Golf,

Count on Kevin in California

THE FORTINET CHAMPIONSHIP


Best bets
2pts each-way Kevin Na @ 20/1
1.5pts each-way Cameron Champ @ 40/1
1pt each-way Arron Rai @ 80/1
0.5pt each-way Brendan Steele @ 80/1
0.5pt each-way Phil Mickelson @ 66/1
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The first question the bookmakers are asking punters as the curtain goes up on the 2021-22 PGA golf season at the Fortinet Championship in sunny California is: Do you want to back the world No. 1 Jon Rahm at 4/1 or not?

Although the field also features two other reigning Major champions in Hideki Matsuyama and the evergreen Phil Mickelson, it is far from the strongest and Rahm is the only member of the recently-announced Ryder Cup sides taking part.

So while the knee-jerk reaction is: yes, let’s have a lump on the good thing, the requirement of value for money advises caution. After all, the Spaniard played 18 tournaments on the schedule since the turn of the year and won there only once. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that one out of 18 isn’t 4/1. Besides, he has played the Silverado Country Club’s North course twice before when the tournament was called the Safeway Open and come away with nothing better than 15th place.

So while Rahm is giving himself a start over absent FedEx Cup rivals, having fallen agonisingly short of that outrageous $15m jackpot a couple of weeks back, it could be he’s playing just to warm up for the gruelling Ryder showdown at Whistling Straits. As far and away Europe’s best hope of hanging on to the Cup, he must prepare to go to war five times in the three days of that energy-sapping contest on September 24.

So while Rahm is the most probable winner, it may pay to back two Americans with axes to grind about not being among Steve Stricker’s six wild-card picks named last week. I refer to Kevin Na and USPGA champion Lefty Mickelson, the 51-year-old the first ruling Major champion not to get a Ryder Cup berth since Open champion John Daly in 1995. ‘The Wild Thing’ might have made a difference too as the Americans lost in a down-to-the-wire thriller at Oak Hill that year.

Mickelson has done next to nothing since that extraordinary PGA victory at Kiawah Island in May but for a legend who had played in the last 11 Ryder Cups, a record number of appearances dating back to Oak Hill as a rookie, he was entitled to feel piqued at being overlooked.

Third at Silverado four years ago and dangerous in his home State, Mickelson would love nothing more than giving Ryder captain Stricker the finger by winning the last tournament before the big showdown in Wisconsin.

Na on the other hand saved his best form for the last month or so and very eye-catching it was. Joint-winner with Rahm of the “without handicap” tournament that ran alongside the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake, Atlanta, and third to Patrick Cantlay in the main event, Na wouldn’t be winning out of turn.

He did get it done in Hawaii back in January but it is his thunderous return to top form in the past six weeks that should have resulted in a wild-card pick if on-course form was the chief criterion. Previous to his bumper week at East Lake, Na’s second places at John Deere and Gainsboro stood out, besides which he has form at Silverado.

He went down only after a playoff to Emiliano Grillo in the 2015 Safeway and was seventh the following year when Brendan Steele won the first of his two back-to-back victories in Napa. If Rahm is to be beaten, cocky Na is the most likely to bring him down.

Fortinet is the new name for the Safeway Open, itself the new name five years earlier for the Frys.com Championship but while sponsors come and go, Silverado Country Club, a 7123-yard par 72 in the wine-growing Napa Valley of North Carolina goes merrily along as tournament host.

Built in 1958 and twice re-designed, first by Robert Trent Jones Jr, then by 1974 Open champion and co-owner and 1974 Open champion Johnny Miller, the North course features tree-pinched fairways, challenging greens and a tough early short hole, 240 yards long and uphill to a well-protected green.

There are plenty of birdie opportunities though, as 47-year-old Stewart Cink, who is not defending this week, found out when shooting a record 21-under last autumn. Matsuyama is a big birdie-maker and he does have a third place on his Silverado record but narrow preference is for 2019 Safeway winner Cameron Champ, a North Carolina boy with a big local following.

Champ has won a tournament in each of the last three years, his latest coming in the 3M Open in July, and the positive mental associations of returning to the course of his second tour victory have to be worth a couple of shots.

Two coming over from Wentworth are Korn Ferry Tour graduates Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Arron Rai. If Aphi had birdied the 17th instead of hooking his second into a hedge and taking a penalty, the Thai star would now be BMW champion but even a share of second was a positive result after the loss of his main PGA tour card.

Rai also did well at Wentworth in finishing 14th and before that he realised a lifetime dream to play the PGA Tour. The 2020 Scottish Open champion thought he’d blown it when, needing a four to win the Boise Open on the satellite circuit and clinch his main-tour ticket, he thinned a flop shot, took six and even missed out on a playoff.

But he hadn’t, after all, missed out on a card and the Wolverhampton youngster, top 20 in this year’s Open, could go well at a big price. Aphi, on the other hand, took a great deal out of himself last week and may need time to recover.

Others to consider are Will Zalatoris, Webb Simpson and Si Woo Kim while course specialist Steele may be worth a small interest even though most of his golf last campaign was pretty ordinary…

THE DUTCH OPEN


Best bets
2pts each-way Thomas Pieters @ 12/1
1pt each-way Andrew Johnston @ 25/1
1pt each-way Branden Grace @ 14/1
1pt each-way Shubhankar Shanka @ 28/1
0.5pts each-way Santiago Tarrio @ 28/1
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The French have a saying “Jamais Deux Sans Trois” so will the Americans, crushed by our Solheim Cup heroines in Ohio and overwhelmed by Emma Ranucanu’s fairytale in New York, be embarrassed for a third time on their own patch when they face Europe’s Ryder Cup underdogs in Wisconsin next week?

