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With only 3 weeks to go now until The Masters, the PGA Tour moves to Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Arnold passed away on the 25th September last year, so this will be the first time that his tournament will have been played at his beloved Bay Hill with the great man himself not in attendance and is sure to be emotional for players, PGA Tour staff, spectators and of course the Palmer family. A field including McIlroy, Day, Stenson, Matsuyama, Fowler and Rose is tribute to the man alone, but some commentators have pointed out players who will not be in attendance this week: sandwiched between two World Golf Championship events, Bay Hill simply does not fit into some player schedules - but we should nevertheless see a feast of attacking golf this week.
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Back to the golf and Bay Hill is a Florida setup that's classical in its nature. The course has changed quite considerably over the tenure of new Course Superintendent Chris Flynn who's taken strides to returning the layout closer to its original guise, saying recently, "In addition to extensive tree trimming, we widened and lengthened all the fairways. To balance out the fairway changes, we also removed a lot of the rough areas in front of water hazards and bunkers. These areas have traditionally served as backstops for players, but now there’s a higher chance of your ball rolling into those hazards. We’ve also made the traditionally high rough even higher than in the past."
Course Guide: Bay Hill is a classical golf course just around the corner from the world famous Disney theme park and extremely close to the golfing commune of Windermere in Florida. The stretching 7,419 yard, Par 72 features a set of tough par-4s plus 3 of the par-5s measure over 550 yards. To score around here every facet of a player's game is tested to the maximum. Not many PGA Tour events these days feature 4" of rough plus green complexes that can run as firm as 12 on the stimpmeter if the elements allow. Since the 2015 renewal, all holes and green complexes have been re-grassed with the putting surfaces featuring TifEagle Bermudagrass.
Bay Hill Country Club, Windermere, Florida: Designer: Wilson & Joe Lee 1961 with Arnold Palmer re-design 2009; Course Type: Florida, Classical; Par: 72; Length: 7,419 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 8; Fairways: Celebration Bermuda; Rough: Celebration Bermuda 4"; Greens: 6,500 sq.ft average TifEagle Bermudagrass; Tournament Stimp: 11ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 73.18 (+1.18), Difficulty Rank 12 of 49 courses. 2013: 72.93 (+0.93), Difficulty Rank 12 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.47 (+0.47), Rank 16 of 48 courses. 2015: 71.12 (-0.88), Rank 36 of 52 courses. 2016: 71.49 (-0.51), Rank 28 of 50 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for Bay Hill and how they compare to recent courses on the PGA Tour:
Course Overview: Bay Hill will once again find itself as the least difficult leg of the shortened Florida Swing. Whereas across 2007-2011 the course played as one of the toughest on the PGA Tour, let alone Florida, the technical tests at PGA National and Copperhead have now relegated Bay Hill to a slightly easier category in relative terms. Wide fairways, softer turf and large green complexes mean that Bay Hill can now be taken apart if conditions are tranquil. Matt Every (2015) and Jason Day have won the last 2 renewals at -19/279 and -17/281 respectively, scores the like of which we haven't seen at Bay Hill since Tiger Woods and Chad Campbell won the event in 2003 and 2004 respectively. 2017 should see low scores again as pretty standard 10mph winds are set for the week, so expect the winner to need circa 35% birdie or better hole conversion rate this week as opposed to Hadwin's 29% last week. Plodders, especially with a stone-cold Bermudagrass green putter, are not likely to prosper.
The new, wider Bay Hill format dictates that the strength of the wind is a key variable when it comes to scoring. The course has a set of par-3s which are some of the toughest on the PGA Tour. But the real difference over the past 2 seasons here in terms of difficulty has been the relative ease of par-4 scoring, which traditionally used to be some of the sternest on Tour. However in 2015 and 2016 par-4 Scoring Average at Bay Hill was the 25th and 26th easiest for the season, compared to 8th and 6th back in 2011 and 2012. Bay Hill's par-5s have also noticeably played easier of late - 33rd in par-5 Scoring Average last year compared to 12th in 2011 - meaning that plenty of Bay Hill's bite has seemingly been lost. However the devil is in the detail as Bay Hill still ranked in the top 7 toughest courses last year for Proximity to Hole, so to score heavily here players still need to make their fair share of putts on the TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces. Pure ball-strikers alone will not get the job done; instead Jason Day and Matt Every, across both of the Floridian's 2014 and 2015 wins, ranked 6th, 8th and 3rd in Stokes Gained Putting.
