Simpson worth a second chance
Ben Coley previews The Barclays and has five selections, headed by Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker.
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With the conclusion of the Wyndham Championship we left behind the confusion over points and pounds, and that leaves the way clear for another exciting FedEx Cup Playoffs - beginning in New Jersey with The Barclays.
Five courses have hosted the seven renewals of this event since it took its place in the season-ending points race, and 2014 sees a return to Ridgewood Country Club for the first time since Matt Kuchar got the better of Martin Laird to fully announce himself back on the world stage four years ago.
All three courses at Ridgewood are designed by A.W. Tillingast and The Barclays combines the toughest holes on each to create a composite par 71, which stretches beyond 7,300 yards to ensure a stern examination regardless of conditions.
Tillinghast is a revered designer whose courses share aesthetic similarities. Bethpage Black and Winged Foot are two of his most famous works and Phil Mickelson compared the latter to this week's venue back in 2008, the first time it staged the event. Winged Foot was where Mickelson spurned a fine opportunity to win the 2006 US Open, with Geoff Ogilvy the benefactor, while Bethpage hosted that event in 2002 and 2009 as well as the The Barclays in 2012.
Reading back through transcripts from '08 and '10, I couldn't find a negative comment about Ridgewood. Stewart Cink called it 'a rewarding course with no tricks' while both Laird and Kenny Perry stated the importance of driving the ball well. Mickelson meanwhile spoke of the importance of approach play to what are smaller than average targets once undulations are factored in, while Steve Stricker highlighted the gnarly rough and 'uniqueness on some of the greens'.
All of which suggests this is an all-around test and that's borne out in some of the statistics from past renewals. Kuchar led the PGA Tour's all-around statistic in the year of his win, while some of the less-familiar names who've hit the frame here - and there have been plenty - figured surprisingly highly in that ranking.
I'm of the opinion that recent good play is comfortably the biggest factor this week, but that there are a couple of additional ones with their own degree of relevance. Watch out for Ryder Cup runs from some of the home brigade and possibly those from Europe who still have work to do, while it'll be interesting to see the movement in the FedEx Cup with only the top 100 advancing to the Deutsche Bank in Boston.
My idea of the best bet is Webb Simpson, who finished in a share of fifth at the Wyndham Championship last week.
Having backed him win-only, fifth wasn't the return I wanted but perspective is important and the fact is Simpson managed that despite a four-putt in the final round. In fact, his week-long putting stats were extremely poor, especially considering he's currently 10th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting.
That season-long stat gives hope that it was simply an off week on the greens. As his ball perched on the edge of the cup at the ninth, it did occur to me that the margins between success and failure are so narrow at the best of times and on another week, the 29-year-old might have arrived here on the back of a fifth PGA Tour title.
As it is, he's still looking for victory number five and one which would just about guarantee him a place on Tom Watson's Ryder Cup team. Simpson has reportedly sent a message to his captain to underline how desperate he is to make the Gleneagles squad, and one way or another I expect him to do what's required.
The hope is he takes a giant step forward this week, in an event he's done well in previously. Back in 2009, Simpson hit the front for the very first time on the PGA Tour and while that was at Liberty National, his 36th-placed finish here a year later is plenty encouraging enough while he was 15th last year and 10th at Plainfield.
Looking back throughout the history of this tournament, it strikes me that form in New Jersey is almost as relevant as form at any specific venue. Look at Kuchar, who nearly defended his title despite a venue switch, or at Vijay Singh, a winner here and at Westchester. Sergio Garcia has been second at Bethpage and Ridgewood to go with his Westchester wins and he's not the only player to draw similarities between the layouts, while the climate is also a factor.
Simpson struck it well last week and is 25th in the all-around this season, so at 66/1 or bigger he's certainly an interesting contender.
Next on my list the man who shared fifth with Simpson at the Wyndham - Brandt Snedeker.
It's well documented that Snedeker has been working with Butch Harmon since the US Open, and the results he's produced confirm that it's a link-up which will do wonders for his game.
