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Northern Trust Open preview

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This week, we head to Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, California, for the Northern Trust Open. The Northern Trust Open, is hosted by a course, with a rich history, Riviera Country Club.

Riviera Country Club, 7,349, Par 71. Riviera plays as one of the toughest tracks on the PGA Tour, and limiting mistakes will be key to getting a win here. That may sound obvious, but if you can keep the mistakes to a minimum here, but deal with them sufficiently when they arise, you could be in for a great week here. Of course, you can’t just rely on limiting mistakes, you have got to score too and to do that here, accuracy will be vital.

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Different to any other on the PGA Tour, Riviera uses Kikuya grass, most commonly found in South Africa, and this means finding rough can cause all sorts of problems. Accuracy off the tee could well be key, but if you can recover from the rough here, than you may well be able to stay in contention.

In general, and most certainly in recent years this is not a course, where players pick up their maiden PGA Tour win, however last year’s champion John Merrick broke that mould here, twelve months ago. Two others since 2000 have achieved such a feat, Kirk Triplett in 2000 and Len Mattiace in 2002.

With this is mind, although I will be favouring players with experience on both the Tour, and the course itself, I wouldn’t be too surprised if one of the bright young talents on the PGA Tour came here and got a memorable first victory.

Course and current form were at the forefront of my mind this week, as coming into such a tough track, confidence could be key and such confidence comes from having good recent memories, both in the past here and in recent weeks.

As the field is loaded with strong players this week, it’s hardly a surprise that 12/1 is the shortest price, with no stand-out favourite. The shortest of the bunch, is last week’s runner-up Dustin Johnson,who comes in at 12/1. Johnson has finished in the top-10 3/6 times here at Riviera, and fits the course/current form bill.

Behind Johnson, there are three players who come into the week at 20/1, Hunter Mahan, Jordan Spieth and Webb Simpson, all of whom are enjoying good starts to 2014. Just behind those are three-time winner in 2014, Jimmy Walker and Graeme DeLaet at 22/1.

The rest of the field comes in at 25/1 or bigger, and there are some players who come in at, what I would consider inflated prices this week, due to the nature of the course, and the strength of the field.

We are in for a treat this week, with a great field, matched by a great venue and I cannot wait to see what challenges Riviera throws up this year.

Here are my picks for the 2014 Northern Trust Open.

Bill Haas 28/1 (General) 1.5pts e/w: Bill Haas is a proven winner on Tour, but that hasn’t always been the case. It took Haas five years to win on the PGA Tour, before winning twice in 2010, but a win in each season since, has seen him become a prolific winner on Tour. 

Haas won here in 2012, in what was his fourth victory in three years, and he did it the hard way, winning in a play-off against two other proven winners, Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson. He opened the week with a round of 72, six shots worse than Mickelson, but he finished the week with three rounds in the 60s, the only player in the field to do so.

Prior to his win, he finished 12th in 2011, which would of given him the belief he needed to win here, and has since followed up his win in 2012, with a 3rd place finish here last year, form he will certainly be hoping to keep up, despite a lack of recent form. His last two starts have seen him come 34th and 43rd, hardly inspiring form, but his T6 finish at the Humana Challenge offers some encouragement, and he can certainly impress again this week, at a course he obviously enjoys.

Why does Haas play so well at Riviera? Well it is hard to put an exact finger on it, but it could just be the simple fact that he likes the course, but if I was to put it down to a particular statistic, I would go for his ability to avoid bogeys. This year he ranks 12th in Bogey Avoidance, and finished 2013 ranked 7th, so he is one of the best at keeping hiccups off of his card and should that continue, that will serve him well this week, as he returns to a favourite course of his.

His current form may be the main contributing factor to, what looks like a a great price of 28/1 and I hope he can reverse his current fortunes this week, keeping up his current record of a win a year, over the last six years. There is no doubt in my mind that he will continue to win on Tour and this year should be no different.

Charl Schwartzel 40/1 (Bet365) 1pt e/w: In recent weeks, and indeed months, 40/1 is not a price you would normally associate with Charl Schwartzel, and that’s one of the main reasons why I think he’s a good bet this week. The value is gone on him now in European Tour events, and you have to really feel confident about him, when he returns to South Africa, as his price is always extremely short.

Price however is not the only reason why I like him this week, it goes much deeper than that, and I am happy to back him, as he looks for his maiden win, in a regular PGA Tour event. He has 9 wins on the European Tour, and a major championship, after winning the Masters in 2011, but he’s yet to win a regular Tour event this side of the Atlantic.

Scheduling will be one of the main factors as to why he’s yet to win on American soil, outside of Augusta, but he’s playing here this week, for the second year in a row, and it wasn’t a bad debut a year ago.

Schwartzel finished in a tie for 3rd last year, missing out on a place in the eventual play-off, by one shot. Despite his best efforts last time round, he failed to join John Merrick and Charlie Beljan in the final showdown, but I fully believe he can go one better this time around, and get the win.

Sometimes, it seems he has a point to prove, often because his wins, bar the Masters have come in relatively easy events/ fields, and if he feels he needs to do so, Riviera may be the best place for him to do just that.

