It must be a mighty relief for the rest of the PGA Tour when Woods heads off to the Middle East. Chances to contend, let alone win, in the big events are becoming extremely rare and look like staying so for the foreseeable future. No wonder then that this event at Scottsdale, one of the longest running fixtures on the schedule, has attracted what seems like a stronger field than in some previous years.
In particular, PHIL MICKELSON must be licking his lips at the prospect of chasing a third title at this famous venue. Scottsdale is made for his brand of attacking golf, as his course record suggests. His second win in 2005 was by five shots alongside five other top-10s here. This stadium atmosphere, home to some of the most boisterous crowds in golf, suits Mickelson’s game and temperament down to the ground. After a perfectly acceptable 6th on his seasonal debut behind Tiger on Sunday, Lefty looks primed to produce his best form now.
Not that the opposition will be a pushover. Bang in form Steve Stricker and Rory Sabbatini will be looking to improve moderate records at Scottsdale, and if Aaron Baddeley doesn?t get distracted by the media attention as defending champion then he will surely contend once again. Nor is it possible to write off another previous champion Vijay Singh, despite his uninspiring recent form.
Preference though is for former Open champion JUSTIN LEONARD , who is playing his best golf in years. Since winning in Texas last October, five of Leonard?s six events have yielded top-8 finishes. The latest being 5th at Torrey Pines, a course I wouldn?t normally think would play to his strengths, whereas Scottsdale most certainly does. Justin finished runner-up in this event twice in the late 1990s, and even during the lean years managed another couple of top-10s.
As MIKE WEIR?s early withdrawal last week was due to illness rather than injury, I wouldn?t imagine its an ongoing problem. He certainly deserves another chance to show that his rehabilitation as a top-class player is complete after a superb autumn in 2007. Weir hasn?t done much at Scottsdale for a few years whilst he has struggled, but at his peak had a good course record. Between 2000 and 2004, he made the top-10 on three occasions.
CAMILO VILLEGAS played well enough in 13th on his seasonal debut last week, considering it was his first event in four months. Back on a course he?s already excelled, the Colombian looks ready to return to the improved form he was showing in the early autumn. After making the top-10 in the final three play-off events, he went on to win in Japan. Villegas is very much one of my players to follow in 2008, probably the best US-based player yet to win on the PGA Tour. Whilst he is still available around the 50/1 mark, I expect he?ll be a regular in the staking plan.
A whole host of players caught the eye around the 100/1 mark, including overdue characters like Lucas Glover, Ryan Moore and Sean O?Hair, but my final preference is for three-time previous winner JONATHAN BYRD . Byrd has the perfect low-scoring game to spring a shock at Scottsdale by making the necessary improvement on last year?s 7th place. He played well for a long way when carrying this column?s money at a big price in the Mercedes, and looks worth another punt at three-figure odds.