2pts e.w. Viktor Hovland at 22/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
2pts e.w. Brooks Koepka at 28/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Sungjae Im at 40/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Sergio Garcia at 80/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
3pts win Rory McIlroy at 16/1 (General, or 18.5 on exchanges)
With a return to Augusta just six weeks away, the PLAYERS to come in a fortnight, and an engrossing weekend at Riviera behind us, the PGA Tour season really is in full swing. So far, so good from an entertainment perspective: it's hard to remember such a run of consistently dramatic finishes, from a week one play-off in Hawaii, inland to the west coast and another at Riviera. Six of the seven tournaments so far have gone down the 18th or beyond, and Patrick Reed made sure the exception was no less eventful.
If there is something that has been missing on the PGA Tour, it is victory for one of the very best players in the world, albeit some artistic licence is required here to overlook Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger. Certainly, it's been a promising but frustrating start to life as a Callaway staff member for Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas has endured a torrid few weeks, Rory McIlroy has got progressively worse, Bryson DeChambeau hasn't really been a factor, and thanks to a poor back nine on Sunday, even Dustin Johnson might now feel a little underwhelmed.
Artistic licence again called for – Johnson jetted over to Saudi Arabia to pick up his dollars and silverware – but over on this side of the world, pre-Masters statements of intent have been a little lacking. But there is still time, and a restricted, World Golf Championship event, in the comforting surrounds of Florida and at a course which is expected to provide a proper test, could well be the place to start.
These tournaments and their unique qualifying criteria provide cosmopolitan fields, rewarding as they do the Sunshine Tour exploits of Daniel van Tonder and welcoming back Brad Kennedy for a second WGC some nine years after his first. For players like these, it's a rare opportunity to test their games against the best in the sport and their more conventional qualifying methods. But ultimately they underline an absence of depth, the sort that exposed Tony Finau and Patrick Cantlay to Max Homa and Si Woo Kim and provides a regular reminder of the strength of this circuit.
That makes it an ideal opportunity for one of those mentioned to lay down a marker and any of them could do it. Johnson may well be operating on his own level, a fact reflected in the market, but don't be kidded into thinking his rivals are a million miles away. Generally speaking that is seldom true of the sport's best, a point which should have been underlined by what Koepka and Jordan Spieth have been doing of late but still seems lost on some.
RORY MCILROY, then, we must address first, even if I haven't the heart to put his name in the headline for the third start in succession.
I didn't think he could do worse than Phoenix, where a double-bogey, bogey start essentially rendered my win-only selection a loser after 30 minutes of 'entertainment' before he rallied to finish 17th. And yet at Riviera, where his short-game was hopeless, his driving better than most but bad by his standards, and where his approach play is best described by a gif of someone shrugging miserably, he was appalling. Fortunately, it's more likely to have left a scar on me than it is him.
For all the noise, it was McIlroy's first missed cut since that infamous episode at the 2019 Open Championship, when he left Portrush in tears. One week later, he stormed into the lead in the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational and while confined to a place in the end, it was another demonstration that a lone bad performance can quickly be shaken off. Earlier that year, his final-round 61 to win the Canadian Open came on the heels of a missed cut, and another year earlier he won at Bay Hill after a missed cut at the Valspar.
Returned to Florida, where he's won the PLAYERS and a Honda Classic as well as an Arnold Palmer Invitational, and has for a long time lived, McIlroy could do it again. He really could. And I suspect The Concession, a Jack Nicklaus-Tony Jacklin collaboration which is named accordingly, will represent something comforting even if it is not familiar. Four par-fives plus the can-be-driveable par-four 12th should afford him the freedom to attack a par 72 which will certainly favour players with his prowess off the tee and it just looks his type of course.
It must be said that reports from those to have played The Concession, nicknamed 'Concussion', suggest this will be a stern test, and in looking through images I thought it appeared quite similar to Sawgrass in places. It should play fairly long and fairways are generous, with fast, smooth greens which are about average size but look to be made smaller by serious contours and shaved run-offs. I suspect whoever does win will have excelled with their approach shots, and on that score McIlroy will have to do better. He is plainly not without questions to answer.
Indeed if approach play is king, Thomas might prove a better option at a similar price. He's another former winner of the Honda Classic who should have won at Muirfield Village, a Nicklaus course known for the severity of its greens and where he lost a play-off last summer, one week after missing the cut. It's taken him longer than Rory, but Thomas's blips are now exactly that. I just can't get past the other blows he's taken – one of them self-inflicted – and wonder if he's a few more weeks from equilibrium.
It's important to be flexible and admit defeat and it would be easy to do so with McIlroy. Yet it would also be odd to argue the positives in his play, only to disembark now he's back on the east coast. Unlike Johnson and Rahm in particular, he's not always been at his best out in California and 16/1 (bigger on Betfair at the time of writing) is a price which offers the necessary compensation following a chastening fortnight.
