out of reach.
That's how it looked before the final round, and that's how it looked for the first half of it, but when Kirk bogeyed the 14th, he was behind by one. I would say at this point I wouldn't have been too worried, but when he butchered the par-five 15th, and Baird played it like a champion, the writing was on the wall for my man, who had 20 feet for par on a hole where everyone makes birdie.
First, though, came Baird's eagle putt. It looked at the hole, waved goodbye to it, and ran, and ran. Kirk was next, for par, and in it went (I'm not sure there's a more attractive putting stroke around now Rhys Davies has disappeared). Baird, still putting for a two-shot lead, missed. Of course he missed. And, while he still led, it felt like a killer blow had been landed by the man in second.
Baird held firm with a couple of pars, but Kirk drew level with a brilliant birdie at the 17th. The pressure was increasing on Baird and he couldn't cope, finding sand off the tee on 18, hitting the lip of the bunker with his second, and finding water. With the simplest of pars, Kirk had somehow won. Baird went into the week the longest-standing maiden on the circuit, and that's how he'll be remembered. It's a cruel sport.
My worst beat?
I'm really not sure. Actually, writing this serves as a reminder that it's the good fortune that sticks with you, rather than bad. There have been lots of instances, especially over the last 12 months, of things going wrong at the last minute, like Antoine Rozner losing a play-off for the Mauritius Open, even the way Martin Laird played the 72nd hole in Puerto Rico, but I'm not sure that can be classified as unlucky as such.
Perhaps then I can turn this to say when was I most frustrated by the outcome of an event, and that's easy. When Minkyu Kim won the Czech Challenge a couple of years ago, I had foolishly jumped the gun and tried to get on at 150/1 when prices went up. I hadn't put an ounce of real thought into it, but was well aware he'd got a massive reputation, had won on the EuroPro Tour, and I had an inkling he'd been starting well and fading to suggest he was gradually getting comfortable.
That was enough for my eyes to light up when I saw the price, but the bet was rejected. I turned my nose up at the offer of a reduced stake, and thought nothing more of it, until he started well that Thursday. The following three days were torture, as he stayed around the lead before taking it on his own, and thereafter never looked like doing anything but win well. I would say I was quite angry that Sunday, and I don't think I've seriously looked at the Challenge Tour since.
...are part and parcel of the job. In fact, you want to be able to tell yourself you've tipped a handful of them every single week. Some do stick in the memory more than others, though, and one recent example would be Collin Morikawa in last summer's Canadian Open.
Of course, he was always an unlikely winner of his first start as a professional. And yet, it was clear to anyone who really knows anything about the sport than both the opening 750/1 and the revised 400/1 and probably even the 250/1 and the 200/1 were prices which failed to reflect the type of player we're dealing with here.
Morikawa went on to finish 14th, and he was 14 strokes off the winner - a certain Rory McIlroy. Again, there was nothing unfortunate about the bet. Still, it's rare that you feel like a PGA Tour market has a player completely wrong, and on that front he stands out. The very best college graduates are capable of winning their first professional starts, and the market should reflect that.
Poor-value winners (and losers)
...are also part of the job. I'm sure there were enough folks who felt Tyrrell Hatton was an awful 18/1 shot in Turkey late last year. There were certainly those who felt Sungjae Im was short ahead of the Honda, and I'm not one who believes there's a right or wrong answer. Most of the time I eliminate golfers from my shortlist because of their price. Sometimes, as with Hatton, I know before the market goes up there's not going to be widespread disagreement; that I'm not getting 28/1.
The short ones do make you feel stupid. There's nothing worse than backing a player at 10/1, even less, and seeing them disappoint. It happens often, though. And I will do well to put forward a more stupid selection than Martin Kaymer in Qatar, the very last European Tour event I previewed, when golf does return. What a mess that was.
I certainly don't believe data should be the only factor in any of this, though - I wonder how any model can take into account enough influencing factors in golf. And apart from the odd voice, I'm not sure even ardent data people feel that way, either. I didn't hear too many backing Nick Taylor at Pebble Beach, anyway, despite Data Golf making him must-bet material. It's a hugely useful took for anyone betting on golf, but I don't know as it's yet a substitute for watching it, reading about it, interpreting it, obsessing over it.
The one that got away...
Aside from Kim, also came at the McGladrey Classic, now the RSM, when Patrick Rodgers lost a play-off to Charles Howell. Maybe it was some kind of poetic justice, after the sport's leading nearly-man had gifted me a winner in this event five years before. Howell is well known as the sport's leading nearly-man with a caveat: that he has actually won. It's just, he's never managed to collect the titles his talent, consistency and longevity deserved, and when he got off to a nightmare start during this final round at Sea Island, we all knew the story.
