Brooks Koepka looks worth chancing to defend his title in the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational as Ben Coley previews this week's event in Tennessee.
Whether they knew it or not, when the PGA Tour waved goodbye to Firestone Country Club, they appear to have ended Tiger Woods' relationship with what was the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and is now played under the moniker of sponsors FedEx and St Jude, a local children's hospital. Woods is an eight-time winner of this event, but has not followed it south from Ohio to Tennessee, and appears content to miss out on one more slice of history.
It's well known that Woods shares a very significant and still very much achievable record with Sam Snead: the pair are locked together on 82 PGA Tour wins. But there are many other lists in which both feature, and there's one more in which they're tied. Like Woods, Snead won the same event eight times. Tiger it seems will have to accept having tied the record (twice), unless he wins again at Bay Hill. In electing not to play here, for the second year running, he certainly appears to have decided to stick when it comes to this particular World Golf Championship.
Woods' absence is just about the only one of significance, for all that Lee Westwood's made headlines, from a field of world-class players which is led by the new world number one.
Jon Rahm getting his turn as favourite is very much in keeping with how the resumption has so far unfolded, and in some respects serves as a cautionary note. Like Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa before him, the Spanish sensation was winning on the back of some low-key form, and the reactionary nature of the betting makes it hard to make the case that having missed him at 22/1, we should learn from that mistake and go in now at half that.
In fact if we've learned anything since Daniel Berger won the first event of summer, it's that strong fields will produce world-class champions more often than not. It's just that they're not always the obvious ones, and that's because, as one announcer said recently, the very best players in the sport are never all that far away.
Whether it's Rory McIlroy or Patrick Cantlay or even Johnson again, don't be surprised if we've another obvious and yet not-so-obvious winner come Sunday night. It's with that firmly in mind that BROOKS KOEPKA is considered the best bet at 33/1.
Last year, Koepka asserted his alpha-golfer status over Rory McIlroy and co with a thoroughly dominant victory parade, reaching 16-under on a constantly demanding course to win by three. At the time it was a reminder as to why he was the best player in the sport, having earlier won his fourth major at the PGA Championship and nearly added the US Open, and it also underlined his love for TPC Southwind.
Ever since a debut 19th here in 2014, Koepka has been as good as just about anyone - bar perhaps Johnson - around this tough par 70, which demands excellent driving and is in some ways a major-like test. Indeed when he did win, enhancing previous course form figures of 19-3-2-37-30, it was because he made fewer bogeys than anyone in the field and managed his game beautifully throughout the week.
Like many Southwind specialists, Koepka's left-to-right ball-flight off the tee sets him up perfectly for the course and he's been the best driver here recently, ranking inside the top five for strokes-gained off-the-tee in each of his last four visits, and not far off in the other two. That's a level of consistency which demonstrates just how confident he feels attacking the relentlessly long par-fours which make up the bulk of the challenge.
"I love this place," he said early on in the event he'd go on to win. "(Southwind) has always been good to me. I feel like I play it really well. I enjoy the golf course, I enjoy Memphis. It's a fun place to come back year after year, so I've enjoyed it."
All of this is right there in the form book, but form figures of MC-62-MC since he finished a promising seventh at the Heritage - where he drove the ball exceptionally - have understandably forced out his price.
It's not enough to say that other players, like Morikawa, like Simpson, have bounced back when presented with an ideal course, but it does help. However there is a lot more promise than at first there may appear with Koepka, and much of it comes from last week, when he missed the cut as a 12/1 chance on a course he ought to have found easy enough.
That promise can be found in his ball-striking, which was at times as good as it gets for a player who is less reliable with his irons than most of those he competes with at the top of the sport. Last Friday, the last round he played, Koepka produced his best ball-striking numbers since he won the PGA Championship in May 2019. If that reminds you of anyone it might well be Rahm, who produced some of his best ball-striking in the final round of the Workday Open, and then won the very next week.
Koepka missed the cut by one because he missed five putts from three to five feet, which just isn't him. Perhaps he's been so focused on fixing the long-game that he's sacrificed work on the greens; more likely, given that he has been inside the top 25 for putting in three of his five starts since the Tour returned, is that it was one of those freakish, unpredictable things that we're best ignoring.
