In stark contrast to the Laguna courses used for last week?s event in Singapore where the Asian Tour players have always held an advantage, the TCL Classic at Yalong Bay in China has only ever been won by Europeans in the form of Paul Casey, Colin Montgomerie and Johan Edfors. Unfortunately, there are very few competitors of that class in attendance this time around. Even the very best AsianTour stars, such as Thongchai Jaidee, Jyoti Randhawa and Jeev Milkha Singh, are all missing. It would surely be asking too much for Wen-Chong Liang to win two weeks in a row, so the Asian challenge looks very moderate indeed.
Only two players from the world?s top-100 are here, LEE WESTWOOD at number 54 and PAUL MCGINLEY at 94. NICK DOUGHERTY is down in 119th position but has more talent than that alongside recent and course form credentials. So, while I don?t expect any awards for originality, I can?t find any alternative to the front-three in the betting and suggest backing all three each-way.
McGinley is the best bet in my view at 16/1. At face value, his recent set of form figures don?t make particularly exciting reading, but considering he has been playing the PGA Tour and only the very best Euro events, they are excellent. Few, if any, of this field could consistently make cuts and top-30s at the highest level. He also has course form, having lost a play-off here to Paul Casey two years ago ahead of a far stronger field.
Westwood is the one genuine class act. We have to forgive a couple of poor efforts in Asia over the last few weeks, but generally his form in the region is exemplary. I can?t believe Westwood would be here if he wasn?t taking this event seriously as he bids to move back up the world rankings.
As for Dougherty, I have to pinch myself that I?m prepared to back him at odds as short as 12/1, but he does have a very strong case. For the second year running he blew a big winning chance in Singapore on Sunday, with two disastrous double-bogeys in the last three holes putting paid to those chances. He should score even better on these greens though, and provided that hasn?t affected him adversely, everything points to another week in contention at the lower level, especially after finishing fourth on his Yalong Bay debut last year with four sub-70 rounds.
ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL
Moving on to the week?s main event at Bay Hill, where the strongest field this year for a strokeplay event assemble for the latest twist in the new Fedex Cup schedule.
Of the world?s top-10, only Harrington, Scott and an injured Jim Furyk are missing. And just to add to the ?Major? feel surrounding the tournament, the course at Bay Hill has been toughened up and is reported to resemble a US Open layout. The rough is said to be penal and longer than ever, with the greens lightning fast. The essential attributes of this week?s winner are clear – accuracy, good ball-striking and an artist?s touch around the greens. In other words, exactly the players we?d expect to challenge in Major championships.
Considering the fact Tiger Woods has won his last eight PGA Tour strokeplay events, odds of over 5/2 on Betfair look more than reasonable. Tiger used to appear invincible at Bay Hill, winning four years in succession from 2000 to 2003. Efforts since here have been very poor by his own extreme standards with a best finish of 20th, but it should, however, be remembered that Tiger probably hasn?t come into this event in anything approaching his present form since those winning days. I certainly wouldn?t want to bet against the great man, and as usual suggest placing our bets in the without Tiger market, but with the course playing tough I?m going to wait and see if a better price is available in-running.
If we are going to see US Open conditions then PHIL MICKELSON must take the world of beating. Lefty is of course yet to win a US Open, though I?m not quite sure how, having finished runner-up in that Major four times. Mickelson hasn?t won here since 1997, but has finished in the top-5 on three of his last four visits. It certainly sounds as if his legendary short-game will offer even more advantage than usual given the current course conditions so a very bold bid is expected. Mickelson was of course in stunning form at Pebble Beach and Riveira on recent PGA Tour starts, even though we have to forgive a characteristic play-off debacle to lose the Nissan Open. All things considered though, his outright odds of 12/1 look attractive in their own right, but it?s still safer to take 8/1 without Tiger.
Below Woods and Mickelson, clearly the best two players in the world on current and recent form, it?s very hard to see exactly who is next in the pecking order. Ernie Els hints at a return to his best, but cannot be considered fully rehabilitated after the injury lay-off until he wins again in the States. Vijay Singh is struggling and carrying injuries. Retief Goosen is unlikely to improve on a disappointing course record on recent evidence and Sergio Garcia?s putting is nothing short of a tragedy.
On the most recent form, the main challenge appears to be coming from a batch of emerging young stars – Henrik Stenson, Charles Howell, Trevor Immelman and GEOFF OGILVY. Of the four, Ogilvy looks the pick for Bay Hill given his penchant for playing tough golf courses well, which enabled him to land the US Open last year following a series of fine Major performances. We have to overlook three moderate previous efforts at Bay Hill, but to balance that, it should be remembered the huge strides Ogilvy has made in the last year. He is a better player now, and should also appreciate the tougher playing conditions. If he plays as well as he did at the recent World Matchplay, the young Australian cannot be too far away.
If Ogilvy is the most likely Australian to keep the title in his country?s name, AARON BADDELEY must run a decent second. Badds is another rising star as his second Tour victory at Scottsdale last month confirmed. He is another with the perfect credentials for this type of golf, as shown by his amazing back-to-back Australian Open titles as a teenager, the first as an amateur. Athough his progress in the US has been steady and nowhere near as dazzling, it?s worth noting that he has already made the top six here in 2003 and 2005.
BART BRYANT is another who always must come into consideration on courses that demand accuracy. Sunday?s 12th place was his fourth consecutive stroke play top-20. If Bryant keeps up that level of consistency then another big payday will come soon. And finally, ZACH JOHNSON showed his first bit of form this year at the weekend with a never-nearer 14th. I?ve long rated Johnson as a decent prospect, and potential big-priced Major winner. His accurate game suggests a US Open or PGA would be the most likely. And again there is a strong case for Johnson looking at his course form. Zach finished in the top-eight on both of his first two Bay Hill outings.
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3pts ew NICK DOUGHERTY @ 12/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
3pts ew PAUL MCGINLEY @ 16/1 (CORALS, TOTE)
2pts ew LEE WESTWOOD @ 14/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL
BETTING WITHOUT TIGER WOODS
6pts PHIL MICKELSON @ 8/1 (STAN JAMES, PADDY POWER, 9/1 EXPEKT)
2pts ew GEOFF OGILVY @ 28/1 (STAN JAMES, PADDY POWER, 40/1 EXPEKT)
1pt ew AARON BADDELEY @ 50/1 (STAN JAMES, EXPEKT)
1pt ew BART BRYANT @ 50/1 (STAN JAMES, EXPEKT)
1pt ew ZACH JOHNSON @ 60/1 (STAN JAMES)
2006/2007 STATS: +30pts
2005/2006 STATS: +144pts
ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED
VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1
5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1
3pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN GRAND SLAM IN 2007@ 40/1
10pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN 3 MAJORS IN 2007 @ 8/1
US MONEY LIST W/O TIGER WOODS
2pts ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 20/1