Like many, I had been hoping Howell would see it through, primarily because I had no financial interest - or so I thought. So when Howell dropped three shots over the course of the first two holes, I was ready to accept Webb Simpson's inevitable victory parade with a sigh and a shrug; in fact, I had decided to start a long drive home, forgoing a night in front of the TV and listening to golf on the radio without any interest.
Except, after his 61 from the cut line on Saturday, Patrick Rodgers was suddenly generating some interest. Birdie after birdie. And when he found one more at the 18th, completing the lowest weekend (61-62) in PGA Tour history, I thought he had won the event.
This was exciting, because I had backed the Stanford stud after the first round at about 300/1 on the exchanges. Not to much, of course, but enough to suddenly find myself rooting against Howell, one of the nicest, easiest-to-support men in the sport. And he was doing what I had expected, Rodgers' clubhouse target suddenly looking impossible to pass.
Howell didn't pass it, but he did birdie 15, 16 and 17 before making par at the last, enough for a play-off. And, in the fading light, he won that play-off with a birdie. It was a fabulous performance, one of real courage, and by the time he'd picked up the microphone to remind us all what a hero he is, I had just about forgiven him for it. Whether Rodgers has is another matter.
The winner I most wish I had tipped is...
Possibly Jon Rahm ahead of the Farmers, or Matthew Wolff at the 3M Open, or Cameron Champ at the Sanderson Farms, or Justin Thomas at the CIMB, or Jordan Spieth at the John Deere Classic. Something like that, anyway: everyone wants to feel like they were on these superstars when they break through and win, especially when it's at the sort of price you'll have to wait a long time to see again, as has been the case with Rahm so far.
Of course, this list is long. There are dozens of missed opportunities every year, and the last one in particular was awfully frustrating when it comes to timing. For example, I put up Phil Mickelson in Phoenix, and he won the next week at Pebble, where I had put up JB Holmes, who won the next week at Riviera. It happens, you get used to it, but it does linger - especially when it comes in one giant wave.
This year, I regret missing Min Woo Lee in the Vic Open, albeit at a short price, but the only one who really stings is Lucas Herbert. He fit a lot of the small factors I always look for, not least that he's an Australian and they'd been winning everywhere. Plus, a year earlier in the very same event, he'd had something of a Patrick Reed incident and went on to admit that he almost walked away from the sport following the backlash. Returning to Dubai, there's no doubt he had some unfinished business.
I knew all this beforehand and still looked elsewhere, so there's nothing hard-luck about it. And anyone who did back Herbert will know he's one of those you have to remember when things go against you, because he really ought not to have won that tournament. I've been impressed by how well Christaan Bezuidenhout has responded to throwing it away.
Getting majors right is really hard
The markets are so mature, so well-informed; we all read the same stuff and, generally, come to similar conclusions. Much of that is counterbalanced by generous place terms, but that in itself forces you to think a little differently. Essentially I find that I start every week with a pretty clear idea of what I'm doing, and then a major comes around and disrupts it all. The fact that you get four- or five-times the readers makes it especially difficult.
Of course, that also makes it especially rewarding from time to time. There's absolutely no question that the most satisfying week of my career was the Open in 2019, and that sums up the curiousness of majors from the perspective of a golf tipster. Other than Portrush, 2019 was really difficult. Yet a heck of a lot of people read four previews in 12 months, and they thought I did all right.
On a more positive note, I think I'm getting better at them. In 2017 I put up Jordan Spieth (16/1) and Justin Thomas (50/1), and in 2019 I put up Lowry (70/1) as well as runner-up Tommy Fleetwood (30/1). Plus, the side markets often offer up some good opportunities. It took until 2015 for me to put up my first major winner, but I don't fear them as much now.
The player I would most want on-side in a battle is...
Tiger Woods. But assuming we're after something a little less obvious, I still have total faith in Matthew Fitzpatrick, and I expect Patrick Cantlay will prove himself among the ballsiest players around over the next decade.
I think we get too hung up on who wins and who doesn't in this sport. Players evolve, they learn, they get luckier. We've seen that with Kevin Na over the last 18 months, but give me Na versus Cantlay on a Sunday and it's Cantlay every single time. There's just nothing like ability when it comes to predicting success.
I also think that...
