Golf,

Aussie encore on the cards in New Orleans

ZURICH CLASSIC


Best bets
2pts each-way Smith/Leishman @ 9/1
2pts each-way Horschel/Burns @ 11/1
1pt each-way Fleetwood/Garcia @ 16/1
0.5pts each-way McDowell/Power @ 40/1
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We’re paying SIX places at the Zurich Classic!


Career Grand Slams in golf are rare, reserved only for The Special Ones. Tiger Woods, arguably the most special of all, was the last man to crack it back in 2000 when he added our Open at St Andrews to his American haul, Masters, US Open and USPGA.

Before that, the Open was where Jack Nicklaus in 1966 and Ben Hogan in 1953 completed their Slams, while Gary Player’s quartet of Majors was rounded off by the 1965 US Open and Gene Sarazen, the granddaddy of the Slammers, got there at Augusta in 1935 when he won what was only the second Masters.

Of course, the modern Slam had only been “invented” with the inaugural Masters and when Sarazen, who had the 1922 and 1932 US Opens, the 1922, 23 and 33 PGAs (then a matchplay championship) and the 1932 Open on his CV, collected the full set, so came into being the updated version of the old Slam, which consisted of The Open, US Open and the amateur championships of GB and the USA.

That original Slam was achieved only by the legendary Bobby Jones, creator of the Masters, who won all fabulous four, pro and am, in 1930.

All this is a long-winded preamble to introducing into the conversation that in less than a month Jordan Spieth, by his spectacular victory in the Heritage on Easter Sunday, has given himself a realistic opportunity of adding his name to that elite list at the USPGA Championship and that Fitzdares price him up at 22/1 for the year’s second Major.

That tees off at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 19. So rather than “24 Hours From Tulsa” (as the great Gene Pitney used to regale us), next Tuesday it will be “24 days to Tulsa”.

Like Rory McIlroy, the popular Texan is one of those guys everybody who loves sport roots for, the type of admirable, lovable, amusing young man every parent hopes his/her daughter will bring home to tea.

So although he did the dirty on me by winning the week after I tipped him to win the Masters – he ignominiously missed the cut there of course! – I was thrilled to bits that Spieth had won for the first time in a year and was on the way back, recalcitrant, misfiring putter notwithstanding, to something like his eccentrically imperious best.

It was Spieth’s Masters flop seven days earlier, in the Major he had adorned with a victory, two runner-up finishes and two third places, that led to most punters shunning his 33/1 quote at Hilton Head for a tournament for which he had no great pedigree.

And he conquered the tight little South Carolina course, one of the trickiest on the rota, with his chief weapon malfunctioning as it had so embarrassingly done when he three-stabbed from five feet in the Texas Open in pre-Masters week.

Missing an 18-incher on the final green after “a brain fart” on Saturday left Spieth feeling as bad as he ever had coming off a golf course and there was further evidence in Sunday’s 68 with three misses between 3 and 5 feet that there’s a problem that needs urgent attention.

No player who ranked only 60th on the week’s greens stats, as Spieth did at the Heritage, had ever won there so beating a strong field containing five of the world’s top ten “without my putter” had to be a huge confidence boost, with staggeringly good figures on Driving, once his Achilles heel, and Greens in Regulation. Houdini-style escapes, scrambling wizardry, miraculous long putting … they used to be the keys to Spieth’s greatness. Now the wheel has turned and if the Dallas genius can get the flat stick sorted out for Southern Hills, who knows, we may, after eight years fruitlessly cheering at Augusta for a Rory Slam, be welcoming a worthier sixth member to the Slam Club.

Sure, Spieth needed a helping hand from Sepp Straka, Shane Lowry, Erik Van Rooyen and Patrick Cantlay, who all wilted under fire at Hilton Head but, as he said, sometimes you lose tournaments you should win and sometimes you win some you shouldn’t. This was the latter and, with only one decent previous finish, a second at Pebble Beach, to his name in 2022, he will happily take it and run.

There’s no Spieth at this week’s annual pairs event, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, but there’s still a big Dallas interest with Masters hero and world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who has lived there since he was six, replacing the missing Jon Rahm in Lone Star State veteran Ryan Palmer’s team at the TPC Louisiana course at Avondale.

Palmer seems to have a hotline to the stars as he won this with Rahm in 2019 and came back last year to finish seventh with the Spaniard when victory went to the Aussies Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman after a sudden-death shootout with longtime South African pals Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.

Four victories in six outings have boosted the Scheffler bank balance by almost $8.5m and he will be much fancied to make it five from seven in this fifth edition of the Classic, previously an ordinary strokeplay tournament, as a team event. There are two rounds apiece of fourballs and alternate-shot foursomes, as per the Ryder Cup. Scheffler finished a close eighth with Bubba Watson on his debut last year but that came when he was still looking for his tour breakthrough. Four wins and one successful Ryder Cup later, he’s a vastly different proposition but whether Palmer putts well enough to help him sufficiently is another matter as the 45-year-old has missed four of his last six cuts.

A more evenly-balanced combo is worth searching for and the three the bookies like best are Collin Morikawa/Viktor Hovland, Cantlay/Xander Schauffele and defending champions Smith and Leishman.

