Fox and Spieth to show their teeth


Best bets

2pts each-way Jordan Spieth @ 9/1
1.5pts each-way Tom Hoge @ 16/1
1pt each-way Justin Rose @ 25/1
0.5pt each-way Jimmy Walker @ 150/1
0.5pt each-way Joel Dahmen @ 33/1
0.5pt each-way Garrett Higgo @ 80/1

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Sometimes golf doesn’t make sense. Take the 2018 Pebble Beach Pro-Am. How could a 500/1 shot like Ted Potter Jr, a journeyman in every sense of the word, crush a high-class field that featured Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1 at the time, Rory McIlroy (he missed the cut) and five-time Pebble winner Phil Mickelson?

Short-hitting Potter, now 39, is back for more this week unfazed by the fact that he has missed his last 11 cuts and broken 70 only twice throughout 2022. But five years ago the stumpy Floridian’s fairytale was manna from heaven for the bookmakers as chasing him home were heavily-backed giants of the game DJ, Mickelson and Jason Day.

Added to so many unpredictable three-figure-odds champions at the other big Californian pro-am, the American Express, the reason for these upsets can only be ascribed to the tiresome fourball pairs format and the time of year when greens in the Golden State are typically far from their best.

So who is going to be the Cinderella man this week? There’s so much deadwood teeing off on the three courses, Pebble Beach (6818 yards, par 72) itself, Spyglass Hill (7035/72)and Monterey Peninsula (6958/71) punters are spoilt for choice.

It’s a tournament for which I hold a particularly soft spot. Matt Gogel was a rare 100/1 winner for me in 2002 and four years later Arron Oberhauser (40/1), Rory Sabbatini (50/1) and Mike Weir (33/1) provided a spectacular 1-2-3 from just four picks in what was then the biggest field of the year, 180.

Nowadays the field is down to 156 pros and 156 amateurs for the first three days  – “funny man“ Bill Murray and 2-handicap football great Gareth Bale are two of them. The top 60 pros and 25 teams go forward to Pebble Beach Sunday.

My pick for best outsider is 2016 PGA champion Jimmy Walker, finally getting his game back after years battling the debilitating Lyme Disease, which, among other problems, affects the nervous system. That unwelcome visitor arrived the year after he won the 2016 PGA Championship and we have heard little from him since.

He is however a course winner, taking the 2014 honours in a run of form that saw the Oklahoman bag five victories in 2014-15 before grabbing his one-and-only Major.

Sunday’s 13th place at Torrey Pines, coming after five missed cuts, was just the antidote Walker needed before facing these three spectacular Monterey Peninsula courses. where, as a past champion, he’ll be raring to go. Incidentally, Pebble Beach, host to six US Opens, is available to play if you have $625 lying around.

While hoping Walker makes a bold showing, the business end on Sunday is most likely to concern the four names at the top of the market, 9/1 favourite Jordan Spieth, defending champion Tom Hoge, and two certs for a place in Europe’s Ryder Cup team, US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick and Hero World Challenge hero Viktor Hovland.

Others likely to enter the conversation are Seamus Power, Maverick McNealy and Justin Rose but if you’re looking for course form it’s hard to get away from Spieth, champion in 2017 and 9-3-2 the last three years. Taking a single-figure price for a superstar who hasn’t quite found his best game this year isn’t normally recommended but it may pay to make an exception.

Fitzpatrick is the highest-ranked golfer in the line-up at world No. 10 and was a decent sixth to Hoge last year. With many of the big guns swerving Pebble, this could be a big opportunity for the Yorkshireman with the silky short game. Matt’s seventh place at the Tournament of Champions was a solid start to the year and he can build on that.

Winning Pebble last year, a longed-for breakthrough after six barren years on tour, has done wonders for Hoge’s self-belief. He started 2023 like a man in a hurry to make up for lost time by finishing third at Kapalua on his ToC debut – further evidence that we shall see him on plenty of leaderboards from now on.

Andrew Putnam, fourth at the Sony last month and joint-sixth at Pebble 12 months ago, has each-way claims but finds winning difficult. There’s no juice in his 20/1 quote and at four times his price I’d rather back Garrett Higgo who showed with 11th place at the AmEx that pro-ams and long rounds don’t faze him.

It’s good news for European golf that Justin Rose is back somewhere near his best after a couple of lean years. He has tinkered with his swing and the four latest performances by the 2014 US Open champion, featuring a ninth in Houston and 18th at Torrey Pines at the weekend, are more than encouraging.

Pebble is not normally on his must-play agenda so the fact that he’s teeing it up this week could be taken as a hint. He was sixth on a rare visit in 2016 but had a great US Open there in 2019 when he shared third place with Jon Rahm.

