It was a steady if unspectacular week for us at the Sony Open with all four of our picks making the weekend and one off them Kevin Kisner finishing third and giving us a full place return.
For Kisner to have a serious chance of overhauling the front two on Sunday of Russell Henley and Hideki Matsuyama it needed a spectacular effort and after he birdied his first three holes it looked like he might just produce it. Unfortunately though his putter cooled down as the front nine progressed and from there on it was just a case of him securing us the place money.
The event itself was won by Matsuyama who produced a stunning back nine to make up five shots on Henley who stalled at just the wrong time. After Henley missed a birdie putt of 10ft to win on 18 the event went to extra holes and the Masters Champion closed things out in spectacular fashion with an eagle.
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.
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. Last year however due to the Covid 19 pandemic both events were played as purely professional events with no amateurs taking part and as a result both and both were played across two courses and not three. This year though normal service resumes with La Quinta returning to the course rotation.
As has always historically been the case then the players will play one round each on The Stadium Course, The Nicklaus Tournament course and La Quinta over the first three days with The Stadium Course then hosting the final round.
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 hopefully the event can regain a profile more akin to its previous heyday.
The market is dominated by the two really big names teeing it up Jon Rahm and Patrick Cantlay who are both available at single figure odds. This pair are then followed by Scottie Scheffler, Sungjae Im, Tony Finau and Corey Conners.
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. Prior to 2020 the Nicklaus Tournament Course greens were changed to Tiff eagle Bermuda. In addition they were also expanded in size.
La Quinta Country Club has been the staple diet of the event for 50 years and, up until last year had been used with no breaks since 2010.
All players get to play one round on each course over the first three days before a 54 hole cut is made. The players who make the cut then play the final round at the Stadium Course.
Those betting in running should note that of the 3 courses La Quinta yields the lowest scoring average, whilst The Stadium Course is the toughest nut to crack.
The greens on all 3 courses are Bermuda.
Whilst the current course rotation [with the exception of La Quinta missing out last year] 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 six editions from 2016 have been as follows;
2021 Si Woo Kim
2020 Andrew Landry
2019 Adam Long
2018 Jon Rahm
2017 Hudson Swafford
2016 Jason Dufner
With still fairly limited data to go on it is perhaps too early to say whether patterns in relation to these winners are coincidence, however in 2019 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 2020 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!
Finally last years winner Si Woo Kim, whilst not really threatening the top of the leaderboard at the Sony Open the week before had posted a solid 25th place finish in Honolulu, which had put him on a lot of peoples radar’s, including I’m pleased to say ours!
Despite the lack of form coming in from the 2019 and 2020 winners one constant does remain though in that the last six 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.
Moving on and 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 the long game [if you pardon the pun] that he had flourished in that year rather on or around the green.
Looking at the 2020 leaderboard champion Andrew Landry’s strength comes in his accurate driving while Ancer, Scheffler, Straka and Burns who all finished prominently are all high quality ball strikers.
Finally as for last years champion Si Woo Kim in the Korean we of course had an out and out Pete Dye specialist who no doubt flourished here further due to the extra round on the Stadium Course.
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 both Si Woo Kim and Landry are Texas based, as are Ancer and Ghim who finished top five last year and Scheffler, who along with Ancer again finished in the top three in 2020.
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 Cantlay, Na, Steele and Lovemark. Something, which we can probably put down to the Bermuda greens.
From the point of correlating courses while we need to bear in mind Pete Dye tracks, 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 2020 we will see that last years winner Si Woo Kim is a former champion at TPC Stonebrae while 2019 champion here 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.
Last year with three of the four rounds played on the Pete Dye designed Stadium Course as opposed to two in previous years it made sense to focus more on form on other Dye tracks particularly TPC Sawgrass, which bears a lot of similarities to this weeks venue and was an obvious pointer and this lead us to Si Woo Kim. This year even though the Stadium Course will revert to hosting only two rounds again it is still worth of course cross referencing other Dye tracks.
With regards to previous course form and until 2020 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. In 2020 though this changed as Landry had placed second here two years prior to his victory.
2021 winner Si Woo Kim had managed nothing better than 40th in two visits since 2016 however again we need to note that last years tweak to the rotation favoured him.
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 -23 -26, -26, -22, -20 & -25 respectively.
We look set for a week of sunshine and perfect temperatures sitting around the 80 degrees mark.
