The PGA Tour returns at lunchtime and Ben Coley has seven big-priced selections for the Charles Schwab Challenge - including three former winners.
When I was young, my grandma would say she had two stomachs: one for puddings, one for everything else. I know now that this phenomena was not of my grandma's invention; just as I know now that most of her husband's jokes were, in fact, those of Morecambe and Wise. When I visited my grandad in hospital, he told me that he'd asked the nurse if he'd be able to play piano when he gets out, and that she'd replied yes. Then came the punchline: "Well that's good news - I couldn't play it before!" Genius, I thought. An easy audience, he thought.
Back in March, when the PGA Tour drunkenly found its way into hiatus, I thought I only had one heart. Now, three months down the line, I think I might have two: the one that aches as the world burns, the one that knows what matters is human interaction, that counts these days lost; and the one that desperately misses the most delicate and intoxicating sport there is. The one that keeps me up on a Wednesday night and has done just about every week for a decade or two.
For some people, the sight of professional golf returning will be at best jarring, at worst repugnant. After all, what stopped the show in the spring has since thundered into summer. Yet for many of us, there is just no denying how welcome this is. It might take hypocrisy, some kind of soul sacrifice, maybe just denial... but we can separate things when we need to. While one heart aches, the other can race.
The other regular symptom of golf betting is a headache, and that's back, too. Every Monday asks questions, but none quite like this one as the world's top five descend on Fort Worth, Texas, for the Charles Schwab Challenge. Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas have never played in it before, and this event does not usually resonate beyond golf's inner circle. This week, Colonial Country Club stages a tournament which will boast a depth of field not often seen outside of the majors and the PLAYERS Championship.
Ordinarily, field strength alone ought not to upset any of us. Put the sport's best players together at Riviera or at Southwind or at Augusta, at a key point in the season when all wheels are spinning, and - in relative terms - there is a large degree of predictability.
The trouble is, they're being put together at an old-fashioned par 70 which many of them don't know so well, and on which their elite weapon - driver - is neutered. And they're being put together after three months away, during which time many practice facilities have been closed. Some have had to fly in from overseas and quarantine, and all are going to have to adjust to no fans, no grandstands, and a brand new schedule.
Anyone telling you they have a firm grip on this is a charlatan, not to be trusted. We each have to weigh up variables which cannot possibly be modelled, because they have no precedent, not now golf breaks only for Christmas dinner. But there is a but: bookmakers have marked the occasion with each-way terms seldom seen away from The Masters and The Open. This, combined with the dichotomous reality of the front end of the market, where the best players have to show real adaptability, means we can unpause.
Of the market leaders, I could only really entertain Jon Rahm, arguably the sport's most reliable player and one who has two top-five finishes in three visits to Colonial. His profile is as close to flawless as it gets, even if McIlroy does still deserve favouritism, but I can't advocate backing a 12/1 shot in the strongest event of the year when I don't know where he's been for the last three months.
Webb Simpson also has course form and these are the battles he can win, but 22/1 about a player who just doesn't win often holds very little appeal. He did win at about half the odds in Phoenix, I suppose, but while a worthy cornerstone of many a fantasy golf team, he's easily left out.
My approach is instead to combine a little reasoning with plenty of hope, and some more generous odds, with JORDAN SPIETH considered big enough to merit support despite the concerns which remain as to the state of his game.
Without question, Spieth needs to leave behind the form he showed when last in action. He was 59th at Riviera and 58th in Mexico, both times striking his irons terribly. His ball-striking stats are abysmal, and contrary to popular(ish) belief this hasn't always been so. At his peak, Spieth was one of the very finest iron players in the sport; all he had to do was keep it in play off the tee.
This long-game problem underpins a malaise which extends back almost three years now, signs of life proving to be only fleeting. For instance he led the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green when ninth at Pebble Beach (two rounds measured), one of six top-10 finishes since last May's PGA Championship. Six top-10s in a year or so isn't bad, but it isn't Spieth, and never has he looked like winning.
All this is known, and some of it is reflected in his odds, but in this hiatus there is hope that he will have been able to focus on righting the wrongs of his swing, in a way that the normal calendar just wouldn't have allowed for.
That alone is a tempting thought, and then we have the course. Spieth's record here reads 7-14-2-1-2-32-8, and there is simply no venue away from Augusta where he appears so comfortable. How much that counts for is hard to say, but what's clear is he's really never failed to play well around here. Even in 2018, when a comparatively modest 32nd, he would've been hard to stop had he putted to his usual standard and not ranked 70th of 78.
