It was a disappointing week for us at the Sony Open as we were never at the races with three of our team missing the cut and the two who did make the weekend, Brendan Todd and sungjae Im unable to crack the top 40.
Inevitably you will have weeks like that from time to time and all you can do is dust yourself down and move on.
The event itself was won by Kevin Na who hunted down Honolulu’s nearly man Brendan Steele down the stretch, to bag his fourth tour title in just over three years. Hugely impressive stuff.
So after its two week stint in Hawaii the PGA Tour moves across to Palm Springs, California for the start of the traditional ‘West Coast Swing’ played at this time of year with the first event of this stretch being the American Express.
Normally this event is the first of two Pro Am events in a four week stretch [The other being the AT & T National] with both events played across three courses.
This year however due to the Covid 19 pandemic both events will be played as purely professional events with no amateurs taking part and as a result both will be played across two courses and not three.
With regards to this event that means players will play one round on the host course, The Stadium Course and one round on the Nicklaus Tournament course with The Stadium Course then hosting the final two rounds. The course to miss out this year is La Quinta, which historically yields the lowest scores.
The American Express first debuted on tour as the Palm Springs Classic in 1960. Since then it has gone through many guises and course changes and is most synonymous with the late Bob Hope who was the tournament host for many years, with the event being known as The Bob Hope Desert Classic and then the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic for many a year.
Over the more recent years the tournament has struggled to find a long term lead sponsor and after stints from Humana and CareerBuilder it found itself without a title sponsor in 2019 and with its future in real jeopardy.
Fortunately however it was announced at the back end of 2019 that American Express had signed a ‘multiyear’ deal to take over as lead sponsor of the event and with Phil Mickelson as tournament host its is hopefully the tournament can regain a profile more akin to its previous heyday.
Following the late withdrawal of Jon Rahm the market is headed up by Patrick Cantlay. The Californian is then followed by Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Scottie Scheffler.
As noted above the event is being played across just two courses this year which are situated in the Coachella Valley in the Palm Springs area of California. The courses used this year will be as follows;
The Stadium Course
The Nicklaus Tournament Course
The Courses used for the event have changed over the years and the current rotation has been in play for the last four editions.
The Stadium Course is the current host course and having had a brief stint in the rotation in the mid 1980s was reintroduced in 2016, so this will be its fifth year in use of late.
The Stadium Course is a Pete Dye design so it is certainly worth looking at form across other Pete Dye courses used on tour with TPC Sawgrass being an obvious point of reference.
The Nicklaus Tournament Course was also added to the events course rotation in 2016 replacing the PGA West Nicklaus Private Course.
All players will play a round on The stadium and one on the Nicklaus Tournament over the first two days before a 36 hole cut is made. The players who make the cut then play the final two rounds at the Stadium Course.
The greens on both courses are Bermuda.
Whilst the current course rotation has only been in play for the last five editions of the event it is worth noting that the now defunct PGA Tour Q School used to be played at the Stadium Course every other year and it is certainly worth cross referencing results from this event which was last played in 2012.
With the courses used for the event having undergone such a radical overhaul since 2016 it is probably not worth looking back further than that year.
The winners of the five editions from 2016 have been as follows;
2020 Andrew Landry
2019 Adam Long
2018 Jon Rahm
2017 Hudson Swafford
2016 Jason Dufner
With limited data to go on it is perhaps too early to say whether patterns in relation to these winners are coincidence, however this time last year I noted that all of the first three winners had performed well on their previous start, which was their first one of the new calendar year.
In Dufner and Swafford’s case they had finished 9th & 13th respectively at the Sony Open the week before, whilst in Rahm’s case he finished 2nd at the Sentry ToC last year before skipping the Sony Open.
2019 shock winner Adam Long though blew this blossoming trend out of the water completely as he had missed his previous three cuts on tour including at the Sony the week prior and last years winner Andrew Landry continued things in the same vein as he arrived here on the back of five straight missed cuts stretching back to the previous fall and was whatever price you liked!
Despite the lack of form coming in from the last two winners one constant does remain though in that the last five winners had all tee’d it up once previously in the calendar year, giving them a crucial ‘warm up’ edge over those who were dusting down the clubs for the first time that year.
One trend, which has developed since the change in course roster in 2016 though, and which I can’t help thinking is not a coincidence, is that since the introduction of a Pete Dye course as the host course we have seen players more renowned for their prowess from tee to green and as ‘Ball strikers’ come out on top.
This is particularly the case with Dufner and Swafford, however Rahm is of course strong in all departments including this area, while if we look at the end of year stats for 2019 winner Adam Long it is clear that the long game [if you pardon the pun] is where his strengths lie rather on or around the green.
