Desert Classic preview: Ben Coley previews the first round

Zach Johnson
Zach Johnson

Ben Coley ponders the curious tale of Harris and Hudson ahead of The Desert Classic, while revealing his first-round fancies.

Round one preview

1pt Zach Johnson to beat Justin Rose at 2/1

As discussed in my outright preview, Justin Rose is hard to support this week - even at a double-figure price in a relatively weak field. Setting aside the fact that a multi-course pro-am in the desert wouldn't be his preferred formula, Rose debuts with all new equipment and while sure to have put the hours in, even he won't be sure of what to expect once switching to competition mode.

Rose hasn't played in this event since performing below expectations in 2010, whereas Zach Johnson, who certainly won't be overawed by teeing it up with the world number one, has been here every year since finishing eighth on his 2012 debut.

He's fond of La Quinta, the course they will be playing, and unlike Rose arrives having teed it up in the Sony Open where rounds of 71 and 68 weren't quite enough to make the cut, without being disastrous. Certainly, they should help bring him forward and there's no cause for alarm.

Johnson signed off 2018 with seventh place in the RSM Classic and the wedge-putt test of this golf course plays to his strengths. He boasts a 14-12 head-to-head lead over Rose when they've been grouped together and while Rose has been closing the gap as his star ascends, 2/1 underestimates the man with two majors.

Whatever happens here - and let's not dismiss the real possibility Rose shoots something below 65 - the Englishman could be more vulnerable than he has been for years. Match-fit, on a course he knows better, playing a style of golf which drastically narrows the gap between these two players, Johnson is an ideal player with which to explore that theory, and he's a generous price, too.

2pts Ryan Palmer to beat Harold Varner III at 21/20

Although Ryan Palmer hasn't been seen in action since November, he ended 2018 playing as well as he has in a few years with three top-10 finishes in his final six events, all in good company.

His record in this event, one he always has on the schedule, includes second, fourth, sixth, 10th, 17th and 20th, confirming that this Texan loves desert golf.

Crucially, this round is also being played at La Quinta, where a seven-birdie 67 last year extended what's long been a fine record. Were they playing at PGA West, a Pete Dye design with a little more nuance, confidence would've been lower - the introduction of that course as host has cost him a few dollars in this event already.

Harold Varner is a likeable player whose aggressive nature ought to work well here, but not even an ace in the 2018 renewal could save him from a missed cut and he's now failed to make Sunday in all three visits. Here at La Quinta, he made just two birdies in a ho-hum 71 and while better in 2017 (65) and 2016 (69), he's nowhere near as comfortable here as his playing partner.

Given that Varner also returns from an absence and has a generally poor record in California as a whole - Palmer, on the other hand, was a play-off loser at Torrey Pines on his last visit - it's the more experienced man who should be a clear favourite. Anything evens and upwards is well worth taking.

Lookalike ready to strike?

Harris English and Hudson Swafford are so alike that Clemson coach Larry Penley never could tell them apart. The confusion didn't just exist among enemies, either, English and Swafford both having been Georgia Bulldogs.

"A lot of times people would say, ‘I just saw Hudson,’ and I’d say, ‘No, that was Harris.’ Or they’d say, ‘I just saw Harris,’ and I’d tell ’em, ‘No, that was Hudson.’ After a while, I stopped correcting them," said Chris Haack, the University of Georgia’s golf coach. "Everybody thought they were brothers. Both are good ol' slow-talking, easy-going Southern boys who hit the ball a long way."

It's possible that this week in Hawaii, something else happens to further tie them together. My hope is that Swafford joins his younger friend as a two-time PGA Tour winner, as discussed earlier this week, but don't discount English as he seeks to end a barren stretch which dates back to the 2013 OHL Classic in Mexico, in turn winning the event which gave Swafford his breakthrough.

Back in 2013, aged just 24, English had the world at his feet. Two victories in five months, each impressive in nature, had him circling the world's best, and on the eve of the Masters the following spring, he was one week away from joining them. Ranked 36th in the world and playing in his home state, English looked every inch an outside Augusta contender until another youngster named Jordan Spieth proved the best newcomer on show, finishing a mighty second.

