Desert king Hideki has McIlroy to beat at frantic Phoenix


Best bets

2pts each-way Hideki Matsuyama @ 28/1
2pts each-way Rory McIlroy @ 15/2
1.5pts each-way Xander Schauffele @ 14/1
1pt each-way Tom Kim @ 28/1
0.5pt each-way Cameron Young @ 28/1

view odds

Place FIVE pre-tournament bets and get an in-play matched FREE BET! T&Cs apply

Two sporting worlds collide in Arizona on Sunday with the Phoenix Open at Scottsdale, the noisiest, beeriest golf tournament on the planet, leading into the equally raucous Super Bowl LVII between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs 30 miles away in Glendale on the same evening.

The final putt at Scottsdale is due to be sunk half an hour before the big kick-off but this is no ordinary Phoenix Open: prize money has soared from $8.2m to $20m with the winner taking $3.6m instead of a measly $1.476m, as the start of the PGA Tour’s robust response to the Saudi-backed LIV attack on their prime resources.

Phoenix is the first of the designated tournaments boasting bonkers prize hikes to more or less match the obscene $4m first-place money the LIV rebels will be grappling for on their expanded 14-tournament circuit starting at Mayakoba, Mexico, at the end of the month. And all for hitting a little white ball round a big field.

Exceptional prize money brings with it an exceptional field, the most competitive in the long history of the Phoenix Open which has been played at TPC Scottsdale since 1987.

World No. 1 Rory McIlroy makes his first US start of the year on the back of a first-time-out victory in the Dubai Desert Classic, Jon Rahm, winner of four of his last six starts on two tours, chases his third PGA Tour triumph of a year only now entering its sixth week, and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler defends the first title he ever won, the first of four quick victories that hoisted him from nowhere to world No. 1 in a flash.

Eight of the top ten are there – Open champion Cammie Smith is barred because he’s a LIV defector and Will Zalatoris is pacing himself after back injury and prefers Riviera next week to the Arizona desert – but sadly no Justin Rose, a 25/1 winner for this column at Pebble Beach on Monday after a sublime performance which must make this one-time world No. 1 a front-runner for a Ryder Cup place in Rome in September.

Phoenix is a rare port of call for McIlroy whose only previous visit resulted in 13th place, almost exclusively due to a last-round 64 on the 7261-yard par 71. But Rory was in a very different place with his game then, not having won for 15 months and struggling with his putting.

Currently, the flat stick is one of his chief weapons and his length off the tee makes Phoenix a perfect drive-and-wedge course for him. Think back to the two victories of JB Holmes in 2006 and 2008. One of the longest drivers on tour at the time, he just ripped it anywhere, even into the desert, and as long as he avoided the giant cacti and the gila monsters, he was just left with a short iron into most greens.

Of course, McIlroy isn’t the only one who gives the ball a mighty lash but nobody bar Rahm has his self-belief and the Spaniard has had quite a few cracks at Scottsdale without getting close. Form figures of 10-13-9-10-11-16-5 steady though they are indicate this is not a course that shows him at his mightiest.

As the home team’s main hope, Scheffler is under pressure to produce, particularly in light of the first five results of the year after which the score reads USA 1, Internationals 4. He continues to impress and will assuredly be winning again soon but it’s now 18 tournaments since his last one and the longer the wait, the harder it gets.

Just preferred for top American is Xander Schauffele who could make it third time lucky after just missing out on a play-off the last two years. It was Scheffler v Patrick Cantlay in the 2022 shootout, while Brooks Koepka, now a LIV winner, got him by one in 2021.

Third to Rahm in the AmEx and 13th at Torrey Pines, Schauffele is ready to rumble after a week off while young bucks Cameron Young, runner-up in the Saudi International on Sunday, and Sahith Theegala, third here last year just a shot out of the play-off after leading at the 54-hole stage and lasting on top until driving into the drink on the 71st, can also take a hand. Young’s extreme length gives him quite an edge.

Although the fields he beat when going back to back in 2016 and 2017 lacked the depth of this one, Japanese superstar Hideki Matsuyama has to be given serious consideration. Eighth last year and ninth last time out at Torrey Pines, it’s worth pointing out he was also second and fourth in two early Phoenix bids. Hideki will surely be fancying his chances of becoming the fourth golfer to win the title three times and the 28/1 makes him the best value for each-way play in my book.

Justin Thomas and Tony Finau are two more for the short list. Low scoring will be the order of the week, 28 under is the record and no surprise if we get a 59 – there have been four 60s but surprisingly none for ten years.

Get ready for bad shots being good-naturedly booed by well-oiled galleries at the ‘Coliseum’, the amphitheatre that is the 162-yard 16th with its temporary grandstand that holds 20,000 for this special week the locals call The Greatest Show on Grass.

