IN the matter of a few hours on Sunday, we got a perfect illustration of the wide spectrum of players who are capable of winning elite golf tournaments around the world.
At lunchtime, Rory McIlroy captured his fourth Dubai Desert Classic title, 15 years after claiming his first success as a professional at the same Emirates Golf Club venue.
The world number two went to post as the 3/1 favourite, but drifted to 30/1 after two rounds having trailed by 10 shots at the halfway point.
Saturday proved the key day for him, a nine-under 63 catapulting the Holywood man back into contention and ultimately scaring his rivals away.
Saturday was also the day the golfing world sat up and took notice of 20-year-old amateur Nick Dunlap, who fired a 12-under round of 60 at La Quinta to take a commanding lead into the final day of the American Express in the Californian desert.
And while far more experienced players failed to get the job done on Sunday, Dunlap stood firm to take the title and become the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour in 33 years, following in the footsteps of a genuine all-time great in Phil Mickelson.
Quite what the future holds for Dunlap is anyone’s guess at this stage, but there are plenty of doors open to him and his PGA Tour card has been secured for the next two years.
He has opted out of this week’s Farmers Insurance Open as he ponders his next step in a highly promising career, while McIlroy also gives it a miss, with next week’s visit to Pebble Beach set to be his first American outing of 2024.
That said, a high-class field will still go to post at the iconic Torrey Pines in San Diego for the Farmers Insurance, which starts on Wednesday and finishes on Saturday to avoid TV clashes with the conference games in the NFL.
While the American Express was also in California, this one is the first of the really established West Coast events, with Pebble Beach and the Genesis at Riviera to come in the next few weeks, as well as a visit to the raucous Phoenix Open.
Torrey Pines is one of the most recognisable venues on tour, and many of the greats have won there, with Tiger Woods capturing this title seven times and also claiming the US Open in 2008.
Jon Rahm also took Major glory on the cliffs above San Diego in 2021, having captured his first PGA Tour title at Torrey Pines four years earlier.
The Spaniard’s move to LIV means there is no clear favourite this week, with a quartet of Californians vying for that honour.
San Diego native Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa and defending champion Max Homa – put up at 22/1 in this column 12 months ago – are all available at between nines and 12/1, depending on how many places you’re after.
The Farmers Insurance is played across both courses at Torrey Pines, but it is the beastly South Course that will sort the wheat from the chaff, as those who make the cut will have to conquer it three times to get in the mix.
Stretching to nearly 7,800 yards, it has been the toughest non-Major course on tour over the last three years, and rain last weekend in San Diego will only have lengthened it further.
With narrow fairways and small greens, elite men have tended to emerge as champions, with the same names creeping towards the upper reaches of the leaderboard year after year.
Power is certainly an advantage – which might count against the otherwise excellent Morikawa – and a proven ability to putt on the tricky Poa Annua surfaces is also a must.
All of the leading quartet have claims, and Schauffele flew home for third at the AmEx on Sunday.
However, defending champion Homa has become the most prolific winner of the four and is fancied to retain the title he won at the expense of Keegan Bradley last term.
The world number seven has claimed four of his six PGA Tour titles in California, often saving his best for home games – he was also second to Rahm at the Genesis last term – and has been away from the cameras getting ready for this since a decent 14th to open his season at The Sentry in Hawaii.
He won on his penultimate outing in 2023, at the Nedbank in South Africa, and confidence has been sky high since his superb, defiant Ryder Cup effort in a losing battle in Rome.
Homa knows he belongs at the very top and loves a tough challenge, which he will get this week, while the fact Torrey Pines has a long history of throwing up repeat winners is also a positive.
The 10/1 quoted by Paddy Power and Sky Bet might not be to everyone’s liking, but with eight places on offer Homa has to be an each-way play at least.
Another former champion who needs to be on the shortlist is Jason Day, who turns it on at Torrey Pines seemingly every year, regardless of his form elsewhere.
The 2015 and 2018 winner, the Australian former world number one has seven top-10s to his name at Torrey Pines, including a close-up third in 2022 and seventh last term.
Day – who won for the first time in five years on tour at the Byron Nelson last May – warmed up with a reasonable effort at the American Express, with four rounds in the 60s, and was previously 10th at The Sentry, again breaking 70 every day.
This will be a tougher test, but one he knows better than most, and his high ball flight into tricky, small greens might just give him an edge.
William Hill go 25/1, and given his course pedigree, Day is crying out to be backed at the price.
I also love the chances of Sahith Theegala, another Californian who seems to play his best stuff on familiar terrain.
After finishing fourth here last year and sixth at the Genesis, Theegala won his first PGA Tour title at the Fortinet in northern California in September and went close to doubling up when second to Chris Kirk at The Sentry earlier this month.
A powerful hitter, he should be on the premises come the close of play on Saturday night and is very appealing at 33/1 (William Hill).
Finally, it’s worth taking a chance with Will Zalatoris at the general 50/1 on offer.
A genuinely world class ball-striker, the San Francisco native is just working his way back from surgery on his back that has halted his progress over the past 18 months.
There are signs that he is creeping towards the level that saw him finish second in three Majors across 2021 and 2022, and there could be no better place than Torrey Pines for him to return to top form.
Zalatoris lost a play-off to Luke List here in 2022, a year after finishing seventh, and he played pretty well in the American Express, a Saturday 65 the highlight.
A return to a favourite venue might just bring out further improvement, and as Nick Dunlap showed on Sunday night, anything can happen at the top level of professional golf.
FARMERS INSURANCE OPEN SELECTIONS
Max Homa, e/w, 10/1 (Paddy Power, Sky Bet);
Jason Day, e/w, 25/1 (William Hill); top Rest of the World, 11/2 (Boylesports);
Sahith Theegala, e/w, 33/1 (William Hill);
Will Zalatoris, e/w, 50/1 (General)