Finally looking at last years leaderboard champion Andrew Landry’s strength comes in his accurate driving while Ancer, Scheffler, Straka and Burns are all high quality ball strikers.
Another point to note is that although this is a ‘West Coast’ event if we look at the final leaderboards over the past four years this is not an event dominated by players who hail from/are based in California or the surrounding states, in fact it is players from the Southern/Eastern states who have dominated here.
To back this up we can see that last years winner Landry is a Texas man, as are Ancer and Scheffler who finished second and third. Adam Long hails from Louisiana and is based in the golfing mecca of Jupiter, Florida. Dufner is an Auburn man and Swafford is a Georgia man. In fact aside from Phil Mickelson the only other recognised Cali guys to make the top six here in the last five years are Na, Steele and Lovemark. Something, which we can probably put down to the Bermuda greens.
From the point of correlating courses while there is nothing that immediately leaps of the page to me from the PGA Tour historical results, one event on the Korn Ferry Tour has caught my eye, The Ellie Mae Classic At TPC Stonebrae, also in California.
To explain further if we look at the history of this event from 2015 to 2018 we will see that last years winner of the American Express, Adam Long, finished fourth at the Ellie Mae Classic the year before, delve back a year further we will see that the players who finished first and second at the Ellie Mae in 2017, Martin Piller and Brandon Harkins, finished third and eighth respectively at the Amex a year later. Finally, 2015 Ellie Mae runner up Jamie Lovemark finished sixth here in 2016.
Of course this year three of the four rounds will be played on the Pete Dye designed Stadium Course as opposed to two in previous years and with that in mind it certainly makes sense to focus more on form on other Dye tracks this year with TPC Sawgrass, which bears a lot of similarities to this weeks venue an obvious pointer.
With regards to previous course form and until last year there had been no pointers to any of the winners since changes to the course rota’s in 2016 as the best any of the four winners had managed previously on the current rotation was a 34th place from 2018 winner Jon Rahm.
Last year however this changed as Landry had placed second here two years prior to his victory.
Whilst the addition of the Stadium Course to the rota has toughened things up slightly in terms of scoring this event is still basically a birdie fest and this can be seen by the fact that the winning number over the past five years has been -26, -26, -22, -20 & -25 respectively. This however with three rounds to be played on the Stadium Course and the easiest course in the normal rotation LaQuinta dropped I would expect scoring to be tougher.
All of the lead up days and all four tournament days show temperatures of high 60s to low 70s, sunshine, with a very small chance of rain early in the week.
Winds of no more that 5-7 mph are forecast for the first three days however Sunday shows the possibility of gusts of 15mph+.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with six players this week as follows;
SI WOO KIM – 55-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 1st!!!
All roads lead to Si Woo Kim this week and in all honesty I find him impossible to leave out.
Those who read my ‘six to follow for 2021’ will know that I expect big things from Kim this year based on the really strong improvements he has made under the tutelage of Claude Harmon III over the past twelve months.
Historically one of the tours most inconsistent performers known for swathes of poor performances before popping up with a big result, Si Woo has morphed in to one of the steadiest players out there of late as a record of fifteen made cuts in seventeen starts since the PGA Tour’s resumption last June shows.
Si Woo finished off 2020 with a solid 34th place at the Masters and after a break of two months he came back out again in similarly strong form posting a 25th place at Waialae at the weekend.
At the Sony Si Woo had a typical ‘rust knocking off’ performance as he was up and down in his stats over the four days, with his putter cooperating and gaining strokes for him on Thursday and Sunday, and his tee to green game firing for the first three days, before deserting him to a certain extent on the final day. One would hope though Si Woo will ‘come on’ for this performance and the consistency will be there for the full week this week.
So away from the young Korean’s strong form of late why side with him this week?, well with three rounds to be played on the Pete Dye Stadium course this week in my eyes we should certainly be paying closer attention to form on Dye designs this time around than we would perhaps do in another year, particularly as you would think the course would be set up in a tougher manner to how it normally is in the Pro-Am format, and with that in mind of Si Woo leaps off the page.
Memorably the winner at the 2017 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass Kim also has a runner up finish to his name at Hilton Head. In addition he has three solid showings at the Dye designed TPC River Highlands to his name including an 11th place last year.
Looking at Si Woo’s history in this event it is fair to say that it is varied. Many will remember last year that the young Korean hit rock bottom here as he shot 87 around the Nicklaus course before withdrawing with a back injury.
