FORTINET CHAMPIONSHIP: A new PGA Tour season kicks off this week in Northern California’s wine country, where a fresh crop of Korn Ferry grads, a full complement of veteran grinders, and a sprinkling of big names will look to make a splash ahead of next week’s Ryder Cup.
While there aren’t many Ryder Cuppers in the field, the galleries will get a chance to see World No. 1 Jon Rahm, who has apparently decided that the best preparation is four days of competition, as well as the most controversial omission from the American team, Kevin Na, who is playing the best golf of his career and surely would like nothing more than to stick it to U.S. captain Steve Stricker with a victory this week.
This tournament may have a new name but it’s been a fixture on the PGA Tour schedule for over a decade, known first as the Frys.com Open and most recently as the Safeway Open. The venue remains unchanged: the North Course at Napa Valley’s Silverado Resort is an old Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that was renovated by Johnny Miller but has retained its classic feel, with narrow fairways and small, knobby poa annua greens. Measuring just 7,166 yards from the tips, it’s a short course by Tour standards, but like most good designs it doesn’t necessarily favor one style of play, with recent champions ranging from old-school vet Stewart Cink (2020) to new-school bomber Cameron Champ (2019), and before them a succession of middle-rung grinders– Kevin Tway, Brendan Steele, Emiliano Grillo, Sangmoon Bae, etc.
Though driving accuracy is important at Silverado, the rough is not unplayable by any means, and the greens lack the speed and severity of some of the Tour’s scarier layouts. That being said, the targets are small so precision ball-striking is required, and the poa annua always gives some players fits. Stewart Cink posted 21-under last year, but he was the first champion to reach the 20-under mark in the seven years that Silverado has hosted the event, so this isn’t exactly a green-light birdie fest. The players will be tested.
One guy who has passed all his tests with flying colors recently is Jon Rahm, so it’s no surprise that he heads BETDAQ’s Win Market, but a frightfully short price (5.0) and the potential distraction of next week’s festivities have convinced me to look elsewhere this week. Triple-digit longshots have taken home the trophy here in each of the past three years, which is something to keep in mind as we scour the market for value. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Maverick McNealy (41.0)- Though he’s yet to pick up his first PGA Tour victory, the young McNealy has found his sea legs in the professional ranks and has been posting some excellent results over the past couple of months, finding the top-30 in 7 of his past 8 starts and shooting a combined 54-under over his last 24 competitive rounds. The California native finished runner-up at Pebble Beach earlier this year and has terrific stats on poa annua greens, and considering he’s not particularly long off the tee, Silverado seems like the perfect stage for his first win. He missed the cut on debut here last year but didn’t play poorly, shooting 69-71, so I don’t think there’s cause for concern, particularly with how well he’s been playing lately. McNealy should be viewed as one of the favorites this week and backed enthusiastically at a price like 41.0.
Talor Gooch (64.0)- After a couple of years of struggling to make cuts and retain status, things finally began to click for the 29-year old Gooch in 2021 and there’s little doubt that his best golf is ahead of him. He posted a pair of top-5s this season and really finished the year strong, making the cut in 9 of his last 10 events and advancing to the second stage of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the BMW Championship. He profiles as the type of player who should have success at Silverado– not particularly long off the tee, good with his irons (32nd in strokes gained on approach), and superb around the greens, ranking 17th on Tour in scrambling. It should come as no surprise, then, that he’s made the cut twice in three career appearances at this event, but Gooch is a guy whose game is just beginning to blossom, so the best is yet to come for him, at this tournament and elsewhere. He’s a live one this week and a nice value at better than 60/1.
Brandt Snedeker (82.0)- Poa annua, you say? Is that… is that… the Brandt Snedeker bat signal?? Why yes it is, and if you’re not planning on throwing a little love his way at better than 80/1, might I suggest that you haven’t paid close enough attention to this man’s career. Snedeker is a bona fide poa annua specialist– his short, jabby stroke and aggressive putting style are perfect for the bumpy, uneven surfaces found so often in California (for those who have never putted on poa annua before, picture bentgrass that is pockmarked by weed-like sprigs of a different looking grass, and your ball just sort of hopping along over it all. That may be an exaggeration with Tour-quality poa annua greens, but trust me, it’s a perfect description of average, everyday poa annua). Four of Snedeker’s nine career victories have come on poa annua courses in the Golden State, and he has an outstanding record in this event which includes three top-20 finishes in his past four appearances and a runner-up in 2018. And it’s not like he’s been playing poorly lately– after finishing 19th at The Open he posted a T11 at the 3M Open and has logged only three starts since. There’s no reason to think he can’t get the job done this week, and at a price like 82.0 he’s absolutely my favorite bet on the board.