Sunday, February 25, 2024

Final-round preview and best bets for Genesis Invitational

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In so many ways there is something very familiar about the final round of the 2023 Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club.

Take Jon Rahm, who leads by three shots after 54 holes. It will be his fourth straight final round played in the last group out (and also the sixth time it’s happened in his last eight starts). His consistency in recent months is dizzying: he’s now ended 16 straight rounds three or four sitting no worse than tied seventh on the leaderboard and 13 times he was tied second or better.

And then there is his closest challenger heading into Sunday: Max Homa, the Californian whose home state form is almost on a par with the Spaniard’s current hot streak. A win today would be his fifth in eight starts, a run that began with triumph in this event in 2021, has included a pair of Fortinet Championship successes, and was most recently added to with victory in last month’s Farmers Insurance Open when he passed, among others, Rahm in the final round.

There’s plenty of reason to think that the leader has the bit between his teeth and will be difficult to pass. On the one hand, his Saturday 65 was the third time he had signed for that score in his last four laps at the LA course. On the other, he knows that a win here, assuming Scottie Scheffler (currently T15th) does not finish solo second, will get him back to the top of the world rankings.

He’s also elaborated on other reasons he feels at home on this week’s test. “The main thing is I grew up on Poa Annua greens, so I’m a little more comfortable than the average on them and it shows,” he said yesterday. “Also, this is mainly a ball-striker’s golf course. There’s a reason Ben Hogan had success here. I think that’s where it kind of helps me. My ball-striking level on average is usually pretty high.”

You can add to this something he said earlier in the week: “Listen, it’s not officially a major championship, but feel-wise this is comparable to a major championship. And the fact that Tiger is the host, the fact that he’s out here playing and the history of this golf course? All reasons why I would love to win here. It’s a very select group of champions that frankly Tiger and Jack (Nicklaus) never joined, which probably never happened on any other golf course but this one, right? It would be an honour.”

He ranks third for SG Approach and second for Putting. He’s converted five of his seven solo third rounds leads on the main tours and each of his last four. The last 50 players with a three-shot 54 hole lead on the PGA Tour? 23 lifted the trophy but major champions were 7-for-11 in that group.

He’s also stretched the chasers and reduced the number of genuine threats. His scores of 65-68-65 leave him on 15-under 198, those three strokes clear of Homa (64-68-69), four ahead of Keith Mitchell (64-69-69) and five in front of Patrick Cantlay (68-67-68). The last seven Riviera winners were tied second or better after 54 holes, 19 of the last 25 were tied third or better. Only one winner in that period (Mike Weir in 2003) overhauled a deficit above four shots with 18 holes to play. In other words, the fact that Rahm is widely priced 1/3 makes complete sense.

And yet I’m going to argue in favour of Homa and here’s why. First up, it’s not unknown for quality golfers to get themselves in a pickle with a pre-final round lead at Riviera. Davis Love III was three ahead in 2001, Retief Goosen two clear in 2015 and Justin Thomas four to the good in 2019 – all fluffed their lines with 75s. Then there are Rahm’s last two outings: he was solo second at Torrey Pines, carded a 74, got passed by Homa; then he was tied second at Scottsdale, added a solid 68, but couldn’t find his top gears.

He could easily learn from those lessons – in fact, he suggested as much late Saturday – but also, as much as contending is good, it is also potentially tiring. Then there is the nature of Homa who has won five of his six PGA Tour titles from on the shoulder of the leaders (and he claimed both his Korn Ferry Tour titles in the same manner).

When asked about this he acknowledged it, but also put it in perspective. “I’ve done it and it gives me confidence, I guess, but it’s a bit of a different test with Jon,” he said. “He played very flawless golf today.”

From there he continued in bullish manner. “I feel like I haven’t really matched everything up yet this week minus the first day, and even then I felt like I could have driven it a little better. I’m encouraged, I’m excited to do that tomorrow. I have to play a really good round of golf because this place is tricky but I know it very well and I feel like I know when to pick my spots.

“I’m trusting everything I’m doing right now, I feel good. It was a great round of golf, just wasn’t the best score. I have a good feeling I’m going to come out tomorrow, feel like I did today and the ball will get a little bit closer to the hole.”

He then started bullet-pointing his weekend in excited fashion: “I’m chasing down the hottest golfer on the planet – cool. Final group at Riviera – awesome. Today was a really fun day of golf – I relish it. It’s an opportunity, and I think life is about opportunities, getting them and then when you have them, take advantage. So I’m excited to test myself with that.”

And earlier in the week he was clear about what this tournament did for him in 2021: “The first (PGA Tour) win gave me comfort, this one gave me confidence. It felt like the catalyst.” I’m in agreement with Homa: Rahm is clear favourite, but he has an opportunity and I’d have him shorter than the general 9/2.

Can Mitchell win? He missed the cut on his only previous Riviera start so would be quite the surprise to triumph on a track where fine course experience is usually a pre-requisite but he did say early in the week that he loves the course and had only kept it from his schedule because, as a former winner of the Honda Classic (always next up in the schedule), he felt obliged to favour it.

He needs a lot to go his way and the general 16/1 looks right, as it does for Cantlay. Homa is the pick.

Posted at 1007 GMT on 19/02/23

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