Back to the course, and Paul Azinger estimates he's '600 over-par' since becoming a member. Just how many rounds he's played is unclear, but it only opened in 2006 and while the antagoniser-in-chief is not as capable as he was and is prone to embellishment, the point he's trying to make could not be clearer.
"I think everyone that's ever played The Concession, all the locals, all the folks from this area, cannot wait to see what kind of scores they're going to shoot here," he said. "We're all of the impression that it's virtually impossible to shoot a great score at this golf course.
"There have been some low ones, a few 65s and 4s and stuff and maybe a 63 somewhere along the line, but I believe there will be a big gap between the winners and the guys that really play poorly.
"It's the kind of a golf course that will eat your lunch."
Back in 2015, DeChambeau topped the individual leaderboard in the NCAA finals here with a score of eight-under, and I don't blame anyone for using that to form the basis of an argument for him, with Rahm and Xander Schauffele among a handful of these he left well behind.
That said, Bryson has fundamentally changed from the golfer he was then, and his return to Olympia Fields could hardly have gone worse. As Rahm triumphed so dramatically there last September, DeChambeau, who had won the US Amateur at the course, trailed home 50th of just 69 players.
That's a cautionary note which doesn't necessarily reflect my expectations this week, but with water in play across two-thirds of the course I do have my concerns. Instead then, I'll side with the impressive VIKTOR HOVLAND, who is fully entitled to his lofty position in the betting and may yet go off shorter than the US Open champion as a result.
Hovland also underlines the need to take amateur form with a pinch of salt as he finished fifth on his professional debut at Riviera last week, a course which had embarrassed him as recently as 2017. That excellent effort extended his run to a win and four top-six finishes from his last six starts, the sole exception a rust-shedding return in Hawaii, at a course whose sidehill lies make experience all the more important and one he hadn't seen before.
Among this sequence, Hovland was third on his DP World Tour Championship debut having stepped off the plane from Mexico, where he won impressively, and he also defied a lack of course knowledge to chase home Reed at Torrey Pines. From there he again overcame any travel concerns to be sixth in Saudi Arabia, all the more impressive from the wrong side of the draw, before an almost flawless, one-bogey weekend in the Genesis Invitational.
Now, the world number 14 gets to start on a level footing and the strength of his ball-striking is such that a difficult test like the one expected should be ideal. Any sign of those Florida winds (not much is forecast) is fine given his victories by the sea in Mexico and Puerto Rico, as well as at Pebble Beach in the US Amateur, and as he continues to produce world class tee-to-green displays there's no reason he can't win again in the weeks ahead.
Indeed it looks like being a huge year for the 23-year-old, who will be key to Europe's prospects of victory in the Ryder Cup, and he's one of the biggest threats to Johnson. I put him up for the US PGA at 50/1 over Christmas on the grounds that he will emerge as a player in the big events this year, and he's done nothing to deter me from a view which is surely shared by many.
Another danger to the very top of the betting might be BROOKS KOEPKA, whose win in Phoenix hasn't yet convinced everyone of his resurgence, despite the way he struck the ball that week and the things he told reporters.
Although struggling with a stiff neck which got sorted during the second round last week, Koepka has made clear for several weeks now that his troublesome knee injury is considered a thing of the past. Victory at Scottsdale, where he ranked second in strokes-gained approach, also answered questions as to his split from Claude Harmon and a shake-up to his equipment.
His only start since came at Riviera, and the main indeed only reason for opposing him there was the fact he's struggled at the course in the past. Despite his impeccable major credentials and the fact he hits a fade off the tee, Riviera just doesn't appear to suit him and in finishing 38th, driving the ball almost as well as he had in Phoenix, he produced his best performance in three visits to the course so far.
While his approach play numbers dropped off, I'm happy to accept that volatility which is in his make-up and note that only during a really hard, wind-affected Saturday did he struggle, posting a round of 77 which took him out of the equation. All things considered, I felt it strengthened his form book, rather than representing the backwards step which it might appear on paper, and believe he's far more likely to win this title.
Like McIlroy, Koepka probably prefers to play out on the east coast, not surprising as a Florida native, and now that he's fit again it's hard to justify prices as big as 28/1 unless we've hard evidence the course doesn't suit. I'm hoping that The Concession proves to be the sort of venue which brings out his best, which we saw at Southwind when he ought to have defended the title he won in 2019.
Note that he arrived for that WGC with post-lockdown form figures of 32-7-MC-62-MC and was just about the same price we can take here, three weeks after a win, and with three places in the nine events before it including seventh place at Augusta and fifth in Houston. He's in better form, he's healthier, and there's no reason he can't make it a quick-fire double, in the process slotting in behind Johnson in the Masters market.
