It was an excellent week for us at the Sony Open as although we didn’t bag the winner Cameron Smith, our two ‘grizzled veteran’ selections Graeme McDowell and Ryan Palmer did us proud bagging full e/w returns for us at 150s and 80s respectively to ensure a healthy profit on the week.
In Palmer’s case things could have been even better as a birdie at the easiest hole on the course, the par 5 18th would have been enough to see him make the playoff. Unfortunately however working on the assumption that Steele coming up behind him would make birdie on 18 Ryan, feeling he needed to make an eagle, ‘went for it’ after finding the bunker off the tee only to get an unfortunate bounce of the stands, which took him out of bounds, leading to him making a bogey six. Still, when you add his and Gmac’s performance together it was a great result and I would settle for that every week!
So after it’s 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 newly titled American Express.
This event is the first of two Pro Am events in a 4 week stretch [The other being the AT & T National]. Both of these events are played across three courses.
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 last year and with its future in real jeopardy.
Fortunately however it was announced last Fall that American Express had signed a ‘multiyear’ deal to take over as lead sponsor of the event and with Phil Mickelson also announced as tournament host its is hoped that the tournament can begin to regain a profile more akin to its previous heyday.
With the event taking a pro-am format when considering selections this week it’s worth remembering the challenges the players face of playing near 5hr rounds in a pro-am event.
This event isn’t for everyone and you’ll see certain players never touch either this event or the AT & T. This year it is perhaps worth considering this even more as with the pull of the new sponsor and Phil Mickelson’s involvement there are certainly some players in the field who historically don’t normally tee it up in this sort format.
Equally some other players love the laid back atmosphere that comes with this style of event and love the opportunity they get of playing with relatives or friends. It helps to have a laid back temperament in this format!
The field and betting market is headed up by Rickie Fowler, who returns to the event for the first time since 2014, Sungjae Im, Paul Casey and Tony Finau.
As noted above the event is played across three courses all in the Resort of La Quinta, which is situated in the Coachella Valley in the Palm Springs area of California. The courses used at present are as follows;
The Stadium Course
The Nicklaus Tournament Course
La Quinta Country Club
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.
La Quinta Country Club has been the staple diet of the event for 50 years and has 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 has only been in play for the last three 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 four editions from 2016 have been as follows;
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.
Last years 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.
In fact after his victory last year Long went on to miss his next five cuts before bouncing back at the API with tenth place finish, meaning that his record for his first ten starts as life as a full PGA Tour member read eight missed cuts, one 63rd place finish and a victory!
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 last years 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.
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 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 four 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.
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 three years has been -26, -22, -20 & -25 respectively.
After two weeks of high winds in Hawaii we are set for something way calmer this week.
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 and winds of no more that 5-7 mph. Basically pretty much perfect scoring conditions.
As I always so though this could all change!
With the weather set fair low scoring looks sure to be the order of the day and in all honesty this looks a pretty hard event to pin down. With that in mind whilst a victory for one of those at the head of the market naturally wouldn’t be a huge surprise I see this as a week to roll the dice at bigger odds and as such I have gone with five players this week as follows;
MATTHEW NeSMITH – 175-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 17th
As I mentioned above since the introduction of the Pete Dye Stadium Course to the rota in 2016 the undoubted trend has been towards players who are stronger from tee to green than they are on and around the putting surfaces, and our first pick this week, who certainly fits that bill is Matthew NeSmith.
NeSmith’s is a name that will not be overly familiar to some readers however he found his way on to the PGA Tour courtesy of a victory at one of the Korn Ferry finals events, the Albertsons Boise Open last August.
After joining the big league NeSmith struggled out of the gates missing his first three cuts however he made his first cut of the season in another desert event in Las Vegas going on to finish 18th.
Following this result the 26yr old missed the cut at Houston on his next start before making his latest three cuts, the most recent being a solid 32nd place finish last weekend in Hawaii.
During his time on the Korn Ferry Tour NeSmith was known for his strong iron play and he actually finished last season ranked number one on the KF Tour for GIR. This season NeSmith has also started strongly from tee to green on the PGA Tour and he currently ranks 29th in Ball striking.
