ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL: The PGA Tour’s Florida Swing continues this week with the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a mainstay on the schedule for over 40 years and an event that Palmer always had a direct hand in. The host venue, Bay Hill, was Palmer’s course and his personal fiefdom, and right up until his death he exercised considerable control over the course layout, design tweaks, and setup. He was also known for personally inviting players– it’s an invitational, after all– and would occasionally express his disappointment in those who decided to skip the tournament. Arnie’s legacy will be felt and celebrated all week, and as the greatest ambassador the game has ever known, this sort of annual celebration of his life and legacy feels right.
The tournament itself should be a good one, as 5 of the world’s top 10 players are in attendance and Bay Hill has provided many dramatic finishes over the years. A par-72 measuring a little over 7,400 yards, it’s plenty long, but the four par-5s provide clear scoring opportunities and we generally see a few guys catch fire on the large, perfectly manicured, lighting-fast greens. That said, it’s no picnic– water comes into play on more than half of the holes, and the rough has been grown up in recent years so there’s now more pressure to find the fairway than there used to be. Bay Hill has some meaty par-4s, and oftentimes players are forced to approach the greens with mid-to-long irons because several holes encourage a conservative plan off the tee, so this isn’t a wedge-fest by any means.
Last year’s champion, Francesco Molinari, was more aggressive off the tee than most, but that’s partly because he hits his driver approximately the same distance that many players hit their 3-wood, and he’s also one of the more accurate drivers in the game. Still, it was a grind for Molinari and the course really bared its teeth last year, as 12-under was the winning score and only one other player– Matthew Fitzpatrick– finished the week double-digits under par. The rough is apparently long and rather lush again this year, and two holes have been lengthened a bit since last year, so Bay Hill should provide a stern test once again.
Rory McIlroy is the clear favorite this week, as he’s currently trading at around 6.2 at BETDAQ while the next man on the list, Tommy Fleetwood, can be had at around 18.5. Given Rory’s current form and his excellent history at this event, which includes a victory in 2018, it’s no surprise that he’s at the top of the market, but his price is frighteningly short considering the quality of the field, so I’ll be looking elsewhere. We haven’t had a true longshot winner here since Matt Every in 2015, but with the recent youth movement on the PGA Tour– Sungjae Im last week became the ninth 20-something to win on Tour this season– it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see another young up-and-comer break through, especially since Bay Hill is a straightforward course that doesn’t rely on a lot of trickery and local knowledge. What you see is what you get. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Hideki Matsuyama (25.0)- After going through a rough patch last summer that included some uncharacteristic missed cuts, Matsuyama has found his form again and returned to his machine-like ways, ranking third on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, sixth in Strokes Gained: Approach, and seventh in Strokes Gained: Around the Green. The last stat speaks to how much Matsuyama’s short game has improved over the years, making him a threat to win each and every time he tees it up. He’s been in contention in each of his last two starts, finishing 6th at the WGC-Mexico and 5th in the Genesis Invitational, and he’s finished 16th or better in 8 of his last 9 PGA Tour events, so despite garnering relatively little attention, he’s been playing extremely well lately. Don’t be surprised if he breaks through this week– Bay Hill is a ball-strikers course, and Matsuyama has had success in this event before, making the cut in all five of his career appearances and finishing 6th in 2016. He’s a definite threat, and I’m happy to back him at a price like 25.0.
Byeong Hun An (48.0)- From Friday to Sunday at last week’s Honda Classic, An was the best player in the field. He rebounded from an opening-round 76 to post rounds of 66-68-67 at the treacherous PGA National Champion’s Course, going on to finish 4th as those around him faltered. It was the continuation of a trend for An, who finished 9th in Phoenix and 29th at the WGC-Mexico after a Sunday 65 and is now playing some of the best golf of his career. He should be filled with confidence as he comes to a place where he has had success before, finishing 10th in this tournament last year and 14th in 2018. Bay Hill is the right type of track for a ball-striker like An, and though he’s hot and cold with the putter, he seems to be most comfortable on Bermuda greens, and he was rolling the ball very well last week. At nearly 50/1, he may be my favorite bet on the board this week.
Kevin Kisner (96.0)- Though he’s been flying under the radar a bit, Kisner is actually off to a very good start in 2020, finding the top-20 in 3 of his 5 starts this season, including a T18 at the WGC-Mexico his last time out. And this next stretch of the schedule is sort of like a home game for him, because his results have always been dramatically better on the Bermuda-covered courses of the Southeast. Bay Hill is known for its firm, fast Bermuda greens, and Kisner has enjoyed success in this event in the past, finishing runner-up in 2017 and 23rd last year, so he clearly knows how to attack the course. Also, unlike many players in his price range, Kisner is an experienced winner who won’t be affected by the moment if he finds himself in contention on Sunday. At a near triple-digit price, Kisner could make you some serious coin this week.