Golf expert Ben Coley previews the Puerto Rico Open, where Dylan Wu looks primed to go close to landing a first PGA Tour title.
Golf betting tips: Puerto Rico Open
2pts e.w. Dylan Wu at 28/1 (Sky Bet, bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Michael Kim at 33/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1.5pts e.w. Harry Higgs at 45/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Hank Lebioda at 66/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
The gap between the best PGA Tour events and the worst has never been wider than it is today. Or should that be the strongest and the weakest? As demonstrated by the Honda Classic, this sport doesn’t always need its best players to produce something thrilling. It can’t always transcend. Sometimes, golf is for people who already love golf, and who see the worth of a storyline like Chris Kirk versus Eric Cole.
That being said, if you find yourself among this cohort, as I do, you’ll be tested by the Puerto Rico Open. No television pictures here in the UK, no shot-by-shot updates, no worthwhile data, a high probability of leaderboard errors, and a field which probably doesn’t feature the next Tony Finau or Viktor Hovland. It’s not likely to have a lasting impact on anything except perhaps the career of one player.
Still, from a punting perspective, there’s always opportunity. Last year a course specialist who arrived in form won at a nice price, and we were on third-placed Brandon Wu, a player of genuine promise, at 80/1. Nobody here is to be feared: Nate Lashley is the right favourite but far from an infallible one, and the likes of Cameron Percy and Scott Piercy are firmly in the veteran category now. Erik van Rooyen is probably the class act, but he’s still on the long road to recovery.
Also in our favour is the fact that we know plenty about the course and how it’s likely to play. This is a pretty long par 72 with wide fairways, in keeping with its resort status, and scoring can be low when the wind is down. In those circumstances, big-hitters like Ryan Brehm are at a clear advantage, but when the going gets tough it becomes more a test of accuracy and short-game, such as when Alex Cejka triumphed in 2015.
This time, we appear set for the course to play pretty soft and what breeze there is should be manageable for the most part, so when set against the weaker-than-usual field we might be in for a high-teens winning score. One way or another, it does look like those bigger hitters will be at an advantage, which makes Piercy more appealing than Lashley and Percy, though none of the trio is seriously considered at their respective odds.
Towards the head of the market, Sam Stevens and DYLAN WU appealed most and with the former well-found in the market, I’ll take Wu as the best bet.
Six cuts made in his last eight starts mark this former amateur star down as one of the form players in the field, and having shot 70-69 at the Sony and 68-78 at Torrey Pines, there have been positives to take from both his off-weeks, too.
Last time out he finished 10th in the Honda Classic, improving his score each day, and I really like his 29th place at Pebble Beach before that. Seven of the last nine winners of this event had gone well in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am a few weeks earlier, and it would be eight out of nine had Steve Marino beaten Finau in their play-off.
Wu led the field in strokes-gained approach there, gaining over 2.75 per round at the host course, and we again saw him strike his irons well at the Honda. His putting improvement for a move away from poa annua resulted in his first solo top-10 at this level and he produced fireworks on similar greens in the AmEx, where a third-round 61 propelled him 50 spots up the leaderboard before a quiet Sunday.
It looks like Wu has built himself a platform, even if it has taken a while, and there’s real substance to his form now. Given that his sole Korn Ferry Tour win came under low-scoring conditions in an event also won by former Puerto Rico champion Martin Trainer plus last year’s runner-up, Max McGreevy, and that he was in the mix by the sea in Bermuda, there are also reasons to believe this course really should suit.
There aren’t many in here with his scope and while Stevens is certainly one of them, Wu has finished ahead of him in their last two tournaments and for now probably deserves to be the shorter of the two in the betting. He isn’t, and that’s decisive in making him the best bet at anything 25/1 and upwards.
MICHAEL KIM is another who played well at Pebble Beach, where he closed with a fabulous round of 66 and led the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green.
A proven winner courtesy of his runaway triumph in the John Deere Classic, he was right in the mix here a year ago, leading after round one and playing in the final group before fading to 16th.
He’d shown promise a year earlier, too, but on each occasion was short on confidence whereas this time he looks like he’s playing quite nicely. Only in the final round of the Farmers has he really struggled this year and, crucially, his driving has improved a heck of a lot. That club threatened to ruin his career, but he ranks 77th in strokes-gained off-the-tee, up from 196th at the end of his last full season.
On his current trajectory, Kim is on course for his first above-average year with his driving and that’s going to open up some opportunities given that we know he’s capable of high-class performances in all other departments, for all that the putter has been a little bit quiet on the whole.
Still, three positive performances in four starts show improvement there, too, and given his miserable record in the Honda Classic I’m not at all worried about last week’s missed cut. Kim was a persistent contender at Korn Ferry Tour level last season, this is not much tougher, and there’s no reason at all he can’t stick it out for the full 72 holes.
