Golf picks: The American Express predictions & best bets from Diane Knox Balas
Diane Knox Balas
If you have followed my column for the past 9 months, you might have noticed that I like to pick guys who are celebrating milestones in their personal lives — weddings, babies…the lot! Therefore I am kicking myself for overlooking Si Woo Kim last week for the Sony Open in Hawaii after he tied the knot over the Christmas break and won his fourth career title.
Incidentally, he beat Hayden Buckley by 1 shot — Buckley is also a newlywed. Go figure!
This week — following a fortnight in beautiful Hawaii — the west-coast swing begins in Palm Springs and it’s back to the scene of another Si Woo victory back in ’21. For many, especially those poa annua putting specialists, the California leg of the PGA TOUR is a highlight of the year and we have some great tournaments coming up over the next 5 weeks.
The American Express is a slightly different format to the rest. It’s played on 3 courses and is 1 of 2 tournaments on the schedule to feature a pro-am element. That means each pro will play alongside their amateur partner for 3 rounds until the cut is made at the end of Saturday. Then on Sunday it’s go-time to climb that leaderboard and get the W!
This is the 64th year of this tournament. Ten of the top 20 players in the world will be teeing it up this week, including Cali natives Patrick Cantlay, Will Zalatoris and Xander Schauffele — who makes his return after withdrawing from the Sentry Tournament of Champions with back pain.
Hudson Swafford won the tournament last year at -23, 2 shots ahead of Tom Hoge, but he won’t be back to defend this year after joining LIV Golf. Will Zalatoris also shot a 61 last year on the Nicklaus Course to set the course record.
It’s worth noting that Swafford was 200/1 at the start of the week last year. In 2019, winner Adam Long was 600/1 and 2020 champion Andrew Landry was also 200/1. Therefore, it’s a perfect week to dive into the longshots — even with 8 of the OWGR top 15 in the field.
The 3 American Express courses: What you need to know
The tournament is played over 3 courses — PGA West Stadium Course (7,187 yds), La Quita Country Club (7,060 yds) and the Nicklaus Tournament Course (7,147 yds). The field rotate all 3 over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and the final round is played on the Stadium Course on Sunday.
Looking at Swafford’s winning stats from last year, overall he hit a lot of greens and putted well. Hudson was 2nd in strokes gained: putting and 4th in approach. The rough isn’t an issue here and is pretty much non-existent, so accuracy off the tee isn’t all that important (Swafford only hit 36 of 56 fairways) and the water offers the only real hazard. It will become a bit of a putting contest come Sunday afternoon.
With the pro-am element, pin positions are set up a little more leniently for the first 3 days and the greens will run slightly slower than usual. Some players enjoy this format, and some really dislike it (cue the long rounds!).
It’s not really necessary to breakdown each course; they are all on the short side — no rough, score-able holes, so I’m looking at guys who can putt lights out, go low and make the most of the short par 4s and reachable par 5s. Par-5 scoring will be key, as each course features 4 — so par will pretty much feel like a bogey!
Knox’s Knockout AMEX picks
Taylor Montgomery (+4500 at FanDuel)
I’m such a fan of Montgomery and what a start he’s having to his rookie season on tour. A late bogey on Sunday at the Sony Open knocked him just out of the top 10, but he is already showing himself as an elite putter — sitting 3rd in overall putting average and 8th in total putting for the season. He has posted 3 top-10 finishes in the 2022-23 season and another 4 within the top 15, so it looks as though we better get used to seeing Montgomery in contention.
Adam Hadwin (+6000 at Bet365)
Looking at tournament history, it’s hard to overlook Hadwin. He finished within the top-3 in ’17, ’18 and ’19, with 2 of those being runner-up finishes. He has gained strokes on the greens every time he has played here and gained in approach 6 out of 7 times. Desert golf clearly suits his game and Hadwin is in great form, already recording 2 top-10 finishes this season. With approach and putting being key this week, it’s no surprise Hadwin excels in both stat categories (11th in approach and 21st in total putting so far this season), and he is top 20 in par-5 scoring — which will be big this week.
Joel Dahmen (+9000 at DraftKings)
I’m excited about Dahmen this week for many reasons. He is having a heck of a season, with 3 top-10 finishes already and is 5th in scoring average. Dahmen’s iron game is a real strength, and you can be sure he will set up a lot of birdie opportunities this week. If his putter heats up, watch out! Plus he is set to become a dad in a matter of weeks, so the feel-good factor is in full effect.
Harris English (+10000 at PointsBet)
Harris left his home in Sea Island after Christmas and headed out west to Palm Springs to get some golf in and sharpen up his game. He played a lot on the Stadium Course and La Quinta to prepare, so it seems as though he is really looking at this as a big opportunity week for him — even thought he hasn’t played in this event since 2020. He made the cut but didn’t have a great finish last week in Hawaii, but these courses are very different. English has always been a great putter and is 30th in overall putting average this season, with a fantastic iron game to match. He has never missed the cut here and finished T11 in 2018. Let’s see if all the hard work pays off.
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The AMEX prop bets
Harris English top 5 (+2000 at DraftKings)
English is one of my outright picks, but I’m also taking him for a top 10. He has never missed the cut here, is a fantastic putter and spent the offseason out here practicing on the courses.
Nico Echavarria top 10 (+3500 at DraftKings)
We have seen some huge longshot winners here over the years, so I have to give you 1. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an 800/1 pick! I’m going with Nico for a top-10 after finishing T12 at the Sony Open and is riding into Palm Springs with a whole load of confidence and momentum. Last week the Colombian was 6th in putting and 7th off-the-tee, and at this price I’m putting him on my card (and crossing my fingers!).