There was one man who dominated the narrative during last week’s Valspar Championship, and that man does so again this week, as Tiger Woods heads a market pre-event for the first time since 2013. The 79-time PGA Tour winner’s putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with perennial nearly man Paul Casey ultimately came up a touch short but the electricity he created around the event was such that its TV viewing figures were second only to the Masters when compared with every other Tour event over the past 12 months. As one commentator succinctly put it on Twitter,
“Tiger doesn’t move the needle, he is the needle”.
The fact that Tiger came so close to adding trophy number 80 at an event he’d not previously attended is an ominous sign for his foes this week, as this week’s host course Bay Hill has been the scene of eight of his victories, including both of the past two times he teed it up here, in 2012 and 2013. He opened up around the 8.0 mark with the traditional bookies and, given his record at the event, there was no shortage of punters looking to snap those odds up; he now rates at 7.2 on the Matchbook Exchange at time of writing. Whilst that might seem tempting, it is worth remembering that he didn’t quite get over the line last week and it’s been nigh on 5 years since his last victory.
The timeout due to Tiger’s personal issues and injuries saw a fearless crop of golfers emerge on the scene, and the fields in standard Tour events now are without doubt a lot deeper than when he last teed it up. Given this, I’m happy to let him win at the price and I certainly won’t feel that I missed out if he does oblige.
With all the talk of the Big Cat returning to potential winning form, Casey’s victory was somewhat overlooked as he sealed his first PGA Tour win this decade, taking just 21 putts in his final round having traded at three figures on Sunday morning.
Casey’s victory following Phil Mickelson’s first win in five seasons, followed Bubba Watson’s triumph after a year in which he’d fallen out of the world top 100, demonstrating the real strength in depth on the PGA Tour, and with more of Europe’s premier players coming over than ever, the golfing landscape is becoming tougher and tougher for punters.
Given the tougher landscape, it’s great to see Matchbook offer a top 10 market and that is an area that I’d recommend people look to play as there will be some great value to be found in events such as this.
The 7,419 yard par 72 Bay Hill is a classic Floridian layout, with wide fairways and water hazards – which a 2015 re-design saw become more prominent dangers as the rough skirting them, which often served as a buffer for more wayward types, was removed or cut right down. Whilst the fairways are wide, the rough surrounding them is reasonably penal so there is a definite advantage in being in the fairway but this is very much a second shot course where GIR is king.
Of the winners thus far this decade, five have ranked in the top 10 of the GIR stats, with two leading it, including Marc Leishman last year. Given this, I’ll be looking for players rated highly in the GIR charts, who have displayed solid tee-to-green form recently. Allied to this, Bay Hill ranked in the top 3 hardest courses on Tour for proximity of approach last year, so we’ll need players whose lag putting is excellent.
My favourite stat for looking at that is three-putt avoidance and I’ll certainly be favouring players rated highly in this stat. Finally, with Bermudagrass greens, I’ll be giving a nod to players who have displayed solid form on similar surfaces previously.
We’ll be having two outright bets this week, a top 10 bet and two matchbets. I’ll start with the outrights. Tommy Fleetwood is a man who returned us some profit in Mexico a couple of weeks ago when beating Rickie Fowler in a match bet and he’s a man I like to go all the way here.
The 27-year-old Fleetwood finished tied for 10th here on debut last season and you have to feel that he’s progressed significantly since then, given he’s subsequently picked up the Race to Dubai title, his first top 5 at a Major (US Open) and another flagship win at the Abu Dhabi Champioship at the beginning of this year. That continued improvement has been built on a rock solid tee-to-green game and, whilst he finished only 14th in Mexico, he shot 67-66 over the weekend, with his strokes gained splits showing all elements of his game improving as the week went on. Now 11th in the world, he ranks 2nd on the strokes gained tee-to-green list this season and very much feels like one still on the upgrade. He also looks like the one with no question marks at the head of a market that includes Woods (short?), Rose (poor final round at Copperhead), McIlroy (putting woes), Fowler (flopped when single fig fav at Honda Classic latest), Matsuyama (recent illness) and Stenson (surprisingly poor showing last week). I expect a strong challenge.
