Ben Coley is keen to roll the dice in the final event before next week's PGA Championship, as he previews the AT&T Byron Nelson at TPC Craig Ranch.
1.5pts e.w. Maverick McNealy at 50/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Marc Leishman at 60/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Matthew Wolff at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Hudson Swafford at 200/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Scott Piercy at 250/1 (bet365 1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
0.5pt e.w. Austin Cook at 750/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
One of the more annoying golf commentary tropes, certainly in the UK, is that the PGA Tour is a point-and-shoot exercise; a series of lights-out, 59-threatening, soulless and even skill-less tournaments, each one indistinguishable from the next. It is of course nonsense, a fact demonstrated by the firm-and-fast Houston Open, the execution test of Torrey Pines, the winds of the Florida swing and, just last week, the blend of heavy rain and thick rough which made the Wells Fargo Championship so demanding.
The AT&T Byron Nelson, however, ought to live up to the stereotype in its second year at TPC Craig Ranch. Wide, soft, zoysiagrass fairways and big, flat, pure bentgrass greens threw up a shootout won by KH Lee in 25-under par last year, and that's despite some miserable weather right towards the end of the tournament. This week's forecast is for clear skies and calm winds and while there's been nothing like the amount of rain which had fallen prior to the 2021 renewal, it's unlikely that the exam paper has altered all that much.
You might think that would dissuade the best players in the world from taking part, given that they're all preparing for next week's PGA Championship at a sure to be demanding Southern Hills, but that's not necessarily the case. Nine of the world's top 20 are in attendance, tripling last week's tally up in Maryland, and that means we've something that is actually quite rare: a genuinely low-scoring event where the likelihood of a world-class champion is so obviously strong.
Scottie Scheffler knows this course well and a win on home soil in Texas would complete a dream year before we're even halfway through May. It's now impossible to dispute his position as favourite and he seems the sort who will find the tag of major champion easy to wear, and just like Justin Thomas, at his best he's very comfortable aiming for lower scores than he's needed for any of his four wins so far this year.
Thomas is the same price as he is for next week, and that's a dynamic I find interesting. He's not alone – so is Jordan Spieth, who will be chasing a grand slam at Southern Hills, while Brooks Koepka is fully 10 points bigger here – and in some ways that's absurd. Clearly, the competition for the Nelson is significantly weaker than will be the case in the PGA and while it's equally fair to argue that the pool of potential winners in a major is smaller, if you're weighing up Koepka for a third PGA you really ought to be taking 33/1 about him here, too.
But that looming major is also a stumbling block, one best demonstrated by a look at recent winners of full-strength PGA Tour events, which reads as follows since the beginning of March: Scheffler, Smith, Burns, Scheffler, Spaun, Scheffler, Spieth, Cantlay/Schauffele, Rahm, Homa. The odd one out in this sequence is JJ Spaun, a shock, breakthrough winner of the Valero Texas Open, played on the eve of the Masters, where the best of the elite players in that field was Tony Finau in 29th.
Spaun is no outlier when it comes to eve-of-major stunners. When the Houston Open took place before the Masters, DA Points and Jim Herman were among the shock winners. Since this event has been the lead-in to the PGA, we've had Sung Kang and Lee, and behind the former were Matt Every and Scott Piercy. Koepka, sent off a single-figure price, played well for fourth, but again the top 10 was stacked with players whose focus was on the immediate, rather than what may or may not lie ahead in the forthcoming major championship.
It should be said that Jordan Spieth has not only won the John Deere Classic twice, the pre-Open Championship PGA Tour stop, and last year's Texas Open just before the Masters, but he's also gone back-to-back more than once in his career. Combine that with his top-10 finish here last year, and the fact that his long-game has been exceptional lately, and it's easy to build a case for him following up last month's fortuitous win in the RBC Heritage, when sent off an eye-watering 40/1.
Spieth is desperate to win this title, too, as it was in the Nelson that he first got the opportunity to show what he could do and despite Scheffler's rise he remains the leading light of Texas golf. No doubt keen to zone in on this and distract himself from a realistic opportunity to make history next week, he is by far and away the most appealing of the market leaders, but right now his game is better suited to tougher conditions and having had to suffer him winning at 40s, he can do it again at half that without any sleep being lost.
Most of the appeal here is around the 50-66/1 mark but with Adam Hadwin a little frustrating and Aaron Wise far from certain to putt well enough to keep up, I'm giving the headline vote to MAVERICK MCNEALY.
This one-time amateur star is among the most promising maidens on the circuit and while Davis Riley could pip him at a course where his red-hot putting will be an asset, McNealy's form just has that bit more substance to it, and this looks like a good chance to shine.
Long off the tee, the key improvement in his game over the past 18 months has been his approach play, which saw him rank 169th in the 2019-20 season and 151st last year, but is now becoming a strength. McNealy currently ranks 58th and is fully half a shot per round better than he was, which helps explain why he's not missed a cut in a stroke play event since perhaps struggling under the pressure of playing at home in Vegas last October.
