It’s California Dreaming again for Ollie Noonan this week as the PGA Tour heads to Torrey Pines for the Farmers Insurance Open from Torrey Pines.
As a golf fan, it’s difficult to look at this week’s field for the Farmers Insurance Open and not be immediately enthused. Choked full of narratives, the event really has captured the attention of the game’s best, with 12 of the world’s top 20 players making the trip to California for their spin around the two Torrey Pines tracks. We’ve got high-class former winners, former prodigies with plenty to prove, the improving next level guys and, of course, the greatest of all time, who just so happens to own eight wins at the course. It’s a TV Executives dream and sure to be hotly contested come Sunday, but presents a putting conundrum which is challenging to solve.
Our starting point then is to narrow the field to solely the top 30 or so at the head of the market (generally those priced <101.0). Whilst we saw last week with Adam Long’s shock victory at the Desert Classic, that occasionally 751.0 shots do get over the line (well done if you picked him out pre-tournament!), this is a week where it is largely worth discounting the chaff and focussing solely on the wheat.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen just five champions who don’t also possess a major championship to their name – with Jon Rahm and Brandt Snedeker certainly not without chances of diminishing that number still further – so it’s an event where the cream has traditionally risen.
As the old adage goes, the greatest predictor of future results is past performance and I’m happy to follow that approach here.
Next up, we’ll take a look at the host courses. The South Course, which sees 54 holes worth of action, is a brute clocking in at just shy of 7700 yards – the longest course in the regular PGA Tour rotation each season.
Given its length and penal rough, driving the ball well here is a pre-requisite, so strokes gained off-the-tee is a stat which is well worth a look when trying to find the winner and will be my first port of call.
It’s also worth taking past performance on Poa Annua greens into account, given their unique nature, so players who have excelled previously here, at Riviera, at Silverado and at Pebble Beach are given a definite plus. In the past five seasons, Torrey Pines South has ranked inside the top 8 most difficult track players face on Tour each year so a winning score of around -10 is more likely than the -26 we saw during the desert classic last week. In tougher events, I am always of the belief that avoiding big numbers is more important than capitalising on scoring chances so bogey avoidance is also on my checklist here.
The North Course used to give players some respite from the challenge presented on its big brother, but since a 2016 Tom Weiskopf redesign, scoring differentials have moved from an average of 3.29 strokes easier to just 1.49 strokes easier.
It’s no longer the place you can make up ground, though if you can find a bookie offering 18 hole matchups involving players split across the courses (very rare nowadays), you’ll have a natural advantage picking the player on the North.
There is also an odd quirk that the last eight winners have starting their tournament on the South Course. It’s a relatively small sample size so I’m reticent to add to much stock to it, but one school of thought is that being in the mix after round 1 on the South gives players the freedom to be more aggressive on the North the following day.
If you feel there are legs to that theory, it’s worth waiting to see how the draw comes out on Tuesday afternoon.
With all of the above said, I’ve settled on three selections – all from the head of the market and all of whom are relatively unimaginative!
Finau Is A Coming Force
My headline pick is Tony Finau. The world number 10 still has as many dislocated-ankles-on-the-eve-of-Major-tournaments as he does PGA Tour wins, but there is absolutely no doubting the fact that he’s knocking on the door of win number two.
He was runner up five times last year in PGA Tour events, finished in the top 10 at three majors plus three of the FedEx Cup playoff events, so there really isn’t much more he could have done to announce himself as an elite talent.
Amongst those events were impressive showings at Riviera and Ridgewood CC, both featuring Poa Annua greens – unsurprising as he picks up an additional 0.503 expected strokes gained on Poa greens vs his norm, whilst he’s finished 4th and 6th here in the past two years demonstrating his liking for the course. In 2018, Finau ranked 22nd in strokes gained: off-the-tee, 4th in driving distance and 24th in bogey avoidance so his game shapes perfectly for this challenge and he’s hard to see out of contention.
At 23.0 he’s priced very fairly and I expect a strong run.
Keen To Back Cantlay
My next best is Patrick Cantlay (29.0). The California native is another exceptional driver of the ball, ranking 10th on Tour for strokes gained: off-the-tee in 2018, and has previously spoken of his affinity for Poa Annua greens given he grew up playing them, with last season’s top 10s at Riviera and Ridgewood CC bearing this out.
His record here doesn’t leap off the page with just a lowly 51st place finish and a 2013 missed cut to his name, but he’s continually improving and arrives here off the back of three straight strokeplay top 10s, including last week’s tie for 9th in an event which wouldn’t appear to suit his style. He led the field in strokes gained: approach during the measured rounds last week so his long game is clearly in good shape and the return to Poa Annua should help his putting, so a big challenge is likely.
The course will definitely fit better than his record has shown thus far and he looks primed for a big challenge.
Value Day On This Aussie
My final pick is defending champion Jason Day (21.0). Perhaps due to his snowflake tendencies, the 30-year-old Aussie doesn’t really get the respect he deserves and the price looks too big about a man who has two wins and runner up in the past five years here. Yes, there are two missed cuts sandwiched in between but one of those was off the back of an illness so can be excused.
The former world number one won twice last season and has finished in the top 20 of nine of his last 11 starts so it’s not like his form has taken a dip plus he ranks 2nd on expected strokes gained on Poa Annua greens since 2014 so will enjoy the greens more than most.
Whilst he lost a little accuracy last season, he’s always been a long hitter and a return to a track whose sightlines he enjoys should produce better results.
Ultimately, here we have the seventh highest world ranked golfer in the field, known to go well fresh, with great course form and reasonable recent form and we can get 21.0 about him.
It just feels too big.
- Tony Finau – 2.5 points @ 23.0 (lay 5 points @ 3.0)
- Patrick Cantlay – 2 points @ 29.0 (lay 5 points @ 5.0)
- Jason Day – 1 point @ 21.0 (lay 3 points @ 3.0)