Donald to break Heritage duck
Ben Coley previews the RBC Heritage and fancies Luke Donald to once again go well at one of his favourite courses.
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In writing these previews, it's natural to start in a pretty similar way every time. This week I'm going to go a step further and repeat what I put together last year.
"When Golf Digest surveyed more than 80 PGA Tour professionals to find out where they loved to play the most, top answer was Augusta National.
"In at a close second is Harbour Town Golf Links at Hilton Head in South Carolina.
"Fitting, then, that after the Lord Mayor's Show we're treated to the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head, a wonderful event on a golf course that somehow feels like it belongs to a world better than this one."
Those words remain true and, as was the case last year, we welcome several of those involved in Masters Sunday, none more significant than Jordan Spieth
How the 20-year-old responds to the disappointment he encountered when sharing second behind Bubba Watson remains to be seen. Of course, he'll be focusing on the positives of an exceptional Augusta debut, but there's a come-down element he has to deal with even if this is an event well worth winning.
If he can get straight back on the bike I'll be impressed - although it has been done before. Boo Weekley managed to defend this title in 2007, despite having capitulated when in contention a week earlier and with that in mind don't be surprised if Spieth or Matt Kuchar are bang there on Sunday.
Now, it may be fitting that we're here at this players' favourite straight after Augusta but it's almost an exact opposite test. Harbour Town is much tighter, with much smaller, slower greens, and this coastal track saw some really strong winds affect the weekend play a year ago as two US Open winners fought out the finish.
Of all the courses the PGA Tour visits, there may be none which asks a bigger question of players from the tee. It's not all about hitting fairways, but it is vastly important to position the ball to open up the right angle to these tiny targets. Ball-striker Weekley is alongside Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, Brandt Snedeker, Carl Pettersson, Brian Gay and Aaron Baddeley as a recent champ and that's a blend of steady-eddies and supreme scramblers.
With Pete Dye being the creator of this masterpiece, it's natural to draw comparisons to TPC Sawgrass and Pettersson's effort in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island points us there, too. Both courses come into consideration, but last year's third Kevin Streelman is as reliable a source as any and he has another one for the list.
"I would say Harbour Town is just a slightly smaller version of Tampa, Innisbrook," said Streelman. "It has a similar look that kind of shapes through the trees. And has some nice kind of rolling hills and some rolling greens that kind of dip off on the sides."
Streelman, of course, had earlier won the Tampa Bay Championship which, now under its new title of the Valspar, was landed by John Senden earlier this season. As if to help us out further with the strengthening of these course ties, Streelman went on to finish second in the Players' Championship at Sawgrass last season and he really does fit the mould of a straight driver who is reliable with his irons and handy on the greens.
One player who straight away fits the bill then is Kevin Na, who placed in the Valspar, kept up his fine form at Bay Hill and in Texas, and brings Sawgrass form with him too. Eighth and ninth on his last two visits here and fourth back in 2007, there seems no reason - bar perhaps a three-week break - that Na can't contend.
However, at a best of 40/1 he's opposable and it's Luke Donald who stands out to me albeit from a position closer to the front of the market.
Donald should've won one of these already, only to see Brandt Snedeker come from the clouds to deny him in 2011. A year earlier he'd been third, while a stunning weekend of golf saw him finish second in 2009. Throw in last year's third and you have four places in five years for the Englishman.
That, of course, makes him blindingly obvious and it also means that he's played well whether arriving on the back of a place at Augusta - that was the case in 2011 - or a missed cut, as was the case in 2009.
I therefore don't really mind that he failed the weekend last week, especially given the manner of his performance. An opening 79 was of course hugely disappointing, but Donald then responded with a two-under round of 70 on a difficult Friday to fail by just one.
Don't forget, Donald also incurred a two-shot penalty for testing the sand in a bunker on his way to that Thursday score so he's probably unlucky not to have made the weekend, and it's not impossible he could've gone on to finish as high as the top 10 had he done so - that is, after all, what Rory McIlroy managed.
Whatever the case, the 36-year-old once again confirmed his love for Harbour Town last year when placing despite being ill at ease with his ball-striking at the time and everything he's said of late about the work he's doing with Chuck Cook has been positive.
Four top-25s before Augusta bode well and 25/1 about a player who has gone off at 7/1 here looks generous to me - I'd have no hesitation in making the former world number one clear favourite for the event.