The wind, which occasionally can be an issue here does show the possibility of gusts of 15mph+ at times across the week, however as a whole it does not look like it will be much of a factor.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with six players this week as follows;
RUSSELL KNOX – 100/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED MC
In a week where in all honesty no one would be remotely surprised if we saw Rahm and Cantlay battling it out come Sunday my view is that if we are going to take them on we should do so at big odds, knowing that at least there is profit to be made in the place part of the bet.
I will start our staking plan this week then at juicy odds with Russell Knox before going further down the market for our other picks.
After posting his maiden PGA Tour win in a WGC event in China and following that up with a second tour title at the Travelers Championship the following year Knox was seemingly heading to the upper echelons of the game however things then stalled somewhat for him before he completely lost his way in the second half of the 2019/20 season after the tour resumed following the covid hiatus.
After posting three top 20s prior to the Christmas break at the start of 2020/21 Russell faltered again early last year however interestingly by far his two best efforts between January and May came here and at Pebble Beach again in California.
While the remainder of the season was scratchy to say the least Russell did enough to maintain his card and after a 12th place finish in Bermuda before Christmas he posted his best result last week in the Sony Open, a seventh place, since his seventh at Pebble Beach last year.
Looking at Knox’s performance in Hawaii and after a solid opening two days he really found a groove over the weekend making just one bogey alongside 12 birdies.
Knox’s approach play, which has never really deserted him, even in the darkest times, improved every day over the week and he finished ranked tenth in this department, while he was also ranked eighth from tee to green, tenth in driving accuracy and fifth in good old fashioned GIR.
As is often the way with strong ball strikers the Scot’s main achilles heel is his putter and his ranking of 207th for the season at the moment tells you all you need to know.
As we saw though with Hideki Matsuyama last week when a great ball striker finds their form on the greens anything can happen and with Russell ranked 26th last week with the flat stick there are positive signs to build on.
As mentioned earlier Knox’ second tour win came at the Pete Dye designed TPC River Highlands home of the Travelers and as a resident of Ponte Vedre he is of course very well acquainted with TPC Sawgrass, which mirrors this weeks stadium Course closely.
There is no doubt that this event has favoured strong ball strikers over recent years since the current course rotation was implemented with the likes of Dufner and Swafford triumphing here and Knox’s name sits perfectly in that bracket and even through his struggles over the recent years he has not finished outside of the top 40 here in his past four visits.
Allowing for this then my hope is Russell can build on his really strong performance in Hawaii this week at another event he is clearly fond of and I am keen to have him on side.
HAYDEN BUCKLEY – 125/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Next up in a week where there will be a solid representation of strong ball strikers in my team I am going to chance that this is an event that proves to be to the liking of Hayden Buckley.
Buckley has so far taken to the PGA Tour like a duck to water with his solid tee to green game bringing him two top ten finishes in the Fall events, including a fourth place when we were on board at the Sandersons, and a further 12th place finish last week at The Sony, all of, which sees him currently in a loft 38th place in the Fedex Cup standings.
A one time winner on the Korn Ferry Tour Buckley’s stats in that league last season where he ranked ninth in GIR and 19th in DA showed us where his strengths lie and this season he has continued in the same vein currently ranking 10th off the tee and 35th in approach play.
Last week in Hawaii Hayden’s long game was again in great shape as he ranked second for the week off the tee and second in DA, missing only one fairway over the final two days.
An eighth place in the desert at the Shriners last fall is encouraging from the point of view of a liking for this weeks type of conditions and the fact that he also finished eighth in the BMW Charity Pro Am on the Korn Ferry Tour last season is also a positive sign for him being relaxed in this type of event.
Finally while Buckley has shown no fear as a rookie on tour so far the fact that for the first three days of this event he will play away from the glare of any high profile pairing and in a relaxed pro am format allowing for him to just focus on the job in hand I also see as a positive.
Assuming it is normal service with his long game as long as his putter half co operates on pro am friendly greens Hayden should make plenty of birdies and he likes an ideal type to me take to this event.
ADAM SVENSSON – 100/1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 49th
Next up for me this week is a player who was right in the thick of things last week Adam Svensson.
After a first unsuccessful first stint on the PGA Tour in 2018/19 Svensson returns to the tour this season on the back of two further Korn Ferry victories, and you would have to think is far better equipped this time around to make a go of things.
It has to be said that the above statement hadn’t been initially reflected in Adam’s play pre-Christmas as the best he could manage in the Fall events was a 22nd place in Bermuda.
Last week however things clicked in to place for the Canadian and he posted his best ever finish on the PGA Tour, a seventh place in Hawaii.
