Arnold Palmer Invitational: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis
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 weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
We stood on the practice tee like an ordinary Tuesday circa 1998 and watched a pro hit balls.
This was no ordinary pro.
The man was 69 years old. The four or five Tour players and caddies gathered around trailed him by seven major championships. He had eight or nine drivers leaning against his bag. He’d swat a shot or two with each, give it a close look and a waggle, lay it down and move on to the next. His golf had reached the ceremonial stage long ago but he was still searching for the perfect fit, grinding as if he was prepping for Augusta one more time.
He was The King. Arnold. To me, Mr. Palmer, always.
Jay Haas had followed Palmer’s path to Wake Forest and was one of the golfers standing there. Slowly, the stories started — not that Palmer participated. He stared down the flight of each shot as it flew against the mountain backdrop at the PGA West course bearing his name, watched with intent until the ball tumbled to a stop on the overseeded turf.
Haas recalled a story from his rookie year. He and Palmer were playing in the same corporate outing at a resort in the Northeast, only when Haas arrived the desk had botched his reservation. He didn’t have a room. Becoming aware of the fellow Demon Deacon’s plight, Palmer told Haas he could spend the night in his room. Before they headed to the pre-tournament cocktail party, Palmer went to take a shower. He carried a sturdy monkey wrench into the bathroom. A young Haas watched, amazed, as Palmer removed the shower head. Our small crowd chuckled as Haas told the tale.
Finally, he asked Palmer if he still traveled with such a tool.
“Hell yeah, son. I’ve gotta have some water when I shower.”
Arnold Palmer did more for golf than anyone ever could. It only makes sense that a man must take a proper shower before he can change a game forever.
There are a million more stories and hopefully many will be told this week during his tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, at the course he called home, the Bay Hill Club in Orlando. It’s been 3 ½ years now but we still miss seeing him in the television booth or waiting for the winner beside the 18th green on Sunday.
The API has attracted 31 of the top 50 players in the world and they’re competing for $9.3 million and a three-year exemption. Bay Hill is a fierce test, measuring 7,454 yards at par 72 and featuring the thickest rough the pros have seen thus far in 2020 along with some of the fastest greens, expected to roll 13 or more on the Stimpmeter throughout the week.
The weather figures to be a large part of the story this week and something to pay close attention to when setting your roster. The wind is expected to be steady in velocity — 15-to-20 mph — but switch from the south and west to the north and east as a cold front dips high temperatures from the upper 80s Thursday to the 60s on Saturday, returning to the low 70s on Sunday.
The fairways are easier to hit at Bay Hill compared to the average Tour event but the greens are more difficult to find. Top-10 finishers in recent years have gained, on average, nearly one shot per round approaching the green and they’d better excel with the mid and long irons because most approach shots are struck from 200 yards or longer. The average proximity to the hole is 31.666 feet compared to the Tour average of 28.5 feet.
Once players figure out the nuance of Bay Hill they tend to string together good finishes.
Golfer power rankings
25. Tom Hoge – Received a tuneup from swing coach Scott Hamilton earlier this week and his combination of proximity to the hole and putting from inside 10 feet (top 20 in both in ‘19-20) should be the right formula for success. Tied for 26th in only API appearance (2018).
24. Francesco Molinari – I believe in being honest in this space each week and I’m here to tell you, friends of the picks, that I only feel so good about this selection. Molinari has been living downtown Struggle City for the last 10 months (three missed cuts and a T-53 in last four starts). Still, the defending champion has an outstanding track record at Bay Hill (four top 10s since 2014) and is obviously a world-class player, so if he’s ever going to find it again, have to figure it will start here. Worth a flyer in deeper leagues.
23. Justin Rose – (see the first sentence above). Rose showed flashes of promise early at Riviera but faded on the weekend. Missed the cut by three shots last week and has dipped to 13th in the world. Has a strong track record at Bay Hill (four top 5s since 2011).
22. Emiliano Grillo – In the top-tier of Tour ballstrikers but it’s been a strange year. Tied for third in Puerto Rico, but missed four cuts around it and shot 78-74 at Honda last week. Skipped the API last year but finished between seventh and 26th in three previous starts.
21. Harris English – Caught in difficult conditions and shot 74 in the second round at Honda but otherwise continued his solid play, tying for 17th. Nothing extraordinary on his Bay Hill record (two top 25s in eight starts, three MCs). Then again, the Georgia Bulldog is playing the most consistent golf of his professional career. He’s eighth in a strong field in SG: total over the last 50 rounds.
20. Tyrrell Hatton – Proved he’s recovered from wrist surgery by tying for sixth in Mexico, one of his favorite destinations. Has made the cut in all three Bay Hill starts with a T-4 in 2017 and is excellent in the wind which will be helpful.
19. Maverick McNealy – Quietly been on a solid run since the Farmers with three top 15s in four starts and adjusted just fine to the Bermuda putting surfaces last week, tying for 11th. Can play loose-and-free knowing he’s on the verge of securing a playoffs spot and playing privileges for next season. First Bay Hill start. Sixteenth on Tour in birdies.
