LIV GOLF PORTLAND
2pts each-way Charl Schwartzel @ 25/1
1pt each-way Yuki Inamori @ 100/1
1ot each-way Sam Horsfield @ 25/1
1pt each-way Matt Wolff @ 33/1
Where have all the stars gone? Admittedly we’re between two majors but there are three tournaments on the go if you count the $25m 54-hole curiosity taking place at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, having none of the top 16 in action here or in the US is little short of ridiculous.
Consider what relative mediocrity you have to watch this week on TV, whether it be Sky or the hard-to-bear LIV.com channel where one commentator at St Albans in the first leg of the series told me seriously that “this putt is crucial to the team event” when they were 14 ahead with three or four to play.
The highest-ranked golfer in the Irish Open is Shane Lowry at 24, at the John Deere Classic in Illinois it’s Webb Simpson at 56 and, in the first American outing for the 48 embarrassingly overpaid LIV competitors in Portland, it’s fading Dustin Johnson at 17 followed by fading Brooks Koepka at 19 and fading Louis Oosthuizen at 21.
So, whatever you think of the politics of the new Saudi-backed, Greg Norman-fronted LIV circuit – would the PGA and DP World Tours have made such a fuss if the funding had come not from the barbarous Saudi regime but, say, the Bank of England (fat chance!)? – I’ll look at that first as it has the ‘name’ players and the highest-ranked.
First to hit me is what a bad deal they have got for their billion-dollar magnanimity. Not one of the big names is playing big-name golf, all have arguably regressed, and the younger “stars” are not even household names in their own front gardens.
Names like Itthipat Buranatanayarat and Jinichiro Kozuma are hardly major players on their own tours, Chase Koepka only getting set up for life because his brother was world No. 1, the only European to have won this year is Sam Horsfield.
And Bryson DeChambeau, unrecognizable as the superstar slugger who won the US Open in 2020 and struggling to post a sub-par round since returning from injury, looks a busted flush even though his eccentricity will assuredly put bums on seats.
I could go down the list and find holes in almost everybody which is why there could be an even more surprising winner than South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel who ended a drought going back six years to help himself not only to the $4m first individual prize but $750,000 on top as a member of the winning team, all South Africans and called The Stingers, in the opening ‘London’ edition of this eight-tournament ‘Invitational’’.
Don’t know about you but the team element doesn’t work for me and team names like Stingers, Crushers and Majesticks (presumably we’ll have different ones in Portland) lack style.
New signings Koepka (Brooks, not Chase), Patrick Reed, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz, Matt Wolff and Pat Perez come to the party this week, none with much to recommend them on current form, although Mexican No. 1 Ancer did win a WGC event last year.
In a line-up of 48, half of whom have no chance, it would be reckless to rule any of them out and it would be fun if Koepka was ordered to team up with DeChambeau, with whom he is having a long-running spat.
The best recent form is held by Schwartzel and St Albans runner-up Hennie DuPlessis, Horsfield, recent Soudal Open winner in Belgium, fifth at St Albans and one of the few with youth on his side, and the hot Japanese player Yuki Inamori who looks a value bet at 100/1.
The world No. 73, a dual past winner of the Japan Open, has hit form on his home tour with a vengeance, winning the Crowns last month and following up last weekend at their Players’ Championship, though what the value of the form is we shall have to wait and see.
Horsfield and Lee Westwood rate Europe’s best bets and there’s no reason to neglect Schwartzel and as that was the 2011 Masters champion’s first W since March 2016 it is bound to have done his confidence (as well as his bank balance) no end of good. We got a hint he was coming back with tenth (after six straight missed cuts) at the Masters, followed by eighth at the Byron Nelson.
I’ll take a chance on young American Wolff who won on only his fourth start back in 2019, had too much too soon, went off the boil, suffered mental problems, took a long break to sort himself out and came back to finish runner-up at the Shriners last autumn. Very patchy this year but two 66s at the Travelers sent him to his new career hoping for better things and the short, explosive format looks likely to suit this explosive birdie-shooter.
