The PGA Tour stops in California this week for the CareerBuilder Challenge, another event which helps the players ease into their 2018 schedule before the harder events start to roll around.
As usual this is the first event of the New Year to be played in mainland U.S. and whilst it doesn’t always attract the best fields, mainly due to the Pro-Am aspect of the event and the fact it was a five-round event as recently as 2011, it does provide players a chance to acclimatise to the California swing.
The field this season is headlined by World No.3, Spanish sensation, Jon Rahm who will be preparing to defend his title at Torrey Pines next week. Rahm is coming off the back of a 2nd place finish behind Dustin Johnson at the Tournament of Champions, in what was his first start since winning the season-ending DP World Tour Championship on the European Tour, in November.
Joining Rahm will be Brian Harman who posted his fourth top-5 finish in his last five events at the Sony Open last week. Harman has now finished 8th or better in five straight events, marking an incredible run of form which is just missing a win to top it all off.
Harman won his second PGA Tour event last season, at the Wells Fargo Championship and given his current form it is unlikely to be long before he adds a third. With finishes of 3rd, 8th and 11th amongst his six starts at this course (the 8th coming at Q-School in 2011) there’s no reason why that cannot come here.
The Courses and what it will take to win
TPC Stadium Course at PGA West, 7,113 Yards, Par 72
TPC Tournament at PGA West, 7,159 Yards, Par 72
La Quinta Country Club, 7,060 Yards, Par 72
Much like the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, this event uses three courses and also has a Pro-Am element of its own. That’s where the comparisons stop though, as this is a completely different test to the aforementioned Pebble Beach event. This event is played in desert conditions, whilst Pebble is in a coastal location.
Some players cope better than others in Pro-Am conditions, some even thrive off of it, so it can be a bonus if a player you like has done well at Pebble but I wouldn’t weight it as too much of a factor.
Onto the courses and La Quinta is not only the shortest of the three courses, but it also plays the easiest of the three and ranked 49/50 in terms of course difficulty on the PGA Tour in 2017.
Last season Adam Hadwin shot a 59 there, matching David Duval’s 18-hole record here in 1999, with Duval’s coming at the old PGA Palmer Course.
At the end of the day, what you need to do to win here is make a bucket-load of birdies, taking advantage of La Quinta in particular and the easy set up in general at this event.
To make the amount of birdies needed, good Green in Regulation numbers will be required, as will consistently good play on the Par-4’s. There are some easy Par-4’s to take advantage of, across the three courses and these need to be scored on.
The irons clearly need to be dialed in to achieve the above, but converting the chances with the putter is also important and the two go hand-in-hand.
All of the last five winners have ranked 15th or better for Greens in Regulation with Swafford ranking T1 last year, Bill Haas T3 in 2015 and Brian Gay T4 in 2013.
The low scoring shown over the past two weeks in Hawaii will continue this week and this event could yield the lowest score of 2018 so far.
Dustin Johnson won with a score of -24 at the Tournament of Champions two weeks ago and Patton Kizzire kept the low-scoring fashion up this past weekend, when he beat James Hahn in a play-off after the pair both reached -17 thru 72 holes.
The courses here will give up low scores all week and two low rounds at the Stadium Course may well be the difference maker here. The Stadium course is used once over the first three days but is also used for the final round, for those making the 54-hole cut.
The average winning score at this event over the past five years is -24, even with the changes to the course rotation in 2016 taken into account and that will need to be the target score this week.
Hudson Swafford got his maiden PGA Tour victory here last season, birdieing three of the final four holes to beat both Hadwin and Bud Cauley by one stroke.
Swafford had gone bogey-double bogey on holes 16 and 17 in round three, but birdied both in the final round to secure a clutch victory. This really showed immense character, especially for a player without a win on Tour to that point.
Hadwin’s third round 59 and strong finish in round four was not enough to secure victory here last season, as he made just two birdies in the first 15 holes on the final day.
Jon Rahm (10/1)
Brian Harman (16/1)
Kevin Kisner (20/1)
Patrick Reed (22/1)
Webb Simpson (25/1)
All five of those leading the market have won on the PGA Tour, with Simpson the sole man in possession of a major championship. The other four however generally come up in conversation for major championships, most recently Harman, who is somewhat of a late bloomer.
Harman finished T2 at last year’s U.S. Open after holding a one-stroke lead heading into the final round, and is already getting some hype ahead of the Masters, which is played in his home state.
It is a mixed bag of course form for the market leaders though, with Reed a winner here in 2014 and both Harman and Simpson posting two top-8 finishes each. Rahm however is making just his second start, following a T34 on debut and Kisner has been somewhat dissapointing in this event over the years.
Kisner has never finished better than his T25 here last year in this event, although he did finish T11 at the Q-School event here in 2011. Such is his quality these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if he put his troubles at this event behind this week, but I wouldn’t be jumping at the bit to back him either, at 20/1.
Brian Harman 16/1 (UniBet & 888 – 6 places 1/5 odds) 2 pts e/w:
He may be the second favourite in the field, and it may not be the most original pick but Harman looks almost impossible to leave out this week.
Twelve months ago Harman finished 3rd here, a year after finishing 11th, so it is clear he has found a liking for this event.
Adding to his recent event form, Harman also finished 8th at Q-School when it was hosted here in 2011 so it is fair to say he has an affinity with the setup here.
With five straight top-8 finishes which include four top-5’s, it is now time for Harman to capitalise on some special form.
Harman has made huge strides as a player over the last couple of years and whilst his win at the Wells Fargo was just his second on the PGA Tour, and his first for three years, he now looks ready to become a perennial winner on Tour.
The potential has been there ever since Harman was an amateur winning multiple times, as well as playing on winning Palmer and Walker Cup teams. He will turn 31 this week, when playing this event and has plenty of good years ahead of him.