On the flip side of the coin however Kim finished ninth here in 2016 when tellingly he ranked third for the week from tee to green on the Stadium Course, shooting two rounds of 67, and he also shot a bogey free 64 on the Nicklaus course
All in all Kim’s stand out form on Dye designs coupled with his strong form of late makes him a standout bet for me this week and I am happy to have him on side.
ABRAHAM ANCER – 33-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED T5th
The next player to make our team this week is the first of two from last week, who despite both missing the cut, I am happy to give another chance to.
The first man in question is Abraham Ancer.
Ancer to put it bluntly had a shocker last week on the greens at Waialae and it was this that lead to him having the weekend off.
Basically the Mexican gained strokes in all areas of the long game over the first two days only for the flat stick to badly let him down and when on Friday afternoon he missed for birdie from 4ft on the fifth and then for par from 3.5ft on the next hole the writing was on the wall.
So bearing in mind his struggles on the greens last week why go back to the well with Ancer this week?
Well firstly I just can’t believe he can putt as badly again, after all we are not talking about a player known as a perennial poor putter – he ranked 41st on tour with the flatstick last season, and 75th so far this – so I am happy to put it down as an aberration, particularly as he putted so well at Kapalua the week before. Furthermore last year Ancer ranked second in putting for the two measured rounds at the Stadium Course on his way to second place here so you would have to think he will be comfortable on these greens.
Talking of Ancer’s run here last year and we can obviously take great heart from the fact that his two best rounds of the week were his 66 and closing 63 on The Stadium track and this certainly bodes well coming in to this year.
The fact that Abraham played so well on the Stadium Course last year shouldn’t come as a huge surprise as he has shown an affinity for Pete Dye tracks in his time on tour to date, finishing Second at The RBC Heritage, eighth and 11th at the Travelers and 12th at TPC Sawgrass.
All in all Ancer has been in incredibly solid form of late and with the missed cut at the Sony being his first weekend off this season I am happy to side with him to bounce back in style this week and land that long overdue maiden tour title.
SEPP STRAKA – 70-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Next up for me this week is Sepp Straka.
Longer term followers will remember that one of the highlights of our 2020 was when I sided with Straka in this event last January at 300/1 and he bagged us a full each way return.
My reasoning for siding with the Austrian last year was put together from a few different strands. Firstly he had closed out at the Sony Open on Sunday with a bogey free 65, which lead me to believe that he could have found some momentum to take forward.
Secondly in his time up to then on tour Straka had shown if the mood took him he wasn’t afraid to get in the hunt, posting top five finishes at the Houston Open and The Barbasol, as well as performing admirably at the US Open.
Finally as a really solid ball striker it struck me that Sepp would be at home on a Pete Dye layout, something he had rubber stamped when finishing third on the Dye course used at the Web.com Tour Championship in 2018 on a -18 total.
As I say Sepp delivered for us in spades that week posting 65 and 66 on his two spins around The Stadium Course and going bogey free. Furthermore he ranked second in approach play, third from tee to green and ninth in putting for the week on the two measured rounds on the Stadium Course.
Roll the clock forward twelve months and while Straka is still to win on the PGA Tour he has started the 20/21 season with a far greater level of consistency than we are used to seeing from him historically, making eight of his nine first cuts including a fifth place finish in Houston.
At the Sony Open last week Straka closed out with a 65, his best effort of the week, to post a solid 25th place result, so there is certainly an element of déjà vu as he arrives here this time around.
With his performance in this event last year and with his solid play so far this season the fancy odds that were available on Sepp last year are long gone, however with an extra round on his favoured course this year I fancy him strongly to perform well here again and he is a must for me again this week.
CT PAN – 175-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
My next pick is the second to get another chance from last week, CT Pan.
Pan’s strong upturn in form last fall culminating in his superb seventh place at the Masters was enough to have me siding with him last week in an event that I thought would play to his strengths.
Unfortunately though after an opening 65 left him perfectly placed to push on from an early tee time on Friday things went wrong for CT and a two over par 72 saw him packing his bags on Friday lunchtime.
Looking at Pan’s numbers over the first two days it was real Jekyll and Hyde stuff as having gained strokes from tee to green, in approach play and in putting on Thursday he regressed in all areas on Friday.
The hope of course is that this was just a case of dusting off the cobwebs after the Christmas break and as we have seen from Landry and Long over the past two years here a missed cut in the Sony Open is hardly the be all and end all.
So if we dismiss Pan’s missed cut from last week what we then have is a clear pattern of a player trending back in to form nicely and who has crucially of course landed his lone PGA Tour title to date on a Pete Dye design at the RBC Heritage.
All in all CT has shown enough to make me think that he can pop up again with a win at big odds in the near future and having bagged his first trophy in the big league on the back of a missed cut I am happy to dismiss Friday’s bad day and chance him to build on last Thursday’s opening round and his strong form prior to Christmas.
