It was a frustrating week for us at the Sony Open as all of our four picks played solidly from tee to green but failed to spark with the putter and in event where the flat stick tens to be the key club that was enough to mean they all languished mid division at best.
The event itself was won by Si Woo Kim who closed with two birdies to steal the title from under Hayden Buckley’s nose. Si Woo is as we know is a master of these shorter tracks so while he bucked the events general trend of the winner having teed it up at the Sentry the week before it was no huge surprise to see him triumph here. For Buckley meanwhile you would expect this to be a huge learning curve and it would be no surprise to see him go one better later in the year.
So after its two week stint in Hawaii the PGA Tour moves across to Palm Springs, California for the start of the traditional ‘West Coast Swing’ played at this time of year with the first event of this stretch being the American Express.
This event is the first of two Pro Am events in a three week stretch [The other being the AT & T National] with both events played across three courses.
As has always historically been the case the event rotates over three courses with the players playing one round each on The Stadium Course, The Nicklaus Tournament course and La Quinta over the first three days with The Stadium Course then hosting the final round.
The American Express first debuted on tour as the Palm Springs Classic in 1960. Since then it has gone through many guises and course changes and is most synonymous with the late Bob Hope who was the tournament host for many years, with the event being known as The Bob Hope Desert Classic and then the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic for many a year.
Over the more recent years the tournament has struggled to find a long term lead sponsor and after stints from Humana and CareerBuilder it found itself without a title sponsor in 2019 and with its future in real jeopardy.
Fortunately however it was announced at the back end of 2019 that American Express had signed a ‘multiyear’ deal to take over as lead sponsor of the event and initially Phil Mickelson was installed as tournament host with the aim of helping the event regain a profile more akin to its previous heyday. This year though of course Mickelson is no longer in that role for obvious reasons.
That said the event has attracted a strong a field this year as it has for many a year with Jon Rahm heading up the market followed by Patrick Cantlay, Scottie Scheffler, Tony Finau, Will Zalatoris and Xander Schauffele.
The courses used this year will be as follows;
The Stadium Course
The Nicklaus Tournament Course
The Courses used for the event have changed over the years and the current rotation has been in play for the last four editions.
The Stadium Course is the current host course and having had a brief stint in the rotation in the mid 1980s was reintroduced in 2016, so this will be its fifth year in use of late.
The Stadium Course is a Pete Dye design so it is certainly worth looking at form across other Pete Dye courses used on tour with TPC Sawgrass being an obvious point of reference.
The Nicklaus Tournament Course was also added to the events course rotation in 2016 replacing the PGA West Nicklaus Private Course. Prior to 2020 the Nicklaus Tournament Course greens were changed to Tiff eagle Bermuda. In addition they were also expanded in size.
La Quinta Country Club has been the staple diet of the event for 50 years and, up until last year had been used with no breaks since 2010.
All players get to play one round on each course over the first three days before a 54 hole cut is made. The players who make the cut then play the final round at the Stadium Course.
Those betting in running should note that of the 3 courses La Quinta yields the lowest scoring average, whilst The Stadium Course is the toughest nut to crack.
The greens on all 3 courses are Bermuda.
While the current course rotation [with the exception of La Quinta missing out in 2021 due to Covid]] has only been in play for the last seven editions of the event it is worth noting that the now defunct PGA Tour Q School used to be played at the Stadium Course every other year and it is certainly worth cross referencing results from this event which was last played in 2012.
With the courses used for the event having undergone such a radical overhaul since 2016 it is probably not worth looking back further than that year.
The winners of the seven editions from 2016 have been as follows;
2022 Hudson Swafford
2021 Si Woo Kim
2020 Andrew Landry
2019 Adam Long
2018 Jon Rahm
2017 Hudson Swafford
2016 Jason Dufner
With still fairly limited data to go on it is perhaps too early to say whether patterns in relation to these winners are coincidence, however in 2019 I noted that all of the first three winners had performed well on their previous start, which was their first one of the new calendar year.
