Arnold Palmer Invitational: Expert picks and best bets
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a gambling picks piece — as well as a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is the next stop on the Florida swing and through the years its champions have run the gamut, from journeymen like Matt Every and Martin Laird to eight-time winner Tiger Woods, who is not in the field this week.
There are five top-10 players in the field of 121 this week, including No. 1 Rory McIlroy and two players who have won in the last month, No. 7 Adam Scott and No. 9 Patrick Reed.
Making the short trip up from South Florida is Tommy Fleetwood, the world’s 10th-best player. He’d love nothing more than to wash away the disappointment from the 72nd hole water ball that cost him a chance at his first PGA Tour victory last week at the Honda Classic.
Over the last decade, the winning score has been as high as 8-under 280 (Laird in 2011) and as low as 19-under 269 (Every in 2015). With strong winds blowing from multiple directions over the four tournament days, expect the winner to be closer to the former when Sunday afternoon rolls around.
In difficult conditions on a demanding course where the players face a plethora of 180-210 yard approach shots, expect an elite leaderboard by Sunday afternoon. Like so many of the courses the Tour visits in the first three months of the season, there’s no faking it around Bay Hill, especially in the final round when the holes are tucked behind bunkers and near water and the pressure is extreme.
Sungjae Im showed what it takes to win on the PGA Tour last week, birdieing the brutal par 3s, 15 and 17 in the Bear Trap and making a fine sand save on 18 to seal his first (of many) PGA Tour victories.
As always, good luck and have fun.
Odds on the favorites (via golfodds.com):
Over / Under 276.5 (11.5 under)
Rory McIlroy +500
Tommy Fleetwood +1400
Hideki Matsuyama +2000
Bryson DeChambeau +2000
Xander Schauffele +2500
Adam Scott +2500
Patrick Reed +2500
Brooks Koepka +3000
Tony Finau +3000
Rickie Fowler +3000
Jason Day +3000
Justin Rose +4000
Henrik Stenson +4000
Byeong Hun An +4000
Collin Morikawa +4000
Expert picks and best bets
Jason Day (+3000) — For starters, Day has a morning tee time on Thursday when the worst of the wind and potential stormy weather is supposed to arrive in the afternoon. Golfers in the late / early wave could end up having to complete their first round on Friday morning depending on the timing of the cold front. Also, he has a solid track record at Bay Hill, leading wire-to-win en route to victory in 2017. Despite his soaring ball flight, his ballstriking doesn’t suffer in windy conditions. Day appears to be healthy and focused on regaining his place in the game’s upper echelon. He loves Bermuda putting surfaces, ranking third in this year’s field in SG: putting. I’ll admit I could also see Rory winning by seven shots but as the strong favorite there’s little to no value there. Day is a smart play.
Last week: Billy Horschel (+3000) tied for 42nd.
Harris English (+10000) — The solid comeback continues. Playing out of the 126-150 category, English is taking his starts where he can, earning his way into this invitational field through strong play in 2019-20, ranking 29th in the FedEx Cup thanks to a tidy 69.67 scoring average. I pay little attention to English’s historical stats at Bay Hill or elsewhere because he’s playing on another level at the moment. He’s second on the Tour in greens in regulation and top 20 in the significant ballstriking categories. Hailing from and still residing in the Southern U.S.A., English is comfortable on Bermuda greens. No longer concerned with trying to keep his playing status, he should be hungry for his first Tour victory in nearly six years. English has the first tee time in the late wave (11:35 a.m.) so should be able to finish before the worst weather arrives Thursday.
Last week: Jhonnatan Vegas (+8000) tied for 27th.
Hideki Matsuyama (+2000) — Wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see Hideki finish in the top 10. That’s how pure he’s struck the golf ball this season. But man cannot win on ballstriking alone. Everyone praises Sungjae Im’s ballstriking also, for good reason, but he won last week because he had 24 putts on Sunday. Here are Matsuyama’s putting stats on the short ones critical to any tournament victory: Inside 10 feet – 178th; 3 feet – 124th; 4 feet – 144th; 5 feet – 191st, etc., etc. Short putts are momentum sustainers. Misses turn great rounds into good ones on Thursday and Friday and victories into top 10s on the weekend. Fields are deep and three or four players are going to be red-hot with the putter each week. Until Matsuyama solves his issues with the blade, fade him from the winner’s circle.
Last week: Brooks Koepka (+1200) missed the cut.
Henrik Stenson (-120) over Justin Rose (EVEN) — The Swede finds the groove at Bay Hill each year as he kicks off the American portion of his schedule. Rose looked out of sorts yet again last week, missing the cut at the Honda. How well has Stenson played in Palmer’s tournament? In this year’s field, he ranks first at Bay Hill over the last 30 rounds in SG: total, SG: tee-to-green, SG: ballstriking and SG: approach the green. With a good putting week, he’ll be in contention and we’re fading Rose hard right now. He has not been the same player with this equipment.
Last week: Matthew NeSmith (+105) lost to Wyndham Clark by five shots. Clark shot 66 on Sunday.