Ireland’s Festival successes can inspire Lowry

Honda Classic

Best bets
Shane Lowry 1.5pts each-way @ 25/1
Adam Scott 1pt each-way @ 25/1
Sungjae Im 1pt each-way at 12/1
Brendan Steele 0.5pt each-way @ 40/1
Maverick McNealy 0.5pt each-way @ 80/1
Padraig Harrington  0.5pt each-way @ 125/1

Players odds

Following two stupendously exciting Sundays in a row at Bay Hill and Sawgrass, the final leg of the Florida Swing, the Honda Classic, is very much After the Lord Mayor’s Show with none of the top 15 on the world rankings on the tee at PGA National.

So Bryson DeChambeau v Lee Westwood III will have to wait. Westwood, up from 31st to 19th after a superb but ultimately frustrating second place, this time beaten by the fast-finishing Justin Thomas. Ironically, Lee  holed a 20-footer at the last to finish just ahead of last week’s nemesis DeChambeau.

Just to finish runner-up two weeks in a row against tip-top fields when only a month shy of your 48th birthday is a remarkable feat in itself and as someone who has criticised Lee in the past for weak Sunday finishes when in 54-hole contention, it is only fair to admit that these past two weeks have been an eye-opener.

Even without his A-game for the final round of the Players, overnight leader Westwood kept himself in the hunt right up to his three-putt on the infamous island-green 17th. Until then he had gutsily holed every par-saving four or five-footer presented to him.

Penalty shots for two earlier visits to the water were in the end the difference between victory and defeat. It was the same story with another English hero Paul Casey. The wet quadruple-bogey seven at the 17th in round one was just too big a millstone round his neck, brilliantly though he played in recovering to a share of fifth place.

To play this well at 43 in Casey’s case and 47 in Westwood’s, given the quality of the opposition, it is a crying shame neither has won a Major. As both are playing arguably the best golf of their long careers, there is still time.

Westwood is down to play the Honda at the difficult PGA National Champion course and although being in the firing line three weeks on the spin is a big ask at whatever age, at pushing 48 it would be freaky.

He admits he has no great expectations this week after playing three social rounds with his son (who caddies for him this week, giving fiancé Helen a rest) at Augusta straight after his Sawgrass near miss and that is a tough course to walk. He may have overdone it.

But for Covid making the Cheltenham Festival a no-go area even for owners, Lee would doubtless be there this week. I would love this big racing fan to win but can’t see it.

Yet he was fourth to Im last year on a 7125-yard par 70 where the winning score was just six under par. Courses where par is a good score are meat and drink to grafter Westwood.

It was the same six-under tally that took Padraig Harrington and Daniel Berger into a play-off six years ago and provided the Irishman with his second Honda success ten years apart.

At 49 he is likely to be inspired by the performances of the two 40-somethings who will be the iron men of Pod’s Ryder Cup squad if they are still holding this sort of form in September.

As for Harrington the golfer, there’s enough on his recent record – sixth in Dubai at the end of January – for a small each-way at 125-1 on his favourite US track.

In the absence of Daniel Berger, a late withdrawal through injury, Im is favourite in this 144-runner field playing for a $7m purse and so he should be. But defending a title is never easy.

Don’t give up yet on Adam Scott, who regularly appears in this column. We will get our money back and it could well be in this very average company.

Champion on the Champion course five years ago, the Aussie posted top-20s in 2017-18 and tee to green can be strikingly impressive. Only one top-ten this campaign but he is consistent and this is the weakest field he has faced.

Last year the Honda was the first and only win for South Korean star Im who has been
on leaderboards so regularly it is hard to believe he is still only 22. Last week he pulled himself up to 17th by following a 77 with a closing 66 but I am wary of accepting at face-value hot final rounds when a player is not contending. Even so, he has to be worth a saver.

Shane Lowry was noted posting the best finish of a disappointing campaign when eighth at the Players and now might be the best time to catch him. His 2019 Open Championship victory seems a long time ago but, as they say, form is temporary, class is for ever.

The Irish horses have hoovered up most of the Cheltenham prize money and wedge wizard Lowry can add to the Emerald Isle spoils on a course that gives nothing away.

Brendan Steele, fourth last year, is playing nicely and won’t be far away nor will Chilean youngster Joaquin Niemann. Chris Kirk and Sawgrass third Brian Harman are playing well but neither has much of a record at PGA National.

Not the most consistent, the wonderfully-named Maverick McNealy was 11th on his course debut last year and will be a factor if reproducing the golf he played to finish runner-up at Pebble Beach. Another young talent Brandon Wu dominated the Korn Ferry Tour last year, winning their Tour Championship, could spring a surprise.

Kenya Open

Best bets
Guido Migliozzi: 2pts each-way @ 25/1
Jamie Donaldson: 1pt each-way @ 33/1
George Coetzee: 1pt each-way @ 25/1
Kalle Samooja: 1pt each-way @ 22/1
Justin Harding: 0.5pt each-way @ 30/1
Jayden Schaper: 0.5pt each-way @ 50/1

Players odds

There can’t be many tournaments where the limited American Kurt Kitayama starts favourite but we’ve found one, the Kenya Open at the Karen club in Nairobi.

Twice a winner last year, he is a whole six points shorter than the next in the market Kalle Samooja. Both of those let us down fading dramatically from a potential winning position at the weekend when 22-1 shot Antoine Rozner produced a 50ft birdie putt at the final hole out of the hat for his second European Tour victory.

At least Samooja has good course form, sixth to the Italian stallion, Guido Migliozzi, in the only running of this tournament two years ago, the 2020 edition wiped out by Covid.

After a weak start to 2021, Migliozzi finally got his act together in Qatar and it was only Rozner’s freak finish that stopped him getting a play-off. That sounds the perfect prep for the defence of his Kenyan title and at 25-1 this dual tour winner is worth backing.

He shot four rounds in the 60s, the best a 64, on the same short Karen course (6921 yards par 71) two years ago and is taken to beat Jamie Donaldson, George Coetzee, Samooja, 2019 Qatar winner Justin Harding and hot South African prospect Jayden Schaper. Thai star Jazz Janewattananond is also feared.

Harding’s Qatar victory came the week before he took a share of second place behind Migliozzi in Nairobi. Recent form is nothing to write home about but Harding had two thirds last year in better company at Valderrama and in the British Masters and is worth risking. He proved he could mix it with the best when 12th at the real Masters in 2019.

The difference between the Donaldson whose wedge shot clinched the Ryder Cup for Europe seven years ago and the journeyman he is today is self-belief.

The Welshman has come through some dark years but on the evidence of second place in the SA Open in December and Sunday’s fifth in Qatar he is ready to win again and he will never have a better chance than here.

Coetzee is a five-time winner on the European Tour and started the year strongly with high finishes in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Disappointing last week after a good start, this is his opportunity to atone.

Schaper, sixth in the South African Open as an amateur, celebrated his 20th birthday on Monday and is being touted as the next Ernie Els. He gets a special invite this week and won’t be fazed by this opposition. We shall see if he has what it takes. Like fellow prospect, the giant-hitting Wilco Nienaber, he is a work in progress.

More seasoned is Sam Horsfield who won twice in three weeks last year. This is his first outing since contracting Covid in the lead-up to the US Open in September.

Whether it is the fallout from that or something else that has caused such a long stint on the sidelines, I don’t know but he is a colourful addition to this tournament and if the rust doesn’t show, he will be a threat to all.

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