In Dufner and Swafford’s case they had finished 9th & 13th respectively at the Sony Open the week before, whilst in Rahm’s case he finished 2nd at the Sentry ToC last year before skipping the Sony Open.
2019 shock winner Adam Long though blew this blossoming trend out of the water completely as he had missed his previous three cuts on tour including at the Sony the week prior and 2020 winner Andrew Landry continued things in the same vein as he arrived here on the back of five straight missed cuts stretching back to the previous fall and was whatever price you liked!
Moving on 2021 winner Si Woo Kim, whilst not really threatening the top of the leaderboard at the Sony Open the week before had posted a solid 25th place finish in Honolulu, which had put him on a lot of peoples radar’s, including I’m pleased to say ours! Finally last years champion Swafford, who will of course not be here to defend having defected to LIV golf, produced an under the radar 48th place at the Sony in his first start of 2022 the week before winning here.
Despite the lack of form coming in from the 2019 and 2020 winners one constant does remain though in that the last seven winners had all tee’d it up once previously in the calendar year, giving them a crucial ‘warm up’ edge over those who were dusting down the clubs for the first time that year.
Moving on and one trend, which has developed since the change in course roster in 2016 though, and which I can’t help thinking is not a coincidence, is that since the introduction of a Pete Dye course as the host course we have seen players more renowned for their prowess from tee to green and as ‘Ball strikers’ come out on top.
This is particularly the case with Dufner and Swafford, however Rahm is of course strong in all departments including this area, while if we look at the end of year stats for 2019 winner Adam Long it is the long game [if you pardon the pun] that he had flourished in that year rather on or around the green.
Looking at the 2020 leaderboard champion Andrew Landry’s strength comes in his accurate driving while Ancer, Scheffler, Straka and Burns who all finished prominently are all high quality ball strikers.
As for 2021 Champion Si Woo Kim in the Korean we of course had an out and out Pete Dye specialist who no doubt flourished here further due to the extra round on the Stadium Course.
Another point to note is that although this is a ‘West Coast’ event if we look at the final leaderboards over the past five years this is not an event dominated by players who hail from/are based in California or the surrounding states, in fact it is players from the Southern/Eastern states who have dominated here.
To back this up we can see that both Si Woo Kim and Landry are Texas based, as are Ancer and Ghim who finished top five in 2021 and Scheffler, who along with Ancer again finished in the top three in 2020.
Adam Long hails from Louisiana and is based in the golfing mecca of Jupiter, Florida. Dufner is an Auburn man and Swafford is a Georgia man. In fact aside from Phil Mickelson the only other recognised Cali guys to make the top six here in the last five years are Cantlay, Na, Steele and Lovemark. Something, which we can probably put down to the Bermuda greens.
From the point of correlating courses while we need to bear in mind Pete Dye tracks, one event on the Korn Ferry Tour has caught my eye, The Ellie Mae Classic At TPC Stonebrae, also in California.
To explain further if we look at the history of this event from 2015 to 2020 we will see that 2021 winner Si Woo Kim is a former champion at TPC Stonebrae while 2019 champion here Adam Long, finished fourth at the Ellie Mae Classic the year before, delve back a year further we will see that the players who finished first and second at the Ellie Mae in 2017, Martin Piller and Brandon Harkins, finished third and eighth respectively at the Amex a year later. Finally, 2015 Ellie Mae runner up Jamie Lovemark finished sixth here in 2016.
In 2021 with three of the four rounds played on the Pete Dye designed Stadium Course as opposed to two in previous years it made sense to focus more on form on other Dye tracks particularly TPC Sawgrass, which bears a lot of similarities to this weeks venue and was an obvious pointer and this lead us to Si Woo Kim. Still though even with the Stadium Course hosting only two rounds again it is still worth of course cross referencing other Dye tracks.
With regards to previous course form and until 2020 there had been no pointers to any of the winners since changes to the course rota’s in 2016 as the best any of the four winners had managed previously on the current rotation was a 34th place from 2018 winner Jon Rahm. In 2020 though this changed as Landry had placed second here two years prior to his victory.
