Ben Coley previews the RBC Canadian Open, where Bubba Watson makes most appeal in an event which is difficult to unravel.
Moving from post-Open Championship to pre-US Open, the RBC Canadian Open gets rid of one issue and takes on another. Previously, the challenge was to attract those who had been over in the UK and have the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship to come. Now, it's to convince the same group that playing in Canada can help them in next week's major championship.
A field which includes Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas suggests that organisers have succeeded, by hook or by crook, although with Monday's US Open qualifiers further complicating matters, it's a strange field. There are four bonafide superstars, yes, but it's rare to see Scott Piercy at 33/1 and Shane Lowry at 40/1 - you might call it top-heavy and there will likely be a few more withdrawals to come.
Johnson is the defending champion and clear favourite, despite the switch from Glen Abbey to Hamilton which makes this a real puzzle for everyone. In truth, DJ probably ought to be favourite every time he tees it up on the PGA Tour providing he arrives in form, and he has previous when it comes to winning the week before the US Open courtesy of two victories, including last year, in the FedEx St Jude Classic.
Koepka enhanced his reputation as some kind of majors-only cyborg when following fourth place in the Byron Nelson with victory at Johnson's expense in the PGA, and many will be happy to draw a line through him as a result. Yet he'll recognise the heritage of the prestigious championship and given that he revels in proving people wrong, it would be apt should he pick up a non-major now. He's won them before, you know.
It's harder to construct a case for Thomas, who plummeted to a missed cut on his return last week. Wrist injuries are notoriously hard to recover from and he's a late entrant here looking for something to work with. As for McIlroy, he's not been at his best since March, and the market has things right at the top end. There doesn't look to be a bet.
This scene-setting still hasn't bought me enough time to know confidently what to expect from a golf course which hosted this event in 2006 and again in 2012, when Piercy won despite professing to be bored by the style of play, and the staking plan at the top of this page reflects the fact that I haven't found a totally convincing angle.
That most recent renewal poses one of many conundrums, as with Piercy winning and Robert Garrigus failing to do so only because of a pathetic putting display, and everyone in contention figuring highly in driving distance, on the face of it power was a massive factor.
However, co-runner-up William McGirt certainly isn't long, and everyone who has been asked, either then or more recently, will tell you that this course is more about positioning the ball off the tee. Piercy went as far as complaining that he could barely use the driver, his favourite club, while McGirt compared it to the old-school designs of his architectural hero, Donald Ross.
Jim Furyk, who won here in 2006, says it reminds him of the classic courses in Pennsylvania where he grew up learning to thread his ball through tree-lined corridors, which is further confusing as they've cut down many of the trees here.
Just a few weeks ago, Furyk said: "I don’t think it’s going to be a power dominated golf course, it’s an old classic design but it’s more about hitting the spots and controlling the golf ball around there and keeping the ball under the pin." Perhaps, whether favouring the bigger hitters or not, this will be about quality iron play to greens which are undeniably small and slope quite dramatically, typically from back to front. Maybe.
At under 7,000 yards, what we know for sure is that this par 70 is extremely short. It's similar to the likes of El Camaleon (Mayakoba), River Highlands (Travelers), Waialae (Sony), Sedgefield (Wyndham) and the courses which co-host the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and my hope is that, like most of these events, it levels the playing field between the behemoths at the top of the betting and those trying to keep pace with them.
If that is indeed the case, then Furyk, Brandt Snedeker and Webb Simpson all should go well. These are three of the best Sedgefield exponents around, one of them once shot 58 at River Highlands, and all have shown good signs lately. Snedeker, who will also enjoy these poa annua/bentgrass greens, would be the pick in an event he's won before, one in which he boasts a rock-solid record, but I'm keeping an eye on him for next week instead.
There is an option here who can both compete with Koepka and DJ off the tee, produce his best on poa annua and adapt to a shorter par 70, so in a bid to cover as many bases as possible it's Bubba Watson who makes by far the most appeal.
Watson is a three-time winner of the Travelers Championship who has six PGA Tour wins on greens with poa annua in them, two of them coming over at Riviera. With a further two wins at Augusta, seven of his 12 titles on the PGA Tour have come courtesy of just three golf courses: what we know about Bubba is that he wins when he's comfortable in his surroundings.
It's that which makes him really interesting here, as while absent in 2012 he did feature in the 2006 edition, firing an opening 65 and finishing 14th. That was four years prior to his PGA Tour breakthrough when he ranked outside the world's top 150 and is therefore enough, in an event where there are so many imponderables, to speculate that he really took to the course.
Watson's form this year has been somewhat patchy, but his last three stroke play starts show fourth at the Valspar, 12th at Augusta and a missed cut at Bethpage, where he hit the ball well enough to contend, only to putt so poorly that a weekend off was unavoidable despite a second-round 69.
To my mind there doesn't appear anything wrong with his game. All that we need is a suitable course and some motivation, and the latter comes courtesy of his wife, Angie, who is Canadian.
"Like I said before, any tournament's a big win," Watson said in 2015. "But winning a national Open and an Open that is part of my family now, me being part of Canada, I guess you could say. I've got two flags at the house, so it's a big deal.
