Mahan heads Travelers list

Ben Coley previews this week’s Travelers Championship on the US PGA Tour and says Hunter Mahan is a good bet.

Pebble Beach Links to TPC River Highlands is some contrast and, unless your name is Graeme McDowell, it’s one the PGA Tour professionals will, in the main, welcome this week.

The last 16 winners of the Travelers Championship have all finished double-digits under par and only a brave man would bet against a similar scenario this year, as the 6841-yard par 70 track will be tackled by a classy field in conditions forecast to be superb.

Unlike last week, pars won’t be so hard to come by on most of these holes.

Last year Kenny Perry opened with a 61 and fired a closing 63 for victory so it’s not beyond the realms of belief that we could see a sub-60 round this week. One thing is for sure, though, we’ll see a lot of birdies.

With that in mind the fit here is a ball-striker who can make his putts so it’s no surprise that Hunter Mahan heads our list.

Having had two previous looks around the course, the supremely talented Californian made his mark here in 2006 when sharing second with Ryan Moore.

He ranked eighth for ball-striking during the week and closed with a 65 for a personal best Tour effort – he’d finished in a share of second in the Reno Tahoe Open in 2004, but that event isn’t half the tournament this is – and from then on he hasn’t looked back.

Hunter returned in 2007 to beat Jay Williamson in a play-off when once more it was his ball-striking and, perhaps crucially, his ability to make his score on the par-4’s that made the difference.

In 2008, he rallied to a 17-under par score but found Stewart Cink a shot too good.

Then last year he closed with 63 – 64 over the weekend for a share of fourth.

Clearly then, Hunter Mahan is very much our course-specialist angle, but what about his form coming in to this year’s renewal?

The news here isn’t so pretty as Hunter has missed his last three cuts, including in the US Open last week, although a weekend off slogging around Pebble is probably no bad thing where this week is concerned.

That display was the most disappointing as he’s shown in the past that he’s a big-time player who brings his best game to the best events but it’s too soon to be writing him off, even temporarily.

For starters, he finished in a share of fourth at The Masters off the back of a missed cut at the Shell Houston Open. That sums Mahan up – he’s as classy as they come when on song but undoubtedly prone to the odd shocker – but there are reasons to believe he can recapture his best this week.

Firstly, US Open’s aside, his best efforts come when birdies are flying.

Secondly, emphasising that point further, he’s a winner this year having shot 65 – 65 on the weekend to deny Rickie Fowler in Phoenix. And thirdly, the stats suggest his game on the whole is right where it needs to be.

Second in total driving and 18th in greens in regulation combines to make Mahan the fourth best ball-striker on tour and that will serve him well here.

Disappointingly, his efforts on par-4’s haven’t been quite up to scratch but his putting from between 15 and 20 feet has been and that’s the sort of range that will make the difference; plenty will find tap-in birdies at Travelers, it’s those who find a few bonus putts that will make their way to the top of the pile.

Hunter has missed his last three cuts but paid out for each-way players on his last four starts here, with a win too, so the only question to be answered is whether his price is right and at 22/1 we feel it’s a little on the steep side; it’s certainly enough to tempt us into an each-way play.

How Padraig Harrington and Justin Rose are priced up shorter than our headline pick is beyond us.

Padraig, remember, is having his first look at the course, has not long ago returned from surgery and has never really looked set to win this year. Yes he played well enough to tie for 22nd at the US Open, but that sort of test is exactly what suits the three-timer major winner, not the birdie-fest we’re going to get here.

In addition, he’s 141 places behind Hunter on the ball-striking list at 145th and only his masterful short game keeps him in contention. A look through the roll-of-honour here will tell you that getting up and down from the rough is far from being a key statistic. Class alone could see Padraig home, but at 14/1 or thereabouts there’s no way we’re paying to find out.

Justin Rose is even harder to make a case for at the odds. Yes, he was third here in 2005, but since then he’s missed the cut twice and the mere fact he’s had a week off and will be fresher than most, and of course arrives following a win, is not enough to justify the price for a man previously hard to win with.

Next on my list then is Bo Van Pelt, whose current form and course suitability make him hard to ignore.

The Oklahoma State grad has really found his game of late, finishing outside of the top 10 just twice in his last seven events, missing no cuts.

Not only has he made the top 10 with such frequency, he’s also paid out for each-way backers on four of those occasions and acquitted himself well at Pebble last week despite having a lack of course form to call upon.

He should be much more at home at TPC River Highlands.