Golf expert Ben Coley is shunning the head of the market at the CJ Cup, preferring to take four chances at big prices in a complicated event to solve.
I've already written about Fairmont St Andrews, and how you might mistakenly assume this week's European Tour venue to be soaked in Scottish golfing history, and how it's actually a modern, made-for-tourists course down the road from what we might call the real St Andrews, and how it isn't perhaps all you would hope for, and why that will just have to do in the here and now.
Despite all that, there will still be a jarring contrast when coverage of the Scottish Championship makes way for The CJ Cup come Thursday. One minute you'll be gazing upon one of the most cherished stretches of coastline in the sport. You'll be able to inhale and exhale at your own pace, taking in wafts of pure, linksish indulgence. Then, with little more than an ident's warning, your senses will come under attack from Tom Fazio's garish and exclusive Shadow Creek.
This place is as contrived as it gets, befitting the city, Las Vegas, upon whose edge it sits. Fazio came here with a remit - to make an exclusive, expensive course quite unalike any other - and he delivered upon it. In were brought trees and rocks, out came the heavy artillery. It's as though the real mission here was not to give you something unique within the walls of Sin City, but to kid you into thinking you are somewhere else altogether. It may not be pure in that Scottish sense, but it represents a mighty achievement.
The official title of this week's PGA Tour event is, by dint of its owners being absolutely mental, THE CJ CUP. Perhaps the official name for the course should be SHADOW CREEK. Hit the caps lock, unveil the back-drop. When they chose it for The Match - that obscene, humourless cash fart - they were, well, bang on the money. Shakespeare and The Globe; awful golf event and gimmicky golf course.
Golf Digest still rate it, I should add, and I would clearly love to play there - though I could do without the limousine ride which comes as part of the green fee. Anyway, this is 2020 and this is where we are: THE CJ CUP @ SHADOW CREEK, an event so far staged on Jeju Island, South Korea, finds itself in Las Vegas, its head pounding with morning-after confusion. Please, please, please let all of this go away soon.
Returning to the heavy artillery and it is very much out for this no-cut event which extends invites only to very close friends. Dustin Johnson heads the betting, and he would probably have done so anywhere. That he holds the course record here - a round of 65 which came alongside father-in-law-to-be Wayne Gretzsky - only serves to strengthen his position. It feels like a long time ago, because that's how it works now, but when last we saw him, DJ was at the top of his game.
The nagging concern is that Johnson will have been away for almost four weeks by the time they tee off. The best players in the world tend to remain the best players in the world, but this has been a strange and hectic summer. They've played two majors in quick succession, plus three Playoff events, and most of them wanted to dance just about every dance when the music started playing back in June. I strongly suspect there will be a number of players here who admit to having 'barely touched a club' since a beating at Winged Foot.
Then there's the spectre of Augusta National and the Masters, which is just weeks away. I suppose its looming presence makes less likely the chance that Johnson and Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele have had their feet up, but on the other hand players often work backwards from such a target at the cost of the events which precede it. Did Johnson peak too soon ahead of the US Open? I wouldn't put it like that, but all of those named will have eyes for what's to come in November more so than the following 72 holes.
It won't stop them all, but it throws doubt into the equation, and is enough to swerve McIlroy, who is otherwise the most appealing of the market leaders. He drove the ball better than anyone in the US Open, where his putting improved for the fourth event in succession, and has now had time to settle into life as a father. He knows the value of contending prior to a major championship and, more so than the rest of his top-tier rivals, this seems like an important week for him. And yet I can't escape this reality: he's not won after a break of three or more weeks since the 2015 Match Play. Prior to that, he'd done it just twice, in 2010 and 2011. The time away really isn't ideal.
By contrast, it might just be for MARC LEISHMAN and he's tentatively put forward as a worth-the-risk selection at 150/1.