With the host course this week being a Pete Dye design as already stated it is no surprise that strong ball strikers have come to the fore here over the last few years since its introduction in 2016.
in an ideal world we would have some Pete Dye form to back up our thoughts however, whilst this is not the case with Matthew, what we do have is his self-confessed love for the Dye design at Hilton Head, which hosts the RBC Heritage and the South Carolinian native actually proposed to his wife on the 18th green there.
From this point of view I am sure NeSmith has plenty of experience on the nuances of Dye designs and I am sure he will be determined to deliver a strong performance this week to honour the recent of the legendary course designer.
I mentioned earlier that one other tournament I have found links to between this week’s venue is the Ellie Mae Classic on the Korn Ferry Tour and it is therefore interesting to note that NeSmith was the 36 and 54 hole leader of this event last season before fading on Sunday in to eighth place.
Last week in his 2020 curtain raiser NeSmith’s customary tee to green game actually let him down slightly and it was his putting, which he finished the week ranked third for, which lead to his solid showing.
With a week under his belt to blow off the cobwebs if Matthew can bring another strong putting display to the table and allay that to an improvement in his normally strong ball striking, I can see a really big week ahead for him and I am happy to have him onside at big odds.
HARRY HIGGS – 125-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
The next player to catch my eye this week is another rookie on tour, Harry Higgs.
28yr old Higgs earnt his tour card as a result of a really strong season on the Korn ferry Tour last year, which culminated with a victory at the Price Cutter Charity Challenge. Higgs won this event with a total of -22 so he is clearly comfortable with a low scoring challenge.
Moving on to the big league and Higgs has been solid if not spectacular by and large to date making the cut in six out of the nine events he has played in. The one exception to this however was in Bermuda in the fall when Higgs finished second in another low scoring affair with a total of -20.
To rubber stamp further Harry’s propensity for scoring we will also see that he ranked third on the Korn Ferry tour last season for total birdies.
Sixth last week in Driving Accuracy and 14th in GIR tells me that there is not much wrong with Higgs’ long game at the moment and it was really the putter that held him back. This week however instead of having to contend with putting in 25mph winds he will be faced with calm conditions and, for the first three days at least, pro-am friendly pin positions to shoot at, which should suit him.
Currently languishing way down in the putting stats as a whole and rating even more poorly in the SGATG numbers I just have a hunch that this could be a week where Higgs will be suited by a more straightforward challenge and I am happy to have him on side.
BO HOAG – 175-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
For my next pick I am going to side with yet another rookie that I was surprised to find available at such generous odds, Bo Hoag.
Hoag, another birdie machine who ranked second on the Korn Ferry Tour last year in total birdies and who won the Winco Foods Portland Open with a total of -22, has started life reasonably strongly on the PGA Tour, making his last eight cuts ad posting his best finish to date at the Sony last weekend, when coming home in ninth.
Born and bred in Ohio Hoag, the grandson of renowned former PGA Tour player Bob Hoag, has close ties to Muirfield Village where his Grandfather was on the founding board in 1974, and indeed Jack Nicklaus called him to congratulate him on securing his PGA Tour card. From that point of view, while it is only for one round of course. I am sure Bo will have plenty of insight to the Nicklaus Tournament Course he will face this week.
I also like the fact that Dufner a former winner here has also won at Memorial, while Lingmerth who was runner up here the year Dufner won, is another former Memorial Champion, thus giving credence to a potential Nicklaus connection.
Ninth in SGT last week and 38th on the week in any of the key strokes gained stats Bo’s all round game is clearly in good shape at the moment and as I mentioned earlier both Dufner and Swafford performed well at the Sony the week before winning here.
On this basis Is see no reason why Bo can’t build on last week’s ninth place finish in the relaxed atmosphere of the pro am format and continue to thrive.
BEN MARTIN – 300-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 29th
For my final two picks this week I am going to really roll the dice at big odds, which reflect the fact the selections are, in the theme of this weeks picks as a whole, more speculative.
The first player who gets the nod on this basis is Ben Martin.
32yr old Martin has had a tough time of it over the past 18 months or so having been off the tour with a back injury from June 2018 until returning via the Korn Ferry Tour in June 2019.
In an attempt to regain full sharpness and to also wrap up a card through the Korn Ferry finals, rather than having to go through the tribulations of a medical extension Ben played eight Korn Ferry events from June to September, making the cut in six of them but posting nothing better than a 14th place.
