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Arnold Palmer Invitational preview

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The PGA Tour returns to Bay Hill, for what will be an emotional week. This is the first time the Arnold Palmer Invitational has been played since Arnold’s passing last September. Whilst a few players have been criticised for not teeing it up in Arnie’s honour this week, five of the world’s top-9 and 14 of the top 25 have committed to playing this week. Defending champion, Jason Day is joined by; Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler as the representatives from the world’s top-10.

Other notable players teeing it up this week include Justin Rose and defending Masters Champion, Danny Willett who together, spearhead a strong European contingent this week. Martin Laird, who won here in 2011 remains the only European winner of this event in over 50 renewals, however European’s have enjoyed relative success at Bay Hill since the event was moved here in 1979.

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Stenson, who has finished inside the top-8 in each of the last four years and no worse than 5th in the last three, should have won here two years ago but threw it away, ultimately giving Matt Every a second win here. Rose has posted three top-9’s in seven starts here, including a 2nd and a 3rd, whilst Graeme McDowell also has multiple top-10’s to his name here, including a 2nd back in 2012.

Francesco Molinari and Paul Casey shared 9th place along with Rose here last year and given the form that the likes of Thomas Pieters, Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrell Hatton have shown over the last few weeks, it would be no great surprise to see a second European winner of this event.

It could be coincidental that Europeans have enjoyed success here, after all, those players have come into this event in form but it may also be down to the course setup and the prospect of possible windy conditions.

All this talk of European’s, but it was a Canadian who won last week, in the form of Adam Hadwin. Not only was Hadwin’s win a huge personal achievement, as he got off the mark on the PGA Tour, but it also marks the first time since 2007 that there has been more than one Canadian winner in the same PGA Tour season. Mike Weir and Stephen Ames were the two Canadians to do it ten years ago, whilst Mackenzie Hughes welcomed his fellow compatriot, Hadwin to the winners’ circle after getting his win at the RSM Classic back in November. Both players tee it up this week, and Hadwin especially will be hopeful of another good week, after making his debut in this event 12 months ago, finishing T36.

The Course and what it will take to win this week.

Bay Hill Club and Lodge, 7,419 yards, Par 72

This course has undergone two renovations since 2010, most recently in 2014. Bay Hill played as a Par 70 between 2007-2009 but reverted back to a Par 72 in 2010 after the major renovation took place.

Rather than another complete renovation, Bay Hill was given a major face-lift in 2014, where three big changes were made. New sand was added to all the bunkers that year, and the type of sand that was added is said to result in less buried balls, making the bunkers somewhat easier to play from.

The fairways across the course were widened, in order to revert back to the shape the course was originally designed, as the newly appointed Course Superintendent, Chris Flynn stated “The fairways were very narrow. You can tell how the course was shaped and what was supposed to be fairways but the rough had encroached into the fairways. They had lost their shape over the years”.

The third and final change was the complete removal of some trees the and trimming of others.

These changes have undoubtedly had an effect on the scoring, with the last two winning scores being -17 and -19. The -19 shot by Matt Every in 2015 was the lowest since Tiger Woods shot the same in 2003. From 2007 thru to 2014 the lowest winning score was -13, which was also the winning score in each year between 2012-2014. The sudden jump in scoring highlights just how much of a difference the changes after the 2014 renewal made, and as such this event now has to be considered a very low-scoring event.

There are some difficult holes on this course, notably the 18th which is a notoriously difficult closing hole. As a result, plenty of birdies will need to be made this week, in order to counter any hiccups along the way.

With this mind, Birdie Average is worth a look, alongside Par-5 scoring and Par-5 Birdies or better. A player’s Par-5 scoring throughout the season is always good to look out for heading into low-scoring events, because if you are going to get anywhere near -20, you cannot give up too many shots to field on the long holes.

The yardages on the scorecard for the four par-3’s this week are 199, 215, 221 and 231, so it is a long set of Par-3’s. Looking at the Par-3 Efficiency 200-225 yards, as well as the Par-3 scoring stats in general will give you a good indicator of who should play these holes well.

