FARMERS INSURANCE OPEN
2.5pts each-way double Rory McIlroy @ 3/1 & Jon Rahm @ 4/1
1pt each-way Jason Day @ 20/1
1pt each-way Max Homa @ 20/1
1pt each-way Tony Finau @ 14/1
1pt each-way Will Zalatoris @ 18/1
0.5pt each-way Scott Stallings @ 125/1
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Hottest golfer on the planet Jon Rahm heads for a unique January treble in his favourite tournament at Torrey Pines this week after edging home in an American Express thriller on Sunday to move ever closer to regaining his world No. 1 spot.
And a day later, because the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego has a Wednesday start, reigning No. 1 Rory McIlroy, fresh from a golden year that had everything bar a Major, tees off his 2023 campaign in the Dubai Desert Classic where he won for first time in Europe as a tousle-haired 19-year-old back in 2009.
It’s a huge week for European golf with its two sharpest blades bidding to put two highly competitive sets of opponents to the sword and with the stars aligning so perfectly, there will never be a better opportunity to land a favourites’ double.
Understandably the bookies are taking cover but that doesn’t mean you should be scared of short odds in this unique instance and even if the 3/1 in the case of Rory and the 4/1 for Rahm hold little appeal as singles given the strength of the opposition, an each-way double paying 19/1 on the win alone looks a cast-iron bet-to-nothing with the place part of the wager more than covering the stake.
So before looking at bigger-priced alternatives – and remember that cramped market leaders mean getting over the odds on significant others – go for the blindingly obvious and risk someone having an unstoppable week with the putter, as 300/1 shot Davis Thompson almost did in the Californian desert last week, pushing Rahm all the way in a dramatic head-to-head.
But it would be wrong to knock the Spaniard for seeming to make heavy weather of it.
The combination of easy resort courses and the slow-slow-stop of endless fourball rounds with well-heeled but not always well-tutored amateurs (for three days anyway) has made this tournament a graveyard for favourites over the years.
You only have to look at the 500/1 and 250/1 champions we’ve had in recent years to realise what a great equalizer the AmEx is: the good, the very good and the brilliant are all much the same. Rahm’s victory and his 2019 success stick out like beacons among some low-wattage winners and should be up- rather than down-graded.
This week, on a proper golf course, the South at Torrey Pines, where Tiger Woods won the 2008 US Open on one-and-a-half legs immediately before going off to hospital for major surgery and where Rahm himself captured his only Major, the crowd-free, Covid-affected US Open of 2021, we should see the cream come to the top more readily.
With four wins from his last six starts, Rahm needs no further promotion from me other than to talk about his Torrey record. Unlike the US Open where all four rounds are played on the monster 7765-yard South, there is one round on the 507-yard-shorter North to give players the chance of a low one, at least until the cut comes on Thursday.
Rahm spectacularly made his PGA Tour breakthrough at Torrey in 2017 and his form there reads 1-25-5-2-7-1-3. Enough said.
Top-ten-rated quartet Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas, Rahm’s hapless Kapalua victim Collin Morikawa and Will Zalatoris are obvious threats along with course specialist Jason Day, Tony Finau and underrated Max Homa.
Aussie Day, a former world No. 1 haunted by a chronic back problem after those glory years when he won the 2015 US PGA and finished top-five in no fewer than ten Majors, now seems healthy again and it’s interesting that his lone solo top-ten last year came at the Farmers – a third to shock first-time winner Luke List, only a stroke out of the playoff.
That close call at a time when little was going right for Day embellished a course record equally as formidable as Rahm’s, featuring victories in 2013 and 2015, second place in 2014 and fifth in 2019. Combine recent encouraging efforts (8th Shriners, 11th CJ Cup, 16th Houston and Sunday’s AmEx 18th) and an each-way wager looks in order.
Schauffele finished with a 61 on the Stadium Course for a share of third at the AmEx but I’m wary of very low final rounds when a player is not in contention or under pressure.
As a San Diego native, this is a home match for him and fan support can be worth a shot or two but his Torrey record is nothing special, even his joint-second to Patrick Reed two years ago was a remote one, so at just 12/1 he’s reluctantly passed over.
Zalatoris, runner-up in two Majors last year and a breakthrough winner since, has a claim on last year’s near miss and after two tournaments getting the rust out of a game which lay dormant while he recuperated from back surgery in August he should be close to peak. Both outings so far have been promising.
Homa has already profited from Danny Willett triple-putting from 4ft with the Fortinet at his mercy in September and celebrated that successful title defence with a sparkling Presidents Cup debut next time out. Third to Rahm on his 2023 bow in the Tournament of Champions, he has grown in confidence and will assuredly carry on winning.
Tony Finau, joint Torrey runner-up in 2021 and twice sixth before that, is another well worth considering. The Houston Open winner in November has opened 2023 brightly with seventh at Kapalua and 16th at the AmEx. His putting looked sharp at the weekend and that area no longer looks an Achilles heel.
Best of the three-figure-odds brigade could be veteran Scott Stallings, the Torrey Pines winner in 2014 and runner-up the following year who has reinvented himself through diet and gym to stay in the game. It worked a treat with a series of fine performances, notably a second to the redoubtable Patrick Cantlay at the BMW In August.
The jury’s out on the much-touted new boy Taylor Montgomery who looked dodgy under pressure when in with a chance of overhauling Rahm on Sunday. That followed a weak last round when again in contention at Waialae the week before.
AmEx runner-up Thompson is a better long-term prospect. He wasn’t fazed in the final pairing with Rahm on Sunday and will have learned plenty about himself. Not this week, but put him in the notebook.
