Canadian Conners for a second Texan takeaway

Valero Texas Open

Best bets
Corey Conners 2pts each-way @ 20/1
Ryan Palmer 2pts each-way @ 28/1
Branden Grace 1pt each-way @ 66/1
Charley Hoffman 1pt each-way @ 28/1
Zach Johnson 0.5pt each-way @ 40/1
Sam Ryder 0.5pt each-way @ 80/1

Valero odds

Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the WGC-Dell Match Play as a betting proposition and congratulations to anybody still awake after the snoozefest which saw world No.34 Billy Horschel beating No.32 Scottie Scheffler in a turgid final which did golf no good at all.

Even Colin Montgomerie had a go on Twitter at the painfully slow pace of play, mostly due to Scheffler’s endless putting routine and frequent references to caddie and notebook before finally hitting a shot.

Paralysis by over-analysis resulted in this talented tour maiden missing putt after putt and carving drives into the trees. Embarrassed Horschel even apologised for making only one birdie in hoovering up the $1.82m prize. He was one over par in seeing off Scheffler, having ended Europe’s challenge by easing past Frenchman Victor Perez in the semis.

The 80-1 shot should never have been there in the first place but was gifted a last-16 spot. Tommy Fleetwood had him by the short and curlies in their round-robin showdown until late errors culminating in flashing his drive out of bounds in extra time.

For year after year, slow play has blighted the game without enough being done about it. Fines are a waste of time because spoilt professionals get paid too much for playing moderately. Penalties that really hurt, such as a two-tournament ban, are needed.

Fleetwood’s dismal finish was by no means the only blow to European hopes. Perez was our lone semi-finalist on a week when Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Tyrrell Hatton and Paul Casey, who had looked Europe’s main chances, all under-performed, not great news with the Masters just around the corner.

The same could be said of America’s finest Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas who both exited early. DJ, whose previous three strokeplay performances were below the standard expected of a world No.1, filed a late entry to this week’s Texas Open only to change his mind, preferring to prepare for his defence of the Masters at home.

So having raised the hopes of sponsors Valero and the San Antonio community, he quickly deflated them as marquee names Rahm, Thomas, McIlroy, DeChambeau and the still-hurting Koepka were already missing from this last warm-up for Augusta.

Johnson’s withdrawal from one of the oldest tournaments on the PGA Tour roster leaves local hero Jordan Spieth as 11/1 favourite even though the former world No.1 has not won a tournament since the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

Spieth has never won his home-State Open but was runner-up at San Antonio in 2015 and would be the most popular winner after all his problems of the past few years.

Three top fives on his five most recent strokeplay starts and a top-16 at the Match Play 80 miles away in Austin augur well but he has yet to prove he retains the ability to close the deal when in contention, something he did so ruthlessly when winning three Majors. He’s nearly there but I prefer his chance next week at the Masters.

The Texas Open has been played on the 7494-yard par 72 Oaks course since 2010. It was cancelled last year because of the pandemic which means that Corey Conners, the winner in 2019 with a course record 20-under-par 268, is the defending champion. He was the first Monday qualifier to win on the main tour since Arjun Atwal captured the 2010 Wyndham Championship.

The Canadian didn’t get out of his group last week – he admitted he had little top-level matchplay experience – but heading into that tournament he’d finished third at Bay Hill (after holding the 36-hole lead) and seventh at Sawgrass.
Impressively straight off the tee, it’s surprising he has not added to that lone victory but he will do so and it could well happen this weekend.

Another Texan, the veteran Ryan Palmer, holds just as much appeal at more than double Spieth’s odds. Runner-up at Torrey Pines after fourth spot at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, the 44-year-old from Amarillo definitely has another win in him.

He outplayed his good friend Rahm in the group matches last week but let him off the hook and if he holes his share of putts, always his Achilles heel, he has the course form (4th in 2016, 6th in 2015 and 2017) to be in the mix.
So too does the even-older Zach Johnson, eighth when last seen at the Honda and boasting a solid San Antonio record, fifth in 2018 and sixth in 2014.

Confidence restored with last month’s victory in Puerto Rico, South African star Branden Grace faces tougher opposition but posted top-tens on this week’s course in 2016-17.

