Odds & Ends: Rory McIlroy to show all of his Austin powers
WITH Cheltenham now in the rearview mirror and beaten dockets strewn across bar floors up and down the land, some punters might be tempted to take a step back for a while to regroup.
Some might. But with Aintree just around the corner, The Masters closing in on the horizon, and the Premier League and European competitions coming nicely to the boil, I won’t be one of them.
Indeed, with the action from Aintree and Augusta taking place over the same weekend at the start of April, there is every chance a boost to the coffers will be required between now and then.
International action takes over in the world of soccer for the next week, while the main golfing fare sees a switch from strokeplay to man-on-man combat at the WGC-Dell Matchplay in Austin, Texas.
This is one of the most captivating events of any season, with 64 of the top players in the world battling it out in 18-hole matches, starting late this afternoon.
Given the short nature of the contests, picking the overall winner can be a difficult enough exercise, with the lowest-ranked player in the field capable of taking out the top man on any given day.
That said, the decision to move away from straight knock-out to round-robin groups for the first three days does give the leading lights some margin for error, although Jason Day won all of his group games on his way to victory last term, when the event visited Austin for the first time.
That was the Aussie’s second success in three seasons in this one, having also claimed the final renewal to be played at Dove Mountain, Arizona in 2014.
Sandwiched between Day’s two triumphs was a victory for Rory McIlroy in San Francisco two years ago, so the evidence suggests that the top players have really got to grips with this format in recent years.
Not all of the big guns play this time, with Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott and Justin Rose all opting out, although little is lost in terms of star quality as Day, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and world number one Dustin Johnson all tee it up.
Johnson is the form man in world golf at present, having won his last two events, the Genesis Open in California and the WGC-Mexico Championship.
If he plays the way he has been of late he will be very hard to stop so he will have his backers, although his record in this event is pretty poor as he only reached the last eight for the first time last year, where he bowed out to eventual finalist Louis Oosthuizen.
That record, and a reasonably tough opening group alongside Jimmy Walker, Martin Kaymer and Webb Simpson, explains why Johnson is not the favourite and can be backed at 9/1.
The honour of favouritism goes to McIlroy, who is a general 7/1 shot, and while this is a tricky event, it is very hard to get away from his claims.
While not at his best, the Holywood man flew through the field at Bay Hill over the weekend for a tie of fourth, which would have been even better but for a couple of late errors.
He will have been boosted by a decent performance at a course where he has struggled in the past, and the world number two loves the matchplay set-up.
McIlroy was second to Hunter Mahan at Dove Mountain in 2012, and since the group stages were introduced in 2015 he has won once and reached the last four last term.
Only an inspired Day could stop him then, and the two-time champion could be in his way at the last four stage again, but McIlroy is in better form than the Australian and would be confident of gaining revenge.
That is looking well ahead, of course, but there is nothing to fear in his group, with Soren Kjeldsen, Gary Woodland and Emiliano Grillo his opponents, in that order, while the fact he is in the other half of the draw to both Johnson and Texan home hope Jordan Spieth is also a huge positive.
This event requires the winner to play seven rounds in five days so fitness also has to be a consideration and McIlroy has an edge over most competitors there, while his freshness after a recent injury lay-off could also be a benefit.
All in all, I can’t see him not reaching the latter stages and the 7/1 is a fair enough price, especially with all firms paying a quarter of the odds for a top-four finish, so an each-way safety net is in place.
After tipping the favourite, my other selection has to be a touch more speculative, and I can’t help but be drawn to McIlroy’s Ryder Cup partner Thomas Pieters at 50/1 with Bet Victor.
The Belgian was a revelation at Hazeltine last year, winning three points alongside McIlroy and then seeing off JB Holmes in the singles to underline his matchplay credentials.
His huge hitting off the tee will give him an edge on most courses, especially one with a couple of par fours that are in reach, while he has been handed a very decent draw.