Fitzdares weren’t impressed by the feeble European performance at Wentworth – not one of the current Ryder Cup team in the top ten – yet still make it only 2/1 about a repeat of Europe’s 2018 victory in Paris.

But three years is a long time in golf, the wheel seems to have turned and the USA, always favourites on home ground, are odds-on yet again, this time at 8/15. The dead-heat, not seen since The Belfry in 1989, is at 12/1 and would do very nicely as, in that eventuality, the defending champions take the trophy home with them.

To rub more salt into the Wentworth wound, the winner Billy Horschel – tipped last week at 22/1 – was the only PGA Tour American in a line-up of 144 yet even though he’s match play champion, Billy never even came into captain Steve Stricker’s conversation.

Many were surprised European captain Padraig Harrington couldn’t find a wild card for Justin Rose, a great Ryder Cup stalwart with two Majors top-tens this year and finishes of tenth and sixth on his two latest starts. More than that, he boasts  Whistling Straits form, fourth in the 2015 PGA.

Despite those positives it has been a generally poor year for Rose and the way the cookie crumbled on Sunday with the nerve-racked Bernd Wiesberger and out-of-form Lee Westwood somehow both qualifying, didn’t do Justin any favours.

Harrington, faced with a problem he had hoped to avoid, opted for Shane Lowry’s consistency over Rose’s record and late flourish. The burly Irishman was totally worthy of a place and I can’t believe the captain favoured his own countryman over Rose on friendship or nationalistic grounds.

If he had desperately wanted the former US Open champion, Olympic gold medalist and one-time world No. 1, he could have picked Rose and left out Sergio Garcia, with whom he has had at least one well-chronicled spat. Or Europe’s mascot Ian Poulter who, by missing the cut at Wentworth, gave the captain a way out of his dilemma.

Rose would likely have got the nod over Westwood and probably Wiesberger if they had not qualified but they did, although when Westwood, 48, came off the course after his closing 77, he hinted missing out wouldn’t have been the end of the world.

None of the Ryder Cup team lines up for this week’s Dutch Open which tees off at new venue Bernardus Golf at Cromvoirt. After a tip-top performance at Wentworth, one past Cup hero, Thomas Pieters, must be looking forward to this easier task.

Bernardus Golf is a 7425, par 72 Kyle Phillips course that had a soft launch in 2018 but now gets the full treatment following a £45m investment and a deal with the tour which is starting a year late because of the pandemic.

Californian architect Phillips, best known in the U.K. for those masterpieces Kingsbarns and The Grove, has created a flat, heathland course with large, steep-faced sand traps, gorse and dunes, a sort of Walton Heath but with water hazards.

Pieters, one of the few success stories in Europe’s 17-11 defeat at Hazeltine in 2016 – he top-scored with four points out of five, three of them with Rory McIlroy in a dynamic partnership – arrives in great nick. Before Sunday’s ninth came a top-20 in Rome.

The lanky Belgian is a man to fear when he gets on a roll. His first two victories in 2015 came in consecutive weeks and when he won in Denmark the following year, it was after just missing a medal at the Rio Olympics. He’s 12/1 favourite and the man to beat.

With Afrikaans derived from Dutch, it’s no surprise South Africans feel at home in the Netherlands, so expect a strong challenge from their squad. Branden Grace, pipped in a six-man playoff at Greensboro last month, is the best of them and missing the cut at Wentworth has given him more time to prepare for this easier task.

But Dean Burmester, Rory Sabbatini (born in Durban but these days a Slovakian), Justin Harding, George Coetzee and Daniel Van Tonder could also figure. Burmester, sixth at the Czech Masters and 30th at Wentworth, should go well and although six-time PGA Tour-winning veteran Sabbatini is inconsistent, he was tenth on his last US start at the Wyndham.

Of the Brits, Andrew “Beef” Johnston turned in his best performance of the year when sixth on Sunday but it wasn’t his only good showing as he was ninth in the Irish Open. The 2016 Valderrama winner has been to some dark places after an unhappy spell in the USA and it is truly lovely to have him back to his best.

Local hero Joost Luiten has won his home Open twice and two recent top-20s plus a decent Wentworth effort could give him a look at a third while steady Spaniard Santiago Tarrio has been a real star on the satellite circuit with two victories and a bundle of top-tens.

Tarrio’s last-day 63 leapfrogged him into second spot on the Challenge Tour in Germany on Sunday and he has already shown himself competitive when upped in grade. He doesn’t hit it far but that didn’t stop him finishing  third to Grant Forrest in the Hero Open at Fairmont St Andrews last month.

Indian No. 1 Shubhankar Sharma also rates a bet. He won twice around the turn of the year in 2017-18 but has struggled since trying to play on both main tours. Now, like “Beef”, he has got his game back and ninth at the PGA followed 12th in Rome and another ninth at the London Club. Still only 25, don’t be surprised if he regains the winning thread sooner rather than later.

Detry, the other Belgian Thomas who won the 2018 World Cup with Pieters in Melbourne, marked his card incorrectly at Wentworth after two decent rounds and was disqualified. Hugely gifted but still winless, he continues to give punters a hard time. The ability to win is there but has he the killer instinct?

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