At Waialae the key to Adam’s success was his approach play, which saw him rank sixth in this area for the week and a repeat performance of that type of iron play will stand him in great stead this week.
One further huge positive for Svensson, and surely a contributary factor to his upturn last week, is that he had Tim Tucker, Bryson Dechambeau’s former caddie on his bag, and if this is to be a long term arrangement the experience Tucker will bring will certainly be invaluable.
As mentioned earlier Svensson’s first spin around the block on the PGA Tour was not very productive however another positive for this week is that one of his biggest highlights of that campaign was in this event when he finished 18th.
Returning here for the first time this week since that performance on the back of his strong effort last week it will also not be lost on Adam that he won his first Korn ferry title in this corresponding week in 2018 and I expect a bold showing from him this time round.
ANDREW PUTNAM – 125/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 14th
Next up this week for me is Andrew Putnam.
Putnam’s lone PGA Tour success to date came in the Barracuda Championship, another desert event back in 2018 , in addition to this he has also posted a runner up finish in that event and last year he notched a seventh place in Phoenix, while his best result so far this season is 11th place at the Shriners. From that point of view then Andrew is always on my radar when the tour hits the desert.
In relation to this event while Putnam has never hit the frame here since this course rotation has been in play he has posted four strong finishes including a best of tenth place a couple of years ago, while his most lacklustre effort of 34th came on the back of a runner up finish in the Sony, so there was potentially some let down there. Put that result to one side and he has posted finishes of 21st, 17th and 10th, solid stuff indeed.
Following on from this another point that hits me is that Andrew posted his second place in the Sony after his lone visit to date to the Sentry ToC, while his other solid efforts here have come after he blew off the cobwebs to start the year at the Sony.
This time around then while not in the thick of things at Waialae he had that solid run out we are looking for finishing 27th, a performance which included your typical year opening mixed bag.
When on song Putnam has shown that he is not afraid to mix it in big events with big names and the hope is that this week he will push on from last week at an event he clearly likes.
SEPP STRAKA – 250/1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 49th
Next up for me this week I cant resist chancing Sepp Straka here once more.
As longer term followers will remember one of the highlights of our 2020 was when I sided with Straka in this event at 300/1 and he bagged us a full each way return.
My reasoning for siding with the Austrian then 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.
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.
Last year Sepp again closed out the Sony with a 65 however at much shorter odds he delivered a disappointing missed cut, which was symptomatic of a bye and large disappointing remainder of his season, which saw him finish 106th in the Fedex Cup. It should be noted though that one of his best results, a 10th place came at the Dye designed TPC River Highlands.
2021/22 has again started poorly for Sepp, however guess what, he closed out the Sony with his best round of the season to date, a 65!
With nothing better than a 33rd place so far this season in eight starts and with five missed cuts to his name Sepp needs to step things up if he is to avoid another difficult campaign.
As we know though he is a player who can pop up out of nowhere at big odds if the course suits him, as it did here in 2020 of course, and having gained strokes in his approach play every day at Waialae with his best effort coming on Sunday I am happy to chance him at big odds here again this week.
RYAN MOORE – 175/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED MC
Finally I am going to take a roll of the dice that Ryan Moore’s current predicament with regards to his Tour status can lead him to produce a big week when he needs it.
To expand further and following on from a back injury Moore finds himself playing on a major medical extension and with four starts remaining he needs 94 or so Fedex Cup points or basically a top ten to keep his full status.
Moore showed last season when finishing second out of the blue at one of his favoured haunts, TPC Deere Run, that he still has what it takes and as result of that finish he would still get a reasonable chunk of starts on his 125-150 ranking should he not satisfy his MME, all the same though Moore will be keen to get the job done and regain his full status.
Perhaps partly due to the pressure he is under Ryan has missed a bunch of cuts this season on the number and has produced some steady stuff without it all clicking. In particular his accuracy off the tee remains as solid as ever.
Last week at Waialae was more evidence of this as Friday saw him play bogey free and gain 1.4 shots from tee to green, while his DA rank over the two days was 20th, unfortunately though 127th for the first two rounds in putting also told its story.
In fairness to Moore though Waialae is not a venue he has visited for many, many years so there certainly would have been an unfamiliarity with the greens. This week though we have a different story and the last time this event was played on this exact three course rotation Ryan opened his 2020 with a sixth place here.
At huge odds then I am happy to round off this week by rolling the dice that Ryan builds on last weeks solid year opening long game effort, particularly on Friday and finds something with the putter and if he can do that on layouts he has had success on before he could just spring a surprise at huge odds.