Moving forward and Ben now has one start remaining out of six on a Medical Extension to wrap up his card and this week sees him needing just under 60 points to do so. The good news though for Martin and his fans is that he already has conditional status secured meaning even if he doesn’t perform this week he should get 15-20 starts.
As well as having the incentive to perform what caught my eye about the Clemson Tiger this week were a couple of things.
Firstly in one of those twitter nuggets that come your way every now and then I noticed Chesson Hadley referencing playing with Ben Martin over in Scottsdale just before last weeks Sony Open and mentioning that Martin had ‘dropped a 61 on him to beat him by 7’, something which surely must be a positive sign to where Ben’s game is at.
This in turn lead to me keeping a close eye on Martin last week where my interest was peaked further by two poorer rounds being mixed in with a 65 and a 68, again signs that he is not far away.
In addition, although he has no form to speak of here he has finished third at Hilton Head and fourth memorably at Sawgrass so he clearly is comfortable on a Dye design.
As noted it has been a lean time for Martin of late however he knows how to win, something he achieved in the desert on Vegas on tour back in 2015, and at the odds on offer I am happy to include him.
SEPP STRAKA – 300-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 4th!
Finally this week to complete our array of big priced plays I am going to take a chance on Sepp Straka.
Again Straka is available at very tasty odds based on the fact that, with the massive exception of popping up out of nowhere to finish fourth in Houston, he appears so far in 19-20 to be going through the well documented ‘sophomore slump’.
Last week however at Waialae after an unspectacular first three days the Austrian closed things out on Sunday with a bogey free 65 and it is just possible he may have ‘found something’ in doing so.
Straka has shown in his short time on tour that if the mood takes him he is not afraid to get in the hunt and after performing memorably for the first couple of rounds at Pebble Beach in the US Open in the summer he went on to post three top 12 finishes in six starts including a third place finish at the Barbasol.
Known as a really solid ball strike Sepp’s long game stats last season were really impressive and he is also known as a player comfortable in a low scoring shoot out, something he showed with his -22 total to win the KC Classic on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018 and again when shooting -23 at the Barbasol.
Finally Sepp also finished third on a Pete Dye course at the Web.com Tour Championship in 2018, again in a low scoring event finishing with a -18 total.
Straka is the sort of player I expect to hit the frame a couple more times the season this year and potentially even win and as we saw at Houston and indeed last season he is capable of coming up with the goods from seemingly nowhere and at the odds on offer I am happy to take a risk on him this week.
UPDATED 14th JANUARY
FANTASY DRAFTKINGS PICKS
It was a solid start to this new segment last week as both of our picks made the cut at the Sony Open and delivered a reasonable points haul over the four days in tough conditions.
Before summarizing this weeks picks it is worth noting that with everyone of my above outright selections being longshots this week they all fall in to the sub $7000 DK value category that we are looking for in this section!
Here we go though with two more selections that I think could perform relatively well to their DK rating this week.
PICK 1 - KEVIN CHAPPELL - DK VALUE $6700 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS TOTAL 55
Californian Chappell returned to the tour after a lengthy injury due to back surgery to memorably shoot 59 at the Greenbrier Classic in September.
This performance proved something of a false dawn though as Kevin struggled through the remainder of the calendar year posting nothing better than 40th place at the Safeway Open.
Rested now and with more time over the winter break to work on getting himself 'game sharp' again my hunch is we'll see something far more akin to the old Kevin chappell this year.
This week should be a good place for him to start as he arrives at an event he has never missed the cut at and finished sixth at two years ago. The 33yr old looks a good play to me this week.
PICK 2 - MAVERICK MCNEALY - DK VALUE $6200 - FINISHED 37th - DK POINTS TOTAL 86
Former standout amateur McNealy was very close to making my main team this week and it does not surprise me to see that a couple of other well respected tipsters have got him on side.
There were a couple of things that drew me to Maverick this week, with the obvious one being his solid play last fall, which saw him make six cuts on the spin.
The Stanford grad who is now under the tutelage of Butch Harmon is now based in Las Vegas and he should therefore be more than comfortable in this weeks desert surroundings.
McNealy finished third at last years Ellie Mae Classic, which as noted earlier in the preview ties in well here and he also has experience in this event having played here in 2018.
Rated down with the also rans in the DK pricings McNealy has a huge upside to me this week if he clicks and I would be surprised if he's not at the very least playing all four rounds.