2021 winner Si Woo Kim had managed nothing better than 40th in two visits since 2016 however again we need to note that last years tweak to the rotation favoured him.
Whilst the addition of the Stadium Course to the rota has toughened things up slightly in terms of scoring this event is still basically a birdie fest and this can be seen by the fact that the winning number over the past five years has been -23 -26, -26, -22, -20 & -25 respectively.
We look set for a week of sunshine however temperatures look set to be chillier than normal barely topping 70 all week.
The wind, which occasionally can be an issue here does show the possibility of gusts of 15mph+ at times across the week, however as a whole it does not look like it will be much of a factor.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with five players this week as follows;
SAHITH THEEGALA – 50/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 54th
With so much talent at the top of the market it is of course quite possible this event will be played out between Rahm, Cantlay and Scheffler. That said the first two were dominant in the market here last year only for Swafford and Hoge to fight it out down the stretch so with this pro-am format conducive to springing a shock or two over the years I will start an admittedly speculative team with Sahith Theegala.
It goes without saying that Theegala is a player hugely on the up and he was unlucky in a massively impressive debut season that saw him make it all the way to East Lake to not bag a maiden PGA Tour title at the Travelers when we were on board.
Frustrating as that near miss was for us it showed Sahith is comfortable on a Pete Dye layout.
Looking further at the 25yr olds debut seasons results and his other best efforts came in the desert at TPC Scottsdale where he was again right in the hunt down the stretch with Cantlay and Scheffler before finishing third, and at the Memorial where he finished fifth giving us a good line of form to here with the likes of Dufner and Lingmerth on a Nicklaus layout.
Strong correlating form then for Sahith in relation to this venue but what of his actual debut here last year? Well he sat in 11th heading in to Sunday having posted a 62 at the Nicklaus Tournament course on Friday and a solid 68 at the Stadium Course on Saturday before a disappointing closing 75 saw him tumble down to 33rd on day four. Still though an eye catching debut in an event you would expect to suit his aggressive style of play.
Rather than rest on his laurels Theegala has started his sophomore season in really fine style posting a runner up finish at the RSM along with fifth and sixth place finishes at the ZOZO and Fortinet. Furthermore of course while not an official PGA event he landed the trophy alongside Tom Hoge at the QBE Shootout in December to wrap up his year and that cant help but build confidence.
In to 2023 then and it was a pretty low key debut at the Sentry, however I expect Sahith to bounce back to form this week, back in his home state, and with his now trademark vocal support on hand at a venue a couple of hours from where he grew up I can see him making a bold bid for his maiden tour title.
BYEONG HUN AN – 150/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 41st
Next up this week I am drawn to the credentials of Ben An.
Thirty one year old An has undoubtedly been something of an underachiever to date in his time on the PGA Tour and things reached a low point for him at the end of the 2020/21 season when he lost his card.
Forced to return then to the Korn Ferry Tour credit to Ben he did not wallow in self pity and instead won on his third start of the season in Florida to set himself on the road to winning his card back.
Returning then to the big time after his one season in the ‘lower leagues’ Ben has started solidly enough making six of nine cuts and posting a season opening fourth at the Fortinet and a next best 12th last week at the Sony.
Looking at Ben’s week at the Sony and unusually for him it was the putter, normally by far his weakest link, which actually did most of the damage as he finished third for the week on the greens, while his long game was steady enough but unspectacular.
Allowing for that then one could look at last week and see it as an outlier, however even prior to that effort I had Ben very much on my radar this week due to his history in desert events and at correlating Nicklaus tracks.
To flesh that out further and before focusing on the PGA Tour Ben posted several top five finishes in the early year events in the desert in the Middle Eastern swing on the DP World Tour. Once then on the PGA Tour Ben posted some really strong finishes in Phoenix to show again he is comfortable in a desert environment.
If we then look at his Nicklaus form the Korean has produced the goods at both the Honda and the Memorial over the years, finishing runner up at the latter, while he was also runner up at the Nicklaus designed Glen Abbey at the 2018 RBC Canadian Open.
