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BUICK INVITATIONAL

Most of the betting interest here concerns TIGER WOODS, and whether he can land a fifth Buick win in six years. Given that his only failure – if 10th place can be considered a failure – came at a time when he could barely hit a fairway, its hard to escape the fact that Torrey Pines must rank as one of Tiger?s favourite courses and one where the rest of the field can only hope he gives them an opportunity.

In my PGA Tour preview a few weeks back, I pointed to the fact that the US Open will be played on the South Course, making Woods at 11/4 the ante-post bet of the year. If he wins this week, which would make it six from seven US starts since the end of July, then surely Ladbrokes? current offer of 5/2 will be wiped out. Barring injury or a hard to foresee decline in form, I am certain Woods will start the US Open at considerably less than that.

Probably closer to this week?s 5/4 in fact. Inevitably as he keeps on winning, Tiger?s odds keep shortening. This column has recommended Woods for this event in each of the four years since I started writing it, and this is no exception. My one caveat is that, besides a fairly small bet from the outset, I will be mostly aiming to back Woods in-running if and when his price drifts. In each of the last three years, significantly better odds were available at some stage after the first couple of days.

He is strongly expected to win again though, probably by a few shots. Therefore, all my remaining bets on the event are in the ?Without Woods? market, which numerous bookies are now resigned to offering. Torrey Pines is such a brutal long course that most of the field will never get along with it. Good distance off the tee is essential, and those relentlessly hitting greens in regulation can expect to pull away from most of the field over the four days.

Surprisingly, most of the other main contenders can only boast mixed records at Torrey Pines. Phil Mickelson won twice here before the South Course was toughened up in 2002, and has twice made the top-4 since. I doubt those changes really favour him though, and there?s no way I could trust him on his seasonal debut around a penal golf course.

Man of the moment KJ Choi has a disappointing Torrey Pines best of 18th place, Vijay Singh?s is just 11th. Jim Furyk hasn?t played here since missing the cut in 2001, and could find this course too long for his liking. Other regular contenders who have yet to do anything of note on this course include Geoff Ogilvy, Aaron Baddeley and Hunter Mahan.

Better then to stick with players who have shown something approaching their best form around this tough layout. MIKE WEIR hasn?t played since the course was toughened up, but did manage 5th place on his sole previous visit in 2001. As I?ve said on numerous occasions in recent months, the Canadian left-hander is in his best form since winning the Masters, and looks primed to add to his Arizona win at the end of last year.

CHARLES HOWELL also showed signs of a return to somewhere near his best in the season opener at Kapalua. Last year, Howell similarly started the season in fine fashion, finishing 2nd here before going on to win at Riviera. That was Howell?s third good effort at Torrey Pines, having also finished 2nd in 2005 and 7th a couple of years before that. Clearly this big-hitter is one of the few that appreciates the test.

It was this event last year where BRANDT SNEDEKER first came to my attention. Having won already on the PGA Tour, Snedeker is one my players to follow in 2008, and it stands to reason that Torrey Pines should represent one of his better opportunities. Most of his best golf has seemed to come on tough golf courses with long par-4s, and whatever happens this week I suspect he?ll be in my US Open staking plan on this course.

Howell and Snedeker?s early successes at Torrey Pines show that while the course may be penal, its also one where inexperienced young players can prosper. And given that all my selections require fairly small stakes at big prices, I feel content backing a few more players than usual to strengthen the portfolio. I?m backing eight different players in total, in the knowledge that just one place will virtually cover the entire stake.

At less than 100/1 but still representing value, NICK WATNEY and BUBBA WATSON look ideal types to prosper round here. Both rank very highly in the driving distance category, and both have some course form to their name. Watney finished 9th last year, and got his 2008 campaign off to a flyer with a place in Hawaii. As for Watson, the golden rule is to only back him on courses where driving distance is a major factor. Bearing this in mind, it was no surprise to see him finish 5th last year.

My final three selections are all above 100/1 and possess similar long game attributes. BILL HAAS and ROBERT GARRIGUS have been far from disgraced on their early Torrey Pines appearances. Haas finished in the top-20 on two of his three previous appearances, and enjoyed a nice warm-up with five sub-70 rounds at last week?s Bob Hope Classic. As for Garrigus, he seems like Watson to suffer from inconsistency but equally makes more than his share of high finishes. Three of his last seven outings in 2007 resulted in top-10s for instance, a ratio that isn?t reflected in his usual double-figure quotes in that market.

Finally, at 200/1 without Woods, I must have a nibble each-way on one of my young players to follow, NICK FLANAGAN. The young Aussie ranks 1st for greens in regulation since graduating to the main tour, which speaks volumes for his talent. As inexperience is not such a factor here while a quality long game is essential, this could be the ideal stage for him to begin making his mark.