Leishman has struggled since the PGA Tour returned, more so than anyone else inside the world's top 25 or so. There are likely myriad factors but I recall an interview with him back in May, in which he cited his wife's past health struggles as cause for trepidation. Everyone was stepping into the unknown when they entered the bubble; few did so with greater reluctance than the affable Aussie.
Perhaps that explains why he's struggled to get anywhere close to competitive whereas most of the world's best have slipped back into tournament mode with few complications. And it could mean that Leishman remains one to swerve over the coming months; it's not as though the situation has become much clearer for anyone, and the PGA Tour remains uncertain in terms of what lies ahead.
That being said, being able to wipe the slate clean after the US Open (technically an event in the new season, but the end I felt of the June-to-September frenzy) and take some needed time away may just have helped. Look at Sergio Garcia for example, and Stewart Cink, too. Martin Laird, Hudson Swafford... the winners of the four non-major tournaments to kick off this new campaign have all been classy, former champions, who had not been at their best.
To a large extent that's down to low-grade fields, which we do not have here, but I feel also that certain players have benefitted from the reset. Leishman's past exploits suggest he's a prime candidate to do the same.
In 2015, his season ended MC-MC-MC. He then returned after a few weeks away to go 29-11-MC-1, turning around his form completely. It happened again in 2016, when his Playoffs form read MC-46-52, then he bounced back immediately with fifth at the CIMB Classic. Then there's 2018, perhaps the best comparison: he started the season well (as he did this one), was poor from June through to September, ended the season in 21st place of 30 at the TOUR Championship, and then started the next one with victory in the CIMB Classic.
Clearly, he likes that course in Kuala Lumpur, but look at last year, when he again was playing badly until pressing reset and finishing third in the Safeway Open, having withdrawn from his start the week before.
The timing may be coincidental - there is some guesswork here - but there's one thing we can say for sure: he's always been inconsistent, and capable of popping up from anywhere. Six of his seven career wins have followed a quiet preparation, and three of six gained at the highest level have been in these limited-field, no-cut events where a player arrives without the pressure of having to make the cut.
There's absolutely no doubt he'll need to have left behind the form we saw throughout summer and into the US Open, but Leishman's price reflects that fact. He's also a Fazio winner having landed the BMW Championship at Conway Farms, and before Winged Foot sounded fairly bullish when speaking with the Australian press.
Ultimately, in an event I just don't like, rolling the dice on this proven winner appeals as much as anything else.
You know you're clutching at straws when the only real avenue here is related to a designer with just a handful of PGA Tour venues. Fazio's Quail Hollow is the obvious one, and there's a North Carolina feel to this Nevada course say some; others include the redesigned Seaside Course at Sea Island, the aforementioned Conway Farms, and the Corales Puntacana Resort at which Swafford won recently.
MACKENZIE HUGHES pops up at a couple of those and could go well having been one of the low-key success stories since the PGA Tour returned, finishing third in the Travelers, sixth at the Memorial, 10th at the BMW, registering the seventh-best score at the TOUR Championship, and then finishing third in the Dominican Republic.
That's a really solid bank of form from one of the best putters around, and the only blip has been the US Open, a totally different challenge. He shot 72-76, by no means disastrous, to miss the cut by a single shot.
Otherwise, he's been excellent for a while now and that's perhaps best underlined by the fact he's ended his last 16 non-major rounds inside the top 30, and 14 of those inside the top 20. Three of the four tournaments in question were absolutely top-class and in essence he's really kicked on since a pair of weekend 66s almost saw him steal the Honda Classic back in March.
As with almost everyone here, we have to take on board unknowns, chiefly how well suited to the course he will prove to be. Unfortunately, I haven't found a strong clue here: it's a pretty long par 72, and ought to play fairly difficult, but there just isn't enough to go on. At least Hughes has demonstrated his versatility throughout the last few months and those Fazio ties do extend to Conway Farms, where he was right up there throughout the first 54 holes of his sole start in 2017.
At the top of his game right now, Hughes ought to be competitive and with seven places in a limited field which contains plenty of deadwood, he looks big enough.
