Webb to rise to the challenge
Webb Simpson headlines Ben Coley's preview of the Wyndham Championship, which also includes three at bigger prices.
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Golfers who aren't Rory McIlroy get a chance to shine this week at the significant Wyndham Championship.
The event is the last before the FedEx Cup play-offs, and to gain entry into them a player has to be inside the top 125 in points.
Even more importantly, this is also the cut off for those trying to secure a PGA Tour card for 2014/15. Anyone making the play-offs will get one, but the rest have to finish inside the top 125 in money and have just this event to get things done.
How this impacts upon the final leaderboard only time will tell, but there are several instances of players raising their game when it comes to the crunch. I'll come to one of them later, but the most relevant is Arjun Atwal's victory here in 2010, one which he needed to secure playing status for the following year.
- 5pts win Webb Simpson at 20/1 (General) - the man to beat at his home track with Ryder Cup incentive to boot
- 1pt e.w. Martin Laird at 66/1 (Betfred, totesport 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - needs a big week and he's been there and done it before in this event
- 1pt e.w. Kyle Stanley at 70/1 (bet365 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - another who has the mental strength to produce and secure his card for next year
- 1pt e.w. Shawn Stefani at 125/1 (Sky Bet 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - toughening of course suits and he's been playing well all summer
That we're in a Ryder Cup season should also come into calculations. Rewind two years and it was Sergio Garcia who secured his first PGA Tour title since 2008, and with it pretty much rubber-stamped a return to the European side. In seventh was Nicolas Colsaerts, who also went on to make the team, and it's noticeable that last year - when there was no Ryder Cup - no European went anywhere close to winning.
There's no Garcia this time around, but Francesco Molinari will feel like a win could grab him a spot at Gleneagles and the same goes for Stephen Gallacher. Both are course debutants with the right game for the test in front of them and come under strong consideration.
In terms of money, Bud Cauley stands out in 125th spot. He withdrew from the John Deere Classic a month ago having dislocated his shoulder which means there's no temptation to back him at 66/1, but he was fourth here to Garcia and had been showing encouraging signs in the early part of summer.
Paul Casey is 125th in FedEx points and may even feel like he can earn a Ryder Cup wildcard, while local Jonathan Byrd arrives having returned to form last time out and he is one big week away from the play-offs.
In front of the field is Sedgefield Country Club, a classical Donald Ross design which is tree-lined, plays to a par of 70 and requires players to shape the ball while managing their games throughout.
Last year, Patrick Reed became the fourth first-time winner in six renewals at this venue, but the most interesting aspect of the week in terms of assessing the tournament 12 months down the line was the increase in difficulty.
Reed's 14-under-par winning total would've had him four shots off Garcia in 2012 and it's not a coincidence. Prior to the Spaniard's win, bentgrass greens were replaced with Bermuda, which makes surfaces firmer, faster and therefore harder to hit. The greens in regulation figures support this trend and Reed's victory came because he hit more than anyone else.
So what we're ideally looking for is someone who plays older courses well and won't be hindered by the general toughening of the conditions, and perhaps has an extra reason to perform this week.
With all of that in mind I can't get away from Webb Simpson at 20/1.
This is a home game for the recently-turned 29-year-old, who grew up honing his skills on many of the Ross tracks which populate North Carolina.
It's that which made his victory here in 2011 - one which was also his first on the PGA Tour - all the more special. Simpson is very much a family man and having his wife there, along with most of his close family and friends from college, clearly helped him get over the line.
Since then he's gone on to become a major champion and that success at Olympic Club further underlined that this old-fashioned player is at his best on old-fashioned courses like Sedgefield, where his scoring average is just over 67.
Just look at where he's performed over the last year or so for further evidence. Third at the Old White TPC, third at TPC Southwind, fourth at the Ross-designed East Lake, second at Harbour Town; all demonstrate where he's most comfortable and his figures on par 70 courses make for even better reading.
"I feel like golf course designers, modern day designers who design the big courses, they can all get a lesson from the Donald Ross," he said two years ago.
"Come to Sedgefield, going to a lot of land in Hawaii, going to Hilton Head, these shorter, tighter courses have so much more character.
"We just don't get a chance the play these courses much and you really got to think your away around Sedgefield."
