The Humana Challenge pro-am event kicks off this Thursday and it's the perfect set up for players to feel their way into the season. That includes marquee names like Phil Mickelson - 31.00 - who is taking the opportunity to dust off the rust in the desert ahead of TPC Scottsdale. We rotate around three different courses, three par 72s, all playing circa the 7,000 yard mark and the brief this week is to go low, very low. PGA West and the Palmer Private plays host so those who make the cut will be vying for the title there on Sunday.
Patrick Reed shot the 72 hole tournament low en route to wire-to-wire victory in 2014 and off the back of another win at Kapalua, he unsurprisingly leads the market at 13.00. Ryan Palmer - 23.00 - owns a standout record at this event and he is arguably in the form of his life. With the scoring generous and the set up of the tracks more than fair, it usually pays in this event to look a little further down the market with the advantage of the bigger names negated somewhat.
The courses - La Quinta, Nicklaus Private, Palmer Private (PGA West)
Framed by the Santa Rosa mountains, the triumvirate of courses are three of the easiest the players will face all season. With the set up over the first 54 holes conducive to amateur scoring, it becomes a bit of a sprint in terms of making birdies early. Conditions are usually benign and with no wind to speak of and plenty of room for manoeuvre off the tee, aggressive play is a prerequisite. Pin positions are accessible and there will be a premium on short iron approaches and putting from mid distance range. There is some trouble around the rotation however and if you are too loose off the tee, big numbers on the card are possible with hazards lurking, especially down the stretch on the Palmer Private. La Quinta usually plays slightly the toughest of the three.
Three from the pack
Justin Thomas - 51.00 or 11.00 - is my strongest value fancy this week and the set up of the three courses should play into his hands. Justin is an all or nothing type of swinger who led the all round ranking on the Webdotcom Tour in 2014. Waialae probably summed this up perfectly - a tight tree-lined course arguably not conducive to his style and the result of this was three average rounds sandwiching a course record 61 on a Friday where everything clicked. One thing I did note was his putting prowess from 10ft and in and indeed Justin ranks in the top 10 with the flat stick from 6-8ft in the 2015 season. Renowned for his distance control and proximity to the hole with the irons, this could be his type of event. The 21 year old did play last year and missed the 54 hole cut although he carded a 64 (-8) on the Nicklaus Private in the process.
There's a bit of a theme developing this week where my ones to watch for the year feature and it's fellow graduate Tony Finau - 81.00 or 17.00 - who also looks like a horse for the courses here. Finau is In the mould of Gary Woodland and Jhonathan Vegas - both of whom contested a Playoff for this event in 2011, and Tony has already posted four top 15 finishes in 6 events on the main stage. The big difference is Finau has a little more about him on and around the greens than the aforementioned two and the big man ranks 8th in total birdies for 2015. Finau was T3 at PGA West in the Webdotcom qualifying school in 2013 and he went low (-22) to blitz the Stonebrae Classic field on the second tour in 2014.
Matt Jones - 101.0 or 19.00 - is another big hitting birdie maker type player who enjoys this sort of test. A three-year average of 22nd position in the event will outline this. In fact Jones has shot in the sixties in each of his last eight rounds here and he looked menacing over the first 36 in 2014. The Aussie has started the season in decent form with a T11 in Kapalua but succumbed to five bogeys down the stretch at the Sony dropping him down the board. Waialae was not really the ideal track for Jones and maybe a bit of tiredness set in but maybe it only served to inflate the Aussie's price for a more appropriate event.
Pat Perez - 101.0 or 19.00 - did some work on his shot shape late in 2013 and last season seemed to show progress with Pat recording a myriad of top 20s in the first half of 2014 - the best of which was a T2 at the tough Farmers Insurance Open. Pat is a former winner of this event and is on record saying the pro-am format relaxes him and his fiery temper somewhat. Closed with a 65 at Sony last week for another top 20.
Derek Fathauer - 251.0 or 41.0 - is on the radar here purely for his ability to go low. Fauthauer shot a 12-under 59 that included a bogey, 11 birdies and an eagle at a practice round in Brazil around this time last year and that followed on from a 61 in an unofficial pro-am event at the Legacy in Port ST. Lucie a couple of months earlier. The recent graduate won the Webcom Tour Championship with a 266 total and will be looking to go low again.
Bet now on the Humana Challenge.