Ben Kohli finished the last season of the PGA Tour with two wins in three weeks. Get his best bets on the first event of the new season hosted by Maverick McNeely.
Before we start, a little housework. The reason why the field in the Fortinet championship is low is not because the other teams are here again. Dustin Johnson has never been to Silverado, where this event has been held since 2014. Cam Smith last toured six years ago, Joaquin Niemann four, and Abraham Unser did not return after not found a break in 2019. Even Patrick “I’m taking a vacation from playing golf, playing golf” Reed never managed to plan a trip to plonk country with his family, which is a shame for those who love their tipsy and disorderly Twitter.
The reason is the same as often when we think about why they go here and not there: planning. Elite players finished the previous season just over two weeks ago. Those of them who are Europeans were in England last week, and they have little incentive to fly to the other side of the world, even if the bottle of Luke Donald is uncorked. Those who are not Europeans are preparing for the Presidents Cup next week and, as a rule, prefer to follow the intended path rather than the path chosen by John Rahm a year ago.
We came to ram intentionally because he serves as a warning. When 23 of the 24 members of the Ryder Cup team were preparing for this competition, Rahm was there, ticked one of the boxes he was supposed to put up, and did it as the 9/2 favorite, dare I say unselfish, who would miss only his second cup of the year. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but Geoff Ogilvy once said that you laugh at yourself if you think that every player gives his best every time he plays, and that’s fine. They are independent contractors, aren’t they?
The circumstances are not identical in the sense that it is easier to understand why Max Homa, Corey Conners, Cam Davis, Hideki Matsuyama and Taylor Pendrit are here. For starters, the gap between the end of the season and the Presidents Cup is a week longer, and international newcomers may well get rid of some nervous energy.
Homa, of course, is the reigning champion, and given his reputation as one of the good guys in the sport, he kept his promise to sponsors. As for Matsuyama, maybe he wants to see how fit he is.
We can say that playing all week can be considered only as a positive for each of these players, but the margin at this level is good, and risking someone’s motivation at low prices is not the way to start a new season. The only one of the five who so deserves a second look is Matsuyama, and that’s because the cutting-edge version of the 2021 Masters champion will cost half as much. It seems likely that something less than that, thanks to body fitness or concentration, will appear on the T-shirt.
Silverado isn’t much when it comes to profiling. I always thought it was a good place to focus on strong riders, including Brendan Steele, Cameron Champ, Kevin Tway and Homa – all former champions, but this description is necessarily broad here. Short-hitting batters can compete if they find passes, and those who hit the ball indiscriminately can sometimes be caught off guard, especially when the passes are rolling smoothly, as one would expect, given the hot and dry weather of the last few weeks.
Driving remains at the top of my criteria list, and we also have to give credit to the local connections of three of these four, as well as several finalists over the years. Californians so often benefit from the opportunity to play at home, as we’ve seen on the high odds of James Hahn and John Merrick, as well as some of the biggest names in the sport. Here, four of the last six extensions have been given to the Californian, and it could have been five of seven if Kevin Na had won the playoffs in 2015.
Another aspect to pay attention to, I think, is related to comparable courses, the main ones being the TPC San Antonio for reasons that are not particularly clear, and the Riviera Country Club for reasons that are. Steven Bowditch and Andrew Lupe were real golfers who competed in Silverado and San Antonio, Steele won both, and Tway finished third in Texas. As for the Riviera, connections with an aesthetically similar route arose as a result of the first renovation here and were strengthened by Homa in 2021.
All this belongs to the man who finished second after Homa, Maverick McNeely, and this is a great opportunity to stand out.
McNeely will face the Demons on his return to Silverado after making a double fault on the 71st hole, responding with an eagle putt that saw him lose by a stroke. Now there is a causal relationship at stake here – I doubt he would have been able to win if he had finished 17th – but he was clearly ready for a breakthrough on the PGA circuit and dropped out of the race.