Score one for the youth movement, as the first start of this year’s Florida swing was an impressive victory from 24-year-old PGA Champion Collin Morikawa.
This week, the action shifts to Bay Hill – the historic site of this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, providing an intriguing play-in to next week’s THE PLAYERS Championship.
Morikawa is absent, as is eight-time event champion Tiger Woods, whose future in golf is up in the air a week removed from a serious car accident in California.
Those in attendance, however, include nine players ranked in the world’s top 20, and the last seven champions who have won 15 majors, at the tournament which honors one of professional sports’ all-time greats, simply known as The King.
15. Hideki Matsuyama
With his high-end tee-to-green game, it is shocking that the man who turned 29 just last week has not won on Tour since the 2017 season.
Hideki Matsuyama is still a fantastic shot-maker, which makes him impossible to ignore anywhere, but there might not be anyone on Tour whose results are circumscribed by one part of his game more than he is with his putting.
There is no sugarcoating it: Hideki is flat-out abysmal on the greens. He is such a mixed bag right now, that he is beyond frustrating to bet on. Still, we’re tantalized by the best of what he did at The Concession last week, finishing fifth in the field in birdies. Also had nine bogeys, two doubles, and a triple though.
World Rank: 23
Odds To Win: 25-1
Last Six: 15, MC, 42, 53, 19, 41
14. Marc Leishman
Last year’s runner-up won the 2017 Arnold Palmer, and took third place in 2011. Course history is really the only thing that makes us rank the 37-year-old Aussie at all, given that he is coming off two mediocre performances, and as we saw after his second place here last year, his bad is really, really, really bad.
Marc Leishman was on one of the worst stretches we have ever seen from somebody whose career had not bottomed out. He did come into the calendar year looking refreshed, though, finishing T4 at January’s Sony Open.
Statistically, he has been horrific over the past 12 months, but as unpredictable as he can be, Bay Hill is the one place you can comfortably bet on him.
World Rank: 35
Odds To Win: 40-1
Last Six: 39, 32, 18, 4, 24, MC
13. Matthew NeSmith
Typically, the Tour leaders in greens in regulation are short hitters, but it bodes well for current leader Matthew NeSmith that he is at least league-average for distance (297.5 off the tees).
The 27-year-old South Carolina University product is killing it tee-to-green this year, further evidenced by his three-top 20s in three starts last month.
This will be his 38th start as a professional, and while it is probably not related, Morikawa was making his 38th professional start when he won last week. Even if you’re not superstitious, there are many reasons to be optimistic about NeSmith’s chances this week at Bay Hill.
World Rank: 144
Odds To Win: 150-1
Last Six: 20, 16, 7, 48, MC, MC
12. Jason Day
The 2016 API champion will likely consider it a victory if he tees it up on Friday, as he has withdrawn early from the last two editions of this event. His health is always a concern, but he has at least held up well enough to finish T7-T18 in his last two starts, and he has six top 10s since the Tour restart last June.
The most recent of his 12 career Tour victories is close to hitting three years ago (2018 Wells Fargo Championship). He likely CAN win, it is just a matter of feeling comfortable in contention again. He has not shown that in a while.
World Rank: 46
Odds To Win: 33-1
Last Six: 18, 7, MC, MC, 12, MC
11. Francesco Molinari
Seeing the 2019 Arnold Palmer Champion sitting at 91st in the world rankings seems wrong, given the mastery of his irons that he showed in 2018 and 2019, where he won four times worldwide and put together an all-time performance at the Open Championship.
I suppose that is what happens when you more or less take an entire year off, as Molinari did in 2020, only making the weekend in two of seven starts.
Fortunately, 2021 has fewer people worried that he is going to plummet into obscurity the way his older brother did. He has three top 10s in four starts this calendar year, including a T8 two weeks ago at The Genesis Invitational, his most recent start.
World Rank: 91
Odds To Win: 28-1
Last Six: 8, 59, 10, 8, MC, 15
10. Louis Oosthuizen
Course history is not in the favor of the South African, who has missed the cut the past two seasons at Bay Hill, and has just one good finish in five career starts (T9 in 2015), but the former Open Champion is absolutely sizzling in the short game at the moment, and that form is the biggest reason he has finished T6-T11 in his last two Tour starts.
The 38-year-old is as solid as they come, finishing each of the past five seasons in the 20-26 range of the World Ranking (currently 22nd).
World Rank: 22
Odds To Win: 33-1
Last Six: 6, 11, 29, MC, 23, 48
9. Jordan Spieth
It is shocking that the three-time major champion has not played the Arnold Palmer Invitational before, but that is the reality we are in as Spieth attempts to end a heartbreaking winless drought that dates back to the 2017 Open Championship.
He is likely not feeling good that he did not qualify for last week’s WGC event, the first time in his professional career he has been in that position.
What should be making him feel good, though, is that he had finishes of T4, T3, and T15 respectively in three February starts. We all know he can succeed at Bay Hill; the question will be whether he can mentally handle being in Sunday contention.
World Rank: 62
Odds To Win: 28-1
Last Six: 15, 3, 4, MC, 46, MC
8. Sungjae Im
It’s good that Im is so young (22), because he never takes a week off. The workaholic ranks 17th in the OWGR, although he has not been in his best form in 2021, with just two top 10s in (already) 14 starts this season.
Still, it is difficult to argue his track record at Bay Hill: two starts, two third-place finishes. There was also that runner-up he had at The Masters in November.
The beginning of this month marks the one-year anniversary of his first (and only) Tour win, which occurred at The Honda Classic. Nobody would be surprised if he adds his second win, also in Florida, this week. He needs to avoid that one big number that seems to get him every week.
