Golf,

Who’s the handicap snip in golf’s Grand National

THE TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP


Best bets

FEDEX CUP WINNER
2pts each-way Tony Finau @ 7/1
1pt each-way Justin Thomas @ 16/1

LOW 72-HOLE SCORE
2pts each-way Xander Schauffele @ 12/1
1pt each-way Rory McIlroy @ 12/1
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Welcome to golf’s Grand National! The third running of the Tour Championship as a handicap will confuse punters even more than Aintree’s annual puzzle but someone out of the 30 qualifiers for this FedEx Cup finale is weighted to win it. The question is: Who?

The big difference between the PGA’s grand 2020-21 finale and the world’s most famous horse race is that the aim of the Aintree handicapper, in allotting each beast its impost, is attempting to frame Mission Impossible – a 40-runner dead-heat.

Of course, that won’t ever happen but it is a laudable idea and has always been so, asking the most gifted nags to concede differing amounts of weight to weaker ones.

In contrast, since the current format took off in 2019 the PGA Tour has framed its $15m-to-the-winner competition so that those who have played the year’s best golf are ‘rewarded’ with more ‘starting strokes’ than those most in need of them.

It’s barmy but they say it’s the only way of guaranteeing the Tour Championship winner and the FedEx Cup winner, the year-round Order of Merit, are one and the same.

It’s the end-of-term party with everybody from first to 150th getting a bite of the $60m bonus cherry, from the champion’s $15m and the runner-up’s $5m to the $395,000 for the 30th East Lake qualifier, to the 70 grand that the last 25 on the long list of 150 pick up. Bring your wheelbarrow, chaps!

By now you will have realised that this week is sadly more about money than golf but do let me mark your card about how this daft handicap system is reckoned to work

By surviving the totally absorbing six-hole play-off with the redoubtable Bryson DeChambeau who drove it 40 yards past him, Patrick Cantlay picked up BMW’s $1.17m top prize and the precious ten-shot start as reigning FedEx leader. Why, we even caught him smiling, almost as rare an event as the sighting of a dodo.

The epic head-to-head between Mad Scientist DeChambeau and Cantlay’s Silent Assassin that kept us on the edge of our seats on Sunday night is going to be a hard act to follow.

Cantlay’s BMW victory in Maryland puts him in pole position for that $15m jackpot. More than that, it gives the 29-year-old Californian a big start at East Lake that varies from two to ten shots in the bizarre format the PGA Tour came up with in 2019.

The 30 runners get a “handicap” based on their year’s work, ten for the current leader of the pack, eight for the second, seven for the third and so on, down to zero for those who scrambled into 25th to 30th positions.

They include Erik Van Rooyen and Sergio Garcia who finished fifth and sixth on Sunday to nudge others out of the chance of a huge payday. So be sure you know exactly what you’re betting on when you put your money down. Most bookies will have two sets of prices, outright FedEx Cup winner and low 72-hole score without handicap.

Last year Dustin Johnson won the main event whereas Xander Schauffele shot the lowest score, 265. The Olympic gold medalist had started seven behind DJ who was in the same place as Cantlay is now, the man to be shot at.

DJ’s 269 total was sufficient to get him home by three, with Schauffele sharing second spot with Justin Thomas who went into the week with +7 as third man on the FedEx ladder. Cantlay didn’t play in 2020 but flopped the previous year despite receiving eight ‘starting strokes’, as they are called in the States. He shot 289, 22 more than Rory McIlroy, who won both events, and plummeted from second to 21st.

Rory, starting with +5, was so brilliant that he overhauled the quartet he had to concede an advantage to, Thomas, Cantlay, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed. This year his task is much tougher – as 16th on the list (only that high because of last week’s much-improved fourth at Caves Valley), he receives only +2, so has to give Cantlay 8, Tony Finau 6, DeChambeau 5 and Jon Rahm 4.

The same goes for 2017 winner Schauffele despite his 5-star 15-under performance last time. He is on the same +2 mark as McIlroy and last year’s winner Johnson, who gets only +3 this time. McIlroy and DJ looked more like their old selves in Maryland, Johnson hoisting himself up into a share of sixth with a 65-66 weekend.

Nobody will be shooting 26 under at East Lake as Cantlay and DeChambeau did at Caves Valley. The average winning score there in the previous five pre-handicap renewals was 11 under. It is a searching par 70 test measuring 7346 yards and one that Cantlay (21st, 21st, 20th) and DeChambeau (22-12-20) have yet to suss out in three visits.

Cantlay can surely never putt as well again and DeChambeau won’t find the fairways in Georgia as accommodating as those in South Carolina so I’m taking them on. The winner will surely come from the top ten. Of those on +4 Justin Thomas and 2015 winner Jordan Spieth have those electric birdie bursts that transform leaderboards.

