Come Sunday night, its safe to assume 99% of golf fans will have their focus firmly set on events at Valhalla, but the most avid of golf punters will also be keeping one eye on this PGA Tour event. The Viking Classic is the first event of the Fall Series, the end of season run of events that will finalise next years playing privileges.
With the best Americans away on Ryder Cup duty and a negligible overseas supporting cast, a weak field fight it out in Mississippi. Annandale Golf Club has never been very fortunate in its position on the schedule. The Southern Farm Bureau Classic used to be played here, often in the same week as a WGC event.
At least this year, even accounting for the numerous early withdrawals, there are some fairly big names in attendance. David Toms and Chris Dimarco, both rejected for Ryder Cup wild-cards, have a chance to make their own statement this weekend. And while theyre not exactly big names, HEATH SLOCUM and Ken Duke deserve much respect for their consistency this season.
Duke, a player I have backed more than once at huge prices, starts favourite and its hard to argue with his claim. Hes made the top-20 in six of his last eight starts, all in much stronger fields than this. Over half of his last sixteen rounds have bettered 70, which bodes well with low scoring certain to be the order of the day here. However at just 20/1, its hard to justify a bet on a player with only three lower grade professional victories in a 20 year career, of which only one was this century.
Slocum isnt the type of player Id generally take a short price about, but at least he has five professional titles to his name this century. One of them came on this course three years ago, since when hes become a more consistent top-level performer. A repeat of any of his four mid-summer top-10s or 15th place on his penultimate start at TPC Boston, all in a higher grade than this, would take him very close.
He certainly makes more appeal than bigger names Toms, Dimarco or Rory Sabbatini, none of whom has a top-10 to their name this year. Equally Bo Van Pelts excellent course record is not enough for me to overlook his lack of a top-10 since March. In fact, the tournament is so lacking in strength in depth that it could easily fall to a senior like FRED FUNK.
Nobody comes close to matching Funks record at Annandale. In five events here between 1998 and 2006, Funk won twice and never finished below 8th. Even a below par 22nd last year looks dramatically worse for a poor final day. Funk retains his competitiveness at seniors level, so its worth a chance hell go well again.
Funks form at Annandale confirms the inevitable conclusions revealed by examination of previous results on this course. Driving distance is virtually irrelevant, with accurate iron play and a hot putter the keys to success. Many older players have done well here.
JJ HENRY hasnt done very much since featuring in the last humiliated US Ryder Cup side, but has shown signs of life in recent weeks. 4th in the Wyndham Championship, JJ also registered a respectable top-30 in Boston. In his last three events, Henry has ranked in the top-10 for the crucial greens in regulation stat, which is a vast improvement on anything shown earlier in the year. Interestingly, he has twice made the top-6 from four visits to Annandale.
Another player who has shown a liking for this course previously is KEVIN NA. On his first visit as a 21 year-old back in 2004, Na made a big impression in 3rd place. He too has registered some impressive long game statistics recently, and with the emphasis on accurate iron approach play, conditions could be perfect this week for that all-important first PGA Tour win.
Finally, as mentioned above, age has never been a disadvantage here so Im having a speculative punt on BOB TWAY. At 49, Tway is just months away from joining Funk and co on the Champions Tour, where he could be very competitive. Though never suggesting he could emulate his career-making 1986 USPGA win, Tway has earned a fortune over the years with mid-division finishes and remains just about capable of winning at this level. He can always be relied upon to hit a high percentage of greens in regulation, and has been putting well recently.
2.5pts ew HEATH SLOCUM @ 20/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
1.5pts ew JJ HENRY @ 33/1 (GENERAL, 35/1 BET365)
1.5pts ew KEVIN NA @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
1.5pts ew FRED FUNK @ 35/1 (BET365, PAGEBET, 40/1 TOTE)
0.5pts ew BOB TWAY @ 90/1 (BET365, 100/1 TOTE)