After a near-miss in Bermuda courtesy of Alex Noren, Ben Coley is putting his faith in another Swede as the PGA Tour season concludes with the RSM Classic.
Golf betting tips: RSM Classic
4pts win Ludvig Aberg at 14/1 (General)
2pts e.w. Billy Horschel at 45/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Ben Griffin at 66/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Mackenzie Hughes at 75/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Tyler Duncan at 200/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Kelly Kraft at 300/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Sky Bet odds | Paddy Power | Betfair Sportsbook
After years of the wraparound schedule, it is a relief to finally be able to say that the final event of the PGA Tour year is also the final event of the PGA Tour season. For those of us with prolixity issues, here we have help culling words; no longer does anyone have to explain that last year was this season, or that next season is this year.
More seriously, this change also adds an element of seriousness to the RSM Classic, which to some players has often been as much about the après tee as it has the small matter of a valuable PGA Tour event. There’s still an end-of-term vibe where some of the locals are concerned, Open champion Brian Harman among them, but for those without his long list of invitations, much more is at stake.
LUDVIG ABERG is both a prime example of this and the tournament favourite.
Aberg won’t struggle for invites next year and is firmly expected to have cracked the world’s top 50 long before the Masters comes around, but as of today he’s officially exempt only for full-field PGA Tour events. There will be no Tournament of Champions unless he wins here at Sea Island, that’s for sure, but despite the inevitability of his ascent he does ultimately have to go ahead and earn the right to play in major championships.
I made the point on this week’s episode of The Tips that these courses, Seaside and Plantation, somewhat undermine his brilliance off the tee – but Aberg has already won at Crans, a fiddly course in the Swiss Alps, and looked like he’d win again at Wentworth, again under conditions which require a good deal more subtlety than we sometimes unfairly expect of the modern golfer.
Ultimately, while I’d have concerns around Cam Young’s suitability to this, Aberg looks a bonafide superstar who can do it all. His approach work has been even better than his driving over the past three months, and he putted well at the Shriners before appearing to do so in Mexico, where strokes-gained data was not available.
I never really know what people mean when they talk about a golfer’s potential being frightening, but on this occasion I am willing to state that Aberg’s potential is frightening. For his playing partners this week, his ability right now might be.
Form figures of 14-4-1-10-2-13-10, often in stronger company, highlight just how quickly he’s become a world-class player, and with a DP World Tour win and historic Ryder Cup debut behind him, the next box to tick is a victory on the PGA Tour. Here at Sea Island, where he won a prestigious amateur title at a different course, he ought to be the clear favourite and I can’t let him go unbacked at 14/1.
While Aberg is selected on a pretty simple basis – I think he’s by some way the most likely winner despite it being his course debut and a slight worry that driver isn’t the most important club – the case for my favourite each-way bet has a little more to it.
Billy the best each-way bet
BILLY HORSCHEL actually finds himself just one place behind Aberg in the world rankings in 54th, both of them therefore knowing that they’ll comfortably crack the top 50 with a win, and the American looks overpriced to bag his eighth PGA Tour title.
Horschel’s best form is among the best in this field and while it has been absent for much of the PGA Tour season, he’s played beautifully since the Open Championship. Returning to the US with 13th in the 3M Open, he signed off the regular season with fourth place at the Wyndham Championship where he played in the final group, and since then has produced four eye-catching displays in Europe.
First he went to Ireland and contended until a poor final round, then he finished 18th at Wentworth despite a slow start. Note that there, in the BMW PGA Championship, he faced the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland, Matt Fitzpatrick and Tommy Fleetwood, plus Aberg himself. Horschel is a bigger price for the RSM Classic, which seems a bit silly to me.
Is it because he’s played poorly since? Well, no: from there he finished 20th in France and 14th in the Dunhill Links, meaning he’d be on a run of six consecutive top-20 finishes across both circuits but for that final round at the K Club. He has, by any and every measure, turned a corner, that low point of the Memorial in June a fading memory.
Sea Island would be a fitting place to put the seal on his return to form. Not only did he enjoy plenty of success here as an amateur, but it was where most casual observers were first introduced to his talents when, in 2011, he opened 64-64, leading at halfway for the first time in his career at what was the end of his rookie season.
Inside the top 20 with a round to go on his return a year later, Horschel then became an elite golfer and removed this event from his schedule, returning only in 2016, when what should’ve been a tap-in turned into a shocking miss that saw him eliminated from a play-off.
Rounds of 72 and 67 on his only visit since then do nothing to dissuade me from the view that these courses suit. Horschel is an accurate driver whose putting has become a strength, and whose Florida upbringing has always made him more comfortable playing in places like Georgia, where he has bermuda greens to putt on.
Having twice sat second with a round to go from just four appearances at Sea Island, he has the course form to go with his class, and while it’s been a poor year, since August he’s played to a level which merits shorter prices. Throw in the fact that his coach Todd Anderson is based here and I feel certain he’s excited about what lies ahead this week. I certainly am at a massive price.
Brendon Todd and his lookalike Chris Kirk both have the games for this but Kirk’s putter has become a concern, while another Sea Island resident, JT Poston, has to improve on a pretty miserable record in this event. Poston isn’t alone in fitting that description and he’s in the form of his life, so those seeking a third option from towards the head of the market would be pointed in his direction.
However, I don’t see value in 28/1 and would rather chance another local, BEN GRIFFIN, who certainly has his conditions.
Griffin could and perhaps should have won twice over the past year or so, first when surrendering a big lead in Bermuda and then when beaten in a play-off for the Sanderson Farms. Both events are played on courses with bermuda greens, where power isn’t all that beneficial, and it’s under such conditions that he’s looked at his most effective.
