Thompson glad to be back
Our golf tipster Ben Coley fancies Michael Thompson to land a first PGA Tour title in this week's McGladrey Classic.
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Davis Love III and Sea Island combine to host this week's McGladrey Classic, the third of four Fall Series events and one won in spectacular fashion last year.
Trailing by eight at one point during the final round, Ben Crane birdied eight of the final 11 holes to enter a play-off with good friend Webb Simpson, one he'd win with a pair of pars.
In the inaugural edition 12 months earlier, Heath Slocum was able to play the closing nine in one over to hold on from Bill Haas, having held the lead after 54 holes.
Where Slocum cited hitting fairways as the reason for his success, Crane's run of birdies owed to an aggressive approach and a smoking hot putter, all of which combines to create a slightly confusing picture.
Personally, I'm inclined to lend more weight to the 2010 renewal when looking for the identikit winner, and a glance through interview transcripts since the start of this event suggests that hitting fairways is considered very important.
That's largely because approaching greens from Bermuda rough is difficult at the best of times, and that's accentuated on this wind-exposed, typically firm course. That Joe Durant - at the time the straightest driver on Tour - was able to compete in 2010 highlights the point.
What looks certain is that length off the tee is of virtually no advantage on this short par 70, so when we look back on this event next week I'd expect to be praising either someone's tee-to-green supremacy, exceptional putting, or a happy marriage of the two.
Such is the quality of this course and the stunning beauty of the area, many pros - including Love - have made Sea Island their home, while it's a venue that has been used for the likes of the SEC Championship, an amateur event for college teams from the south east.
In terms of the layout itself, if I had to link it to any other on Tour it'd be Harbour Town, a similarly wind-exposed links-type layout on the east coast, and one that gives no advantage to bombers.
Putting all of this together, one name stands out from the pack, and that man is Michael Thompson.
Many will recall last year's renewal, when Thompson shot 65-65 to trail Billy Horschel by two shots at halfway, added a bogey-free third round 67 to go a shot ahead of Horschel, only to see a closing 69 prove a shot short of what was required.
Finishing third was certainly no disaster for Thompson, indeed it secured his playing rights for 2012, and although playing the last seven holes in two over ultimately cost him a first PGA Tour title, it was an experience he was keen to draw from.
"It's all part of the learning experience," he told reporters. "I'm right where Webb Simpson was when he first came out on TOUR. Look where he is now."
Although Thompson missed the cut a week after to close his season on a low note, he lived up to his own words in taking the positives by starting 2012 with a share of sixth on a short, wind-exposed, seaside course in Hawaii.
But it was his performance in the US Open which not only represented a career highlight, but also truly justifies the decision to back him this week.
Thompson enjoyed a fine amateur career, the highlight of which was his appearance in the US Amateur final, when he lost to Colt Knost at Olympic Club in San Francisco.
This year, he got the chance to return there for the US Open, and led after round one before closing with a round of 67 to finish second as a huge outsider, again behind his inspiration, Webb Simpson.
While Olympic Club would look to be vastly different to Sea Island, what's in no doubt is the fact that Thompson was inspired by a return to a track that saw him produce the goods as an amateur, and was able to do so again as a professional.
With that in mind, it's a huge positive that he won the 2008 SEC Championship here at Sea Island (Frederica Course), a year after he'd finished fourth on the Seaside Course being used this week. Perhaps in retrospect, we shouldn't have been surprised to see him contend here last year, and I for one won't be surprised if he does so again.
The icing on the cake is that Thompson confesses a love for wind-exposed courses as his amateur game was based around a low ball-flight, he's 25th in strokes gained putting, and he returned to form to finish 13th a fortnight ago.
After a week off he's freshened up for this, and with positive memories from what must rank among his favourites courses on the PGA Tour rotation, he makes huge appeal.
At this time of year, one important dynamic to keep an eye on is the PGA Tour Money List, more specifically the race to finish inside the top 125 and secure a card for 2013.
Some respond superbly to the pressure of competing for their playing rights, while others wilt under the gun and find themselves either with limited status or faced with a trip to Q School.
The evidence of the last two months is that Russell Knox is capable of rising to the challenge, and he's fancied to produce the big week required to lock up a card.
Since the RBC Canadian Open in July, the Scot has put together a run of results that reads 56-43-37-13-9, with just one over-par round and indeed four under-par rounds last week.
Tee-to-green, Knox has few peers in terms of the quality of his iron play and is one of the most accurate drivers on Tour. His weakness is a lack of distance off the tee combined with average putting, but last week he reported that he felt great on the greens and that was certainly backed up in the stats.
So, given that we arrive at a venue where distance is close to irrelevant, I'd rather focus on the fact that he's 18th in greens and 29th in driving accuracy this season, especially as Slocum ranked 32nd and sixth in those categories during the year of his win and Crane 68th and 26th.