The course will be set up for birdies because they want a new type of crowd to have fun and Pumpkin Ridge, despite opening with a forbidding-sounding 630-yarder shortly followed by the 623-yard fifth, can provide it. There are only three par fives.
Nothing wrong with the LIV camera work but the best tip of the week is to switch off the incredibly biased commentary first.
With all the on-site razzamatazz, bands and parties surrounding it, LIV is just one more sideshow at the funfair. Everybody wins, there’s no cut, you get Sunday off and even the last man goes home with $120,000. Nice work if you can get it!
THE IRISH OPEN
2pts each-way Seamus Power @ 14/1
1pt each-way Padraig Harrington @ 66/1
1pt each-way Shane Lowry @ 17/2
0.5pt each-way Sami Valimaki @ 125/1
0.5pt each-way Guido Migliozzi @ 66/1
0.5pt each-way Arron Rai @ 28/1
Haven’t we have had enough of TV commentators apologising to viewers when golfers use the F-word on the course when they hit a f*****g awful shot or when a microphone is shoved in their faces seconds after they have sunk the winning putt at a time when they’re so overcome with emotion they don’t know what they’re saying?
What’s there to apologise for? It’s raw, real LIFE, it’s what we want, it’s why the interviewer does the job, to get a spark, a feeling. It’s sport at its best, warts and all. Shane Lowry is the most audible effer and blinder, Tiger Woods the most blatant spitter (but probably only because he was the one most often on camera, there are plenty of others) but in this day and age when pretty well every TV drama and chat show is littered with the F-word and other foul language, it’s par for the course.
If viewers takes offence, hard cheese – there are plenty of other channels. And if a teenager is watching in, he/she probably knows the words already from the school playground. Just like ‘bloody’ and ‘damn’ were the shush words when I was growing up, the F-word is the common currency of today whether we like it or not. Move on.
It was the highly-strung Chinese No. 1 Haotong Li who sparked this outburst with an explosion of heartfelt expletives to explain the abyss he had been fallen into for much of the four and a half years of purgatory the Chinese No. 1 had endured from “this f******g golf” since bursting in the scene as an exciting talent, so deep that he told his caddie last year he was on the point of quitting the game.
With a European Tour breakthrough as a 20-year-old in 2016 followed by victory over Rory McIlroy in Dubai in 2017 and a last-round 63 for third place in the 2018 Open Championship won by Jordan Spieth, he was hot property.
Then 2019 nothing and horror stories in 2020 and 2021. Was his expletive-riddled outburst so surprising and wasn’t it preferable to In Gee Chun’s robotic victory interview on the LPGA Tour where she named all her sponsors individually, her back room team and most of her relatives? It’s showbusiness FFS!
Li was on the early entry list for this week’s Irish Open at Mount Juliet, where the prize money has doubled to $6m, but has withdrawn, presumably to calm down and count his blessings, but there are still plenty of good stories pending, not least the possibility of an Irish 1-2 on home ground if Fitzdares’ betting translates as Shane Lowry and Seamus Power, both over from the States (but sadly not Rory), head the market.
And maybe even an Irish 1-2-3 if Padraig Harrington has the energy after his thrilling first victory since joining the over-50s, in the US Senior Open no less, over his arch-rival Steve Stricker and gaining a measure of revenge for the hammering captain Stricker’s team inflicted over the Pod squad at Whistling Straits.
The Dubliner will be trying to regain the title he won at Adare Manor back in 2007 when he was the first home champion since John O’Leary a quarter of a century earlier and has a far better chance than odds of 66/1 (was 80) suggest in a field lacking depth.
Don’t fret about the dual Open champion being exhausted after his efforts at Saucon Valley. Winning often counteracts fatigue and he looks super-fit.
With added power from his new speed-swing exercises, similar to those Matt Fitzpatrick utilised to get the extra 20 yards so crucial to his major breakthrough, Harrington looked different gear to all bar Stricker in California – and don’t forget it was only last year that he shared fourth place with Lowry in a “real” major, the PGA Championship.
