Golf

It could pay to put your trust in Justin Thomas to rise again in Phoenix

JT
Resurgent Justin Thomas has been on a fine run of form either side of the Christmas break and could well get a first victory in almost two years at the WM Phoenix Open this week (Eric Risberg/AP)

THE first few weeks of the PGA Tour season have been a minefield for punters, with unexpected winners going in all over the place.

We’ve had the first amateur winner on tour in 33 years, Nick Dunlap, followed by the first French winner in over a century in Matthieu Pavon.

And then at the weekend we had a 54-hole event due to weather, with reigning US Open champion Wyndham Clark going to post as a 70/1 shot due to a complete lack of form but claiming the silverware at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

We can only hope things calm down soon in terms of winners we’re able to predict, starting with this week’s WM Phoenix Open in Arizona.

Scottie Scheffler has certainly retained his cool at this one over the last couple of years, despite the event proudly being the loudest of the season, with the par-three 16th hole not for the faint-hearted.

That said, with LIV Golf going to Las Vegas to coincide with the Super Bowl’s first visit to Sin City, Phoenix could just have met a match in terms of volume.

Scheffler has won the last two renewals of the Phoenix Open and goes to post as a warm favourite to make it a hat-trick, hoping to be the first man to do so at a PGA Tour event since Steve Stricker won the John Deere Classic in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The world number one’s position at the top of the market has been strengthened by the late withdrawals of Xander Schauffele – another course specialist at TPC Scottsdale – and Viktor Hovland.

Following Tyrrell Hatton’s last-gasp decision to join LIV ahead of their season opener in Mexico a week ago, any such withdrawals are met with social media speculation, but it seems both men are resting up ahead of a big week at the Genesis Invitational.

That one at Riviera is a ‘Signature Event’, as was Pebble Beach, so Phoenix has suffered a little for being sandwiched between them, although Scheffler won’t care if he makes off with the silverware again.

He is a best-priced 5/1 shot to do so, and will feel confident, having been poised at four shots off the pace when the rains came at Pebble Beach.

An extra day to get ready will have done no harm either, and this is an event that keeps throwing up the same contenders.

Scheffler, Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama have won six of the last nine renewals between them, all of them ball-striking machines at their best, which is what generally is required here.

And with rain in the forecast, hitting fairways and greens will be even more important than ever, which could play into the favourite’s hands.

That said, history suggests it is a big task to go in for a hat-trick, and if a winner is to come from towards the head of the betting, I’d rather put my faith in the recent resurgence of Justin Thomas at 10/1, especially with loads of firms paying eight places .

‘JT’ endured a nightmare 2023 in general, but still managed to finish fourth in Phoenix, maintaining a brilliant record at TPC Scottsdale without quite winning.

He was also third in both 2019 and 2020 and eighth two years ago to show his love of the track, while his form either side of Christmas would strongly suggest Thomas is very close to his brilliant best.

He has finished in the top-six in each of his last five outings, and managed to give up stacks of ground on the greens at Pebble Beach while remaining in the hunt.

Once more he was superb from tee-to-green, and he leads the tour in that regard for the fledgling 2024 campaign, so even a half-decent week on the smooth Phoenix greens should see him get in the hunt for a first victory since the 2022 US PGA.

Elsewhere, it would be no big surprise to see Clark get in the mix for back-to-back victories given that he lives in Scottsdale and was able to get an extra day of rest after banking the winner’s cheque from the weekend.

The world number six really found his groove on Saturday, signing for a course record 60 at Pebble Beach, and he is a great tee-to-green performer at his best.

He was 10th on debut here last term, and having won three times since then, including a first Major, there is little doubt confidence will be sky-high for a return, so Clark has to be worth a look at 28/1 with Ladbrokes, who go 10 places.

Ben An is also of real interest at 33/1 with Paddy Power as he makes his way back towards the upper reaches of the game following a serious slump.

That loss of form meant the Korean couldn’t get into events like Phoenix for the last couple of years, but he has strong history here, having led through 54 holes in 2017 before finishing sixth, and coming ninth in 2020.

An was fourth and second in the two Hawaiian events to start 2024 thanks to strong tee-to-green showings, and after a reasonable tune-up at Pebble Beach, he could be ready to go well again at a venue he loves and where his added power will be a big asset.

WM PHOENIX OPEN SELECTIONS

Justin Thomas, e/w, 10/1 (General);

Wyndham Clark, e/w, 28/1 (Ladbrokes);

Ben An, e/w, 33/1 (Paddy Power)

Brooks can LIV his best life on Super Bowl weekend in Vegas

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka Brooks Koepka is an enticing 14/1 shot in the LIV Golf event in Las Vegas

IT could be argued that there will be more star-power at LIV Golf Las Vegas, which is being billed as a warm-up for the Super Bowl and is being played a day early, from Thursday to Saturday, to fit in around the main event.

Jon Rahm goes to post a big favourite at 4/1 after going close to winning his debut LIV event, two late bogeys costing him in Mexico on Sunday night.

Joaquin Niemann won at Mayakoba after a play-off with Sergio Garcia, proving the benefit of sharpness having played in Australia and Dubai either side of Christmas.

The Chilean is second-favourite at the Las Vegas Country Club, and the cream does tend to rise to the top given the amount of padding in these fields.

Phoenix may actually tie in well here, with proven desert form and an ability to block out inebriated crowds meaning Koepka might just be the man to beat at 14/1.

He has won three times in the short history of LIV so far and will be hoping to be the first player to make it four on the back of a decent fifth in Mexico to blow the rust away.

Koepka led the field for fairways hit at Mayakoba, and with this week’s venue having plenty of trees and water, that should stand him in good stead so the 14/1 looks fair enough with six places on offer.

Dean Burmester might also be worth a small each-way look at 25/1 with Boylesports as he seeks to build on a share of third in Mexico.

The South African won twice on the DP World Tour in his homeland before Christmas and should have a similar edge in terms of sharpness as Niemann had last week.

As for the Super Bowl itself, a wise colleague who is a student of all things NFL tells me it’s impossible to go against Patrick Mahomes once the pressure gets ramped up, and therefore thinks Kansas City Chiefs are a great bet at 11/10 generally to retain their crown.

LIV GOLF LAS VEGAS SELECTIONS

Brooks Koepka, e/w, 14/1 (General);

Dean Burmester, e/w, 25/1 (Boylesports)