Golf expert Ben Coley previews the RSM Classic, where Russell Henley can put freshness to use and topple tournament favourite Webb Simpson.
As balls plugged and records tumbled, the November Masters did in fact prove unique. That is to take nothing away from the extraordinary success of Dustin Johnson, nor the historic performance of Cameron Smith; simply to say that what happened last week was of its moment. Come April, perhaps we will see Augusta National at her most fearsome again.
There is though something very familiar about the week that follows, because the RSM Classic and the RBC Heritage share so much in common that I'm not alone in having lazily confused them in copy once or twice. The Heritage is the traditional post-Masters wind-down in April, and its cousin now dutifully steps in to perform the same role in the autumn. Let's just hope there are social distancing measures in place at one of Davis Love's famed barbeques.
The point of this is to say that the dynamics may remain much the same. At the Heritage, four of the last five champions had either played badly or not played at all at Augusta, and the same is true of four of the five before that if we borrow the winner of the 2011 Texas Open, which took the place of the Heritage that year. Typically and with just one exception over the last decade, there is a sort of inverse correlation between play at Augusta and Harbour Town, and it may well be that this remains true now we're at Sea Island.
Perhaps the contrast between venues isn't as significant, as Sea Island's fairways - both at the Seaside Course which hosts 54 holes and the Plantation which everyone plays once - are much wider than Harbour Town's. Still, the roll-of-honour here tells you that accuracy off the tee is important, that power isn't, and that a quality short-game has often been decisive. Contrary to popular opinion, not always has that been true at Augusta National.
All of this means that it shouldn't surprise anyone were Sungjae Im to fail to reproduce his debut heroics, or Shane Lowry fail to build on an improved display spent in the company of Tiger Woods. Even tournament favourite Webb Simpson might find it difficult to summon another big performance. Note that when the former US Open winner did lose a play-off for the Heritage in 2013, it followed a missed cut at Augusta. Graeme McDowell beat him, and he too had checked out early the week before.
I really wouldn't underestimate how draining a run it has been for the game's best players. They've had three majors and a FedEx Cup Playoffs in little more than three months, and before all this started most of them barely took a week off once golf returned from its spring break. There will be players here running on empty, and I don't doubt that many of the British contingent are sticking around because they might as well spend two weeks in Georgia rather than just one.
All of this makes it a good chance for two of the back-to-form stars of summer, who have all the motivation in the world to put an exclamation mark on the end of a brilliant few months. The men in question are Harris English and RUSSELL HENLEY and while tempted to put up both, it's the latter who gets the vote.
Ultimately, for all he has his excuses and has shown flashes, English - one of the many who plays out of Sea Island - is yet to really produce in this event. He did finish second in the 'Back2Golf' tournament which featured many a PGA Tour star back in May but he's yet to threaten in this and he was playing beautifully ahead of a missed cut last year, for all it came soon after a disappointing Monday finish in Mexico.
I am a huge fan, a huge admirer of what he's done this year, and have huge respect for Datagolf's world rankings which have him in 12th. Those factors notwithstanding, I would rather hope for a decent run with a view to the Mayakoba Classic should he return to a course where he has no questions to answer.
It's Henley then who gets the vote and he does have an excellent record here thanks to a string of top-10 finishes from 2014 to 2016, the last two coming after they'd changed the format and split the field across two courses early on.
Those came when he was playing well, whereas a missed cut in 2018 was his fifth in six events, and last year his form to begin the season read 57-54-37-61-MC before he again failed to make the weekend. In other words, when Henley has teed up at Sea Island at the very top of his game, or close to it, he has contended. When he's been out of sorts, he has not found sufficient comfort here to change that.
Gladly, he's bang in-form. Four top-10 finishes and nothing worse than 29th from his seven starts post-PGA Championship tell us that, and there are few on the PGA Tour who can compete with his ball-striking numbers. Two starts back at the Zozo Championship he was the best from tee-to-green in an elite field which included all of the world's best players bar Dustin Johnson, and all told he's been inside the top 25 in approach play in 10 of his last 11 measured starts.
