Korn Ferry Tour: Players to watch in the season-ending Finals

Harris English, or is it Hudson Swafford? (It's Harris English)
Harris English, or is it Hudson Swafford? (It's Harris English)

Get details of the Korn Ferry Tour finals including a collection of players to watch as they drop down from the PGA Tour in a bid to win back their playing rights.

Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship

  • When: August 15-18
  • Where: OSU GC (Scarlet Course), Ohio

In a change to previous years, the Korn Ferry Tour Finals have a distinctly northern feel and begin in Ohio with the Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship.

This event was once best known for a couple of amateur winners in Daniel Summerhays and Harris English, while it was also the scene of Justin Thomas's first professional tour win before he became a major champion and world number one.

It's bang in the middle in terms of difficulty when set alongside the following two events, and since the advent of the Tour Finals has thrown up a mix of four class-dropping winners to go with two rookies, Thomas and Grayson Murray.

Given that Murray had long been considered an outstanding talent who was perhaps just getting in his own way, the roll-of-honour is strong with Seung-yul Noh, Andrew Loupe, Peter Uihlein and Robert Streb completing it.

Interestingly, all four who were dropping down from the PGA Tour had an opposite-event top-10 finish during the year of their victories. For Loupe and Streb it was the Barbasol, for Noh it was the Barracuda, and for Uihlein it was the Puerto Rico Open.

Uihlein is clearly different to the other three, in that he was a member of the world's top 100 who had been runner-up in a high-class European Tour event earlier in the season. Players of that calibre are always likely to be a threat at this level and so it proved.

Perhaps the most significant point is that Noh, Loupe and Streb had all contended on the PGA Tour fairly recently. Anyone who has done so this side of the US Open has to be respected.

Albertsons Boise Open

  • When: August 22-25
  • Where: Hillcrest CC, Boise

From Ohio, the Korn Ferry finalists head west to Boise where there's the altitude factor to deal with - which might make the recent Barracuda Championship, played in Nevada, a decent starting point.

This event has been a staple on the schedule with Hillcrest providing a short, low-scoring shootout most years and there's little reason to expect anything else, weather permitting.

Since moving to its slot in the Tour Finals, all three champions have been classy: Sang-moon Bae and Michael Thompson were both former PGA Tour winners who had lost their cards, while Chesson Hadley was at the end of a second successful stint on what was the Web.com Tour, and had won already earlier in the year.

Again, the Barbasol pops up courtesy of Thompson, whose sole top-10 finish on the PGA Tour that year came in Alabama. The event has since moved to Kentucky but that changes nothing when it comes to its worth as a pointer towards these events.

To reiterate: the Barbasol is roughly equivalent to this in terms of strength of field, and those who have contended in it have the benefit of very recent memories and experiences in the heat of battle with their PGA Tour futures on the line.

Korn Ferry Tour Championship

  • When: August 29-Septemer 2
  • Where: Victoria National, Indiana

In the most significant change to the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, which are down to three events to mimic the PGA Tour, the concluding Tour Championship heads to the hardest course on the circuit, with Victoria National set to host for the next decade.

Last year, Denny McCarthy won this in 23-under at Atlantic Beach, Florida, where one year earlier Jonathan Byrd had reached 24-under. With the 2016 edition cancelled due to Hurricane Matthew, that means we have to go back to 2015 and the Valley Course at Sawgrass for the last serious test in what's a serious event.

Victoria National will be tougher still, one would think. The best winning score in seven previous Korn Ferry Tour visits came from Seamus Power, who reached 12-under in 2016 and won by one after Cody Gribble's ball dramatically spun off the green and into water.

The course is a rigorous test, holes 14 and 18 in particular ranking among the hardest in professional golf, and it should throw up an engrossing conclusion to the season. Six of those seven renewals of what was the United Leasing Championship were decided by a shot or a play-off and something similar is expected.

What this change does to the type of winner we get remains to be seen, but it's worth noting that the last three editions of this event have all gone to a player dropping down from the PGA Tour. Not only that, but every player to finish second or in a share of second has been of a similar profile.

Finally, that word 'Barbasol' pops up again. Emiliano Grillo had been 10th there before going 8-2-MC-1 at the 2015 Finals, the victory coming in this event. McCarthy had an opposite top-10 in the Dominican Republic, too.


