Golf,

Viktor to rule at Ryder Cup venue

ITALIAN OPEN


2.5pts each-way Viktor Hovland @ 10/11pt each-way Francesco Molinari @ 20/11pt each-way Tyrrell Hatton @ 18/11pt each-way Kurt Kitayama @ 40/10.5pts each-way Francesco Laporta @ 100/1

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The Italian Open at next year’s Ryder Cup venue, the Marco Simone course ten miles outside Rome in the village of Guidony, has a hard act to follow after the soggy thrills of a BMW PGA Championship cut short to 54 holes while the nation mourned.

With the DP World Tour showcase hanging on Rory McIlroy holing a 25ft eagle putt on the final hole – it quivered on the lip and before deciding to stay out – you couldn’t have written a better script.

Well, you could if you’d placed a lumpy bet on the favourite or were looking forward to an extra-time shootout between two of the best golfers in the world.

But Shane Lowry, without a W since the 2019 Open, needed the glory more than Rory and the result was more than okay for Fitzdares clients who had taken the steer to get on the jovial Irishman each-way at 16/1 as an in-form player with a long list of high-class Wentworth performances behind him.

It was as well that those two and former world No. 1 Jon Rahm were on their game as it spared the collective embarrassment of presenting the trophy to one of the LIV rebels.

And they weren’t far away. Talor Gooch finished right on the heels of the Europeans in fourth place and another American, Patrick Reed, had knocked in round in 63 to set the early target. This problem is not going to go away and the sooner there’s a compromise solution the better it will be for the game.

Along with US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland, McIlroy is staying on in Europe for this week’s Italian job and that trio dominates the market, as you would expect.

The stadium course, built with the Ryder Cup in mind, is a 7268-yard beauty with a par of 71 and unveiled last year when big-hitting Nicolai Hojgaard prevailed by a shot from Adrian Meronk and Tommy Fleetwood in a weaker field.

The Dane won again in February at Ras Al Khaimah and with Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald in the field running the rule over likely contenders for a place in his 2023 squad, he will be hoping to raise his game.

On paper, it looks like a straight contest between McIlroy, Fitzpatrick and Hovland with potential challenges from Tyrrell Hatton and Fleetwood. But golf isn’t played on paper otherwise we’d all be rich.

What we do know from last year’s 13-under-par winning score is that the Jim Fazio-designed Marco Simone is no push-over. Laid out in 1989 and host to the 1994 Italian Open (won by Eduardo Romero), it has been totally renewed to Ryder Cup strength with more length and additional  bunkering.

Of course FedEx Cup winner and Wentworth runner-up McIlroy should win, is playing almost as well as he ever has, and the bookies have taken evasive action. Fitzdares have him at 7/2 and are certain to be accommodated, even at those unappealing odds.

But I’ll take him and the ever-reliable Fitzpatrick on each-way with class acts Hovland and Hatton.

Hovland co-led going into the final round at Wentworth and failed to fire. He looked magnificent on day one when he shot a 64 and I would rather judge him on that, hitting fairways and greens with monotonous consistency.

The Norwegian has won this year, in Dubai back in January, and the relative lack of subsequent success in the States is mitigated by several strong performances, runner-up at Bay Hill, fourth at St Andrews and fifth at the weekend in the PGA.

The mercurial Hatton is another who keeps playing well without winning and as one of Europe’s prime hopes of regaining the Ryder Cup, he will be anxious to get a W on his CV before year’s end. This field lacks strength in depth and Tyrrell is different gear to most of the field outside the Big Three.

Italy desperately wants a local making Ryder Cup so Francesco Molinari’s ninth at Wentworth after a thin year will have pleased captain Donald. Frankie was Mr 100% in the 2018 Ryder Cup, winning five points out of five, and that won’t be forgotten when Donald picks his six (yes, six!) wild cards.

That was of course Molinari’s annus mirabilis as he won The Open that year and he is still a fair way away from that exalted level. Even so, expect a spirited bid this week from the Italians, not only Molinari but three others who could step up to the plate in Guido Migliozzi, Renato Paratore and Francesco Laporta.

Migliozzi emerged from a poor year to finish 13th at Wentworth but one swallow doesn’t make a summer and much more is needed from this dual tour winner.

Preference is for Laporta at fancy odds as he has course form (fourth last year) and was only a decent last round away from winning in Denmark at the start of the month.