If he can conquer a tough track like Saucon Valley, 7264-yard par 71 Mount Juliet in Co. Kilkenny where Australia’s Lucas Herbert putted like a demon to rack up a 19-under winning score last year, should hold no terrors for him.
Mention of Fitzpatrick leads the conversation to his kid brother Alex’s appearance among the entries. The 23-year-old college star was one of six top amateurs approached by the LIV crowd to join their circus but big brother was watching and talked him out of it.
Alex caddied for Matt when he won the 2013 US Amateur and has similar short-game skills. He missed the cut at the Valspar when given his first chance against the big boys but 71-72 was no disgrace and it won’t have escaped his notice that Lowry won the Irish Open in 2009 while still an amateur. Alex is a pro now but the scenario is much the same.
Herbert went on from winning this to break through on the PGA Tour in October, not a great tournament in Bermuda and he’s been patchy since. 2022 highlights have been seventh at Bay Hill and 13th at the PGA. A Mount Juliet repeat isn’t out of the question but he did miss the cut by a long way last time out at the US Open.
Class act Lowry has been super-consistent in the US but often lets himself down on Sundays. It is dangerous to rule out a man whose first tour win came in this tournament and his one most important one too, the 2019 Open at wild Royal Portrush but that was big Shane’s last victory and punters have to ask themselves whether it’s good business to take single-figure odds about a golfer who wins so infrequently.
Because the big names withdrew from Ireland’s squad for the 2016 Olympics because of the Zika virus threat, Power, then barely known outside Korn Ferry Tour circles, represented Ireland by default in Rio and surprised many by finishing a decent 15th.
That was no flash in the pan as this 35-year-old from Waterford won the Barbasol last year, admittedly against second-grade opposition, but has been contending prominently and confidently against the world’s best ever since.
His ninth at the PGA and 12th at the US Open were major hints to Ryder Cup captain Henrik Stenson that Power is a big-occasion player he will want in his squad for Rome next year.
The Las Vegas resident has joined the DP World Tour in order to qualify and hasn’t come just to make up the numbers in the Irish and Scottish Opens and the Open itself.
He needs to make a statement and this is his best chance. A birdie machine when on song, this laid-back character is well worth an each-way interest against expensive-to-follow rivals like Tyrrell Hatton, Robert MacIntyre, Jordan Smith and Rasmus Hojgaard.
Thomas Pieters may need time to get over the shock of Li’s birdie winner in Munich just as the Belgian ace was thinking he had his own ten-footer for victory but is obviously in form and is priced accordingly.
He has to come into the conversation but Munich was a good one too for Finn Sami Valimaki, Rookie of the Year a couple of years back after winning in Oman on his sixth pro start. He lost his way last year and in earlier 2022 outings, so his fourth in Germany came as a surprise. If that was no one-off, 125/1 looks tasty.
Other outsiders to note: Guido Migliozzi who followed tenth in the Dutch with 14th at the US Open and Antoine Rozner, looking more like the man who won two good tournaments in past years when 15th in Germany at the weekend.
Pablo Larrazabal, already a dual winner this campaign, turned in another good shift when right behind Valimaki on Sunday and Arron Rai, a double winner in Europe before going off to make his mark in the States, played nicely for three days at River Highlands. He deserved better than the 40th place he slipped to on Sunday and can make a bigger mark here.
Finally a word for Min Woo Lee. It’s his time of year judging from his Scottish Open takeaway last summer. The young Australian, whose sister Minjee is No. 2 on the women’s rankings having win the US Open this month and shared second place in their PGA Championship on Sunday, has superb skills of his own.
Apart from decent performances in the Masters and US Open, he’s been having a wretched time of it in the States but maybe Big Sis’s success will rub off on him.
