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The Arnold Palmer Invitational is always a highlight of the PGA Tour schedule. As an invitational event the field this week is limited to 120 players and the tournament's additional gravitas means that the winner receives extended 3-year Tour and Players Championship exemptions. Although the last 2 years have been dominated by Matt Every, the Bay Hill title has been held by such luminaries as Tiger Woods (8 times), Ernie Els (twice), Phil Mickelson, Paul Azinger, Vijay Singh and Fred Couples in recent times. Fact is, it's always been held in the highest of regard by PGA Tour pros. However a re-scheduling of the WGC Dell World Match Play to next week has undoubtedly hit the field depth of the event which looks pretty weak under McIlroy, Scott, Stenson, Day and Rose. Bubba Watson was originally scheduled to play but pulled out as of last week to concentrate on the Match Play and, of course, Augusta. The draw of 'Arnie's tournament' seems to be waning ever so slightly.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Hero Indian Open - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Before we move onto Bay Hill, for the 4th successive year we're running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 with an increased £250 free bet prize fund up for grabs. Augusta is only 3 weeks away! The competition is in the form of a one-and-done, so all you need to do is give us a single player for each of the 4 Majors to enter - full details are here.
Bay Hill is a Florida set-up which is 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 course 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 greens 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.
Bay Hill Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for the Bay Hill course and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen:
Course Overview: Bay Hill will once again find itself as the least difficult leg of the 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, Trump National Doral and Copperhead have now relegated Bay Hill to a slightly easier category in relative terms. 12 months ago wider fairways (as above), soft and tranquil conditions led to scoring levels the likes of which had not been seen since Tiger Woods and Chad Campbell won the event in 2003 and 2004. 2016 should see slightly higher scoring as the wind is likely to make scoring more difficult on Sunday and the new TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces will be a little firmer (unless the course gets drenched which is more than possible). Expect the winner to need a 30%+ birdie or better hole conversion rate this week as opposed to Schwartzel's 25% last week. Plodders, especially with a stone-cold Bermudagrass green putter, are not likely to prosper.
The new, wider Bay Hill format in tandem with a soft conditions made the course from tee-to-green a much easier proposition in 2016 and I can't see that changing much 12 months on. In terms of difficulty, the course ranked 45th for Driving Accuracy, 35th for Greens in Regulation and 36th for Scrambling last term which made Bay Hill 31st most difficult in terms of Birdie Average. However the devil is in the detail as Bay Hill still ranked in the top 11 toughest courses 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. No surprise therefore that Matt Every (4th), Henrik Stenson (19th) and Matt Jones (2nd) were in the top 20 for Distance of Putts Made on a course where GIR and Putting Average have been the key contributors to victory across the past 5 renewals.
Winners: 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 (Predictor Number 1), Adam Scott , Graeme McDowell, Kevin Kisner and Henrik Stenson.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions / South African Open and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 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: 73/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Bay Hill, Florida is here. Lighter winds than we've seen across the Florida swing are scheduled for Bay Hill this week, with meaningful breeze only picking up on Sunday. Some significant rainfall in this part of the world since the turn of the year should make for soft course conditions - indeed 28mm has fallen since last Wednesday. There is also an increasing threat of rain from Friday onwards which would only soften the course further.
Masters OWGR Bubble: Next Sunday (27th March) marks the final cut-off for The Masters in terms of Top 50 OWGR qualification. Last week's top 3 finish from Ryan Moore has seen him break into the qualifying spots at 45th. Top 66 in the OWGR play in the WGC Dell Match Play next week giving a handful of players another chance, so it's getting critical. Kaufman (50), Pieters (56), Kirk (60), Jones (61), Woodland (68), Palmer (69), Steele (78), Molinari (81), Tringale (85), Henley (86), Donald (88), Martin (95), Reavie (98), Jacobson (100).
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners of the Arnold Palmer Invitational since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how the course sets up and what skill sets it favours:
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 6 winners:
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
Incoming form of winners since 2010 as below:
Read any player interview around this week and you'll note that 'Arnie's tournament' has a Major feel about it. 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 (twice), Rose (twice), Bradley (twice), 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. Therefore I want players who have putted well this season on Bermuda greens, ideally within the past 3 weeks in Florida. This is quite a specialised event so strong results in Florida are essential.
Bookmaker Offers. A number of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week plus there's a couple of other offers out there:
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My selections are as follows:
I don't take short-priced win-only bets lightly, but in the case of Rory McIlroy this week I think it's money well invested. In a betting heat where you can question the cases for Scott (3 in a row), Stenson (cold putter), Day (weak on Bermuda greens), Rose (putting poorly) and Matsuyama (anti-Bermuda putter), I like the look of the World Number 2 this week at a course where he finished 11th twelve months ago when in much poorer form. McIlroy has always been very aware of the bigger picture when it comes to elite-level golf and with Jordan Spieth struggling since his win at Kapalua and Day not at the races (yet), Rory over the course of the next 2 weeks has a fabulous opportunity to take huge strides both in preparation for Augusta and in his quest to become World Number 1 once again. Ok, his own form has been patchy and yes, he's blown leads in both of his last 2 outings, but mitigating circumstances were in play on both occasions in my opinion, so with a soft course likely (even over the weekend) and relatively tranquil wind conditions this week, I think Rory will shine.
