Tiger Woods returns to action in the Genesis Invitational, but it’s his protege and potential playing partner who heads Ben Coley’s staking plan.
Golf betting tips: Genesis Invitational
3pts e.w. Justin Thomas at 20/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
3pts e.w. Patrick Cantlay at 20/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Cam Davis at 80/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Taylor Moore at 200/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
Trying to sum up the first six weeks of the new PGA Tour season has given me a headache. Imagine how it must feel to run the show.
These six events have provided storylines enough for an entire year in some ways: we’ve had the first amateur winner since Phil Mickelson, a couple of significant comebacks from personal torment, history for France. Every event that has lasted 72 holes has been engrossing to the end if you are one of those people who can still find it within you to call a golf broadcast engrossing. It’s been nice to see Bud Cauley and Gary Woodland back in action, too.
We’ve also had enough frustrations for an entire year, whether that be among bickering players, with the out of control fans in Phoenix or, most of all, the weather. Delays early last week meant the Super Bowl had long since begun by the time Nick Taylor cruelly putted the heart out of Charley Hoffman. Pebble Beach didn’t even get that far, having been beautifully poised through 54 holes but forced to stop there.
Who knows what happens next, but something like Tiger Woods returning with a sensational, internet-stopping 63 and then somehow missing the cut in an event where you only need to be 50th among 70 players to make it would be my best guess. We’re living in golf’s version of the upside-down, and with every week that passes by, stranger things happen.
Ready for Riviera
In theory, Riviera Country Club should help to restore order even if it might be softer than usual and therefore lacking a little bite. This is an unrelenting test, at least once the gimme par-five opener is out of the way. Fairways and greens are both especially hard to find and while we’ve had a couple of shock results down the years, this smaller field reduces that possibility by quite a bit.
It is not as long as Torrey Pines, not as brazenly dramatic as Scottsdale, not as iconic as Pebble Beach, but Riviera is the aficionado’s early-season highlight for a reason, with or without Woods. This is the third Signature Event of the season in name (I think?), but it feels like it’s where things go up a gear on the road to the Masters. PGA Tour officials will certainly hope so.
Speaking of Augusta, that’s a good place to go hunting for clues. Neither course demands accuracy off the tee but you do need to be sharp with your irons and around the greens, more so than most weeks. They’re difficult to hit, Dustin Johnson the last man to manage more than 75% and that back in 2017, and missing in the wrong spots – often extremely penal bunkers – can be costly.
Long-hitters have dominated of late, with Johnson, JB Holmes and Bubba Watson all featuring on the roll-of-honour, but Riviera to me is a bit more about the intangibles. You’ve got to be on your game, manage your mistakes, even make good decisions in a sport which asks questions less often than it should. All of these aspects return us to the idea that it’s time for something a little more obvious to unfold.
It could be that Scottie Scheffler putts well enough to win, which looked set to be the case for about 65 of the 72 holes last week, but I’d prefer Rory McIlroy of the top two in the betting. He’ll enjoy rain-softened conditions and while his performance at Pebble Beach was underwhelming, it’s not the best event for him. McIlroy had returned at the top of his game in January and may well prove the man to beat here.
At 9/1 in this small field I was extremely close to siding with him, but preference is for four each-way bets starting with JUSTIN THOMAS.
My only reluctance as far as Thomas goes is the fact he’s yet to win out on the west coast, but he did hold a four-shot lead here in 2019 and there seems to be something he sees on these Riviera greens that he can’t elsewhere, as four top-20s in six years have all featured good putting.
That club is the only one I’m not sure he’s totally comfortable with at the moment and it’s worth noting that his positive returns in Phoenix came courtesy of one very good round, but all in all he’s looked more assured than he was during his infamous malaise last summer, which cost him a FedEx Cup Playoffs spot and might’ve cost him much more than that.
Since getting the Ryder Cup call, Thomas has justified that decision with a run of 5-4-3-3-6-12 and as well as driving the ball to a good standard, his iron play has shown signs of a return to its best. He’s not been quite there yet, but the sense is that it’s coming, perhaps before he returns to the more familiar surroundings of Florida in a couple of weeks.
Certainly there’s an argument that nobody is better than him with a wedge in hand at the moment and the importance of a sharp short-game was highlighted on last year’s Genesis leaderboard, when the top five in strokes-gained around the green were all inside the top 10.
Thomas himself managed 20th at a time when he certainly wasn’t at the top of his game, he’d been sixth a year earlier, and across 2018 and 2019 he finished ninth and second courtesy of that trademark approach work. His closing 75 in the latter renewal must go down as one of the most frustrating rounds of his career so far.
The fact that he may well be ‘drawn’ with mentor and friend Tiger Woods is of no concern – that’s been the case for three of these strong Riviera performances, and he opened 66-65 in the pick of them – and while a player like Thomas can be hard to price when their form returns, I don’t think much needs to be said when it comes to one of the most prolific winners of his generation.
Thomas has won a major at 25/1 and The PLAYERS at 20/1. At Riviera, absent of three recent course winners and a couple more world-class players who no longer play on the PGA Tour, and with doubts surrounding so many of those who remain, he looks a knocking bet.