That would likely be 11 of 11 had he not missed the cut due to some awful putting in the 3M Open, and it's the putter which has generally held him back having once been his biggest weapon. Just how well he putts here will likely determine whether or not he's in the top six or seven as all other aspects of his game are in as good a shape as anyone in the field and, Georgia born and raised, this is a home game for him.
Henley's fondness for Sea Island stretches back to winning the SEC Championship here a decade ago and since graduating to the PGA Tour, he's shown a fondness for similar courses. In fact almost all of his best stuff has come on that system of events and layouts we so often bring together, including his wins in the Honda and Sony Open. Like those two, his other victory, in Houston, came on bermuda greens which we have this week.
Again, when he's putted well here he's finished inside the top 10, and there have been at least some encouraging signs lately, not least his display with the flat stick at the CJ Cup where he ranked second. More relevant may be the fact he was 21st on bermuda greens in the Wyndham and last time out wasn't too bad, as he gained strokes in two of the four rounds in Houston and suffered just one really difficult day.
I'd rather focus on how well he's hitting it, and how motivated he'll be. Henley has a fabulous record in his home state including in the Masters, and he'll have watched last week's major determined no doubt to make sure he's back there in the spring. At 58th in the world, that goal is now within touching distance and, at a course he used to visit with his family as a kid, this is a golden opportunity to take care of business with a win.
Henley went off 25/1 in Houston, where Johnson was in the field and where we had to guess as to how well suited he would be to the course. Finishing 29th there has helped hold up his price and while this field may look deeper, it contains a favourite who doesn't win as often as 9/1 odds say he ought to, and a bunch of players who have just gone through a mentally draining, delay-hit Masters.
Kevin Kisner is another South Carolina resident who went to college in Georgia and makes some appeal. His best finishes this year have all come exactly where you'd expect, and while last week's missed cut at the Masters was his first, a rain-soaked course wouldn't have helped.
He's respected and I would certainly encourage anyone to focus on players from the SEC states where possible. Kisner joins Chris Kirk, Austin Cook, Heath Slocum, Tommy Gainey and Charles Howell as former champions from either this state or those in the south and south-east, and the likes of Briny Baird (Georgia), David Toms (Louisiana) and Simpson (North Carolina) all perhaps should have won here, too.
It's with that and the event's penchant for delivering us a first-time winner firmly in mind that MATTHEW NESMITH stands out as the next best at three-figure prices.
Hailing from South Carolina, NeSmith is another who knows Sea Island really well and one of the standout performances of an excellent amateur career came at the Seaside Course. That was in 2015, when he made one bogey in 54 holes and shot 14-under to beat a decent field by a long way.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, NeSmith returned for his debut in the RSM Classic last year and played really well, making just three bogeys all week and breaking 70 every day. Clearly, he likes it here and while that SEC form is easy enough to question, note that Brendon Todd is among the former winners, and he was in front through 54 holes before running out of gas in pursuit of a hat-trick.
There are plenty of others, Henley included, who've put their course familiarity to use and NeSmith looks capable of doing so. Granted, his solid run of form appeared to come to an abrupt end in Houston, but Memorial Park was especially unforgiving and he missed the cut solely because of his short game, which saw him lose a remarkable 7.53 strokes around the greens and another 3.36 on them.
Those numbers are scarily bad, but they're also forgivable, with the greens in Houston new to everyone, and the steep run-offs and mown areas making a lot of players look very silly. Before that he had putted well in both the Sanderson Farms and the Shriners, and his best putting week on the PGA Tour came on slow, bermuda greens by the coast in Hawaii, not dissimilar to what players will face here.
NeSmith had really clicked going into Houston, pounding greens and gaining strokes with his ball-striking, and his form just has a more solid look to it than when he was 14th a year ago. Any improvement on that and he can threaten a breakthrough win, following the path laid out by Cook and Tyler Duncan and their fairly similar styles of play.
Cook is tempting again, having lost a play-off at the Shriners and played well in Houston. Of all the players here who've got more than four rounds under their belts in the event, his is the lowest scoring average and it's second only to Simpson if adjusted. He might even have defended his title in 2018 but for a shocking week on the greens, and he's in far better form than when down the field back in 2019.
