No doubt about Stefani value
Ben Coley previews the FedEx St Jude Classic and reckons Shawn Stefani offers each-way value at a huge price.
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There are certain weeks on the PGA Tour where the dynamics are simple. We have an event, perhaps in its regular spot on the calendar on its regular course, where winning simply means winning and all players are there to do exactly that, with no other real motivations. The FedEx St Jude Classic is not one of them.
Not since slotting in as the US Open's preceding tournament, anyway. Having been moved to this position on the calendar in 2007, TPC Southwind serves as the last chance for the pros to play their way into the US Open, with final qualifying having concluded on Monday bar a play-off which, at the time of writing, has yet to be decided.
What that means is there is more than just a golf tournament at stake for a large chunk of this field - a place in the second major of the season awaits if they can secure the title and advance far enough up the Official World Golf Rankings.
Others will arrive here having landed a spot in the US Open at qualifying on Monday. That's exactly what Harrison Frazar had done prior to the 2011 renewal, one he won to get off the mark on tour at the 355th attempt. It seems impossible to doubt the significance of his preparations.
Then, of course, there are those like Scott Stallings, who missed out on a US Open spot in a play-off on Monday and although first reserve, will have to deal with that disappointment for now as he bids to win for the third time on tour in front of his home fans.
Finally, here we have three truly elite PGA Tour players - Brandt Snedeker, Phil Mickelson and defending champion Dustin Johnson - who, despite having various incentives to win this, are entitled to have half an eye on next week's event at Merion.
It's perhaps no surprise, then, that even in looking just at those last six FedEx St Jude Classics we're presented with something of a confusing picture.
In the past, short, steady players like Woody Austin, David Toms and Brian Gay, winners of the 2007-2009 renewals in that order, had thrived. Yet in 2010 the event was there for huge-hitting Robert Garrigus to win only for him to hand it to Lee Westwood, who doesn't lack for power either. Since then, bombers Frazar and Johnson have further underlined that distance off the tee can be a huge advantage.
At 7,239 yards, this par 70 is certainly long enough for one of its type and with very small greens to aim at it stands to reason that if you want to win without hitting many fairways, you'd better be as close as possible to the green. The short hitters who have thrived are all exceptional mid-iron players and that area of the game is put under pressure on a course which doesn't particularly challenge short games.
In short, it's impossible to rule out any particular type of player here. However, in researching the event I can't get away from the impression that this is a left-to-right golf course. Johnson, Frazar and Westwood all like to hit a power fade, with the former holding a particularly strong record at Riviera, another tough venue with small targets considered to favour those who hit the ball left to right. Others known to favour the right-side include David Toms and Bob Estes, both winners here.
Interestingly, last year's nearly-man John Merrick has since gone on to win at Riviera so perhaps there's a link between the layouts. Indeed, Robert Allenby holds a particularly strong record at both while his compatriot Adam Scott, a Riviera winner, should have won this title a few years ago too.
All of this leads me to Shawn Stefani who ticks most boxes yet can be backed in excess of 200/1.
Stefani, a two-time Web.com Tour winner last year, has gone through what you might call a typical rookie season on the PGA Tour. Fifteen starts have produced more cuts missed than made, but he showed what he can do with a share of seventh in the Tampa Bay Championship on a tough layout. After an opening 65, he said: "I love the golf course. Fits my eye a little bit. It's tree‑lined, it's long, it's difficult, and I like golf courses like that."
That enthusiasm for a tough layout encourages me, but not as much as his effort in qualifying for the US Open on Monday. He did that at nearby Colonial County Club, not to be confused with the host of the Crowne Plaza. This venue is one which actually hosted the FedEx St Jude Classic many years ago and to get through it bodes really well for this week - he was ahead of the fancied Stallings among others of note.
Stefani might be able to bring that form to TPC Southwind. Back in 2010, he made it through local US Open qualifying at Lakeside County Club in Texas, a course designed by Ron Prichard, responsible for this week's host venue. It's another tough track and they really do seem to play to his strengths.
In addition, he has a very similar profile to Frazar, Westwood and Johnson, albeit he's clearly of less ability than the last two. Stefani ranks 20th on Tour for driving distance and sixth for right tendency. The latter sounds tenuous, but it suggests he hits it left to right. Frazar ranked 33rd in the year of his win and the likes of Westwood, Toms, Johnson, Leonard and Allenby are regular features towards the top of this statistic.
Finally, Stefani is from the south - more specifically, he's from Texas. Past winners Frazar, Estes, Leonard and Gay are all from Texas, 2006 champion Jeff Maggert lives there, and clearly it's an advantage to have played plenty of junior and college golf in the hot, humid conditions again set for this week.
The 31-year-old is unlikely to pull out of this event as a chance to play close to home can't be passed up when your aim is to secure a card for next year, and perhaps he can follow in Frazar's footsteps in taking momentum from making the US Open field.