Viktor Hovland’s coaching switch will remain head-scratching until he demonstrates otherwise and few will want to take that risk on board at 12/1, while Xander Schauffele also skipped Phoenix to work on his game, and Max Homa has endured a quiet start to the year.
So has PATRICK CANTLAY but I’m hopeful he can step up a level for his hometown event.
As well as talking about his fondness for the test Riviera presents and what it means to someone from these parts, Cantlay has gone out there and shown how suitable it is for him.
Form figures of 4-15-17-15-33-3 since he returned to the PGA Tour represent some of the strongest in the field and all of these results came about thanks to a strong driving display.
That offers encouragement following a bit of a sloppy start to 2024 from a ball-striking perspective but remember Cantlay had taken an extended break following the Ryder Cup, and opening rounds of 64, 65 and 64 since returning to action confirm that his best isn’t far away.
It’s easy to take a dim view of 11th place at Pebble Beach given the fact that he was favourite following the opening round, but had he been able to finish that event on the front foot perhaps he’d have found himself priced up as the biggest threat to the big two, which is where I feel he belongs.
By way of illustration, Cantlay’s last 24 rounds here have all been solid, nothing worse than 72, and he’s ended 11 of them inside the top 10, compared to just once for his friend and teammate Schauffele whose results otherwise look broadly similar. Schauffele’s was a backdoor ninth on debut, a result he’s never bettered, but what’s most striking is how far from the lead he has been in each of his appearances.
Cantlay led the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green last year and it should be noted he’d just missed the cut at Scottsdale, having flattered to deceive in the AmEx and not been any kind of factor in the Tournament of Champions before that, so it was hardly a dazzling start to 2023, either.
His preparation this time has been broadly similar if not a little more positive and in this smaller, weaker field, I expect him to do as he always does around here and get involved. Since his game Ryder Cup display last September I’ve wondered whether this might be the year Cantlay takes that final step up the ladder, and at the same price as Pebble Beach I want to pull at that thread once more.
Remember, ahead of that event we had a red-hot McIlroy and no real concerns over Schauffele or Homa. It feels to me as though the nature of Cantlay’s 11th place, that being fading after a strong start, rather clouds the simple fact that he outperformed all the biggest names bar Scheffler there. He won’t need much improvement to go close.
Moore surprises in store?
The awesome Ludvig Aberg and the only slightly less awesome Nicolai Hojgaard have both defied inexperience to finish runner-up in California already this year and should enjoy conditions, but Tommy Fleetwood would be my pick of the Europeans.
He’s improved here throughout three starts and having seen off McIlroy in Dubai, a first PGA Tour title may well be around the corner, but perhaps over on the east coast instead.
Along with Cameron Young and Tony Finau, Fleetwood makes up a strong second wave of the market but I’m happy to go scanning for something bigger and will side with TAYLOR MOORE, the man who denied Fleetwood at the Valspar Championship last year.
Copperhead is quite similar to Riviera in many respects, certainly in the way it winds one way and then the other not to mention how difficult it can be, and Moore has shown a definite fondness for traditional, tree-lined courses like these two, Sedgefield, Sawgrass and Detroit.
He’s long enough off the tee to deal with Riviera, where he ranked 11th in that department on his way to a debut 21st, and his missed cut last year came only by a narrow margin after a solid, one-under par 70 to begin the week.
Moore went on to hit the ball well at the US Open across town only to putt badly in that event and that’s the worry right now, as he was hopeless during the first and third rounds in Phoenix. However, on Sunday he was able to rank 20th in the field and while up and down, his stats last season make him one of the better putters in this field.
If he rediscovers his best here then he’s shown enough to suggest he has the game for Riviera and at 59th in the world, this could be a good opportunity to make up for the fact that he narrowly missed out on the top 50 and all those big-event starts at the end of 2023.
California’s Beau Hossler continues to demonstrate that he’s never been better and he has flashes of form at this course to his name, but my final selection is CAM DAVIS at a similar price.
We were on Davis, Adam Scott and Wyndham Clark at big odds at Pebble Beach and while the other two are now considerably shorter in the betting, Davis still holds plenty of appeal having finished 20th there despite holing nothing of note, leading the field in strokes-gained approach over 36 holes at the host course.
It was in fact the Aussie’s worst putting display since the US Open last summer but while poa annua greens are a common theme, he’s produced the goods at Pebble Beach as well as elsewhere in California before, plus on broadly similar surfaces when winning for us in Detroit a couple of years ago.
That remains his sole PGA Tour victory but there’s much more to come from Davis, who hit the frame in the PGA Championship last May as well as at The PLAYERS in what was without doubt his best season yet once it got going.
He’d earlier missed the cut here but he was playing poorly at the time and while his overall Riviera record isn’t good on the face of it, nine of his 12 rounds have been par or better, with two 77s undermining plenty of promise. He was 11th in strokes-gained approach when making the weekend in 2021 and this is the first time since that he arrives with some early-season momentum.
As well as putting poorly, Davis paid the price for a slow start at Spyglass Hill last time, before shooting rounds of 69 and 68 at Pebble Beach, making just a single bogey. Having led early on at the Sony Open and in Australia before Christmas, I suspect he’s close to contending, and I believe Riviera is a much better fit than a glance at his results might have you believe.
Posted at 2000 GMT on 12/02/24
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