By Sal Johnson
Rahm does it again
So is there any doubt who the Masters favorite is?
John Rahm solidified that place with his two-shot win at the Genesis Invitational. It makes sense for Rahm to win, this was the 61st time that Riviera has hosted the Genesis Invitational, and in those 61 events, they have been won by 48 different champions. Of those 48, 24 have won major championships. Now in talking about the Masters, 12 of those have won the Masters, so it’s safe to say that Rahm will have a slight advantage when he tees it up at Augusta in just 45 days,
Of course, Rahm won thanks to his supreme tee-to-green game. He ranked 3rd for the week in Strokes Gained tee-to-green. He hit 51 of 72 greens which ranked T-2nd. If you are looking for that one key stat that put Rahm over the top, it has to be playing Riviera’s four par 3s in 8 under par. He did it with three birdies at 16, two birdies at 4 and 14, and one at the 6th hole. Going back to 1997, the previous best of anyone at Riviera was 7 under by Webb Simpson when he finished T-15th in 2010. On the PGA Tour going back to 1997, the best was 12 under by Lee Janzen when he finished T-15th at the 2008 Wyndham Championship. Of the 155,665 times players have participated, only 11 have been better than 8 under on the par 3s (With two of them in 90-hole events). Putting is one of the big keys that Rahm has improved in his game. When Rahm joined the PGA Tour full-time in 2017, he ranked 55th in Strokes Gained Putting. The following year Rahm dropped down to 147th. He has shown progression in improving this. In 2021, he ranked 42nd, in 2022, he was T-28th, and this year, he ranked 9th. For the week, Rahm made 304 feet of putts, ranking 16th. For the week, he made 60 of 68 putts inside ten feet, ranking 16th. He only had one three-putt for the week and made several key putts in the final round, including a gutsy six-footer for a bogey at ten. That and his 45-foot birdie at 14 helped solidify his victory.
With the victory, Rahm finally took the number one spot in the Official World Golf Rankings. He held the world ranking for nine months after his 2021 U.S. Open win and gave it up nine months later to Scottie Scheffler at the WGC Match Play. Rahm has been on a tear since finishing T-2nd at the BMW PGA Championship in September. He finished T-2nd, and in the ten events, he has played since won five times, and has finished no worst than T-8th at the Hero World Challenge. In the six events in the 2023 season, Rahm is 107 under par and has collected $9.86 million in earnings. That is a staggering sum when you consider that the season is at the one-third mark, and in Tiger’s best financial year, he won $10.87 million in 2007. Last year Scottie Scheffler won $13.18 million, so Rahm should surpass that in 2023. One thing interesting, Rahm has won ten times on the PGA Tour, with five of them in California. With two California wins in 2023, if either Rahm (or Max Homa who also has won twice in California) could win the U.S. Open which is being played in California, either of them could match Tiger Woods’s mark of three California wins in a season (Woods won the 2000 Sentry TofC, AT&T Pebble and U.S. Open)
Rahm has won $44.89 million on the PGA Tour and $14.67 or 31.8% of his earnings in the Golden State. With his third win in the seven-event west coast swing, Rahm becomes the first player with three wins in the west coast swing since Johnny Miller won the 1975 Phoenix Open, Tucson Open, and Bob Hope.
So with the tour moving off Rahm’s “comfort” zone, the question is, how will he do in the future? The Florida swing is not a favorite for Rahm. Frankly, he has avoided playing in Florida. He has only played in eight events in Florida, with five at the Players. In the seven starts, he has two top-ten, T-6th at the 2019 Valspar Championship and T-9th at the 2021 Players. So don’t expect much from Rahm in the next month until he gets to the Match Play in Texas, where he has three top-tens in five starts, the best being a runner-up finish in 2017. He was T-9th last year, losing to Brooks Koepka in the round of 16.
Is Max Homa the new “force” on the PGA Tour?