Two who might upset the favourites are American Kurt Kitayama who blows hot and cold but is a birdie machine on the right course. Twice a PGA Tour runner-up, in Mexico and in the Scottish Open, and third at the Honda, he’s a real threat, as is the young Aussie Min Woo Lee, a frightening talent at his best as in the 63 he shot at Wentworth on Saturday.

LIV GOLF CHICAGO


3pts win Cameron Smith @ 5/11.5pts each-way Patrick Reed @ 16/11pt each-way Paul Casey @ 25/10.5pt each-way Sadom Kaewkanjana @ 100/1

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We’re off to Chicago – well, an hour’s drive away in Sugar Grove, Illinois – for the fifth leg of the LIV Golf series teeing off on Friday and nobody will be surprised to find Open champion Cammie Smith and former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson 5/1 co-favourites for the $4m top prize.

Outside Phil Mickelson they were the two most expensive signings by the controversial Saudi-backed newcomers who are sparing no expense in their bid to turn the golf world upside down.

There’s $25m on the table for each 54-hole tournament, field limited to 48, no cut and everybody gets paid – even the last guy gets $120,000.

With a shotgun start that means each group finishing up at roughly the same moment, it’s golf’s version of Twenty20 cricket with all the action squeezed into four (and a bit) hours.

It’s all part of an entertainment package, the like of which staid old golf has never seen before. And it came of age at the fourth attempt with a humdinger of a tournament in Boston, DJ sinking a 55ft eagle putt on the first sudden-death hole to close out fellow dead-heaters Joaquin Niemann and Anirban Lahiri, both making their LIV bow.

Aussie Smith, the other first-timer and LIV’s most significant signing as a reigning Major champion, was just shy of making the shootout and had to settle for a share of fourth with evergreen Lee Westwood.

Was it the thought of a $4m payday that made Lahiri miss the eight footer for the last-hole eagle that would have clinched it in real time … and Westwood to dump a wedge shot into the front bunker and bogey his final hole when a birdie would have won it and a par earned a place in the playoff?

We shall never know but it was dramatic, exciting and great TV. The reality was that Lee still went round in 62 and it wasn’t enough. No wonder playoff victim Niemann called it “the most exciting day I’ve ever had on a golf course” although, with pockets bulging with dollars, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

The money keeps rolling in, $3m to be split between the winning team each time – the Four Aces (DJ’s all-Americans) have now won all three tournaments on home soil in Portland, New Jersey and Boston – and Johnson heads the race for the over-all individual jackpot where’s there’s another $30m up for grabs.

Of that, $18m goes to the man topping the points race after the seventh leg (the eighth and final LIV show being a team event in Miami). With Johnson one of only two to have posted top-tens in all four events, he’s nicely clear with Chicago, Bangkok and Jeddah to come.

Shock New Jersey winner Henrik Stenson returns to the fray after pulling out of Boston because of vertigo, otherwise it’s the same cast teeing off at Rich Harvest Farms, which looks a monster at 7715 yards with two par fives measuring 634 yards. Surely they won’t play from the tips as the market they are wooing wants to see birdies and eagles.

Talor Gooch, the other American to have top-ten placed every time, and Patrick Reed arrive on the back of big performances at Wentworth, finishing fourth and fifth behind winner Shane Lowry. They were hardly welcomed by the DP World tourists and will be more comfortable back among friends.

Reed, previously third with DJ in Portland and fifth at Bedminster, looks a solid each-way punt at 16/1. He’s seven points longer than Gooch but I’m not sure he should be with the terrific short game he has.

Johnson has had his win and it might be somebody else’s turn as each tournament has produced a different champion. Step forward Cameron Smith, the man who makes putting look easy. He’s not world No. 3 for nothing (not that he will be for long after jumping ship) and will be all out to show he’s worth that fat fee.

Riviera winner Niemann made a mighty impressive tee-to-green debut but missed lots of birdie chances. He will come again, and soon.

Westwood followed up his stunning Sunday show in Boston with another good shift at Wentworth (T13). He and Paul Casey look Britain’s best though at 49 the Worksop Wonder may want an easy time of it after two hectic weeks.

Casey, sixth on debut at Bedminster, shot two really good rounds out of three in Boston and played better golf than his 21st finishing position would suggest.

He is feeling his way back after a back injury that kept him out of the first three Majors and will be out to make up for lost time. Expect the Arizona-based Englishman to outrun his 25/1 odds.

With LIV heading to Bangkok after Chicago, a top performance from the Thai contingent would help the box office so I’m making Sadom Kaewkanjana my best longshot at 100/1. Twice an Asian Tour winner, he looked a good player in Boston, even threatening the lead at one stage of the final round.

