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It’s officially Arnold Palmer Invitational week, which should spark so many memories of the GOAT and his multiple winning performances here.
As if you even had to ask, of course I’m talking about Matt Every.
Welcome to the Benjamin Button of golf tournaments, an event which seems to be growing in reverse of its peers. That’s a compliment, by the way.
It doesn’t take a golf expert to deduce that some combination of better players, improving technology and statistical analysis has led to lower scores in the professional ranks over the past few decades. That’s true of just about every long-standing PGA TOUR venue other than Bay Hill, which seemingly grows tougher almost every year.
After eight straight editions of this event (from 2012-2019) when the winner was double-digits under par, Tyrrell Hatton won at 4-under 284 three years ago, and after Bryson DeChambeau’s 11-under 277 the following year, Scottie Scheffler captured the title at just 5-under 283 last year.
In fact, the scoring records for the API look like archives that someone forgot to update. Payne Stewart’s total aggregate score of 264 in 1987 remains the third-oldest such record for current PGA TOUR events. (If you guessed Lanny Wadkins in 1985 at what is now the Genesis Invitational and Dan Halldorson at the 1986 Sanderson Farms as the only scoring records that are older, you’re a sick person who has a serious golf addiction.)
As for the lowest score in relation to par, the record for the API remains Buddy Allin’s 23-under total from 1973, once again the third-oldest out of all current tournaments. (If you guessed Johnny Palmer in 1952 at the RBC Canadian Open and Mike Souchak at the 1955 Valero Texas Open, seriously, you need help.)
The reason for such comparatively high scores on an annual basis is an increasingly devilish golf course which becomes immeasurably more difficult with strong winds whipping through it, often baking the already-slick greens.
I live about 10 minutes from Bay Hill, and while I can report that the recent weather has been just a little too hot in the afternoons (sorry not sorry to all those buried under a few feet of snow right now), we’ve mostly had very playable conditions lately. No surprise, though, that the Golf Gods have conspired with Mother Nature to once again hold off on the real dastardly stuff until API week.
Early forecasts show wind speeds steadily in the double-digits for each of the four tournament rounds, with gusts up to 38 mph for Friday’s second round.
From a betting perspective, there are a few takeaways from this. First, we might want to give a little extra consideration to the late-Thursday/early-Friday wave, as the worst of those winds will likely occur during the afternoon of the second day, which could help the players who have already finished while the cut line potentially moves north later in the round.
(As always, I’m writing this week’s preview before tee times have been released.)
Second, we should pay close attention to those players who happen to fare better when conditions are tough and scoring is closer in relation to par than usual.
With that in mind, let’s get to the selections, focusing on a few players who fit this narrative.
One player to win the tournament.
Will Zalatoris +3000
Last year, on the heels of a T10 in his only previous start at the API, I picked Zalatoris to win this tournament because ball striking is paramount at Bay Hill, and poor putting is often neutralized, as an entire weekend spent hitting greens in regulation and two-putting for par isn’t nearly the same recipe for failure as it is at most other events.
As it turns out, however, you’ve still gotta make something. His flatstick wasn’t awful that week, but it was the fifth of six starts in a row where he lost strokes on the greens. Surprise, surprise: There were some issues with that putting stroke. Perhaps that’s mostly in the past, though. Fast forward to this week, and we find Zalatoris having contrastingly gained strokes in measured rounds with his putter in six straight events that he’s finished.
Even despite the stray viral video where his maneuver looks beyond yippy, the numbers show he’s improved. For a player whose tee-to-green game is world-class enough that just an average putting performance in relation to the field should get him into contention, gaining strokes with that club simply feels like icing on an impending celebratory cake.
While there might be some cause for concern in that the 26-year-old maintains he won’t be fully healed from a pair of herniated disc injuries until April, he’s fresh off a solo fourth-place finish at Riviera two weeks ago, and there’s something to be said about competing at less than 100 percent equating to lowered expectations, and lowered expectations equating to better results.
Win or lose, he’ll be very much on my radar for next week’s PLAYERS Championship, too.
Outright Winner (Long odds)
One player to win the tournament
Danny Willett (+25000)
For as great as the Eric Cole story was last week (not to mention the Ryan Gerard story), I still have trouble believing a huge longshot will soon capture a designated tournament title. We’ve contested three of ‘em so far, and the winners have been Jon Rahm (twice) and Scottie Scheffler — not a whole lot of wiggle room for players much further down the board.
If I am looking this far, though, then I’m seeking out a guy who’s in form, has shown the ability to beat a field full of superstars and won’t be deterred by those gusting winds. Willett presumably checks every box, having finished 18th and 29th in his last two starts and with those exact same results signifying his two best finishes at Bay Hill, too.
I could’ve defined “long odds” as I’ve done before, with anything over 50/1 qualifying for this category, which means Hideki Matsuyama (60/1), Shane Lowry (60/1), Tommy Fleetwood (75/1) and Keegan Bradley (80/1) are all viable options here – and players with whom I’ll likely have some outright investments.