It's fair to say that much of his best form so far has come on more technical courses than this one, such was when second at Pebble Beach and fourth at Harbour Town, but it's still early days and his scoring prowess for a shootout is clear: he's currently sixth in holes-per-eagle and 18th in birdie average, while at 36th in putting he remains one of the more assured operators on the circuit.
We do have to excuse a missed cut alongside Joseph Bramlett in the Zurich Classic but that's not difficult, especially as before it he'd played well in the Heritage, and been an absolute star as a late call-up to the Match Play. There, the Californian beat Joaquin Niemann 8&6 and Russell Henley 2&1, only to lose out in extra holes against the dogged Kevin Na, who won with a birdie.
Having been laying the foundations for a first PGA Tour win for a while now, this event looks perfect in terms of its pre-major timing, for all that McNealy will himself be playing at Southern Hills. It also could prove ideal in terms of course, and McNealy does have some fond memories of Craig Ranch having come through second stage qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour back in 2017.
This was around the time McNealy was still considering the idea of following his father into the world of business rather than pursuing a career in golf, and he's primed to secure the ultimate vindication for that decision this weekend.
Hadwin's quality approach play, ability with the putter and prowess under low-scoring conditions really is tempting. He also has strong form in the 3M Open, which could be one of the better guides to this through the likes of Lee, Charl Schwartzel, Patton Kizzire, Scott Stallings, Troy Merritt, Jhonattan Vegas, Hank Lebioda, and Alex Noren.
The latter is also respected but it's a little jarring to see MARC LEISHMAN's name alongside Noren's and the Aussie has to be preferred.
Leishman is one of a handful of good putters who feature in the top 30 for strokes-gained approach right now, and that weights-and-measures formula could well be the way into this. Lee excelled in both categories and this is certainly a course where players can reach for driver upon driver, without worrying too much about the consequences of a mishit.
That's great news for Leishman, who has always been down the driving accuracy stats but does pack a punch off the tee, and he hinted that this course is a good fit when opening with a six-under 66 before settling for 21st place a year ago. He gave away a bit too much ground off the tee back then but it was his work around the greens that proved particularly costly, whereas his approach play (21st) and putting (fifth) offered real encouragement.
His around-the-green game was exceptional at the Masters last month (second) and his driving has been much better this season than it was last, so there's cause for optimism that his game could come together at a course which he's certainly suited to. Leishman has won with scores of 23- and 26-under on the PGA Tour, as well as in 20-under in the Zurich Classic, and he's long been a prolific birdie-maker (14th this season).
Now down at 48th in the world rankings, he last fell outside the top 50 at the end of 2016, and it took him just a handful of starts to spring into life and win again during an excellent 2017 campaign. A class act with plenty in his favour and having struck his irons brilliantly despite a missed cut last week, he looks underestimated here.
The aforementioned Kizzire is another occasionally wild driver who will enjoy the space afforded to him by Craig Ranch, as we saw last year when he was 66th in driving accuracy but managed rounds of 63 and 64 to take third place. Twice a winner on the PGA Tour and with his own approach play improved this year, he'd have made the staking plan but for going off the boil somewhat of late.
Instead, I'll take the hint and put up MATTHEW WOLFF at three-figure prices.
Wolff returned from a month off to finish 25th last week, a massive upturn on his fortunes in the spring which included rounds of 81 at both Sawgrass and Augusta. The fact he told reporters after an opening 65 that he didn't see it coming because he'd gone through sleeves of balls at home has to be taken seriously, but he was still there in sixth place heading into the final round and it was a very encouraging display.
He'll have to build on it and as one of the most volatile players around that's no guarantee, but he does boast seven top-six finishes since the start of 2020, a run of 50 events, and each of them came after he'd made the cut on his previous start. Given that he's missed 14 of them in this span, together with a couple of withdrawals and a disqualification for good measure, he has somewhat marked our cards.
That might prove true again and the space on offer at Craig Ranch helps sooth concerns over the odd big miss from the tee. It's also a potential positive that he's playing the course for the first time, because he said so last week at Potomac, telling reporters he often found that such circumstances allowed him to get into the right mindset which has clearly at times been an issue.
His breakthrough win in the 3M Open, where he shot 21-under, correlates well and so do a pair of runner-up finishes at TPC Summerlin, while like Leishman he has some world rankings incentive having dropped out of the top 50 for the first time since entering it in the summer of 2020. Interestingly, the last time his elite ranking was under threat was just before the Shriners, where he finished second to Sungjae Im.
I also wonder if Wolff will have a little extra determination to cement his improved form given that he went to college in Oklahoma, site of next week's PGA Championship, and with his putter very much reliable this season there's a heck of a lot to like despite the risks.