We’re promised a dry four days, turning cloudier and cooler at the finish. And get those bets on soon – remember the early start.
DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC
4pts win Rory McIlroy @ 3/1
2pts each-way Min Woo Lee @ 20/1
1pt each-way Robert MacIntyre @ 22/1
1pt each-way Padraig Harrington @ 60/1
1pt each-way Henrik Stenson @ 80/1
It’s all about Rory McIlroy on the DP World Tour this week – can he open his 2023 account by knocking off the Dubai Desert Classic for a third time?
The immaculate Emirates course has been a much-loved fixture since 1989 when it was the first course on the Arabian Peninsula to feature on the European rota. Now there are six – and two of them, this one and last week’s Abu Dhabi Championship – have been accorded Rolex Series status among the year’s big five carrying $9m purses.
Many of the world’s greats have won there, Rory and Tiger Woods twice, and the only thing the rest have over the short-priced favourite this week is that they are competition-ready, most having played in Abu Dhabi.
I don’t expect that to make the slightest difference. With Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm breathing down his neck for world No. 1 – Scheffler, needing ninth at the AmEx to regain top spot, was a shot short in joint-tenth – McIlroy is fully incentivised for a tournament for which he has a particularly soft spot as it was the one that gave him a European Tour breakthrough 14 years ago.
Teenager Rory got up and down from a greenside trap that long-ago Sunday to beat Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, all three subsequent Major champions. What a glorious career he’s has since. To recap just his 2022 achievements: dual-tour winner of the FedEx Cup and the Race To Dubai, 2-8-5-3 in the four Majors and a triple champion in the States. Just two gaps: no Major and no wins in Europe.
He can deal with that second omission straight away on the 7248-yard Emirates course he has adorned for so long, winning there in 2009 and 2015, and, on his two latest visits, second to Haotong Li in 2018 and third to Victor Hovland last year.
Who can stop him? Tyrrell Hatton, his nearest betting rival at 12/1, covered the final nine holes at Yas Links in just 29 blows for a share of seventh on Sunday but where was he the rest of the week? No excuses as he had a warm-up in the Hero Cup. True, he’s world class but does he win often enough to deserve such a short price?
Frenchman Victor Perez, a 40/1 selection here last week, survived a last-hole scare to keep Min Woo Lee at bay In an absorbing contest in Abu Dhabi notable for contrasting performances by two Irishmen who, like McIlroy, are past Open champions, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington.
Lowry led with 12 to play but subsided like a pricked balloon to finish 28th; Harrington, at 51, recalled his halcyon days on Sunday to leapfrog into fourth place, for a moment or two even looking a possible winner.
Beaten by just two shots in the end, the Dubliner has done all his recent winning on the Champions Tour where he is fast becoming the main attraction. Last year’s four victories included a senior Major, the US Open, and a seven-shot annihilation of all his peers in the season’s grand finale.
Surprisingly never a winner here – the closest he came was sharing second place with Tiger Woods behind Thomas Bjorn in 2001 – Pod has shown a renewed liking for the course the last two years, finishing sixth and ninth. He is clearly no back number, hits it longer as a senior than in the days when he lifted two Claret Jugs, and will be greatly encouraged by last week’s showing.
He rather than Lowry could be the main Irish threat to Rory and I also give a shout-out to another who might be regarded as a yesterday’s man, 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson, who made his home in Dubai for a number of years, got married there and knows every blade of grass at the Emirates.
The straight-driving Swede, 45 these days, won the 2007 Classic, was runner-up to Sergio Garcia in 2017 and a frequent top-ten performer until his game started to desert him.
Just when we thought he was history, up he pops to quit as Ryder Cup captain in favour of signing for the mega-rich, Saudi-backed LIV circus and surprise even himself by winning first time out under the rebel banner, defeating Dustin Johnson and Matt Wolff in the LIV Bedminster in New Jersey at the end of July, banking a further $4m to make the move even more lucrative.
Henrik’s game looked in fair enough shape in Abu Dhabi last week – he finished 20th, not beaten far – to suggest he might improve on a pretty feeble first effort by the LIV contingent in the UAE in which Richard Bland’s share of tenth place was the one bright spot.
Australia has two big chances with the exciting Min Woo Lee and Lucas Herbert, the Dubai champion of 2020 and subsequently a winner on the PGA Tour. But what’s he been doing since? Far more relevant is the hugely impressive global for of Lee, still only 23, whose talent is enormous.
He was only a roll away from getting into a playoff with Perez on Sunday and that continued a tip-top DP World Tour run that now reads 2-3-4-12-3-3 going back to the Spanish Open and including Valderrama, the Nedbank, the Tour Championship and the Aussie Open, all cracking tournaments. He surely rates as Rory’s biggest danger.
Bob MacIntyre and Francesco Molinari, two Ryder Cup contenders, also come into the picture. Molinari co-led going Into the final round in Abu Dhabi but that was the first time the little Italian had seriously contended since the 2019 Masters and the absence from the front line showed when he pushed the button and nothing happened.
Still, a share of fifth place was a step in the right direction coming after an unbeaten three days at the Hero Cup and, now that he’s got the taste back, even better things can be expected.
MacIntyre oozes confidence and aggression. He will be disappointed to have finished only 20th on Sunday but the Emirates, where he placed third to Paul Casey two years ago, probably suits him better. He’ll feel at home as there is rain in the forecast.
LIV signing Abraham Ancer has place chances but Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood are overlooked after underwhelming efforts while Patrick Reed is in the doghouse after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi when carrying my headline hopes.
But really it’s all in McIlroy’s hands and as I see the 3/1 as superior value to the 4/1 for Rahm in California, he’s worth a single as well as being part of our each-way double.
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