Following another big-priced winner last week, Ben Coley provides the lowdown on the Fort Worth Invitational at Colonial.
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If Jordan Spieth is to win the Fort Worth Invitational for a second time, chances are he’ll need to find a different path than the one he followed in 2016, as he chipped, putted and giggled his way to victory on home soil.
Two years on and having been second in his title defence a year ago, Spieth isn’t demonstrating the confidence in his short game that we’ve seen on display here as much as just about anywhere. Instead, he’s getting by on some of the best approach work on the PGA Tour and while that’s a really good starting point here at Colonial, it may not be enough.
On the other hand, the last time he played a course where he owns a comparable record, he danced his way through the field to third place in the Masters. Having finished no worse than 14th in five visits to this course, it’s fair to draw comparisons when it comes to his comfort levels in these two events specifically and that underlines why he must be considered a big danger at 9/1.
Nominal putting improvements alone would likely earn Spieth a place in the frame here and he’s a much more tempting option than Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler or Justin Rose, none of whom look as well-suited to the layout. This is Spieth’s turf and he’s the man to beat.
Yet the nature of Colonial – a flat, twisting par 70 which demands shot-shaping precision – lends itself to each-way value, because there are players here who are entitled to step up markedly on fairly modest recent form now presented with a more suitable test.
One such example is Russell Knox, narrowly nominated as the headline selection in a staking plan made up of confident (relative to prices) selections.
Knox finished 21st and 24th on his first two starts here, both of which came prior to his first victory, and during those efforts demonstrated a love for the layout – he ranked fifth and second respectively in greens in regulation, immediately executing a game plan.
During his first visit, Knox spoke of his sadness at the loss of mentor Mike Flemming, who had told him this course would suit. “It’s cool to play a course the greats like Hogan played,” he said. “It’s kind of surreal, actually. It’s a real honour and I would love to join that Champion’s Board on the first tee one day.”
Of the layout itself, Knox confirmed that his mentor had been correct – it is a layout he feels suits him to a tee. “This is definitely one of my favourite courses,” he said. “You have to hit it straight and curve it both ways – it really is a gem.”
The shot-shaping requirements are similar to those presented by TPC River Highlands, site of Knox’s second PGA Tour success and a course where Spieth went on to win.
Last week, the pair played together during the final round of the Byron Nelson and there were some positive signs for Knox on the greens, where he ranked ninth for strokes-gained putting – a huge step up on his season-long ranking of 171st.
Interestingly, this upturn comes just weeks after Knox told sister Diane on the Secret Golf podcast that he’d been “holing putts for fun” in practice thanks to a putting aid his caddie has developed. “I hole everything,” he said, lamenting his inability to take that to tournament golf.
Knox was prepared to be patient, though.
“I know it’s in there, I know I’m capable,” he said. “My game is right where I need it to be. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing. Tee-to-green, I know I’m good enough to win – but I’m going to have to make some putts.”
It must have been enormously encouraging for Knox to see the ball go in so frequently last week, then, and Colonial is a far more suitable venue when it comes to allowing the long-game to shine – a fact demonstrated by those two top-25 finishes in two visits which came before he elevated his game.
Knox ranks 36th in driving accuracy, 16th in proximity to the hole and 28th in par-four scoring average this season, stats which tend to make a Colonial winner, and if he putts as he did in Dallas last week there’s every hope he’s in the mix on Sunday.
Perhaps the price which surprises me most this week is the 50/1 offered about Xander Schauffele, who has to go in the staking plan despite a slight reservation as to the suitability of this course.
In fairness, he made the cut at Colonial last year and that alone is enough to suggest that he took to the place, when viewed through the prism of his miserable start to the year.
Schauffele had missed seven of nine cuts, only surviving until the weekend in Puerto Rico and at the Wells Fargo, and one week prior to visiting Colonial for the first time had again failed miserably in the Byron Nelson.
Yet he came here, drove it superbly, scored reasonably and started to build the foundations for a remarkable summer, one which saw him bag two victories at traditional, tree-lined golf courses including the TOUR Championship to earn rookie of the year honours.
Given those exploits, and some leeway for a modest start to 2018 after an equipment switch and the fact that he needed to adjust to his new, lofty status, I find it hard to understand why any firm would want to quote 50/1 even if this field is strong enough.
Schauffele has played in 38 PGA Tour events and won twice. That’s a record identical to Rahm’s and while I wouldn’t want to put the two side by side in terms of either ability or potential, the bare figures do support the idea that Schauffele should not be pitched in with Emiliano Grillo, Kevin Na and Chesson Hadley.
He is simply a superior player to all three, and the baffling part is that he also happens to arrive on the back of his best performance of the season – a tie for second on his debut in the PLAYERS, a week which Schauffele said felt like it could really be the start of something.
It is a nagging worry that this isn’t a course where driving long and straight is especially rewarded – that’s one of his key weapons, but he’ll probably have to hit less than driver more often than not – but this alone would’ve been the deal breaker at 28/1. At 50/1, he’s overpriced and then some.