The 11-time PGA Tour winner has no problem with Bermudagrass greens - indeed his last US win was at Quail Hollow - and naturally 2 wins at the Emirates GC and 2 wins at the Earth Course have come on TifEagle greens. And then I think about Rory's compatibility with Bay Hill, so let's link McIlroy's wins to Tiger Woods who's won 8 times at Bay Hill. Tiger, like Rory, has won twice at Emirates GC. Rory has won twice at Quail Hollow compared to Tiger's once. Tiger Woods has won twice at Congressional, where Rory won his first Major Championship in 2011. Rory has won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone South where Tiger is an 8-time champion. Both won the PGA Championship at Valhalla and Rory has already matched Tiger's single victory at TPC Boston. I won't bore you with Royal Liverpool, Doral or Muirfield Village, but it's clear that the two are intrinsically linked when it comes to suitable golf courses, so I see no reason why Rory won't win multiple times at Bay Hill. Yes, you can doubt his change in putting grip at Doral, but it was good enough to give him a +0.9 Strokes Gained Putting performance after 54 holes and motivationally Rory will be looking for a customary fast start at a tournament where it's essential. Indeed after he finished 3rd in Miami a fortnight ago, McIlroy, when interviewed, responded "I'll take a lot of positives from this, this week. A lot of things did go right for me. But I need to just pick myself back up and get into contention again in Orlando in a couple weeks' time and let's see if I can get the win there." - he will take all the beating this week.
Paul Casey is rolling the rock nicely on TifEagle Bermudagrass right now and that makes him a must-back for me this week at Bay Hill where he's already made 2 fast starts in only 5 career appearances. 14th here in 2007 hardly sets the pulse racing, but he was 2nd after 36 holes. More importantly though Casey has a vast host of correlating course form across Riviera (2nd 2015), PGA National (3rd 2015), Doral (7th this year, 6th 2010), Colonial (5th 2010), Sedgefield (3rd 2015) and Ridgewood (7th 2008, 12th 2010), On top of that his current Bermuda form makes for interesting reading: 7th Doral-43rd PGA National-5th Albany-5th East Lake-3rd Sedgefield. Stoked Gained Putting performances of +0.76 at Doral and +1.10 at PGA National highlight that the World Number 26 is feeling confident on TifEagle greens and in terms of motivation Paul will want to arrive in Austin, Texas in good spirits for the Dell World Match Play - a tournament he's performed admirably at in recent times. 3 times a winner on Bermudagrass on the European Tour, Casey will surely have been inspired by Charl Schwartzel who had waited 5 years for his 2nd PGA Tour victory when capturing the Valspar last week. Casey's single PGA Tour win came in 2009 in Houston.
Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman is another to follow this week especially at 110/1 with bet365 (the early 125s has gone already). 8th last time out at Trump National Doral was an amazing performance on his World Golf Championship debut, made even more special as he equalled playing partner Rickie Fowler's 71 in Round 3 and out-scored final round playing partner Anirban Lahiri 71 to 79. That's shows a huge level of maturity from the Louisiana State product who, at 25 years of age, has already captured his maiden PGA Tour victory at TPC Summerlin back in October and backed that up with 15th at Kapalua, 14th at PGA West and 25th at Torrey Pines. Does anything phase him? 36th in Greens in Regulation, 34th in Par 4 Scoring Average, 7th in Par 5 Birdie or Better Conversion and 30th in Putting Average are excellent season long skill category numbers for the Bay Hill test and it's noticeable from his web.com season last year that Smylie likes to string together contending performances and that he finished 4th at Le Triomphe CC and El Bosque GC on Bermudagrass. Could surprise on course debut.
Scott Brown is playing some delightful stuff right now and the Georgian, who has openly stated that he's being inspired by his good friend Kevin Kisner, quite simply putted the lights out at Copperhead last week where his +1.62 Strokes Gained Putting number was the best in the field. He also ranked 14th in Driving Accuracy, 4th in Greens in Regulation, 16th in Scrambling and 1st in All-Round skill categories last week plus only leaked 10 bogeys which was 4th in the field. His 7th last week at the Valspar backed up a 10th at the Honda Classic - both technical tests that Brown has not warmed to in his past 4 seasons on the PGA Tour. That for me highlights the strides that the World Number 150 is making right now and I'm sure the lower scoring on offer this week at a tranquil and softer Bay Hill will be far more suitable for Scott. 13th here in 2013 with a total of -5/283, Brown is a far more rounded performer in 2016 and his results CV is very similar to that of Matt Every who goes for a three-peat this week. Results across Copperhead (7th last week), Harbour Town (5th 2014), Muirfield Village (13th 2014), Sedgefield (3rd 2015), El Camaleon (5th 2015) and 4th Sea Island (2014) is almost a mirror-image of Every's record prior to winning here in 2014. Brown's current Bermudagrass form reads 7-10-MC-18-3 and he's undoubtedly feeling more comfortable when in contention.
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