Hero World Challenge: A battle of ‘Justins’ on the menu

PGA Champion Justin Thomas and the in-form Justin Rose are among the favourites from an accomplished elite club of golfers in the players field.

Based on form, sixth-ranked Justin Rose is clearly ahead of the rest.   -  AP

When the best in the business are set to tee-off on a golf course, the task of predicting the winner becomes that much more challenging.

This week, the USD 3.5 million Hero World Challenge offers one such teaser with 17 players among the top 32 – plus Tiger Woods – forming the invitational field at Albany here. Though Dustin Johnson leads the star parade, the current form makes Justin Thomas a firm favourite. Thomas is the current PGA Champion and the PGA Tour Player of the Year. With three triumphs in seven starts, the third-ranked 24-year-old from Kentucky is due to tee-off with Tiger.

Read: Tiger Woods responds to Thomas ahead of comeback

Again, based on form, sixth-ranked Justin Rose is clearly ahead of the rest. Two European Tour wins, in the last four outings, besides being a top-10 finisher in the last eight events reflects his consistency.

Advantage for Rose

After all, it was Rose who set up an exciting climax to Race To Dubai despite trailing eventual winner Tommy Fleetwood by a huge margin at the start of the final event. The fact that it all came down to the final putt is a tribute to the never-say-die spirit of Rose. Considering that he owns a home here and is more familiar to the sand-based course, it is easy to back Rose this week.

This is not to hint that it could be any easier for Thomas or Rose. The presence of US Open champion Brooks Kopeka and Open champion and former World No. 1 Jordan Spieth lends the field with the much-needed unpredictability pertaining to the title-race.

Read: Great expectations as Tiger returns

If Dustin Johnson is not being considered a favourite, it is because he is currently low on confidence. No wonder, he appears more on a joy trip here. Same goes for defending champion Hideki Matsuyama whose form does not inspire much confidence. Far from the debate on possible winners, Tiger is quietly sending out signals of how this comeback could well turn out to be different from his past nine attempts to return to top-flight golf.

Woods impresses

In the pro-am event on Wednesday, Tiger produced glimpses of the man who occupied the World No. 1 spot for 683 weeks! On the par-four 7th hole, aided by the helping wind, Tiger drove to 350 yards. If that was not impressive enough from a man returning to competitive golf in nine months, Tiger sank a 20-foot ‘eagle’ putt!

Read: When the doting father in Tiger Woods took over

Though Tiger’s return has, so far this week, taken the focus away from the creamy layer of world golf, it would be wise not to expect miracles from the man looking for his first title since 2013.

Last year, Matsuyama showed how generous this course could be when he won with a tally of 18-under. Tiger, lacking practice, could do with some low scores this week and take that confidence to the coming season. After all, the fact remains a man ranked 1199 is competing with the best. But the desire of Tiger to be in the mix on the final day has not diminished. As he put it, “I want to be able to compete this week and give myself a chance on that back nine on Sunday to win this thing.”

The field (with players’ world rankings)

1. Dustin Johnson (USA, 1st),

2. Jordan Spieth (USA, 2nd),

3. Justin Thomas (USA, 3rd),

4. Hideki Matsuyama (Japan, 5th),

5. Justin Rose (England, 6th),

6. Brooks Koepka (USA, 7th),

7 Henrik Stenson (Sweden, 8th),

8. Rickie Fowler (USA, 9th),

9. Matt Kucher (USA, 15th),

10. Alex Noren (Sweden, 17th),

11. Tommy Fleetwood (England, 18th),

12. Francesco Molinari (Italy, 21st),

13. Patrick Reed (USA, 23rd),

14. Kevin Kisner (USA, 25th),

15. Charley Hoffman (USA, 27th),

16. Daniel Berger (USA, 28th),

17. Kevin Chappell (USA, 32nd),

18. Tiger Woods (USA, 1199).