Bubba Watson is perhaps the weakest of the top seeds in terms of form and Pieters finds himself in Group 13 alongside the left-hander, Jhonny Vegas and Scott Piercy.
There is nothing to worry about there, and while Spieth could lie in wait in the last 16, I really like his chances of a run to the last four at least, particularly given his recent second at the Genesis Open and fifth in Mexico.
Pieters is too big at 50/1, while I’d also suggest a bet at 15/8 (Boylesports) to win Group 13.
Another bet to catch the eye is Rafa Cabrera-Bello at 23/10 to win Group 10 ahead of Tyrrell Hatton, Jeunghun Wang and Charles Howell III.
The Spaniard was third here a year ago, and backed up his matchplay reputation by going unbeaten in the Ryder Cup.
He can take advantage of an inexperienced group and only a possible last-eight clash with McIlroy stops me from tipping him at 66/1 in the outright betting.
Finally, I also like the look of Bill Haas at 2/1 to take Group 11, where top seed Danny Willett is very vulnerable.
Russell Knox could be a decent opponent but Haas won all three group games last term and is in decent form.
Rory McIlroy, WGC-Dell Matchplay, e/w, 7/1 (General)
Thomas Pieters, WGC-Dell Matchplay, e/w, 50/1 (Bet Victor)
Thomas Pieters to win Group 13, 15/8 (Boylesports)
Rafa Cabrera-Bello to win Group 10, 23/10 (Boylesports)
Bill Haas to win Group 11, 2/1 (Boylesports)
THE week leading up to international fixtures can drag on forever for fans, with little action to get involved in.
However, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill will be hoping to use every hour before Friday night’s clash with Wales to get a few of his walking wounded in a fit state to take to the Aviva Stadium pitch.
O’Neill’s men made a brilliant start to World Cup Group D before the break over Christmas and the new year and will be keen to keep the momentum going against the Welsh.
Ireland have picked up 10 points from four games, three of those away from home, and the victory in Austria last time out saw them installed as 15/8 favourites to claim the group’s one automatic qualification spot for Russia.
In normal circumstances they would be strongly fancied to keep the run going at home to a Wales team who are also unbeaten in Group D but have drawn their last three to lie four points off the pace.
Ireland will be keen to win and essentially take one rival out of the equation, but the level of injuries to have hit O’Neill’s panel makes their task a difficult one.
The Kilrea man will be without his central defensive duo of Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark, as well as midfielder Harry Arter and main creative influences Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan, so it is likely to be a case of scraping out some sort of result against a very talented side led by talisman Gareth Bale.
It will be virtually impossible to keep the Real Madrid man quiet throughout so the Republic need to score if they are to get anything from the game, with Shane Long and James McClean earmarked for key roles.
Ireland are 7/5 shots with Paddy Power, with the Welsh 9/4 chances with the same firm but the draw is the most likely outcome and can be backed at 21/10 with Bet Victor.
O’Neill’s team have developed a very welcome ability to dig out what is required and a point would do in the circumstances, especially with home games against Austria and Serbia to come.
Get on the draw at 21/10, while I’d also suggest a bet on the 1-1 at 5/1 with Ladbrokes.
Elsewhere, there are so many one-sided encounters over the weekend that it is difficult to find much value, but one team that do stand out are Northern Ireland.
Michael O’Neill’s boys are 29/20 (William Hill) at home to Norway and that is far too big.
The North haven’t lost a competitive game at home since October 2013, when Cristiano Ronaldo got a hat-trick in a 4-2 victory for Portugal.
Windsor Park has become a fortress since then, and there is little reason to think a Norway team who have only one victory in Group C – at home to San Marino – can change that.
Northern Ireland are very solid defensively and should win this one, so take the 29/20, while the 13/5 offered by Bet Victor about them winning without conceding also appeals.
Republic of Ireland and Wales to draw, 21/10 (Bet Victor); to draw 1-1, 5/1 (Ladbrokes)
Northern Ireland to beat Norway, 29/20 (William Hill); to win to nil, 13/5 (Bet Victor)