At similar odds, Kurt Kitayama has some fond Q-School memories from Craig Ranch and his approach play has been outstanding on several occasions lately. He married that with good putting to be third in the Honda and second in Mexico before the putter kept him outside the frame last week, when he was the second-best player from tee-to-green in the Wells Fargo but had to settle for 15th place.
He has to be respected here but I do think he'd prefer tougher conditions and of those around the 100/1 mark, Dylan Frittelli might be a better bet. He won that eve-of-major John Deere Classic in 2019 which was part of the case for selecting him at similar odds for the Texas Open in April, where he was a frustrating eighth having played in the final group on Sunday.
Frittelli of course went to college in Texas and it was clear how determined he was to win that event, so he should be fully engaged for his Craig Ranch debut. The fact he's one of the wildest drivers around is always a worry but less so here, and the rest of his game has generally looked in good shape throughout the last three months. I'd be more worried about his putting on bentgrass but again, these are small concerns at the prices.
However, I'm much keener on HUDSON SWAFFORD, a 200/1 shot with a proper each-way chance.
Swafford is a three-time PGA Tour winner, including twice under the low-scoring conditions of The American Express, where Lee has played well and there's always an emphasis on stacking up scoring opportunities – remember Jon Rahm's complaints during this year's renewal?
Always an excellent driver of the ball, Swafford's blend of above-average distance and accuracy again aligns him with Lee but what I really like is that he's on course for his best ever year in terms of approach play. He led in that department in the Texas Open and has backed it up in the Masters and the Heritage, his putting coming to the party in the latter for a mid-pack finish.
Much of his good work has been undermined by what he does around the greens, throwing away shots Viktor Hovland-style on a number of occasions this year. Indeed, Hovland is the only PGA Tour player who sits below Swafford in the around the green rankings and whenever a player has a weakness this significant, there is always a chance it proves their undoing.
However, this course would be way down the list of those likely to expose it and with his long-game in such good shape, it may pay to focus on positives which extend to his contending performance in the BMW Championship last year, which was the epitome of a point-and-shoot birdie-fest and saw Nelson one-two Lee and Sam Burns both play well, along with Noren and Schwartzel.
Bentgrass greens are another small source of encouragement along with the fact his wins have come in 18-, 20- and 23-under, he's 32nd in birdie average, and if he turns up in his best form I'm convinced he'll leave behind last year's missed cut. At the time, Swafford had missed 10 cuts in a row at this level but he returns playing some of the best golf of his career and is well worth supporting.
I can't stress enough that these are good tournaments to take a chance, whatever the outcome this week, and with that in mind there are two more outsiders to come. First though a quick word for Wyndham Clark, another good, young maiden with plenty of power, brilliant putting at his best, and signs that his approach play is improving having been holding him back.
His best chance came at the 3M Open won by Wolff, he played well enough last year, and he'll be desperate to win and earn an invitation to Southern Hills, where he's talked about being right there as a young fan as Woods put on a clinic during the 2007 PGA.
Those wanting more strings to their bow should consider Clark but I prefer SCOTT PIERCY, who was runner-up in this event three years ago when he played the entire tournament without dropping a shot.
The move to Craig Ranch last year didn't appear to suit as he missed the cut, but Piercy's iron play was excellent, his 3.3 strokes gained enough to put him third in the field had he been able to maintain it through two more rounds.
He's playing better ahead of his return, with form figures of 12-21-33-37 across his last four starts, and those two key aspects – approach play and putting – have fired separately, ranking ninth for the former two starts ago and ninth in putting at the Heritage.
Piercy has stacks of form in low-scoring events plus a couple of top-sixes at Scottsdale, where Lee was runner-up months before winning here, and a nine-under start to the 3M Open, so if he can dial in those second shots again I'm very hopeful he can again demonstrate that he's best when asked to go out and stack up birdies on a course which is anything but penal.
Finally, I'll roll the dice on the badly out of form AUSTIN COOK.
Winner of the RSM Classic in 21-under, Cook's best form would mark him down as a good fit for this. It includes second place in the Shriners back in 2020, shooting 23-under, and when 22-under was only good enough for fourth place in the Barbasol Championship a year earlier.
He comes here having missed four cuts in a row but he's in much better shape than this time last year, when despite having missed his last 11 he shot 68-68 to lie 27th at halfway before fading over the weekend as a miserable campaign continued.
This time, not only has he been scoring better, but three of his last four missed cuts have been on the number, and his approach play looks like it's warming up, gaining 1.42 on the field in Mexico and then 2.05 last week, where he started well but missed three very short putts on Friday to come up a single shot short once more.
It may be then that he's closer than first appears and given how well suited he'd be at his best, and that he played nicely here for two rounds last year, I'm inclined to take the ultimate flier on a player who threatened to cause a massive shock on the eve of the Masters as a Monday qualifier once upon a time.
Posted at 1040 BST on 10/05/22
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