Paul Krishnamurty previews the second big Australian tournament in as many weeks, where Masters champion Sergio Garcia heads a stronger field than many past PGA renewals...
"Kramer Hickok's form in Canada has been relentless and, whilst that is of course a lower level, remains noteworthy. Whatever the level, a player finishing top-two on five out of ten starts has got something about him."
Back Kramer Hickok each-way @ 40/1
Even the most reliable trends, it seems, are not bombproof. Last week I wrote about the illustrious rollcall of Australian Open champions and how this country's most famous tournaments are nearly always dominated by the small number of world-class players in attendance. The front two, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, were a class apart and perfectly fitted the bill.
What happened? For a long way it seemed Day, who traded down to 1.42/5, would become the latest former world number one to land the Stonehaven Trophy. Instead, quite shockingly, Day endured a nightmare Sunday and the virtually unconsidered Cameron Davis came through to pinch the title with a 64, despite starting the final round six shots back!
Without reading too much into one crazy turnaround, we must consider the possibility that the rules are changing. That the Australasian Tour is, in keeping with wider golfing trends, becoming unrecognisably competitive. Indeed, further fuel is added to theory if we look at the recent history of this winter's other prestigious Aussie tournament - this week's Australian PGA Championship.
Royal Pines delivers mixed bag of champions
Up until 2011, the PGA was every bit as predictable as the Open. Every winner this century was a leading Aussie, usually a multiple PGA champion. Then 2012 produced one of the least predictable golf winners in living memory - Daniel Popovic at the maximum odds of 1000.0.
All four renewals since have been played at another venue, Royal Pines, and the results have been far more mixed than what we're used to in Australia - 2013 and 2014 saw predictable Aussie champions in Adam Scott and Greg Chalmers but the last two leaderboards were packed with outsiders.
In 2015, then promising Aussie youngster Nathan Holman beat a trio of lesser-known overseas players - all of whom would go on to prove contention was no fluke by performing elsewhere - who were far from obvious. One of them, Harold Varner, went on to win last year's title, with Scott the only big name to even get into serious contention.
Strong contenders at the top of the market
Which ever way the trends pan out this year, the field is certainly competitive. There may be no Spieth or Day but four rock-solid candidates vye for favouritism and the supporting cast is long. Let's start with that leading quartet - consisting of three Aussies and one world-class overseas raider - the reigning Masters champion, no less.
For my money, Sergio Garcia is the one to beat on his first Aussie outing for seven years. Without doubt, his form is the best in the book and fourth at the elite DP World Tour Championship a fortnight ago reads extremely well in this company. Plus I think Royal Pines will ideally suit. The stats from past renewals suggest putting (Sergio's historic weakness) is less of a factor than most tracks, whereas long game accuracy is pivotal. In the right frame of mind, he must contend.
That isn't to detract from other obvious claims. Marc Leishman's form in the States has never been better although, strangely, he has never won in Australia. Scott's record here is 1/2/3 but he's had a poor year. Cameron Smith may lack their pedigree but is improving at a rate of knots and is continually thriving in the big home events.
But there's no shortage of viable alternatives...
However, with this leading quartet taking out over 40% of the book, it would be imprudent not to back more than one member of the opposition. In fact, given recent results here, there's an argument for laying them all because there are plenty of alternatives, regardless of outsiders.
Given that course form, Varner will fancy his chances, as must last week's runners-up Jones and Blixt. Wade Ormsby arrives fresh off winning a better event in Hong Kong, and lost a play-off here in 2014. Ryan Fox has twice finished top-11 here and looked highly progressive in Europe last term. So to a lesser extent did Jason Scrivener, who won the NSW Open a fortnight ago.
One trend that did hold up despite the unlikely Open result was the propensity for highly-rated youngsters to contend. Davis is only 22 and a former Australian Amateur champion whilst 21 year-old Lucas Herbert - a rising star in his homeland - contended strongly. Given that the two most recent champions, Varner and Holman, were 24 and 26 respectively, it may well pay to look for value among the young again.
Herbert certainly warrants consideration at 60.059/1, as do Travis Smyth 65.064/1 and Curtis Luck 46.045/1. However I'd rather give another chance to one of last week's picks, on the grounds of consistency. Kramer Hickok's form in Canada has been relentless and, while that is of course a lower level, remains noteworthy. Whatever the level, a player finishing top-two on five out of ten starts has got something about him. Hickok wasn't beaten too far in 24th last week and is fancied to at least give us a run for a place.
Finally, Brett Coletta is another talented youngster to monitor closely. He was sixth in this last year and, among very few starts since, managed an eyecatching 25th in elite company at the Memorial Tournament. Brett surprisingly missed last week's cut but the 21 year-old is fancied to make some sort of impact this winter.
Back Sergio Garcia 4u @ 9.28/1
Back Kramer Hickok 1u e/w @ 40/1
Back Brett Coletta 0.5u e/w @ 70/1