More so than most courses, Colonial is vulnerable to magic on and around the greens, and it also gives everyone options. These turning dog-legs make hitting driver extremely dangerous at times, and there's not enough in the length of the course to force players into doing so. Spieth can pick and choose, depending on how comfortable he feels on each tee box, and that too can help.
None of it will be enough, not if he's the player we saw in the spring. But if he can piece things together - and, while he opened with a round of 75 at Sawgrass, he actually hit the ball well - his relationship with this course is powerful enough to make the difference. Remember, he almost pinched another Masters title in 2018, when issues were emerging, and he contended here in 2019 when they were embedded.
The importance of course form at Colonial has been underlined over the last few years. In fact, since 2010, seven champions had marked our cards with a top-15 finish the year before. Two of the other three were major-winning golfers who simply hadn't been able to having not been in the field, and the other was injury-prone Boo Weekley, who nevertheless had a previous top-10 and clear fondness for the course.
That helps form the case for Spieth and seems a sound starting point, one which brings both SERGIO GARCIA and PHIL MICKELSON into the equation.
I thought Mickelson in particular was a monstrous price. He's taken this event off his schedule recently, but has won it twice before as well as finishing runner-up, and he tends to hit more than his share of greens here. Like Spieth, perhaps being able to choose between multiple options on the tee helps him contain the driver.
It's three years since his last appearance and that showed promise, an awful putting week and a poor second round limiting him to 29th. Much like Spieth a year later, Mickelson ranked highly (12th) in strokes-gained tee-to-green and could've been a huge contender if able to produce anything workable on the greens.
Three years on and with his 50th birthday looming next Tuesday, it's of course possible that Mickelson is done winning in company such as this. And yet, he beat the world number three to win a WGC aged 47, and he won again last February, so age alone isn't enough to start writing him off completely.
Form might be, but for all he's missed some cuts in 2020, he finished third in Saudi Arabia and was favourite with 18 holes to play at Pebble Beach. Those back-to-back third-placed finishes had him on the brink of the world's top 50 and don't forget that's where he needs to be if he's to get the chance to exorcise some US Open-shaped demons at Winged Foot in September.
Motivation aside, there were enough positives from the early part of the season to buy into his claim that his game is really good, and I also felt he played nicely in The Match: Champions for Charity. Quite rightly, Tiger Woods' performance drew most of the plaudits ahead of Tom Brady's comeback, but Mickelson was very good on the back-nine and, ever the competitor, he was certainly committed to it.
I don't buy into that event nor the TaylorMade Driving Relief being of real benefit in a sharpness sense, but they gave us a chance to see a handful of players in competition and Mickelson's performance was among the most impressive. He didn't appear particularly rusty, and there's a case to be made that this flowing, magical talent is more capable than most of turning it on after a break - his form in the California desert at least suggests as much.
In the hope that he can work some magic around the greens, Mickelson goes in the staking plan, while the hope with Garcia is that his natural shot-shaping ability once again works wonders around here.
Garcia defied the history of this grand old event when winning as a 21-year-old in 2001, closing with a brilliant 63 to beat Mickelson and Brian Gay by a couple. Plenty has changed since then, but not much where Colonial is concerned, and Ben Hogan's place remains the sort of test a shot-maker and shot-shaper like Garcia relishes.
He's become an infrequent visitor lately, but finishes of 16th, 13th and 12th on his only starts over the last decade is rock solid form and he's caught the eye a couple of times in 2020. Like all my selections, he has a little improving to do but is more than capable of returning sharp and this is an adopted home game for the Texas resident.
Speaking of Hogan, I had been keen on giving the benefit of the doubt to one of his biggest admirers, Jason Dufner, but at half the odds he was at Sawgrass (yes, he's still 175/1), I'm reluctant to do so. Twice a runner-up here, he's firmly in the Adam Scott category when it comes to how he might get it done, and was a big eye-catcher in the spring before opening with a round of 68 at Sawgrass.
Fellow veterans Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell are respected in an event where experience tends to trump explosiveness, while Harris English is face-smackingly obviously following his resurgence and a small hint of match practice at Sea Island over the weekend.
But in the spirit of speculation, I prefer another Sea Island resident at twice the price with BRIAN HARMAN next.
Harman is gaining strokes in all four departments this season as he works his way back to where he feels he belongs, and is another for whom Colonial looks an ideal place to resume. Since missing the cut on debut, he's made six from six, never finishing worse than 31st, and among those are a couple of top-10s.