Of course, there is an element of guesswork involved as this will be his debut at the course, but the old saying goes that good golf can win anywhere and he certainly fits the bill on paper.
What's more, as a Jacksonville resident this is as close to a home game as he's had for a while, and there's evidence that suggests playing in the south east suits him.
Knox was tied for 30th in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans earlier this year and 21st in Mississippi's True South Classic, while last year's Nationwide Tour win came in Ohio which, while north, is again towards the east.
Go back to his days on satellite tours, and you'll find that he's actually won on Hilton Head Island, albeit a different course to Harbour Town, but that again speaks to his prospects here on Sea Island.
As a Scot, it should come as little surprise that Knox has played well in the wind and there's plenty in his profile to suggest he can contend at a price this week.
I have to confess that I mulled over the third tip for a long time, before deciding that if I'm backing Thompson, I have to back Billy Horschel too.
In 2009, Horschel succeeded Thompson as the SEC Championship winner while representing the University of Florida.
And as mentioned, he shot the lights out last year to get to 12-under at halfway, before going to pieces during the weekend and eventually finishing 20th. Clearly, the course fits.
By his own admission, Horschel has trouble controlling his emotions, and that's why I took a while to decide whether to back him. Ultimately, you have to believe your selection has what it takes to get over the line.
So I'm relying on his performance in the True South Classic, when third, as proof that he's come on since last year. That week, although closing with a disappointing 71, Horschel held himself together admirably, and he says that a new coach and fitness regime have helped him to concentrate.
His form in the south extends beyond this event and his Annandale effort, as he was seventh on the Web.com Tour when last playing in Georgia. Better still, he is one of the growing group of players who live at Sea Island, so it's a course he's played with increasing regularity of late.
Last year, Horschel entered the week outside the top 125 and for a time at least he produced the goods. It's an almost identical set of circumstances this time, and stats of 21st in accuracy and 16th in greens hit again look similar to those of former McGladrey champions.
He could blowout under pressure, but most players have to learn to lose before they can win and I'm inclined to give Horschel the benefit of the doubt.
The final spots on my list, as ever, could've gone few ways - one would have been Bryce Molder, but for one reason or another he has chosen not to play.
I really fancy Bud Cauley to step up on perhaps the most suitable course he's played for two months - he was 10th here in the 2011 SEC and his supreme iron play should be rewarded - but he's no price given just modest recent efforts.
Brian Gay played well for two rounds in 2010 and as a past Harbour Town winner who hits fairways and holes putts, he too is tempting, while few have played this course more than Slocum and he's shown some encouraging signs of late.
But there's one other young gun who has just fallen off the radar recently, and this might be the week Harris English returns to form.
Born, raised and educated in Georgia, English is another who resides at Sea Island, and he's got plenty of experience of the course from his college days. As a junior, he helped Georgia win SEC team honours at Sea Island, eventually finishing 10th in the individual standings.
As one of the Tour's longer hitters, it's stuck in my mind that English cited Harbour Town as his favourite course on Tour, one which doesn't give any advantage to those with his length off the tee. He backed those words up by finishing eighth there, at the time his best finish on Tour.
With that in mind, and the similarities between Harbour Town and Sea Island identified earlier, I'm keen to chance him at the price. After all, he arrived on Tour with a tall reputation and has enjoyed a profitable year, with eight top 25 finishes.
English does hit the ball low so that perhaps explains why he likes to play by the ocean, and with friends and family here to support him this could be a week he remembers for the rest of his life.
Finally, it may be worth giving a chance to Colt Knost at a massive price.
Before joining the paid ranks, Knost was a star, winning the 2007 US Amateur by beating Thompson and winning three points from four in the same year's Walker Cup, going unbeaten in the process.
And after two wins during his rookie season on the Nationwide Tour, hopes were understandably high as he joined the big leagues. As such, it's fair to say things haven't gone to plan.
However, despite an in-and-out profile, Knost has twice finished third this year, one of those being in the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town.
Of that course, he said: "It's just my kind of golf course. You have to hit it fairly straight. Distance isn't that big a deal."
His other placed effort came on a short track in the Mayakoba Classic - that was won by straight-driving John Huh - so the important thing to do if you want to back Knost is make sure it's on a venue where hitting fairways is priority one.
That's very much the case here, and although he missed the cut last week, he tied for 13th in Vegas a week earlier, when he would've been fifth with a pair of closing pars but instead went double-bogey, triple-bogey.
Encouragingly, despite that horrendous finish he ranked second for the week in strokes gained putting, and if he can do that here he'll surely be towards the top quarter of the leaderboard given the number of fairways he finds.
Knost's lack of distance and physique mean bookmakers are happy to send him off at huge prices, but had we picked and chosen the shorter courses and backed him each-way this year, we'd be well in front.
In the hope he continues that trend, a small bet at a three-figure price is advised.