Our golf tipster Jamie Worsley had another place on the PGA Tour last week, when Sepp Straka finished T5th at 45/1. Now we head for another one of the elevated events, The Arnold Palmer Invitational and he has five more picks as well as a comprehensive preview.
Arnold Palmer Invitational Tips
- 2.5pts Justin Thomas – each way (1/5 8 places) – 22/1
- 1.5pts Matt Fitzpatrick – each way (1/5 6 places) – 35/1
- 1pt Shane Lowry – each way (1/5 8 places) – 55/1
- 1pt Gary Woodland – each way (1/5 8 places) – 70/1
- 1pt Sepp Straka – each way (1/5 8 places) – 150/1
For what last week’s Honda Classic lacked in star quality, it certainly made up for in storylines and an exciting finish.
Many players threatened throughout the week but ultimately we were left with a Sunday back-nine-battle between four-time PGA Tour winner, Chris Kirk and lightly raced 34-year-old, Eric Cole, who was chasing a first pro victory in his first ever season on the PGA Tour.
Kirk held sway for much of the day, before a two-shot swing on the 13th – Kirk making a bogey and Cole a birdie – saw the rookie take the lead for the first time. Though a bogey two holes later for Cole, followed by a birdie for Kirk on the next hole, saw the more experienced man retake the lead.
Kirk arrived at the final hole, still with a one shot advantage and after finding the fairway made a poor choice, trying to draw the ball into the flag over the water on the 18th and failed, finding the water and with Cole greenside in two, he looked to have every chance to take that first title.
Pressure is a huge thing and whilst Kirk hit an approach to around 20ft – a putt he needed to make to save par – Cole overhit a chip and ran off the other side of the green, only able to get up and down from there for par. Kirk then missed his par putt and we were off to extra holes.
A poor drive on the first playoff hole meant Kirk had to lay up, whilst Cole found the middle of the fairway again, from which he found the bunker at the back of the green with his second shot.
Then came one of the shots of the final round, as Kirk hit a wedge to a matter of inches for a tap-in birdie, amping the pressure on Cole; who responded with an excellent shot from the bunker to 10ft – a putt he needed to make.
The golfing gods can be cruel and despite Cole’s putt looking destined for the bottom of the hole, it lipped out and left Kirk with the tap-in for victory; his first in eight years.
Meanwhile, whilst a cruel finish for Cole, it was still a tournament which increased his stock immensely and he can come away with his head held high.
We have the not-so-small matter of THE PLAYERS Championship and TPC Sawgrass next week (the PGA Tour’s flagship event), but before that we head to Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where a high-quality field once again descends on this major championship like test.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill was first staged in 1979, five years after the legendary seven-time major champion purchased the course and started to stamp his mark on it. It has taken place every year since, during which time Palmer continued to alter and shape the course to his own designs.
From 2000-2013, the event was dominated by Tiger Woods, who won a record eight times during that period – sharing the record for most wins at a regular PGA Tour event with Sam Snead’s eight wins at the Wyndham Championship.
That winning period included four on the spin from 2000-2003 and saw Woods produce the most commanding victory in the event’s history in 2003, as he ran out an eleven-stroke winner over the field, shooting a score of -19; though not the lowest winning score in the event’s history, with Payne Stewart’s -20 in 1987 holding that honour.
It’s a place where major champions have a great record, indeed five of the last seven (Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau and Scottie Scheffler) are major winners.
That list also gives a hint of how well non-Americans do in the API, with Day, McIlroy and Molinari joined by Marc Leishman and Tyrrell Hatton as winners here in the last seven years, meaning there were no U.S winners from 2016-2020; and despite DeChambeau and Scheffler fighting back in the latest two renewals for the U.S, of their four closest challengers, three were European.
Scheffler won a brutally difficult renewal last year, shooting -5 to see off the trio of Tyrrell Hatton, Billy Horschel and Viktor Hovland. The event was awash with players critical of the course setup there, with the firmness of the course – particularly the greens – and the thickness of the rough coming in for specific criticism. It will be interesting to see if they ease it off a little this year or stick to those extreme difficulties of 2022.
