ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL: Though Arnie’s no longer around to lend a smile and a hug to the champion on Sunday afternoon, his memory lives on at Bay Hill more than anyplace else, and this week his home course will host his adopted event for the 41st consecutive year.
Appropriately named in his honor, this tournament was Palmer’s pet project in his later years, and I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that nearly all of the world’s top players have shown up yet again, even if he’s no longer able to apply direct pressure, as he was known to do (not easy to refuse a request from the King, right?). True, Dustin Johnson took this week off and everybody was bummed when Tiger pulled out on Monday, citing a neck injury, but the field is still chock-full of big names: McIlroy, Rose, Day, Fowler, Koepka, Matsuyama, Fleetwood, Molinari, Mickelson… the list goes on. It should be a fun week.
Bay Hill has undergone several updates and renovations since it began hosting this event in the late 70s, but the basic character of the course has remained the same: it’s a place with lots of scoring opportunities, but trouble lurking at every turn. Ponds and lakes dot the property and water comes into play on several holes, and if you’re not precise with the irons, scrambling can be difficult on account of the sticky rye overseed, runoffs, and firm, fast Bermuda greens. If you strike it well, however, you can go low at Bay Hill, as the par-5s can be attacked and many of the longer players don’t have to hit driver very often, thus reducing risk off the tee. It’s taken 17-under or better to win this event in three of the past four years, and with mild weather expected and the course reportedly in great shape, we should see somebody approach the 20-under mark once again.
Rory McIlroy got the job done last year and seems poised to defend, as he’s found the top-5 in all four of his PGA Tour starts this season and has a long record of success at Bay Hill, but his price– currently 7.8 at BETDAQ– is awfully short for a guy whose victory here 12 months ago stands out as the lone triumph is what has otherwise been a drought stretching back to 2016. Unless you expect Rory to dominate this week– to be the Rory that we frankly haven’t seen in years– then I don’t really see backing him at the current price. Besides, there are other interesting options among the blue-chippers, and some intriguing names a bit further down the board as well. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jason Day (17.0)- As usual, Day has played a light schedule to start off the year, but he’s been awfully sharp whenever he’s teed it up, finding the top-5 in his past two events (Farmers Insurance Open, AT&T Pebble Beach) and finishing 16th or better in each of his last six starts, stretching back to October. He’s always loved it at Bay Hill– he won this tournament back in 2016, going wire-to-wire and finishing the week at 17-under, and he’s found the top-25 in each of his past four appearances. The course, according to him, is reminiscent of some of the courses he grew up on in Australia, and with his length off the tee and comfort on Bermuda greens, it’s no wonder he’s had so much success at Bay Hill. Speaking of the greens, Day has been rolling it beautifully this season, ranking 13th on Tour in strokes gained putting, so super-low scores certainly aren’t out of the question– a 63 or 64 is a possibility on any given day. All things considered, Day should absolutely be considered one of the favorites this week and is worth a bet at a price like 17.0.
Daniel Berger (66.0)- Berger seems to be a bit more under the radar this week than he should be, considering he’s just two weeks removed from a runner-up finish in Puerto Rico and has shot 72 or better in 15 of 16 competitive rounds in 2019. He’s only played this event once since turning professional, but he played quite well on that occasion, finishing 13th (2015), so he clearly knows his way around Bay Hill. Of course, as a Florida native, Berger grew up on courses just like Bay Hill, and he’s spoken several times about his comfort on Bermuda greens. In 2017, for instance, he said, “So when you get Bermuda and people are worried about the grain… this is 15 years that I’ve putted on this stuff. So like these older veterans, players who have played out here for many years… it feels like I’m more of a veteran out on these greens.” Never lacking for confidence, playing in comfortable surroundings, and just a couple of weeks removed from a near-victory, Berger is a dangerous man this week and should be enthusiastically backed at the current price.
Zach Johnson (122.0)- Yes, I realize that Johnson hasn’t won since 2015, his longest drought since his first three years on Tour. And I realize that he’s coming off a middling performance at the Honda last week, when a balky putter prevented him from building on an opening-round 66. I know these things to be true, and yet I’m having a really, really difficult time convincing myself that he’s not worth a bet at such an astronomical price. Frankly, a player of Johnson’s caliber would always be worth a look at a price like 120/1, but this is especially true at Bay Hill, where he’s been money in the bank over the years. In 15 career appearances at this event, Johnson has missed the cut only once and has logged five top-10s, the most recent being a 5th-place showing in 2016 (he finished T26 last year). He knows the course, he knows how to attack it, and he knows what it takes to get the job done in this tournament. Johnson has 12 career PGA Tour victories and he’s still playing well at age 43, so you know we’re going to see him hoist a trophy again at some point. Will it be this week? At a price like 122.0, I’m willing to pay to find out.