Further eye catching correlating form can be found with a top ten at TPC San Antonio which links here with Andrew Landry, while a top ten at Hilton Head and a couple of solid top 30s at TPC Sawgrass show us he is comfortable on a Pete Dye design.
Finally then of course we can put the guess work to one side in relation to course form and look at Ben’s eighth place finish here on his most recent visit in 2021.
My hope this week then is back at an event we know he can perform well at on courses which suit he can keep the putter rolling and improve his long game after blowing the early year cobwebs.
With Tom Kim’s emergence and Si Woo Kim’s win last week Korean men’s golf is no doubt flying high at the moment and you would have to think some of this ‘feel good’ factor with rub off on An and I can see him delivering a big performance this week.
CARL YUAN – 200/1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
One rookie who caught my eye last week was Carl Yuan and with his tee to green game, and specifically his approach play, his strength, in keeping with the likes of Swafford and Dufner I have a hunch this test could be right up his alley.
Yuan of course arrived on the PGA Tour last Fall having topped the regular seasons earnings list on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2021 bagging a win and four other top three finishes on the way.
Admittedly though it was a slow start for the 25yr old on the PGA Tour as he missed his first three cuts, however he showed signs of an uptick in his last two starts before the break in Houston and the RSM and he built on that last week in Honolulu to post his best finish to date as a full tour member, 21st.
Looking at Carl’s numbers for the week at the Sony and while he didn’t stand out in any one particular area he was solid all round with his tee to green stats, his strongest ‘strokes-gained’ category for the week, for which he was 20th, only let down by a slightly disappointing Sunday.
On to this week then and while we have nothing to go on course form wise the Chinese national makes his home in the US in Jacksonville so my hope, and indeed expectation is that he will have had plenty of opportunity to familiarize himself with TPC Sawgrass and thus by association the Stadium Course. If we then align that to Carl’s ranking of 17th in approach play on tour this season we have every reason to believe he will enjoy this test.
We saw last year unheralded rookie Lee Hodges get right in the hunt here and of course in Adam Long there is further precedent for a real shock to be sprung so on that basis I am happy to roll the dice on Carl for a big week.
AARON BADDLEY – 300/1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 50th
Next up for me this week is a player who regular readers will know I have had a close eye on this season and who rewarded us handsomely in Bermuda, Aaron Baddeley.
To be honest with his fondness for shorter coastal layouts Badds was very much on my radar for the Sony last week and I am therefore slightly kicking myself having missed out on a decent chunk of place money, with the Aussie having produced a great week to finish in a share of seventh place.
That performance at Waialae was certainly no bolt out of the blue as Aaron has started his 22/23 campaign in solid fashion having lost his full playing privileges. Relying then on sponsors exemptions and past champions status the 41yr old really has to take his chances when they come along and with two top tens and only one missed cut in five starts this season he is certainly doing that to date.
Looking at Badds’ numbers for the week in Honolulu and he did everything really solidly, ranking 29th in approach play, 28th from tee to green and 13th in his traditional trade mark strength, putting. Furthermore after making a couple of bogeys on the opening day Aaron only made one bogey over the final three days to rubberstamp how well his game was working.
So we’ve established Aaron arrives in California in good solid form but what of his suitability for this event? Well event form wise he has never really pulled up any trees here however he has played all four rounds in three of five starts here since the current rotation was implemented and an 18th place in 2019 when he closed with a 65 on the Stadium Course certainly gives cause for hope.
If we then spread the net wider though from a correlating course point of view things do get more interesting. Firstly Badds is a past champion at Hilton Head which as a Pete Dye design of course fits well here while he also has a win under his belt in the desert in Phoenix, which again links well here. Furthermore he has performed strongly at the Corales over recent years, which links nicely with two time champion here Hudson Swafford.
In addition Badds then has some strong form at the Valero Texas Open on his resume, which links here with Andrew Landry, some Pebble Beach form to show he can handle the pro am format and finally a couple of top tens at Sawgrass. Basically then he has form in all the right places!
At his worst Aaron can look lost on the course with his long game a really weak link, however he has shown over the years that when he ‘clicks’ he can be really solid as a ball striker and if the putter then cooperates as it usually does he can be a threat anywhere.