Originally designed by Dick Wilson in the early 1960’s, Bay Hill was bought by Arnold Palmer in 1974, who performed multiple renovations and tweaks over the years to ultimately make this place his own; spending his winters at the course right up to his death in 2016.
A par 72 measuring 7466 yards, this big, flat, exposed yet tree-lined course provides a stern test from all angles; possessing an average winning score just over -10 over the last six years.
The largely doglegging fairways are pretty generous, though due to the firmness of which the course has played over recent years, finding them has proven difficult, with Bay Hill ranking just outside the top 10 most difficult courses in driving accuracy over the last three years. This made all the more problematic with thick rough, strategically placed bunkers and water – which is in-play on eight holes – awaiting errant tee shots.
Trouble begets more trouble at Bay Hill and this is certainly evident into the firm, fast and undulating bermudagrass greens, which though large have been the toughest to hit on the PGA Tour since 2019; whilst the third most challenging to find if missing the fairways.
The immense challenges asked of your ball-striking are then replicated in the questions it asks of your short-game. Said greens are the fifth most difficult to putt on the PGA Tour, whilst around the greens – where closely mown run-off areas have been replaced by thick rough in many places – Bay Hill ranked as the second toughest scrambling course on tour last season. Again protected by plenty of sand and water.
There are some good scoring opportunities, however none are gimmes and most come with dangers. The par 5s are all gettable, though two are protected by water. This includes the 511 yard 16th, which sets about an exciting watery finish, with water also well in-play on a number of the seemingly more scorable, shorter par 4s. Whilst the par 3s have some real teeth in them; three of the four are over 200 yards and protected by heavy bunkering and water.
Nothing is given at Bay Hill; everything is earned.
We’ve seen various types of skillset thrive at Bay Hill in recent years but quality approach play still looks to be the most key ingredient.
Last year’s edition saw Scottie Scheffler show just this, besting Billy Horschel, Tyrrell Hatton and Viktor Hovland by one stroke, thanks largely to a field leading approach performance, whilst a further three of the top 10 ranked top 10 in approach, including Horschel, ranking 5th and Hovland, ranking 9th.
Though excelling most with driver in 2021, leading the field, Bryson DeChambeau also produced a high-class approach display, ranking 9th and was 3rd in greens-in-regulation. Runner-up to DeChambeau, Lee Westwood, ranked 3rd in approach and 1st in GIR, whilst 3rd place finisher, Corey Conners, was the best iron player in the field. Jordan Spieth in 4th also reliant on his irons, where he ranked 5th in the field.
Tyrrell Hatton’s win in treacherous conditions in 2020 saw him rank 2nd in approach, whilst five of the top 12 ranked top 10 in GIR and four ranked top 10 in approach.
Further to that, Hatton was 5th in proximity from the rough, something that was also key for Scheffler last year, ranking 7th and in 2019, runner-up Matt Fitzpatrick led the field in proximity from the rough.
In addition, it could help to pay attention to those who shine with their long irons, as approaches at 200-225 have typically outweighed other distances at Bay Hill, due to the three par 3s in that range and the reachable par 5s.
Putting these fast, difficult greens has been almost as important. Scheffler did well on them last year, ranking 17th, whilst five of the top 10 ranked top 10 on the greens, including Hatton, who ranked 2nd.
Everyone who finished 4th or better in 2021 had at least a solid week on the greens, DeChambeau ranked 21st and of his nearest challengers, Andrew Putnam in 4th ranked 5th with the flat stick.
The top 2 in 2020, Tyrrell Hatton and Marc Leishman, ranked 15th and 4th on the greens respectively, whilst 2019 winner, Francesco Molinari was the 4th best putter in the field.
With the toughest greens to hit on tour, short-game sharpness will be a must, particularly looking for those who scramble well from the rough because of those changes that have been made around many of the greens.
