Patrick Rodgers is among six selections for the Sanderson Farms from Ben Coley, who rates Sungjae Im the man to beat in Mississippi.
4pts win Sungjae Im at 14/1 (General)
2pts e.w. Sam Burns at 28/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Cameron Davis at 60/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Patrick Rodgers at 66/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Russell Knox at 90/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
0.5pt e.w. Sebastian Cappelen at 250/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
There are regular reminders that the PGA Tour, like everything else, remains a long way from equilibrium. In a fortnight, its Asia swing will begin in Nevada, and we're less than two months from the start of the Masters, which will finish on November 15 before the next one takes place in April. Yet the start of the new season - for all it was interrupted by a delayed US Open - has brought a sense of normality back and with it, fields which are pleasingly varied.
For so long, from June's resumption through to the TOUR Championship, tournaments were packed with the very best players in the world. Even supposed low-key weeks like the 3M Open found themselves welcoming Tommy Fleetwood and Tony Finau and it took a dip in points and prize money at the Barracuda to open the door to something new. There, Richy Werenski won his first title - the only one of 14 tournament winners who hadn't done it before.
On that score, everything is as it was, with '2021' winners Stewart Cink and Hudson Swafford both previous champions. But they were huge outsiders, and their victories reflect the fact that opportunity knocks whether you've been there and done it or are banging loudly on the door. Now that Louis Oosthuizen has withdrawn from the Sanderson Farms Championship, the only two members of the world's top 20 who are in action this week are teeing it up in Scotland. Like the event in the Dominican Republic and the Safeway Open before it, things suddenly appear wide open.
The market here reflects the likelihood that a star emerges in the same way that Cameron Champ did in 2018. Five of the top eight are without a title so far, including 10/1 Scottie Scheffler and a third-favourite who does not yet possess a PGA Tour card (albeit that statement comes with a caveat). With all six former winners here at Jackson Country Club having been maidens on arrival, everything is in place for a collection of youngsters of abundant potential, but do you really want to be taking short prices about a favourite who missed the US Open after a positive coronavirus test?
I know I don't, and while I'll come to some maidens with sound each-way claims, the starting point here is SUNGJAE IM at 14/1.
An unfortunate runner-up in last year's renewal, in which he lost a play-off to Sebastian Munoz, Im has since gone on to secure a high-profile victory in the Honda Classic after an imperious performance at the Presidents Cup. And while both showcase his ability under tough conditions, he shares something in common with most former winners here: a penchant for birdies.
Five of the six winners in Mississippi led the field in birdie-or-better for the week, i.e. the percentage of holes on which they broke par. The other was Munoz, who ranked sixth; had Im won as he looked set to, the tally would've been six from six.
Im went on to rank 25th for the season so while his breakthrough performances came when par mattered more than it will this week, he undoubtedly has the tools required to win something closer to a shootout.
Crucially, it's one which takes place on bermuda greens which are alike to Southwind and Sedgefield, where he's putted well recently. Elsewhere, he's struggled a little, but that largely reflects how much better he is on bermuda - take a 50-round view and his strokes-gained figure climbs from 0.1 to 0.6 for the change in surfaces.
They were bermuda greens at the Honda and if all we need is an improvement in putting to make him the man to beat, it's virtually assured given what we know. Things are rarely that simple, but Im was last seen playing nicely on a big course in the US Open, where he led the field in greens hit and ranked second in fairways. Prior to it he'd been second in both categories at East Lake, his strokes-gained approach numbers solid throughout both.
That's a platform for success under the right conditions and he has them here, at a course we know he likes, just as we knew courtesy of a prior 64 that he liked PGA National. With those doubts around Scheffler's preparation, the highest-ranked player in this field ought to be favourite and Im has to be in the staking plan unless and until he is.
Remember, for all Scheffler is rightly heralded as a huge talent capable of great things, he's a couple of years older than Im and hasn't had to learn a new language while trying to forge a path to the top. So far their careers have been broadly similar otherwise, but Im is the one who has done it and on this occasion he looks the better bet by some distance.