At 100/1 he'd have gone in and 80/1 is perfectly acceptable, but he's been popular and that price is not going to be available to many if I put him up and it's about my minimum. As a result I prefer JT POSTON, who is arguably a touch classier anyway and can put behind him a low-key Masters debut.
Before that, Poston had finally hit form again and his approach play stats were particularly encouraging across the Shriners, CJ Cup and Houston Open. His victory at the Wyndham last year came courtesy of career-best iron play numbers and his slump this summer coincided with a serious dip in one of the two areas (the other being putting) that he relies on.
With big driving really not part of the puzzle here, Poston's skill set appears to be an ideal one and he was 14th last November, a step up on his previous efforts at the course. That shouldn't have surprised anyone given that he's a North Carolina native whose best form has almost all come down in this part of the USA, and he is another who in fact plays out of Sea Island and won the team competition in the aforementioned 'Back2Golf' event.
Poston's form since the restart is actually a very good indication of where we should consider him and what to expect. He was 10th and eighth across the first two events, in Texas and South Carolina, then went missing in Connecticut, Michigan and Ohio. Suddenly he found a little something to finish 30th in Tennessee, before going missing again in Massachusetts and California and, lo and behold, finishing third in Mississippi.
The fact that he played pretty well over in Las Vegas is therefore encouraging, but again he ultimately performed better still for playing in Houston. This sequence ended in Georgia with a missed cut at the Masters, but as a short-hitting debutant that's not at all difficult to forgive. And it means that he returns to Sea Island fresh and no doubt determined to earn another crack at Augusta National.
The Wyndham Championship by the way is a very solid pointer through Simpson, Gainey, Mackenzie Hughes, Kisner, Howell, Cook and Kirk, and Poston can get back into contention in an event which ought to be perfect for him.
Sam Burns is another in-form southern boy and he has threatened to win a couple of times already this season. Typically a dynamite putter, especially on bermuda, Burns' top-10 in Houston was actually powered by the best iron play of his burgeoning career and though disappointing in the mix, these harsh lessons ought to pay off soon enough.
It's only the fact that unleashing driver isn't always possible here, let alone desirable, that puts me off as he's a big talent, who played the Jones Cup here on Sea Island on a couple of occasions, and a breakthrough win couldn't be labelled surprising.
Instead though I have to give ZACH JOHNSON one more go with the pinky promise that if he does disappoint, we'll draw stumps on the notion that this 40-something will have been inspired to see his good friend Stewart Cink win the Safeway Open.
Evidence for that came a week later, when Johnson was just about the only short-hitter in the top 10 at the US Open, and he followed it with some quality ball-striking performances to sit close to the leaders in the Sanderson Farms and the Shriners. Finishing 50th when put up here in Houston was disappointing but on reflection that leaderboard looks very bomber-friendly, and I can excuse him a quiet Masters in the circumstances.
The message is that he's hinted over the last few months that there are more wins in the locker and outside of the US Open, his other top-10 finish came at the Wyndham, on the sort of course we should expect him to enjoy. It was in fact his first since the 2018 RSM Classic so again, as with Poston, in general it pays to follow this type of player in this type of event.
It did take Johnson a while to produce at Sea Island, where he's resided for a long time, but the switch to two courses appears to have helped and he does speak highly of Plantation. Since then he's bagged two top-10 finishes, in 2017 and 2018, and in the first of those it was only a slow start which cost him a chance to ask questions of Cook as he shot 68-64-67 at Seaside.
His game was not good last year which means we can overlook a low-key performance and, having had the green jacket on to welcome Dustin outside the clubhouse on Sunday, I think he'll be in a great frame of mind. Zach has been a contender at Harbour Town more than once and second place there in 2012 followed a Masters display not dissimilar to last week's tie for 51st.
Without wishing to get carried away with the so-called Sea Island Mafia, I can't leave PATTON KIZZIRE out of the staking plan at three-figure prices.
Winner of the Mayakoba Classic in 2017 and runner-up at this time of year in both the previous years, Kizzire tends to play well approaching Christmas and has also won the Franklin Templeton Shootout with his friend and fellow Sea Island resident, Brian Harman.
