He tipped a 200/1 winner last week and Ben Coley has a 250/1 selection for the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
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The Zurich Classic of New Orleans needed a revamp. A tournament beset by weather disruptions and undermined by its position on the calendar, it was never quite able to attract the world-class field organisers craved and when alternate Brian Stuard beat Jamie Lovemark on a Monday with next to no one watching, enough was enough.
Switching to a two-man team event was a genius move, and while most of the world’s best still elected to observe this experiment from the other side of the glass, many of them saw enough to add a trip to New Orleans and Pete Dye’s TPC Louisiana to their crowded schedules.
Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth (although still not together), Jon Rahm, Patrick Reed, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Henrik Stenson are just some of the star names along with returning US Open champion Brooks Koepka, whose decision to call-up Marc Turnesa raises eyebrows and highlights the complexity of the challenge: just how do we find the winning team?
The inaugural edition went the distance, Cameron Smith and Jonas Blixt prevailing in a play-off against Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown. That it was Monday yet again mattered less, and any doubt as to what this really means to professionals was gnawed at by Kisner’s reaction to holing out to force that play-off, before being removed in victory by Blixt and Smith.
The winners would’ve been hard to find. Evidently, they get on well and perhaps Blixt’s decision to play in Australia late last year confirms their kinship, but not many knew this beforehand. Plus, Blixt’s form had been very poor and he’d never shown much of a liking for the course.
Yet what we know about the Swede and his rookie partner is that both putt well – in fact Blixt is among the very best on the circuit. So while putting is so rarely the best place to start when it comes to predicting success as opposed to analysing it, this event and its hybrid of better-ball and alternate shot seems suited to such an attack.
That points to Jon Rahm and Wesley Bryan, who bring together power and precision when at their best, but the latter has lost all confidence in the driver and might feel a pinch of pressure teaming up with the hotwire Spaniard who expects to win wherever he plays.
A better option from the front of the market might therefore be the pair who come out second best via a strict interpretation of this year’s putting stats – Bud Cauley and Justin Thomas.
As I wrote prior to the Masters, it’s fairly easy to argue that Thomas is the world’s best player right now and there was plenty to like about his personal-best Augusta finish, even if it wasn’t quite what backers such as me were looking for.
This is his first start since, but he’ll be itching to get back at it having left Augusta frustrated and that desire will only have been intensified on Sunday, when he sat back and watched friend Trey Mullinax contend for his first PGA Tour title in the Valero Texas Open.
Like Mullinax, both Thomas and Cauley went to the University of Alabama and they’ve grown close since, which is part of the reason they featured in my staking plan last year when a final-round 61 saw them share fifth.
Twelve months on and Thomas is an even better player in even better form, while Cauley has clicked at just the right time following another fitness setback. The 28-year-old is putting as well as he ever has and arrives on the back of three straight top-30 finishes, so there are no excuses here.
I felt that it was Thomas who cost this duo a crack at the leaders last year and he’s strongly fancied to improve on that, to the extent that I rate them the strongest side in the event.
Given that they’re five points bigger than the favourites, Rose and Stenson, that makes for a bet even if there’s no great desire to get too carried away given the format.
There are a few other teams towards the head of the betting who are tempting, including the ball-striker/putter combo of Tommy Fleetwood and Chris Paisley, Day’s hook-up with the promising Ryan Ruffels and Ryder Cup duo Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell, but it must be worth taking a more speculative approach given how volatile the format is.
With that in mind, the 125/1 offered about Scott Stallings and Aaron Baddeley made some appeal, but there’s been a worrying downturn in the latter’s putting stats over the last 18 months and if he can’t bring that strength to the table, I’m not sure they have much of a chance.
Instead, the wildly unfashionable Chris Stroud and Brian Stuard get the vote.
As mentioned, Stuard won this event in 2016, beating Lovemark in a play-off courtesy of a brilliant birdie. He didn’t miss a single putt inside 10 feet all week and it’s that ability on the greens which could make him an ideal type for the event at a course which holds positive memories.
Stroud, meanwhile, currently ranks just outside the top 50 on the PGA Tour in strokes-gained putting and these similar types are cut in the mould of last year’s play-off protagonists, only they’re on offer at as much as five times the price.
Stroud and Stuard weren’t far off the places, either – in fact their share of 11th was one shy of a share of fifth – and that’s despite struggling a little during the final round. The experience is another little edge over much of the field and they were inside the top 15 throughout the event.
“I think we are an amazing team,” said Stroud, and while his withdrawal last week is a bit of a worry, I do like the fact that he’s sure to be inspired by Andrew Landry’s win, the pair having grown up learning the game on the very same Texas municipal.
Both men can boast good form here playing solo, they went really nicely as a team last year and are one of the most reliable partnerships with the putter. If the former is fit enough to do himself justice, they look massively overpriced at as big as 200/1 in a place.
Argentine duo Fabian Gomez and Andres Romero could surprise a few, but I can’t quite bring myself to pull the trigger – even at 200/1.
Both men have won in Louisiana before and whatever the reason, Argentinians have done phenomenally well in this part of the world – a point underlined by Julian Etulain’s Web.com Tour win earlier this year, as well as his share of fifth alongside Angel Cabrera in this event.
Gomez has been a little out of sorts lately but he could just come alive, while the aggressive Romero seemed to find something back home in Argentina last week when fifth in low-grade company.
At their very best, they’d make a seriously dangerous team but while arriving in form is by no means a prerequisite, siding with a team where neither man has been performing requires a little more logic than an affinity with the host state.
As such, my final selection is Alex Cejka and Ben Crane who are worth backing at 200/1 and upwards.
Again, not a fashionable pairing but Crane is a proven winner who is putting well – always his strength – and he showed some promising form when 11th in Texas last week, doing everything well.
He featured in the event last year alongside Ben Martin and the pair started perfectly well with back-to-back 67s, before a nightmare Saturday 77 saw them packing their bags ahead of schedule.
As for Cejka, he was the star of a partnership with Soren Kjeldsen, making eight birdies over the final 12 holes of the second round as the pair shot up the leaderboard with a round of 62 which was bettered by just one team.
Ultimately, they faded to a respectable 24th but the best of Cejka and the best of Crane would’ve made for a combination capable of shaking up the champions.
Cejka’s recent form is a slight worry but it’s more than factored into the price, especially as he’s long gone well at this course as he has at Dye’s most famous work, Sawgrass, and if his putter warms up these two could do some serious damage.
Preview posted at 1615 24/04/2018