MARTIN TRAINER – 1000-1 – 1/2pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
My final two selections this week to smaller stakes are undoubtedly X rated stuff and not for the faint hearted and I will totally understand if after glancing at the two names in question readers draw the line there and do not go any further.
For those still with me however I will now, as much as you can for a 1000/1 shot, firstly look to make a case for Martin Trainer.
Trainer has now been on the PGA Tour for two and a bit full seasons and in that time he has made the cut on a grand total of nine occasions. Fortunately for him though on one of those occasions he won hence he is still out here.
Since that victory, which came in the 2019 Puerto Rico Open Martin has cracked the top fifty on just two occasions [if we exclude the Sentry ToC last year]. One of these occasions was a 41st place at TPC Sawgrass not long after his win and the other time was when he finished 47th last week.
If we look further back in to Trainer’s history he arrived on the PGA Tour on the back of a two win season in 2018 on the Korn Ferry Tour where aside from those two successes he only made the cut on six more occasions. In other words if you haven’t already worked it out yet Trainer is the sort of player capable of sinking to some dreadful lows form wise but one who is also more than capable of winning when the mood takes his fancy.
So why this week? Well quite simply the Californian’s 47th in Hawaii was his best effort since The Players in 2019 and his closing bogey free 64 was his lowest round on tour since he’s been out here.
Trainer has made two visits to this event since he’s been on tour and not unsurprisingly he missed the cut on both occasions however in amongst that he posted a 67 one of his two rounds on the Stadium Course, which also offers encouragement.
As the phrase goes ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ of course and there is every possibility Trainer reverts to type this week after last weeks effort, however his win in Puerto Rico was proceeded by an eye catching 28th in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am and I just can’t resist chancing this mercurial player on the basis that the performance at Waialae sparks him in to life in a similar way.
GRAYSON MURRAY – 400-1 – 1/2pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
If I haven’t lost you with my last pick my final selection this week may well have you running for a cold, dark room as I am going to wrap things up by chancing Grayson Murray.
A lot of course has been written about Murray and this column is not here to talk about his politics and/or his twitter account, rather though to focus on his golf.
From that point of view it would be remiss for me not to say that there really hasn’t been too much to talk about on that front of late, however, similarly to our previous pick Murray is a hugely talented player who on his day knows how to win a golf tournament.
Of late of course there has been very little sign of Murray doing that however if he is going to get over the line again it may well be that this event is where he does it as, for whatever reason it is the venue at which he has produced his most solid series of results since joining the tour.
Tenth here last year when he closed with a 66 on the Stadium Course Murray has also popped up with a 14th and a 12th on two of his other three visits.
While 2018’s strong showing came after he had a ‘sighter’ at the Sentry ToC, last year’s tenth was his first start on tour since a WD in Houston the previous October while 2017’s effort hadn’t seem him tee it up since the November prior.
This year however Grayson has had the luxury of getting a couple of rounds at the Sony under his belt and while it was another weekend off for him he was bogey free in his 67 on Thursday, gaining over three shots from tee to green, so there is clearly some game lurking.
On that basis I’ll finish off by rolling the dice that Murray can strike lightning in a bottle this week in an event that has thrown up two huge priced winners over the past two years.
UPDATED 19th JANUARY
FANTASY DRAFTKINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - AARON BADDELEY - DK VALUE $6500 - FINISHED MC- DK POINTS 40
Needless to say there are plenty of sub $7K DK options in my main betting selections this week but as always I will add a couple of specific further plays the first of, which is Aaron Baddeley.
Badds has been in one of his now familar slumps for for quite a while and prior to last weekend had made only one cut on tour in seven starts this season.
The Aussie however has been working for a while with Butch Harmon and the improvements he has talked about feeling in his swing manifested in his performance at Waialae and although he faded on Sunday there were plenty of positives to be taken.
This week allowing for his past succeses on Pete Dye layouts,, particularly at Hilton Head where he is a former champion, I am optimistic he can push on an deliver another strong performance.
PICK 2 - JAMIE LOVEMARK - DK VALUE $6300 - FINISHED 40th - DK POINTS 78
Jamie Lovemark has been on the back foot for a while now ever since a serious shoulder injury derailed him at this very event two years ago.
Now on a Major Medical Exemption Lovemark needs to start producing some results to avoid a potential return to the Korn Ferry finals later in the year.
A made cut at the Sony Open was a solid enough curtain raiser to the year and having placed sixth here in 2016 he should be confident of taking last weekends effort forward and being involved in the action for all four days again.