Finally a word for Joel Dahmen for those who believe becoming a first-time dad, particularly if it’s a boy, can inspire an upsurge in birdies. Riggs Dahmen popped out on January 19 so Joel has had a week or two of sleepless nights and nappies. Given his solid late-year form, there’s a case for taking the 33/1 anyway so it will be interesting to see what sort of scores he gives birth to.


Best bets

2pts each-way Ryan Fox @ 16/1
1pt each-way Callum Shinkwin @ 33/1
1pt each-way Adri Arnaus @ 28/1
1pt each-way Nicolai Hojgaard @ 16/1
0.5pt each-way Tom McKibbin @ 100/1
0.5pt each-way Dan Bradbury @ 66/1

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Whatever your view about the morality of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series, one incontrovertible fact is that without the LIV rebels and in particular the ever-controversial Patrick Reed the Dubai Desert Classic would have been far less exciting for spectators, sponsors and the world’s media.

Not only did we have ‘Tee-gate’ before the tournament and ‘Tree-gate’ on the delayed final day when the accident-prone Reed lost his drive high up a prickly palm and may or may not have identified it correctly, but we had a truly dramatic finish involving the feisty Texan and Rory McIlroy in a classic, edgy “bad guy-good guy” showdown.

That would never have happened without Reed’s dazzling 65 that had backers of the 3/1 favourite quaking in their boots but, thankfully for a DP World Tour dreading the thought of presenting the trophy to Reed, it was ‘good guy’ Rory who fired the killer shot, a 12ft birdie putt at the last to nick a third Desert Classic by the skin of his teeth.

Reed wasn’t the only LIV player in the top ten – Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Richard Bland were also up there – and, politics apart, this $9m elite Rolex event would have been all the poorer without them. Let’s hope some sort of compromise solution to this mess will soon be found.

Meanwhile Reed and the full LIV membership are competing this week in the Asian Tour’s flagship event, the $5m Saudi International, so the DP World Tour can realistically look forward to a stress-free second edition of the Ras Al Khaimah Championship which rounds off a four-week focus on golf in the Gulf.

Last year this neighbouring Emirate to Dubai came to the tour’s rescue when the Qatar Masters had to be scrapped because of Covid-related travel problems. In stepped Ras Al Khaimah to host back-to-back tournaments on the same 7400-yard Al Hamra course, one called the Ras Championship, the other the Ras Classic.

What we learned from the results of both was that it’s a bombers’ paradise, Nicolai Hojgaard romping home by four in the Championship and Ryan Fox trumping that with a five-shot triumph in the Classic.

Further confirmation that long hitters are in their element at Al Hamra comes with the result of the 2018 Challenge Tour grand final, won by another player high on the driving stats in Adri Arnaus, a Spaniard who has made his base in the UAE for the past three years to get the all-year-round sunshine and practice facilities, a move which finally paid off with his main-tour breakthrough at Catalunya last year. Arnaus was bang in the mix in Dubai last week until a bad last round derailed his challenge. Still, that 13th place should have put him spot-on for this easier task.

Ninth in last year’s Ras Classic, he should make his presence felt in a field far weaker than he faced in Dubai.

Like Arnaus, Nicolai Hojgaard and Fox have winning course form to their name which gives them an edge. All three are worth backing for an encore.

Hojgaard played a blinder for Continental Europe in the Hero Cup after being drafted in late as a substitute for injured twin brother Rasmus while Fox, a double winner last year (but so many near misses suggest it should have been more) was bang in the mix after a third-day 66 at the weekend but couldn’t repeat that form on Monday.

The New Zealander shares Fitzdares’ 16/1 favouritism with Abu Dhabi winner Victor Perez and Poland’s lone star, Adrian Meronk, who claimed some notable scalps in the Australian Open before Christmas for the second victory of his break-out year.

Frenchman Perez, runner-up to Arnaus here five years ago in his Challenge Tour days, goes to post for a fourth straight week, having starred in the Hero Cup and held his nerve just long enough to see off the cavalry in Abu Dhabi. He looked good in Dubai until running out of adrenaline in Monday’s 75, so maybe this is one tournament too far.

At twice the odds, Callum Shinkwin rates better value. He gives the ball a good slap and it’s not hard to see this fearless Londoner improving on his fourth at The Emirates.

My two best outsiders are Tom McKibbin, a young Irishman who has already proved that, in time, he can take a place on top table, and steady Yorkshireman Dan Bradbury, winner of the Joburg Open on only his fourth main-tour start.

Playing two rounds alongside McIlroy and Rory’s fan club in Dubai, Bradbury will have gained so much from seeing a master at work from close quarters. It is clear that Dan is no one-hit wonder and with him and McKibbin the only way is up.

Only just 20, McKibbin has already posted three encouraging top-20s and despite his pencil-slim frame, just watch how far he hits it. A star of the future.

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