Tyrrell Hatton @ 18/1
Patrick Reed @ 25/1
Cameron Smith @ 40/1
Daniel Berger @ 25/1
Jon Rahm @ 9/1
1pt each-way on each
Everybody who’s anybody, bar in-form Paul Casey and the sadly injured Tiger Woods, is on parade at the first $10.5m WGC bonanza of 2021, the Workday Championship at The Concession at Bradenton in south-west Florida.
It’s a new name at a new venue with a no-cut, limited field of 72 and replaces the Mexico Championship won by Patrick Reed last February before the dreaded word Covid became a daily part of life. But for the pandemic the players would be in Mexico City this week and the tournament is due to return there in 2022.
The switch to the Sunshine State was announced last month, so it’s an earlier-than-usual start to the four-week Florida Swing which heads off to Bay Hill next, followed by the Honda at Palm Beach Gardens and the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
The story behind The Concession is one of the most heart-warming in golf and dates back to the 1969 Ryder Cup when Jack Nicklaus conceded a 30-inch putt on the final green of the final singles at Royal Birkdale to halve his match with Britain’s No. 1 Tony Jacklin, who had just become the first home winner of The Open for 18 years.
After Nicklaus holed his five-footer for par, he picked up Jacklin’s marker, saying “I don’t believe you would have missed it but I’d never give you the opportunity.” The gesture was even more gracious because Jacklin having won their morning singles, this was Jack giving up his chance of revenge.
Expanding on the subject later, Nicklaus went on: “I knew that Tony was the first golfing hero Britain had had in a long time and if he’d missed the putt, the British press would have barbecued him. I didn’t want to put him in that position. He was a good friend.”
That supreme piece of sportsmanship meant the contest finished in a 16-16 dead-heat, with the USA, as defending champions, retaining the Cup. Even so, the tie was greatly prized here, coming after a series of embarrassingly lop-sided results, the previous three encounters having ended 23-9, 19.5-12.5 and 23.5-8.5 in America’s favour.
One who was definitely not thrilled by Jack’s concession was the USA’s non-playing captain, the ultra-competitive Sam Snead, who wanted to go home as a winner. He had a few choice words for the Golden Bear but Nicklaus always saw the bigger picture.
Those were the days when it was USA v GB & Ireland, before the biennial contest was opened up to the continental Europeans and Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and company started giving the Americans a taste of their own medicine.
It was Nicklaus’s suggestion to bring in the Europeans and after the Americans resumed their superiority with comfortable victories in the next four Ryder Cups, a new era dawned in 1979 with the title changed to Europe v USA. Six years later Europe finally got its hands on the trophy with many heart-in-mouth encounters to follow.
Fast forward to 2006 and the unveiling of The Concession, co-designed by old buddies Nicklaus and Jacklin to commemorate that magic moment in sport.
It was Jacklin, by now a long-time local resident, who went to Nicklaus with the idea and Jack loved it. As Nicklaus’s company had 400 courses under its belt and Jacklin only seven, Jack became principal architect with Tony lobbing in thoughts of his own, particularly on the linksy aspects. We look forward to seeing the results of their labours.
At 7470 yards par 72 it is definitely no pushover. As with most Nicklaus courses, the fairways are fairly generous with the premium on iron shots into the green. The short holes are based on Nicklaus’s favourites around the world.
Nicklaus courses always give shorter hitters a fair shout. Three of the par fives are reachable in two by everybody. There’s plenty of water, fairway bunkers are deep, Bermuda greens are small, fiercely undulating and speedy.
The Concession has a rating of 77.6 from the back tees which is a frightening thought but the good news is that the weather, sunny with temperatures between 26-29C, will be on its best behaviour.
As an amateur Bryson DeChambeau won the 2015 NCAA Championship there but few have ever played it so the suggestion is to keep your powder dry until we see who takes a shine to the place. It will be a magical mystery tour for somebody but who that somebody will be is anyone’s guess.
Dustin Johnson is automatic favourite and although he didn’t quite achieve God-like status at Riviera last week at least he performed a good deal better in eighth than other headliners Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, DeChambeau and Bubba Watson missing the cut, the first two by miles.
Riviera winner Max Homa got a favourable mention in this column last week. but I couldn’t see him actually beating such an all-star line-up. The main betting exchange had him at a three-figure price I couldn’t resist. I often chuck a few quid away on a batch of overpriced outsiders and usually it is money down the drain.
This time, despite Homa missing from 40 inches at the last and smashing his drive at the first extra hole into the foot of a tree, I got lucky. When you’re in a play-off with a serial loser like Tony Finau, it’s never over till it’s over. But fair play to the loser, he did shoot a 64 to get that close.
