Arnold Palmer Invitational 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis
The revamped 2021 Florida swing continues this week in Orlando at Bay Hill Club, familiar home of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Bay Hill is a meaty, 7,402-yard, par-72 examination. The rough is long and dense. The greens are firm and fast. The wind will blow but overall the forecast is delightful with temperatures reaching the upper 70s and rain in the picture only on Saturday.
Like most everybody else, I spent a fair share of time last week thinking about Tiger, how fortunate I was to be there when he made his pro debut in 1996, when he won the 2019 Masters and many other milestones in between. How he made winning look routine, although it never is, and the impact he made on golf, stretching well beyond the trophies and millions. It was on display in the final groups at Concession on Sunday, a new generation of stars playing inspired, fearless, amazing golf. Racking up birdies on a course littered with disaster. Two of golf’s best iron players right there at the top.
Of course, Bay Hill is one of Tiger’s favorite playgrounds and it’s impossible to think of this tournament and not reflect on the King, and the link between the two. Both entered golf just when they were needed. One carried the game to the screen. The other brought it to the world.
Modern analytics make it easy to understand how Tiger, master of approach shots, excelled at Bay Hill. He lapped the field on medium to long par 4s for years and crushed contenders from outside 175 yards, relishing the chance to putt on the fastest greens. He plodded his way around the course, firing three to five under a day and provided the dramatic exclamation or decisive finale, as if following a director’s cue. Those putts made Arnie smile.
As always, good luck.
Golfer power rankings
25. Zach Johnson – If you’re looking for a reliable inexpensive player to fill your lineup this week, Johnson is the guy. He’s made 11 consecutive cuts, dating to last summer, and has enjoyed success at Bay Hill throughout his career, playing the weekend in all but one of 17 starts and landing in the top 10 on five occasions.
24. Byeong Hun An – Comes down to the putter, but he ranks high in the field in par-4 scoring, proximity from 150-175 yards and approach play on firm greens. Has a pair of top 15s at Bay Hill in the last three years and solid, if not spectacular, results of late with four consecutive cuts made.
23. Luke List – The transplanted Floridian enjoys this time of the year on the PGA Tour and had three top 30s in a row before missing the cut at Riviera. In three starts at Bay Hill from 2017-2019, he recorded a top-20 finish each time.
22. Marc Leishman – Certain to be a popular pick this week because he won the API in 2017 and finished runner-up last year. Tread carefully. He’s struggling with the driver, having lost strokes off the tee each of the last three weeks.
21. Lanto Griffin – Sorta strolls along from week-to-week, collecting handsome paychecks and buckets of FedEx Cup points. Finished seventh at the Farmers, 26th at Riviera and 22nd at Concession. In his Bay Hill debut last year finished T-36 in terrible scoring conditions.
20. Charley Hoffman – Leads the field in proximity from 150-175 yards on firm greens. Tied for second here in 2017 and has two top 15s since. Relishes putting on slick Bermuda, so he’s in luck at Bay Hill.
19. Talor Gooch – Passes the test on courses where quality ballstriking is rewarded. Finished 12th at Riviera and has a T-13 and T-26 in two trips to Bay Hill. Putts well on the fastest greens.
18. Sungjae Im – Fair to say Im feels comfortable at Bay Hill. In two attempts, he’s earned $1.1 million – more than half of what the tournament namesake won in his career. His accurate driving and laser fade approaches have produced a pair of top 3s at the home of the King. He’s finished between 12th and 32nd in his last four Tour starts and is putting well enough to win but needs sharper iron play to be a serious threat.
17. Will Zalatoris – This is his sixth consecutive start. That’s a marathon by Tour standards. But he’s young and his ballstriking prowess is not weary in the least. Rest can come later.
16. Jason Day – He finished seventh at Pebble Beach and 18th at Concession and the analytics reflect improvement. The last piece is his iron game. Was slightly worse than the field in both tournaments. His high ball flight should fit the firm, smallish greens at Bay Hill, where he won in 2016 but has withdrawn each of the last two years.
15. Sam Burns – Over the last 24 rounds, he’s top 20 on the PGA Tour in every significant strokes gained category. As friend of the Power Rankings, veteran Tour caddie John Rathouz pointed out earlier this week, the final piece for Burns is solving the weekend. He’s 175th in third-round scoring and 128th in the fourth round. But at 14th in birdies he’ll keep hunting leaderboards. Has made the cut in all three Bay Hill appearances.
