There's no European Tour event this week so we've only got the Arnold Palmer Invitational on the PGA Tour to consider but with Tiger Woods heading a stellar field, as he looks to claim the title for a record ninth time, it's not a bad one to look forward to so read our man's comprehensive preview here...
“It’s not often I fancy someone strongly before the off but I’ve had a sizable wager on Tommy Fleetwood and he looks a really good price at around the [27.0] mark.”
Originally called the Florida Citrus Open and first staged in 1966, the tournament was won by Arnold Palmer in 1971. Palmer then took over the event in 1979 and moved it to Bay Hill Country Club. It's been called the Bay Hill Invitational in the past but it's now well established as the Arnold Palmer Invitational and this will be the 40th renewal at Bay Hill, since Palmer took over the tournament.
Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando, Florida.
Par 72, 7,419 yards, stroke average in 2017 - 72.89
Originally designed in 1960 by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, Arnold Palmer bought the course in 1976 and he spent the rest of his life tinkering with it. It played as a par 70 in-between 2007-09 but after a major renovation it reverted back to a par 72 in 2010.
A new course superintendent, Chris Flynn, was employed in July 2014 and he made three significant changes to the course, making it easier for the playing public.
Firstly, more than 1,700 tons of G-Angle sand was spread over all 84 bunkers, which equated to around three inches of new sand per bunker. This G-Angle sand was said to be more angular so it holds the ball up better which results in far less buried or fried egg lies.
Secondly, five acres of fairway were added and this, according to Flynn, is why.
"The fairways were very narrow. You can tell how the course was shaped and what was supposed to be fairway but the rough had encroached into the fairways. They had lost their shape over the years."
But before assuming that the changes just handed the advantage to the bigger hitters off the tee, Flynn also said: "It's easier for the average player but it also increases the chances for better players challenging the course to find a bunker or the water."
The third change to the course was an aggressive tree trimming exercise. Some trees went completely and those that had grown into the line of play were cut back hard.
The result of the changes meant that scoring was considerably better with the 2015 winner, Matt Every, getting to 19-under-par and Jason Day won in 2016 with a 17-under-par tally but thanks to blustery conditions 12 months ago, Marc Leishman won with highest total in six years at 11-under-par.
There are 84 bunkers and water is in-play on half the holes. The 18th plays over-par every year (4.28 last year) and it's been the toughest hole on the course in five of the last six years.
All the greens were changed to Emerald Bermuda before the 2010 edition but they came in for much criticism in 2015 as they weren't in good conditions at all with a couple of players anonymously commentating on them before the off. "Speed may be a bit of an issue," said one competitor, "It looks like a comb-over!" said another. Arnie took the hint and after the event they were all changed again - this time to TifEagle Bermudagrass.
Prior to last year's renewal there were a few cosmetic and strategic modifications across the course, including the enlargement of many collection and chipping areas around the greens but the only change this time around is to the par three second hole, where the bank in between the green and the creek has been made less severe.
Even when the wind doesn't get up, and it isn't forecasted to be much of an issue this week, the course is still a proper test and since 1988, only three men have shot four rounds in the 60s - runner-up, Kevin Chappell, 12 months ago, the winner, Matt Every in 2015, and the runner-up in 2008, Bart Bryant.
Live on Sky Sportsall four days, beginning with Featured Group coverage at 11:30 in the UK on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2017 - Marc Leishman -11
2016 - Jason Day -17
2015 - Matt Every -19
2014 - Matt Every -13
2013 - Tiger Woods -13
What Will it Take to Win the Arnold Palmer Invitational?
What's done off the tee is an irrelevance here. We've seen winners drive the ball long and short (mostly long) and very often inaccurately but even if we dismiss the driving metrics, it still isn't an easy event to get to grips with statistically.
Leishman ranked first for Greens In Regulation 12 months ago but Jason Day only ranked 29th when he won in 2016 and Tiger Woods won here in 2013 ranking just 34th for GIR. Like most winners here, Woods putted really well five years ago, topping the Putting Average stats and although Leishman only ranked 23rd for PA last year, four of the top-five ranked inside the top-six for putting 12 months ago. Scrambling hasn't been an important stat of late with the last five winners having an average Scrambling ranking of just 26.4.