With the betting public coming down with a case of longshot fever, I’ll take a small chance on Willett being the one guy with massive odds (OK, one of two, as I’ll also mention Davis Riley at 300/1) who could hang with the big boys throughout the weekend.
Potential selections for one-and-done options.
Scottie Scheffler (+1000)
If you’re in an OAD where defending champions are off the board each week, then just skip this selection and move along to the next one. For those who don’t have such a limitation, though, this one could offer some nice symmetry. After all, Scheffler’s first career win came at last year’s WM Phoenix Open, where he just successfully defended a few weeks ago, so there’s reason to believe his second career win could offer a similar result.
Whether it’s a case of not knowing the rules or not believing history can repeat, even OADers in pools without the defending champ stipulation tend to overlook these players, so you might be able to choose Scheffler without as high of an ownership as you might think.
Jason Day (+3000)
Consider me firmly ensconced in the growing camp which believes Day is back to some semblance of his world-class status and will soon win for the first time in what will be five years this May. Problem is, apparently the oddsmakers are in this camp, as well, with Day’s odds a mind-boggling 30/1 this week – lower than Viktor Hovland, Sungjae Im and Jordan Spieth, among others.
Those are ridiculously short odds for Day, who won here back in 2016 at the height of his powers but doesn’t have any other finishes better than 17th in 10 other starts. While I won’t bet him at this number, I’m still optimistic that Day can have another strong week, which means he’s more of an OAD and DFS play for me.
Viktor Hovland (+3500)
I’ll readily admit that Hovland has largely been a fade for me over the past few months. What I’ve missed out on is a four-event run where he’s finished between 13th and 42nd in each, while driving it really well, hitting his irons decently and being just about field average with his wedges and putter.
Though he’s never said this specifically (as far as I know), I’ve often gotten the sense that Hovland needs something a little extra to get his attention. I’m honestly not sure how that correlates to victories in Mayakoba and Puerto Rico, but I do believe this one will get him a little more interested. He finished in a share of second here last year, turning a 69-66 start into a 75-74 weekend that wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, considering the conditions.
Keith Mitchell (+6000)
Another guy, like Day, whom I really like this week and really hate at this number. A pair of top fives in his past three starts have vaulted Mitchell to 45th in the OWGR, in the driver’s seat for a Masters invitation via the top-50 exemption.
He finished T6 in his API debut in 2019 and T5 the following year, so it stands to reason that he can – or perhaps, should – contend again, now that he’s a much more complete player than he was back then. Again, you’ll want some investment, but the price seems too short when we compare him to those at the same number or longer, so as a slightly contrarian OAD play, he makes a lot of sense.
One player to finish in the top five
Matt Fitzpatrick +650 for Top Five (bet365)
Full disclosure: It essentially came down to the equivalent of a coin flip between Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick for my favorite outright play this week. I don’t mind mixing and matching the two of them for outrights and top fives – essentially creating your own each-way bet since the U.S. books for some reason don’t want to offer the same options as their U.K. counterparts. But I digress.
Fitz has finished top 10 here in each of the past four years, including a runner-up result in 2019. It shouldn’t be mistaken as a coincidence that my two favorite plays for what should be another ultra-tough scoring week were also the top two on last year’s U.S. Open leaderboard, as I do believe there remains a distinct correlation between that event and this one – if not in the technical aspects of each venue, then at least in the mindset required to contend at both.
It hasn’t been a great start to 2023 for Fitzpatrick, who has a T29 and two MCs in his last three starts, but that’s just helped drive his price up entering a tournament he clearly enjoys.
One player to finish in the top 10
Tommy Fleetwood +550 for Top 10 (bet365)
It’s been a slow start this year for Fleetwood, who had a pair of middling results in the Middle East, then MC’d in Phoenix and finally finished T20 in his most recent start at Riviera. Even so, the approach game numbers have been decent in those last two stateside events, and his reputation precedes him at this one, where he owns three top 10s in six career starts. For another player who fits the profile of playing some of his better golf in tougher conditions, I think this could be a very nice two-week stretch for Fleetwood.
One player to finish in the top 20
Gary Woodland +240 for Top 20 (bet365)
There are signs that Woodland’s game is gradually turning around – and perhaps no better sign than a T9 finish at Riv in his last start. He was T5 here last year and owns one other top 20 (and two other near-misses) in his career at API, so there’s reason to believe a return back to his adopted home state of Florida should serve him well. I’ll likely have some shares of Woodland for DFS, as well.
One player to finish in the top 30
Christiaan Bezuidenhout +200 for Top 30 (bet365)
I wrote in last week’s preview that I liked C-Bez for the Honda and really like him for Bay Hill, where he’s been a member during his PGA TOUR career. There’s a combination of course knowledge, and the fact that – like so many others on my list — he tends to play his best golf when it doesn’t turn into a birdie-fest. I’m cautiously putting him down for the top-30 category here, but I think top 10/20 is well within reason.