Barbasol as a form guide

So, the Barbasol. Played for the second year running in Kentucky and with an emphasis on low-scoring, it's exactly the type of event which can serve as a Korn Ferry springboard for those in the process of losing their battle to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

One such example is Josh Teater, who followed sixth place in the Barbasol with 13th in the Barracuda and then sixth again at the Wyndham. That's a high-class run of form by any measure and it's been powered by ball-striking which is bordering on elite level. Should Teater continue in this vein he's bound to earn back his card, though his record at the three courses is a definite worry - particularly four missed cuts in four at Victoria National.

Those who pore over stats on a weekly basis will have seen the name of D.J. Trahan pop up regularly this year as his ball-striking in particular has been consistently good throughout what's been a limited schedule.

Anyone who plays just 13 times is likely to struggle to make the Playoffs and so it proved for Trahan despite two top-10 finishes, most recently sixth place in the Barbasol. Still, at 38 he looks to be ready to reignite his career, one which began in earnest when he won the penultimate event of the Nationwide Tour season some 15 years ago.

Rounding off the Barbasol top 10, Dominic Bozzelli was ninth and is a Korn Ferry Tour winner who can make the game look easy when on-song.

Like Teater, he's got questions to answer when it comes to the specifics of the three events remaining, but having finished the 2019 season ranked 139th in FedEx Cup points, he's the sort of class-dropper who would surprise nobody in winning one of them.


To the Viktor!

Viktor Hovland will be the talk of the Finals when they begin in Ohio, there's no doubt about that.

Owing to the quirks of the system, the Norwegian came up just shy of the total required to earn a PGA Tour card from his limited starts having turned professional after the US Open. Had he been able to earn points as an amateur, he would've passed the mark thanks to both that Pebble Beach display and a fine effort at Augusta.

In the end, Hovland fell short despite four top-20 finishes in five starts which culminated in fourth place at the Wyndham Championship, where he threatened to join Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa in winning just months after joining the paid ranks. If it feels a little hard on him, that's because it is, though it's surprising he played neither the Barbasol nor the Barracuda, two tournaments which surely would have given him an invite.

At least he's fresh for Korn Ferry Tour Finals where he'll likely start as favourite for each event and will clearly expect to confirm his status on the PGA Tour for 2020 with the minimum of fuss. There's likely nothing I can tell you that you don't already know here: Hovland is on a fast track to world-class and it's unlikely this enforced drop down to the Finals will stop him.

Had he played enough rounds to qualify, he would split Rory McIlroy (currently 1st) and Justin Thomas (2nd) in the strokes-gained: tee-to-green stats, and he'd split Rory (1st) and Dustin Johnson (2nd) off the tee, while sitting third with his approach shots. He's hitting the ball not just like a world-class player, but like a member of the upper elite.

Hovland is the best player at Korn Ferry Finals already, and he's only just getting started.


Tee-to-green machines

In Hovland's absence from the rankings, there is just one player in the top 50 of this season's strokes-gained: tee-to-green stats who failed to keep his card, and it's the same man who ended the campaign threatening to shoot a sub-60 round in the Wyndham Championship.

Adam Svensson is the player in question, and he didn't just crack the top 50: he ranked 21st. That means he performed better from tee-to-green than Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Francesco Molinari. He really shouldn't be here.

Of course, this means Svensson has putted poorly, to say the least. He ended the PGA Tour season with just five players behind him in the rankings, though it should be noted that two of the five still managed to win events and good ones at that.

They include Corey Conners, his former team-mate when representing Canada as an amateur, and Svensson absolutely has the ability to join his compatriot in winning at the highest level.

First, he has to get his card back and having gone well previously in Boise, perhaps that low-scoring affair represents his best chance. Truth be told, however, if he putts well anywhere he's entitled to be exceptionally hard to beat. He's hitting the ball like a player who is much better than this.

Trahan would also sneak inside the top 50 of the aforementioned T2G charts had he played enough qualifying rounds, but in his absence the remaining members of the top 100 who didn't make the FedEx Cup Playoffs are as follows and in order: Hank Lebioda, Cameron Davis, Daniel Berger, Kramer Hickok, Teater, Alex Prugh, Shawn Stefani, Jimmy Walker and Trey Mullinax.

Lebioda bagged three top-five finishes in his only year of Korn Ferry Tour golf and has caught the eye on occasion on the PGA Tour, where things happened just a little quickly from his lowly ranking. He's quite hard to get a firm handle on but has ability.

Davis, however, has already demonstrated that he's a big fish in this kind of pond having won and added three further top-five finishes in a 15-event campaign in 2018. The Australian, who found fame when winning his national open in 2017, was third in Ohio last year and is the sort of aggressive big-hitter who should be on the radar for that event and Boise.