With no great confidence this week, I’m putting up a trio who rested last week but are in cracking form, Tyrrell Hatton, Patrick Reed and Pebble Beach winner Daniel Berger.
Hatton has barged his way into fifth spot on the world rankings with four victories in the last 22 months and has already opened his Florida account with that Bay Hill triumph last March.
Reed romped in by five when outside the top 60 for greens-in-regulation at Torrey Pines and is a double winner of this WGC event, in Mexico last year but more significantly in Florida in 2014. His short-game wizardry will be needed again.
Im looked jaded and in need of a break when last seen and this super-consistent golfaholic who finished last year with a share of second at Augusta and began this campaign with fifth at Kapalua should revert to being a contender again.
Jon Rahm’s fifth place on Sunday was a fair effort but at 9-1 he hasn’t been missed in the market. The consistent Spaniard has had the advantage of playing the course in advance and playing it well – he shot 65.
He will be hard to keep out of the frame but in terms of value the Australian who finished a place ahead of him, Cameron Smith, the man who shared second spot with Im at the Masters, is even more appealing.
Matt Wallace 2pts each-way @ 16/1
Tom Lewis 1pt each-way @ 30/1
Scott Brown 1pt each-way @ 80/1
Emiliano Grillo 1pt each-way @ 16/1
Justin Suh 0.5pt each-way @ 40/1
Padraig Harrington 0.5pt each-way @ 66/1
The non-televised Puerto Rico Open is the $3m consolation prize for those who aren’t qualified for big WGC showpiece in Florida and it’s such a low-key affair that the highest-ranked player in Rio Grande is Matt Wallace, the world No. 55.
In fact, three of the front four in the betting are Europeans – Belgian bomber Thomas Pieters and English duo Wallace and Ian Poulter. Tom Lewis and Padraig Harrington are other Euros who could figure on the 7506-yard par 72 Grand Reserve Country Club course that has had names like Trump International and Coco Beach in the past.
Last year’s winner Viktor Hovland has gone on to better things and the Norwegian looks a shoo-in for a Ryder Cup debut in September. But 2019 champion Martin Trainer has done so little since that he’s at massive odds this week.
Ambitious Wallace could be Britain’s best chance. Third and 12th in two American Majors in 2019, fourth at Memorial last year and 2nd and seventh in two Gulf tournaments in December and January, this Ryder Cup aspirant needs a W on his record as the last of his four victories came in 2018.
Lewis, so inconsistent but brilliant at his best, showed decent form when 14th at Pebble Beach a couple of weeks back. A three-time winner in Europe, he showed he is world class by finishing runner-up in the WGC event at St Jude last year.
Poulter has course form, third to Tony Finau in 2016, the first and only time Finau has won, while Pieters has all the ability in the world but is devilish hard to win with these days.
Ryder Cup captain Harrington has a lot on his mind but has belied his age in finishing sixth in Dubai and ninth and 14th in two Scottish tournaments in his five most recent European outings. At 50 this year he’s not the oldest in a field containing a lot of dead wood and he’ll be better than most at handling a predicted wet and windy weekend.
Looking for a player to out-perform his price, 37-year-old American plodder Scott Brown is better in Puerto Rico than anywhere else. Fifth on debut in 2012, he won the following year and has posted four top-tens since. His one bad performance came last year. He has been struggling but 30th at Pebble Beach last time out was fair enough.
Young Justin Suh was bracketed with Hovland, Morikawa and Wolff when that quartet turned pro but although he has performed well on the Latin-American circuit he has yet to justify the hype. This could be his big chance to break through.
Emiliano Grillo, beaten here in a five-man play-off in 2015 and third last year, must surely go close again while victory for Benny An, Will Gordon, Branden Grace or Andrew Putman would come as no great surprise in a very open contest.
Taking the second TV spot on Sky this week is the first full-field women’s tournament of 2021, the LPGA Gainbridge at Lake Nona, Florida. It has great curiosity value as the greatest female golfer of my lifetime, Annika Sorenstam, is taking part.
It’s the Swede’s first LPGA start since she quit the game in 2008 to start a family, having won ten Majors and 72 tournaments while also playing with great credit in a one-off appearance at Colonial on the men’s circuit.
She’s a 400-1 shot on her home course in what she says is part of her preparation for her US Senior Open debut at the end of July – she turned 50 last year – and while she is an unlikely winner, it would be interesting to see what price she is to make the cut as she is a very competitive lady who won’t be coming just to make up the numbers.
At the business end, the finish is most likely to concern world No. 1 Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda, America’s highest-ranked player. They are 6-1 and 11-1 respectively.