If mention of Spieth appears slightly spurious, it isn't. Back then, PGA Tour veteran Bob Estes said "they're equally talented, but Harris is unflappable. Perfect demeanor for championship golf," and would consistently nominate English, rather than Spieth, as American golf's next great thing. Time has proven him wrong, of course, but the very fact that as recently as 2014 the two were mentioned as equals says much about how badly things have gone for one of them since.

That was also the year Swafford took his first tentative steps onto the PGA Tour, and he must've cast envious glances across the fairways of Sea Island as his junior friend quickly left him behind. Swafford, who had won quickly on the Web.com Tour, but not as quickly as English, sat more than 400 places lower in the world rankings, famous only for being someone else's friend.

Slowly, the gap between them narrowed, part demise, part rise, until Swafford's victory in the 2017 CareerBuilder Challenge helped to move him ahead in the spring. He will have taken little pleasure in seeing his former dating partner fall so steadily but so consistently from the top of the sport.

There are signs, though, that English might be ready to get moving back in the right direction. Last August, faced with the prospect of losing his PGA Tour card, he did that thing which so many who have fallen from grace are able to do: conjure something, from somewhere, at the eleventh hour - enough for eleventh place, enough for another year on the circuit.

A missed cut at the following week's Northern Trust was excusable, such was the energy expended in getting that far, but since then he's six cuts made from six starts, the longest such sequence he's managed since the end of 2016, when his place inside the world's top 50 slipped away.

If anyone understands the value of making cuts, whatever the end result, it's English's old friend. Prior to winning this week's event in 2017, Swafford had made 18 in a row, right back to the PLAYERS Championship of the previous spring. Indeed it's part of the case for a repeat: his most recent missed cut came last July.

English, then, is perhaps a little early in the process, but a return to PGA West must only help. For starters, he was 11th here at Qualifying School in 2011 - Swafford, naturally, back in 38th - and his record in this event, which shows five cuts made from five, is solid. The space off the tee, too, will also favour a player whose malaise can be blamed almost squarely on the driver.

And yet, counter-intuitively, it's hard not to glance beyond this week and to next, when a world-class field will head to Torrey Pines, where big misses just won't do. By rights, English shouldn't quite be ready for such an unrelenting test, and yet he's six-from-six there, too. He even managed eighth place last year.

It could be quite the fortnight for Harris and Hudson.

State of play

For the second week in succession, Charles Howell is among the major springers and, at 20/1, he's going to go off fourth favourite.

The case for Howell is strong: he's playing beautifully, evidenced not only by victory at the RSM Classic but by his staying-on effort last week, and he loves this event. Indeed it was the scene of one of his various near-misses back in 2013 and three top-20 finishes since the rotation was tweaked confirm his chances have not been compromised.

Could I back him at 20/1? Absolutely not, but he'd be firmly on the radar for fantasy golf and those involved in one-and-done competitions. Expectations can be set high, even if a fourth PGA Tour win does prove beyond him.

Beau Hossler was on my shortlist, unlike Howell, and had he been a slightly bigger price than the general 66/1 (80/1 in a place), I'd have chanced him despite the inconvenient absence. It should be a big year for Hossler, a dynamite putter, and I'm not at all surprised that 80/1 has been taken - he's 50/1 and strong now.

Most of the selections at the foot of this preview, whether mine or from others, have been popular, with Sam Ryder, Jason Kokrak and Bronson Burgoon among those who are attracting a little support despite being off the majority of radars, or so it would seem.

I should say that George Cunningham is into a best of 250/1 and that's still fair if you are having a late bet. He could be any price really, and I appreciate those who missed the 500/1 will probably not want to play, but I would have expected him to be shorter still having also been mentioned by Rob Bolton since.

Stating the obvious

A final note before we digress a little. Last year, Jon Rahm opened with a round of 62 at La Quinta, one he felt could've been lower. He was the only player in the field to shoot 62, regardless of the course, and therefore held the overall lead.

