The USPGA never commands the same level of attention as the other three Majors, but this year’s renewal promises to be a classic. Its not just that 97 of the top 100 players in the world line-up, with the favourite at 10/1 in these Tiger-less days. At least as much anticipation surrounds the venue, Oakland Hills, one of the great American courses.
Oakland Hills’ reputation stems from the nine Majors it has previously hosted. Form comparison from those events are of little value though, as the course has been significantly redesigned since the 2004 Ryder Cup. Its now 300 yards longer, with fairways narrowed and bunkers deepened. The rough is up at 3.5 inches, but there seems widespread agreement that the main challenge will come from lightning-fast, undulating greens.
It sounds like a cross between the Masters and the US Open, a brutal combination if ever there was one. Some who’ve seen the course reckon Even par will be a competitive total on Sunday. However, I am a little wary having seen the difficulty of previous USPGA venues exaggerated. These courses are never set up at their worst, because nobody wants to see the couple of dozen club professionals humiliated.
Whatever the winning score, its obvious which skills will be emphasised. Accuracy is going to be essential, not just to avoid the hazards but because a controlled approach to those brutal greens is imperative. Adam Scott told the media on Monday that, ‘its all about the greens’, which doesn’t bode well for him or several others who rarely seem comfortable putting on fast surfaces. One useful hint then may be to scour previous form on other courses where putting on fast greens is the key, such as Augusta National or Sugarloaf, the annual home to the A T & T Classic.
This potential combination of Masters/US Open conditions would appear to strengthen the claims of multiple major winning trio Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and ERNIE ELS. Mickelson, who played so well at Firestone before a characteristic collapse over the closing holes, thoroughly deserves favouritism. His magical approach play and scrambling skills look just the ticket for Oakland Hills, and he could well capitalise on Tiger’s absence. The only thing preventing me from a bet is a shortish price and the fact I‘ve never managed to pick him at the right time.
Goosen has suggested a return to his best lately. Before Sunday’s fourth place, he’d made the top-15 in the US Open and produced two great rounds at the British equivalent. For the same reasons as Mickelson, Goosen looks likely to prosper at Oakland Hills, and very nearly made the staking plan.
Preference, controversially I accept, is for Els. At his best, 28/1 in a Tiger-free Major would be the bet of the decade, but nobody would claim Ernie has been anywhere near his best this year. His long game, however, has been outstanding in recent weeks only to be let down by a freezing cold putter. Perversely, I’m not sure this will be such a handicap on these greens, because very few others will be holing birdie putts.
If Ernie retains his outstanding tee to green form on this course, he’ll be making ground on most holes even if he can still barely hole a birdie putt. Ernie has made the top-5 in well over a third of all Majors this century, including three of the last five USPGAs. On a course that would appear ideal, the odds represent each-way value.
I’ve already mentioned that Adam Scott is likely to struggle on the greens, and last week’s winner Vijay Singh is strongly opposed for the same reason. That first WGC win was yet another milestone for one of the most impressive professionals in any sport over the last 20 years, but it was hardly error-free, especially with regard to short putts.
After Padraig Harrington’s win at Birkdale, and Lee Westwood’s near-miss at Firestone, hopes are higher than usual for Europe in a Major they’ve never won and share an appalling collective record. Another positive is the venue, scene of the historic, record-breaking slaughter of an overhyped US team in the 2004 Ryder Cup.
Though I’m ultimately looking elsewhere, I wouldn’t rule out either of them. Harrington should love the conditions and Westwood impressed more than anyone in the long game department last week. Sergio Garcia, the European with the best USPGA record, is another whose long game skills, but has become too frustrating for betting purposes.
In what looks a wide-open event, its also possible to make a good case for English pair Paul Casey and Ian Poulter. Casey played some brilliant golf last week, recovering well from an opening triple-bogey to finish 8th, while Poulter also seemed close to the personal best he showed at Birkdale. Nevertheless, its still hard with all these Europeans to get beyond the fact that their record in this event is quite atrocious.
Instead, I rate Sweden’s ROBERT KARLSSON the best value European. Nobody in the world has been more consistent than Karlsson this summer, and I can offer no explanation why he hasn’t won other than sheer bad luck. Since April, Karlsson has never finished outside the top-20, and only twice lower than 8th. In the three Majors, he’s finished 8th, 4th and 7th.
With stats like that, I see no reason why he should be anywhere near 66/1 to win the event, or 16/1 to finish as top European. Moreover, his chance would seem more obvious on this course than others, certainly Birkdale, because of the slick greens. I doubt there’s a better putter in such conditions in the world right now than Karlsson.