With all this in mind, here are my picks for the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Justin Rose 20/1 (General) 2pts e/w:

Rose was to me the most obvious bet aside from Stenson this week, and given the former’s 20/1 odds, he just edged it as my headline selection.

Not only is he my headline selection, but he is my only real “safe selection” this week. With some fancy prices on offer this week, I have decided to take some chances here, in the hope of turning a bad run around.

I will keep it short with Rose, as I feel he needs very little justifying.

In 11 starts here, Rose has four top-9 finishes, three of which came on his last five starts. In amongst those are a 2nd and a 3rd, which came in 2013 and 2011 respectively.

Statistically, he sets up perfectly for me this week also. Rose ranks 2nd in Par 3 efficiency 200-225 yards, T15 in Birdie Average, T20 in Par 5 Scoring Average and finally T22 in Par 5 Birdie or Better.

Given how well he sets up statistically, alongside his clear affinity with the course, there is only one other thing to look at – his current form. In five starts in 2017, Rose has three top-4’s including a runner-up finish at the Sony Open. He finished T38 last time out in Mexico, failing to break 70 over the course of the week. I am happy to write that week off, especially as there we no disaster rounds. His form here at Bay Hill is deserving of a win, and he looks good enough value at 20/1 to get it done this week.

Billy Horschel 100/1 (General) 0.5pt e/w:

I backed Horschel to go well at the Valspar last week and he missed the cut, but I am going to keep the faith and go with him again here.

Everyone knows by now that Horschel’s struggles this season have come on the greens, and that was the case again at Copperhead last week. After finishing 4th at PGA National three week ago, it looked as though Horschel had started to turn a corner on the greens, unfortunately the problem is still very much at large.

There are two key reasons I am sticking with him again this week. His price and the belief that he can turn his putting woes around.

I backed him at 50/1 to go well last week, one missed cut later and he’s 100/1.

The belief he will turn it around not only comes from the fact he’s a mighty fine golfer, but also the fact he clearly seems confident he will to. In a video posted on Twitter 2 days ago talking about his missed cut at the Valspar he stated ” Last week I just didn’t make anything, I putted really well unfortunately, besides a 3-putt from three feet I putted really well, I just had speed issues, just couldn’t get the ball to the hole”. Horschel also touches on the fact that although it is frustrating he just needs to work hard but also states “I’m playing really good, I’m hitting the ball the best I have I know in two years and probably in my career”. 

Whilst it is clear he is frustrated with his results due to his struggles with the putter, I like how open he is and it clearly looks as though he is working to turn it around. It is obvious he is one, above-average week on the greens away from really pushing for another PGA Tour victory. Horschel is the sort of player that, should he get a win or finish inside the top-5, the fancy prices will dry up for a while, so take him at three-figures whilst you still can.

Unfortunately due to the putting issues, he doesn’t rank highly in any scoring statistics but his course form is at least another encouraging factor.

In four starts here, he has continued to get better, finishing 75th on debut and following that up with 43rd place finishes in both 2014 and 2015. Last year though Horschel managed to finish T20, with a third-round 74 costing him a chance to climb the leaderboard. Rounds of 67 and 68 on Friday and Sunday respectively were enough to ensure the 20th place finish which was a massive improvement on previous visits. Given his high level of ball-striking this season, should he somehow have a Eureka moment with the putter, this looks the perfect place for him to contend once again.

Horschel is pumped for this week, as he looks to honour “The King”. He has been vocal with his disappointment that more high-profile players didn’t commit to play this week, and has also shared pictures on Twitter of the trademark Palmer logo this week on both his ball and polo collar. Maybe he is looking for some guidance this week, whatever it is, I really do believe Horschel can bounce back from the missed cut last week, with a huge week here at Bay Hill.

Brooks Koepka 100/1 (StanJames 6 places + Betway, William Hill and Ladbrokes) 0.5pt e/w:

From one golfer who needs some help to another, I also think Brooks Koepka is worth a bet at the same price as Horschel.

Koepka has been in dismal form in 2017, finishing no better than his T42 at the Phoenix Open so far, so why am I backing him this week?