One player to finish in the top 40
Adrian Meronk +130 for Top 40 (bet365)
We’ve gotten a chance to watch the DP World Tour stalwart here in the U.S. over the past couple of weeks – and more importantly, the Poland native has gotten a chance to acclimate himself to playing on the PGA TOUR. His T45 at the Genesis was followed by a T-14 at the Honda, and there’s reason to believe he could improve once again, as his game looked solid across the board last week. Again, I’m going conservative here, but more aggressive props could certainly pay off.
A safe plug-and-play option for DFS.
Rory or Rahm. Rahm or Rory. With some decent names receiving soft pricing this week, there’s an opportunity to spend up for a stud. I’m guessing plenty of DFSers will be grappling over which of these two to sink a large chunk of salary into – the guy with the flawless form or the one with the impeccable course history.
It’s hard to argue against Rahm, who’s looked like a world-beater so far this year and was T-17 in his tourney debut last year, but there is reason to believe these Bermuda greens could be his kryptonite.
There should be no such struggles for the Florida-based McIlroy, who’s only once finished outside of the top-13 in eight career starts here. His first two stateside appearances this year were uncommonly bland, but the tee-to-green numbers were the usual, offset by poor putting performances. Back on a surface he’s always liked better, expect this to be a strong bounce-back opportunity for Rory.
A medium-priced option for DFS lineups
Few venues suit Bradley’s game like this one, as he hasn’t failed to make cut in his last 10 appearances, including a pair of top-three and two other top-11 results during that time. There are going to be an awful lot of impressive names from which to choose in this mid-tier, but Bradley gets my full attention at this one. He combines one of the more impressive intersections of form and course history this week.
A lower-priced option for DFS lineups
Anytime there’s a greater emphasis on ball-striking and perhaps a neutralization of putting, List should be on our list. He’s now lost strokes on the greens in a somewhat unfathomable 17 consecutive starts, but his numbers off the tee are always the stuff of envy, and his iron game was through the roof in his most recent start at the Genesis two weeks ago.
With three finishes of 17th or better here, I think there’s an excellent chance he returns value and possibly even contends for the title for a few days this week.
One player to post the low score Thursday.
Tom Hoge +7500 for FRL (bet365)
Even though the forecasted Friday winds could offer an advantage to the late/early wave, make no mistake about it: There’s still a major edge to playing in the morning each day. As mentioned earlier, I’m writing before tee times are out, so this selection could change if Hoge is saddled with a late Thursday tee time, but he’s been known to get out to a hot start, posting sub-70 opening-round scores in seven of his 12 starts this season.
While I understand the potential lack of confidence in a guy who opened with a 78 here last year, he’s also posted a couple of under-par totals in his four career appearances, so that last one doesn’t concern me too much.
One player who should beat comparable players.
Sungjae Im (+3500)
I know what you’re thinking: If our guy could only finish T42 in last week’s inferior Honda Classic field, that shouldn’t equate to anything better at this one. And yet, with odds four times higher, a pair of top-three finishes and nothing worse than T-21 in four career API starts, there’s reason to believe Im will show up against the big boys better than he did a week ago.
I’m not willing to go too deep on a guy who burned a lot of people at PGA National, but I do think he makes for a nice H2H play against some of those at similar odds without a similar course history.
Also Receiving Votes
Other players who should provide value
Justin Thomas (+2000), Tyrrell Hatton (+4000), Hideki Matsuyama (+6000), Shane Lowry (+6000), Billy Horschel (+10000), Sepp Straka (+18000), Sam Ryder (+20000), Eric Cole (+25000), Davis Riley (+30000), Ludvig Aberg (+35000)
Puerto Rico Open
That’s right – for the first time this season, we’ve got simultaneous PGA TOUR events, with the alternate-field tourney in Puerto Rico, where Nate Lashley opens as a worthy favorite, considering his impressive history here. You know you’re a true degenerate if you skimmed past all the API minutiae above and came straight for the good stuff down here.
Let’s start with former prodigy Akshay Bhatia (+2800), who may or may not be wearing a shirt this week after having to take it off for a bunch of waterlogged shots at the Honda. In between, his iron game looked solid. I’d rather stick with a known commodity with potential near the top than chase a similarly priced player with recency bias.
Erik Barnes (+4000) and Vincent Norrman (+5000) each received brief mentions in my Honda preview, and while neither one did anything too special, they both made the cut with decent ball-striking numbers, so they’re worth checking out.
I’ll also group together Brian Stuard (+6000) and Jim Herman (+6500), a pair of forever uninteresting picks, though longtime veterans, who can lull you to sleep while they start grazing their way up the board.
OK, enough with all the guys at double-digit odds. Let’s get weird.
Nico Echavarria (+11000) isn’t a name we’ve heard much this season, but he did finish T12 at the Sony Open, which could offer a nice correlation to this one.
The strongest winds in Puerto Rico might not be as strong as those at Bay Hill, but there might be heavier consistent breezes throughout the week. Anytime the wind is blowing, Andrew Landry (+11000) is a nice play.
And look, Robert Garrigus (+35000) hasn’t made a cut in his last 14 starts, but I wanted to list a massive longshot, and he’s at least played some PGA TOUR events, which beats most of the competition at these odds, so maybe the big hitter will find a little something here.