After an encouraging effort last week, I'm backing him outright and in the first-round leader market. He led the field in Tampa after day one and says his career-highlight before this season was shooting 60 to win in Texas on a mini-tour - clearly, he can go low.
Next on my list is Russell Henley, another course debutant who could just take to TPC Southwind.
Henley has enjoyed a stunning season already. A winner on his first start as a full PGA Tour member in the Sony Open, he's added sixth-placed finishes at Harbour Town and at Muirfield Village last time, demonstrating a versatility further underlined by his major performances as an amateur.
Quite simply, he's destined for the very top and the fact that Southwind is on his schedule suggests he's of the opinion that this venue will suit. It certainly should, and as a Georgia boy he's played a lot of golf in the south so he's perfectly fine with conditions.
Last week's sixth at Muirfield Village was all the more impressive for being both his debut there and his first start in three weeks. After an opening 67, Henley spoke of how good it felt to be back out on the course after a rest and his freshness has to be an advantage this week.
That he ranked second for greens hit is also a strong pointer and a repeat of that should see this silky-smooth putter remain a factor, especially as he hits a fade. Indeed, Henley puts his form over the last year down to a switch in coach and the first job of new man Charles Frost was to get him hitting the ball from left to right again. It's clearly paid dividends.
Henley is among the leaders on the PGA Tour in par-four performance, always a bonus on a par 70, and at seventh in the all-around his class shouldn't be doubted. Indeed, ahead of him are Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker, Scott, Justin Rose and Snedeker.
As a winner on Tour already this season and a player of immense potential who arrives bang in-form, Henley makes a great deal of appeal at 35/1 in this field.
I also feel compelled to get Brandt Snedeker on-side as he looks comfortably the most likely winner to me.
Born and raised in Tennessee, this is Snedeker's one chance to win in front of his home fans and he showed what he can do at Southwind when fifth in 2008. When asked why he'd played well that week he identified playing at home as the key and said the course was one he particularly enjoyed.
Of course, with a best of fifth it's not like he's set the world alight at Southwind but with Snedeker, it's important to realise just how much better he is in just about every area right now. Back in 2008, he ranked 140th for greens in regulation whereas now he sits 11th - improvements like that can be found throughout the bag.
I really wouldn't dwell too much on last week's missed cut at The Memorial. It's a tournament he's yet to play the weekend in and back in 2008 he'd missed the cut there prior to finishing fifth here, while earlier this season he bounced back to form when sixth at the Masters after a less than ideal preparation.
Crucially, Snedeker is the one top, top player to have every reason to give everything this week. Mickelson can of course win, but won't mind finishing fifth if his game is in shape for Merion. Johnson, who seems to be carrying more than one injury, would also surely be happy with a solid defence if it means he's more confident next week after a torrid month.
When we're talking about an event where the next man in the betting is Ryan Palmer, who is set to play-off for that US Open spot on Tuesday, it's clear that there is no depth here and with two of the last three winners Ryder Cup players who feature regularly in the top-10 in the world, Snedeker is worth a bet.
Another stat worth touching upon is the fact that four of the last six winners here have ranked first in proximity to the hole for the week. It again speaks to the fact that quality iron-play is rewarded and leads me to Bud Cauley.
Not long ago, Cauley was the talk of the PGA Tour having secured his 2012 card in just a handful of starts towards the end of 2011. He maintained that momentum throughout much of 2012, bagging five top-10 finishes and ending the year ranked 35th in the FedEx Cup standings.
So far, 2013 hasn't gone to plan, chiefly due to some problems with the driver. However, a slight tweak in set-up a few weeks ago has facilitated some improved rounds and he's putted particularly well for the last eight weeks, so once his long game clicks he could do some damage.
Although a debutant at TPC Southwind, I fancy this could be an ideal venue for him. Cauley ranks just outside the top-30 in proximity to the hole and for my money is one of the best mid- to long-iron exponents in the business, a talent that tends to be rewarded here.
Cauley is from Alabama and was a highly-decorated amateur on the SEC scene, so playing in the heat and humidity of this part of the world is nothing new to him. Indeed, he could well take inspiration from the Crimson Tide's first ever victory in the NCAA Championship which came along on Sunday.
Unfortunately, Cauley missed out on a US Open spot on Monday but he played well enough and he's good enough to come here and win.
Finally, Brian Stuard looks worth a small bet, in the hope that he keeps his spot in the field.
Stuard absolutely romped to victory in his US Open qualifier on Monday, six clear of second with 12 birdies and one bogey across his two rounds in Ohio.
He currently ranks eighth on the PGA Tour for proximity to the hole and perhaps the confidence gained on Monday can see him return to the sort of form he showed when placed in Hawaii and Puerto Rico earlier this season.
Stuard narrowly missed the cut here in 2010 but has a couple of Tennessee top-10 finishes from the Web.com Tour to call upon and at a big price he looks the pick of the other US Open qualifiers at a venue which might suit.