And whilst the driver doesn’t look as important as other areas overall, it has been the driving force in two of the last four winners, with DeChambeau in 2021 and Molinari in 2019 producing field-leading driving performances when winning.
It’s a true championship test and as such, it is no surprise to realise that you can’t sleep on any area of your game.
Key Stats: SG: Approach, Greens-in-Regulation, Proximity from The Rough, Proximity 200-225 yards, SG: Putting
Secondary Stats: SG: Around-the-Greens, Scrambling from The Rough, SG: Off-the-Tee
Memorial Tournament (Muirfield Village)
Though fairways are more easy to find at Muirfield Village, it ranks closely to Bay Hill in GIR, penalty for missing fairways and scrambling; it is a true championship test that has developed strong links to this week’s event.
Over the past five years we’ve seen Bryson DeChambeau win both events, meanwhile, last year’s convincing Memorial winner, Billy Horschel, finished 2nd here; whilst Scheffler in front of him and Hovland alongside have both finished top 5 at Memorial.
Francesco Molinari has finished 3rd there, Marc Leishman has two top 5s and last week’s Honda Classic winner, Chris Kirk has a 4th place finish there to go with an excellent record here, finishing 8th and 5th the last two years. Additional form-ties on offer from a huge amount of players, including Kevin Chappell, Matt Wallace and Ryan Moore.
Honda Classic (PGA National)
Chris Kirk franked the Arnold Palmer Invitational/Honda Classic link with his victory last week. With both ranking closely to each other in every aspect in terms of challenges and possessing those same bermudagrass greens, I see no reason not to switch the correlation between these two Florida courses this week.
In addition to Kirk’s form, Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els have won both events, Sungjae Im is a past winner of the Honda and has finished 3rd here twice, whilst Keith Mitchell – another former Honda winner – has two top 6s in the API.
Tommy Fleetwood has top 5s in both, as do Gary Woodland, Keegan Bradley and Tyrrell Hatton; Luke List, Sung Kang and Emiliano Grillo also with form across both events.
Wells Fargo Championship (Quail Hollow)
2017 PGA Championship host, Quail Hollow is one of the most challenging major-like tests amongst the regular season courses and though it’s greens are a little easier to find, it ranks closely to Bay Hill in most aspects, whilst another course that uses bermudagrass on the putting surfaces.
Rory McIlroy and Jason Day have tasted success at both courses, whilst other past champions: Max Homa and Sean O’Hair, have good records at Bay Hill.
Keith Mitchell has recorded two top 8s there to go with his two top 6s here and Ryan Moore has two top 6s. Luke List, Patrick Rodgers and Matt Wallace amongst players who frank the form-ties further.
Houston Open (Memorial Park)
Memorial Park took over hosting duties at the Houston Open in 2020 and is starting to look like another strong championship test, with an average winning score of -13 in those three renewals. Everything is tricky there, with fairways similarly tough to find as at Bay Hill, whilst it provides a comparable level of challenge on and around the bermudagrass greens.
Form-ties aren’t as plentiful due to the short time it has been a PGA Tour host venue, though we find some.
Scottie Scheffler finished 2nd there in 2021, only a few months before winning here, whilst the man who beat him there, Jason Kokrak has multiple top 10s here. Joel Dahmen has top 5s at both; with Adam Hadwin, Keith Mitchell and Gary Woodland possessing top 10s across the two events.
Conditions are set to be warm and dry again, with strong winds set to be a fixture throughout the entire week; looking particularly tricky on Friday, as it is stated to reach as high as 20+mph.
Every eligible member of the world’s top 50 – which excludes the seven who went to LIV – will be in attendance this week in what is our strongest field of the year so far. Scottie Scheffler returns to defend as world #2, with #1 Jon Rahm looking for his 4th win in just six starts, after taking home the Genesis Invitational two weeks ago.
