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The Florida Swing kicks on as the TOUR heads from Bradenton to Orlando for this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational.
As the name suggests, this field is limited (currently 123) but there is still a cutline to sweat, unlike last week's WGC.
Currently sitting in the second tier of PGA TOUR events, this week's winner will take home 550 FedExCup Points which is more than the week-to-week event (500) but less than a major (600).
A recent theme of this event has been internationals lining up to steal all the glory. Over the last five editions, Americans have led or co-led after just seven rounds while internationals have led or co-led 18 times over that same stretch. Let's take a deeper dive into the course to see if there is any reason why that might be the case.
Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge is the host course this week. It's played that role since the 1979 edition.
Over the years, this has played as a par 70 (3x), par 71 (11x), and par 72 (28x).
This week it's setting up to be a par 72 that stretches out to 7,466 yards. Having four par 5s doesn't make it any easier, though, as three of the last four winners have ended the week on 12-under or worse. It's a tough test.
Off the tee, golfers will be clubbing down on a lot of the par 4s but they'll need their big stick dialed in to take advantage of the par 5s. This element does a good job of bringing more players into the mix. Big hitters are more likely to feast on the par 5s but plodders are less likely to toss up a big number on the rest of the holes.
There is water lurking on half of the holes, like we've come to expect when playing in Florida.
All that water leads to a fair amount of big numbers. The field averages 1.77 doubles or worse per 72 holes which ranks it 8th among courses that are played on a year-to-year basis on TOUR.
Once golfers reach the greens they'll be faced with relatively large (7,500 square feet) bermudagrass greens that typically run very fast (12+ feet on the stimp). Comfort on bermudagrass is a big plus this week when looking for golfers that may be arriving without much form during the West Coast Swing.
Arnie was on the record for wanting this course to mimic a U.S. Open from tee-to-green and then be Augusta-like around the greens.
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Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Graeme McDowell: "I think the golf course’s evolved a lot over the last 10, 15 years here. Going from having a lot of rough around the greens to lots of run off areas, greens continue to get better and better here, and that is one of the big things about the legacy of this tournament and Mr. Palmer is this is a bit of a love/hate golf course for a lot of guys."
Rory McIlroy: "I need to take advantage of the par-5s, because that’s — look at Tiger’s won it plenty of times around here and that’s what he did, he can be conservative and play conservative for the most part, but if you make birdies on the par-5s, you’re going to be right up there."
Bubba Watson: "It’s kind of right in front of you, but you have to play it a certain way and I get bored hitting irons off tee, so I try to hit driver a lot, which obviously backfires sometimes and sometimes it’s good."
Rickie Fowler: "It’s not too demanding off the tee as far as you’re not always having to hit drivers and it’s not too narrow. There’s holes where you’re hitting 3-woods and potentially irons, but you do have to get the ball in the fairway. And it’s very much a second shot golf course."
Justin Rose: "There’s really no way to fake it around Bay Hill. The rough’s pretty thick. Generally the greens are quite firm which requires pretty pinpoint iron shots. There’s enough trouble out there that mentally it’s a challenge. You have to really commit to shots. There’s a lot of I guess intimidating-looking golf shots out there on this golf course. "
I think Rory talks about the ideal gameplan which sounds easy enough but it can be difficult to remain disciplined and stick to that plan, as you can tell from something like Bubba Watson's quote.
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
Muirfield Village GC
The theme seems to be courses with lots of water in play and/or courses with speedy, bermuda greens.
Thursday: Sunny with a high of 73 degrees. Winds at 6 to 9 MPH.
Friday: Partly Cloudy with a high of 77 degrees. Winds at 6 to 9 MPH.
There is some rain expected Saturday afternoon but it looks perfect otherwise.
Golfers to Watch
He starts the week as a +750 betting favorite and it's easy to see why with a win and four other finishes of T11 or better in six API appearances. Should we be concerned about the state of his game right now though? He had this to say yesterday, "I'm still searching a little bit. There was signs that there's some good stuff in there... A little better off the tee as well. Wedges are good. It's sort of when I get into 8-iron down to 4-iron is where I'm sort of struggling." He'll be tested a lot this week with mid-irons so that is something he needs to get tuned up if he wants to contend this week.
He's finished top 5 in two of his four trips to Bay Hill but landed outside the top 25 in the other two visits. He's gained roughly 13 cumulative strokes putting over the 12 rounds played at Bay Hill so he likes the green complexes but his iron play has been hit or miss. More recently, those irons have been cold as he's landed fewer GIR per round compared to the field in four straight starts. We should expect him to feast on the par 5s here but the wildcard will be whether he tunes up his irons enough to avoid the big numbers.
He was a scoring machine last week and remains one of the best up-and-coming stars on TOUR. Even after a big finish last week he wasn't speaking fondly about having to play this style of golf, "I wasn't really much of a fan when I played the practice round here, not a really big fan of Florida golf courses, but every single round I liked this course a lot better." He's gained 8.3 strokes tee-to-green in two trips to Bay Hill but also lost 4.4 strokes putting in eight rounds. His week will likely be decided by how well he can roll his rock.
The Aussie has shown glimpses of a return to form but he's still lost strokes off-the-tee in 8 of his last 11 measured events. Perhaps a return to a comfortable venue can mold him back into shape. Leishman has gained 4.6+ strokes on approach in four of his last eight starts at the API and he's gained 4.3 or more strokes putting in three of his last four trips. It's safe to say he likes the setup here as long as he can avoid trouble off the tee.
The youngster has already established himself as a Florida-course specialist. That includes third-place finishes in each of his first two tries at Bay Hill. He's turned in a score that has been at least one shot better than the field average in all eight rounds played at Bay Hill.
If you want to bank on heavy regression to the mean then give a look at his putting stats at Bay Hill. Matsuyama is never the most consistent with the flat stick but he's now lost strokes putting in 14 of his last 15 rounds played at the API. At this point it's more of a trend than an aberration but if he does manage to find his putting stroke here then lookout. He posted a T6 finish here in 2016 which is the only time he's gained strokes putting for the week at this event. It's also his only top 20 in six tries at Bay Hill. A high-risk, high-reward weekly option, given his struggles on the greens here.
I love what I'm seeing with Spieth lately with three straight top 15s. However, he's still hit fewer fairways than the field in 16 straight events. He's making his tournament debut this week. It's tough to truly trust him this week with water lurking on nine holes but I would love to be proven wrong and see him in contention down the stretch this weekend.
Ranking the Field
1. Rory McIlroy
2. Bryson DeChambeau
3. Tyrrell Hatton
4. Viktor Hovland
5. Patrick Reed
6. Will Zalatoris
7. Sungjae Im
8. Matthew Fitzpatrick
9. Paul Casey
10. Francesco Molinari
11. Louis Oosthuizen
12. Sam Burns
13. Jason Kokrak
14. Tommy Fleetwood
15. Cameron Tringale
16. Jason Day
17. Hideki Matsuyama
18. Billy Horschel
19. Harris English
20. Emiliano Grillo