4 Players to Watch at The Arnold Palmer Invitational
Sepp Straka captured his first PGA Tour title as he birdied the 72nd hole of the week to finish one-stroke ahead of Irishman Shane Lowry.
Lowry will question if fate intervened with the eventual result, as poor conditions during his final hole of the week - which decided the tournament - impacted his strategy for the finale.
PGA National provided yet another stern test as the eventual winning score was ten-under-par, living up to its intimidating reputation.
The PGA Tour remains in Florida for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of the more enticing events of the season.
Due to its invitational status, only 120 players will partake, and they would have earned an invitation from numerous exemption routes.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is one of the more recognised PGA Tour events, and it holds special invitational status which only five other tournaments share.
The first edition took place in 1979, after it succeeded the Florida Citrus Open Invitational.
Prior to 2007, the event held numerous names, mainly utilising Bay Hill, before the Palmer name was used in the tournament title.
In 2014, it was announced that the Arnold Palmer Invitational winner would earn a three-year exemption on the PGA Tour, elevating it to the same reward as The Tour Championship, Memorial Tournament and the World Golf Championships.
Following Palmer’s death in 2016, the winner of each year is issued a red cardigan in memory of The King.
If playing here didn’t entice the players enough, this competition was added to the Open Qualifying Series in 2019, issuing three invites for non-exempt players to The Open.
This is an event that typically attracts a good field, largely due to the alluring benefits listed, so there have been some renowned winners.
Tiger Woods has won this competition a record eight times. Eight times. That also included winning four consecutive titles.
Other reputable winners include Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Vijay Singh, Jason Day, Ernie Els, Tyrrell Hatton and Bryson DeChambeau.
The Previous Edition
Bryson DeChambeau picked up his eighth and latest PGA Tour title at this event last year, as he conquered through a one-stroke victory over Lee Westwood.
The Englishman entered the final round with a narrow, one-stroke advantage before both players shot scores in the 70s.
DeChambeau started his final round with a bogey on the first, but Westwood’s two-stroke safety net soon diminished as he followed his American competitor by dropping a shot on the par-4 3rd.
The following hole, the par-5 4th, resulted in DeChambeau tying the lead as his overwhelming power played to his advantage on the longer holes.
Both players would birdie the par-5 6th before Westwood picked up bogey on the 7th, which was then followed by birdie on 12 and then handing it back swiftly at 14.
DeChambeau, renowned for his inconsistency between holes, managed to produce an excellent finish and parred the remaining 12 holes to secure a slender victory, but victory, nonetheless.
Four to Shine
Considering its invitational status, we can expect a stellar field in Orlando.
McIlroy, Hatton and Marc Leishman return as previous winners whilst Sergio Garcia, Hideki Matsuyama and Patrick Reed secured their place through their Masters victories within the last five years.
Jon Rahm and Gary Woodland are present through their five-year exemption as U.S. Open champions whilst Max Homa and Adam Scott have their Genesis Invitational titles to thank for the invite.
It was great seeing Rory McIlroy back in America at the Genesis Invitational, and a T10th finish for his efforts shows his game is in a promising place. We must remember, when two players run out to the lead so quickly and ruthlessly as Joaquin Niemann and Cameron Young did, it must be difficult for the players chasing to maintain any sort of motivation. Of course, they’re playing for millions of dollars, but that bares no relevance to players like McIlroy, who pride themselves on winning and losing. A fantastic finishing 68, which was the eighth best of the day, forced his way into that top ten position and provided an excellent platform for further success.
The big question, however, is what can we expect from the Northern Irishman this week - around a track he’s previously championed? It’s crazy to think that he had not played in this event before 2015, yet it’s been made a permanent fixture of his calendar ever since. His last three starts around here read T6th-T5th-T10th, and if we also consider his impressive form of late, it should be a perfect match-up this week for McIlroy. Having only played in two official PGA Tour events, his statistics don’t qualify for comparison against the field, although that will soon change with two important weeks in succession. If we can see the world number 5 exhibit his primetime game, then we could witness PGA Tour title number 21.