As aforementioned, Kikuya grass is in play at the Northern Trust Open, and you feel he will be the best prepared for this, along with fellow compatriots Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen, and fellow Masters winner Trevor Immelman. Both Els and Immelman have finished inside the top-10 here, as well as Schwartzel and that helps in backing up this statement.

Simply put, at 40/1 for a major winner, who came 3rd at this course, on his debut should be given every chance, and I am happy to have him onside this week. He didn’t play well at the Joburg Open last week, but I do think he had half an eye on this event, and hopefully he’ll come in focused and rested.

Pat Perez 50/1 (General) 1pt e/w: I have been waiting for the best time to pull the trigger on Pat Perez, and although I could prove to be late to the party, I am happy to take a chance, he’s got a least one more good week in him.

For a player of his quality, you really would expect him to of won more than once on Tour, but he has got over the line in the past, and some of the form he’s showing in 2014 suggests he could be ready to make it two wins this week.

Why this week, over any of the previous weeks? Each week I have had this niggling doubt that Perez, who certainly doesn’t hide his emotions may struggle to keep up his good play, but each week he’s proving me wrong, so now is the time I have chosen to get on board.

Perez, along with his win has finished runner-up on two occasions, most famously at Pebble Beach in 2002, where he started to collapse on the back-9, which was completed when he carded an 8 on the final hole. This led to Perez attempting to break a club over his leg and this sort of thing is no doubt a stumbling block in an otherwise great golf game. If he can keep his focus, like he has done so far in 2014, I think he can find the winners circle again.

Since the start of the year, Perez has finished outside the top-20 on just one occasion , when he finished T58 a the Humana Challenge, where he was still managed to shoot 13 under par. He finished T8 at the Sony Open prior to his Humana Challenge effort, and has since managed to bounce back in great fashion. Just a week after the Humana, Perez finished T2 at the ever difficult Torrey Pines, host venue of the Farmers Insurance Open, and backed this up again with finishes of 11th  at the Phoneix Open and 7th at Pebble Beach in the last two weeks.

He is playing some of the best golf of his career right now, and on a course that he’s plenty of experience on, I certainly feel he can go well. Although his form at Riviera is less than stellar, he did finish 13th in 2012 and 8th in 2007, both very respectable finishes and hopefully he can produce a similar, but better showing this week.

At 50/1 I thought it was worth chancing that Perez keeps up his good play, and performs to a high standard once again. Although he’s not the most accurate, especially off the tee, he is pretty good at getting out of trouble, proved by his ranking of 32nd this year in GIR from other than fairway.

Kevin Streelman 140/1 (Bet365) 1pt e/w: Having played just two events in 2014, it is very difficult to gauge what level Kevin Streelman is playing at, but at what looks like a big price, I am happy to find out if he can produce a good showing this week.

He played twice in January, first at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, where he rallied in the final round to finish 3rd, and at the Phoenix Open at the end of the month, where he finished a less impressive T53.

Streelman has played here, at Riviera six times in total, missing two cuts in the process, and failing to make a lasting impact on the event thus far, but there are reasons to suggest that could change here in 2014.

In round 4, in 2013, Streelman shot a final round 68, the second best score on the day, and that should of stuck in his mind, ahead of this week. Despite starting the week with a disappointing 73, and a third round 72, he still managed to finish in a tie for 24th, his best finish here to date.

Since getting his first win on his 153rd PGA Tour start, at the Tampa Bay Championship in 2013, he’s really looked like a player who is ready to win again, and this could be a course that suits.

I mentioned before that accuracy was important, especially off the tee, and that is one the strengths in Streelman’s game. He currently sits 3rd on Tour in Driving Accuracy, and finished 2013 in 23rd place in the category, so he certainly finds plenty of fairways.

If he can get off to a better start this year, he can put himself in position ahead of the final round, where he seems to shoot his best scores. He ranked 16th in Final Round Scoring last year, with an average score of 69.89 and I don’t see any reason why that should change, unless he’s in pole position going into the final day.

We have seen it on more than one occasion this season, that a player has gone into round-4 with a comfortable lead, and subsequently have tried to play too safe. This, although hasn’t proved costly yet, has looked a problem, especially as both Patrick Reed at the Humana, and Jimmy Walker at Pebble Beach last week, made very tough work of converting 7 and 6 shot leads respectively going into the final day.

I am hoping that Streelman is up there in contention on the last day, but would probably prefer him to be a couple of shots of the pace, so that he shoots one of his typically low, final day scores. He is far too big for me at 140/1 this week, and his improved form in this event is definitely encouraging.

Total Points staked on the PGA Tour this week: 9

Total Points staked this week (Inc European Tour): 18

Profit/Loss for 2014: + 223.75

I hope to follow up on Jimmy Walker’s win at Pebble Beach last Sunday, with another winner this week, and I have full confidence in the players above. There are some great prices on offer, thanks to the strength of the field, and I am hoping to exploit that. This will be a great indicator of the shape of a players game, ahead of the first major of the year, the Masters, which is rapidly approaching. Players will be looking to put together a run of form ahead of Augusta, and a solid performance here will certainly be a good way to start that.

As ever, I welcome any feedback, or questions you may have, on my Twitter page @TJacobsGolf