ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL: The PGA Tour makes its annual stop at Bay Hill this week for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and though the King is no longer with us, his spirit is strong at the tournament he presided over for so many years. Seeing Arnie greet the champion as he came off the 18th green is an indelible memory for golf fans, and on so many of those occasions– eight, to be exact– the man he greeted was none other than Tiger Woods, whose mastery of Bay Hill during his prime years was simply awe-inspiring.
Tiger always seemed to use this event as a sort of refueling point– no matter what was going on in his game or his life, he could always rely on this tournament to get things back on track. This was the site of his first official win after the infamous sex scandal of 2009, and many of his most memorable performances have come here– who could forget the 25-footer he dropped on the 72nd hole to win the 2008 edition, or the following year, when he did the same thing? How about the time he out-dueled Phil Mickelson in 2001, winning by a shot after again dropping a putt at the last, or his stunning performance in 2003, when he held a 5-shot lead heading into Sunday and would up winning by a mind-boggling 11 shots… point is, Tiger has had a career’s worth of highlights at this course and in this tournament, and seeing him wake up the echoes at Innisbrook last week has the golf world buzzing about what may be in store this week and beyond.
And I consider myself among those who are “buzzing”– like everyone else, I was glued to the TV on Sunday and almost fell out of my chair when Tiger made the long one on 17 to get within a shot of Paul Casey. It was a pleasant, nostalgic feeling watching the best player of his generation chase glory once more, and I am as intrigued and excited as anyone else about what the rest of the year may bring. That being said, I was stunned– STUNNED– to see that not only is Tiger priced as the favorite this week, but as the prohibitive favorite: he’s currently trading at 7.8 at BETDAQ, well clear of Jason Day, who sits behind him at 13.5. I mean, prior to last week Tiger had essentially been a total non-factor for five years, and the 42-year old continues to (rightfully) face questions about his health, stamina, and putting nerve. It’s mind-blowing to me that he’s priced as a 6/1 favorite, and though it would be nice to see him win again, I’ll be staying far away at a price like that.
Bay Hill is a typical Florida course– covered in Bermuda grass from tee to green, dotted with water hazards and bunkers, and exposed to the wind. It’s generally been pretty friendly since the last major renovation in 2014, as Matt Every reached 19-under in 2015 and Jason Day shot 17-under in 2016, but the course showed its teeth last year, with the wind driving up the scores and enabling Marc Leishman to hang on for the win at 11-under. Disaster awaits in many places and Bay Hill always produces a lot of double-bogies, but there are ample scoring opportunities if you put the ball in play and the par-5s can be attacked.
The field this week includes 10 of the top 17 players in the latest World Golf Rankings, so there’s plenty of premium talent on hand, but Bay Hill has been know to produce some long-odds winners on occasion, so don’t be afraid to look for some diamonds a little further down the market. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Tyrrell Hatton (30.0)- Hatton is coming off a near-miss at the WGC-Mexico, as he bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish a shot out of a playoff and wound up settling for third. It was an encouraging performance, however, making it look as if the missed cut at the Honda Classic three weeks ago was just a blip on the radar in what has otherwise been a tremendous start to 2018. Hatton has now found the top-15 in three of his four worldwide starts this year and is a combined 41-under par in 14 competitive rounds, shooting par or better 12 times. He’s truly developed into a world-class player at just 26 years old, and if he learns to better harness his emotions on the course we’ll be mentioning him in the same breath as Speith, Day, and Johnson in the very near future. He made his debut appearance at this event last year and was terrific, tying for 4th and finishing just two back of winner Marc Leishman, so he clearly has the necessary ingredients to succeed at Bay Hill. It just feels like Hatton is a bit undervalued here at a price like 30.0.
Henrik Stenson (36.0)- I expect Stenson to fly under the radar this week considering his recent inactivity and his missed cut at the Valspar last week, where he usually plays well. But it’s important to remember that he was coming back after a fairly long layoff, and he himself said that he would be feeling things out a bit at Innisbrook. He also happened to mention in his remarks to the media that the second week back from a long layoff was usually the week he played best– that, of course, would be this week. So I’m not overly concerned about Stenson’s light schedule or the pair of 74s that he shot at Innisbrook, and I’m not going to let the fact that he missed the cut here last year bother me, either. That’s because there’s absolutely no question about Stenson’s ability to successfully navigate Bay Hill– prior to last year, he was on a run of five consecutive top-15s in this tournament, finishing 8th or better four times. So this is a great setup for him: you know he wants to get things revved up before the Masters, he was able to shake off some rust last week, and now he comes to a place where he’s nearly automatic. Stenson is set up to succeed this week and is a great value at the current price.
Emiliano Grillo (84.0)- Grillo played in the Indian Open last week so he’s traveled halfway around the world over the past few days, which will surely be concerning to some. But jet lag doesn’t seem to be a big problem for 20-somethings like Grillo, and I’m more interested in the excellent golf he played over in India, where he took a 4-shot lead into the weekend and wound up finishing 6th. Now he returns to more familiar surroundings– he’s not a Floridian, but Grillo plays his best on Bermuda-covered golf courses and has a great record in the southeast U.S. He finished 8th at the Honda Classic three weeks ago and he’s had success in this tournament, finishing 17th on debut in 2016 and following that with a 7th-place showing last year. I’m enthusiastically backing Grillo here at better than 80/1.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Tiger Woods (1.72) vs. Jason Day (1.91)
I almost feel bad saying this considering the wave of enthusiasm that has seemingly washed over the sport since last weekend, but at this moment, coming off his improbable runner-up finish, I think there may be value in betting against Tiger. If you think the light just suddenly turned on and he’s back to the “old Tiger”, as many apparently do (how else to explain the ridiculously short price in the outright market?), then you probably think I’m way off base here, and maybe I am. But we’ve seen his game look fragile as recently as three starts ago, and even last week it felt (to me at least) more like a feel-good underdog story than a dominant player back to reclaim his crown. Day has a win and a runner-up in two starts in 2018 and he won this event in 2016… I think he’s a good bet to beat Tiger this week. Recommendation: Day at 1.91
Justin Rose (1.74) vs. Rickie Fowler (1.97)
In six career starts at this tournament Fowler has only found the top-10 once, so he’s far from a sure thing at Bay Hill. And he’s off to a slow start this season, failing to register a top-10 since his T4 at the Tournament of Champions back in January and missing the cut in two of his past four events. Rose, meanwhile, is coming off a 6th-place showing at the Valspar Championship and has found the top-25 in three of his four starts in 2018. Rose also has a nice history in this tournament, with four top-10s to his credit. Recommendation: Rose at 1.74