Arnold Palmer Invitational (Thurs 7th – Sun 10th March)
Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Florida
The FSB Blog is back, refreshed and recharged for a stellar fortnight of stateside action. And happily hard on the heels of a headline winner in Dustin Johnson at 11-1 last time out. DJ’s languid, five-shot stroll to victory in Mexico City was seldom in doubt (he finished a whopping 10 shots clear of third place, too) and even runner-up Rory McIlroy confessed he couldn’t get close to his rival’s ball-striking and strategy on the tight, twisting Chapultepec layout.
This week at Bay Hill is a different kettle of fish, however, as Rors returns to the Arnold Palmer Invitational as the defending champion with no DJ to contend with. And no Tiger Woods either, the ultimate horse for this course with eight titles, who withdrew on Monday with a sore neck. The myriad watery graves of Bay Hill provide a worthy forerunner to next Thursday’s Sawgrass dunk-fest at The Players, demanding a high-trajectory ball flight and tee-to-green proficiency – the hallmarks of McIlroy’s heavy-artillery game.
In short, it’s no surprise to see Wee Mac so short at the 7-1 mark. That said, this invitational field is front-loaded with a bunch of in-form sorts, including recently deposed (by DJ) world number ones in Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka – remember them? Chuck in the rebounding Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Phil Mickelson, course specialist Marc Leishman, two of last year’s major breakout stars (Frankie Molinari and Pat Reed) not to mention the white-hot Rickie Fowler and Bryson DeChambeau, and you start to scratch your head as to where the value lies amongst these fashionable front-runners.
The truth is, it’s difficult to discern. For all their top-of-the-totem-pole talents, their rich collective heritage for winning bog-standard events is pretty embarrassing. Take out a legitimate all-time great in Phil, plus any major victories, and no-one really hits the double-digit domain for standard PGA Tour career wins. Just take Messrs Fowler and Koepka who have only five common-or-garden Ws between them. Put concisely, their strike-rates stink. So, at paltry prices ranging from 7-1 to 28-1, McIlroy’s 10 non-major PGA Tour wins, coupled to some excellent course and current form, do rather stand out at this brute of a 7,500-yard par 72, which matches both his eye and game.
But before we get to this week’s picks, around a literally hazardous track where the leaderboard can fluctuate wildly with eagles and snowmen (cue Greg Norman’s flashbacks to Robert Gamez: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2w3l0WZtHw) this is a place to downgrade stakes slightly, and wait for more reliable battles ahead. And next Thursday’s reliable “fifth major” at Sawgrass is exactly that. Not long to go.
Tyrrell Hatton 70-1
Aside from Rose and Paul Casey, I’d put Hatton down as the most talented English golfer in terms of potential. His shot-making is superb, and this pure ball-striker can mix it in the majors (four top-10s in the last three years) when his deadeye flatstick behaves. Europeans have a strong history here, while Bay Hill form (Hatton wound up in fourth here in 2017) also correlates solidly with Dubai, another waterfront walk spoiled where the 27-year-old enjoys previous. He could make a mockery of some big prices.
Byeong Hun An 90-1
One of the purest swingers in town for clean contacts, Benny An’s form has foundered of late with some performances which range from sublime to ridiculous mid-tournament. Putting is the main problem – and when he misses a couple of tiddlers the doubts can filter through his wider game. Just take his 74-64 in New Mexico, or his 66-76 in the Phoenix desert. Each time, the lower round arrived in tougher conditions, too! Difficult to trust but registered a more consistent, albeit middle-of-the-road, performance at the Honda last Sunday. Could be on the verge of pulling all the threads together, or unravelling into oblivion.
Others to note:
Rory McIlroy 7-1
As discussed, the reigning champ’s course and current form is hardly the best-kept secret in the game. Indeed, form figures of T4-T5-T4-2 so far this term already offer validation for McIlroy’s decision to focus solely on the U.S circuit. While it remains a harsh fact of reality that he’s only won once (this title last year) on either side of the pond since 2016, he heads the state for strokes gained tee-to-green this year, and those skills should separate him from the rabble here. Remember, if you take Johnson out, Rors won the WGC by five shots and would’ve then been a 5-1 poke here.
Danny Lee 200-1
Joined An in a share of 36th at PGA National, but was in the top five heading into the weekend. Like An, this is a wonderful young player struggling for some elusive confidence. Although there was enough to like about his 69-67 opening on the lake-strewn PGA National, and he’s posted a couple of promising top 20s around Bay Hill in recent years. A Jekyll-and-Hyde longshot for a capricious, two-faced course. Seems appropriate.
Lay of the week:
Justin Rose 10-1
Two victories from his past five global starts, including a textbook close at Torrey Pines, but J-Ro most recently bombed out in Saudi Arabia with a missed cut. He’s now been off for five weeks stateside, and has admitted that his next big focus is The Masters in the second week in April at Augusta, where he bids to atone for his play-off defeat to Sergio Garcia in 2017. Accordingly, he will be looking to peak a little further down the road and this looks like an opportunity to brush off the rust.
The FSB blog will return at next week’s Players Championship, Sawgrass (14th – 17th March)