The final Major of 2007 gets underway at Southern Hills, Tulsa on Thursday, with an ever stronger European contingent striving to bury a second hoodoo in less than a month. Padraig Harrington?s win at Carnoustie ended an eight-year drought in Major championships, though the task in hand this time looks considerably tougher. Despite regular success in the Ryder Cup against the US and in the Masters, no European has won the USPGA in the modern era. And the last time a Major was held on this course in 2001, only one European finished in the top-20.
Much of the reason behind this failure may be the August weather conditions, usually very hot and humid, rarely comparable with the kind of conditions Europeans are used to. With ever more of their number plying their trade full-time in the States nowadays, this may be less of a factor though I?m in no doubt it will affect some of the travelling contingent.
Its certainly expected to be hot and humid at Southern Hills, a course which seems to have been greeted with almost unanimous approval as a worthy Major venue. The course has been significantly redesigned since the 2001 US Open, though the same core characteristics should apply. A relatively short par-70 of 7,131 yards with several doglegs places a greater emphasis on accuracy than power, requiring good course management, quality approach play to fast greens and the universal Majors requirement – a classy short-game.
Players should be used to Major conditions having played Firestone at the weekend. That would very much point to a fourth PGA title for defending champion Tiger Woods, following his eight shot rout of an elite field. There are crucial differences with Firestone though. The rough is expected to be slightly less penal, the fairways and greens slightly less hard and fast. Most importantly this course is considerably shorter, negating some of Tiger?s advantage.
I mentioned last week how Woods? price often fails to take into account the suitability of the course to his game. So whereas last week he was 11/4 on one of his favourite courses simply because of a couple of losses, now we have a massive over-reaction to his predictable Firestone stroll and his odds are too short at 2/1. Tiger may well win of course, but looks much less likely to pull away from the field this week on a course where he only finished 12th in 2001. I?m at least confident bigger odds will be available in-running, unlike Firestone where his odds were never bigger than the start.
A similar over-reaction may be evident in the price of PHIL MICKELSON. Normally we?d be lucky to see double figures about Mickelson in the PGA, but some poor results since recovering from a wrist injury have sent his odds spiralling out to 25/1. He?s adamant that the wrist is now fine, and claimed on Monday to be ?hitting it better than ever? whilst admitting to ?putting worse than ever?. Given his perfect suitability for this week?s test, I?d rather concentrate on the former than the latter. Mickelson isn?t about to become a poor putter overnight, and could easily turn it around this week His most recent form can be ignored, as Carnoustie and Firestone were never likely to get the best out of Mickelson. Whereas at Southern Hills, he finished 3rd in the 1994 USPGA, and 7th in the 2001 US Open.
Mickelson?s injury has really opened up the competition for the title most realistically coveted by golfers – to be the best besides Woods. For my money, Mickelson remains well ahead for this accolade, below that though, matters looks more wide-open than ever. Jim Furyk?s phenomenal consistency make him next best in the rankings, without looking any likelier a Major winner than numerous others. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh are fighting hard to disprove the theory that they are in slow decline, Retief Goosen has been well below par for some while. Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott looked upwardly mobile earlier in the year, but both have had poor summers.
Man of the moment is probably JUSTIN ROSE, even though he is yet to win on the PGA Tour. Its impossible to quibble with Rose?s form in 2007, Sunday?s runners-up spot being the latest lucrative finish. If it weren?t for the ever-shortening price, he would have been a selection and still rates a good match bet against Harrington. However for the outright market, I prefer the chances this week of another European who still rates slightly higher in the pecking order for me, SERGIO GARCIA.
Hopefully Sergio will have taken positives out of Carnoustie rather than dwell on another final-round failure. For years now, the young Spaniard has been a genuine rival to Woods in the long-game stakes only to give away countless shots on the greens. Switching to the belly-putter at Carnoustie seemed to pay instant dividends. The long putter has never turned someone into a great putter, rather it seems to give a poor putter a little more reliability and cut out the disasters. This alone immediately makes Sergio a contender at the very highest level. And like Mickelson, Garcia was a serious contender on this course in 2001 before a poor final round.
Garcia and Rose rate the players most likely to become the fourth first-time Major winner of 2007, but several others look capable. Best of the rest look to be STEWART CINK and TIM CLARK. Cink?s most memorable contribution in a Major came on this course, missing a two-foot putt to reach the play-off in 2001. He?s also finished 3rd and 10th in previous PGAs at Medinah and Hazeltine respectively. Cink has enjoyed a good 2007 campaign so far without winning, making the top six in four of his last nine tournaments, including Carnoustie and Sawgrass. Furthermore, this resident of Alabama will have no worries on the climate score.
