Could Irish eyes be smiling in Florida?


Best bets

1.5pts each-way Shane Lowry @ 14/1
1.5pts each-way Padraig Harrington @ 66/1
1pt each-way Chris Kirk @ 20/1
1pt each-way Adam Svensson @ 33/1
1pt each-way Danny Willett @ 60/1

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After the monumental showdown between new world No. 1 Jon Rahm and Max Homa at plush Riviera, it’s back to bread-and-butter golf this week with run-of-the-mill fields for the Honda Classic and Indian Open.

Rahm was relentless in peeling off his third victory since the turn of the year and fifth from his last nine starts but it was the way he did it, coming back with crucial birdies after being headed by the persistent Homa that marked the big Spaniard as a true champion, now just a 7/1 chance with Fitzdares to win his first Masters in April.

Yet the pleasure of backing a winning favourite like Rahmbo doesn’t necessarily match the joy of finding a 20/1 gem like Thorbjorn Olesen, an almost effortless four-shot winner of the Thailand Classic, modest though it was when set alongside the elite line-up battling for the massively enhanced $3.6m top prize at the Genesis Invitational.

Naturally enough, Tiger Woods’ comeback – his first proper tournament since the Open last July – took most of the headlines and those who took the 2/1 about him making the cut just about collected but it was oh-so-tight. His 67 on Saturday showed there’s still plenty of good golf in him but he looked weary and much older on Sunday. To sum up: 45th place was a remarkable effort but further sightings of the intrepid Tiger are likely to be rare. His next outing is much more likely to be the Masters than Bay Hill.

Rory McIlroy looked pretty clueless on poa annua greens in finishing just inside the top 30, his second flop in a row, but will surely be a different proposition back in Florida. He gives Honda a miss this week but returns to the fray at Bay Hill next week.

The big names have given this one the big swerve and you have to go down to 18th to find the highest-ranked player in the field teeing up at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens.

The Fazio-designed Champion course, at 7125 yards par 70, has been home to the Honda since 2007 and is the best thing about the tournament, a cracker of a track that hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship four years later.

Birdies have to be earned – the winning score has frequently been single figures under par, most notably only six under when this week’s favourite Sungjae Im won in 2020 – and the notorious Bear Trap, holes 15 to 17, a tough par four sandwiched between two water-strewn par threes in Jack Nicklaus’s redesign has destroyed many a good card.

After his fourth at Torrey Pines and sixth in Phoenix, Im is clearly the man to beat but doesn’t win as often as he should and is worth taking on.

Nearest to him in the rankings is Shane Lowry who finished runner-up to Austrian Sepp Straka in an all-European finish last year. The bearded Irishman, so consistent in the States last year but overdue another win there, put a missed cut in Dubai behind him when finishing 14th at Riviera and could go one better this year in what looks a great opportunity for European raiders.

Straka, who did his Ryder Cup chances no good by missing both cuts in two outings in the Gulf, has it all to do to defend his title while Alex Noren has missed two cuts since finishing fifth in Abu Dhabi and has never won in the States but at bigger prices Padraig Harrington and Danny Willett are of definite interest.

At 51, it’s easy to write Harrington off as past it but he’s been playing like a man possessed on the Champions circuit – his four wins last year included a Major – and his main-tour appearances this year have impressed too.

He was one spot ahead of Noren when fourth to Victor Perez in Abu Dhabi, played nicely again in Ras Al Khaimah and warmed up for this by chasing home the redoubtable Bernhard Langer on the over-50s circuit last week.

Just as relevant is the fact that his last PGA Tour victory came at PGA National eight years ago and, boy, wouldn’t the old fella love to sock it to kids half his age again.

Willett should have won the Fortinet at the start of this wrap-around season but gifted it to Homa in a tragi-comic three-putt-from four-feet scenario but got back on the horse at Riviera when 16th to Rahm. The 2016 Masters champion is a bit of a forgotten man these days but he has the tools to win again and enter the Ryder Cup reckoning.