Adam Hadwin was frustrated with his performance at Sawgrass, but the bigger picture is he made the cut, bagged his first sub-70 round there and can build on it with a title challenge at this more suitable venue.
Hadwin was fifth here in 2015 and, similar to Knox, what stands out is that he was nowhere near the player he is today when producing that performance. In fact, Hadwin arrived on a run of four missed cuts in succession and, in 14 starts, had yet to manage a single top-20 finish that year.
Afterwards, he spoke to a number of Canadian reporters and confirmed that Colonial represented a real turning point in his season. Hadwin went on to bag a top-10 finish on home soil to wrap up his card and hasn’t looked back since, solidifying his status in 2016 before securing a first title in 2017.
His performance here three years ago wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan, either. Hadwin returned to open 68-67 and sit ninth at halfway, while on his sole subsequent start did enough to make it three cuts made from as many visits. Given that he followed last year’s 53rd place with form figures of MC-60-57-MC-MC-MC, it’s fair to say his game wasn’t in the required shape anyway.
The concern with Hadwin, whose breakthrough win came on a nicely correlating course, would be that he’s not exactly shooting the lights out at present. However, 24th at Augusta was a very strong performance and 16th at Quail Hollow also suggested that he’s not far off – it’s only Sawgrass we have to overlook.
An accurate driver whose approach play can be a massive weapon here, Hadwin is worth backing to confirm the evidence of 2015 and bag what feels like an inevitable second PGA Tour success.
One year after Hadwin sealed a debut fifth, Martin Piller took sixth place in the renewal won by Spieth – alongside whom he played in Saturday’s third round.
It was a huge moment for the Texan, who resides in Fort Worth, and came not long after he’d finished fourth in the Valero Texas Open to underline that he’s capable of raising his game on home soil.
This year, Piller has again lit up in the Lone Star State, albeit with slightly less impressive finishes of 24th in Houston and 21st last week, where a second-round 63 saw him light up the leaderboard and work his way into contention.
Now returning to a course we know he can play, there’s not much improvement required for Piller to climb inside that top 10 and there are echoes of Andrew Landry in his profile, enough to suggest that he’s worth a speculative bet at 200/1 and bigger.
Landry won the Valero Texas Open at 200/1 shortly after the birth of his first child, benefiting perhaps from that fact and a return to his home state – he grew up not far from host course TPC San Antonio.
Piller will be having his third start since becoming a father here and if the improvement from first to second is maintained, he will for the third time in just a handful of PGA Tour starts in Texas have a chance to bag his breakthrough win.
Six titles at Web.com level suggest that Piller could well be up to taking that opportunity should it arrive and the victory of friend Michael Arnaud on that tour last week could well act as further inspiration.
At a similar price, the arrow-straight Ben Crane can also go well.
Four of Crane’s five PGA Tour wins have come on par-70 courses where his severe lack of power is not punished, and the consistency he’s discovered of late hints that another surprise success could well be around the corner.
It’s four years since Crane produced a dominant, out-of-the-blue win in the FedEx St Jude Classic and while not pulling up any trees recently, he impressed when 11th here in Texas a couple of starts ago and again played nicely on a golf course perhaps less suitable in the Byron Nelson.
What I really like is that his approach play is showing signs of improvement – indeed it was the strongest area of his game in Dallas – and that is the missing piece of the jigsaw when it comes to getting into contention.
He’ll have drawn inspiration from Webb Simpson’s PLAYERS success no doubt and this dynamite putter will be a threat if able to keep up the good work with his irons, a chance well worth taking at the odds.
Back to the more sensible options and Beau Hossler is tempting. He’s doubled in price from last week simply because he’s not playing his home course, but he does remain in his adopted home state and, having closed out nicely in the Nelson, is a factor here.
Hossler may well be egged on by the victory of Aaron Wise – they’re two of the hottest young talents on the circuit – but on balance I wouldn’t be certain he’ll take to Colonial at the second time of asking and for that reason he’s omitted.
Jason Dufner played well at Sawgrass, loves it here and must go well if continuing to hole putts at a frequency never before seen, while Patrick Cantlay and Zach Johnson are others with the right skills if able to put disappointing Sawgrass efforts behind them.
However, I’m not sure any have been missed so I’ll add 80/1 chance Chez Reavie to my staking plan.
This short, straight hitter has been playing beautifully for a long time now and closed out with a pair of 69s for 30th at Sawgrass, again hinting that the right course could see him finally win for the second time.
Earlier this year, he was a little unfortunate to bump into Gary Woodland in Phoenix, losing a play-off, before finishing second to the enigmatic Ted Potter at Pebble Beach a week later.
Since then Reavie’s form has cooled, but he’s back on a golf course made for his game and, much like some of my other selections, showed as much when fifth in 2011 having done virtually nothing to that point.
Reavie’s opening 62 that week demonstrates the damage he can do when the putter behaves and at ninth in par-four scoring right now, I’m more than hopeful he can build on his effort last time – one which was powered not just by his typically accurate driving, but by some dynamite putting too.
Posted at 1905 BST on 22/05/18.