THE JOHN DEERE CLASSIC
2pts each-way Adam Hadwin @ 16/1
1pt each-way Nick Hardy @ 28/1
1pt each-way Hayden Buckley @ 100/1
1pt each-way Steve Stricker @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Denny McCarthy @ 25/1
0.5pt each-way Scott Stallings @ 33/1
It is ironic in the week when the PGA Tour meets the new Saudi-backed LIV threat head-on in its own backyard that the John Deere Classic provides such feeble opposition with a star-less field headed by world No. 56 Webb Simpson in a tournament few British fans would cross the road to watch even with free admission.
The LIV artillery may be creaking with has-beens and Asian players we’ve never heard of but taking them on with peashooters is unlikely to be an effective answer unless a newsworthy winner emerges from this sea of mediocrity.
One headline-maker would be Steve Stricker, three-time JDC winner and hero of American golf when he led the USA to Ryder Cup glory last year, if this brave golden oldie were to win at 55 after being not far from death with a rare blood-cell illness that put him out of the game from October till April and took 25lb away from his already-spare frame.
Given the weakness of this year’s field and the strength of his comeback in the last three months, winning one senior major by six shots and scaring the daylights out of runaway leader Padraig Harrington last week in another, the US Open, with a fabulous last-round 65, it is not quite as far-fetched as it sounds.
What a fairytale it would be, topping even Phil Mickelson’s extraordinary feat in capturing last year’s PGA Championship at 50. And TPC Deere Run, a birdie paradise 7289-yard par 71 in the Quad Cities community of Silvis, Illinois, that’s almost a home game for the former world No. 2 from Wisconsin, is the one place he might just do it.
Cast your mind back a decade (when well into his forties) and in winning three JDCs in a row from 2010 to 2012, shooting a cumulative and scarcely believable 68 under par In the process, Stricker’s short-game mastery was at its formidable peak. Although not obviously as good now, he proved with fourth place at Phoenix last year he can still be competitive at main tour level.
He is by no means the worst 50/1 shot you will ever back but for the winner I have to side with the Canadian Adam Hadwin, a superb putter like Stricker and seventh last time out at the US Open after leading at the end of round one.
From the wonderfully named Saskatchewan town of Moose Jaw, Hadwin has surprisingly, because it looks perfect for his game, not had the JDC on his playlist for a while but in his early days on tour he showed a liking for the place by finishing 18th on debut in 2015 and eighth the following year.
He is a far more confident performer these days, twice a Presidents Cup player (halved with Bryson DeChambeau last time), and is having a great season with fourth in Texas, seventh at Valspar and ninth at the Players Championship before that great run in the most recent major.
Simpson, although playing decently enough, looks a fading force worth taking on at 12/1 and bigger dangers could come from the younger generation in a tournament where five of the last ten winners have been first-timers.
In that category, one recommendation is Hayden Buckley, who looks value at 100/1 on his prominent 14th place showing at the US Open (looked like being a lot higher for a while on the final day). His 12th at Waialae, a similar test to Deere Run, in January and top-tens at the end of last year at Sanderson Farms and Las Vegas also highlighted Buckley’s potential.
Also chasing that first victory and with every chance of getting in the mix are Denny McCarthy, a birdie machine likely to show up early and a first-rate putter who was on a roll until an unexpected missed cut last week, and local prospect Nick Hardy who shared 14th with Buckley at Brookline and followed that last week with eighth at the Travelers.
Hardy began his rookie season nervously with six missed cuts out of eight but now has the self-belief to make a name for himself in this modest company.
The experienced Scott Stallings, once suspended for three months for taking a banned performance-enhancing drug, completes the staking plan. I backed this three-time winner for a top-20 finish last week and he came sailing through the field with a closing 63 for eighth place.
That followed an even better effort, fourth at Colonial. If he wins here I may even send him a present with the Christmas card and he certainly won’t see anyone to frighten him. Scott is now reaping the benefit of losing 50lb on a diet after ballooning up to 17st.
Exciting, entertaining Sahith Theegala will surely need time to get over the agony of the double-bogey disaster at the last at River Highlands on Sunday which gifted the Travelers to lucky Xander Schauffele but this young talent is definitely one for the notebook even if this one comes too soon.
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