With momentum clearly building then I do think Aaron is on the cusp of something big and I am happy to chance him this week at juicy each way odds.
DAVID LINGMERTH – 300/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Finally I am going to chance that David Lingmerth can continue his renaissance at a venue that has seen him go close to victory in years gone by.
Those with decent memories will remember that the Swede can count himself mightily unfortunate to lose out to Jason Dufner here in 2016, when Dufner, having hit his tee shot on the rocks on the par three 17th, found himself in just about the only spot he could play his ball and miraculously, after hitting the pin with his second, escaped with par. In the end then Dufner took the trophy and those who were on Lingmerth, yours truly included, were left shaking their heads in disbelief.
Anyway, enough of the trip down memory lane, seven years on Lingmerth returns here for only the third time since and first in five years in the midst of somewhat of a career rejuvenation after, having been plagued by injuries, a lengthy period in the doldrums saw him fail to make any kind of impact either on the PGA Tour or more latterly the Korn Ferry Tour from 2017 until the back end of 2022.
Last year though having never given up hope of rediscovering his best form the Swede struck gold in the Korn ferry Finals at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship to produce a wire to wire win and in doing so regain his full Tour privileges.
After a slow start on his return to the big league the 35yr old found some momentum in Bermuda to finish 11th before backing this up with two further top tens in the final three events of the year in Mexico and at the RSM no doubt then he headed in to the winter break in good spirits.
Bringing us right up to date then David started 2023 with a missed cut at the Sony posting rounds of 73 and 70 and in all honesty there was nothing in that effort to make us think a big week might be in the offing as he struggled in all areas.
As we know though Lingmerth is made of pretty strong stuff and let’s not forget that at his best he shocked the golfing world to land his maiden tour title at the Memorial event at ‘Jacks place’ before going on to post high finishes in a WGC and at the PGA Championship later that year and I am pretty certain that one sluggish week to start the year will not break the momentum he has built at the end of 2022.
Returning then to David’s history here and as well as his runner up spot in 2016 he also finished second here in 2013, all be it when the current course rotation was not in play. Furthermore in that same year he showed his pedigree again by finishing second at The Players and of course that link ties very well to this week with regards to the Stadium Course here being Pete Dye’s ‘sister course’ to TPC Sawgrass.
Furthermore as well as winning at Muirfield Village Lingmerth has a top ten to his name at the Honda and these events both being played on Nicklaus courses have proven to be solid pointers to this event over the years with the rotation here including a Nicklaus design.
A resident of Jacksonville the 35yr old has of course plenty of experience on Pete Dye’s signature design and having missed the cut last week in Honolulu David may well have taken the opportunity to work on his game on a track, which would certainly help with this weeks set up. Speculation of course but either way I am hopeful David can kickstart his 2023 this week at one of his favourite venues and he is certainly worth risking at the odds.
UPDATED 17th JANUARY
SUB $7K PICKS
PICK 1 - MICHAEL THOMPSON - $6900 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS 49.5
First up in this section this week and indeed for 2023 is Michael Thompson.
A look at Thompson's history here shows us that his last four visits have been a case of 'feast or famine' with two top tens mixed with two missed cuts.
This year Michael arrives on the back of an eye catching 32nd place finish at the Sony to open his 2023 so he should head to California in good spirits.
As well as having played well here before Thompson is a former Honda Classic Champion so he fits the narrative well here in relation to solid form on a Nicklaus layout like many strong performers here over the years.
PICK 2 - BEN MARTIN - $6500 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS 58.50
My second pick for the week is Ben Martin.
Martin really caught the eye at the Sony Open last week with a strong approach play performance which saw him rank second in this department and as a former Shriners Champion we know he can perform in the desert. Add in the fact that he came close to victory at the Corales event last year, a tournament in which two time champion here Hudson Swafford has a great record and there is a lot to like about Ben coming in to this week.
The former Clemson man was close to making my team outright based on the above and having narrowly decided to leave him out I will roll the dice on him here instead to produce another solid week.