Thomas has stellar East Lake form (2-3-7-2-6) and should make the frame even from six back as long as his putting holds up and while New Jersey winner Finau took time last week to come down from cloud nine, he did get his act back together with a 63 on Sunday.

Now he has got that bridesmaid tag off the back of his shirt, he could bang in another W on a course where he has twice finished seventh. With his +8 start and a price of 7/1, he’s my each-way pick now that he’s found a putting stroke that works.

Rahm as 4/1 favourite from four back of Cantlay is short enough as he played with little sparkle on the weekend. Still, nobody can dazzle all of the time and ninth place after his US Open win and Open Championship third was further tribute to his consistency.

It’s not as if he’s cracked East Lake yet. He has a 4-12-11-7 record there, which would be great for many in the field, but we judge the Spaniard by different standards. On the non-handicap 72-hole score market, East Lake specialists Schauffele and dual champion McIlroy, while probably too far back to take the silver Calamity Jane Trophy in the main event, hold each-way appeal at 12/1.

THE ITALIAN OPEN


Best bets
2pts each-way Rasmus Hojgaard @ 25/1
1pt each-way Garrick Higgo @ 33/1
1pt each-way Guido Migliozzi @ 22/1
1pt each-way Matt Fitzpatrick @ 12/1
0.5pts each-way Renato Paratore @ 80/1
0.5pts each-way Francesco Molinari @ 33/1

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It’s the Italian Open this week but the tournament has so many Ryder Cup sub-plots that there’s no betting on what will be the main topic of conversation.

There’s already a built-in Ryder Cup flavour to the week as the totally revamped venue, Marco Simone on the outskirts of Rome, will be hosting the big match in 2023.

Captain Padraig Harrington’s choice of three wild cards will be announced after the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth on September 12 and rumour has it that two of those cards have the names of Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter on them.

With Sergio, Europe’s all-time record points earner, making doubly sure with a fine sixth in Maryland on Sunday and Poulter’s passion for the match putting him one-up before he tees off, the big question is: Who gets the third?

Lining up in Italy are three past giants of European golf, Henrik Stenson, Martin Kaymer and Francesco Molinari, Major champions seeking that one big performance to convince Captain Pod he would be foolish to go to Whistling Straits without them.

Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick, both currently in the squad, are also in Rome looking for a timely win to perk up a below-par year and it won’t have escaped Harrington’s attention that the Fleetwood-Molinari combo were four-from-four as a pair when Europe swamped the USA 17.5 to 10.5 in Paris three years ago.

Team Moliwood were so lethal they even wiped out mighty Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau in the Saturday foursomes.

Maybe he’ll pick Molinari specifically for that job again but Frankie has to prove he’s still got it in the next two weeks. He wasn’t great in Crans but at least he got four rounds in and he’s among friends now as a dual Italian Open champion. There can be no excuses.

Emerging from a long slump, Stenson stated his case with third in Switzerland but with so many vying for one spot – Justin Rose, not playing this week, and in-form Alex Noren are just two more big names needing a pick – will that be enough?

Also on Harrington’s watch-list will be eight-time Tour winner Bernd Wiesberger and Victor Perez but the Austrian’s nerve failed him at Crans, double-bogeying the last when a par would have got him victory and a Ryder place.

He gave out such negative vibes with a timid bogey six at the 15th and that horror story at the 18th that it will be hard for Harrington to pick him.

If only he hadn’t said he wants experience over rookies for picks, a case could be made for Rasmus Hojgaard, the 20-year-old who benefited from the Wiesberger choke-fest, as did followers of this column as the classy Dane was a 40/1 tip.

That was Hojgaard’s third European Tour triumph and if he stages a quick encore at Marco Simone, maybe Pod will have second thoughts.

His final-round 63 and that 12-footer he holed under pressure for birdie at the last, plus third place, with a 62 in it, on his previous outing at the London Club, read well.

Winning in consecutive weeks is always difficult but he owes us nothing so I’ll be backing him again. While the big names are under pressure, it could be a good week for the newer kids on the block, Hojgaard and South African lefty Garrick Higgo.

As there’s no past form for the new-look Marco Simone, given a major makeover with matchplay in mind, it means the youngsters for once are on a level playing field. Extended to 7268 yards and only fully open since March, lush Marco Simone, ten miles outside Rome, is a par 71 that finishes with a 626-yard par five.

Like Hojgaard, the 22-year-old Higgo has already won three times in Europe but he has already conquered America too, winning the Palmetto on only his second US start. It’s been a struggle since but he has been mixing it with the cream. This is a little easier and the explosion of birdies and eagles from his two spring Canary Islands victories still resonates.

