Ben Coley has been in sparkling form this year, and he's keen to chance Tiger Woods on his return to action in the Memorial Tournament.
If any doubt remained as to the most effective way to handle Muirfield Village, home of the Memorial Tournament, last week's Workday Charity Open ought to have removed it. In first was Collin Morikawa, in second was Justin Thomas; of the new wave of world-class golfers, if indeed 27-year-old Thomas still qualifies, these are the two finest iron players in the sport. Morikawa's approach play on Sunday was jaw-dropping, and so too was the wedge work of Thomas, who won the tournament three times and yet never did win the tournament.
The play-off between those two made for a brilliant, thrilling climax, albeit heartbreaking too from a personal perspective, and underlined that this classical golf course is a tee-to-green test where the second shot counts most. Twice over the course of the last six renewals of the Memorial, a player has won despite losing strokes to the field on the greens. That didn't quite happen on Sunday, but the three best tee-to-green performances came from the final three-ball, and they had the tournament between them throughout the final day.
There is no reason whatsoever to expect that to change one week on, and if anything the course should now prove even more challenging for those getting by on touch and grit alone. Warm, sunny weather from Monday through to Thursday's tee-off should help Jack Nicklaus's crew to get the rough up another half-inch, and firmer fairways ought to force more balls into it. Then there are the greens. Last week, they were made slower so as to open up more options for pins; this time, that magic number 13 on the stimpmeter ought to be hit.
If we were able to confidently assume that those teeing up in the Workday Open would be at an advantage, this might actually be straightforward. Choose from the final three-ball, each at a similar enough price, or else go with weekend movers Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Gary Woodland, even Billy Horschel. If they are already prepared for the basic challenge and able to make the required adjustments on greens which will run faster, there's no reason this collective shouldn't pick up where they left off - although in Thomas's case, perhaps that's not such a good thing after all.
The trouble is we're in uncharted waters, and for all that there are obvious positives to having four competitive rounds at the course under your belt, there are concerns, too. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which some of these elite ball-strikers struggle to adjust on the greens and start racing putts past; equally, it's possible, if not probable, that Morikawa suffers a hangover, that Thomas's is even worse, and that Hovland - like Jason Day - hits a brick wall in his sixth event in succession.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I don't have the answer, but that doesn't mean to say the decision around who to make the headline bet was difficult, because it wasn't. Perhaps I'm way off, but I expected TIGER WOODS to be considerably shorter and he's must-bet material at 28/1, win-only a reflection of the boom-or-bust feeling which is undeniably hard to shake.
Woods' price surely owes much to his absence, which is longer than any other player here bar 1500/1 shot Carl Pettersson. Woods, remember, struggled with another back problem in the spring and wasn't seen after finishing last of those who made the cut at Riviera. Among the events he skipped were a couple he would usually play, not least the ill-fated PLAYERS Championship in March.
I can perfectly understand why everyone would approach him with caution were February's Genesis Invitational the last we'd seen of him, but Woods was brilliant in The Match: Champions for Charity, where alongside (tries to remember name...) Peyton Manning he beat Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady. Don't for one second take this as serious form, but when we're talking about Woods and his various ailments, watching him hit quality shot upon quality shot for five hours means something. He looked fantastic.
Subsequent reports from Florida have remained positive, and this was always likely to be his comeback event. Woods doesn't need to worry about points or prizes and, having beaten himself up in his return campaign of 2018, his schedule from now until the day he walks away will remain light. In other words, I am suitably convinced of his fitness, and to be frank that's all that's needed to back him here, especially as he was showing good signs before that Riviera issue when ninth at Torrey Pines.
Woods has always played Muirfield Village brilliantly, and that's because he's the greatest iron player to have ever lived. He's also probably the greatest golf thinker, so the challenge of working various shot-shapes into these undulating greens is perfect for him, as is the relative width off the tee, and the need for a magic touch around the greens. As I wrote last week, there are Augusta similarities, and just as nobody plays Augusta better, I'm not sure anybody plays this course better, either.
Of course, Woods' last win here came in 2012, but he was the best player in the field from tee-to-green in 2018, only to rank 72nd out of 73 in putting. Then, last year, he closed with a round of 67 for ninth - his sole top-10 in the six starts which separated that famous 15th major at Augusta, and another victory in the inaugural edition of the Zozo Championship. On both these occasions he played well enough to have had a say in the outcome.