Granted, never has the field been this strong but Harman beat Zach Johnson for his first title and Dustin for his second, and like his friend and former winner here, Kevin Kisner, he has the heart required to fend off whatever the best players throw at him when he's in the mood.
Rounds of 64 and 65 show that he knows how to score here and I really like the fact he's ranked inside the top-five in greens hit three times in his last five visits. These days, GIR is an unfashionable barometer and rightly so, but here at Colonial, where the greens are flat but missing them is punished harshly, it tends to remain a good pointer.
In digging around for evidence that he's been staying sharp at Sea Island, I actually discovered Harman has been renting a house here at Colonial and picking Kisner's brains, and this dogged lefty is taken to go well at a big price.
Corey Conners is a world-class ball-striker with a top-10 finish here and ought to go well. His sole win so far came in Texas, and when the putter fires there's no event he can't win. For those willing to hide behind the sofa when ShotTracker says an eight-foot birdie putt is coming up, he's a very decent option at big odds.
Adam Long is quietly progressive, has form here and at a similar course in Mexico, and beat Mickelson to win his first title in brave fashion last year. He can build on some encouraging efforts when last seen and is generally one to be positive about, but I struggle to see him sticking around over the weekend with an expected smattering of truly world-class talent in the mix.
Bud Cauley, Danny Lee and Si Woo Kim are others I considered at big prices, but JIMMY WALKER is preferred.
A Texas resident who has won the Texas Open, this again is something like a home game for Walker and he's another veteran who showed enough back in the spring to earn a place in the staking plan.
Always wayward off the tee, it was his approach play which really started to sing and it helped him to finish 21st in the Honda Classic and 24th in the Arnold Palmer, two events in which he's generally struggled even when at his major-winning best.
Colonial is a much more familiar and comforting course for him as he's never missed a cut here, and over his last three appearances he's gained an average of five shots on the field from tee to green. For a player long prone to hitting it into a neighbouring town, this is a level of consistency we seldom see.
Like Dufner, he was in my staking plan at Sawgrass and made an excellent start, shooting 69. But whereas Dufner has halved in price, Walker hasn't and that's probably because the former has the more eye-catching course form. Walker, though, was playing the better golf in March and his adjusted scoring average is slightly better than his fellow former PGA champion.
On balance, I think he has the slightly better chance of the two and at 200/1 I'm happy to roll the dice, and hope that his new, steel-shafted driver unlocks further improvement.
Anyone who read my player guide (respect to you) will know there were any number of tempting options at big prices, and this is an event where I wouldn't really wish to talk anyone out of anything. It would be a little rich, given that I'm putting up Spieth, wouldn't it?
But I've managed to whittle the team down to seven and I'll finish it off with one mildly realistic, and one anything but.
JASON DAY is hopefully in the former category. I have slight reservations over the course and his overall ability right now, but he has been fifth in the event a long time ago and we have seen several players win here courtesy of astonishing short-games.
Day's work around the greens is peerless at present and that can make a big difference when so many will struggle to save par when they do miss a shot. He'll need to marry it with improved approach play, but as with everyone here he's shown at least something this year, and has had plenty of time to work on things.
In fact, the Aussie has been able to put in plenty of work with his coach, Col Swatton, which alone represents good news in terms of his health as he embarks upon a seriously busy schedule.
"Col and I have been putting in some decent hours and I've been playing well, so I can't wait to get things going," Day told AAP. "I'm really looking forward to getting after it because my back feels better.
"Overall, I'm really pleased with progress I've made in a short time. I have stepped up the practice during the last month or so. My game is feeling good and I just need to tighten the screws now."
No player in this field is used to returning from a break like this one, but Day did win the World Cup after two months off, and the Farmers after a similar break. He's won several times when returning from three weeks off and, in a continuing theme, there's plenty of upside at the odds.
Finally, TROY MERRITT looks too big at 400/1.
We are talking here about a two-time PGA Tour winner who was in good form when last seen, picking up top-25 finishes in two of his last three starts before hunkering down in Idaho.
He's played here just once, hitting his irons brilliant and holing plenty to finish 17th, and when last seen was pounding fairways for fun.
We know he can handle pressure - he saw off Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose on a tough course when winning his first title - and this streaky, birdie-making talent is considered the pick of the absolute rags ahead of Jim Herman.
Next week's preview will be more coherent. Call it rust.
Posted at 2030 BST on 08/06/20
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