World Rank: 17
Odds To Win: 20-1
Last Six: 28, 17, 32, 12, 56, 5
7. Paul Casey
It was a bit surprising to see the veteran Englishman stay in contention until the end at last August’s PGA Championship, given that he arrived in San Francisco in terrible form.
However, that runner-up performance has led to a great 2021 for the 43-year-old Casey, who has gone T8-WIN-T12-T5 in his last four starts worldwide, with that win being a four-stroke beat-down of the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
This used to be a regular Tour stop for the world No. 18, with mixed results (he started 67-79 one year), but he has not played Bay Hill since a T41 in 2016 where he opened with a 68 and closed with a 78. He seems to be confident and is not one to take himself too seriously. We think he keeps his hot play going for at least one more start.
World Rank: 18
Odds To Win: 25-1
Last Six: 5, 12, 1, 8, 38, 35
6. Matthew Fitzpatrick
With international players starring in this event recently, the 26-year-old from England makes an intriguing pick to win. He arrives at Bay Hill finishing T5-T11 the past two weeks, and in last year’s edition, where he finished T9, his Sunday 3-under 69 was the ONLY sub-70 round in the field on a blustery weekend.
The year prior, Fitzpatrick was solo runner-up to Francesco Molinari, and he contended early in 2017.
This is a course he obviously feels comfortable at, and coupled with his recent performance, it would not surprise us to see the six-time Euro winner wearing a red cardigan sweater on Sunday evening, and hoisting his maiden PGA Tour trophy.
World Rank: 16
Odds To Win: 22-1
Last Six: 11, 5, 17, MC, 1, MC
5. Bryson DeChambeau
The Scientist is among the impressive group of 27-year-olds on the PGA Tour, with seven victories, and a runaway major championship at last year’s U.S. Open.
It helps that DeChambeau has a runner-up (2018) and a solo-4th (2020) among his four Bay Hill starts. He is still smashing the cover off the ball and leads the Tour in strokes gained: total this season, but it is fair to question his current form.
The SMU product was all over the place at last week’s WGC-Workday Championship, following an opening-round 77 where he had six bogeys and a triple with a field-low 64 where he had nine birdies to one bogey.
His final weekend rounds contained nine birdies, two eagles, and three double-bogeys. All in all, he finished T22 on a Concession course where he had an advantage, having won the NCAA Championship as an amateur.
His lack of consistency has hampered his Tour results since he obliterated the U.S. Open field. You don’t know what you’re going to get with him right now.
World Rank: 11
Odds To Win: 12-1
Last Six: 22, MC, 18, 7, 34, 8
4. Tyrrell Hatton
The highest-ranked player in the field (No. 6) is the Brit Hatton, who will be defending a title for the first time in a PGA Tour event.
He has one of the better all-around games in the field, but runs absurdly hot-or-cold. Even in last week’s T22 finish at The Concession, which looks average-ish on the surface, it seemed like Hatton was constantly surging or reeling. At one point he had four bogeys in a six-hole stretch, and two of his three double-bogeys for the week came within two holes of an over-par hole.
It can be difficult to know when to gamble on his talent in U.S. events, but someone who is especially dependent on confidence, it is probably good for him that he is arguably the best player in the field and won last year.
World Rank: 6
Odds To Win: 16-1
Last Six: 22, 6, 22, 1, 8, 23
3. Patrick Reed
The world No. 9 is one of just three top-10 ranked players in this week’s field. The winner of the recent Farmers Insurance Open is in excellent form, with seven finishes inside the top 14 in his last ten worldwide starts.
Perhaps even better for Reed, he finished T9 at last week’s WGC event without anything resembling controversy. The 30-year-old finished T15 in this event last year, despite a Saturday 80.
He has some ghastly rounds peppered into his history at Bay Hill, but does not seem to have that kind of number in his bag this year. Do not be surprised if he bests his previous high finish in this event (T7 in 2018, less than a month before winning The Masters).
World Rank: 9
Odds To Win: 20-1
Last Six: 9, 66, 1, MC, 21, 3
2. Rory McIlroy
The world No. 8 has been consistently placing well again: his last 11 starts worldwide have resulted in finishes of T21 or better, including five top 10s and a T6 at The Concession last week. But the four-time major champion just has not looked his confident self as he attempts to snap the longest winless streak, since his 2008 rookie season, when he was still a teenager.
His 2018 victory was catalyzed by one of the best Sunday back-nine runs the Tour has seen in recent years, so we know he can play well here. It also does not hurt that he has finished inside the top 6 in his last four Bay Hill starts. You won’t find good betting odds on the 31-year-old this week, and for good reason.
World Rank: 8
Odds To Win: 8-1
Last Six: 6, MC, 13, 16, 3, 5
1. Viktor Hovland
The last five editions of the Arnold Palmer Invitational were won by international players, and the 23-year-old Hovland is the hottest international player in the world right now.
The world No. 13 finished T2 at last week’s WGC-Workday Championship despite a snowman on his second round scorecard (par 4), and is entering off three consecutive top-5 finishes in PGA Tour events.
He also won the Mayakoba in December, and boasts the second-best scoring average on Tour. Currently at No. 2 in the FedExCup Standings, he sits 38 points behind Patrick Cantlay, who is not in the field. A T10 would give him 40 points and the lead, but we think he will be leading the standings by this time next week by about 450 points.
World Rank: 13
Odds To Win: 12-1
Last Six: 2, 5, 6, 2, 31, 3
Next Five: Will Zalatoris, Sam Burns, Billy Horschel, Justin Rose, Kevin Na