After getting his second win, finishing 2nd in the U.S. Open and playing in his first Presidents Cup, 2017 was a huge year for Harman and will no doubt make him hungry for more in 2018. He is currently on track to make the Ryder Cup side and that will no doubt be a goal of his this season.
He ranks 5th in Greens in Regulation, 12th in Strokes Gained: Putting and 16th in Total Birdies so far this season, all of which will help his cause here.
Brian Stuard 80/1 (Betfred 5 places 1/4 odds and StanJames 6 places 1/5 odds) 1pt e/w:
“Strike while the iron is hot” so they say, and this iron is boiling right now. Stuard was one of the last off my list last week, as I sided with Chris Kirk at the same odds, which didn’t pay off in the end.
Kirk didn’t play badly, in fact he co-led after round one, thanks to a very good 63, but never hit the same heights again and eventually finished a respectable T10. He is a player who looks to be finding form of old and worth keeping an eye on.
Stuard on the other hand continued to do what he has done all season long – he impressed.
Stuard’s T4 finish at the Sony this past weekend was his second top-4 and third top-10 in his first five starts this season, whilst also going 5/5 for cuts made.
Stuard’s only Tour win came at the 2016 Zurich Classic, which was shortened to 54-holes due to heavy rainfall. Whilst this is a win as much as any other, Stuard will be keen to prove himself a winner over four rounds and with the start he has made to this season, this may well be the year.
This good run of form so far this season has seemingly come out of nowhere as he signed off 2017 with seven-straight missed cuts, starting at the U.S. Open.
There is a risk, like there is with any player that the bubble may burst after a good run, but I think in Stuard’s case, that run may extend just one more week.
His form at this course reads MC-MC-5-10-57, so a real mixture of form. The two top-10’s however give me confidence that he can shine for another week.
Stuard currently ranks T9 in Total Birdies, 38th in Greens in Regulation and 17th in Proximity to the Hole.
That ranking of 38th in Greens in Regulation is better than it looks as well. Of the players that have played 24 rounds (how many he’s played) or more, only three players rank higher than Stuard. He is currently hitting over 74% of greens which is more than acceptable and will aid him this week.
Given his brilliant start to the season, highlighted by his T4 last week, I am somewhat surprised to still see 80/1 about him, given he was only 125/1 last week. I appreciate he has only won one event, and isn’t exactly the most consistent or even predictable type, but he is surely worth a punt at 80/1 based on course and current form.
Ryan Palmer 125/1 (General) 0.5pt e/w:
Ryan Palmer made his first start of the new season last week and only managed a T58 finish, but it may well have been good enough to give him the boost he needs to kick on and have a good season.
He hit 75% of greens in Hawaii last week but ranked second to last in the field for Strokes Gained: Putting so clearly struggled on the putting surface.
Should his putting revert to anything like normal this week, there’s a good chance Palmer has a good week at a course and event he clearly enjoys.
Since 2006, Palmer has finished inside the top-10 on five occasions, including a 2nd in 2014 and a 4th in 2011. Palmer has also only missed the cut twice in that span, so he generally sticks around for the whole week here.
Off the course Palmer has been having massive problems with both his Wife’s and his own health but his tweet after his T58 in Hawaii suggests the stresses are getting easier.
In a tweet this past Sunday, Palmer wrote “Happiest T58 I’ve ever had. After last two years, blessed to be back out with Jen getting healthy and myself being healthy. Here’s to a great 2018. Thank you to all sponsors @unisyscorp @RBC @United_Rentals @Columbia1938 @Titleist @JaniKingClean”
Whilst we don’t know the full extent, it appears Palmer is in a much better place off the course and if that is the case, then there is every chance the 3-time PGA Tour winner goes well here, on a course he has done everything but win at.
At 125/1 I am more than happy to take a chance that his happiness off the course coupled with an improved putting performance, can see Palmer go low here and get the win his form in this event deserves.
Dominic Bozzelli 200/1 (General) 0.5pt e/w:
Dominic Bozzelli was enjoying a successful rookie season on the PGA Tour in 2017, before having to shut it down early due to injury.
Before teeing it up at the Sony Open last week, Bozelli had not played since the RBC Canadian Open last July, due to his injury troubles.
A T39 finish last week then looks extremely positive under the circumstances and he will be pleased to get through four rounds to start off 2018.
Bozzelli is a natural winner, winning four times in in 2014 on the NGA (Hooters) Tour and winning Rookie and Player of the Year honours that season. In the same year he played four times on the Web.com Tour, finishing in the top-10 twice.
He qualified for the 2015 Web.com Tour season and a year later won his first event, at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship. This event will now become a PGA Tour event in 2018 and will be played opposite the WGC Match Play, offering a two-year PGA Tour exemption for the winner.
After securing playing rights for the PGA Tour in 2017, it was time to work hard to keep his playing privileges – which he did.
He posted three top-10’s last season, the final one coming at the FedEx St.Jude Classic, which secured his card for this season.
His first of the three top-10’s last season came at this event though, finishing T5 on his debut. This came after a tough settling in period which saw him miss three of his first five cuts of the season.
Not only did he finish well here last season, he actually led the event after round 1, after shooting eight-under-par on the Stadium Course. This is the hardest of the three courses here and to come out and shoot 64 at the first time of asking takes some doing.
With his injury problems hopefully behind him, he can build on his play last season, which saw him finish in the top-5 both here and at the Valspar Championship as well as that T10 at the St Jude Classic.
At 200/1 I thought it was worth chancing a young talent who played exceptionally well here on debut last year and did ok in his season opener last week.
Total Points staked this week: 8
Profit/Loss for 2018: +0.6