Will Zalatoris clearly has the world at his feet, but it was a backdoor top-10 finish in the Dominican Republic last week and there are concerns around his putting. Long-term it wouldn't worry me in the slightest - successful careers are built from tee to green - but here in Jackson it has to. Every champion has putted well and while you might assume that's always the case, it really isn't. This is one event where ranking in the top 10 for the week has been necessary and there's little reason for that to change.
Indeed the formula here ought to be quite straightforward. It's not that this par 72 has lent itself to a particular method of attack - after all, Champ was succeeding Ryan Armour, and they are about as unalike as you could possibly get - but we know what a player needs to do, and that's stack up opportunities, and take a good chunk of them.
With wet weather around over the past fortnight and into tournament week, it's likely that the answer is perhaps more Champ than Armour, although another short-hitting winner, Peter Malnati, took advantage of soft conditions. He said the par-fives became a wedge contest and that put him at an advantage, a scenario we shouldn't totally dismiss.
Still, there are more young, aggressive, big-hitting players in this field than there were five years ago and they look the ones to focus on, with SAM BURNS next.
This is something of an obvious selection and Burns will be popular. He simply looks to have the tools for the course, one on which he was third despite making nothing in 2018. Last year's effort was underwhelming from a ball-striking perspective, but he was returning from a freak injury which curtailed his previous season and still showed plenty.
In the here and now, he's a big-hitting, strong-putting youngster who considers this akin to a home game, having been born, raised and educated in neighbouring Louisiana. Indeed he told reporters in 2018 that he's made a point of visiting Jackson Country Club when he can ever since the PGA Tour set up camp there, which perhaps explains why he's made all three cuts despite arriving injured on one occasion and out of form on another. That third place followed two missed cuts and he'd been hopeless at the Safeway Open.
This time, his form is much more robust, having played well more often than not since the restart and kicked off the new season with seventh in the Safeway Open and 28th in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship last week. Both could and perhaps should have been better - he led through 54 holes of the Safeway and was excellent for three of the four rounds in the Dominican - but nevertheless demonstrate that he's playing really well.
Burns ranked 46th in birdie-or-better last season and 30th in putting, and his par-five stats are strong. A soft, low-scoring par 72 is likely to prove ideal, and playing in the deep south on bermuda greens certainly is. It was under such circumstances that he won on the Korn Ferry Tour and this looks a golden opportunity for his breakthrough at the highest level.
Back in August, when Burns started to catch the eye, so too did CAMERON DAVIS - and at the time I had both in mind for this event. Nothing since has dissuaded me and the Australian goes in for similar reasons.
Like Burns, his Korn Ferry Tour win came in the south on a low-scoring par 72, and he's been playing well lately. We saw Davis contend for The Northern Trust before a disappointing weekend and he's plainly back in the form which had him towards the top of leaderboards a couple of times at the start of the year.
Five top-40 finishes in succession represents a run of consistency we've seldom seen from him and while yet to convert that into a title bid, that could change now he meets these conditions. Five of his last 12 rounds have been 65 or lower, and that kind of low-scoring prowess is just ideal for Jackson.
Last year, Davis was 28th putting badly, but he is not a bad putter, and his best figures on the PGA Tour have both come at Sedgefield - where the strain of bermuda used is the same as here in Mississippi. At 14th in birdie-or-better last season he's the fourth-ranked player in this field, and he's another who typically gobbles up the par-fives.
All of these strengths were in evidence at the Safeway Open where he improved markedly on last season's missed cut, and he can improve to a similar degree on his third try here. Davis is a serious talent, already a winner of the Australian Open, and the months to come should see him take his game to another level.
The third of my Champ-prototype selections is PATRICK RODGERS, who is the pick of the staking plan from a value perspective at 66/1 and rates a strong fancy.
There's probably no need to tread over old ground and discuss at length the potential he had and the various ways in which he's failed to deliver on it, but it does get forgotten than he's lost two play-offs on the PGA Tour - both in low-scoring events.
