Sobel’s Arnold Palmer Invitational Preview: Rory Could Become Augusta Favorite with Good Showing
Orlando Ramirez, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Rory McIlroy
- Rory McIlroy (+700) is the betting favorite to win the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
- Jason Sobel breaks down the field for the tournament and makes a case for his favorite bet for the weekend.
ORLANDO — True story: I woke up early Monday morning and decided to get ahead of my Tuesday deadline for this preview column.
I typed out nearly 800 words on Tiger Woods, all about how he should continue progressing at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, taking yet another step forward after consecutive results of T-20, T-15 and T-10 to start the year. I wrote about his comfort level on a track where he’s won eight times as a professional.
And I deleted all of it when, later in the day, he tweeted that a neck strain would force him to miss this tournament.
Instead, let’s switch gears to Rory McIlroy, this week’s defending champion who would love to rip a page out of Tiger’s book.
One of the now-moot points I made in that previous piece was that Woods always did a tremendous job of gearing his game up for the Masters. Every elite player insists he wants to peak four times each year, but few have been able to figure out the key to unlocking such timing.
Case in point: Don’t you think McIlroy would’ve liked to have bottled up a few of those clutch shots down the stretch at Bay Hill last year and saved them for Sunday at Augusta National, when he seemingly couldn’t find a single one?
With the API moved up on the schedule, Rory will have at least two chances before the Masters to prove that he should be the favorite in his ongoing pursuit for a career grand slam.
McIlroy (+1100) is currently just behind Dustin Johnson (+1000) in the books, a number which could easily be reversed – and sooner than you might think.
I don’t think McIlroy – or anyone else, for that matter – will be following Phil Mickelson’s old strategy of playing shots for Augusta while actually competing at another event, but you’d better believe that everything he does this week and at next week’s Players Championship will be with the year’s first major in mind, even if it’s only lodged in the far recesses.
On two occasions (2001 and ’02), Woods was able to parlay a victory at the API into a Masters title. Momentum from this one will mean less, considering it’s four weeks beforehand, but McIlroy can take a first step toward trying to, finally, have his game peak at Augusta.
As the API favorite, it’s hard not to like a guy who’s finished in the top-five in every start so far this year. Consider it a minor shock if he isn’t top-five again, at the very least – and don’t be surprised if that means he’s your Masters favorite by the end of the weekend, at a tournament where he’s built up so much scar tissue.
Brooks Koepka (+1100)
Hey guys, do me a favor: Remind me to take a vacation during next year’s Honda Classic. Find a beach, turn off the phone, chase midday naps with more naps. It’s not that I don’t like the tourney — I actually really do — but watching it is akin to four consecutive days of a ball popping all over a roulette wheel.
It almost landed on Koepka, whom I’d foolishly advised to fade throughout the week. He played very well, finished T-2 and guess what? I’m not fading him again. Whereas I wrote last week that Koepka always appears less motivated at non-majors, I’m altering that opinion: He couldn’t care less about moral victories.
Granted, most players will offer some semblance of the old, “If you ain’t first, you’re last” line popularized by one Ricky Bobby, but Koepka strongly believes it. There are few guys I’d want with the proverbial ball in their hands at the end of a game than him — even in non-majors, which I might not have said previously.
Rickie Fowler (+1200)
If you’re a fan of trends, you might want to stay away from Fowler, who has traded top-10 results with a following finish outside that number ever since the season began in October.
If you’re not scared to buck those trends, coming in fresh off a T-2 at the Honda, where he owned the low score on the weekend, he should be able to parlay that momentum into a strong result.
For a guy also decked out in Palmer’s iconic umbrella logo this week, I’ve always thought that karma will carry him to a win at some point here.
Jason Day (+1400)
Like McIlroy, Day has played some excellent golf in his most recent starts, without a trophy to show for it yet. The 2016 champion was 22nd and 23rd here the last two years, but I expect him to seriously contend this time.