Crucially, the Mexico win came when he'd struck form out of nowhere and that appears to be the case again now, following 24th place in Vegas and 11th in Houston. Across his last four starts, this often erratic ball-striker has hit more and more greens, and he actually ranked seventh in strokes-gained tee-to-green in Houston - the very first time he's done so on the PGA Tour.
Kizzire has typically built success on the putter as so many winners of this have, but if you rewind to that victory over Rickie Fowler, it came after a really good week of ball-striking in Vegas. History could repeat here, and it's certainly no bad thing that his opportunity to make it happen comes on home soil in an event where he's looked dangerous despite not yet placing.
What I really like is that if you dig a little deeper, Kizzire has played the Seaside course better than Plantation, which is easier and only involved for one round. In 2016 he shot 73 there and missed the cut by one after a brilliant 65 next door. In 2017, he opened with a 66 at Seaside but could only manage 69 at Plantation, and something similar happened last year as he went 69-69-67 before an eventful and costly final round saw him fall away regardless.
All of these offered promise but it's 15th place in 2018 which really shows what he could do, as a third-round 63 followed by a Sunday 66 saw him climb 40 places over the weekend. All told he's now played here six times, averages sub-69, and has on three occasions been bang in the mix after the first round. His form lately raises hope that this languid local can stick around and confirm himself hard to shift under the gun, a reputation he's had since way back in his college days when another of those to win here.
CT Pan is the obvious one to take out of the Masters if you feel he can keep the ball rolling, and he's respected at the price. Though I didn't expect much from him last week I had referenced some encouraging signs and he has form at Harbour Town, Sedgefield and Colonial, all of which tie in nicely with finishes of sixth and 13th on his first two visits here.
At big prices, Andrew Putnam would've been interesting but for reports of a back problem during his Masters debut and Hank Lebioda is another one of those from the south east, who has played well here in the past, and is worth considering for fantasy golf teams and sub-markets. I just find it hard to envisage him leaving past form behind and contending in a tournament such as this one.
Instead I'll chance BRANDT SNEDEKER, who has won the Wyndham, the TOUR Championship and the Heritage, lost a play-off in the Sony Open, and essentially looks like he should thrive around these courses.
That hasn't quite been true so far, but he was sixth at halfway on his last visit, in 2017, which was his first start in five months following an injury. It's no wonder he wasn't quite ready to see it through and a year earlier, he'd been all over the world including Fiji, and also been involved in a Ryder Cup, doubtless running on empty by the time he got here and again fizzling out after an opening 66.
Before then he was badly out of form in 2015 and played well for the final three rounds of his debut in 2011, which was his first start of the new season, so I certainly wouldn't be dismissing him on the grounds that the courses don't fit. I suspect they do, and what we know about Snedeker is that he's a brilliant golfer by the sea, having won the Farmers twice and at Pebble Beach, which by the way are multi-course tournaments.
He's also won twice the week after a major, in the aforementioned Wyndham Championship plus in Canada, and while his Heritage success was a fortnight after Augusta, he'd been fourth in Texas in the interim. No doubt thanks to his general demeanour plus some suitable courses, he's been one of those who doesn't appear to suffer a major hangover.
We do have to make excuses for the fact he has one top-20 finish since the restart, but there have been definite positives lately. He was the first-round leader in Houston, sat fourth through 54 holes of the Sanderson Farms, and in-between those two fired a third-round 63 to climb the leaderboard in Vegas at a course where he's never been especially effective.
Last week he finished down the field in the Masters but there were some positives over the first two days and with his 40th birthday just a fortnight away, I can see him going well here. Snedeker used to live at Sea Island, says he's played the courses here hundreds of times, and above all else has the ability in the wind and putting prowess that so often helps unearth the winner of this.
There are plenty more solid options, but three-figure prices factor in all of the risk - especially as he needs a big week to avoid dropping out of the top 100 in the world for the first time in a decade. He's preferred to Will Gordon, who did a lot right when selected in Houston but is arguably less suited to this type of test despite a good debut last year.
Posted at 1310 GMT on 17/11/20
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