LIV interloper Reed to put Pat among the Dhabi pigeons


Best bets
2pts each-way Patrick Reed @ 25/1
2pts each-way Tommy Fleetwood @ 11/1
1.5pts each-way Francesco Molinari @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Nicolai Hojgaard @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Seamus Power @ 28/1
0.5pt each-way Victor Perez @ 40/1

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Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald took plenty of positive feedback from the inaugural Hero Cup, comfortably won 14.5 to 10.5 by Continental Europe’s underdogs, with Euro skipper Francesco Molinari, compatriot Guido Migliozzi, Victor Perez and Nicolai Hojgaard (a late substitute for injured twin Rasmus) all unbeaten in their four matches.

Those four heroes of the Hero line up at the Abu Dhabi Championship this week alongside GB & Ireland captain Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Bob MacIntyre and Matt Wallace, the four singles winners for the losers, in a truly international field.

The prize-boosted $9m tournament is being played for the second time at Yas Links, another cracking layout conceived by American Kyle Phillips, whose Kingsbarns and The Grove have earned the American architect high praise in the UK.

With Rory McIlroy waiting for next week’s Dubai Desert Classic before commencing his 2023 campaign and Jon Rahm committed to fourballs with amateurs and five-hour rounds in the AmEx in the Californian desert, there’s still a very fruity ingredient in the shape of a batch of LIV golf rebels taking part, their 14-tournament series not teeing off until the end of next month at Mayakoba.

They’re not wanted at any price in the States but are permitted to play on the DP World Tour until the courts sort out this unholy mess which doesn’t look like being any time soon. So we have two Major champions in Henrik Stenson and Patrick Reed bolstering the field, along with good names like former world No. 1 Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Bernd Wiesberger, Sam Horsfield and Richard Bland.

Adrian Otaegui is still on LIV’s list of players on their website but his status is uncertain. He was told he was surplus to requirements when bigger names took the Saudi bait. The Spaniard, runaway winner at Valderrama on the DP World Tour in October, played the first three LIV events but nothing since.

The breakaway tour is already reported to have signed Mito Pereira, the Chilean who needed only to par the last to be crowned USPGA champion last May but double-bogeyed and didn’t even make the playoff. It takes time for scars like that to heal.

There are likely to be bigger-name acquisitions than Pereira and with their playing number fixed at 48, several lesser mortals will be anxiously awaiting their P45s.

Just about the worst start to the year in the DP World Tour’s eyes would be victory by a LIV lurcher but it’s a definite possibility. Westwood at 49 would be one. He needed only to put a simple wedge shot close and convert the birdie to win at LIV Boston. Maybe the thought of that $4m prize got to a golfer even as wealthy as he is but poor Lee dumped the pitch into the front bunker, the recovery shot was 10-handicap stuff at best and he didn’t even make the playoff.

Even with that bogey he was round in 62 proving that, while the nerve may not as strong as it was, the ability remains. The same goes for Stenson who surprised even himself by winning on his LIV debut in New Jersey after a couple of years among the also-rans of the game.

Both Europeans are well capable of contending as is the controversial Reed, $3m better off for being part of the winning all-American team in the first four LIV tournaments and not too shabby either in the individuals with a second, third and fifth.

With skin thicker than a rhino’s, the Texan won’t be the tiny bit worried about upsetting the tour’s applecart. Cocky Pat likes to think of himself as a world golfer and as he’s still winless outside the States this is a perfect opportunity to prove the point.

What draws me most towards Reed is the time of year. Always well prepared after the Christmas/New Year break, three of his nine wins have come in January – the Tournament of Champions in 2014, the Humana Challenge (now the AmEx) this very week the following year and his last victory, at Torres Pines, came at the end of the month in 2021.

True, he’s not the straightest driver but possesses a magical short game which can make up for that. Still only 32, there is plenty left in the tank and with Yas Links hosting for just the second time, he will not be the only one seeing the course for the first time. It’s a 7425-yard par 72 with tightish fairways, plenty of water and an enormous finishing hole measuring 646 yards.

What we know from last year is that this links-style layout is no pushover. In a stiffer wind than is forecast for this week, Pieters’ winning score was only ten under par. it’s a course that rewards accuracy and it’s not necessary to hit the ball a country mile. Although the lanky the Belgian is a big hitter, none of those closest to him on last year’s leaderboard were bombers.