After the past few years has plagued his career with injuries, it’s been fantastic to see Jason Day make a collection of starts. He should also be confident this week, as he secured the 2016 title and thus, becomes the third successive previous champion on this list. He’s only had one top 10 this season - T3rd at the Farmers Insurance Open - but he had a decent week at Pebble Beach, finishing T24th. His current game might not reflect the same standard that won him the 2015 PGA Championship, but he’s only going to improve from playing more frequently. Day held the alluring world number one spot for a total of 51 weeks only seven years ago, so it’s a shame to see him currently ranked 90th in the world. Still, there’s only one way he’s going to improve that - and that’s by grafting.
The Australian is still averaging 300 off the tee (to the decimal too), but in 2022, that ranks you at 92nd - not something amateur golfers want to see! His accuracy is fine and something that he may have targeted, considering he’s sacrificing length to a large proportion of the field. Again, in 2022, 62.05% of fairways found only ranks you 72nd. A scoring average of 70.951 would position you 92nd but it’s his approach play that is most worrying, finding just 66.92% of greens - which ranks him 144th. As described, the boys on tour are getting better and better each year and even producing impressive numbers like Day has, is nowhere near enough to compete with the absolute best. He’ll need to lean on all his previous experience if he’s to fare well but even then, the competition around him seems to be too strong currently.
Another Australian and former champion, Marc Leishman is looking for his second PGA Tour title within a year after capturing the Zurich Classic of New Orleans alongside partner Cameron Smith last April. The 38-year-old has had an excellent career with only one notable absence: a major championship. There have been plenty of significant golfers who have gone through their entire career without winning one of golf’s grandest prizes, so it’s certainly not a reflection on what is a tremendous golfer. To take this into a more positive direction, however, is that Leishman has had a great start to this season without securing victory yet, but that can all change this weekend.
The 2017 champion of this event has already placed in the top 10 on three occasions this season, with the highlight being a T3rd finish at the Shriner’s Children’s Open out in Las Vegas. Along the way he’s also found a little bit of form, which reflects in his performances so far. He’s comfortably averaging more than 300 off the tee (308.2) which ranks him 33rd, although a driving accuracy percentage of just 58.04% threatens to undo the length advantage - which sees him ranked modestly at 129th. His iron play is - and always has been - terrific, finding 72.05% of greens. Averaging a birdie better than every five holes is always a huge benefit, and that has also helped him boost his scoring average to 69.889 - 15th on tour. Leishman has only won two PGA Tour titles within the space of a year once, but he’ll target this weekend to emulate that impressive run.
It’s been a quiet year or so for Matt Wallace, who has evidently worked hard at keeping his temper in check when competing. As amateurs, we can certainly relate to the continuous frustration that golf joyfully conjures up for us. This must be especially true when money, titles and reputation are on the line. The Englishman is yet to win in America but it’s through no lack of effort, having secured top 10 finishes at the Valero Texas Open (3rd) and the Wells Fargo Championship (T6th) during last season. If we go even further back, he finished T3rd at the PGA Championship and T6th around here during the 2019 season. Indeed, something seems to be troubling the volatile player who had previously demonstrated world-beating form.
Away from the absolute elite and the majority of players are left with a conundrum when on the tee: distance or accuracy. Of course, you’d typically always advocate for accuracy but due to severe equipment updates, flicking a wedge from the rough is usually the preferred play than a mid-iron from the fairway. It’s just the way it seems to be during modern times and so, averaging 307 yards off the tee but only finding 60% of fairways may be a justifiable trade-off for Wallace, but his finishes would suggest otherwise. In all fairness, he’s ranked poorly for Greens in Regulation too (112th, 68.52%), so there seems to be several issues. His scoring average is also poor, comfortably over 71 - 71.322. If there’s one silver lining, however, Wallace hasn’t missed a putt from three feet all season - from 142 attempts. He’ll use this week to play himself into more recognisable form, which is crucial with The Players and Masters arriving imminently.
There’s four interesting characters, all at different stages of their journey, for you to keep a keen eye on over the weekend.
All four have previously displayed inspiring performances around Bay Hill and they’ll be looking to emulate those positive outings once again this week.
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