Homa was runner-up to Rahm at the Genesis and with a birdie at ten, was tied with Rahm. Little did Homa know that would be his last birdie of the day. In his final eight holes, Homa got wild with the driver and only hit one of the last six driving holes. His poor drive at 13 cost him a bogey, and the only thing that saved Homa was one putting seven of the nine holes on the back nine. Driving wasn’t his only problem. Homa missed the green in regulation in his last seven holes and due to great scrambling, only played those last seven holes in one over. Homa was disappointed because he wanted to win again at Riviera. He won in 2021, but that year didn’t allow spectators due to the pandemic, so Homa wanted to win in front of a big gallery with many family and friends watching. He also wanted to not only push Rahm, who he played with in the final round but wanted to beat him. But it didn’t happen.
Still, Homa has made the most spectacular improvement on the PGA Tour. He got his PGA Tour card in 2015 but lost it when he finished 163rd on the FedExCup points list. He returned to the tour in 2017, but that year was a dismal failure since he only made two cuts in 17 starts. He finished 244th in the FedExCup standings. He returned to the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018 and had a respectable year regaining his PGA Tour card. He was 60th in the FedEx Cup standings and won for the first time in 2019 at Wells Fargo. He dropped back to 70th in 2020 but had a more consistent year. Since then, his game has drastically improved. In 2021, he won again and was 35th in the FedEx race. Last year he became a primary force on the PGA Tour, winning twice and was 5th in the FedEx Cup. But again, his game became more consistent as he made 21 of 24 cuts and had five top-ten finishes.
In 2023 he has blossomed with two wins, a runner-up, and a third-place finish in seven events. Homa has collected $6.28 million this year, but as the tour moves east, there are some bare-bone facts about Homa. Four of his six wins have come in California, and two are in the same event, the Wells Fargo Championship. Now I know that his two wins in the Wells Fargo were on two different courses, but there are some facts that we have to look at Homa about. He has won $19.1 million in career PGA Tour earnings, but about half of those figures, $9.7 million, has come on courses with Poa Annua Greens.
Another thing to look at, Homa has won $7.56 million on the west coast swing, which is about 40% of his total earnings. On top of that is the fact that he won $2.7 million in September and $3.7 million in May; add that to his west coast swing money, and it’s 70% of his total earnings. So what does that leave us?
As the Tour leaves Homa’s comfortable confines of California for Florida, Homa has played in 12 events in Florida, and his best finish is T-6th at the Valspar Championship. He has only played in two Players Championships, missed the cut in 2021, and was T-13th last year. In three Palmer starts, his best finish was T-10th in 2021. In 14 starts in Texas, Homa only has two top-25 finishes, the best being T-18th in the WGC-Match Play. So Texas is not his favorite place either. Now what Homa has to work on is his play in majors. In 13 starts, he has only made five cuts, and his best finish was T-13th at the PGA Championship. After that, his next-best finish was T-40th at the 2021 British Open, so his record is terrible in the majors.
So before we clap and put Homa on a pedestal, we need to see how Homa does in the next few months, which haven’t been great in past years.
So who do you bet for in the next month in Florida?
So the tour moves from California to Florida. Just like we showed with Max Homa, those that have played well over the last seven weeks may not be good in Florida. We have demonstrated both Homa and Rahm struggle in Florida. If you look at those with the most FedEx Cup points on the West Coast swing, most of these players have terrible finishes in Florida.
Here is a look at how the most point winners in the last seven weeks on the west coast swing
Jon Rahm with 1,878 FedEx Points – In eight Florida starts, made 8 cuts, two top-tens best finish T-6th 2019 Valspar.
Max Homa with 1,001 FedEx Points – In 12 Florida starts, made 7 cuts, two top-tens best finish T-6th 2021 Valspar.
Scottie Scheffler with 714 FedEx Points – In six Florida starts, made 5 cuts, two top-ten winning 2022 Arnold Palmer.
