The PGA Tour takes its next step out of lockdown with the RBC Heritage, where Ben Coley is again keen to take on the very best players in the sport.
In the end, the first week of the second part of the season went much like the last week of the first. Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele were all in excellent form when last we saw them. Each was outdone, just, by Daniel Berger - whose form might've been even better. There were turnarounds of sorts, from Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth, but each owed something to the venue and underlying class.
Colonial Country Club, it seems, is perhaps not all that democratic. The clue was there, in 2019, when Tony Finau finished second and told reporters that he hit driver on virtually ever par-four and par-five. Maybe that list of champions with dazzling short-games and high degrees of accuracy reflects fields packed full of players with dazzling short-games and high degrees of accuracy. When the big boys turned up, they found a course which gave them more opportunities to attack than I thought it would.
Berger isn't a beast off the tee, and neither is Morikawa, but those two play-off protagonists each defied a trend which shaped many people's expectations. For Berger it was a total absence of course form, albeit he's enjoyed success on the similar Southwind. For Morikawa, it was a total absence of course experience: he would have been the first champion since Sergio Garcia in 2001 to win on debut, had he not suffered on the greens in a way Garcia can sympathise with.
Ultimately, the admission here is that Colonial didn't do what I thought it would; that I somehow underestimated just how good and just how adaptable the very best players are. It did not cost me the winner, and I'm not sure it was a mistake to question whether Berger would pick up where he left off, but it did result in a ramshackle bunch amongst whom only Spieth ever got serious. And he really did get serious: midway through the second round and again during the third, he was very much the man to beat. In the end, he beat himself.
The reason for this introspection is that we're faced with a very similar set of questions as the PGA Tour bubble travels to South Carolina for the RBC Heritage, played at Harbour Town. Once again, we are presented with the world's top five players and many of its top 20. Once again, several of them have never played here before, or else never done so effectively. Once again, the natural conclusion is that this really isn't the type of golf they want to play, and that's the reason they wouldn't ordinarily play it, save for those sponsored by the sponsors.
This time, however, there can be no doubt: Harbour Town will not - can not - cower and concede. This is the single most claustrophobic course on the PGA Tour. Hitting driver after driver here is golfing suicide, rather than the calculated risk it became last weekend, on a course whose greens were unnaturally soft. Even with news of widened fairways, Harbour Town's trees will block paths to greens all week long, even if one or two of this lot manage to bring the ninth hole to its knees.
Chances are several of them will prove more malleable than can appear to be the case, but each and every one of that top five showed weakness at a more suitable course last week, and numbers six, 10, and 12 have all been cut in the betting. The last of those is Bryson DeChambeau, the one elite player with serious course form. It came before he became BRYSON DECHAMBEAU, and he'll need to work out a different path here having bludgeoned the field off the tee but proved unreliable on and around the greens in Texas.
My inclination a week or two ago was that the best form guide to Harbour Town would be through Colonial, but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps this uniquely intricate challenge, where you either follow the handbook or pay the price, will be one best overcome by those with previous experience of doing so. Course form counted for squat at Colonial, but it has to count for something here. Doesn't it?
There are still far too many questions for total confidence, so it's another speculative staking plan headed up by players capable of holding their own should a Rahm or a Rory overcome those biases which this time work against them. And it's KEVIN KISNER who gets the headline vote among a group of - gulp - seven.
It was here in 2015 that Kisner first showed what he could do, justifying a tall college reputation which had for a while look set to be undermined by a short professional career at this level. Contending for the very first time on the PGA Tour, he took Jim Furyk the distance and was ultimately a little unfortunate to lose in a play-off, after a field-leading tee-to-green display.
Soon after he was beaten in another play-off, at Sawgrass, and quickly we learned just what he's all about: fairways, greens, an ability to pile up putts, and a ferocious tenacity, which would later combine for his first win. That came at Sea Island, another course upon which power really doesn't matter, and he's since added two more titles in Texas to underline another thing that he's all about: playing in the southeastern states, where he's always been most comfortable.
Subsequent return visits to the Heritage, which is the only Tour event played in his home state, have been slightly less lucrative. And yet twice in four, he's entered Sunday with a winning chance, while his run of cuts made here stands at six since an inauspicious debut. It's a record of total Harbour Town comfort, like those of Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, and even Luke Donald minus so much heartache.