"It would be a great honor, but a big deal for the family as well."
Watson came close that year when second and this dozen-time winner has to be worth chancing having been given the same chance as Piercy, who was born in the same week of the same month of the same year but has achieved far less in the sport.
There's no way their chances are equal and on this occasion it isn't that Piercy is simply too short, but that Watson has been too quickly dismissed.
Henrik Stenson continues to frustrate, leaving himself far too much to do off the tee, but if his three-wood does prove to be a weapon here the Swede could spring to life. He's a real Donald Ross specialist so any similarities between this Harry Colt design and the likes of Sedgefield can only help.
Similar comments apply to Sergio Garcia, like Stenson a former winner of the Wyndham. A little like Watson, his form is much better than it perhaps appears and Garcia's Canada record reads 4-3-5-MC. Had we seen this course on the circuit more recently, chances are the Spaniard would've made the staking plan.
Sometimes, though, you have to take a cautious approach, however desperate you might be for a winner (naming no names), and there is scope for an upset here. The two events a week prior to a major so far in 2019 have been won by a Monday qualifier in Corey Conners and another first-time winner in Sung Kang, and it won't take much to get the big names beat despite their obvious credentials.
As such, I've a trio of massive outsiders to consider, starting with Sebastian Munoz.
This Colombian is a dynamite putter who looks to have found form lately, finishing 37th and 10th in his last two PGA Tour starts before dropping down to the Web.com Tour last week and striking the ball well for seventh.
Munoz was among those involved in Monday's US Open qualifiers and while coming up short, he missed out by a single shot in Maryland, one of just seven players to break par on a pair of difficult golf courses which may serve as decent preparation for this.
Ultimately, the message is that he's playing nicely and I really like a couple of form lines in relation to Hamilton and a Canadian Open played in Ontario.
Firstly, he shot 64-67 to lead the St Jude Classic a couple of years ago, an event played a week before the US Open on a short, technical par 70, but the standout is third place at the Greenbrier Classic behind Xander Schauffele in 2017, a result which earned him a place in the field for the Open Championship. It's worth noting that three places are up for grabs again here.
The Greenbrier is played at Old White TPC in West Virginia, exactly the type of eastern, old-school course Furyk was talking about, and Munoz excelled on bentgrass greens which should play somewhat similar to this week's, only to be scuppered late on by a player who has gone on to prove world-class.
Later that same year he finished a solid 32nd in the Canadian Open and he's playing well enough to threaten a major upset with conditions potentially set to suit. It's also worth taking a chance in the first-round leader market given that he has two leads and a further place in just 30-something starts at this level.
Next, Cameron Tringale can bounce back from a disappointing second round in his US Open qualifier and continue to build on a quietly impressive run of form.
Tringale's PGA Tour results of late read 17-5-MC-23, the missed cut on a long par 72, and while fifth place was in the team event in New Orleans he's played well either side of it.
A short hitter who relies on quality iron play and the putter, Tringale led the field in driving accuracy and ranked seventh in greens hit when finishing just outside the top 10 here in 2012, one of a trio of top-20 finishes in the Canadian Open.
He's comfortable on these poa-based greens having grown up in California and at 31st in par-four scoring average, this sort of challenge should continue to prove suitable.
A final note is that he boasts a good record in the Houston Open, played a week before the Masters, and having played so well here seven years ago he looks overpriced at as big as 250/1 in places.
Austin Cook was among the first names on my shortlist having bagged a top-10 finish in Canada as a non-member a few years ago and returned to form lately.
Cook took a while to adjust to fatherhood at the start of the year but this accurate type produced his best round of the campaign at Colonial a fortnight ago, and were I certain this would prove a similar test he'd have been worth chancing despite a modest effort in his US Open qualifier.
Conners leads the home challenge and is good enough to cope with the pressure, while Graeme McDowell crops up on the shortlist again with those Portrush places up for grabs. Finally, both Russell Henley and Danny Lee come out well when you look at those other short courses, many of which Piercy has thrived on, but neither has my trust.
My final selection then is a really speculative one with Collin Morikawa tipped to make waves on his professional tour debut.
Morikawa came through a really competitive US Open sectional on Monday, finishing just behind Jason Dufner, and having left the amateur game as one of the best in the world he might be capable of making an immediate impression.
We saw it last year when Joaquin Niemann finished sixth under similar circumstances in Texas, and increasingly these youngsters are ready to go and take advantage of invites to fast-track their PGA Tour status. Jon Rahm and Robby Shelton were good enough to place as amateurs and we're probably not far from a college player or one who has just graduated going all the way again.
In Morikawa's favour is the fact he's from California and therefore comfortable, one presumes, on poa annua greens. He's also in decent form, having been sixth in the individual stroke play at the NCAA finals, unfortunate to be the standout player in a side lacking depth. And in just three tour starts so far, he's already carded a pair of weekend 63s to finish second on the Web.com Tour when still a teenager and more recently made the cut at Bay Hill.
Clearly, it's a massive task to go and win, but Monday's successful US Open qualifying bid can only increase confidence and he's long been touted as a player of immense potential. In a difficult event to unravel, why not take a chance on an unknown at such a price?
Posted at 1110 BST on 04/06/19