Collin Morikawa with 605 FedEx points – In six Florida starts, made 5 cuts, two top-tens winning the 2021 WGC-Workday Championship.
Si Woo Kim with 605 Fed Ex Points – In 19 Florida starts, made 19 cuts, two top-tens winning 2017 Players.
Justin Rose with 578 Fed Ex Points – In 71 Florida starts, made 52 cuts, 19 top-tens winning 2012 WGC-Workday (Doral). He also was 2nd at 2013 Palmer and had four third-place finishes.
Nick Taylor with 441 FedEx Points – In 20 Florida starts, made 13 cuts, best finish T-16th 2019 Players and 2022 Honda.
Keegan Bradley with 368 points – In 43 Florida starts, made 30 cuts, 8 top-tens, best finish 2nd 2014 Plamer & 2nd at 2021 Valspar.
So here are some of the players who have played well in Florida since 2017
Rory McIlroy with $5,769,272 in 14 starts. Made 11 cuts, with seven top-tens. Two wins, 2018 Palmer and 2019 Players.
Justin Thomas with $5,069,707 in 12 starts. Made 10 cuts, with three top-tens. Two wins, 2018 Honda and 2021 Players.
Paul Casey with $4,892,484 in 11 starts. Made 10 cuts, with five top-tens. Two wins 2018 & ’19 Valspar.
Bryson DeChambeau with $4,350,321 in 11 starts. Made 9 cuts with four top-tens. Won 2021 Palmer.
Cameron Smith with $4,116,024 in 11 starts. Made 7 cuts with one top-ten. Won 2022 players.
Tyrrell Hatton with $3,922,765 in 16 starts. Made 11 cuts with four top-tens. Won 2020 Palmer.
Sam Burns with $3,605,547 in 14 starts. Made 12 cuts with four top-tens. Won the 2021 & ’22 Valspar.
Sungjae Im with $3,495,756 in 14 starts. Made 12 cuts with five top-tens. Won 2020 Honda.
Webb Simpson with $3,145,703 in 13 starts. Made 9 cuts with four top-tens. Won 2018 Players.
Tommy Fleetwood with $3,078,044 in 16 starts. Made 13 cuts with seven top-tens. Best finish T-3rd 2019 Palmer & 3rd at 2020 Honda.
Here are some other players to watch in the next four weeks
Matt Fitzpatrick, in 16 Florida starts, has six top-tens, best finish 2nd 2019 Palmer.
Adam Hadwin, in 14 Florida starts, has five top-tens and won the 2017 Valspar.
Viktor Hovland, in 10 Florida starts, has four top-tens, was T-2nd at 2021 WGC-Workday & 2022 Palmer.
Keith Mitchell, in 15 Florida starts, has four top-tens and won the 2019 Honda.
Billy Horschel, in 19 Florida starts, has three top-tens, T-2nd at 2021 WGC-Workday & 2022 Palmer.
Si Woo Kim, in 15 Florida starts, has two top-tens and won 2017 Players.
Rickie Fowler, in 16 Florida starts, has two top-tens and won the 2017 Honda.
Other surprises at the Genesis
After not playing up to his standards lately, Patrick Cantlay was 3rd. Now he hasn’t played much in Florida. In five Players only made two cuts, and his best was T-22 in 2017. He played in another Florida event and was 2nd at the 2017 Valspar. Still, I wouldn’t make any wagers on him over the next month.
