Golf expert Ben Coley fancies Daniel Berger to go well in the Barracuda Championship, where he also has a 400/1 chance worth considering.
Another of the knock-on effects of golf’s crisis of confidence and fear of a sport basically played only in one country presents itself in the form of the Barracuda Championship – the second ‘opposite’ event in succession.
Since Shane Lowry sparked uproarious celebrations with his six-shot victory in The Open, reality has begun to set in: there will be no major golf next month or in any of the seven after that. Imagine how Brooks Koepka must feel now that he has nothing to practice for. This is all because of a changing schedule which brings this week’s stableford event forward in the calendar, right on the heels of its bedfellow, the Barbasol.
Last week’s event, played under traditional scoring conditions, went the way of Jim Herman. If you were in any doubt as to the volatility cultivated by second- or third-tier fields and the focus of the sport being elsewhere, note that Herman was a complete outsider who had gone two and a half years without a PGA Tour top 10, and had managed just the one elsewhere in the interim.
The Barracuda, where an eagle is worth five points, a birdie two; where a bogey loses one and anything else loses three, is certainly at the mercy of random. It is quite difficult to rule out anyone here – would we really be shocked if Charlie Beljan conjured something from nothing, or if John Senden rediscovered what was once a world-class game, or if Brendon de Jonge finally broke through?
That being said, at the very front of this market there’s a two-time major winner in Martin Kaymer, a potential future major in Collin Morikawa, and an in-form course specialist in Martin Laird and plenty others for whom this is a serious opportunity to take a big step forward in 2019.
Top of my list is Daniel Berger, for whom there are a good number of reasons to expect a serious title bid.
First and foremost, Berger is a class act and he’s threatening to get back to his best. Two wins in the FedEx St Jude Classic, a top-six finish out of the final group at last year’s US Open and a 2017 Presidents Cup place tell us this is not a player who will show up in many fields like this.
The reason he’s here is injury and a loss of form, which leaves him fighting to piece things together. He’ll be motivated to do so simply because he knows what he’s capable of, but extra determination is perfectly possible given that the best players in the world are at Southwind, scene of those two PGA Tour titles, for a World Golf Championship.
Berger will feel like he should be there with them, defending an impeccable course record. He’ll also be aware that the Presidents Cup is fast approaching, and when he played so well, so aggressively, on his debut two years ago, he’ll have expected to not just have kept his place but played Ryder Cup golf in-between.
He’s also 126th in the FedEx Cup standings with two events of the regular season to go. Compared to most in this field it’s an exceptionally strong position, but it’s still a job which needs completing and he’ll be eager to do so before a good crack at the Playoffs.
Recent signs are that Berger is capable of sailing through. He has finished 15th and 33rd in his last two starts, gaining strokes in every department throughout, and in both instances was bang in the mix at halfway.
Speaking at the John Deere, where he played in the penultimate group on Saturday, Berger was clear in his belief that this is not the sort of tournament he should be worrying about winning – that those in the field should be the ones who are concerned.
“I feel like my game is in a really good position,” he said. “I think if I play well, it's tough for anyone out here to beat me.”
Berger went on to talk about how he has back his competitive edge and he looks the man to beat, having been second in Puerto Rico the only other time he’s been forced to dip his toe into these calmer waters.
One final factor which led me to Berger was the Honda Classic. It’s a tougher event than this one, but both host courses – PGA National and Montreux – are Jack Nicklaus designs, and form from one to the other seems to stack up well.
With that in mind, Russell Henley is the next best following a closing 61 for second place in the John Deere Classic last time.
Prior to that final round, Henley’s caddie had declared that they were going to shoot nine-under and they in fact shot 10, an indication perhaps that the man with the closest view of Henley’s game knows it is coming back around.
The numbers certainly support that idea, because Henley’s iron play was on fire and his putter, once a key strength but latterly a weakness, started to warm up again as he ranked 11th in the field.
Should he bring that to the Barracuda, this three-time PGA Tour winner would be a massive factor and as well as winning the Honda, he’s been sixth at Muirfield Village, otherwise known as Jack’s place.
It may also be worth noting his strong Southwind form, as last year’s Barracuda winner, Andrew Putnam, had been runner-up there earlier in the campaign. Greg Owen has been second in both events and it’s certainly true that for all Montreux offers up a lot of birdies, it has tended to favour those who keep the ball in play off the tee with power not much of a factor, if at all.
Henley has been strong off the tee for a long time and, along with Berger, looks to have an outstanding chance to leave this grade behind in the way subsequent US Open winner Gary Woodland has done.
Sepp Straka again hit the ball brilliantly last week, effectively locking up his card for 2020 having played well ever since a confidence-boosting effort in the US Open at Pebble Beach which was won by Woodland.
He should go well if the putter fires, a comment which also applies to Adam Svensson, while it was interesting to see a step up from Anders Albertson, too. He’s a player who shot two 65s in Las Vegas late last year and from tee-to-green he’s shown flourishes of real quality in his rookie campaign.
All are considered, but preference from last week is for Kyle Jones, whose approach play was good enough for fifth in the field.
Ultimately, Jones ranked fourth from tee-to-green, one place ahead of the winner and not far off Straka, and this proven fairway-finder may be capable of stepping up on a top-15 finish to contend for the very first time on the PGA Tour.
Jones was second to Straka in a low-scoring event on what was the Web.com Tour last year, at a Nicklaus-designed course in Kansas, while he also bagged a top-10 finish at altitude in Boise.
Altitude is a major factor this week in Reno, and with that in mind it’s interesting that while Jones is listed as Californian, he in fact grew up in Snowflake, Arizona and calls it home. That topically-named town is some 1,700m above sea level – a quarter of a mile higher up than this week’s venue.
Jones should be more comfortable than most with the thinner air and adjusted yardages, and given that he’s so often playing from the middle of the fairway he’s exactly the sort of player I want to get on-side at a big price.
Sebastian Munoz should have no issues with the altitude and is an obvious option from just outside the top 125, while there will be those hoping Peter Uihlein shows us what he can do, but I’m prepared to take a real flier on Martin Trainer instead.
Trainer won the Puerto Rico Open in which Berger was second, demonstrating once again that when he gets a sniff he knows exactly how to close the door.
He graduated to the PGA Tour with two wins in 2018, including at around 1800m above sea level in Mexico, and his only other top-10 on the Web.com Tour came up in the clouds in Utah. All that experience on the Latinoamerica Tour may well have given him an edge when it comes to adjusting.
Rewind further back and his first start on any recognised circuit actually came here in Reno eight years ago, when he was handed an invite, and he did himself proud by making the weekend.
The reason he’s 500/1 is that he’s been abysmal since winning, but a second-round 66 in the John Deere Classic last time might just have marked our cards. It’s his joint-low round of the season along with the 66 he shot at Pebble Beach in the start prior to winning in Puerto Rico.
Throw all that together and Trainer stands out as the very best of the supposed no-hopers in an event in which so few can be ruled out altogether.
Finally, back towards the top of the market and it’s hard to ignore J.J. Spaun at around the 40/1 mark.
This Californian has an exceptional record in Nevada, contending in three of his last four starts and playing well on every appearance either here or in Vegas since a missed cut when he’d just earned his playing rights.
His Web.com Tour win came under exceptionally low-scoring conditions and he’s got a runner-up finish in Utah to his name, too, while eight cuts made in nine is good form at this sort of level.
Spaun has been third through 54 holes in both starts in this tournament, sticking around to fill the same spot last year, and he’s hard to get away from as a rock-solid investment.
Posted at 1450 BST on 23/07/2019