Winners: 2016: Jason Day (-17); 2015: Matt Every (-19); 2014: Matt Every (-13); 2013: Tiger Woods (-13); 2012: Tiger Woods (-13); 2011: Martin Laird (-8); 2010: Ernie Els (-11).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Arnold Palmer Invitational predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Rory McIlroy (No.1), Thomas Pieters, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the SBS Tournament of Champions and includes PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2016: Day 14/1; 2015: Every 300/1; 2014: Every 66/1; 2013: Woods 3/1; 2012: Woods 8/1; 2011: Laird 45/1; 2010: Els 16/1; Average: 65/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Bay Hill, Florida is here. A relatively tranquil renewal looks very likely in 2017 at Bay Hill. A smattering of rain overnight on Monday looks likely to soften the course a little, but across the rest of tournament week expect sunny conditions. Saturday and Sunday look warmer with the final day looking the windiest with gusting winds up to 20 mph.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 7 winners of this event since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this technical test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Let's take a view from players as to how the Bay Hill sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Jason Day: "I mean today, I was pretty aggressive with the par-5s for the most part. I still tried to stay aggressive on the par-5s today but you know I hooked a 4 metal on 4 and ended up making a bogey and then I hit another 4 metal on 12 and ended up making a birdie. You know, there's no formula to it. You have to come to a golf course like this and just crush the par-5s. That's more where all the scoring is. If you can get on the fairways, give yourself an opportunity to get to the green or around the green, let the short game take over and make birdies."
Rory McIlroy: "As I said earlier, I came away from this golf course kicking myself that I hadn't played it more often because I feel like it's a golf course that suits my game. The par-5s are quite long and I feel with my length I can take advantage of those. Very strong par-3s and the par-4s give you some chances but there's a lot of strong par-4s out there. I feel like it's a golf course that sets up well for me and you can't not feel good about your putting on these greens, they're so pure, that get the ball started on line with decent speed you know it's got a great chance of going in."
Henrik Stenson: "It's a course where you can't get away with playing only decent, you've got to play pretty well around here. Quite a lot of shots, especially towards the end when you got to commit and hit some good shots coming in and ball striking is normally one of my strong parts. Maybe two years ago or three years ago there when I think I finished 8th I put that down to magician around the greens. My pitching was phenomenal and I putted nicely. I wasn't playing that great but I still managed to squeeze a good finish out of it when I needed to have a chance to get in Augusta last on that year and last year was pretty solid. I didn't putt well and then this year I've been playing and putting well. I think it's a pretty tough course. It's been a bit easier this year due to the softness of the greens and lack of wind but it's still quite a few shots that can come up and bite you if you don't hit good - in a few the holes if you don't hit good shots at the right time. They can definitely bite back."
Martin Laird: "Sand seems the same. That's just what you know, you've got to expect it here. You know, for example, on 17, if you come up short, it's going to plug in that face. You just can't come up short. Pretty much every hole out here, the chances are, I mean, three out of four balls are probably going to plug, a lot of the shots here. So that's just to be expected. The bunkers are a true penalty around this golf course. It's not like some courses, you almost aim for bunkers sometimes as a good spot to get up and down."
Graeme McDowell: "The course is in magnificent shape. Nice amount of rough. I heard a comment to where Arnie kind of wants it to play as a U.S. Open off the tee. And Augusta-esque around the greens. And I can see what he's trying to achieve. The greens, like I say on Sunday, the firmness and the speed of the greens was very Augusta-esque with these new runoff areas that he's created the last few years. The golf course is pretty tight off the tee. Nice amount of rough. I've always enjoyed the way the golf course sets up for me. I've had a couple of good years here. Basically it's my home event these days. Used to be the Irish Open was my home event, this is home these days. So it's a special tournament for me."
Ernie Els: "We play some of the toughest par-3s at Bay Hill. Actually in the whole of Florida, the whole of the Florida Swing, we play tough par 3s and Bay Hill is especially long. The 14th hole depending on the winds you can hit anything from 6-iron to 3-iron or 5-wood. It's well bunkered with bunkers on the left side, the front right and quite a small green, so you have to be accurate. Like all of the par 3s, if you can make pars even, you've done very well, so a tough hole."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass green PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
Read any player interview around this week and you'll note that 'Arnie's tournament' has a Major feel about it. The emotion attached to this week will only heighten that feeling as players are sure to want to win the first Arnold Palmer Invitational after the great man's passing away. This is no standard domestic PGA Tour event and, taking Tiger out of the equation, recent top 3 finishers here include the likes of Stenson (3 times), Rose (twice), Bradley (twice), Day, Scott, Fowler, McDowell, Poulter, Laird and Els. All were inside the Official World Golf Rankings top 50 when they competed and all had invites in their back pocket for Augusta.
For me this week is quite a defined exercise. The nature of the course dictates that par-5 scoring is essential and birdie conversion tends to be driven predominantly by those who are at their most comfortable on grainy Bermudagrass greens, especially of the TifEagle variety. Therefore I want players who've putted well this season on Bermuda greens, ideally in Florida if at all possible. This is quite a specialised event so strong results on Florida-type courses are essential.
