With the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup just over the horizon and the Open Championship only just exiting the rear view mirror, golf fans are enjoying a glut of exciting events and this week should be no different with season’s final World Golf Championship – the Bridgestone Invitational – taking place at Firestone Country Club.
The narrative for the week is sure to be centred around Tiger Woods and whether or not he can win at the course for the 9th time, but in spite of his imperious record, he’s an easy swerve for me at 14.0 considering his struggles to seal the deal since returning to competitive action this year.
The greatest-of-all-time version of Tiger Woods, leading the Open Championship on the back nine on Sunday, would surely have shut the door and won with something to spare but this iteration looked nervous and struggled to hold it together having hit the front. That strengthens my resolve that, like Rickie Fowler, he’s unlikely to ever represent value in the win market from now on and should only be considered in the place market.
Firestone Country Club – located in Akron, Ohio – has hosted this event for the best part of 50 years so we have an abundance of course form and trends galore to work with. A look at the stats of recent runners up would indicate that the equation for winning here should be fairly simple – be excellent (and long) off the tee, hit a lot of greens, putt well and take advantage of birdie opportunities. Whilst that might sound like the ideal recipe everywhere, it is especially true here as all of the past five winners ranked in the top 5 of GIR for the week and four of the five topped the all around ranking (the other finished second), whilst four of the five ranked in the top 12 for driving distance for the week.
Essentially, all elements of a player’s game will be tested and they won’t be able to have a single bad round with the driver, irons or putter if they wish to stay in contention.
With the above said, a natural starting point would ordinarily be 2016 champion Dustin Johnson at 8.5. The World number 1 arrives off the back of a straight forward win at the Canadian Open and leads the Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, tee-to-green, total and ranks in the top 20 in both putting and greens in regulation stats. However, he is the same price this week as he was last week in a much weaker field and it feels like that was a chance missed rather than this week’s price being a great value proposition. He could well win but, at the odds, I’m content to let it happen.
2014 winner Rory McIlroy is another who’s game looks tailor made for the course but lingering doubts about his putting mean that he’s swerveable despite obvious claims. In a way it was incredible that he finished 2nd at Carnoustie given the sheer volume of 10 foot putts he missed but that has long been his MO, which makes backing him a painful proposition. We saw what he could do when he putted well at Bay Hill earlier this year – thrashing the field for his first PGA Tour victory since 2016 – but banking on him producing the same form with the flat stick this week seems too much to ask at 13.0.
Instead, we’ll start our staking plan with the man currently ranked second in the world and fourth in the betting – Justin Rose (15.0). The Englishman made the cut on the number at Carnoustie, sinking a 12 foot birdie putt on the 18th hole of his second round just to make the weekend, but he ended up going on the finish tied for runner up having played the weekend better than anybody. The 2nd place finish was his 18th top 10 finish in 23 events worldwide since last year’s PGA Championship, a run that includes four wins, one of which was a WGC event in Turkey. Rose sits 4th on the PGA Tour’s all around ranking, 2nd in scoring average, 7th in strokes gained: putting, 17th in strokes gained: off-the-tee and is averaging 302.5 yards per drive so is no slouch in terms of getting it out there. On top of this he has 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th place finishes at the track previously so clearly it fits his eye and it’s doubtful he’s ever arrived in the type of form he’s currently enjoying.
For me he should be clear second favourite and looks a few points overpriced.
After the Open, I copped some flack on Twitter for stating I felt dissatisfied that Francesco Molinari had triumphed, with some suggesting I didn’t appreciate good golf or didn’t know his history or his game. My comments were more borne of frustration on not getting to witness a potential playoff involving him, Tiger, Rory, Rose and Spieth which looked eminently possible late in the final round (surely real golf fans would have loved to have seen that?!) but perhaps the lack of context available in 140 characters meant that point did not come across. However, I can assure all readers that I know full well what Molinari is capable of, which is why I’m backing him this week at 28.0.
The Italian maestro has risen to number 6 in the world of the back of his Open victory, with a further two wins and two runner up finishes in his past six events. This form is impossible to ignore and is culmination of his work with renowned psychological coach Dave Aldred, the man who helped Luke Donald reach world number 1 and Jonny Wilkinson kick England to world cup glory in 2003.
Molinari enters the week ranked 4th in strokes gained: off-the-tee and 2nd in strokes gained: tee-to-green, whilst he also ranks in the top 20 for greens in regulation, scoring average and all-around ranking. Most tellingly has been his improvement in his putting. Like McIlroy, the flat stick has always been his achilles heel but in this recent hot run of form, he’s gained strokes every week and has made clutch putts whenever required. Whilst his form at Firestone has been pretty average, with a best finish of 15th in 2011, he’s game has gone to another level of late and it’s difficult not to see him in the frame at a decent price.
Finally, I’m going to recommend a bet on a man who regularly courts controversy, Bryson DeChambeau. The young American actually traded at odds on for last week’s Porsche European Open, before a disastrous four hole finish of 6-6-3-8, which represented a cumulative +5 on the par 5, par 5, par 3, par 5 closing stretch, knocked him down to 13th place. After that he snubbed Richard McEvoy, the journeyman who was celebrating his maiden first grade title, before later apologizing for his behaviour. It’s that sort of passion that leads me to believe he’s a prime candidate to bounce back immediately and Firestone looks a perfect venue for a man ranked 15th in strokes gained: off-the-tee, 15th in strokes gained: tee-to-green, 16th in the all around ranking, 16th in scoring average, 25th in driving distance and 32nd in greens in regulation. The world number 23 won the Memorial at Muirfield in June, a course with strong correlating links – Tiger has also won there five times, as has last year’s Bridgestone victor Hideki Matsuyama – which also plays in his favour and at odds of 81.0 at time of writing, he looks well overpriced.
- Justin Rose – 3 points win @ 15.0. (lay 3 points @ 3.0)
- Francesco Molinari – 2 points win @ 28.0 (lay 4 points @ 7.0)
- Bryson DeChambeau – 1 point win @ 81.0 (lay 4 points @ 11.0)