Medium hitters Shubhankar Sharma and Rafa Cabrera Bello were only a shot behind in sharing second, while Hatton and Poulter were in a group tied for sixth, just three behind the winner. Lowry, a big Hero Cup disappointment for GB & Ireland, losing all four games, was 12th and will do well to improve on that given some of the leaky shots he produced down the road.

After spending last week in Abu Dhabi picking up three points out of four for his team, Fleetwood can concentrate on himself now and as a double winner of this week’s tournament when it was played at the Hero Cup venue, Tommy has to have good vibes for the week. Don’t be put off by his modest 46th here last year: his game and confidence are in much better order. Winning the Nedbank Challenge in Sun City turned an ordinary year right round in November.

The revived Frankie Molinari, Hatton and dark horse Seamus Power are the other three who look most likely to see off the LIV raiders and I’m amazed to see Molinari at five times Hatton’s odds.

Hatton won the last edition of this tournament in its Abu Dhabi GC days and was a solid sixth at Yas 12 months ago yet he doesn’t win as often as his ability says he should and there’s little juice in Fitzdares’ 10/1 quote. It’s a little surprising to find him outright favourite.

Without the burden of team captaincy this week, Molinari and Fleetwood should play even better and I was impressed by the length the little Italian was hitting the ball. With his stellar iron play in good nick, he could spring a surprise as he is desperate to regain his place for Italy’s first Ryder Cup in September.

People are inclined to forget he was Open champion five years ago and scored 5-from-5 in that year’s Ryder Cup, pairing with Fleetwood for four wins, then seeing off the redoubtable Phil Mickelson in the singles. He looked as classy as ever last week.

Rasmus Hojgaard who had to withdraw from the Hero Cup with an injury has had to pull out again, leaving twin brother Nicolai, who substituted so brilliantly for him, to go it alone again.

Perez, MacIntyre and Migliozzi are fancied to maintain their fine matchplay form from last week although the Scot’s missed cut here last year is a little off-putting. Perez wielded the flat stick like a wand and is my preference from that hot trio.
It was a mixed bag from Pieters in the Cup but that can be explained by a 14-week break to spend “do-do time” with his new second baby. He will be sharper now but defending a title is extra pressure.

The US-based trio of Power, Alex Noren and Sepp Straka stay over to convince Capt. Donald (himself playing this week) they are must-picks. Noren hasn’t won for five years but has the Ryder Cup experience Europe will need but I’m a bigger fan of late bloomer Power who has won twice in 18 months on the tough PGA Tour in his short main-tour career. He has all the tools for this course.

Aussie ace Min Woo Lee is yet another potential claimant for the massive $1.5m top prize in a stronger field than last year’s so stand by for a great week that could end in tears.


Best bets
1.5pts each-way Si Woo Kim @ 28/1
1.5pts each-way Tom Hoge @ 40/1
1pt each-way Adam Hadwin @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Byeong Hun An @ 150/1
0.5pts each-way Will Zalatoris @ 18/1
2pts win Jon Rahm @ 11/2

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There’s a case for saying a Government Wealth Warning should be attached to anyone punting the market leaders in this week’s big American Express pro-am at La Quinta when the PGA Tour hits mainland USA after its two-week aloha to Hawaii … but that won’t stop some of us risking it!

Why keep stakes small? Because the last four years have produced winners at 200/1, 66/1, 200/1 again and 500/1. It is not until you go back to 2018 and Jon Rahm that you uncover a winner who didn’t have those bookie chaps rubbing their hands with glee.

A 10/1 shot that week, you won’t find that sort of price now as the burly Spaniard is on a sensational three-win roll, shooting a remarkable 72 under par for 12 rounds in doing so – and they weren’t Mickey Mouse tournaments either. Did someone say in midsummer he couldn’t putt?

The latest triumph in Kapalua bordered on the miraculous, giving a two-time Major champion in Collin Morikawa a nine-shot start with 17 to play and handing out a beating from which the young Californian may take some time to recover.

Rahm was not best pleased that under the strange workings of the world ranking system his latest bit of swashbuckling failed to move him up from fifth when everyone knows, and begging Rory McIlroy’s pardon, that he’s hottest golfer on the planet. Rahm himself was quite vocal saying “in my mind, I feel like since August I’ve been the best player in the world”.

