For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, visit our transparent tipping record
Now that Tiger Woods’ extraordinary 80th PGA Tour success has been confined to the dim and distant past, it’s time to take our first tentative steps along the road back to East Lake courtesy of the season-opening Safeway Open from Napa, California.
A quirk of fate means that, as in the Dunhill Links, we have a defending champion who is in fact pursuing a third consecutive victory in the event, Brendan Steele having seen off Tony Finau by a convincing two shots a year ago after he was a shot too good for Patton Kizzire in 2016.
Finau is a fine advert for what a strong start to the season can do and also helps confirm a nice link between Silverado, host venue since 2014, and Riviera, home of what’s now called the Genesis Open. Finau completed a runner-up double across the two courses last year to underline a link established by Sang-moon Bae in 2014 and it’s one worth pursuing to some degree.
Brendan Steele will look to win this trophy for a third time
The challenge here at a relatively short par 72 is to set up enough birdie opportunities to stay competitive and it strikes me that those who drive the ball particularly well have been best placed to do so.
Certainly, Steele’s chief weapon is the driver, a comment which also applies to Finau and 2015 winner Emiliano Grillo. In fact Steele and Grillo were almost next to each other in the 2016 strokes-gained off-the-tee charts, separated by Scott Piercy, a player who was third here the same year.
The other obvious factor to acknowledge is that Steele is Californian, and with the PGA Tour’s west coast visits fairly seldom these days we do often see the locals step up a gear. James Hahn winning at Riviera would be one high-profile example but there are many others, not that we should confine the search to California – there are players from much further afield who, for whatever reason, tend to thrive in the Golden State.
Top of my list is the man at the top of the betting, with Patrick Cantlay considered a smashing bet at 14/1.
To come to that conclusion on what’s his first start at the course, you do have to go along with my view that he’s closing in on the world’s top 10 and eventually – yes, slowly – will be contending in majors. There’s a very good chance that he goes a step further and wins one, in fact.
You also have to believe that there’s nothing about this course which can be considered off-putting, and I happen to think it’ll prove ideal. Cantlay is such a complete player that you can make a case for him anywhere, but a mid-to-low-scoring, tree-lined course which favours good drivers really should be his ticket. Among this field, he was the second-best driver last season and consistently hit the ball well off the tee.
Cantlay also has the added bonus of being a Californian whose sole PGA Tour success to date came in this early-season, pre-Christmas run last year, just over in Nevada, and he’s accordingly very comfortable on poa annua greens.
“I love California, it’s where I grew up, I feel very comfortable here,” he said at Riviera last year, and his fourth place there having led after 18 and 36 holes is a further indication that Silverado is an ideal place to start just his second full season on the PGA Tour.
Cantlay is entitled to feel like he’d have been an asset on the Ryder Cup side last week and the world number 22 rates a strong fancy to stamp his class all over a relatively weak field, one in which a completely out-of-sorts and likely jet-lagged Phil Mickelson is sixth favourite.
The lack of serious depth here makes Steele worth considering at 40/1, despite some really poor golf when last seen. No doubt some will speculate that lightning may strike thrice and double him up with Tyrrell Hatton, who as touched upon also goes for a so-called three-peat on the European Tour. I’m not one of them, but both horses for courses have to be afforded a degree of respect.
In price order, the next on my list is Beau Hossler, who is a very fair 40/1 generally having been a standout rookie throughout the 2017 season.
Among a series of high-class performances, Hossler was particularly unfortunate not to win the Houston Open when on the receiving end of a Ryder Cup-style performance from Ian Poulter, while he also contended at Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines and in the CareerBuilder Challenge, all in California.
Now a resident of Texas, Hossler will look forward to a return to his home state, where he famously threatened to win the US Open as a 17-year-old amateur, and he is expected to better a low-key performance on debut in this event a year ago.
Back then, he’d limped through the Web.com Tour Finals but this time around he’s carded seven sub-70 rounds in eight at the very highest level, making his way to the penultimate event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the end of a fine, if frustrating, first season.
Hossler seems a surefire future winner and his combination of picking up strokes from the tee and with the putter – he leads this entire field on 2018-season putting stats – looks a good fit for this week’s venue.
Beau Hossler is expected to go well on his return to California
Lucas Glover could build on his second place in the Web.com Tour Championship and has hit the ball well – surprise, surprise – in a couple of previous visits here, so the former US Open champion is respected at 80/1 or so.
Luke List might be a decade older than Hossler but remains progressive and a candidate to enjoy a breakout season, comments which could also apply to Jamie Lovemark, while it’ll be interesting to see how Dylan Frittelli does now that he’s focused on pursuing a PGA Tour career.
Next on my list, however, is the infuriating but undeniably talented Scott Piercy.
Two years ago, Piercy opened with a round of 62 here and led by three at halfway, only to slowly but surely succumb to a combination of weekend pressure, an ice-cold putter and some excellent golf from Steele.
On his 2017 return he finished a respectable 17th, and what’s interesting is across these two events he’s done everything well, without marrying things up. In 2016 he ranked sixth tee-to-green but missed too many short putts, while last year he was fifth in putting – a rarity for Piercy – but didn’t drive the ball well enough.
Generally, Piercy’s strength is from tee-to-green, his languid power and controlled draw carrying him into contention frequently enough, and having driven the ball well during all three Playoff starts it’s hoped that he’s able to pick up where he left off.
With his 40th birthday approaching, Piercy should be focused on a big year and all four of his PGA Tour wins have an opportunistic quirk to them, whether it’s two opposite titles or a team one, even the Canadian Open which comes right on the heels of the Open Championship.
There’s a big chunk of Web.com Tour graduates in this field and a distinct absence of world-class players, so again this looks like an event where someone like Piercy might be able to take advantage of an opening. Given his local ties – Nevada born and raised, San Diego educated – he ticks a lot of boxes.
Scott Piercy is dangerous in this type of event
Patrick Rodgers is another with California ties having excelled at Stanford and it’s about time he was getting off the mark, with fields like this ideal for what could be seen as an overdue breakthrough.
While his college peers are thriving – Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, even former Safeway winner Grillo – Rodgers has struggled to put the pieces together in his brief career so far, with last year summing things up perfectly.
When he came on the Tour, Rodgers’ awesome power looked set to be his chief weapon and he ended his rookie season ranked 36th in strokes-gained off-the-tee, yet as he’s become one of the strongest putters on the circuit (10th last season), he’s somehow struggled with the big stick.
He’ll know exactly what he needs to work on to get back in contention and what I particularly like is that he’s driven the ball superbly here on two occasions now, ranking third off the tee when down the field last year and first en route to sixth place in 2015.
That suggests a love for the layout and the confidence that brings him could be revealed in a strong showing, especially as he’s a regular contender in California who has also played well at Riviera two years running. It’s important to remember that not everyone who is meant to be a world-beater shows it immediately and I’ve every faith that Rodgers will eventually figure things out. It could well be this week.
Outsiders worth a mention include Max Homa, who has a top-10 finish in the event to his name and found form late in the Web.com Tour season, and Riviera winner James Hahn, who knows how to get the job done, but I’ll start a brand new season with just the above four selections.
Posted at 1750 BST on 02/10/18.