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Who’s missing Tiger Woods? We’ve already seen how little there is to choose between the rest at Birkdale, where a Woods-free field produced one of the most exciting Majors of recent times. And this week, it feels like we have a brand new elite tournament when in fact this event at Firestone Country Club has been established for over a decade.
Firestone is a very long par-70 with penal rough, and suits Tiger’s power game down to the ground. Consequently, he’s made this tournament his own with six victories, including the last three, and usually by several shots. Rather like the Buick Invitational at another long, gruelling course, Torrey Pines, Tiger’s dominance had turned this lucrative, elite event into one of the most predictable, and therefore dullest, of the season.
Without the great man though, we have the makings of another classic with only two players at less than 20/1. Predictably, Phil Mickelson starts favourite despite a very poor recent record in the event. Back in the 1990s, Mickelson had a course record to die for, but since the course has been toughened he’s struggled badly. His best since 2003 is a mere 23rd, and he’s only once made the top-40.
Low finishing positions such as this represent a greater negative than usual, as the field for this event has always been limited. While this year’s total of 87 players is bigger than many previous years, this is still just over half of the total we’d see at a Major. Theoretically if there had been a full field here previously, players finishing 40th may have missed the cut.
Mickelson is far from the only main contender who seems unsuited to the tougher Firestone layout. Sergio Garcia hasn’t made the top-10 once in these last five years, a position Padraig Harrington has failed to reach in eight attempts at the venue. 5th and 8th around the turn of the century are the best Ernie Els has managed in ten tries, while compatriot Retief Goosen’s best is 10th from six.
Besides Tiger, JIM FURYK holds the best Firestone scoring average and he looks a likely contender once again. While so many others consistently struggle here, Furyk has made the top-6 four times from six visits this century. After a disappointing first six months of the season, this reliable character has returned to his normal, ultra-accurate self in recent weeks and could very easily have bettered 5th place at the Open with a little luck.
Short-hitter Furyk’s excellent course record shows that, while Tiger’s power has proved a massive advantage, a lack of driving distance can be successfully compensated with a combination of accuracy and quality long-iron play. Driving distance is an asset, but greens in regulation the key statistic.
Few have been better in that department than ROBERT ALLENBY this year, another player who could easily have taken a hand in the Birkdale finish with a little more luck. That was the sixth time he’d finished in the top-7 this year, but its a mystery why Allenby has failed to convert any of those chances. He certainly doesn’t lack ‘bottle’, with 19 worldwide titles and a superb play-off record to his name. My conclusion is that he’s simply overdue, and well worth consideration on a course where he finished 6th and 9th in 2003 and 2004.
Very similar comments apply to LEE WESTWOOD. Tee to green, Lee has been magnificent this season yet, despite a reputation as a prolific worldwide winner, he hasn’t managed to close the deal. Ignore his missed cut at Birkdale, which was in keeping with a poor Open record, and think back to Torrey Pines in June. Firestone is a far similar test to the US Open venue where Westwood so nearly won his first major.
A strong case could be made for Stewart Cink, who won here in 2004 and finished 2nd to Woods in 2006. However at 20/1, this course record seems more than factored into the price of a good player who rarely wins. And while he could be at a disadvantage on his course debut, I’d expect Firestone to suit the long-game brilliance of Antony Kim. As painful as Sunday’s collapse was to watch, I’ve forgiven this outstanding youngster already but prefer his chance at next week’s USPGA.
Kenny Perry also can’t be written off after a sensational run. Perry’s last eight events have yielded three wins, and three other top-6 finishes. Granted, most were against slightly weaker opposition, but its still recent form that only Kim comes close to matching. The 48 year-old certainly has stronger claims than young-guns Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy or Henrik Stenson, none of whom have yet to show any aptitude for the Firestone challenge.
In contrast to those three, PAUL CASEY has proved he likes Firestone and would appear to have the right credentials. Few are better suited to a ‘power course’ than strongman Casey, who finished 4th in 2006. Mostly disappointing this year, Casey has strongly suggested a return to form in recent weeks, recording some excellent greens in regulation stats. 7th place was his best Open by far, and all the better for the fact he opened with a 78 and was luckless on the greens.
Finally, HUNTER MAHAN showed enough on his debut last year to suggest Firestone suits his game. His finishing position of 22nd then was largely a consequence of a poor final round, and his stats point to another good week. In each of the last five occasions Mahan has made the cut, he’s ranked in the top-3 for greens in regulation. Like Westwood, I’m less concerned with his disappointing Open, preferring to remember how well he played at Torrey Pines, a course that resembles this week’s test.
2.5pts ew JIM FURYK @ 20/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
1.5pts ew ROBERT ALLENBY @ 35/1 (BET365, PADDY POWER, 40/1 SPORTINGBET)
1.5pts ew LEE WESTWOOD @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew PAUL CASEY @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew HUNTER MAHAN @ 50/1 (GENERAL)