And it would be unwise to ignore Charley Hoffman despite last week’s disappointing effort in the Dominican Republic where victory went to 40-1 shot Joel Dahmen, a PGA Tour winner for the first time.

Hoffman had been in fine form before that and he does have significant course credits as winner in 2016 and twice a runner-up. Only Conners beat him the last time the tournament was played.

Streaky Scot Martin Laird, who beat McIlroy when he won the 2013 Texas Open, has one recent victory to his name at Las Vegas last October while Graeme McDowell’s fourth at Puntacana on Sunday was a reminder that the 2010 US Open champion still harbours visions of regaining his Ryder Cup place. G-Mac was seventh here in 2019.

Danny Willett was also a top-ten finisher at Puntacana so a British winner is not impossible, while classy Tony Finau and Hideki Matsuyama have big shouts even if neither is quite at the top of his game.

After playing seven tough competitive rounds in five days, Scheffler and semi-finalist Matt Kuchar are passed over but Sam Ryder, whose second place at Puntacana following a Honda top-ten, looks overpriced.

Missing is Kevin Na whose 16 at the par-four ninth in 2011 when he ricocheted from one tree to another to another to another before finally emerging from the jungle remains one of golf’s funniest moments. He took it in good spirits, saying “I almost broke 80!”

It spawned the term “duodecuple bogey” which has never been used since and probably never will …


The Inspiration

Best bets
Lexi Thompson 2pts each-way @ 12/1
Mel Reid 1pt each-way @ 100/1
Charley Hull 1pt each-way @ 50/1
Jessica Korda 1pt each-way @ 22/1
Nelly Korda 1pt each-way @ 12/1

Inspiration odds

With nothing scheduled on the European Tour, the first women’s Major of the year, The Inspiration at regular venue Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage, gives Sky Sports a second string to its bow in a tournament that has all the makings of a thriller.

This is the one where traditionally the winner has to jump into Poppie’s Pond beside the 18th green. It was Mirim Lee’s turn in September after last year’s Inspiration was moved from its normal April date because of Covid.

Her reign in California may only be short-lived because this 50th anniversary edition comes less than seven months after the last one and she has achieved little since.

British star Charley Hull – now plain Mrs Smith off the course since marrying mixed martial arts champion Ozzie Smith 18 months ago – was forced to miss the rearranged Inspiration after testing positive for Covid.

That was a great shame because this is her favourite Major and the one where she came closest to winning as runner-up to Lydia Ko five years ago. Fourth in 2014 and 11-6-12 since that 2016 near-miss, she could be great value at 50-1.

Fellow English raiders Georgia Hall and Mel Reid can also be fancied, Reid in particular as making her US breakthrough at the ShopRite Classic last October has done wonders for her self-belief. Only a bad last round last time out stopped her from posting yet another high finish.

Reid, a gritty performer, showed a liking for Mission Hills when seventh in September and for a 100-1 shot she has tremendous each-way potential.

Inbee Park, five-shot winner of the Kia Classic on Sunday and a great mopper-up of Majors – this would be her eighth – is the 8-1 favourite and the one they all have to beat.

The slight negative is that you have to go back eight years to the Olympic champion’s only Inspiration triumph, the first of a three-Majors haul in that annus mirabilis.

Once regarded  as the world’s best putter of either sex, Inbee doesn’t hole quite as many these days and will need to this week as she will be 30 yards behind some rivals off the tee on this 6763-yard par 72 Dinah Shore course where big hitters are favoured.

That brings in the American trio of Lexi Thompson and the two Korda sisters, both winners this year. Nelly, the younger one, is the greater talent and was in last year’s playoff with Kim and Canada’s Brooke Henderson but Jessica’s previous course form (6th in 2019, 4th in 2018) is also eye-catching and she’s almost twice Nelly’s odds.

Lexi, victorious in 2014 and second, third and fourth in three of the last four years, would have won this several times had her putting matched the rest of her game.

Fourth last year and twice a runner-up in her three most recent starts, the powerful Floridian looks a shoo-in for top-five. The two unrelated Ko ladies, world No. 1 Jin Young who won in 2019 and 2016 champion Lydia, look next best.
Sadly there will be no fans and no amateurs – two made top-15 last year – in the field of 112. But it will still be a lot more fun than the never-to-be-forgotten-or-forgiven Match Play. Thank goodness that one is over!

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