Nothing really stands out statistically historically, with Par 5 Performance arguably the best stat to ponder. Ernie Els ranked second for Par 5 Scoring when he won in 2010, the next three winners all ranked first, and Adam Scott, who played the long holes better than anyone else in 2014, really should have won the tournament. He led by seven at halfway and was matched at just [1.16] in-running before eventually limping home in third behind Matt Every. Leishman ranked second on the long holes last year and Jason Day ranked fifth in 2016.
As is always the case in Florida, an ability to handle Bermuda greens and the often high winds is essential, although the forecast doesn't suggest much wind this year. At this early stage, Sunday looks the breeziest but it certainly doesn't look awful.
Is There an Angle In?
Since the WGC event switched from Doral to Mexico two years ago, we now have a diminished Florida Swing and only a couple of events in the state before this one so I'm not going to consider previous recent Florida form an essential prerequisite anymore but I am going to view it as a big plus.
Leishman had finish 28th at the Honda Classic before he won here at a big price 12 months ago, Day hadn't played in either Florida event before he won in 2016 and Matt Every was so woefully out of form when he defended in 2015 that he was able to go off at [600.0] but prior to that, recent Florida form had been key.
Every had finished eighth at the Valspar before winning for the first time here in 2014 and the five winners before him, between 2009 and 2013, had all recorded a top-five finish on the Florida Swing.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Leishman had been third in 2011 before winning 12 months ago and Every was the seventh man to win the event more than once. Tiger Woods has won the tournament a staggering eight times, so course form stands up well and previous winners have a great record.
Day was well-fancied in 2016 and Tiger has obviously always been a short price but those two aside, outsiders have a reasonable record. Every went off at huge prices for both his victories and Leishman was a [160.0] chance last year. Unfancied players may do well here but debutants don't fare brilliantly and Robert Gamez, way back in 1990, is the last player to win on his first visit to Bay Hill.
Aussies seem to like Bay Hill and they could easily have won the last four renewals. Adam Scott should really have won the 2014 edition and Matt Jones, who eventually finished third, held a great chance to win here in 2015.
Jason Day was only the fourth clear wire-to-wire winner in the tournament's history and he was the first to achieve the feat since Fred Couple in 1992 but being up with the pace is crucial here.
Leishman sat tied for 20th and four strokes adrift after round one last year before sitting fourth at halfway and third after round three. and Every was never more than three off the lead at any stage between rounds in 2015 and that's fairly typical.
Every had been ten adrift at halfway in 2014 but that's misleading. Scott was seven in front of everyone at that stage so given he pretty much choked (see above) there's an argument for taking him out of the equation and if we do that, the winner was only two strokes off second.
Tiger came from four back at halfway in 2013 but the three winners to precede him were all in front after 36 holes and we have to go back to 1997 to find a winner (Phil Mickelson) that wasn't inside the front-three on the leaderboard with a round to go.
Being out of the lead could be a plus though given 17 players have held a clear lead at halfway in the last 22 years only six of them went on to win. And if very recent history is anything to go by, taking on long odds-on shots in-running may be worth trying.
Kevin Kisner, who didn't do an awful lot wrong 12 months ago, hit a low of [1.34] and he's the fourth player in five years to trade at very long odds-on before getting beat. And it wasn't a million miles from being five from five...
Day eventually got the job done in 2106 but not before an almighty scare. He drifted right out to above [7.0] having been matched at only [1.4] and he needed a truly world class finish to take the spoils.
Prior to that, Stenson traded at below [1.4] on two separate occasions in 2015, more than an hour apart, and he was matched at a low of just [1.11]. Eventual fourth, Morgan Hoffman, hit a low of [1.82], when he led by two with 10 to play, and in 2014, Scott was matched at just [1.16] before he lost his way.