The Molinari brothers should figure but Italy may have even better chances of a home winner with Guido Migliozzi and Renato Paratore, who shared seventh place behind Hojgaard at the weekend. Both are double winners on tour and although, as a Roman, Paratore is likely to be familiar with the new Marco Simone it is Migliozzi who has the superior credentials. He finished fourth to Jon Rahm at the US Open and has posted a trio of second places this year, in Qatar, Himmerland and at The Belfry.

Fitzpatrick and Fleetwood are class acts who could well finish first and second but have generally underperformed. Harrington would love to see the pair play the sort of golf that made them world stars. Fitzpatrick is the more likely to do so.

Luke Donald, world No. 1 for 56 weeks back in the day but this year suffering the agony of missing ten cuts in a row on the PGA Tour, is an interesting entry.

A couple of top-20s since those disasters have halted the decline but it takes a brave man to back him. A more likely winner is the in-form Scot Calum Hill, his breakthrough win at the London Club the meat in the sandwich of nice top-tens at Fairmont St Andrews and Crans.

THE SOLHEIM CUP


Best bets
2pts Europe to win @ 9/4
1pt each-way Leone Maguire top European @ 7/1
1pt each-way Yealimi Noh top American @ 11/1

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If this weekend’s edition of the Solheim Cup in Toledo, Ohio – the female version of the Ryder Cup – is even half as exciting as the last one in Gleneagles, it will be a cracker.

The joyous scenes in 2019 when Suzann Pettersen holed the 8ft birdie putt that gave Europe victory by the narrowest of margins were unforgettable. Europe were the underdogs then and will be again, only more so, when the three-day match tees off with the alternate-shot foursomes on Saturday.

Sky will be giving the event 30 hours of live coverage and the Monday finish means the 12 singles will not have to compete with the final day of the FedEx Cup finale in Georgia. Will golf fans have any nails left to bite after what promises to be two epics?

Fitzdares make the Europeans 9/4 to bring the Cup back. They have won in the States before – a landslide 18-10 upset in Colorado eight years ago – but let’s face it, given that the USA lead 7-1 on home soil and 10-6 in the series, they are up against it.

Serious punters will lump on the American Solheim-Ryder Cup double – at 4/9 and 1/2 it works out odds-against – and I shall do so as cover while having the 9/4 Europe as my main investment as I think their chance has been underestimated.

With the Europeans on a roll after Anna Nordqvist‘s AIG (British) Open victory at Carnoustie was garnished by Georgia Hall and Madelene Sagstrom sharing second spot with Lizette Salas, they have the impetus to spring an upset. With Salas the only one American in the top ten and world No. 1 Nelly Korda back in 13th, it showed Catriona Matthew’s team are more likely than their male counterparts in Wisconsin later in the month to snatch an away victory at famed Inverness.

That’s Inverness, Ohio not the Scottish one, the timeless 1903 Donald Ross masterpiece which has hosted four US Opens and two USPGAs. It will play as a 6903-yard par 72. Danielle Kang won the Drive On Championship there last year, beating short-but-steady Frenchwoman Celine Boutier by one, so those two will feel at home.

Based on world ratings – on combined rankings the USA make up at 314 to Europe’s 519 – it should be no contest but they’re mainly based on strokeplay form not 18-hole matchplay, a very different proposition.

When the foursomes pairings are announced at Friday’s opening ceremony (10pm our time), expect the Korda sisters Nelly and Jessica to lead the way. They are both winners this year, Nelly three times, but Jessica has not had a top-ten since May.

Five of their side, Megan Khang, Jennifer Kupcho, Mina Harigae, Brittany Altomare and Yealimi Noh, have never won on the LPGA Tour although, to be fair, Noh is only 20 and hasn’t had many chances. Matthew will probably keep intact the Hall-Boutier partnership which won three out of three at Gleneagles while six-footer Nordqvist, now a three-time Major winner, has peaked at the right time and will be a match for anyone whoever she plays with.

Europe field five first-timers but Irish star Leona Maguire is no ordinary rookie. She was world No. 1 amateur for a record 135 weeks and is 15-6-13 for the last three Majors, shooting a 61 in the Evian. She could be the ace in Matthew’s pack. The 7/1 for Leona to top-score for Europe is of interest while another debutante, Noh, is an immense talent – 13-7-4-3-3 on her last five outings – and is fearless. The 11/1 for top American holds each-way appeal but wait and see in both cases whether they’re picked for the opening foursomes. To win on those markets usually means playing all five sessions although Hall and Boutier (both 4 from 4) were an exception.

A close match is expected, it will be warm (up to 27C) with a fair breeze the last two days and a 14-14 dead-heat which means Europe retaining the trophy, a 12/1 chance, is far from impossible.

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