Sam Burns can capitalise on a drop in grade to land his first PGA Tour win in the Barracuda Championship - that's according to golf expert Ben Coley.
It's a busy week in the world of golf and a WGC in Tennessee means an opposite event in California - the Barracuda Championship.
The only PGA Tour event played in a modified stableford format, this represents a once-in-a-season opportunity for some of those who haven't managed to make it to Memphis to contend at a lower level under a different set of rules. Victory here comes with a place in next week's PGA Championship and guarantees entry to the FedEx Cup Playoffs, so it's no exaggeration to say it can change a career.
Collin Morikawa was always destined for the top, but his journey was accelerated with an impressive victory last year as he passed fellow birdie-blitzer Troy Merritt to underline what's required. With two points for a birdie versus just one lost for a bogey, and five for an eagle versus three lost for a double or worse, aggressive golf pays off here. He who makes 18 pars will score zero points; two eagles, two doubles, seven birdies and seven bogeys in an equal round of 71 makes for 11.
Typically the discrepancies between scorecards and points tallies aren't anywhere near as pronounced, but there can be absolutely no doubt that attacking play is encouraged, and those who do venture into the mountains near Reno often talk about a change in mindset.
Things have been complicated a little for this year's renewal, as long-time host course Montreux decided to pass the baton to Tahoe Mountain Club's Old Greenwood course, which is just a little longer and plays to a par of 71 rather than 72. It's still a Jack Nicklaus design, which is a good starting point - especially as both of Morikawa's wins have come on Nicklaus layouts, logical given that they tend to be described as 'second shot', a department in which Morikawa is just about the best in the world.
It looks similar, too, but with one less par-five to go at, and a reported course record of 67, this might be a little tougher. Nevertheless, expect a stronger-than-usual field to produce some low numbers with organisers encouraged to set things up to entertain. At 6,000ft above sea level the ball will fly a mile, and not even greens with false fronts and severe undulations in places are enough to expect anything other than a shootout.
The list of champions here is as varied as you'd expect, with former US Open winner Geoff Ogilvy and subsequent US Open winner Gary Woodland joined by J.J. Henry, Chris Stroud, Andrew Putnam and Greg Chalmers, before a superstar was born 12 months ago. Plenty of short-hitters have gone well down at Montreux and they will be in the conversation here, too, given that an adjusted yardage once altitude is factored in might be around the 6,600-mark - puny for the PGA Tour.
Ultimately though we are at a course we're yet to see, and my staking plan is varied. The one thing that ties them all together is that each of the quintet played in last week's 3M Open, the hope being they can follow Morikawa (albeit he played another event in-between) in carrying good form through to a course which ought to ask similar questions albeit with a few more sums to be done first of all.
Top of the list is SAM BURNS, who I put up at 45/1 last week and am happy to stick with.
A top college player who quickly made himself comfortable when playing on invites, before then showing his class on the Korn Ferry Tour, Burns is one of the most promising maidens on the circuit.
His big-hitting, good-putting style is effective enough to overcome hit-and-miss approach play, but that department has improved of late and a tie for 32nd last week ought to have been so much better. He missed chance after chance, including several looks at eagle, ranking 45th in putting.
Typically assured on the greens, I'm happy enough to overlook that and take a positive view of a solid run of golf, form figures of 24-30-17-32 translating really well now he's down in grade.
I like the fact he's been eighth at PGA National, a Nicklaus design, as I do his form at altitude in Utah, and the course he won at on the Korn Ferry Tour looks pretty similar to this one. It certainly was all about birdies - he shot 21-under to win - and I expect him to rack up the points here if his ball-striking remains as good as it has been for the last few weeks.
Burns has as much potential as anyone here with Matthias Schwab and CAMERON DAVIS up there, too, and it's the latter who is preferred.
The fact that Schwab lives up in the Alps and led the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green last week obviously makes some appeal, but he's yet to win as a professional and gave up a golden opportunity in Turkey late last year.
He'll take his chance soon enough but winning on the PGA Tour would open up a world of opportunities for this Vanderbilt graduate, for whom membership is probably at the very top of his list of priorities, and there may just be a little too much at stake here.
Davis on the other hand is a PGA Tour member who has quickly shown he can take his chances, first landing the Australian Open as a huge outsider in a quality field, before adding another title in Nashville on the Korn Ferry Tour.
That gives him the edge, especially at the prices, and his performance last week was equally eye-catching. He finished 12th after a quiet-ish Sunday, ranking 19th off the tee and 15th on approach, while the putter - the one problem he's had - was solid in 25th.
It's only on the greens where he's losing strokes this season, a marked improvement on his rookie campaign, but he was good when missing the cut in the Rocket Mortgage Classic and again in the 3M Open, so it looks like he's found something during the hiatus.
Eighth at the Honda is form I like, and at 69th in birdie average and 18th in holes-per-eagle, he has the tools for this. It's worth stressing that the birdie average stats are obviously dominated by those in Tennessee, so to rank about the top 35 per cent marks Davis down as veritably prolific at this lower level.