Chris Kirk, seventh here last year, and in grand form this campaign with third places at Waialae and in the American Express, looks the most reliable of the Americans, while Australian youngster Min Woo Lee has posted numerous good showings in the last three months but has he the patience for this low-birdie test?

There’s been money for locally-based Canadian Adam Svensson which is understandable. Winner of the RSM Classic at Sea Island in the autumn, he is revisiting a course he loves as he won the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying school on the Champion course back in 2015. Punters saw he was an eyecatching ninth at Riviera on Sunday and put two and two together. He is far from consistent but well worth an interest.

Whoever you back, the sun will shine and $8.4m will be shared out on Sunday afternoon. Nice work if you can get it.


Best bets

2pts each-way Jeunghun Wang @ 18/1
1pt each-way Shubhankar Sharma @ 25/1
1pt each-way Alexander Knappe @ 60/1
1pt each-way Kazuki Higa @ 25/1
2pts win Thorbjorn Olesen @ 10/1

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Danish duo Thorbjorn Olesen and Nicolai Hojgaard dominate the betting for the Indian Open, revived after a four-year break as a DP World Tour event at its old haunt, the DLF Golf & Country Club in New Delhi, and it would be churlish not to put Olesen up again after his 20/1 good turn in Thailand.

He made the game look easy as he sauntered to a wide-margin seventh victory of his career and it’s not as if that triumph came out of the blue as he had finished fourth in stronger company in the UAE on his previous outing. Improving each week, he’s gone 20-16-4-1 this campaign and, unless he wins back-to-back, the only way to go now is down.

With a potential Ryder Cup comeback on the line, the man who walloped the mighty Jordan Spieth 5 & 4 in the 2018 match has plenty of incentive to carry on winning as, of course, does his young compatriot, the powerful but not always straight-hitting Hojgaard.

Evidence from the three previous Indian Opens at DLF, a 7380-yard par 72 Gary Player layout, is that you need to keep it on the cut-and-prepared on a demanding course that yields birdies grudgingly. Not only that, the finish is particularly stiff with two par fives over 620 yards long and a par three of 256 yards. No wonder the average winning score those three years is only ten under par. As Olesen’s driving was well nigh flawless and long at Amata Spring, he looks a good fit.

If you’re looking for bigger prices, local hero Shubhankar Sharma – the Indian No. 1 was seventh to Matt Wallace in the 2018 edition and has recently rediscovered his game with a close third at the Nedbank in November and seventh in Abu Dhabi first time out in 2023 – could well be your man. Two downbeat performances since Abu Dhabi temper enthusiasm but that was in superior company and massive home support will lift his game.

Japanese aces Kazuki Higa, 11th in Thailand and a four-time winner in his homeland last year, and Masahiro Kawamura, runner-up at DLF in 2019, command respect but I like South Korea’s Jeunghun Wang even more.

Back in 2016 as a 20-year-old, Wang was Indian Open runner-up when the tournament venue was the other main club in Delhi and then he went on to win back to back in Morocco and Mauritius.

Wang’s career had to go on hold for 20 months while he served statutory national service but he has quickly got back into the swing in Singapore (3rd) and Thailand (8th). While the tour stays in that corner of the globe, he should be followed.

There’s a strong German presence. Yannik Paul followed up his October breakthrough win in Majorca with a 20-under second to Olesen in Thailand and Alexander Knappe fired a tasty 29 for the back nine on Sunday to leap into a share of third place.

Knappe, 34 next month, is a late bloomer who looks overpriced at 60/1. Twice a winner on the Challenge Tour last year, he is inconsistent but could be worth an each-way dabble.

Jayden Schaper and Joost Luiten are other place possibles but third favourite Bob MacIntyre has hit a bad patch (57-MC-38-20 for this year but this is easier) and needs to snap out of it fast if he is to maintain his push for a Ryder Cup debut.

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