Combined with his win in the 2018 TOUR Championship, Tiger has three wins in 35 starts since his latest comeback. All have come at courses which are classical in nature, and demand quality iron play. And one of them, in Japan, came after 10 weeks away - far from the first time in an extraordinary career that Woods has returned from a long break and dazzled. More so than anyone in the sport, he knows how to prepare away from competition, and once he has a scorecard in his hand, you can assume he's ready.
None of this is to say his absence is a positive, because it isn't. But I'm not convinced it's enough of a negative to put him at the very bottom of the top portion of the betting, especially given concerns which relate to several of those in front. Playing with Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy on Thursday, two players alongside whom he has excellent records, don't be surprised if he brings the house down.
Koepka made a late run at the cut line last week only to narrowly miss out, and if Rahm is right - that this is going to be more US Open-like - then the two-time US Open winner could bounce back. The trouble is every single one of his top-level victories, dating back to 2014, has been signposted by a strong performance in his previous start. And he's yet to really demonstrated that he can shine here, perhaps no surprise given that his approach play isn't as strong as most of his contemporaries.
That would also be the worry for McIlroy, who hasn't been in the form he showed last year and at the start of this. His iron play in particular has been poor, and watching Thomas glide his wedges into specific pockets and onto the tops of ledges, I couldn't help but conclude McIlroy will be found out in that department, unless he's found something. The same goes for the favourite, Bryson DeChambeau, whose distance control remains a legitimate concern, and Thomas does still look the man to beat if he can go again.
Rahm's ball-striking on Sunday was as good as it's been since that blistering 61 at Chapultepec, but like Hideki Matsuyama and Xander Schauffele, it's a little while since he was winning at this sort of level, and at the prices we have to be critical. With the young guns of last Sunday possibly softened up that leaves Cantlay and DUSTIN JOHNSON, with the latter preferred at the odds.
Granted, Johnson is almost half the price at which he won the Travelers, but so he should be having confirmed there that he's back where he should be following a difficult year. The former US Open champion burst into life with a third-round 61, the lowest of his career, before taking control of the tournament on Sunday. A wild drive at the 13th kept things interesting, but I loved how he closed things out, an Oakmont-style pounding of driver ending things even before his approach shot to the 72nd hole.
Once the numbers were tallied up, it was actually Johnson's driver which almost cost him the title, as he lost strokes to the field - rare for anyone, unprecedented for him when it comes to winning. That can be seen two ways: either it's going to hurt him if it doesn't improve, or it was an aberration, and in fact means he's close to playing even better. I lean towards the latter, especially as he'd ranked second at the Heritage courtesy of his best strokes-gained figure in 12 months of golf.
Here at Muirfield Village, driver may well determine how well he scores across a set of par-fives which he's never really cracked, but otherwise there are plenty of three-woods and it should be more about the approach shots. That's where he again shone at River Highlands, ranking fourth in proximity and sixth in strokes-gained, and it's well documented that his surge to the top of the world rankings was built around improved wedge play.
Johnson was third here in 2016, hitting it really well, and eighth on his last visit. It's a course where he should probably already be champion, and one where his power-fade off the tee - a Nicklaus trademark, and a shot executed by Thomas and Morikawa, as well as Woods - is particularly effective. Given that he's won back-to-back titles three times in the past, he looks a strong candidate here and goes in alongside Woods as my two from an undeniably strong set of potential champions.
Further down the betting, it seems as though the world has lost patience with TONY FINAU for reasons I understand, but I'm happy to have him on-side at 60/1 with eight places on offer.
Finau has caught my eye since the return of the sport, chiefly because he's done very little wrong and yet hasn't threatened, the sort of combination which allows a player to slip down the market without really having much to remedy. In 14 rounds his sole over-par effort came on Sunday in Detroit, and his missed cut at the Travelers was after rounds of 68 and 69 to sit on three-under.
I'm not sure any of these courses properly suit, particularly Detroit Golf Club last time out, and a tougher test such as that expected in Ohio ought to be much more to his liking. After all, Finau's nearly-man reputation is built largely on a string of outstanding performances in major championships, with a strong book of Open results, fifth at Shinnecock and two top-10s at Augusta National all encouraging should this prove as difficult as organisers hope.
Ever since his debut at the course in 2015, when a fresh-faced rookie, Finau has shown a liking for Muirfield Village. He was eighth back then, ranking fifth in strokes-gained approach, and he's been 11th and 13th among three cuts made subsequently. That run ended last June with a missed cut, but it's probably worth forgiving him that as not only was it the start of a poor stretch, but it came a week after he really did make a mess of the Charles Schwab, finishing a distant second to Kevin Na.
