ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL: The PGA Tour’s Florida Swing continues this week with a celebration of the King at the place he held court over the final few decades of his life: Bay Hill Club and Lodge, which Arnie purchased in 1974 and treated like his personal fiefdom and playground until his death in 2016. It’s only fitting, then, that the Bay Hill tournament, a fixture on the PGA Tour schedule since 1979, is now known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational and has become a week-long tribute to the man and his considerable impact on the game.
In the final few years of his life Arnie had to personally appeal to the top players to attend this event, but drawing a quality field to Bay Hill will no longer be an issue now that this tournament has been chosen as one of the Tour’s new “Designated Events”, complete with a $20 million purse and elevated FedEx Cup points. Everybody who hasn’t taken the LIV money is here this week– Rahm, McIlroy, Thomas, Scheffler, Morikawa, Hovland… the list goes on. And the course should be up for the challenge, as 21st century renovations have made Bay Hill an absolute bear that gives the world’s best players fits. The winning score was 5-under last year and 4-under in 2020, and only once in the past six years has the champion posted a 4-round total lower than 276 (12-under).
The challenges at Bay Hill begin off the tee– narrow fairways lined with long, sticky Bermuda rough, water hazards and bunkers everywhere you turn, and several long par-4s that force most of the field to hit driver. The course now measures over 7,460 yards from the tips, so length off the tee is a definite factor, and if you look at a list of recent champions you’ll see names like Scheffler (’22), DeChambeau (’21), Hatton (’20), and McIlroy (’18), all players who average well over 300 yards per drive. That’s not to say the shorter guys can’t compete at Bay Hill– Francesco Molinari got the job done in 2019, for instance– but this is a course for big boy ball-strikers, so we want players who can dominate tee-to-green. Comfort on Bermuda greens is also a key factor, and this is one of those tournaments where we always seem to see the same names on the leaderboard every year, so if a guy doesn’t have a good history at Bay Hill, avoid him.
We’re looking for three in a row after Chris Kirk came home for us last week at 42.0 and Rahm justified our faith in him as short-odds favorite at the Genesis, so hopefully some of you have followed along. Here’s what I’ve got this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Rory McIlroy (10.5)- While Jon Rahm may be the hottest golfer on the planet right now, Rory isn’t far behind, with eight top-5 finishes and three victories across his last 12 worldwide starts, the most recent win coming four weeks ago in Dubai. And unlike Rahm, McIlroy has a long history of success at Bay Hill, finding the top-15 in this tournament in 7 of the past 8 years, with a victory in 2018 and top-5s in 2017 and 2020. Even when he hasn’t been at the top of his game he’s been able to contend at Bay Hill, so given his current form I’ll be absolutely stunned if he’s not in the mix on Sunday, and by the weekend I expect his price to have shortened to a point where those who got in at 10.5 pre-tourney will be feeling pretty good about themselves. Join me in feeling good about yourself, friends.
Corey Conners (50.0)- Conners is quietly off to a nice start this season, with six top-25 finishes across his last eight starts and the type of statistical profile you’d expect from someone who is emerging as one of the most reliable ball-strikers on the planet– elite total driving and GIR numbers that reveal a player who specializes in beautifully boring golf: fairway, green, repeat. It’s true that the putter doesn’t always cooperate, but Conners has done some of his best work on Bermuda greens, and recent results would suggest that he has a particular affinity for the putting surfaces at Bay Hill. After missing the cut in his first two appearances here Conners seems to have figured it out, finishing 3rd in 2021 and T11 last year. Given that trajectory and his solid recent form, 50.0 feels like a price worth locking up.
Charley Hoffman (146.0)- Remember when we mentioned the same names showing up on the leaderboard here every year? I suppose that’s true of a lot of tournaments to some degree, but it’s especially pronounced at Bay Hill, and Charley Hoffman is one of those guys who knows his way around the course and always manages to work his way into contention here, logging four top-15 finishes in his last five appearances, including a runner-up in 2017. A win this week, especially given the field on hand and the tournament’s new “Designated” status, would be a career-defining achievement for the 46-year-old Hoffman, but he has a wealth of experience contending on the game’s biggest stages, so I don’t think the moment would overwhelm him should he find himself in the mix on Sunday. And with his aforementioned record here and the fact that he’s just a couple of weeks removed from a top-15 finish in Phoenix, Hoffman’s chances of success seem better than his price would indicate. Act accordingly.