Before Pinehurst, Snedeker had three top 25 finishes in 15 starts; he's since played in nine events and has finished in the top 25 in all bar one of them, which also happened to be the only event he's played outside of America during this stretch.
Fourteen of his last 16 rounds have been par or better, including each of his last seven, and there's improvement throughout his tee-to-green stats. Like Rickie Fowler before him, Snedeker is reaping the rewards of the simple tweaks to a technique for which Harmon has become known.
Throw in the confidence Butch's experience and know-how brings and there's little doubt in my mind that Snedeker will join Simpson on the US Ryder Cup team, two years on from a solid debut which ended badly when he was on the end of a hiding from Paul Lawrie.
As for this week specifically, Snedeker strikes me as a fine bad-weather golfer - his record in the Open suggests as much - and while he missed the cut here in 2010, subsequent placed finishes at Plainfield and Bethpage are encouraging.
We know he can operate at this level thanks to his 2012 TOUR Championship triumph and it's also worth noting that in speaking about Ridgewood, Cink compared it to East Lake, scene of that $10m success for Snedeker.
As with Simpson, it was only an uncharacteristically cold putter which cost Snedeker the chance to really contend for a second Wyndham title last week but he continues to move in the right direction and has plenty to play for.
Graham DeLaet is a man to keep a close eye on as he continues to work towards that elusive first PGA Tour title.
The Canadian gets a rough time of things in some quarters as he carries that tag of 'best player without a win', but having come back from the same surgery which threatens Tiger Woods' career he's done awfully well and remains very much unexposed.
I can absolutely see why he'd look like a player to swerve when going off at a short price for a low-grade event, but at around the 80/1 mark he looks fantastic value here.
First and foremost, he's been fifth and second across the last two renewals of The Barclays while a share of 15th in the PGA Championship last time out represents his best ever finish in a major.
Secondly, he's 12th in the all-around and is as likely as anyone to top the ball-striking charts, so if the putter does behave there's no reason he can't contend until the death.
Come Sunday, there will remain a question mark as to whether he can cross the line but my own feeling is that his growing confidence will see him do so sooner rather than later. Events like this give us the chance to capitalise at a big price.
My policy this week is to take on Rory McIlroy, if out of stubborness as much as anything, and of those at the head of the market the two who make the most sense to me are Garcia and Phil Mickelson.
The latter has form at all the right venues and will do for many after his fine second at Valhalla, while Garcia is a twice-winner of this event who has been runner-up both here and at Bethpage and has two wins from his last 20 starts.
On balance, however, I am happy to look elsewhere. Mickelson's record at the course doesn't match his comments about it and he's probably a shade short with that in mind, while Garcia is also just a tad shorter than I'd hoped despite having so much in his favour.
Instead, I'll turn to Hunter Mahan and Lee Westwood to complete my staking plan.
Mahan shot 62 to lead after the first round here some six years ago, and while he failed to kick on from that it's sufficient evidence to suggest that the course fits his eye.
It's worth noting that he was unfortunate not to go even closer to winning the 2009 US Open at Bethpage and, bar a missed cut in Canada, his form has really turned of late as he too chases a Ryder Cup place.
Mahan was 15th at Firestone and seventh at Valhalla, playing particularly well at the weekend, and at fifth in total driving his main strength remains. It's just a case of whether he can click with the rest of his game for four rounds but there's been plenty of encouragement in that regard of late.
Westwood felt like his game finally clicked when he flew through the field with a scintillating 63 in the final round of the Bridgestone, and he built on that with a top 15 finish at the PGA Championship.
It's easy to think of the former world number one as an also-ran but he's still got plenty to offer. It was, after all, only a few months ago that he won in Malaysia and put together top 10 finishes at Sawgrass and Augusta.
The 41-year-old was fifth at Bethpage two years ago and 25th at the less-suitable Liberty National last year and the place part alone looks extremely tempting.