THE sun will come up on the 2024 golfing season in Hawaii on Thursday, with even those right at the heart of the game not sure what the next 12 months will hold.
Jon Rahm’s decision to make the leap to LIV Golf has brought the Saudi-backed tour back into focus after a quiet 2023 in terms of new recruits and viewing numbers, and will probably accelerate talks between the PGA Tour and the Saudi money men to see what sort of a merger can be agreed upon.
The established circuit in America has been changing course on a regular basis in response to LIV’s emergence, trying to find ways to throw as much money as possible at their leading lights in an attempt to keep them on the main tour.
We’re now starting out on a 2024 campaign which will contain eight ‘Signature’ events, the first of which is The Sentry in Maui this week.
Last season had ‘designated’ tournaments, with the difference seemingly minimal, but the idea is to get all off the biggest names together on a more regular basis.
Rahm’s defection is clearly a blow to those aspirations, but with 21 of the top 25 players in the world rankings heading to Hawaii, the season should still start on a high note.
Rory McIlroy is not one of those teeing it up at the idyllic Kapalua complex, with the intention being to start his year on the DP World Tour in Dubai over the next fortnight.
The Holywood man endured mixed fortunes in 2023, winning three events worldwide but failing to end a Major drought that stretches back to the 2014 US PGA Championship.
That title was won at Valhalla in Kentucky, and the fact the same venue is on the Major rota for 2024 is one of the reasons McIlroy is the subject of my main long-term fancy for this year.
Many of the leading bookies are offering Major specials, and the one that really catches my eye is the 14/1 quoted by Boylesports about McIlroy finishing in the top-10 in all four of them.
That is not an easy feat to accomplish, but McIlroy did it in 2022, and only his Masters wash-out stopped him repeating the trick last year.
The pressure going to Augusta each year is immense as he seeks the much-fabled career Grand Slam, but there is no doubt he can perform there, with seven top-10 finishes in his last 10 attempts, including a second in 2022.
McIlroy has also posted seven top-10s in his last eight Majors, and should be looking at the 2024 venues with relish, having won at Valhalla and finished fifth the last time The Open visited Royal Troon in 2016.
The US Open goes to the tricky Pinehurst in North Carolina, where he was 23rd 10 years ago, and he can easily improve on that as a more canny performer.
It’s not easy to compete at all four of the game’s biggest events, but with them coming in a short period of time these days, it’s more realistic than it used to be, with the same names cropping up on leaderboards.
McIlroy should be confident of a big season as he attempts to usurp Scottie Scheffler at the top of the world rankings and the 14/1 looks well worth chancing.
A similar bet I like is Xander Schauffele recording top-20s in all of the big ones, which is a 10/1 shot with Sky Bet.
The Californian has proved an expert at peaking on the big weeks, going close to a maiden Major on numerous occasions.
He has seven US Open top-10s on the bounce to his name and will go to Pinehurst with every chance, fitness permitting, while he has two top-threes at Augusta, almost won the Open Championship at Carnoustie in 2018, and has been in the top-20 in three of the last four PGAs.
Schauffele was no worse than 18th across the 2023 Majors, and his measured approach means he limits the mistakes that can blow others off course, so another solid Major campaign is in the offing.
Another man who can make a big impact over the next 12 months is Min-Woo Lee, and the Australian star is a great bet at 13/8 (Ladbrokes) to win on the PGA Tour in 2024.
Lee has performed well in big American events already, but has now got full playing rights and should really push on.
He carries strong momentum into the new year, having won the Australian PGA a month ago before finishing third in his national Open a week later, and has all the attributes to keep soaring up the rankings.
Lee’s power and light touch around the greens are made for the PGA Tour, and he was fifth at the US Open and sixth in the Players Championship last term.
The ability to mix it in those tough events bodes well and I fully expect him to be hoisting some silverware in 2014.
2024 GOLF SPECIALS
Rory McIlroy, top-10 finish in all four Majors, 14/1 (Boylesports);
Xander Schauffele, top-20 finish in all four Majors, 10/1 (Sky Bet);
Min-Woo Lee to win a PGA Tour event, 13/8 (Ladbrokes)
Morikawa looks the man to beat at season-opener in Hawaii
AS for this week’s action in Hawaii, Scheffler heads the betting at 11/2 in the absence of the last two Sentry champions, Rahm and Cameron Smith.
The Spaniard took this title with a winning score of 27-under 12 months ago while Smith was 34-under in 2022, which underlines how much of a birdie blitz the event is.
It’s gentle way to blow off the Christmas cobwebs, and many in the 59-man field have played little or no competitive golf over the past few months.
Therefore, the focus should be on those who took part in the Hero World Challenge at start of December, or in the events in Australia and South Africa around the same time.
Scheffler strolled to Hero victory in the Bahamas, with all the hard work on his dodgy putting paying off, and if the flat stick behaves he could make off with this title as well.
The price is a little short for me in such a shoot-out, while the Texan has been lukewarm on his previous Kapalua outings.
The massive, sprawling Plantation course relies on undulation changes and winds for protection, and with the weather set fair, the scoring is going to be very good.
Viktor Hovland follows Scheffler in the betting at 8/1, but my focus is on Collin Morikawa at 12/1 generally for a few reasons, both golfing and personal.
The double Major champion should have won here last year, throwing away a huge lead to let Rahm in on the final day, which will serve as motivation, as will his family ties to Maui, an island that was hit by wildfires last summer and is still reeling in the aftermath.
Morikawa will probably be more fired up than any other player in the field, while he has never been worse than seventh in four visits here and finished 2023 with a win at the ZOZO Championship and a sixth at the Hero.
That all adds up to a strong contender, while it makes sense to also side with his fellow California native Max Homa at 14s (William Hill).
Homa has become a serial winner, most recently at the Nedbank in South Africa in November, and has improved on each visit to Kapalua, finishing third last year.
His Ryder Cup display showed a real steely side beneath his smiling exterior, and Homa will be a factor on many occasions over the coming weeks and months.
Finally, at bigger odds it is worth chancing big-hitting Australian Cam Davis at 66/1 with Betway.
He was 10th on his only previous Sentry outing in 2022 and played very well at the tail-end of last year, recording seven top-15s in nine outings, including a seventh in the Australian PGA a month ago.
That busy schedule might just place Davis at an advantage as many of the PGA Tour’s main men attempt to start an uncertain year with a victory.
Collin Morikawa, e/w, 12/1 (General);
Max Homa, e/w, 14/1 (William Hill);
Cam Davis, e/w, 66/1 (Betway)