If you plan to trade in-running, bear in mind how difficult the finish is here. The par five 16th is the easiest on the course and there were 22 eagles (the same as 2016) and 218 birdies there last year but with four of the final five holes averaging well over-par year after year, that's the only respite coming in. It's vital to make a score there and that's exactly where Leishman clinched the title 12 months ago, going from one behind to one in front when he registered one of the 22 big birds from fully 50 feet.
One final strange thing of note, despite some thrilling close finishes, there hasn't been a playoff here this century.
I've prattled on quite extensively in the course notes to give a breakdown of all the recent changes, not just to illustrate how much Arnie used to like to tinker, but also to demonstrate just how much the course has changed since Tiger Woods last played here. That's the first negative.
Admittedly, he's spend an awful lot of time out with injury but the fact remains that he hasn't won in five years and as highlighted in the De-brief yesterday, there were slight question marks about his performance in-contention on Sunday. Understandably, he wasn't the ruthless beast of old on his first Sunday with a genuine chance of victory in years but is that a sign of what to expect here? Sunday was the first time he'd began a final round as the man the market judged the most likely to win in years and this is the first week he's began a tournament as the favourite.
When in his absolute pomp, he would go off here at around the 3/1 mark so given all the niggling doubts, I couldn't possibly back him at only twice that price in what is a very deep field. If you just fancy a punt and want to cheer him on, and I really do get that (seeing Tiger win again would be fabulous), that's all well and good but at 6/1 the only people getting any value are the layers.
Jason Day is a perfectly respectable price given he's in far better form than he was 12 months ago when he could only finish 23rd when defending. He's won the WGC-Match Play a couple of times and he won the Farmers Insurance Open for a second time on his first start in 2018 so he knows how to recapture a title and he followed up that win with a very solid second at the AT&T Pebble Beach National. He hasn't been seen since and there are always injury concerns about Day but he goes well enough fresh and he could very easily win again.
Justin Rose has a decent bank of Bay Hill form (four top-tens) and he looked to have finally found a bit of form with his putter last week but he'll need to bounce back after what was a really poor effort in-the-mix on Sunday and he's not for me.
Last year's favourite, Rory McIlroy, played the par fives better than anyone 12 months ago, but he could still only finish fourth. Incredibly, he finished the week on nine-under-par having played the long holes in 14-under! That fourth followed an impressive 11th on debut and he's a winner in Florida but he missed the cut last week and I'm more than happy to swerve him.
Rickie Fowler contended and perhaps should have won here in 2013 but he has only ordinary course form other than that, reading 50-30-3-MC-29-12 and he doesn't appear to be in tip-top form this year either. He finished fourth at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in the first week of the year but he missed the cut at the Farmers and at the Honda (when defending), he choked away a chance in Phoenix (yet again) and his 37th in Mexico a fortnight ago isn't anything to write home about.
It's not often I fancy someone strongly before the off but I've had a sizable wager on Tommy Fleetwood and he looks a really good price at around the [27.0] mark.
Fleetwood's play has gone up several levels since he finished 10th here on debut 12 months ago (after opening-up with a 78!) and I'm struggling to find any negatives.
A week after his brilliant defence in Abu Dhabi he finished a fast-finishing sixth at the Dubai Desert Classic (his best result there) and while his 37th at the Genesis Open three starts ago on his first visit to Riviera, was a tad disappointing, there was a lot to like about his performance in Mexico last time out.
I felt at the time that anyone that had contended at the Honda (where the wind blew soundly all week) was going to struggle in Mexico and so it proved. I know Justin Thomas came close to winning there after winning the Honda but he's a truly exceptional player and he stared very slowly. He was matched at [690.0] in-running and he was quoting as saying "I quite simply had nothing out there" after round one so Tommy did well to close with rounds of 67 and 66 to climb up to 14th given no other Honda contenders shone.
In addition to the meaty bet on Tommy I've also had much smaller wagers on Henrik Stenson (MC last week and last year here but great course form before that), Bubba Watson (played well here before he played well anywhere and already a winner this year), Zach Johnson (course form and a good week at the Valspar despite a poorly behaved putter) and Patton Kizzire (two wins already this season, ranks highly on the par fives and just too big at a triple-figure price).
There's no European Tour action this week so I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
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