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My selections are as follows:
It was only 3 weeks ago that Rickie Fowler grabbed his 4th PGA Tour victory on the TifEagle Bermudagrass greens at PGA National. His putting that week was immaculate and the Californian readily admits that now that he lives in Jupiter, Florida, TifEagle is easily his favourite putting surface. So after a quiet 16th at the Club de Golf Chapultepec, which included a closing round -4/67, I can see the World Number 9 going well again this week in Orlando. You see Rickie was always close to 'The King' and in the past often took sage advice from Palmer. Indeed, along with Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, a tearful Fowler was honoured to take the Ryder Cup into Palmer's funeral back in October.
In 2011 and 2013 Fowler came close to winning what he refers to as "Mr Palmer's Tournament" and I can only see Rickie giving it 100% this week. 1st for Bogey Avoidance, 13th for Greens in Regulation, 4th for par-4 Scoring Average, 48th for par-5 Birdie or Better and 15th for Strokes Gained Putting are a set of season statistics that stack up perfectly for Bay Hill and Fowler's CV is also worth a look. Correlating course links to Tiger Woods who's won this tournament 8 times cannot be a bad strategy, so it's interesting to see that Rickie has won at Quail Hollow, TPC Sawgrass and TPC Boston, plus he's finished 2nd at Muirfield Village and Firestone as well as 3rd here in 2013. For those who're wondering, I calculate that Tiger has won 25 times across those 5 courses! Comfortably sitting inside the top 5 of this week's published Predictor Model, I'm more than happy to get Rickie on my team this week.
I also like the look of Thomas Pieters who makes his second appearance at the API this week; the big difference this time around being that he hasn't flown in directly from Thailand like he did 12 months ago. That can only help the 25 year-old who's making serious waves in the United States. Naturally arriving at a U.S. course that he's played previously on the PGA Tour must be quite novel for the Belgian, but we shouldn't overlook Pieters' University of Illinois background. The World Number 29 has plenty of experience of some of America's finest classical golf courses from those days: back in 2011 he won the Jack Nicklaus Invitational at Muirfield Village and in 2012 he won individual honours at the 2012 N.C.A.A. Division One Golf Championship hosted at Riviera Country Club. It's worth noting that in winning these college events he was beating the likes of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay - who reminded us of his talent last week at Copperhead.
Pieters' initial outing at Hazletine last September wasn't too shabby either and there's no doubt that the Belgian has found some fantastic form right now with 2nd at Riviera being followed by a breakthrough 5th at the WGC Mexico Championship a fortnight ago. The wide fairways here at Bay Hill will benefit Pieters whose approach play in Mexico was second to only Dustin Johnson of the players at the top of the leaderboard. It's also interesting to note that wins on the European Tour have come with scores of -20/268, -19/261 and -17/267: with a winning total likely to be around the high teens, I think that the Belgian can get involved again this week in his bid to win his first PGA Tour title. 2nd in this week's Predictor Model.
Tyrrell Hatton is another player who's hit the PGA Tour by storm. Still with no official PGA Tour status, the World Number 16 (I had to take a second look myself) has played some beautiful stuff in 2017, finishing 13th in Abu Dhabi (it should have been so much better), 3rd in Dubai, 4th at PGA National and 10th last time out at Club de Golf Chapultepec. 6th (2014) and 2nd to Matt Fitzpatrick at the Earth Course last November, Hatton is clearly comfortable on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens and he's also very comfortable at the highest level. Remember the Marlow, Buckinghamshire-based 25 year-old finished 5th at the Open and 10th at the PGA Championship last term as well. It's a pretty simple philosophy, but I can see Hatton feeling equally at home this week on the wide, scoreable Bay Hill set-up, so I'm happy to get on board at prices we aren't likely to see for too much longer. His current excellent play sees him place 9th in this week's published Predictor model.
Tony Finau is hitting fairways and greens right now and that makes the 306-yard bomber a real danger this week. 2nd for Total Driving, 1st for Accuracy, 1st for Ball Striking, 2nd for Greens in Regulation plus 18th for both Scrambling and Putts per GIR last week at the Valspar are fantastic numbers. Indeed the Utah-based 27 year-old finished 1st for All-Round play at Copperhead, which was the third time in 2017 that the World Number 70 has been in the top 10 in the All-Round category following on from Kapalua and Pebble Beach. Finau can play! 9th at the SBS Tournament of Champions, 4th at the Farmers Insurance Open and 5th last week at the Valspar see Finau in 24th spot on the FedEx Cup rankings, but he sits outside of all the 2017 Major Championships - remember a win or a top 50 OWGR spot on the 23rd March would get him into The Masters. It looks likely that Finau may go to Puerto Rico next week to defend the title he won there 12 months ago, but I think he can have a big week here at Bay Hill before then. He finished 43rd here last year, finishing with a closing -5/67 which featured 8 birdies and a strong Strokes Gained Putting performance; buoyed by last week's closing -7/64 I can see Tony keeping that momentum going this week.
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