ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL: While the King may not be around to preside over his army anymore, his presence is still very much felt at Bay Hill, and this week the tournament that now bears his name will be staged at the course he owned, promoted, and helped shape for the 43rd consecutive year. This event is a fitting tribute to a man whose infectious personality and swaggering style played an outsize role in the growth and popularity of golf, particularly in the U.S., and whose charitable endeavors will continue to do good works long after his death. Plus, he gave us that delicious lemonade and iced tea beverage! RIP Arnie– a real one, for sure.
There was a time several years ago when this tournament was experiencing weakening fields, and Arnold had to personally ask certain big-name players to show up. That is no longer the case, a fact which would undoubtedly please the King, as steadily growing purses and a convenient spot on the schedule have combined to make this one of the stronger regular events on the PGA Tour, with the likes of McIlroy, DeChambeau, Reed, Hovland, and Fleetwood on hand this week to compete for over $9.3 million.
The course is familiar to just about everyone in the field, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to deal with– at over 7,400 yards and featuring numerous water hazards and tricky Bermuda rough, Bay Hill can be a bear. Last year, for instance, the wind howled and Tyrrell Hatton won at 4-under, the highest winning score this tournament has seen since 1983. A favorable weather forecast means we probably won’t see that sort of carnage again this week, but it won’t be a birdie-fest, either, as length, accuracy, and boldness are all required in equal measure to thrive at Bay Hill, where even the birdie holes generally have a risk/reward component.
That being said, there are some players who always seem to make Bay Hill look easy. Tiger is the most notable example, having won this event a record eight times, but he’ll be watching from a hospital bed this week, surely plotting his Hogan-like return to glory. There are others, however– Rory McIlroy has finished 6th or better in this tournament in each of the past four years, including his victory in 2018; Bryson DeChambeau has two top-5s in the last three years; last year’s runner-up, Marc Leishman, has finishes of 2-23-7-1-17 over the past five years; Sungjae Im has finished 3rd in each of his first two appearances here… you get the idea. This is a “horses for courses” type of week– we want players who have succeeded at Bay Hill before. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Patrick Reed (24.0)- While he may not be the most likable or gracious person in the world, nobody can deny Reed’s talent, nor his knack for stepping up his game when the negative chatter around him gets louder. The cheating accusations were thrown around again at the Farmers a few weeks ago, and Reed won anyway. He returned to action at the Workday last week, finishing 9th, and now he comes to a course that fits his game perfectly, full of confidence and in top form. Reed has found the top-15 in this tournament in 2 of the past 3 years, so he clearly knows his way around Bay Hill, and the swing changes he’s made over the past few months are now fully coming to fruition– he’s never played better. Even at a shortish price like 24.0, Reed is well worth a bet this week.
Jason Kokrak (45.0)- After nearly a decade on Tour spanning 233 starts, Kokrak finally picked up his first career victory at the CJ Cup back in October, a worthy exclamation point on the best 2-year stretch of his career. He’s kept it rolling in 2021, making the cut in all five of his starts this year and finishing T9 at the Workday last week, where he broke par in all four rounds. Long known as a bomber, he’s been rolling it beautifully lately, ranking 9th on Tour in strokes gained putting this season, so there’s a lot to like about what he’s doing right now. Crucially, Bay Hill has always been good to him, as he’s found the top-20 in this tournament in 5 of the past 7 years and the top-10 twice, making him an ideal “current form meets course history” selection this week. At better than 40/1, Kokrak is one of the best values on the board.
Kevin Kisner (102.0)- Kisner has been laying low this year, playing the two Hawaii tournaments and then taking a few weeks off before returning to action at the Workday last week, where he played three good rounds but shot 80 on Saturday. He’ll now get things cranked up for this important stretch leading up to the Masters, and he’s traditionally played very well during this portion of the schedule, when the Tour returns to his native Southeast and his preferred Bermuda grass. He’s enjoyed a handful a strong results in this tournament, highlighted by a runner-up finish in 2017, so we know he has what it takes to succeed at Bay Hill, and he’s only four starts removed from a T2 at the RSM Classic, so it hasn’t been too long since he’s sniffed contention. I consider Kisner a must-bet this week at better than 100/1.