Put your shirt on, Higgs…
It is of course tempting to speculate in events like this, because there are sleepers like William McGirt and Kyle Stanley together with some relative unknowns quoted at three-figure prices. McGirt has two top-30s in five PGA Tour starts this season and it’s not long since he was eighth behind Xander Schauffele at the Travelers, so with a good record here to his name he’s one for the shortlist.
That being said, my view is that the pool of winners is probably quite small. There are numerous has-beens and some players who simply aren’t good enough to realistically expect to contend even at this lowly level, so I’m keen to have a crack at that second tier of the betting which provides real potential for a winner at a nice price.
MJ Daffue’s performance in the Honda certainly caught the eye but he’s occasionally horrendous on the greens and the two I prefer are HARRY HIGGS and HARRISON ENDYCOTT. (Note – Endycott has withdrawn and bets are refunded)
Higgs is hard to make a case for from a ball-striking perspective, especially after a missed cut at PGA National, but he’s been regularly catching the eye of late and undoubtedly has a touch of class.
Remember, it’s less than a year since he finished 14th in the Masters having been fourth in the 2021 PGA Championship, while he’s twice been runner-up on the PGA Tour including in Bermuda at a course which offers good form clues for this one.
He was 48th at Pebble Beach having been in the mix over the first 36 holes, before that opened with a 66 at Torrey Pines, and was 18th when shooting a third-round 62 to contend in the AmEx, so there are plenty of more recent pointers towards his chance, too.
With 32nd and 21st in Mexico and the RSM Classic to end last year, latterly leading at halfway, Higgs has played a lot of very good golf without quite doing it for a full week, and that was also the case when last competing at this kind of level and finishing 11th in the Barracuda.
He’s in better form now, though, so while I do have reservations as to his waywardness, conditions suggest he might just get away with the odd miss. If that’s the case he can go really well on his course debut, with the fact that he too is a former winner of the Price Cutter Charity Championship potentially also in his favour.
Higgs is precisely the type of player to click for a drop in grade and, with a background on the LatinoAmerica Tour where he won in Peru, conditions shouldn’t be an excuse.
Endycott defied a slow start to finish 26th last week, shooting 65 in round two, and throughout his rookie season he’s shown flashes of potential. Four top-30s is a good return from 11 starts and we saw what he can do under conditions similar to these when leading the Bermuda Championship with an opening 62.
He defied a slow start to finish 18th behind Cam Smith back home in the Australian PGA and was again in the mix early in the AmEx, so we’ve seen lots of encouragement from a young player who struck at Korn Ferry Tour level last May.
Tenth in strokes-gained approach last week, he’ll enjoy the extra space off the tee here in Puerto Rico and has the ability to go ahead and contend on Sunday.
So does Vincent Norrman, a huge hitter whose short-game is a problem, which also applies to Matt Schmid. Neither made much appeal in the circumstances, though, with Austin Eckroat of greater interest given his clear potential and performances by the sea in Hawaii and Mexico.
Trevor Cone and Brandon Matthews are among the longest drivers around and therefore deserve a mention along with other sluggers like Augusto Nunez and Scott Harrington, while I did consider shorter duo Chris Stroud and Fabian Gomez, both of whom boast strong records here.
Of that bunch, Stroud was hardest to eliminate having placed in the RSM Classic before Christmas and continued to hit the ball well since then. He has a really good record in Puerto Rico and led through 54 holes when last playing here, which came not long after he’d threatened the top 10 in the RSM. History might repeat if his back holds up.
Lefty Lebioda ready to contend
Kevin Roy is the best iron player in this field based on 2023 form as a whole and he hit the ball really well in the Honda Classic last week.
Fourth in the Bahamas last year might be a decent clue and this son of a former PGA Tour player has got the look of someone who is a bit better than his results suggests, which is why he’s been attracting some each-way support.
Tempting as it was to join in, he’s short enough and I’ll finish off with a player we know has what it takes to threaten at this level, HANK LEBIODA.
The left-hander contended for three tournaments in a row in 2021, settling for finishes of fifth, fourth and eighth, and before that had been 13th behind Sam Burns in the Valspar. Go back further and he was third in Bermuda in a field similar to this one, and he played well behind Jon Rahm in Mexico and Rory McIlroy in Canada last summer.
My view is that Lebioda is a bit better than his rating here and that’s almost certainly because he’s missed the cut in both previous starts in Puerto Rico, but I’m far from convinced the course was to blame and the fact that he was in the mix when 15th at Pebble Beach two starts ago strengthens my suspicion that it should be suitable.
Last week he shot 76-66 to miss the cut by a single shot back on home soil in Florida, and just as Brandon Wu did last year he can use that second round as a springboard in this considerably weaker field.
Posted at 1400 GMT on 28/02/23
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