FARMERS INSURANCE OPEN: The PGA Tour makes its annual stop at Torrey Pines this week for the Farmers Insurance Open, an event that is always one of the highlights of the Tour’s West Coast Swing but is attracting extra attention this week because of the presence of one Eldrick T. Woods, who will be teeing it up in competition for the first time since December’s Hero World Challenge and for only the fourth time in the past two calendar years.
Tiger showed flashed of brilliance eight weeks ago in the Bahamas, but expecting him to contend in a full-field 72-hole event after so much time off is probably unrealistic. That being said, if there’s any course where he could pull it off, it’s probably Torrey Pines, where he has won eight times (seven-time champion of this tournament, plus the 2008 U.S. Open) and was once nearly unbeatable. But familiarity and good memories probably won’t be enough to offset the months worth of rust, as even Tiger himself admitted in Wednesday’s press conference, saying, “My expectations have tempered a little bit because I haven’t played… I’ve got to start somewhere and try and get my game and my feel back… it’s been a long time, and so I want some starts. I’m just trying to build towards April.”
While Tiger will be the center of attention this week, young Jon Rahm is the man to beat. Last year Rahm became the first player in 50 years to win at Torrey Pines on debut, and his victory at last week’s CareerBuilder Challenge, where he outlasted Andrew Landry in a playoff, moved him to No. 2 in the latest world rankings. Rahm plays with a certain fearlessness that is reminiscent of a young Tiger, and, like Woods, he hits the ball about nine miles, which is always helpful at Torrey Pines.
As usual, both the North and South courses at Torrey Pines will be used over the first two rounds this week before all the action moves to the South for the weekend. The South is the more difficult of the two courses and it’s an absolute bomber’s delight, measuring nearly 7,700 yards and featuring six par-4s of 450 yards or longer. In addition to Tiger and Rahm, big hitters like Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Scott Stallings, and John Daly have triumphed at Torrey Pines, while Brandt Snedeker seems to be just about the only guy who has figured out how to win this tournament without hitting it 320 yards off the tee. Perhaps that has something to do with his noted proficiency on poa annua greens, as the poa annua on the South course is strong and can be quite frustrating to players who are used to putting on flawless tabletops where nothing ever gets knocked off line.
Length off the tee, course history, comfort on the West Coast, specifically on poa annua greens… these are the things we’re looking for this week. With that in mind, here are a few recommendations:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Tony Finau (36.0)- Finau wrapped up his 2017 campaign with top-10 finishes at both the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship, and after a couple of weeks off he returned to action with a runner-up showing at the Safeway Open. He played three more times in the fall, finishing 26th at the CJ Cup, 11th at the WGC-HSBC Champions, and 16th at the Shriners Open, and in his first (and only) event of 2018, the Sony Open, he bounced back from an opening-round 72 with 67s in each of the final three rounds. In other words, Finau has been playing some terrific golf over the past few months, posting a quality result nearly every week since changing his putting grip in September. His prodigious length makes him a natural fit for Torrey Pines, and indeed he’s fared well at this event over the years, finishing 24th on debut in 2015, 18th in 2016, and then 4th last year. He’s a definite threat to win this week and should be backed enthusiastically at a price like 36.0.
Shane Lowry (64.0)- It’s been a while since we’ve seen Lowry, as this will be the first time he’s teed it up in competition since November’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. But his game sure seemed pretty sharp at that time– he finished runner-up in Dubai, closing with a 63, and in the month prior to that he played in three tournaments (all on the European Tour), finishing 12th or better each time. It’s probably no accident that he chose Torrey Pines for his first event of 2018– Lowry is known for being aggressive off the tee, hitting driver more often than most Tour pros, and when he’s playing well his driver is just about the straightest and most dependable club in his bag. Torrey Pines not only affords him the opportunity to swing away, it forces nearly everybody to hit driver frequently, and many are not nearly as comfortable with it as Lowry. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that he’s fared well in this tournament, making the cut in all three of his appearances and finding the top-20 twice. Putting is always a bit of a question with Lowry, but he was sure rolling it nicely back in November and he’s enjoyed some good results on poa annua greens over the years. I’m happy to take a chance on him at better than 60/1.
Grayson Murray (150.0)- A few months ago, Grayson Murray was more known for his controversial social media posts than his golf game. That still may be true in some corners, but those who have been paying attention know that the avowed Donald Trump supporter has been playing some pretty good golf since last summer’s breakthrough victory at the Barbasol Championship, and it feels like big things could be on the horizon for Murray in 2018. The 24-year old is long off the tee, averaging better than 304 yards per drive this season, and he has soft hands and a nice putting touch, as he currently ranks in the top-35 on Tour in strokes gained putting, putting average, and one-putt percentage. As a matter of fact, Murray has yet to miss a putt of 4 feet or shorter in twenty tournament rounds this season, which gives you an idea of how solid both his nerve and his stroke are. Last year he made his debut appearance at this tournament and missed the cut, but he was really struggling at the time, missing the cut in 7 of his first 9 events in 2017, so I think the fact that he saw Torrey Pines in competition is more relevant than the fact that he failed to make the weekend. He’s been good lately, going 5-for-5 in cuts made this season and finding the top-25 three times, including at last week’s CareerBuilder Challenge, where he finished 14th. He’s a longshot here, no doubt, but he’s a live one.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Marc Leishman (1.89) vs. Tiger Woods (1.89)
Look, I know Torrey Pines has been the site of many of Tiger’s most magical moments, but I really feel like there’s value in betting against him this week. He’s far too short in the overall market, trading around 26.0 at the time of this writing, with the faded memories of hopeful fans propping up the price. He’s simply a bad heads-up bet against someone like Leishman, who is playing well at the moment (five top-10s, including a victory and a runner-up, in his last nine worldwide starts) and has finished runner-up twice in this event. Tiger is more likely to miss the cut than win this week, and that is decidedly not the case with Leishman. Recommendation: Leishman at 1.89
Charles Howell III (1.89) vs. Patrick Cantlay (1.89)
Cantlay fits the profile of someone who should play well at Torrey Pines: California native, long off the tee, makes a lot of birdies, etc. He missed the cut in his lone appearance at this event, however, and his uninspiring showing at Kapalua marks the only time we’ve seen him on the course in 2018. So with Cantlay, it’s a “maybe”– maybe he’ll play well this week. Howell, meanwhile, is just about as close as it comes to a sure thing at Torrey Pines, making the cut in all 15 of his career appearances at this tournament and finding the top-20 a staggering ten times. Howell may not win enough, but he’s as consistent as they come on the courses that he favors. Recommendation: Howell at 1.89