Will Zalatoris shot a final round 64 to finish 4th. So does that mean we should watch him in the coming months? After finishing, he told the media that the good finish didn’t signify he is 100%. As he said, his doctor said his back won’t be back to normal until April, and he is cautious about making sure not to re-injure it. That was one of the reasons he didn’t play in Phoenix because he was still achy. He knows he has to play in the three designated events leading to the Masters and wants to be sure he is playing great for the Masters. One player I will be looking to do well in Florida is Keith Mitchell. He has an excellent record on courses in Florida and those in the southeastern part of the United States. Mitchell has four top-tens in Florida, including winning the 2019 Honda, so watch him. Unfortunately, you would have thought that this week at the Honda would be great for him since he finished T-4th at Pebble and 5th at Genesis. But after playing in five in the last six events, Mitchell isn’t playing at the Honda, another of the dark side of designated events
After missing the cut in Phoenix, Collin Morikawa finished T-6th in L.A. But he is also not playing at Honda and will return at the Palmer. Same with Jason Day, who has been very impressive. He finished T-9th at the Genesis and will play at the Palmer.
Of those that finished in the top ten at the Genesis, only Matt Kuchar (8th) and Adam Svensson (T-9th) are playing at the Honda.
Last but not least, Tiger in the Genesis
The big news was Tiger Woods playing on the PGA Tour in a non-major since his accident in 2021. Even with the excitement he brought last week, he wasn’t a player you could bet on. After struggling at the British Open and the PNC playing with his son Charlie, it seemed he was having problems walking. So for many betters, he is someone to avoid. But will that be the case in the future? Tiger looked great in the first couple of rounds. He shot 69 in the first round and had a tough time in challenging conditions to shoot 74 on Friday. He made the cut on the number and had a terrific round three, shooting 67 and making people wonder if Tiger could win. Many thought the same about Ben Hogan, who had a terrible car accident in 1949 in which he had a double pelvis fracture and had blood clotting concerns for the rest of his life. If you compare injuries, Tiger’s may be a touch worst, he almost lost his leg. But Hogan, he regained his strength and returned to golf 11 months after the accident. In his first start at the L.A. Open (Genesis), he tied Sam Snead and lost in an 18-hole playoff. But six months later, Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion. Hogan was never able to play a full schedule. He averaged playing in five or six events a year. On top of the win at Merion, he won the U.S. Open in 1951 and ’53, along with the Masters in 1951 & ’53. He also won the 1953 British Open and won a total of 11 wins after the accident, his last victory coming at the 1959 Colonial. So many are wondering, could Tiger achieve the same thing?
The big difference is age. Hogan was 37 when he had his accident. Tiger was 45 when he had his accident, and on top of that, he has had several surgeries on his back and legs before the accident, so Woods is at a significant disadvantage. Thursday will mark the two-year anniversary of his accident; even with the best care, we can see that Tiger has never been 100%.
After watching him at Riviera, you have to wonder if Tiger still has a chance of competing again and maybe even winning. He played probably the best he has played since the accident last week. He hit 28 of 56 fairways and hit 42 of 72 greens. Tiger putted well and scrambled well. He made one eagle and 13 birdies. But at the end of the day, despite not playing poorly, he finished T-45th.
Still looking at the positive, you have to wonder if Tiger has that one last gasp at winning again. The Monday before playing at Riviera, Tiger went to Los Angeles Country Club, which will hold the U.S. Open in June. If a course suits Tiger’s game now, L.A. Country Club is the place. The course is an easy walk, with no real hills to worry about. On top of that, the course will be different for the Open. It will play more like a links course and won’t have the dreaded rough and tight fairways you see at a U.S. Open. The greens are some of the best in golf, and you have to think that this course could be the best chance for Tiger to have this one last-gasp try at winning. To be frank, I can’t see Tiger winning. He may be within grasp, but winning and doing it at a major is a real long shot. Yes, Hogan was able to do it after the accident, but in the history of the majors, only two others won the majors at an older age than Tiger, Julius Boros and Phil Mickelson. Still, we can’t write Tiger off. Despite saying he wasn’t going be play much, folks are speculating that Tiger will make one more start before the Masters, either at the Arnold Palmer, which he has won eight times, or the Players Championship, an event he has won twice. The consensus is that if Woods is going to play again, it would probably be the Players since it’s a more leisurely, flat walk. If he does, it will bring a lot of energy as it did to the Genesis.