Some DP World Tour interest, as Adrian Meronk and Min Woo Lee stay on, joined by New Zealand’s Ryan Fox. Meanwhile, Patrick Cantlay makes a belated first start in the API.
Jon Rahm heads the market at 13/2 and is very much the man they all have to beat, coming out comfortably top of my model for this event. I’m not into backing 13/2 shots though and with strong winds and the potential for draw biases et al, it doesn’t appeal to dive in right at the top of the market, with the likes of Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler, who come next at 9/1 respectively.
I don’t stray too far from the front of the betting though and I’m taking reigning PGA Champion, Justin Thomas to continue his positive start to the season on his first visit to Bay Hill since 2015.
2.5pts Justin Thomas – each way (1/5 8 places)
That visit in 2015 – during Thomas’ rookie season on the PGA Tour – was his first and only start in this event. He’s come a long way since.
It’s fair to say that following his PGA Championship win at Southern Hills last year, that Thomas’ year petered out – besides the odd spark with top 5s in the Canadian Open and Tour Championship. However, he’s started this season strongly, hitting the top 25 in each of his four starts and just two starts ago finished an excellent 4th at the Phoenix Open.
Thomas has done everything well at some point over those four starts. Particularly encouraging has been seeing his approach play get back to more Justin Thomas levels, levels that make him one of the best iron players in the world; as we see from his ranking last season of 8th in approach, whilst he was also top 20 from 200-225 yards and this season top 30 in proximity from the rough.
He’s long been one of the best players around-the-greens, this shown by him ranking 1st on tour so far this year and he was the 14th best scrambler from the rough last season.
The driver has looked good too, particularly at the Phoenix Open three weeks ago, where he ranked 2nd and the putter sprung into life last time out in his 20th place finish in the Genesis Invitational, ranking 10th.
That solo start here in 2015 saw Thomas finish 49th, hitting the ball well but struggling with the short-game, however I find that largely an irrelevance. He has excellent correlating form, with wins in the Honda and at Quail Hollow, as well as multiple top 5s in the Memorial Tournament.
That win in the Honda wasn’t Thomas’ only success in Florida, as he also won the 2021 PLAYERS Championship. One of many players who lives in Jupiter, Florida, this is the state he currently calls home and with his encouraging form so far this season, he looks a danger here this week.
1.5pts Matt Fitzpatrick – each way (1/5 6 places)
The move from West to East can often bring about an upturn in form for some players and I’m hoping this can be the case for Matt Fitzpatrick this week, as he looks to overcome a slow start to the year at a place where he has consistently performed well.
Last year’s US Open winner started his year with a positive 7th place finish in the Tournament of Champions but hasn’t kicked on from there, missing the cut at Pebble Beach on his next start, before finishing 29th at the Phoenix Open and then missing the cut again at the Genesis two weeks ago.
He’s been driving the ball well, continuing to display that extra power he added to his game last year, whilst he’s been solid around the greens; though the rest of his game has looked a little weak, particularly his approach play and that usually trusty putter hasn’t really fired over his last three starts.
Fitzpatrick can spark into life here though, at a course where he’s finished 2nd, 9th, 10th and 9th on his last four visits, a record no doubt helped by how good he is from the rough, ranking 1st in scrambling from the rough and 7th in proximity from the rough on the PGA Tour last season, whilst he has gained strokes on these greens on every visit, even on the rare occasions he’s had a missed cut.
A 3rd place finish at Muirfield Village signifies further how well suited he is to this type of test and as a player who typically looks at his very best on tough courses and/or in tough conditions, I think we’ll see the prime version of Fitzpatrick this week.
1pt Shane Lowry – each way (1/5 8 places)
I was quite keen on a few British and Irish players this week, Matt Fitzpatrick aside. Tyrrell Hatton has a superb record here and is a past champion, whilst there have been signs Tommy Fleetwood is starting to come to the boil and Seamus Power’s consistently solid all-round game can see him perform well anywhere. However, I just couldn’t get away from Shane Lowry here, despite his poor record in the event.