None of this is to say there are not some concerns, as he still isn't 100 per cent physically (though he seems to be suggesting he never will be and doesn't need to be) after surgery last year, and it's also true that his wins have all followed a more obviously strong performance. Such negatives are always going to be found in the case for a world-class defending champion and course specialist at 33/1, and they're taken on board.
I prefer to focus on just how good that ball-striking was last Friday, and what it could signal. There's the added bonus that he's defending - rarely would we say that, but this is the man who has won back-to-back PGA Championships and back-to-back US Opens - and at 155th in the FedEx Cup, he knows time is running out if he wants to make the Playoffs. I don't doubt he'd brush that off if asked, but a player of his standing does not want to be seen failing to make the top 125 players on Tour, even in a fragmented year such as this.
Koepka was a fair bit shorter for the Travelers, on the back of that Heritage seventh, than he is for this course which we know he adores. To my mind that's a fine example of how a finishing position will never tell you everything - he hit the ball so much better in the 3M Open and if he brings that with him to Southwind, where by the way he was 12/13 from three to five feet last year, he can go really well.
The absence of a cut is another small factor which could free up the headline selection, and for some reason it's been a feature in the best performances of XANDER SCHAUFFELE, who is next on the list.
Schauffele's career-highlights are wins in the TOUR Championship, WGC-HSBC Champions and Sentry Tournament of Champions, all of which are 72-hole events without a Friday cut. He's finished runner-up in all three of them, too.
Whether that's something he's aware of or not, it marks him down as one to keep a close eye on in these WGC events and after leading the field in driving accuracy and greens hit in the Memorial last time, a tough and solid preparation for this, he leapt off the page.
Further inspection reveals that in ranking third in strokes-gained tee-to-green, Schauffele actually produced his best-ever numbers on the PGA Tour, and the abject display of putting can be written off - it happens, the greens were absurdly fast, and he's generally solid on the greens as he has been since his rookie season in 2017.
Southwind isn't as long and tilted towards big-hitters as Firestone, its predecessor, but it nevertheless favours good drivers and Schauffele is one of the best, ranking seventh off the tee this season. He's also 10th in bogey avoidance - five of the last six champions at this course, which previously hosted the FedEx St Jude Classic, ranked first or second for the week. And he figures highly on the par-fours; vital anywhere, but especially so on a par-70 whose stock holes are broadly similar, and require good drive upon good drive.
The one issue here is that Schauffele's best round in eight attempts is 69, which won't do - not even four of them. And yet there are reasons to take a sympathetic view, as he was an out-of-form, badly struggling rookie on debut, and then returned last year when this took place after the Open. Clearly, some dealt with jet lag better than others, but Schauffele had also been under the microscope after the R&A found his driver to be non-conforming at Portrush, forcing a last-minute equipment change. Here at Southwind just a week later he was still trying to find the right formula, and his strokes-gained off the tee number was by far the worst he produced all year.
Those facts allow us to wipe the slate clean, and on paper this is a good course for a player who has won at East Lake and should have won at Colonial last month. The way he hit the ball at Muirfield Village last time would make him interesting anywhere and it's with hope that he can build on it that this talented American, who has endured some frustrations over the last 12 months, can put everything together.
At the front of the market, I remain of the view that unless and until his form dips considerably, Justin Thomas ought to be priced as the most likely winner of any event in the USA right now. That he isn't makes him tempting, but we're talking fractions and he has less experience at Southwind than McIlroy.
As for McIlroy, he led the field in par-four scoring on his last outing, instead paying the price for making a six, a seven, and an eight on three disastrous par-fives. There's a definite case for him eliminating these errors at a course he's very fond of, but they've been a constant since June and that's troubling. As a winner at Harding Park, site of next week's PGA Championship, I suspect he'd be happy enough to work on a few things and exit Memphis with some momentum to take with him there.
Instead, I'll chance the mega-talented SUNGJAE IM at what looks a generous 80/1.
One of the world's form players pre-pandemic, winning the Honda Classic at 33/1 and threatening to follow-up in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, this busy Korean has been stopped in his stride in a similar way to McIlroy.
So far, 10th place at Colonial represents his best form of the summer, but returning to the same kind of bermuda greens as those he finished second on in the Sanderson Farms, and a very similar kind to when he bravely won the Honda, he might be able to get back into contention.