The negative with Simpson is that he's missed his last two cuts, finishing 31st in the no-cut Bridgestone Invitational in-between failures in the Open Championship and the US PGA last week.
But this is a steep drop in grade and two third-place finishes in June show that he's not far away from the type of performance he needs to secure a wildcard for the US Ryder Cup team, having performed well on his debut two years ago.
Simpson recently became a father for the second time and there's a strong chance that we see his family waiting for him as he strides up the 18th on his way to victory this Sunday.
Next on my list is a man playing for a spot in the play-offs - Martin Laird.
The Scot is a three-time PGA Tour winner who really shouldn't be in this situation, but a disappointing year at this level will find out anyone and, at 136th in points and 143rd in money, he needs to produce.
There are two massive reasons to think he will do exactly that.
Firstly, his form is on the up. Laird finished 41st in the Scottish Open in June and has returned to the PGA Tour to finish 29th in Canada and sixth in Reno last time out.
Secondly, he's been there and done it before. Back in 2008, Laird looked set to finish way down the Money List before taking an encouraging 22nd in Canada, turning it into a fourth-placed finish in Reno, and then shooting 63-74-64-63 for fourth here at Sedgefield.
All week long, Laird was being asked about his situation and the pressure he was under, and he responded. To go from first after round one to making the cut on the number, and then shoot 64-63 for a place when only having a couple of shots to spare in terms of keeping your card - well, impressive doesn't quite do it justice.
Laird also went on record as stating he really likes the old-style layout and with victories at Bay Hill and TPC San Antonio to his name, tough courses definitely suit.
Furthermore, he's a fine driver when on-song and there aren't many players who hit the ball higher, which has to be of benefit when it comes to holding these greens. They could get really quick if rain doesn't arrive as it has done in each of the last two renewals.
Cauley's shoulder and Patrick Cantlay's back mean I'm compelled to leave them out, and the other player I like who needs a big week to secure his card is Kyle Stanley.
Having tipped him at big odds recently I probably don't need to cover old ground in terms of Stanley's career path, but it's safe to say he's gone from one of the game's brightest prospects to the brink of the Web.com Tour since winning in Phoenix two and a half years ago.
There's no denying his talent, though, and as one of the hardest workers on the tour it's no surprise to me that he's getting back on track. All that remains is for him to work out the putter as he's struck the ball brilliantly on his way to 12th in Canada and eighth in Reno.
Whether or not he can crack the short-game puzzle in time to secure his playing rights we'll find out on Sunday, but the way he won in Phoenix - days after one of the most spectacular collapses in PGA Tour history - says to me that this is a man capable of rising to the challenge.
Two missed cuts in two visits to Sedgefield don't inspire confidence but he was still short of his 10th PGA Tour start when teeing up here in 2009, while two years later he returned having been off for the best part of a month.
Hopefully the toughening of the course will be to his liking but it's his improvement of late and overall situation which represent the most important factors.
Finally, while Billy Horschel is really tempting and will annoy me hugely if he wins, the final spot on this week's list goes to Shawn Stefani.
The big-hitting Texan doesn't have to worry about his status having been second to Justin Rose in June and fifth at Houston earlier in the season, but at 82nd in FedEx Cup points he could do with topping up to aide his progress through the play-offs.
I was really impressed with him at Congressional and this is a player with a huge amount of ability, and the belief to match it.
"I knew coming into this year that no matter where I was playing, I was going to play well," he said in Houston, having had to wait patiently on the sidelines as a neck injury kept him out of action in the early part of the season.
Stefani first came on the radar when seventh at Copperhead last year - a very difficult par 71 - and I was fascinated by what he said during that event. Too often we think these bombers want a wide-open layout, but many of them like definition from the tee and that applies to him.
"It's tree‑lined, it's long, it's difficult, and I like golf courses like that," he said and it was that clue which pointed me to his chance at St Jude later that year, where he led before giving way to another big-hitter who likes a classical test in Harris English.
Sedgefield doesn't quite bring Stefani's power into play as those other venues do but it's by no means short and fiddly, and I think it might just suit. There were encouraging signs from his debut last year and he's definitely in a better place now.
Over the last three months, Stefani ranks 15th in total driving, 22nd in greens and, crucially, 29th in scrambling, so having played well enough at the PGA and also been 13th in the John Deere since that runner-up effort in Maryland, he's worth siding with at a three-figure price.