14. Jordan Spieth – Most players would be celebrating a banner season if they finished in the top 15 three consecutive weeks. Most players haven’t won three majors. Making his first stop at Bay Hill, which is mildly surprising, but the vast improvement in his ballstriking over the last month means he can be overlooked no longer. The comeback victory, when it comes, will be so sweet for Spieth.
13. Bryson DeChambeau – The iron game is hardly sharp (-1.8 SG: Approach last week) but the driver was a dependable weapon at Concession and who knows, maybe he’ll try to drive the green on the boomerang par-5 sixth. We can only hope. Finished second in the API in 2018 and fourth last year.
12. Chris Kirk – Authored one of the year’s best stories with clutch play down the stretch at the Sony Open to secure exempt status. Just 35 years old and on the cusp of re-entering the top 100 in the world, Kirk has thrived at Bay Hill, posting top 15s in three of his last four starts. Among the game’s best from 150-175 yards.
11. Billy Horschel – Loves Florida and Bermuda greens and more importantly, gained strokes on approach last week (1.6) for the first time in nine tournaments. Streaky player has never missed the cut in eight Bay Hill starts but never finished in the top 10 either.
10. Louis Oosthuizen – Shrek just keeps showing up and cashing big checks. Finished 11th at Phoenix and continued his WGC mastery by finishing sixth at Concession. Making his fifth appearance at Bay Hill. Has missed the last two cuts and best finish is a T-9.
9. Hideki Matsuyama – Has made the cut in all six appearances at Bay Hill and finished in the top-10 once. His last top-10 on Tour came in November in Houston. His impressive ballstriking and T-15 last week are a sign he’s ready to land among the leaders once again.
8. Tyrrell Hatton – His short game was horrible last week (-6.5 SG) but his driving, iron play and putting were strong, producing a T-22 at the WGC-Workday. The defending champion also finished T-4 here in 2017.
7. Jason Kokrak – He gained 12.2 strokes Tee-to-Green at Bay Hill in 2019, best in the field, and tied for 10th despite pitiful putting. But Kokrak, relying on his caddie D-Rob (David Robinson) to read the greens, is one of the Tour’s most improved putters, vaulting from 151st last season to ninth in 2020-21. He gained 4.2 strokes on the slippery surfaces at Concession last week.
6. Paul Casey – Has top 10s in both U.S. starts in 2021 as well as a victory in Dubai. Ballstriking is never the issue and his weaknesses on and around the greens should be minimally adverse this week. Making first API appearance since 2017 and has one top 10 in seven starts.
5. Francesco Molinari – The 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational champion has three top 10s in four starts in 2021. The slump is over. He’s 21st on Tour in SG: Tee-to-Green and 39th in scoring average. Also has three additional top 10s at Bay Hill and has made the cut in each of his seven starts.
4. Viktor Hovland – Auto pick. I mean, seriously, the Norwegian Forest Cat made a quadruple bogey on the 18th hole last Friday, smiled all the way through the post-round interview and still had a shot to win entering the final nine holes. If you’re not pulling for this guy, just a little, I may be concerned. Finished T-2, his fourth top-5 in five starts, and nobody in the world is striking the golf ball better. It’s too late to buy low, but the price remains fair.
3. Patrick Reed – His intensive work with instructor David Leadbetter is paying dividends. He’s gained at least 5 strokes tee-to-green in the last two tournaments, a win at Farmers and T-9 at WGC-Workday. Has a T-7 and T-15 on his Bay Hill resume and supreme confidence, like him or not.
2. Rory McIlroy – Despite bemoaning the state of his game throughout last week, he plodded along to a tie for sixth. Rory, you should be more optimistic after gaining eight shots Tee-to-Green, 1.8 on Approach and 2.5 on the greens at Concession. That performance combined with an outstanding Bay Hill record – four consecutive top 6s and a 2018 victory – explains why the world No. 3 is the clear Vegas favorite (9-1).
1. Matthew Fitzpatrick – We’re trusting technology this week. The model presented Fitzpatrick as a clear No. 1. He’s been outstanding the last two weeks – gaining at least five strokes Tee-to-Green and finishing 11th and fifth on demanding golf courses. He’s finished second and T-9 here the last two years. It’s time for him to claim his first professional victory in the U.S. and continue the trend of International winners at Bay Hill.