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As usual the first full-field PGA Tour event of the year takes place at Waialae Country Club, the second part of the early Hawaiian section of the schedule. Waialae, however, has quite different demands to last week?s Kapalua venue. Whereas the Plantation Course is renowned for its extremely generous fairways, favouring long-hitters and placing extra emphasis on the approach shot, the key here is accuracy and hitting greens in regulation.
Proven course form is a major asset around here, as the demands seem to suit or infuriate the same sets of players year in, year out in equal measure. Consequently, my shortlist of plausible winners is a little shorter than usual in the States. Several of the obvious candidates played Kapalua, so we do at least have some idea about their form, but the overwhelming majority of the field are making their first start of 2008 and therefore their form and preparedness has to be taken on trust. Three players are vying for favouritism, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and STEVE STRICKER.
Of the three, Vijay is the easiest to overlook. He did win this when probably at his peak in 2005, but otherwise boasts a disappointing course record over a long period. As he did nothing out of the ordinary last week in registering his worst ever Kapalua effort, a bet at single figures makes little sense.
Furyk and Stricker both looked in fine fettle over the weekend though. Furyk stayed on into 5th after a poor start, and this Hawaiian resident must enter calculations on a course where he won 12 years ago and has made the top-7 in the past two years. Nevertheless whilst he is feared, I?ve never been able to get excited about single-figure odds for this ultra-consistent but relatively infrequent winner.
Stricker?s price is also plenty short enough at 11/1, given the fact he?s won just one stroke play event this century. However, another way of looking at this is that he is overdue and has such overwhelming credentials that he would be much shorter with a recent win under his belt. I can?t remember a greater turnaround in fortunes for a top golfer, with Stricker now incredibly up to No.3 in the world following Sunday?s play-off loss.
Remember its only 18 months since Stricker re-appeared on the world stage after a long spell in the doldrums, courtesy of an invite to the US Open. And just six months ago, I tipped him (rather unluckily I might add given that he led on the final day) at 100/1 for that same Major. He has Waialae form too, finishing 4th last year and 3rd back in the 1990s before his career took what turned out to be a temporary nosedive.
Though they?re yet to win the Sony Open, there is much to suggest the Australian contingent are well suited to Waialae, with a number boasting decent course form credentials. Robert Allenby has a pair of top-10s from his last three visits, and while absent this week Hawaiian specialist Stuart Appleby has made the top-7 three times. Rather than back the below-par Allenby though, I?m going in with a trio of his compatriots, AARON BADDELEY, NATHAN GREEN and NICK FLANAGAN.
Badds has improved leaps and bounds since taking Ernie Els to a play-off as a rookie four years ago. He is obviously well suited to the course, and is now a proven multiple winner at this level. A winner in his native Australia just a few weeks ago, Baddeley looked to have shaken off any Christmas effects by the final round on Sunday for which he saved his best round of the week.
Green and Flanagan are much more speculative selections, but decent each-way value nonetheless. Without possessing anywhere near the potential of the other pair, Green looks well capable of winning a PGA Tour event and has contended on a number of occasions. Fifth place on his Waialae debut in 2006 suggest this event offers as good a chance as any.
As for Flanagan, he is one of my players to follow in 2008. Three wins on the Nationwide Tour earned him a place among the big boys, and a chance to showcase his potential to a wider audience. Having won the US Amateur at Oakmont as a teenager, Flanagan carries a similar reputation to that of Baddeley four years ago. Whether he manages to win or not, by the end of this year I expect Flanagan will have established himself firmly as one of the stars of the next generation.
And if ?horses for courses? is the order of the day at Waialae, JERRY KELLY must rate a mention. The 2002 Sony winner simply loves it here, making the top-5 three years in a row from 2002 to 2004, and managing a perfectly respectable 13th in each of the last two years. Usually accurate and reliable from tee to green, as long as he starts the year fresh and prepared then 66/1 looks too big.
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