Indeed he's been taking his chances even when missing cuts prior to last week. Davis made eight birdies and an eagle at both Muirfield Village and the Travelers, nine birdies at the Rocket Mortgage and eight at Colonial, all when narrowly missing out on the weekend.
Mistakes won't be so harshly punished here and this ambidextrous Australian looks an excellent price.
Jhonattan Vegas may welcome a move away from Montreux, a course he's never really figured out, and could be interesting as a result. He's won twice at the Nicklaus-designed Glen Abbey, and in the California desert in a multi-course event which does include another Nicklaus layout, while his form in the Honda Classic is strong.
One of the best drivers around right now, Vegas should have plenty of chances and his missed cuts at Muirfield Village aren't too much of a concern given he's yet to do anything at Jack's place. Still, they're not perhaps the best preparation for this and of the classier players I like to side with in these events, NICK WATNEY is preferred.
The first PGA Tour player to test positive for coronavirus, it's been a tough summer for Watney and the relief was etched across his face when he spoke to the media about something else - namely, good golf - following the first round of the 3M Open.
"I'm feeling great and kind of got some peace of mind here recently," he said. "I've practiced hard last week, kind of found - just found some things. Trying to go back to basics, aim, setup, posture and balance and it's worked so far."
Watney was right up close to the lead throughout, eventually finishing 12th on the back of some quality approach play, and he might find this a nice opportunity to kick on given he's from California and has spent much of his career living in nearby Las Vegas.
A good record at Summerlin demonstrates how comfortable he is playing at altitude and even further up here, he's built an excellent record in the Barracuda, with finishes of 10-36-5-43-8-MC over the course of 15 or so years.
No doubt he'd have played here more had he not been in the WGC on multiple occasions, and it's clear he loves the event and has done since that excellent debut when still finding his feet as a professional and relying on invites.
Missing the cut in 2017 wasn't ideal but his game was in a bad place, and on his previous visit he'd led after rounds one and two, and sat second through 54 holes, before fading slightly to finish eighth. What's interesting is that the previous week he'd finished 12th, his best performance of the season, and I'm very much hoping history may repeat.
Granted he's probably a shade more effective when pars are worth something, but Watney did win the CIMB Classic in 22-under once upon a time and at 39, this one-time major contender can win more titles. Perhaps what's happened since June may just help his perspective a little and he's worth chancing at 80/1.
Aaron Wise and Maverick McNealy both have ties to Las Vegas and bags of talent, but the latter was beaten up over a difficult fortnight in Ohio, and the former has shown only glimpses of form this season. I did look twice given that he was third in Bermuda when taking a similar drop in grade, but all things considered there's not enough to go on at the prices.
ROBBY SHELTON is another youngster with a bright future if he can find some consistency, and last week's run for third was hugely eye-catching.
His previous best effort this year was 11th place in a much stronger edition of the Honda Classic, giving us that Nicklaus form, and while he's been inconsistent in his rookie season he does have three top-seven finishes to his name.
Gaining 10 strokes with his ball-striking at the 3M Open represented a huge improvement and reward for heading home to spend some time with his coach, working on a swing which he says clicked as he came charging through the field on Sunday.
Asked how much confidence that had given him, Shelton replied: "A lot. I'm looking forward to Reno. I haven't seen it before, but I think it's going to be a fun week."
Two wins on the Korn Ferry Tour last year show what he can do and Shelton has long been considered a player capable of a lot more than he's so far achieved. There's plenty of evidence to suggest he's getting there, and if we rewind the clock to his amateur days he was good enough to finish third in the Barbasol, another of these low-scoring, opposite-field events on the PGA Tour.
I would prefer the tournament to be taking place in the south east, where he seems to be a little more comfortable for now, but the golf he played last weekend works anywhere and he has bags of ability.
Bronson Burgoon makes a lot of birdies, has some good second-tier form in shootouts like this, including when placed last year, and might go well. Michael Gligic also caught the eye at a big price, while watch out for sponsors' invite Peter Kuest, whose college career was cut short by coronavirus. He was among the best amateurs in the world last year and went to college at altitude in Utah, but he's not done much on invites as yet.
My final selection is an accurate type in the Putnam/Stroud mould with CHRIS BAKER worth a small each-way bet.
Once a winner in Morocco on the Challenge Tour, Baker's journey to the PGA Tour has been a complicated one but he's finding his feet now, having made his last three cuts at this level plus two more on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Over the Rocket Mortgage Classic and 3M Open, Baker's iron play was outstanding, and combined with his accuracy off the tee it marks him out as a player ready to put four rounds together.
Six birdies and an eagle last Sunday sets him up nicely for this drop down in grade and I can see him staying out of trouble, and making enough of his opportunities to at least get competitive over the weekend.
This week's golf previews
- WGC FedEx St Jude: Koepka to deliver
- Barracuda Championship: Backing Burns
- Hero Open: Home comforts point to Sullivan
Posted at 1500 BST on 28/07/20
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