These are the players you see contend here year after year. In 2019, it was the supremely accurate C.T. Pan who nosed Kuchar, an ex-champion seeking a double to match Furyk's. Other winners include Graeme McDowell, Brian Gay, Wesley Bryan and Branden Grace. None of them overpower courses: the formula has generally been to hit it straight (with one or two exceptions), and showcase a deadly short-game. Even Satoshi Kodaira's shock win underlined what we're looking for, as would've been the case had Si Woo Kim finished the job.
There are maybe 30 or 40 candidates who fit the bill, but few of them got competitive last week and it's extraordinarily difficult to assess the worth of the two extra rounds both Kuchar and Webb Simpson missed out on.
Easier to spot are the positives within Kisner's share of 29th, as he played well throughout the bag with the exception of the putter, hitting plenty of fairways. If the flat-stick does come around back on his favoured bermuda greens, he can find the shot or so per round needed to get seriously competitive.
I've made something of a habit of putting up IAN POULTER for this and he's very nearly made it pay, finishing 11th in 2017 (125/1) and 10th in 2019 (40/1), both times contending throughout the week.
It is in fact three years in succession that he's had a chance to win this, as he was 54-hole leader in 2018, only to run out of gas. That was perhaps the most excusable of his three Sunday shockers, given that he'd thrown everything at qualifying for the Masters, managed it at the eleventh hour, and came here for his sixth start in six weeks and desperately in need of a break.
Anyway, the point is he's very comfortable at what you could call the PGA Tour's version of Valderrama, at least in terms of the trees and the tiny greens. Providing he can keep the ball in play off the tee (fewer drivers helps massively), this short, fiddly layout allows Poulter to showcase his better-than-you'd-think iron play, and a short-game which has underpinned his two-decade career at the top level.
He finished alongside Kisner in Texas last week, performing as you might expect from a statistical perspective - that is to say he was better the closer he got to the green. During the event he confessed to being someone who would rather grind on the range than play practice rounds, so he's entitled to be much sharper for having had a scorecard in hand, and his form in the spring was also plenty encouraging.
As I touched upon briefly last week, Poulter is playing for his place on Padraig Harrington's Ryder Cup team, the event seemingly more likely to go ahead than it appeared a month or two ago. With so many potential team-mates still stuck in Europe and unable to show what they can do, he will recognise the opportunity he has here and it feels certain to me that this is last chance to play an away game in the competition which has made him famous.
Of all the courses on the calendar from here to the PGA Championship, this is the one Poulter knows best, and the one he's been most effective on. The single most consistent contender here over the past three years is not to be taken lightly, and anything 66/1 and bigger is worth taking with generous place terms now de rigeur.
There's no doubt the Ryder Cup is at the forefront of SHANE LOWRY's mind, too, and he's another European who can find improvement for a return to Harbour Town.
Like Poulter, Lowry was in good form in the spring, flirting with the lead for much of the week in the Honda and generally hinting - as he has done for many months now - that a first win since the Open Championship is edging closer.
When it does arrive, like that Portrush success there's a strong chance it's under the sort of conditions which allow those magic hands to come to life and this is so much more his bag than Colonial, where he'd never played before and was just caught cold on his return.
Notably, Lowry actually gained strokes off the tee, on approach, and around the greens, only to produce some of his worst-ever putting numbers and miss the cut. Needless to say he'll need to leave those behind, but I'd much rather see promising signs from tee-to-green and hope for a step forward with the putter, which he's managed here on both previous visits in ranking inside the top 20.
Lowry's first round at Harbour Town was a five-under 66, and he returned for a second crack at the event last spring, again in poor form. With seven holes to go he was tied for the lead and looking like the man to beat, only for a double-bogey at the 12th to cost him what would have been a second Stateside victory as he settled for third.
One year on, he's definitely got it in him to put things right, aided by several practice rounds with Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson at the Bear's Club in Florida. At around the 80/1 mark, I'm more than happy to chance a player who can pick apart this course from the tee, and save par when he does make a mistake with his approach shots.
Simpson, Sungjae Im and Morikawa are the only tempting options at the front of the market, the latter two clearly on their way to the very top of the game. It'll take something seriously impressive for Morikawa to put Sunday behind him, though, and Im just isn't quite big enough for me having missed the cut on his debut here, for all the positives.
Spieth meanwhile looked so much better in Texas, especially off the tee, but if he's 45/1 at Colonial there's no way on earth he should be 33/1 here a few days later. No, no, no. We tried, it didn't happen, so we wait. Maybe only one more week.