My other outright selection is the aforementioned Bubba Watson. Watson looked on the way out when fiddling around with the pink Volvik ball last season, but a return to proper equipment seems to have rejuvenated his game, as anyone who watched his straightforward win at Riviera will attest. The emotional left-hander is Florida born and bred and has demonstrated an ability to get round Bay Hill well previously with finishes of 4th and 8th in the past decade. Watson ranks in the top 50 for strokes gained tee-to-green this season and, perhaps surprisingly, is currently inside the top 20 for three putt avoidance. He followed his win with a 9th place finish in Mexico last time out and he should play a big part here as he continues a march towards Augusta and an attempt at picking up his third green jacket.
Emiliano Grillo is one of the famed class of 2011, and he looked to have the world at his feet after winning his first start as a PGA Tour pro at the 2015 Frys.com Open. He hasn’t quite kicked on from there but looks to be rounding back to somewhere near his best with a top 10 at the Honda Classic last time out in the US, followed up with a 6th placed finish at the Hero Indian Open last week on the European Tour, having lead after each of the first two rounds. He ranks in the top 55 of both of the key stats laid out about and has a formline at Bay Hill reading T17-T7. He should go well and I’ll be backing him for a top 10.
Finally, I’ll be having bets in two match bets this week, taking Lucas Glover to beat Ryan Moore, and Jason Kokrak to beat Louis Oosthuzien.
Starting with Glover and Moore, if you were to run this as a mythical matchup over the years at Bay Hill, Glover would have 5 wins from 5, which is not dissimilar to the 3 wins from 4 that he has from the tournaments that both players have played together this season. He was 7th here last season, which is one of four top 17 finishes over the years, whilst Moore has a best of 4th in 2012 but otherwise has pretty ordinary form with just one other finish inside the top 35 in eight tries at the course.
More recently Moore was abject in missing the cut last week, when backed by our money, as all parts of his game failed to fire on a course that had suited previously. Glover made the cut but finished tailed off, though it was encouraging to see that his short game looked fine as it is usually this that holds him back. I fully expect his vaunted tee-to-green game to come back to him this week and believe that he should be the favourite in this matchup.
The Oosthuizen/Kokrak matchup is interesting as on their best form you’d expect the South African to run away with it but sadly, that form appears all too infrequently. His tie for 16th at the Valspar was his best finish of the calendar year, yet he finished just T55 for GIR and T64 for strokes gained putting. He was saved by his scrambling game and it’s hard to rely on that as standard week after week. His formline at Bay Hill is ok, reading T28-T9-T63 in three tournaments across nine years but is nothing exceptional.
Kokrak on the otherhand, has a pair of top 6 finishes at the course in the past four seasons, along with another top 20. He did miss the cut when a rookie in 2012, which can be excused, but his overall course form looks more solid. On top of this, he beat Oosthuizen last week when finishing 8th and has made each of his six cuts in 2018 to date, with just one finish worse than T35. He ranks in the top 34 of both of our key stats and finished last week ranking 8th in strokes gained tee-to-green and 10th in strokes gained around the green so his all round game is clearly in good nick.
Again I’d have Kokrak a marginal favourite based on recent form and think this one has been priced on name recognition.
- Tommy Fleetwood – 2 points outright @ 25.0 (lay back 3 points at 5.0)
- Bubba Watson – 1 point outright @ 46.0 (lay back 4 points @ 7.0)
- Emilliano Grillo – 2 points top 10 @ 5.5
- Lucas Glover – 5 points to beat Ryan Moore @ 2.00
- Jason Kokrak – 3 points to beat Louis Oosthuizen @ 2.20