Clark is another inexplicably without a PGA Tour win who nevertheless must be considered. He missed two golden opportunities in July to amend that, particularly at the John Deere Classic after trading at 1/33 in-running when carrying this column?s money. Last weekend saw another fine effort with 7th at Firestone. Clark has the perfect accurate, greens-in-regulation game to prosper at Southern Hills, and a solid record in recent US Majors. Interestingly, the last two Majors on this course yielded winners from Southern Africa in Goosen and Nick Price. With question marks over Els and Goosen, Clark could be that continent?s best bet.
Of all the Majors, the PGA historically has been the one to search for 100/1+ winners. Best of that bunch in my view is JUSTIN LEONARD. The 1997 Open champion has been battling to reverse a serious decline in fortunes, though there are definite signs of life. A runners-up spot at Warwick Hills last month came out of nowhere, before another good 9th at Firestone last week implied Leonard may genuinely be on the way back. At his best, he would have been ideally suited by Southern Hills, and has a tremendous USPGA record, twice finishing runner-up and four times in the top five.
In the speciality markets there?s a complete reversal from one of my core strategies at Carnoustie. Whereas the best Open value usually lies in opposing the vast rank of US golfers unsuited to the test of links golf in foreign conditions, the USPGA is a famous graveyard for European hopes. With extreme heat and humidity likely to be significant, there are numerous Americans worth considering at attractive prices and I reckon the value lies in opposing certain top Europeans.
In particular Open hero Padraig Harrington. Harrington has only one top-20 finish in from eight USPGA tries, and is rarely seen to best effect on positional golf courses like this. Paul Casey is also hard to fancy on a short course like this, while Luke Donald continues to struggle in Majors and around fast greens and Henrik Stenson is struggling. Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood have suffered badly in the heat in previous years.
Consequently the top European market looks distinctly winnable. In particular, NICLAS FASTH looks absolutely huge at 20/1. His form in June and July was sensational, winning in Germany, finishing 4th in the US Open and 2nd at the K Club. Few Europeans are in better form. Fasth also rates the best 72-hole match bet on offer against Westwood.
PETER HANSON didn?t disgrace himself when carrying my money at big odds in the US Open ? 30th was a decent return from his first US Major and 50/1 represents decent each-way again. He should like the course, and showed good form in Germany last time out. The Europeans to beat are Garcia and Rose, but rather than back them at short prices I prefer this pair in 72-hole matches against Harrington.
As for those attractively priced Americans, the top-10 may be the right market to play. Masters champion ZACH JOHNSON may well have made the outright portfolio were it not for the fact he?d already won his Major this year – two could be asking too much. 11/2 for the top 10 looks good value though, as it does for KENNY PERRY. Perry has six consecutive top-15 finishes to his name, and three USPGA top-10s including a very near-miss in 1996.
SCOTT VERPLANK also surely shouldn?t be 6/1 to attain a position he?s made on six of his last nine starts. LUCAS GLOVER looks good value at 12/1 as he seems to own all the right credentials for Southern Hills, consistently hitting greens in regulation and a cracking short game. And finally, consistent Australian ROD PAMPLING is advised at 10/1 in this market. He is another who looks strong in all the right departments, and played well enough at Firestone over the weekend.
2pts ew PHIL MICKELSON @ 25/1 (LADBROKES, TOTE, STAN JAMES)
2pts ew SERGIO GARCIA @ 33/1 (LADBROKES, SPORTING ODDS)
1pt ew STEWART CINK @ 50/1 (GENERAL, 66/1 LADBROKES)
1pt ew TIM CLARK @ 66/1 (GENERAL)
0.5pts ew JUSTIN LEONARD @ 125/1 (GENERAL, 150/1 CORALS)
3pts ew NICLAS FASTH @ 20/1 (BLUESQ, 22/1 SPORTING ODDS)
1pt ew PETER HANSON @ 50/1 (BOYLES, LADBROKES, TOTE)
72-HOLE MATCH BETS
15pts NICLAS FASTH @ 10/11 (VS WESTWOOD) (BLUESQ, SKYBET, BET DIRECT)
11pts SERGIO GARCIA @ 10/11 (VS HARRINGTON) (BET365, BLUESQ, SPORTING ODDS,
STAN JAMES, TOTE)
11pts JUSTIN ROSE @ 10/11 (VS HARRINGTON) (SKYBET, SPORTING ODDS, PADDY
3pts ZACH JOHNSON @ 11/2 (BET365)
3pts KENNY PERRY @ 11/2 (BET365, STAN JAMES)
3pts SCOTT VERPLANK @ 6/1 (HILLS)
2pts ROD PAMPLING @ 10/1 (BET365)
2pts LUCAS GLOVER @ 12/1 (HILLS)
2006/2007 STATS: -39pts
2005/2006 STATS: +144pts
ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED
VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1
5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1