Anyway, I'll chance HARRIS ENGLISH stepping up on a disappointing missed cut and confirming that his form at the start of the season was no flash-in-the-pan.
A winner at El Camaleon and Southwind, English is a good fit for Harbour Town and he showed flashes of that even during his difficult spells with the driver which forced the coaching switch which looks to have saved his career. Now having turned his tee shots into a strength, he's got all the tools to fulfil the potential he showed seven years ago and that's very much what he demonstrated before the enforced hiatus.
Sent off at 66/1 or so last week, he's now a bigger price on the back of a missed cut at a course he does like, but anyone can be forgiven a slow start - so many players admitted to not knowing what to expect, however hard they'd been practicing. English is better judged on his second-round 67 than an opening 72, his bogey-free effort not quite enough to salvage the week, but promising nonetheless.
English is a self-confessed Harbour Town fan who was eighth here on debut, and don't forget he'd opened with a seven-under 65 at the PLAYERS Championship in the spring before that event was cancelled. When everything clicks at the same time he's going to be around the top of the leaderboard all week long as he was at the beginning of the campaign, and the Heritage looks a good opportunity.
It was interesting to see BILLY HORSCHEL pick up where he left off in the driving department last week and he's another, like English, who has done all things right but never quite at the same time for much of this year.
The Floridian has generally improved his putting over the last few seasons but his iron play has been patchy, and it was that which cost him last week as for all that he ranked ninth in greens hit, his strokes-gained approach figures were poor.
Everyone here has something to improve upon - well, perhaps with the exception of Berger - and Horschel is another of those who can be expected to do so now back at Harbour Town, where he's made six of seven cuts and registered two top-10 finishes.
Two years ago he was a rock-solid fifth, despite issues around the greens, and he's been inside the top 10 after six of his last eight rounds at the course.
"Yeah, I think this is one of the better courses we play all year," he said back then. "I think the architects in today's game should come here and understand what this course is and why it's still challenging. Too much nowadays we're playing big, wide open courses that really aren't great designed golf courses."
Horschel's first win came at the Pete Dye-designed TPC Louisiana, and he's capable of beating the very best in the world when that long-game really fires. In the hope he can sharpen up just a little with new clubs in the bag, he's selected as another strong each-way candidate.
Bud Cauley has developed an excellent short-game and the driver behaved last week, so he's certainly interesting at a course where he once opened with a round of 63, while Andrew Landry is a straight-hitting grinder with two wins in three years and hints of good play across both starts here.
They're both considered along with Adam Hadwin, Jason Kokrak, and Sunday's Korn Ferry Tour winner, Luke List, but I'll finish off with BRIAN HARMAN and, at a massive price, DOC REDMAN.
Harman gave up far too much ground off the tee last week, but 23rd place was an excellent effort with that in mind and it was really only Saturday's third round - which included his one big mistake, at the ninth - which cost him a chance to fight for place money come Sunday.
He said there that he'd been working hard and felt his game was really solid, which it certainly had been early in the season as he gained strokes throughout the bag and generally looked like he was working towards his best form again.
The way things panned out at Colonial, with those soft greens and the cutting of corners, there's a good chance Harbour Town proves much more suitable and he's been a factor here when in form, with two top-10 finishes from his last six visits.
They came in 2014 and 2017, preceding summer wins, and this is a good time of year and a good golf course for the left-hander. Harman is tough enough to mix it with the best, especially when he can play them at his game, and I'm keen to stick with him after a week which promised so much in Texas.
Finally, Redman's approach play was outstanding at Colonial and in his short time as a professional he's marked himself down as the right type for this sort of tight, fiddly test - it was at an old Donald Ross design that he finished second last June.
Born in neighbouring North Carolina, he's gone very well at home in the Wells Fargo Championship (18th) before earning his card, and now he gets the chance to go to a suitable golf course that he's actually played before in competition, having made the cut here as an amateur a couple of years ago.
He drove the ball superbly that week, as he has done throughout the last nine months, and while his short-game needs improving on, I'm willing to chance a quality ball-striking week being enough to surprise plenty.
Certainly, prices of 300/1 and more look to underestimate how well suited he is to this and while there are seven, eight and even nine places to chase, there's mileage in doing so here. It really is worth waiting one more week to find a strong fancy.
Posted at 2000 BST on 15/06/20
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