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Arnold Palmer Invitational preview

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So it’s mid-March, and it is time to visit “The King”, the King of golf that is. We have already seen the PGA Tour makes it stop at Jack Nicklaus’ PGA National, where players tried to tame “The Bear Trap”, and this week players will be faced with the always difficult challenge that is, Bay Hill Golf Club.

This event in the past has been dominated by none other than Tiger Woods, who has tonight (Tuesday) announced he has had to pull out of the event this week, due to back spasms. Woods has been struggling in recent weeks, and although this is one “his events”, he obviously feels chances cannot be taken, this close to the Masters.

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Woods won here 12 months ago, to take his tally to 8 wins at Bay Hill, finishing ahead of Justin Rose in 2nd, Gonzalo Fdez-Castano, Keegan Bradley, Mark Wilson and Rickie Fowler in 3rd, and Thorbjorn Olesen who finished one shot shy of those in 3rd. Rose and Wilson aside, the rest of the chasing pack had little to no experience of this course, with Fowler the most experienced, with two trips around “Arnie’s place”.

Fdez-Castano and Olesen took full advantage of their invites in 2013, announcing themselves state-side and Fdez-Castano will be looking to replicate that this week. Olesen did not get an invite this week, therefore will not be able to build on what was a very impressive debut.

The Course: Bay Hill Club & Lodge, 7,419, Par 72. Since 2010, Bay Hill reverted back to a par 72, and thus has ranked amongst the toughest of its kind, on the PGA Tour schedule.

The stroke average here in 2013 was 72.93, so it proves just how big of a challenge the players face here.

I have gone for good ball strikers this week, those of whom should also be able to take advantage of the par 5s, an important stat to bear in mind here. In the last two years, Woods led the field in par 5 scoring, as did 2011 champion Martin Laird, so scoring on the long holes may well be a deciding factor this week.

The final three holes tend to throw up a decisive moment, as they often do on a Sunday, and someone who can navigate these successfully should stand in good stead. Nerves get the better of players all the time, so sensible play of this tricky trio of holes is recommended. Obviously if you’re playing catch up to the leader (something you don’t want to be doing) late on Sunday, you are going to have to take chances, but that is where trouble may occur.

I still haven’t forgotten when Rickie Fowler went in the water twice on the 16th hole (par 5) after cutting Woods’ lead to just two. It hurt at the time, as I had him at 70/1 without Woods to win, something he looked set to do. That’s the quality I like about Fowler though, like many of these upcoming Americans, he’s fearless, something you need to be to win golf tournaments.

This is not a course you want to try a come from behind-win, it pays to get off to get a good start here, and building on a solid start definitely looks the better option then trying to shoot crazy low numbers over the weekend!

Without Woods in the field this week, the top of the market has had a bit of a shake up, and Justin Rose is now the 12/1 favourite. Behind him are Adam Scott and Bubba Watson at 14/1, Graeme McDowell at 20/1 and Zach Johnson 22/1. Although you can make a strong case for all these players, I am happy to avoid them this week, as most looked short before Woods withdrew, and definitely do now.

Here are my picks for 2014 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Keegan Bradley 28/1 (Genral) 2pts e/w: Keegan Bradley is a favourite of mine on the PGA Tour, so watching him end 2013 without a win was pretty disjointing, but I am sure it plays on his mind more than mine, and he will be keen to right that wrong in 2014.

He has played here at Bay Hill on two occasions, and after failing to make the cut in 2011, Bradley managed to finished T3 last year, something he will be looking to replicate, and even build upon this time around.

So far in 2014 he has endured an up and down start to the calender year, but he has finished in the top-20 on four occasions, and missed just one cut. He looked in good form at the Honda Classic three weeks ago, but failed to keep up the good play through all four rounds, and dropped to 12th place, still a respectable finish.

A missed cut at the Phoenix Open came between three of his four top-20 finishes, and that week, plus his first round exit in the WGC Match Play, are weeks he’ll be looking to forget.

Bradley is a winner, there’s no doubt about it, he’s already won a major (PGA Championship) and a WGC (Bridgestone) in his still relatively young PGA Tour career, and I cannot see it being long before he finds himself in the winners circle for the fourth time. This course looks a good suit for him, and should he improve on the par 5s this week, I firmly believe he will be in contention come Sunday.

So far in the 2013-14 wraparound season, Bradley is 59th in Par 5 Scoring Average and 68th in Par 5 Performance, so he will definitely need to improve on that, as it’s something, with his length he should be able to excel in and hopefully the improvement starts this week.

He should draw confidence from a great finish here 12 months ago, and I really like his chances this week. Although he played superb in Medinah in 2012, he will be looking to catch Tom Watson’s eye with a good performance, with the competition for Ryder Cup spaces hotting up. With a strong start from players like Harris English, Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed this season, some very good players are set to miss out on Ryder Cup spots, and with Bradley being one of the start players in 2012, he will not want to be one of them.

Gary Woodland 45/1 (Winner) 1.5pts e/w: Gary Woodland is another player who I expect to return to the winners circle soon, the difference is, it hasn’t been that long since he was in it.