Lowry has never made the cut here in four previous visits but I see no reason for these poor performances and with the quality his tee-to-green game’s shown over the last two weeks, it’s a record I expect him to put right.
He made a slow start to this year over on the DP World Tour, finishing 28th in the Abu Dhabi Championship and missing the cut in the Dubai Desert Classic. Another missed cut in Phoenix followed, but he found life at the Genesis Invitational two starts ago.
Lowry finished 14th there – a place where he’d only ever recorded a missed cut and a withdrawal – thanks to a strong tee-to-green performance, ranking 12th in the field and gaining strokes in all areas; notably excellent playing from the rough too, where he ranked 4th in proximity (and currently ranks 2nd overall this season).
He then kicked it up a notch last week in the Honda Classic, adding to an already good record with a 5th place finish. Again he was excellent tee-to-green, ranking 1st but both of those performances were hindered by the putter; a club that has failed to fire so far this year and will need to spark into life here.
Lowry’s form at the Honda – which also saw him finish 2nd last year – gives me confidence he can improve those poor performances here, as does a 6th place finish at the Memorial.
He typically looks at home when playing is tough and if able to find a little on the greens this week, the quality of his game tee-to-green – which has been on show for much of the last two years – can drive him to a good finish.
1pt Gary Woodland – each way (1/5 8 places)
Gary Woodland finished 5th here last year after an absence of six years from Bay Hill, with him striking the ball excellently so far this year, he can replicate that level of performance this week.
Woodland has got progressively better with each start this year. Following a missed cut in his first start of the year in Hawaii, he finished 62nd at the Farmers Insurance Open, 42nd in the Phoenix Open, before a 9th place finish in the Genesis Invitational last time out.
He’s driven the ball excellently over that period, indeed this goes back to the end of last year too, ranking 26th on the PGA Tour. Though his approach play has been even more impressive, seeing Woodland rank 11th this season; particularly excelling in that 200-225 range, ranking 3rd.
This was all on show in that 9th in the Genesis, as Woodland ranked 3rd in approach, 1st in GIR and 2nd in proximity from the rough; whilst also top 10 off-the-tee. The short-game has been the concern, though he has putted these greens well (ranked 6th here last year).
Woodland has recorded two further top 25s here to go with his 5th place finish last year. Meanwhile, his record at correlating courses is excellent. He has four top 10s at the Honda Classic, including a runner-up finish in 2017, two top 5s at Quail Hollow, two top 10s in the Memorial (one of them a top 5), whilst he’s also hit the top 10 in Houston.
There is little not to like about Woodland this week. He showed here last year that he can handle the tricked up setup mixed with tough conditions and if the quality of his ball-striking at Riviera can transfer to Bay Hill, he looks set for another strong week.
1pt Sepp Straka – each way (1/5 8 places)
Sepp Straka placed for us last week in the Honda Classic and I’m going back to the well on him this week at a much bigger price.
There Straka finished 5th, predominantly thanks to an excellent iron display, as he hit more greens than anyone and ranked 2nd in approach; also looking solid with the driver and on the greens.
This was following a slow but unusual start to the season for Straka, as he ventured over to the DP World Tour for the first time in years and to the Middle East for the first time ever, missing both cuts in the UAE but showed positive signs when 45th in the Genesis on his return stateside, before that quality display last week.
The strength in iron play he showed last week was not a new development, as he’d been hitting them well at the end of last year, ranking top 20 in both approach and GIR on the PGA Tour this season, whilst he is also top 50 on the greens. Additionally, I am buoyed by his quality in scrambling from the rough, for which he ranked 9th last season.
This game should translate to him being able to perform here, which hasn’t proven to be the case so far, as he’s missed the cut in each of his three starts at Bay Hill.
However, that win at the Honda bodes well for his potential to play well here, as does a top 5 in Houston and if Straka hits his irons as well as he did last week, whilst finding only small improvements in other areas, he can banish that poor record this week.
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