When this event took place in Mexico, it was notable for some slightly surprising contenders from beyond the United States, the likes of Rafa Cabrera Bello, Ross Fisher and Kiradech Aphibarnrat having genuine chances to win at a course many felt appealed more to European Tour regulars.
Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton also contended before graduating to world-class and both must be considered here, Hatton having won the Arnold Palmer and Fleetwood having been close to winning the Honda Classic at Nicklaus's PGA National. They rate definite threats and it could also be argued that Justin Rose merits attention after his progressive and encouraging form in the Middle East.
All three are respected along with Will Zalatoris, who could just defy logic and make his WGC debut a winning one having been sixth in the US Open and impressed everyone since. His approach play is outstanding, he's even putting very nicely, and like Hovland does not now have to concede an edge to those who know the course.
The other two I like further up the market are Collin Morikawa and SUNGJAE IM and it's the latter who is preferred this time, my expectation being that this WGC follows the pattern of its peers and throws up an established, world-class champion.
With three wins including a major on his CV, two of them coming at Nicklaus-designed courses, Morikawa isn't easy to ignore. He's a bigger price than last week, when a six-six start ruined his chance but was followed by some impressive grinding to make the weekend. Second in strokes-gained ball-striking and approach, he did plenty right, but Sunday was an absolute horror show on the greens and it's enough of a worry.
In fairness to the PGA champion he's been up and down with the putter throughout the early stages of his career, but the final round of the Genesis brought nine misses from inside 10 feet and that's a lot to recover from, particularly while experimenting with a new grip. Although he holed a nice one from off the green which is not accounted for in eye-watering stats, from close to the hole he was abysmal.
Instead, Im's encouraging start to the year suggests he could take flight back in Florida, where he's contended on five of his six starts so far and bagged a first win in the Honda – again, at a course designed by Nicklaus. He's clearly at his most comfortable on Bermuda greens and everything he's done in Hawaii, Arizona and California can be viewed positively now that he's tackling a run of events made for him.
The Korean star was a brilliant second in the Masters late last year and could well have earned a second PGA Tour win since, with 16 of his 20 rounds so far in 2021 registering at sub-70. Every week since the Sony, one run of bad holes – the first few in Phoenix, the back-nine at Torrey Pines, Saturday in the AmEx – has undone plenty of good work but it's all money in the bank now he's on the east coast.
Like Koepka, his iron play has been in and out and there's some guesswork as regards this week's venue, but the shaved run-offs and contoured greens certainly bear resemblance to courses on which he's so far thrived, Augusta included, and this awesome talent can go close ahead of his Honda title defence.
Having placed at Montreux, PGA National, Sherwood, Muirfield Village and Valhalla, 80/1 shot Ryan Palmer could be called a Nicklaus specialist and isn't without hope. He's among the outsiders worth considering for a place along with a seemingly out of sorts Gary Woodland, but my final selection is another former PLAYERS champion who looks a more likely winner.
SERGIO GARCIA will be among those who regret the move from Mexico to some degree, having played nicely there, but there's been plenty to suggest he can be a factor at this level again wherever the tournament goes.
The Spaniard won on US soil for the first time since the Masters at the Sanderson Farms, and while this is of another level he's been driving the ball as well as just about anyone, and was close to the places in Hawaii, Dubai and Saudi Arabia as a result.
Last week's missed cut at Riviera is easily ignored, as he arrived late having suffered travel issues after the heavy snowfall in Texas. In the end, he'd still have been around for the weekend had a 10-foot birdie putt at his final hole gone in, and throughout two rounds his quality long-game continued to fire as it has for much of the season.
If he can build on that, Garcia is capable of demonstrating that he too is more effective on Bermuda greens out east than he is on the poa annua of Riviera, and contending as a result. Just look at his recent wins in the US, in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia and Mississippi; in fact ever since his first, in Texas, he's never managed to pick up a title on the opposite side of the mainland and four places from 34 starts in California tells its own story.
More recently, his last 50 starts worldwide show two south eastern wins plus places in South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida, so this is surely where he's at his most dangerous and his play through the early stages of 2021 has been more than encouraging.
I argued ahead of the Tournament of Champions that his rare trip to Hawaii was evidence that he's desperately keen to make one more Ryder Cup side, and I remain of that view. It remains to be seen how one-time adversary Padraig Harrington assesses his merit should it come to that, but Garcia will be acutely aware that for him this is a final chance to do battle in the US and can raise his game accordingly.
Right now there really aren't many better drivers in the world and if his iron play fires as it did in Jackson, odds of 80/1 may begin to look generous. Seven places each-way in this small, lopsided field offer plenty of hope he can reward faith one way or another.
Posted at 2000 GMT on 22/02/21
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