...people get too hung up on what has happened in the past, when they're trying to predict what's going to happen in the future. I catch myself doing it too often, too. As a basic rule I would say ignore something if you can't explain it.
That's not to dismiss things like course form, because they're important, and it's not difficult to explain why that might be. But there are times when it all gets too anecdotal, even for me. This applies to trends, too, and I have a couple of particular bugbears. One is when people talk about odds - i.e. seven of the last eight winners of this have been 33-66/1 - like that's in any way relevant.
The other is misrepresentation of trends or stats so that they sound impressive when they're actually built on sand. You hear this a lot in football - 'their first win here since 1957' when they've met two or three times since then. Context is everything. So when you hear that the world number one has only won X of the last Y renewals of The Masters, ask yourself how often the world number two has, and then think about what the world rankings and their arbitrary nature could possibly do to negatively influence the performance of one of the best players in the world.
Of course, there might be exceptions. Maybe a player becomes world number one for the first time just before the Masters, and maybe, like Martin Kaymer once did, they struggle to accept their new position in the sport. Generally, though, the fact that the world number one doesn't often win the tournament is because they've got 150-odd of numbers two to 2000 playing against them.
There's nothing like the European Tour
When it comes to drama, variety, and even finding good prices, I think the European Tour is so much more fun than the PGA Tour. There are exceptions, but in general the weaker the field the more interesting I find a tournament and that means the stuff on this side of the Atlantic appeals more.
It feels like you're watching normal people who do something really well when you watch the European Tour, and I do buy into the idea that the atmosphere is better, that the camaraderie is superior, that people relate to each other a little more than they do in the US.
But most of my favourite winners...
...have been on the PGA Tour. More people read those previews and, in my experience, more people follow the selections. So when one does win, the reward is greater. I think it just about makes up for all those Sundays which begin with optimism and end with frustration.
There's nothing quite like watching a golf tournament unfold when you've a skin in the game. It's just so captivating; so much can change so quickly, even in a sport which is not known for its speed.
When you've got a player running for you, you feel like you're an extension of them. Every move they make influences you, or at least that's how it feels, and yet the very next week you can be attached to the player on the other side of the fairway. It makes fickle all of us.
When things go right, it's fantastic, and bizarrely I think my favourite examples here are players at the very top of the game. There is nothing quite like being on Rory McIlroy when Rory McIlroy swaggers to victory. And there aren't many winners I remember as fondly as Tiger Woods at East Lake in 2018. It felt like a lot of us had waited all year for that moment.
Ultimately, it's all fun
I won't say anything as trite as 'when golf comes back we'll all just appreciate it for what it is', because we won't. I remember being on a train when Fabrice Muamba collapsed, expecting the worst news to come through any moment. Even as he recovered, it seemed as though footballers were thinking twice about writhing around in agony, aware of what had happened at White Hart Lane.
It didn't last, and nor will the feeling of appreciation when golf does return. After a while, possibly even immediately, I'll still moan about bad luck, bad coverage, and the rest of it, and so will many of you. Sport does that: it makes you feel like it matters more than it should. Perhaps it matters more than we think.
One(s) to watch
This all feels a little pointless without something for the future, so here are a couple to keep in mind: Maverick McNealy and Bud Cauley.
McNealy has really stepped it up since earning his PGA Tour card and he should keep improving until he's world-class. Certainly, having a star LPGA player as his girlfriend and Butch Harmon as coach can't hurt - Butch has been stepping back a little but has found time for this brilliantly talented youngster. All parties ought to be rewarded.
As for Cauley, we're all still waiting - just as we are with Rodgers. I've been taken by his consistency, though, and it seems as though he's fit and ready to really start climbing the ladder once more. He's only just turned 30 and once he tidies up off the tee, I can see him really making an impression.
Over in Europe, we've not learned a great deal at this early stage of the season - things are stop-start at the best of times - but my hope would be Matthias Schwab returns firing. This neat and tidy Austrian found his long-game in Qatar and the fact he'd been ticking over reasonably without it shows just how solid a scorer he's become.
Schwab is no secret, and he'll be short in the betting most weeks. That brings us back to the point about the past and the future. If the last couple of years have helped make Schwab the player he's about to become, what does it matter if he hasn't won? Why, if you've hardly ever backed him, should you care how many tournaments he's played in so far without yet winning?
The key question is what he's going to do from now. I wouldn't be going as far as to say he's going to become a colossus of the sport, but I'm certain he'll be one of the best players on the European Tour. In fact, he's almost there.