Don't discount the prospect of history repeating. Rahm has an edge over the next two in the betting, Justin Rose and Patrick Cantlay, who have not played this year. He's also in excellent form, and while capable under all kinds of conditions, desert golf suits the man who honed his craft in Arizona and first showed what he could do with a top-10 finish at TPC Scottsdale as an amateur.

Rahm is a best of 10/1 to shoot the lowest round at La Quinta, but more interesting is the currently available 16/1 on Betfair Exchange about him leading the entire field again. La Quinta played more than half a stroke easier than the Nicklaus layout last year, with PGA West considerably tougher - more than two strokes, in fact - and is the most straightforward of the trio.

Whether you're prepared to back Rahm or not, that exchange market is worth a close look and a simple filter may well do the trick. Look for those who are at La Quinta, and who have a recent spin under their belts in either of the Hawaii events.

Recommended reading

On Tuesday, golf.com published the latest instalment of their popular/unpopular insider surveys, in which professional golfers are asked to answer a series of questions on condition of confidentiality.

This one is notable for being a European edition - that is, 34 European players were surveyed at the Turkish Airlines Open last November, and it's fair to assume that they were largely high profile. Not only is the field exclusive, but the reporters charged with gathering this information, it is presumed, will be more familiar with those we often see playing in the USA.

Among the more interesting takeaways must be the fact that Le Golf National, a design which has been derided in some quarters, topped the charts when it came to 'best course that most Americans have never heard of.' Surely, having hosted the Ryder Cup not six weeks before this survey took place, it ought to have been excluded from the available answers.

A whopping 88 per cent said that the European Tour is more fun to play than the PGA Tour, yet 70 per cent said that if they could only play one, it would have to be the PGA, all of which makes sense but it's nonetheless worth noting.

Remarkably, the vote for 'best European player without a major' was won by Tommy Fleetwood in a landslide. Not that we should be particularly surprised by Fleetwood securing a big chunk of the vote, but of 34 players asked, only three went for Jon Rahm, who has won more titles in a considerably shorter time, and who briefly ranked second in the world in 2018. Bonkers.

Victor Dubuisson also clocked in at number four in 'which European-born player has the most natural talent', Rahm unplaced, so it begs the question: what has he done to offend 34 of the European Tour's best players?

Final takeaway from me: 46 per cent of them couldn't find an answer to the question relating to current youngsters with potential to become a star. Pathetic.

Recommended listening

Twitter followers will know that I like a podcast, so why not share one or two with you? Firstly, non-golf: I am currently racing through Ear Hustle, a show recorded from inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison, one which is straightforwardly entertaining but also forces you to think about life, death, redemption and forgiveness; compassion, love, hate and vengeance. It's impeccably done, very quickly shifting gear from tentative beginnings. Co-host Earlonne Woods, an inmate at the prison, is an absolute star.

As for golf, Richard Kaufman's podcast, The Round, is worth catching up on, with Padraig Harrington the latest guest. I must confess that I've not quite got to the Harrington interview yet, but I'm sure it'll be fascinating. Richard is one of the nicest people you could wish to meet, a particularly excellent golf commentator to boot, and he does a fine job in teasing his guests into revealing more than they perhaps planned to. The Matthew Southgate episode in particular is worth digging out.

And finally, while overseas readers may know about this one, I urge regular bettors in the UK to try Golflandia, hosted by Matthew Wiley, who might be the coolest man in the United States. Wiley's pitch is perfect, he's full of genuine pearls of wisdom which he manages to drip into the perfect slots, way beyond the silly world of golf, but it so happens that he's joined by the shrewd Ryan Baroff if all you want are players to follow.

Selections box

My selections: Si Woo Kim, Hudson Swafford, Martin Piller, Alex Prugh, George Cunningham, Sebastian Munoz

Steve Rawlings: Jon Rahm, Chez Reavie

Steve Bamford: Jon Rahm, Abraham Ancer, Luke List, Corey Conners

Steve Palmer: Charles Howell III, Beau Hossler, Aaron Wise, Brian Harman

Dave Tindall: Hudson Swafford, Andrew Putnam, Brandon Harkins

Niall Lyons: Aaron Wise, Zach Johnson, Si Woo Kim, Joaquin Niemann, Chris Kirk

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