In truth it's his long-game rather than the putter which has gone quiet, but much like Koepka he appeared to find some improvement the last time we saw him, firing a second-round 70 on a tough day at Muirfield Village to miss the cut on the number.
Alongside Im in just failing to make the weekend were Adam Long and Max Homa, both firmly in the mix on Sunday at the 3M Open, and the 22-year-old looks capable of following suit if he takes to Southwind having gained strokes off the tee and with his approaches during that more promising round.
I strongly suspect he will like it here, at a course with form ties to PGA National, as he boasts excellent bogey avoidance stats and seemingly prefers tough courses, hence two wins in six-under over the last year, plus that superb display in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.
His victory in the Honda came after a run of so-so form and this notoriously hard worker might just have benefited from a rare week off, during which the hope is he's been able to run with whatever he found when last we saw him. If that is the case, with his ability to find a fairway more useful here than it can be at many of the venues used for WGCs and majors, he might look a big price.
If that seems fanciful, I did almost recommend a small bet on CT Pan at 350/1. He has played nicely in both visits to Southwind, and form at Colonial, Sedgefield and Harbour Town always used to be a good guide. As recently as 2018, straight-hitting Colonial fan Andrew Putnam finished third here, and in 2019 English duo Matt Fitzpatrick and Aaron Rai put their accuracy off the tee to use.
Pan is similarly reliable when it comes to hitting fairways, and his iron play has improved markedly of late. Still, victory for a 350/1 shot in a WGC is almost unthinkable and given that I like Im, even the 12/1 to be the pick of six Asian players doesn't quite appeal enough. Perhaps keep an eye out for top-20 prices and maybe even a speculative dart for the first-round lead.
On which note, LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN has been getting off to some promising starts lately, and I'm prepared to chance him finishing the job and bagging some place money at the very least.
This enigmatic South African can be infuriating and in many ways his career is better summed up by the majors he hasn't won than the one he has. He was awfully unlucky to lose a play-off to Bubba Watson in the Masters, but that's one of four runner-up finishes in a grand slam of silver medals across the sport's most important events.
This theme runs through his game as he can go from looking effortlessly brilliant to absolutely terrible, but as with most players - Tony Finau included - there are ways to back him. With Oosthuizen, the formula is either to support him to win when he's very much the best or one of the best players in the field, or to go the other way and chance him at a big price in an elite event, which is the plan this week.
Those major efforts all came at big prices, and when everything clicks he can beat all of these. It hasn't quite done that so far this summer, but he was fifth after an opening 64 at the Travelers and then seventh in the Workday after an opening 68, adding a second-round 70 to sit on the heels of the leaders in 10th before a nightmare third round.
Another tame finish cost him in the Memorial, but he ranked third in greens hit there, producing his best approach numbers since he was fifth in Abu Dhabi, and any further improvement would make him a potential factor at a course where he finished 20th despite an opening 73 last August.
Oosthuizen went from hitting seven greens in round one to ranking 11th for the week, a demonstration of how well he played once he found his stride, and climbed more places than all bar two players from Friday through to Sunday, a 66-67 weekend beaten by just a handful.
That late run for 20th from a million miles away - he was 11 behind after round one - says plenty about the player, but odds of 125/1 nevertheless look too good to ignore. He's the same price as Michael Thompson and has generally been cast aside as something that he isn't; there are more big paydays in Oosthuizen and on the back of some genuine signs of encouragement in Ohio, this could be one of them.
A final word for Matthew Wolff, who played beautifully for much of last week's title defence in the 3M Open and caught the eye on his debut here. The course may not play quite as soft this time but he's developing a rounded game, and led the field in par-four scoring average last week. The concern is he's played every event since the restart and, even for one so young, the well may be running dry.
Finau will surely play well again, but after he just about landed some place money at 60/1 a fortnight ago, there's no rush to go in again at 35/1. Viktor Hovland may also have to settle for another encouraging week without winning.
This week's golf previews
- WGC FedEx St Jude: Koepka to deliver
- Barracuda Championship: Backing Burns
- Hero Open: Home comforts point to Sullivan
Posted at 1900 BST on 27/07/20
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