Well firstly, he is too good of a player to struggle with the driver the way he has since the turn of the year, and secondly he has now gone out to a price I could not ignore.

Koepka’s current issue is he can’t find the fairway and with that his Greens in Regulation percentage is suffering, thus not giving himself enough scoring opportunities. Should he straighten out his driver, he looks in good shape.

Despite struggling with the driver, Koepka still ranks 4th in Par 5 Birdie or Better and T7 in Par 5 scoring average. As well as still playing the par-5’s well, he has also played the long par-3’s well. Koepka ranks 19th in Par 3 efficiency 200-225 yards, averaging a score of 2.929 on these holes. In addition he ranks T34 in Birdie Average, so he is still scoring and just needs to limit the mistakes this week.

Of course, like Horschel I am relying on one sole facet of his game improving and this is a risk. It is however, a risk I am willing to take on someone of his ability.

Koepka didn’t play here last year, but finished T26 on debut in 2014 before finishing 70th in 2015. Whilst it is a small sample size, an in-form Koepka should like the way this course sets up and hopefully that driver straightens out this week.

Hudson Swafford 175/1 (Bet365) 0.5pt e/w:

Hudson Swafford broke his PGA Tour duck this season, winning the CareerBuilder Challenge but it has been anything but plain sailing since.

He missed the cut in three straight events after his win, but that poor run of form ground to a halt last week at the Valspar Championship. Swafford finished the week at -1 and in a tie for 38th. He opened the week 68-69 before shooting a pair of 73’s over the weekend to ultimately drop down the leaderboard.

It was an important week for Swafford though as he finished under par for the first time since that win at the CareerBuilder, after finishing under par for six straight events to open the season. To miss three straight cuts after making six straight including a win must be a shock to the system, but Swafford may well of eased up after getting that first win. If it is back to business as usual, as his performance last week at Copperhead suggests, then he looks good value to go well here at Bay Hill.

Much was made of the fact that Swafford ended 2016 ranked 10th in the All-Around Ranking. The nine players that finished ahead of him were; Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Ryan Palmer, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson. That is some pretty elite company right there, and although he ranks 32nd in the same statistic heading into this week, he still remains a good statistical fit for this course.

Swafford first and foremost currently ranks 7th in Par-5 Birdie or Better Leaders, 12th in Par 5 Performance and 13th in Par 5 Scoring Average so he should be able to take advantage of the long holes this week. As we have touched upon, Par 3 efficiency 200-225 yards is important this week as well, and Swafford ranks 32nd averaging 3.000 on holes of that length. This is another promising statistic, as it suggests Swafford should cope well with the four long par-3’s here. In addition to this he ranks above-average in Birdie Average sitting 50th in that ranking. He’s already shown this season that he can go low enough to win this event, winning the CareerBuilder at -20.

He doesn’t just fit the bill statistically here, there is also some clear evidence. In three starts here, Swafford form figures read 36-11-MC, with the missed cut coming on his debut. Last year when finishing 36th he managed to shoot par or better in all four rounds (72-72-69-70).

More impressive maybe was his comeback in 2015, after opening with a 75 (+3). He followed that opening round up with three rounds in the 60’s (66-68-68) to finish -11 and just three shots short of the top-5.

Florida-born, Swafford will no doubt be keen to ensure he returns to form, before his first appearance at the Masters next month. Swafford graduated from the University of Georgia, so he will be looking forward to a successful return to the state when he tees it up at Augusta. If he can indeed take some momentum into the week, it will be interesting to see how he does. Swafford has only ever played in one major, the U.S. Open, where he has missed the cut on both occasions (2010 & 2014).

With his course form and clear suitability statistically, Swafford looks a good bet at this week, as he returns to Bay Hill a PGA Tour winner, for the first time.

Best of the rest:

I liked Graeme McDowell when the early 100/1 was about, but at 66/1 the appeal faded. Another player at 66/1 I like but didn’t pull the trigger on is Zach Johnson, who has two top-10’s here (5-9) in the last two years.

Total Points staked this week: 7

Profit/Loss for 2017: -23