A year or so on and with further heartbreak safely tucked away, questions do remain as to his ability to see things through, but his attitude is excellent and will carry him to PGA Tour titles, possibly a burst of them when he does fall over the line again. When it happens, don't be surprised if it's at a course where modest putters can compete, where his strong tee-to-green game can shine, and where plenty find the grind too much.
Finau shot a course-record 59 at home last week, while working hard with coach Boyd Summerhays, and that's just another small hint that his game is in better shape than recent results might suggest. As such, we get to back him at a price which means decent profit all the way down to eighth, and his each-way strike-rate over his last 100 events is close to 25 percent. I'll happily run the risk of another near-miss.
My hope last week was that Jordan Spieth would do enough to encourage a bet for this event, with faster greens encouraging more creativity, but in missing the cut he just didn't. Spieth can compete here if he gets his irons in gear and I remain positive about the long-term prognosis, but even 80/1 - yes, 80/1 at a course where he placed as recently as 2019 - isn't quite enough to tempt me in.
Instead, the tee-to-green quality of JOAQUIN NIEMANN makes him look the better option on this occasion for all it's still a little strange to see their names adjacent in the betting.
The interesting point about their positions is that they were basically the same last week, at around 45/1, and yet while Niemann created a generally good impression and Spieth did not, they've been eased out almost as one. Niemann, though, showed enough in finishing 33rd to suggest he could tidy up and threaten the leaders at a course he clearly loves.
On debut, the Chilean led after 18 holes and at halfway here, when fresh out of college and not yet in possession of a PGA Tour card. Come the end of the week he'd done enough in finishing fifth to secure special temporary membership, so it's a place which holds fond memories, and he wasn't all that far away when 27th on his return in 2019.
Combined with last week's Workday Open that's three cuts and 12 rounds at the course, a scoring average of 70.17 which puts him inside the top 10 of those who've played here more than once, and further evidence that these classical, tee-to-green examinations best suit his game.
Niemann's breakthrough win came at the Greenbrier, which is not dissimilar in look, and as I wrote prior to the Travelers all of his best form has come on bentgrass/poa greens which you often find in Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois, Michigan and many of the states to the north and the east of the USA.
The suspicion that these greens are best for him is supported by the fact he's gained strokes with the putter on all three starts at Muirfield Village, and if he can hit the ball as well as he did at the Heritage a couple of starts ago he's capable of contending. Indeed he might even be able to outdo 23-year-old Morikawa and win here at the tender age of 21.
There are some tempting options at bigger prices, not least quality ball-strikers like Doc Redman, Lucas Glover, Bud Cauley and Talor Gooch, but three are looking for their first wins and one continues to play well without ever really threatening to end what's a lengthy winless run. If one thing has been obvious from the first five events, it's that these stacked fields produce quality leaderboards, and the closest we've been to an upset was either former champion Kevin Streelman at the Travelers, or superstar-in-waiting Matthew Wolff at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
Of course, there was proper reward for getting those two in the places but with an even stronger line-up here, I want to focus on players who can mix it with the best in the world if they're on it. And, of all those available at big prices, I see just one real option: a four-time PGA Tour winner, a major winner, a WGC winner, a FedEx Cup Playoffs event winner; a Ryder and Presidents Cup player.
That man is KEEGAN BRADLEY, whose WGC win came in Ohio, and who beat the very best in the world as recently as 2018 to win in Chicago.
Last week, Bradley produced sensational ball-striking figures, powered by a field-leading performance with his irons, only to give back all that he had gained once on and around the greens.
Clearly, trying to ascertain when he'll putt well is like trying to trap lightning in a bottle, but when he does - such as when runner-up at last summer's Travelers Championship, and when winning the BMW in 2018 - he is a threat to all, as he remains one of the strongest tee-to-green operators on the circuit.
Two top-10 finishes at Muirfield offer hope that he could hit the frame here, and they both came post-anchoring ban and because he ranked just inside the top 20 in putting by gaining around a shot per round. Those putting numbers would've had him fourth last week, though of course it really isn't that simple, and selecting him here requires more hope than expectation.
Still, Bradley does boast credentials, both in a ball-striking and strictly achievements sense, which few at three-figure prices can match. He's beaten the best players in the sport for each of his last three titles, and in general he's played better when conditions are more demanding.
If he picks up where he left off from a ball-striking perspective, a combination of putting improvement and tougher conditions could see him do some damage here. It's a good course for him and, as mentioned, bad putters do win this tournament.
Posted at 1225 BST on 14/07/20
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