There are cases to be made for plenty of those towards the head of the betting, including the defending champion, but it's Harris English who looks the bet at 33/1 and bigger.
Here we have a player with two wins on the PGA Tour in 10 months, and while he hits the ball a mile they've both come on tight, ball-striking courses at the Mayakoba and FedEx St Jude.
That says much about the quality and maturity of this youngster who many in the US think is the best long-term prospect on the PGA Tour. Having seen Spieth last week I'm now having slight doubts about that, but I've no doubt whatsoever that English will be winning many more events and this could well be one of them.
On debut here in 2012, English finished eighth while very much getting to grips with life on tour. It's therefore a shade disappointing that he missed the cut last year but he did so because of two holes - the first and the second - on which he made doubles during round two. Playing the course from the 10th tee, he didn't have sufficient time to claw his way back inside the line despite playing the remaining seven holes in one-under.
A bit like with Donald and his Masters effort, we therefore see a missed cut in the form book where it could so easily have been different and I'm certainly prepared to forgive it.
The other thing we need to be able to forgive is his missed cut at Augusta. To me, that's quite easy to do considering this Georgia boy will have spent years wanting to play the Masters and he didn't perform badly at all in missing the cut by two shots.
It's also encouraging that his first win came after a missed cut and I really have no concerns on that score; instead it's a bonus because were he 20th last week he certainly wouldn't be 35/1 here.
Statistically speaking, English ranked in the top 20 for greens hit in 10 of his last 11 strokeplay starts prior to the Masters and as a player who says he's at his happiest when forced to use his imagination and shape the ball, the narrow lines of Harbour Town may - for now - prove more suitable than Augusta's vast expanses.
The fact that English's first top 10 on tour came here and that he's played well at Sawgrass, Copperhead and the ball-striker's paradise that is Colonial says to me that when you have the chance to back him at this sort of price on this type of course, you should take it.
Billy Horschel is a player who I firmly believe is very close to a big week and he too makes the staking plan.
Last week on his Augusta debut, Horschel ranked 24th for driving distance, 30th for driving distance and second for greens hit as he again demonstrated that his long game is in really good shape.
The problem remains on the greens but to that end, Horschel says some work with Todd Anderson before round four of the Masters appeared to do the trick. Of course, we're taking him at his word here but I certainly think there were enough positive signs in a closing 73 to put him on track for this event.
The Florida Gator was ninth here last year - he would've been a good deal closer to the leaders but for playing the last two holes in three-over as the wind blew at its hardest on Sunday - and should be in a good frame of mind as he prepares to defend his Zurich Classic title in a couple of weeks.
There's a temptation to chance Scott Langley at a massive price given his efforts in Tampa Bay and a solid debut here, but he's struggled since and is narrowly overlooked in favour of some experience.
That comes in the shape of Stewart Cink and the aforementioned Kevin Streelman.
Former Open champion Cink is a two-time winner here at Harbour Town and has gradually been joining the pieces together as he seeks a return to winning form.
In truth, he's put four rounds together only fleetingly in recent years but a closing 68 for 14th in the Masters rates a good step forward and with his exemption expiring there last Sunday, it's to be hoped that he take that final round and use it as a starting point from which to secure a return.
Clearly, this rates as good a place as any to start that bid and Cink knows all about producing the goods the week after the Masters. In fact, he actually puts it down as a strength of his.
"I don't think it's tough to come here," he said in 2010. "In my career I've had a lot of success the week after majors. In fact I think all my wins, my major win, have come after the majors."
To put some substance to that, Cink won the week after the 2008 US Open - where, coincidentally, he also finished 14th, he won the week after the 2004 PGA, the week after the 2004 Masters and the week after the 2000 Masters. So, in six career wins on tour, four have come directly after a major. He's actually wrong to claim his Open win came after a major as he had in fact played one event since the US Open, but the point stands.
Throw in the fact that he ranked fifth for greens hit last week - the fourth time this season he's really impressed with his ball-striking - and says of the Heritage "it's always one of my favorites, if not my very favorite tournament of the year", and you have enough to speculate on a return to winning ways at upwards of 100/1.
Streelman's form at the relevant courses is just so strong that I have to include him, particularly as he's driving the ball really well at the moment. His win at the Valspar came 12 months on from a top 10 there so the fact that he played well here last year is a plus, and this new father is more than capable of adding a second victory to the CV after a week at Augusta which certainly offered encouragement.