Woodland got a win in 2013 at the Reno Tahoe Open, and although it was in one of the weaker fields of the season, the winning habit will be something he will be looking to keep up, and it can only be a good experience. He finished the year strongly after that, his runner-up finish at The Barclays, in the FedEx Cup Play Offs being a particular highlight.

Add to his strong finish last season, his 2nd place finish at CIMB Classic back in October, and his 8th place finish last week and it looks like Woodland is finally finding some consistency in his game. He looks to be a player that has it all on his day, and if he can keep up his recent form with the putter he should continue to contend.

Woodland ranks #1 on Tour in Total Driving, and as a result ranks highly in Ball Striking, something that will only aid in his quest to getting his third Tour win here. If he can keep up the form he’s in right now, I see no reason why he cannot compete at all the majors this year, I feel that strongly about his game.

He has three years experience here at Bay Hill, and has improved on every visit, another reason for picking him this week. Since 2011 he has gone MC, 48 and 27th, so on that trend he should go even better this year. I like him on this layout, and I think it’s one he can enjoy success this week and in the future.

For him to go well this week, similar to Bradley, he will need to improve on his par-5 performance and he certainly should be at the top of that list, considering how far he hits it off the tee. He’s tidied up the weaker part of his game, which was putting, and now that he’s holing out with regularity inside of 10 feet, he just needs to find his scoring touch on the long holes again.

He is playing some of his best golf, and although he’s let himself down on a couple of occasions so far, he should take all those experiences and become a better player because of it. He will no doubt have major aspirations, so good play this close to the Masters is essential, and hopefully he can navigate Bay Hill well this week.

Martin Laird 90/1 (Bet365) 1pt e/w: Martin Laird hasn’t played since the Northern Trust Open in February, and he didn’t play great that week, but after a month off, he should be raring to go, especially on a course he has won on before.

Laird won here in 2011, before Woods won his 7th and 8th title back-to-back in 2012 and 2013, and he should go well here again this week. He followed up his win with two decent finishes of 36th and 34th and although not inspiring, both finishes prove he can still play well around here.

He also ticks all the boxes this week, he is good ball striker, and also ranks highly in Par 5 Scoring Average (7th) and Par 5 Performance (32nd) both of which will serve him well on this course. He is a solid player, and considering he’s got 3 PGA Tour wins, one every two years between 2009-2013, he often goes under the radar.

Not only has he got three wins, but he’s also been involved in two play-offs, so he knows how to get in contention, and I see no reason why at a big price he can’t do that again this week.

Before his break, he did manage to finish T25 at the Humana Challenge, and T19 at the Phoenix Open, two decent finishes, so there were signs that he was hitting the ball well before he took time out.

I thought 90/1 for a past champion, and a solid player was a big price, and if he can get off to fast start, I can see him contending right until the end come the weekend.

Billy Horschel 100/1 (General) 1pt e/w: Another good ball striker is Billy Horschel, who not too long ago was the talk of the Tour, but with so many different players popping up each week, it seems to of gone quiet in “camp Horschel”.

Let’s not forget that prior to getting his first victory at the Zurich Classic, Horschel recorded three straight top-1os and was looking very good in the process.

Add to his win, his superb performance at the U.S Open, when he finished 4th and you have a player that probably looks a bit overpriced at 100/1. I know it’s based on current form, and he’s not at his best currently, but he’s obviosuly a player with bags of potential and I think he will pop up with a big performance one week.

Why do I think it will be here at Bay Hill? Well a lot of it has to do with his odds, but I also think his 75th place finish here last year is a bit misleading, as the course should set up well for him, if striking the ball well.

He is streaky with the putter, he’s that type of player, and when he’s hot, he’s hot and you do have to bear that in mind when backing someone like Horschel, other than that he’s a good all-round player and should be able to find his best on any given week.

Although he finished T50 last week, and has missed a few cuts in this wraparound season, he’s also finished in the top-25 on five occasions including a good weekend at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions that saw him finish T6. He also looked good in the WGC Match Play, and will be wondering what he did to deserve drawing eventual winner Jason Day when he did, so there are signs there that he is playing well.

The 100/1 price on offer was a big reason for picking him, but he’s a player I like, a good ball striker and someone who with the right mind-sight can win a lot more on Tour. He often puts a bit too much pressure on himself, and he admitted this in an interview on Morning Drive this week, but hopefully he’ll start to give himself a break, and instead of trying to be perfect all the time, he’ll settle for good enough when he has to.

Total Points Staked this week: 11

Profit/Loss for 2014: +178.45

Despite Luke Donald’s best efforts last week (he finished T5th) we still had a negative week, and it’s something that needs to change, starting this week. There is no European Tour this week, and not a proper event on that side for quite some time, so full attention can be turned to the PGA Tour once again. I am looking forward to Bay Hill, it should be a good event, and I am confident the four players above can go well. Get in touch, with any feedback of questions via Twitter @TJacobsGolf and good luck this week!