My preference is for Leishman and dual Zurich champion Smith, also the winner with Jonas Blixt in 2017 and close to Masters glory earlier in the month following sensational victories at Kapalua and Sawgrass.

Tip-top course form from Billy Horschel, the 2018 winner with Scott Piercy and champion five years earlier in the days when the Classic was an individual event, suggests he and Valspar hero Sam Burns can step up on last year’s fourth place. Both have been in fine order this year and rate the main threat in my book.

This is very much a team game so don’t rule out close pals Will Zalatoris and Davis Riley – they used to flat-share.

Rahm and Swede Blixt have both been one half of a winning team but the first all-European winners are still awaited. There are seven in the mix among the 80 teams – Lowry/Ian Poulter, Tommy Fleetwood/Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell/Seamus Power, Tyrrell Hatton/Danny Willett, Sam Horsfield/Matt Wallace, Martin Laird/Robert MacIntyre and Justin Rose/Henrik Stenson.

With Fleetwood playing markedly better (10th Heritage, 14th Masters), he and that great team man Garcia, runners-up to Rahm and Palmer three years ago, look Europe’s No. 1 hopes while the old-new Irish combination of G Mac and birdie machine Power appeals each-way at big odds if there’s to be an upset.

Like Hilton Head, this is a Pete Dye layout with 100-plus bunkers, five ponds and a fine 585-yard finishing hole with water down the entire right side. A par 72 measuring 7341 yards, the better-ball record is 60 and, in alternate shot, 65. Best winning score is 27-under 261 by Smith/Blixt in 2017. It’s going to be dry – quite a change these days in the States – with temperatures peaking at 30C on Sunday.

ISPS HANDA CHAMPIONSHIP


Best bets
2pts each-way Pablo Larrazabal @ 25/1
2pts each-way Rasmus Hojgaard @ 16/1
1pt each-way Sihwan Kim @ 40/1
1pt each-way Haotong Li @ 66/1
0.5pts each-way Matti Schmid @ 66/1
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After ten globetrotting weeks visiting all parts of the UAE, Kenya, South Africa and, of course, the USA (if you were lucky or talented enough to get a Masters or WGC Match Play spot), the DP World Tour finally hits continental Europe for a double helping of Spanish golf, teeing off with a new event at a Greg Norman course south of Barcelona.

This is the ISPS Handa Championship at the Lakes Course at Infinitum close to Tarragona, and the clue is in the name – there are lakes galore and for hydrophobes it’s not a good place to be as 13 of the holes require navigation away from the dreaded agua.

There will be no complaints from the rank-and-file who have had no tournament to play in for three weeks and will be thrilled to get back to work.

Short by today’s standards at 6963 yards, the par 70 course is, to say the least, unusual as there’s no par five until the 16th, then two come in the last three holes. The dogleg 18th is the second par five and regarded as a strong finisher with a long sandy-waste carry off the tee and a big lake to the left to catch a wayward second.

With two short risk-reward par fours to tempt them, we can expect plenty of birdies and nobody plays more aggressively than flag-hunting old fox Pablo Larrazabal.

Spaniards always play with pride in their home country and Larrazabal, already a winner at Pecanwood in South Africa, third in Ras Al Khaimah and fifth in Qatar, will be hard to beat.

That’s a tip-top start to the campaign by one of the tour’s real characters who will be chasing his seventh tour victory in a winning career that began in 2008.

Larrazabal’s form stands up well against market leaders Bernd Wiesberger and Rasmus Hojgaard and I prefer him to Wiesberger whose 2022 form has so far been uninspiring.

More to my liking is the Hojgaard twin from Denmark who won three times from the ages of 18 to 20 and is a precocious talent surely destined for the top. Bomber brother Nicolai is so far the only 2022 winner in the family, at Ras Al Khaimah, and Rasmus will be ultra-keen to level the score here and get off the mark for the season.

After four steady but ordinary efforts in the Gulf, Rasmus has put in two much-improved efforts on the PGA Tour, sixth in the Corales Puntacana in the Dominican Republic and 18th at the Texas Open, whereas his sibling has missed all four US cuts.

One we know is in form is American Sihwan Kim, who won for the second time in a month on the Asian Tour at the weekend. True, it was a pretty modest affair, a mixed stableford tournament in Thailand where the runner-up was the world 98th-rated woman golfer, but he did win pretty easily and did show a bit of form with a brace of top-tens in the UK last year.

Chinese ace Haotong Li is unpredictable but would win this at his best. He showed up well in the Sony Open at Waialae (12th despite a poor Sunday) on the PGA Tour followed by third in the Ras Championship in the Gulf. He is worth risking at 66/1 in a field where there are question marks against pretty well everybody.

Some are proving impossible to win with so for the final pick go for a youngster who can only get better, Matti Schmid, top amateur at the Open at Sandwich last year, then runner-up at the Dutch Open shortly after turning pro.

The ambitious German hasn’t quite hit his stride yet this year but third place in the new Steyn City Championship in South Africa was a step in the right direction.

Big-hitting South African Wilco Nienaber, French prospect Julien Brun and local hopes Adri Arnaus and Nacho Elvira look best of the rest while Brits Ewen Ferguson, surprise winner in Qatar, and Matthew Jordan, who might have won there but for a wretched piece of luck, also come into the reckoning.


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