There's little to be said about Berger that isn't already known, but it would be a major disappointment if he isn't either winning or at least contending over the coming weeks should he elect to play, which isn't clear at this point as he could yet receive a medical extension with which to begin next season.

It's two years since he excelled in the Presidents Cup and if he does appear at the Finals he's a little unfortunate to be here, having only narrowly missed his card after an injury-interrupted season.

In fact, while he'd have preferred the Tour Championship to have remained in Florida, Berger might be considered among the most likely winners of the concluding event of the Finals as well as both before it. He missed the cut at Victoria National in 2014 but wasn't in the best of form at the time. Since then, he's won twice on the PGA Tour and both times at Southwind, a demanding test off the tee.

Aside from being Jordan Spieth's friend, Hickok struggled to make a name for himself despite arriving on the PGA Tour as an upwardly-mobile talent who was expected to keep his card. A poor year on the greens put paid to that but this straight shooter won on his last visit to Ohio and could well bounce back to his best at the first opportunity.

Prugh is a big-hitting talent who finds plenty of greens (ditto Mullinax), and his first ever top-10 finish on a professional circuit came in the Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational, but of more interest should be Stefani, fourth there last year.

Having taken Rose to play-off holes at Congressional a few years ago, Stefani has a touch of class and his record at this level is extremely encouraging. In total, he's played 39 events on what's now the Korn Ferry Tour, winning twice and finishing second in the Tour Championship two years ago. He's played well all summer and is expected to be competitive.


Players to follow

By far the most interesting players mentioned above are Svensson, Stefani and Berger, with Teater, Trahan and Davis also worth keeping a very close eye on.

Here are six more from 125 to 200 on the FedEx Cup standings, each capable of competing over the course of the next few weeks.

Harris English

Last year, English conjured a brave Wyndham Championship performance to cling onto his card, but this time a final-round 64 was nowhere near enough. Still, he's made eight of his last 10 cuts and it's telling that in each of the last nine, he's gained strokes off the tee. That may seem anecdotal, but it's been wild driving which has cost him his place on the fringes of the game's elite and good things are coming now that he can focus on sharpening up the rest of his game. English has only played eight events at this level in his life and none since 2011, when he bagged a win, a second and a third. The win came in Ohio and he's behind only Svensson in the list of players I want to keep on-side.

Bronson Burgoon

A two-time runner-up on the PGA Tour over the last 18 months, Burgoon is a streaky player who is at his best under low-scoring conditions. That bodes well for the first two events of the Finals, as does the quality of his approach play in recent weeks which helped him bag a top-five finish in Reno. He was last at this level two years ago, finishing the Finals with a brace of top-five finishes, and has played well on all three courses.

Roberto Castro

A player with a similar profile to Burgoon, Castro is more accurate off the tee but just as deadly with his approach shots when at his best and boasts a definite touch of class. He was fifth on his last start at Victoria National, second at OSU in 2015 and has also played well in Boise, while on the PGA Tour lately his worst round in his five post-US Open starts was a 72 in the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Eleven of his last 12 rounds have been sub-70 and with a near 40 per cent top-10 strike-rate at this level over the last five years, he's one of those who knows he's got a class edge on most.

Peter Uihlein

Mid-summer, I received a message from someone who gets the odd reliable nudge, and it pertained to Uihlein and the fact he had turned a corner on the range of late. We've not quite seen that translated to the course from a statistical perspective, but the former amateur star has made his last three cuts, never shooting worse than 72, and is at least putting beautifully. If he can find just a little more control from the tee, expect Uihlein to go really well and in particular in Ohio, where he made his debut on this circuit and returned to win the Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship in 2017. Having shot 62 at Hillcrest, he's got two of the three bases covered.

Chase Wright

There's no real edge for anyone here when it comes to incentive - the goal is to get back on the PGA Tour - but Wright has a little extra reason to relish the new schedule. This Indiana native will be among the few who are genuinely pleased that the final event is now at Victoria National, a course he knows well and one where he was 10th on his first professional visit. Wright has two top-30 finishes in his last three starts and his iron play throughout both of those certainly caught the eye. He secured his card at the eleventh hour last year and could get it back in similar fashion.

Fabian Gomez

Far from the sexiest of selections to finish, Gomez is a 40-year-old who has rarely captured the imagination since winning the FedEx St Jude Classic and following up six months later in the 2016 Sony Open. However, he's started to play well recently, including when 13th at the Wyndham, and that sets him up nicely for a return to a level where he's always been a threat. Gomez has top-10 finishes in Boise and at Victoria National, where he was fourth on his last visit, and has found something in time to expect another successful Finals stint.

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