A quick follow-up to Kapalua in the South Californian desert would surely solve that ranking anomaly but on three easy resort courses set up to make well-heeled amateurs look as good as possible, Rahm’s superior weapons, notably his long, straight driving, become less relevant when the less gifted can hit it anywhere and get away with it.

With no rough of consequence on the La Quinta Country Club and Nicklaus Tournament  courses, they are giving birdies away and only the Pete Dye Stadium course at PGA West, with its well-placed water hazards and deep bunkering, provides a remotely serious test. Bring on the hot putters!

Last year it was 200/1 chance Hudson Swafford amazingly winning for the second time but he won’t be defending as he has since signed with the LIV breakaways. A couple of years earlier it was 200/1 Andrew Landry. Before him, 500/1 Adam Long. You couldn’t make it up.

All three courses are par 72s measuring between 7080 and 7200 yards and the winning score is guaranteed to be 20-something under par.

The format – two pros with their amateur partners in fourballs playing each course in turn over the first 54 holes, then a cut sees the best 65 and ties progress to a second crack at the Stadium course on Sunday – is slow-motion, test-of-patience golf that suits some and not others so take note of those who have fared well in the past.

Cue Si Woo Kim, winner of a Hawaiian thriller on Sunday and a happy bunny these days after his December wedding to seven-time Korean LPGA winner Ji Hyun Oh. Going back-to-back is rare but in this case an exception is made by putting up this classy but unpredictable operator at 28/1.

He was a 66/1 shot when he won this two years ago, claiming the notable scalp of Patrick Cantlay. It wasn’t the only time the Korean, a decent 11th in his title defence last year, has done well there.

Punters who backed him last week had little strokeplay form to support the bet but while playing partner Tom Kim was making all the noise and getting all the headlines, Si Woo had the superior Presidents Cup record in September, winning three out of four, topped by a last-green singles defeat of Justin Thomas.

Cantlay along with Scottie Scheffler, Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau head an impressive US squad but with overseas raiders Rahm and Kim nabbing the early spoils, the home side is under pressure to deliver a winner in this opening leg of the West Coast Swing.

Those knocking Scheffler for not winning again after his four-victory spree up to the Masters should take a look at his last six performances: 3-2-45-3-9-7. He’s the real deal all right. Ignore him at your peril. He has course credentials too with third place in 2020 when we knew little about him.

Hot property Tom Kim has to get back on the horse after last week’s blip when, along with fellow market leaders Sungjae Im and Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old missed the cut. He may need a week or two to regroup after that jolt to his confidence.

If there is to be another huge upset, give Kim’s compatriot Byeong Hun An (better known as Benny) a spin at 150/1. He was that price when he blew away a strong BMW PGA field at Wentworth back in 2015. An, the youngest US Amateur champion as a 17-year-old, looked set for the big-time but things didn’t pan out, he lost his PGA Tour card, regained it with a win last year
on the Korn Ferry circuit and was heading for a top-five finish at Waialae on Sunday until running up a quadruple-bogey eight midway through the last round.

In spite of that card-wrecker, he got it round under par for 12th place and that’s the second time An has caught the eye since rejoining the main circuit. His game looks razor-sharp.
In retrospect, Tom Hoge did his prospects no good last week by turning what for the others was a 12-mile trans-island hop from Maui to Oahu for the Sony into a 5000-mile round trip to Los Angeles to support his beloved TCU Horned Frogs in the college football national final.

The fact that his boys were thoroughly outplayed must have contributed to his never-threatening 41st place on his weary return. I’m prepared to forget that performance and give him a second chance.

Third at Kapalua, Hoge is underrated and this is his time of year. Twelve months ago the 33-year-old ran Swafford close in the AmEx and two weeks later captured the other big West Coast pro-am at Pebble Beach for an overdue first win.

Also worth backing is Canadian Adam Hadwin, seventh the last time we saw him at Houston in November and back on courses where his hot putter has brought him much gold. Two second places and a third make him each-way material though he’s hard to win with and I’ll also be having a little on Will Zalatoris, runner-up in two Majors last year.

Zalatoris was a breakthrough winner at St Jude the week before his year was rudely interrupted in August by a serious back issue that kept him out of the Presidents Cup. There was much to like about his comeback 11th at Kapalua after a long layoff – he seemed surprised to have done so well – and his sixth to Swafford in last year’s AmEx bodes well for his prospects.

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