Seven cuts made in succession suggests he's perhaps on the brink of an overdue breakthrough, and there was a lot to like about 11th place in the Dominican last week. Without strokes-gained data we can't be sure of just how he put that performance together, but it was the first time since February 2017 that he's been inside the top five for greens in regulation and it's fair to conclude his iron play - Rodgers' weakness - was much better than it had been.
If he can bring that with him to a course he knows, where he's made all three cuts and contended on his very first visit right at the start of his PGA Tour career, Rodgers will be a threat to all. He's another who drives it brilliantly and putts well - 11th on Tour last season makes him among the best of these - and four par-fives is a definite positive.
Rewind to his debut effort here in 2015 and only one player in the field hit it better. Rodgers ended the week in 20th having ranked 73rd of 74 players in putting, but on both subsequent visits he's holed his share - without putting together the sort of performance he's capable off.
In two of the three his iron play has been as good as he really gets and he's always driven it well, so it's plain to see the dimensions and aesthetics of Jackson Country Club appeal to him. And so they should, hence 66/1 on the back of a step forward where we needed to see it looks among the bets of the week.
Those looking for the next Armour or Malnati should consider Zach Johnson, who has turned a corner lately and will have been hugely inspired by seeing friend and fellow former Open champion Stewart Cink win the Safeway. That was Cink's first title since he lifted the Claret Jug and Johnson is seeking to do the same - the trouble is, odds of 35/1 don't give us much to work with and he's overlooked as a result.
For once the shortlist was exactly that and while Austin Cook could go well at a price and Robby Shelton too, they're really the only players omitted with RUSSELL KNOX and SEBASTIAN CAPPELEN completing the staking plan.
The worry with Knox is the putter, as he was outside the top 150 on Tour last season and has never ended a season inside the top 100. Clearly, it's hard to know when he's going to make his share, as he so famously did when winning the Irish Open a couple of years ago, and for all his Florida base he's not a player who appears to improve for bermuda.
That's the big negative, but he produced a positive strokes-gained putting figure at the Safeway Open last time where his eye-catching sequence extended to three tournaments - enough to suggest he's ready to strike.
First, Knox started well in the Barracuda, sitting fifth at halfway and ending up in 25th to snap a run of 10 missed cuts. Then, he rebounded from a nightmare start with a second-round 64 to make the cut at the Wyndham, which was his final start in a poor season which passed by without a single top 10. That meant a break before the Safeway where he led after round one, hung tough throughout, and ended that top-10 drought by taking ninth.
Having said his game felt '100-times better' at the Barracuda, Knox again spoke positively after that opening 63 in California.
"I have a new coach now in Mark McCann and worked as hard as I ever have the last two weeks before this event, so it’s really nice to see something good happen immediately," he told reporters. "I definitely feel like my game is heading in the right direction."
Although unable to kick on and win there was a lot to like about the performance, powered by his trademark accuracy, and he looks to be rapidly returning to something like his best. That marks him down as a big price at 80/1 generally, especially as he did everything well bar putting when 35th on his debut here back in 2014.
Vastly improved since and more decorated as a result, Knox - who has plenty of form in low-scoring events, and won a rain-softened slog in China for his first top-tier win - is the pick of the more accurate types who can compete here.
As for Cappelen, he's the real flier on the back of 11th place last week, which ended a shocking run of form.
It may be a false dawn, but after taking sixth in The American Express in January he played well in much better company the next week, and last year's Korn Ferry Tour win followed a back-to-form 14th the previous week. It's enough to speculate, at 300/1 or close to it, that he can build on the improvements he showed behind Swafford.
Crucially, this is the tournament which handed him his first PGA Tour start via an invite in 2014, which he repaid by opening with a round of 65 to lead. In his sole subsequent visit he was 18th at halfway and very much on the fringes, so for once the Dane returns to a course he knows, likes, and remembers fondly.
Another powerful player whose putting is typically a strength, he's won two low-scoring Korn Ferry Tour events and though hard to pin down, when he's in the mix he's shown he can stay there. At anything bigger than 200/1 he looks worth adding to small stakes.
Posted at 1100 BST on 29/09/20
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