Admittedly, he struggled on the back nine and eventually slipped back to 13th but he’s only 24 and will learn from the experience. He and Phachara Khongwatmai are good young signings worth thinking about at big odds, particularly when playing in Asia.

FORTINET CHAMPIONSHIP


1.5pts each-way Max Homa @ 14/11.5pts each-way Sahith Theegala @ 28/11.5pts each-way Taylor Pendrith @ 25/11pt each-way Trey Mullinax @ 50/10.5pts each-way Justin Suh @ 50/1

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With the Presidents Cup only a week away, spare a thought for Trevor Immelman’s Internationals as the uphill task of regaining the trophy from the USA has been made well-nigh impossible with Open champion Cameron Smith and the gifted Joaquin Niemann being lured away by the LIV money men for sums to make even Croesus blink.

The impact of those two big signings, adding to earlier defections by Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace, Abe Ancer, Marc Leishman and Carlos Ortiz, is reverberating much further afield than next week’s mismatch and how many more are there to come?

Two of those, Ancer and Grace, were at Wentworth seeking world ranking points. They, along with all LIV rebels, are barred from playing in this week’s Fortinet Championship which launches the new PGA Tour wrap-around “year” at the Silverado Country in Californian wine country at Napa.

It’s not only the Internationals who have been ravaged by LIV, the Americans will be without Dustin Johnson at Quail Hollow next week. Maybe Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka would have made the team too but they have more top players to call upon.

Who knows how many would be challenging titleholder Max Homa? The world No. 22 is the only member of the US squad competing at Silverado and he has to be the man to beat. Last year he came from three back with a pair of 65s on the undulating 7123-yard par 72 for a 19-under-par score that was one too good for Maverick McNealy.

Only Hideki Matsuyama of those taking part ranks above him and the last time we saw the underrated Homa he was an under-the-radar fifth in the Tour Championship at East Lake. Before that he’d bagged a third tour victory at Wells Fargo and has finally started to believe he can live with the game’s elite.

While Matsuyama, sixth here last year and a winner in Hawaii at the start of 2022, seems the main danger, there are plenty of golf’s newer generation hungry to get their share of the enhanced prize money, up from $7m to $8m in the PGA Tour’s bid to shore up the damage the Saudi-backed LIV has created.

It is less than two weeks since Justin Suh captured the Korn Ferry Tour Championship and with it the No. 1 spot on that satellite circuit. This 25-year-old Californian was an outstanding amateur and while it took him a couple of years to get used to the pro game, he’s now ready to make a name for himself.

Already proven at top level are Sahith Theegala and Taylor Pendrith and this could be a breakthrough year for both.

Theegala was all over the winner until his luck ran out on the final hole at the Travelers and he took two in a fairway bunker. That double bogey let in Schauffele and Xander didn’t need to be asked twice. It was another late error at Phoenix that stopped  him opening his account in February so let’s hope he’s not accident-prone this weekend.

Canadian Pendrith lost four big-money months with a rib injury after the Players Championship but returned to action in August with his game in great shape. He led in Detroit but didn’t handle the last-nine pressure and had to settle for second.

That setback didn’t faze him and he roared back with big performances at the Wyndham (13th) and Boston (8th). Having had a taste of what being in main-tour contention is like, Pendrith can have no excuses next time he has the chance to get the job done.

He’s not the only Canuck with a big shout as Corey Conners is one of the favourites.

Top class tee to green, Conners’ weakness is with the flat stick. This classy swinger doesn’t win as often as he should but at this modest level he could easily be fancied.

Tom Hoge, Luke List (4th in 2020), Davis Riley, 2019 winner Cameron Champ and Cam Davis all have the game to succeed here – Aussie Davis is on duty at the Presidents Cup next week – but the final pick is Trey Mullinax, who moved his game up a notch at the end of the last campaign.

Winning at the Barbasol gave the 6ft 4in Alabaman the self-belief he needed and his later efforts, fifth at St Jude and 12th in Boston, were a big improvement on his pre-Barbasol form.

Belgian stylist Thomas Detry starts his US career after qualifying for main-tour action and arrives on the back of a terrific effort at Wentworth when fifth, right on the tail of some of the world’s finest.

A repeat of that would put him in the mix but he seems to have an aversion to winning and has cost punters plenty.

A rain-free four days are forecast with only a gentle breeze and temperatures in the 24-26C range.


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