Nobody will love the electric atmosphere more than the charismatic Tom Kim, twice a PGA Tour winner already and still only 20. Fifth at Kapalua and sixth in the AmEx, he is box-office magic and the huge crowd will love him. Expect golf’s next superstar to respond with a thrilling performance in a week when the sun will be out for most of the time and temperatures steady in the mid-70s. It’s going to be a cracker.


Best bets

1.5pts each-way Kiradech Aphibarnrat @ 40/1
1.5pts each-way Adri Arnaus @ 20/1
1.5pts each-way Ryan Fox @ 14/1
1pt each-way Adrian Otaegui @ 25/1
0.5pt each-way Julien Brun @ 40/1

view odds

We’ve had some bizarre finishes in golf but few can match the comedy of errors we witnessed at the business end of the Ras Al Khaimah Championship when 150/1 shot Daniel Gavins won a tournament he thought he’d lost by hitting two balls into the water on a final hole neither he or we will ever forget.

Standing on the 72nd tee leading by two, the 31-year-old from Pontefract nervously carved his drive into the drink, then hit his fourth shot into the same hazard. Totally unaware that his chief rival Alexander Bjork, playing up front, had thrown him a lifeline by triple-putting the 18th and running up a bogey six, he somehow rolled in a 26-footer for a double-bogey seven, thinking maybe he was in a play-off at best.

Then playing partner Zander Lombard narrowly missed the 25-foot eagle putt that would have tied his 17-under-par score and, lo and behold, desperate Dan was a winner for the second time in his career. Lucky man!

While Gavins takes a break, Bjork and Lombard are back for more when the DP World Tour moves out of the UAE after the four-week Arabian Swing and pitches its tent in Singapore for the first time since 2014 which isn’t at all helpful when looking for form clues.

The Andy Dye-redesigned Laguna National hosts the Singapore Classic in a three-year deal and this heavily-bunkered (141 of them, to be precise) parkland course is not known locally as The Beast for nothing. The multi-tiered greens take some knowing and will be new to everyone bar the Asian Tour contingent.

Colin Montgomerie conquered an earlier version of this 7471-yard par 72 back in 2004 and Tiger Woods played it after it was reconfigured in 2011. There’s nobody anywhere close to Tiger’s standard in this week’s field but one young Thai who could one day be spoken of in the same breath is Ratchanon Chantananuwat, not 16 until next month but already spoken of glowingly by world stars of the status of Lee Westwood.

When he won on the Asian Tour last April when just 37 days past his 15th birthday, “TK” as he’s known had none other than subsequent dual PGA Tour winner Tom Kim as his chief victim. Only last week, in the all-star Saudi International won by Abraham Ancer, he was bang in contention at halfway.

Shorter than average off the tee, TK makes up for that with phenomenal accuracy and shot-making. It will be fascinating to see how he gets on against a far-from-daunting array of professionals headed by Ryan Fox, Robert MacIntyre and Jordan Smith and a course of significant length.

While excited to see how this prodigy performs, it is another Thai, one who is a four-time DP World Tour winner, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who will be carrying my money in a tournament where only small stakes are advised.

Roly-poly Aphi is a huge talent in more ways than one, a birdie machine with a wonderfully natural way of playing the game. He almost won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth a couple of years back, finishing just a shot behind Billy Horschel.

The first Thai golfer to earn a PGA Tour card, he has not always enjoyed the best of health, physically and mentally, homesickness has often been his problem, but he’s among friends in Asia now and his showing in Saudi last week in better company was encouraging.

True, a share of 28th doesn’t sound too exciting but he shared that spot with the likes of Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and Henrik Stenson, all Major champions, which puts it into a brighter context. Good autumn showings in the Spanish and Italian Opens highlighted a modest campaign in Europe but better can be expected in what is almost a home game.

He’s a sporting each-way selection, along with two Spaniards, Adri Arnaus and Adrian Otaegui, against the three market leaders, best of whom could be New Zealand bomber Fox.

Arnaus finally got his W in Catalunya, then finished top-ten in the year-ending Tour Championship. He’s bounced out of the stalls with top performances in Dubai (13th) and Ras Al Khailah (9th) and this is easier.

Consistent Otaegui’s runaway victory at Valderrama in October was followed by a second in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December and he’s opened 2023 with three solid cut-making efforts in the UAE. He has targeted a Ryder Cup place but will signing for LIV and playing in three of their early tournaments last year count against him?

MacIntyre and Smith must be disappointed with their results in the Gulf but Fox, despite some health issues, improved each week and 11th in Ras has set this prolific money-winner up for yet another good week. He rarely lets punters down and two victories last year were the very least he should have finished up with.

Frenchmen Julien Brun, top five in two of his last four outings, and Antoine Rozner have plenty going for them as does South African dual winner Thriston Lawrence in a tournament that may be subject to delays. Hot (high 80s) and sticky with scattered thunderstorms is the weather menu. Another Monday finish maybe?

For all your bets on the PGA Tour, visit our dedicated golf betting page.

Please play responsibly