18. Rafa Cabrera Bello – Shot 9 under and tied for third in first shot at Bay Hill a year ago, thriving through the bag with the exception of short game (86th strokes gained in this year’s field). Finished top 20 in Genesis and WGC-Mexico.
17. Xander Schauffele – Having a solid season with four top 25s in 2020 and a pair of 66s on the weekend in Mexico last time out. Hasn’t putted particularly well on Bermuda greens (66th in field SG) and making his first Bay Hill appearance, so there’s uncertainty there.
16. Carlos Ortiz – Likes the layout at Bay Hill with a T-29 and T-21 in two career starts and is putting together a career season on the PGA Tour, ranking 23rd in the FedEx Cup on the strength of a trio of top 5s in the fall. Strength of his game is no discernible weaknesses. If he can heat up on the greens at all, he’ll climb the leaderboard on the weekend.
15. Viktor Hovland – It’s understandable if Hovland enjoyed his maiden victory in Puerto Rico to the degree that it hindered his play on the grueling PGA National Champions course last week. All is forgiven and expect a solid bounce back this week as Hovland tries to work his way into the Masters field.
14. Bubba Watson – Shaky putting prohibited Watson from climbing the leaderboard in previous Bay Hill appearances (82nd strokes gained), however, this year has been a different tale with the flat blade. He’s 11th on the PGA Tour inside 10 feet. Anybody who can win at Augusta National twice is comfortable on slick greens. Also 16th on Tour in proximity to the hole from the rough.
13. Hideki Matsuyama – Hello, Hideki. I’d like to introduce you to Brad Faxon. He’s the best putter I’ve ever seen and now he’s teaching other players how to putt. He counts the world’s best player as one of his clients. Please spend time with this man and quit wasting your beautiful ballstriking (third SG: tee-to-green) each week by making those slappy strokes (176th SG: putting). Your Friend, Mr. Fantasy.
12. Ian Poulter – Nobody enjoys Arnie’s place more than Poulter, who has finished in the top 25 on six occasions. He’s played a light schedule in 2020, but has performed well whenever he’s pegged it. Tied for 27th last week at Honda and should build off that effort.
11. Tony Finau – Should feel refreshed after skipping the last two tournaments. Poor short game play inhibited his performance at Bay Hill in the past – best finish is T-28 in three starts – but he’s fourth on the PGA Tour in SG: around-the-green in 2019-20. Also sixth in SG: tee-to-green. That’s how good players become great ones.
10. Henrik Stenson – Making his U.S. debut in 2020 and finished back in the pack in three starts worldwide since winning the Hero World Challenge in December. Still, he loves Arnie’s place, with five top 10s in 11 starts and four top 5s since 2015. By the numbers, the best in the field on windswept days.
9. Sungjae Im – It’s difficult to predict how a young player will react to his first PGA Tour victory. But Im feels like a safer bet than most. His caddie last week, Albin Choi, said anytime the hole was located on the right half of the green, he felt certain Im would stuff it close (i.e. tee shot at 15 on Sunday). Tied for third in Bay Hill debut last year, leading the field in SG: tee-to-green.
8. Byeong Hun An – Recorded five top 10s in 12 starts in 2019-20 on Tour, including a tie for fourth last week at Honda. Balky putter has kept him from winning (108th strokes gained among the players in the field) but he’s seventh in SG: tee-to-green.
7. Patrick Reed – Say what you will, but the man enjoys his role as a villain and nobody on tour pitches, blasts and chips the ball better. The pure Bermuda greens, expected to stretch past 13 on the Stimpmeter, should suit him as well. Mixed bag here the last two years with a T-7 in ‘18 and T-50 in ‘19.
6. Adam Scott – The ultimate gentleman in our game enters with two wins in his last three starts worldwide. Seriously, all the reporters want to interview him, all the golfers want to swing like him and all the women want to, uh, …. talk to him. He’s made the cut in his last four starts at Bay Hill. We know he’ll strike it pure and the putting stroke looked solid on Sunday at Riviera.
5. Bryson DeChambeau – Finished second at Bay Hill in 2018 and has made the cut in all three appearances. Posted top 5s in his last two starts on the PGA Tour, including a runner-up at WGC-Mexico
4. Tommy Fleetwood – Enters in excellent form and he’s 19 under in three starts at Bay Hill with a T-3 last year. Can he rebound from the disappointment of his 72nd hole disaster at the Honda?
3. Jason Day – Was 33 under in the last four API starts with a victory and three top 25s prior to his withdrawal last year. Has been solid from tee box to cup at Bay Hill, with the exception of SG: approach-the-green (62nd). Pair of top 20s in 2020.
2. Marc Leishman – Finished in the top 25 each of the last four years at Bay Hill, including an emotional victory in 2017. Possesses some of the best hands on Tour, which served him well in taming Torrey Pines. In the last 50 rounds at Bay Hill, ranks top 25 in every strokes gained category except off the tee (68th).
1. Rory McIlroy – He’s 35 under the last three years at Bay Hill with a win in 2018 sandwiched between two top-6 finishes. Has finished in the top 5 in six consecutive starts on the PGA Tour. Ranked No. 1 in the world. Leads the field in SG: total at Bay Hill and on courses with long rough. Any questions?