Of the home challenge, which usually dominates this Major, I had earmarked Jim Furyk as he was placed in the 1996 US Open on this course. He’s hard to recommend at 25/1 though after a poor performance at Firestone. ANTHONY KIM also slipped down a notch last week on his recent form, but there are valid excuses. On Monday, 24 hours after blowing the Canadian Open, Kim was out playing baseball for a promo. He later claimed that, as a consequence, he’d lost all feel with his putter during his opening two rounds at Firestone.
Such poor preparation decisions are par for the course for a young, heavily exposed prospect, and must be forgiven. If Kim had finished in the places there, he would be nowhere near this week’s 33/1 quote because he’d looked the hottest golfer on the planet just a few days earlier. His very best form has come on championship courses – Quail Hollow, Congressional, Birkdale to a lesser extent – which bodes well for Oakland Hills, where his high-ball flight should be a big asset.
Another American who deserves to be forgiven a couple of disappointments is STEWART CINK, who has struck me as a man on the brink of a breakthrough in the Majors for some time. Before missing the cut at the Open, Cink won the Travelers Championship, a long overdue success in his most consistent season to date. Judging by his excellent record at Sugarloaf, 3rd place at Augusta and a top-20 finish here as a rookie in the 1996 US Open, Cink should relish the test.
Canadian MIKE WEIR’s record in the US Majors is more consistent than most, and the left-hander looks likely to be there or thereabouts once again. The former Masters champion has three top-10s in the USPGA, and a slightly better record in the US Open. This is owed to a game ideal for playing tough, championship golf courses – accurate driving, excellent long-iron play and a world-class short-game.
Other Americans fancied this week are ZACH JOHNSON, HEATH SLOCUM and KEN DUKE. Johnson is recommended in the outright market, with Slocum and Duke reserved for the ‘Top US Player’ market at big prices. Johnson’s shock success in the 2007 Masters, and two titles at Sugarloaf, confirm that he is a man to watch on very fast greens. And after a disappointing season, it was encouraging to see Zach on the fringes of contention at Firestone.
Slocum and Duke were tempting at three figures as they strike me as the archetypal surprise American winner of this event. On reflection, however, 60/1 and 80/1 respectively against their compatriots represents better value. Slocum’s 9th place in the US Open was the best of four top-10s since May, and given the emphasis on accuracy is unlikely to be too far away.
As for Duke, he’s been one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour in recent weeks, twice making the top-4 amongst four top-20s in his last five starts. Its notable how well Duke has played on the rare occasions he’s been presented with a championship course. His debut performances in last year’s US Open and PGA produced top-25s, and he’s made the top-15 at Quail Hollow two years running.
Finally, in the top Australian market, ROD PAMPLING and NICK O’HERN make some appeal at 18/1 because so many of their rivals here look up against it. Adam Scott looks a weak favourite, while Stuart Appleby’s record in the US Majors doesn’t suggest he’ll retain last week’s fine form. Aaron Baddeley has been poor of late. After three consecutive top-10s in this event, Geoff Ogilvy would have been a confident selection here, were it not for the fact he played terribly over the weekend. Robert Allenby has chances, but is short enough given his own putting weaknesses.
After a process of elimination then, O’Hern and Pampling stand out. Consistent O’Hern has a great chance to make at least another top-20 given the emphasis on accuracy, while Pampling also seems overpriced on his 2008 form. He’s nearly won twice lately, finishing 3rd at Congressional last month and previously he’d only been beaten by Mickelson at Colonial. Furthermore, Pampling thrives on fast greens, shown in a good record at Augusta.
2pts ew ERNIE ELS @ 28/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
2pts ew ANTHONY KIM @ 33/1 (SKYBET, STAN JAMES, BETDIRECT)
1.5pts ew STEWART CINK @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew MIKE WEIR @ 60/1 (PADDY POWER, 66/1 TOTE)
1pt ew ROBERT KARLSSON @ 66/1 (GENERAL)
0.5pts ew ZACH JOHNSON @ 100/1 (TOTE, STAN JAMES, BETDIRECT)
3pts ew ROBERT KARLSSON @ 16/1 (18/1 VCBET)
2pts ew NICK O’HERN @ 18/1 (BLUESQ, 888SPORT)
2pts ew ROD PAMPLING @ 18/1 (BLUESQ, 888SPORT)
1pt ew HEATH SLOCUM @ 60/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew KEN DUKE @ 66/1 (GENERAL, 80/1 BOYLESPORTS)
LONG-TERM ALREADY ADVISED
2008 VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
10pts HENRIK STENSON @ 7/1
4pts PAUL CASEY @ 14/1
USPGA TOUR MONEY LIST
BETTING WITHOUT TIGER WOODS
2pts ew KJ CHOI @ 33/1
1pt ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 80/1
2007/2008 STATS: +516pts