We saw hints of that last year here at Sea Island when he opened with a 66, only for his poor preparation to catch up with him. Griffin had barely touched a club earlier in the week owing to a stomach bug and I think we can excuse the fact that he ran out of gas as an event he was desperate to play well in took shape.
He’ll doubtless be relishing another go at it and having shot a round of 69 in practise at the easier Plantation Course, a par 72, and played countless rounds at Seaside, he’s one of a number of residents who have no excuses on that front.
Granted it hasn’t always worked out, but Griffin was talking a really good game in Bermuda last week, revealing that winning is his sole focus as he feels safe when it comes to qualifying for the first signature events of 2024. He also reflected on a chance conversation with Jack Nicklaus which evidently left him feeling more positive about those two close calls.
“I have this event (Bermuda), next week at the RSM, two events that I’m very familiar with. RSM is home for me, so I’m very confident I’m going to get into the top 60 (FedEx Cup Fall), there’s not a doubt in my mind.
“It’s really just focusing on winning and trying to get in the Masters, get in some of those other events. Everything else is just bonuses, I guess. I could say (I’m) trying to finish in that top 60, but my mind’s not really on it. I’m pretty confident I’m going to be in that top 60 and I’ve just got to go try to win.”
Griffin also made clear that winning to potentially pip Eric Cole to the rookie of the year prize is on his mind and providing he’s not burdened by his own expectations, his blend of neat-and-tidy ball-striking and a killer short-game looks an ideal fit for a tournament won by the likes of Kirk, Kevin Kisner, Austin Cook and Adam Svensson.
Last week’s second-round 63 to recover from a slow start on his return to Bermuda suggests he remains in good form and form such as fourth place in the Wyndham and 12th in the Sony Open, plus a strong record in Florida of late, underlines that we’re in the right part of the world for this one-time amateur standout from North Carolina.
Past champions can run it back
Davis Thompson is another member of what was once referred to as the Sea Island mafia and he’s playing well, but at bigger odds I’m drawn to MACKENZIE HUGHES, the player who won the play-off Horschel was involved in back in 2016.
That was Hughes’ PGA Tour breakthrough, right out of the gate as a rookie, and he doubled his tally in another end-of-year event in 2023, capturing the Sanderson Farms Championship under broadly similar conditions.
It’s not been a great year since then, but Hughes effectively sealed his place within that 51-60 bracket on the FedEx Cup Fall with seventh in Mexico last time, during which he revealed that he’d been refreshed by a recent change in caddie.
Although not considered the most consistent player in the sport, he’d been fifth two starts prior to his Sanderson Farms win and had been playing really nicely for a few weeks prior to finishing runner-up in the RSM Classic two years ago, again soon after a top-five finish.
That performance in Mexico might therefore be the precursor to something better still and as a former winner and runner-up here, whose putter can be lights-out and whose best form has either been by the coast (the Open, Corales Puntacana) or on shorter courses (here, Honda, Travelers), that combination should again serve him well.
Austin Cook is another past champion whose putter seems to have clicked lately but while he’s tempting having been selected last week, I prefer 2019 winner TYLER DUNCAN at the same sort of price.
Duncan is one of the most accurate players on the PGA Tour, ranking 14th in fairways and 15th in greens this season, and those skills helped him to down Webb Simpson here a couple of years after he’d contended on debut.
Although three missed cuts have followed, they’ve featured rounds of 63, 66 and 68, and prior to two of these appearances he’d been in terrible form. By contrast, 16th in Jackson at a course he’s seldom played well at was followed by 18th in the Shriners, by some margin his best form in Vegas, before ho-hum rounds of 70 and 72 saw him depart early in Mexico.
That golf course, with its almost unmissable fairways, wasn’t to everyone’s tastes and a player like Duncan, who ranks 24th in strokes-gained off-the-tee simply because he hits it arrow-straight, probably realised it wasn’t for him the moment he arrived.
If we allow him that lacklustre effort, those two previous top-20 finishes make him a potential dark horse here, particularly as his putting improved. The fact his best form elsewhere has come at places like the Honda Classic and the Corales Puntacana is no coincidence and if we do stumble into a good week with the putter, he could spring another massive surprise.
More good Kraft work…
Robby Shelton was 10th here last year despite failing to take advantage of the easier Plantation and if he’s to win at this level it’ll be somewhere in the southeast. He’s one to ponder but while he flirted with contending in the Fortinet and stepped forward again in the ZOZO, I just felt his overall form wasn’t quite strong enough to justify selection.
The accurate Satoshi Kodaira is playing better and has a win at the RBC Heritage to call upon, but I’m going to stick with KELLY KRAFT for a second week after some signs of promise in Bermuda.
Kraft was just outside the top 10 at halfway there, despite being on the wrong side of the draw, and has made every cut dating back to the Wyndham Championship six starts ago. Just two over-par rounds across the 24 he’s played during this sequence speaks to a player who has found confidence again having never really fulfilled his potential as a former US Amateur champion.
Sea Island is on paper a good place for him to do that, as Kraft is among the most accurate drivers in the field and ranks 44th in putting. His lack of punch off the tee shouldn’t be a problem here and while his RSM Classic record hardly leaps off the page, he was 21st and 22nd on his second and third visits, let down by a poor round at Plantation on the latter occasion.
He has though shot three rounds of 65 at Seaside, that’s from just 10 spins in competition, and a six-under 66 at Plantation shows that it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together. There’s absolutely no guarantee that he will, but Kraft is one big week away from securing some kind of status for next year, and having got married at Sea Island 10 years ago, he returns with his game ticking over nicely.
Posted at 1600 GMT on 14/11/23
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