Back towards the head of the betting and it's tempting to side with Collin Morikawa again. As argued last week, his strike-rate could arguably demand a shorter price than the 28/1 we're now offered, and he missed the cut on the number in the Shriners. Bear in mind that Matthew Wolff was only two shots better over the first 36 holes, Morikawa's putter costing him a weekend opportunity, and perhaps they shouldn't have swapped places in the betting.
That's not to diminish Wolff, who was exceptional on Sunday and has clearly taken all the positives and no negatives from his US Open effort. He's an awesome talent and it could be worth something that the course where his Oklahoma college is based, Karsten Creek, is a tough Fazio design. It was used in the 2018 NCAAs, where Wolff and Viktor Hovland helped their team to a thumping victory.
This trio of studs are all respected but without wishing to labour the point, there's just too much we don't know. Unlike in Scotland, where a new course at least comes with some distinct characteristics, Shadow Creek appears almost unique. The Match taught us very little, and I can't see the point in steaming in when this reality is combined with the fact the favourites have all been off grid for a few weeks.
So, it's two more at bigger prices, starting with GARY WOODLAND, who is preferred to Justin Rose.
Woodland will need to leave behind the form we saw at the US Open, but getting that overdue title defence behind him again presents an opportunity to reset. He'll presumably have spent some more time working with Justin Parsons and if he can dial in the driver, his form will improve very quickly.
A winner of the Barracuda Championship here in Nevada and down in Arizona at the Phoenix Open, to go with stacks of California form including that Pebble Beach triumph, Woodland has always enjoyed playing over on this side of the US. He's got some decent efforts at Quail Hollow behind him and played some good stuff on each of his three visits to Conway Farms, where he boasts a sub-70 scoring average.
His no-cut event record includes a near-miss in the Tournament of Champions, second and fourth in The Barclays, three top-fives in the CIMB Classic, fifth in the Zozo Championship and finishes of second and third in this event over the last couple of years. Like Leishman, he's been one capable of resetting and showing sudden jolts of improvement, and he made clear on Monday he likes the course.
All things considered he's chanced at 66/1 whereas Rose, slightly shorter with most, still sounded like he has some work to do at Wentworth. His approach play there was encouraging and he's one to keep an eye on, but for now it's his fellow former US Open winner who gets the nod.
A varied staking plan is completed by CAMERON SMITH, who probably has more scope than Brian Harman and edges the vote for that reason.
Smith started the season with a bang, securing his first PGA Tour win in the Sony Open. That in turn came on the back of an excellent Presidents Cup debut back home in Australia, and the youngster appeared ready to take the next step up the ladder.
Instead, he suffered a post-win slump which isn't uncommon, and then came the break just after he'd shown a bit more in Mexico. It's taken him a while since golf returned to rediscover his scoring touch, but it's now eight solid spins in succession and he only needs to avoid big mistakes off the tee to get seriously competitive.
Smith is one of those who would've preferred this to be taking place in Korea, where his form in this event reads 3-7-3, but he played nicely over at Summerlin last week and that may give him a head start. Third in The Northern Trust and the Dell Technologies Championship gives him some solid no-cut form over here, while he also has a couple of top-fives in the CIMB, and his only start at Conway Farms saw him share 12th.
Brendan Steele is another to consider at a price after he narrowly missed the weekend in the Shriners. Steele has played 103 of his 108 holes this season in par or better, a couple of big numbers undoing plenty of good work, and he's placed three times in good company this season.
A strong driver, that appears as good a starting point as any and he's been ninth and 15th at Quail Hollow, as well as showing some flashes of form at Conway Farms. These Fazio ties are what they are, but his overall play over the last 10 months merits respect should this develop into a tee-based challenge.
And there you have the bottom line: I really don't feel as though I've a firm handle on this; no real certainty as to how the course will play, and how the most likely winners have prepared. The best options at the front are McIlroy, Johnson, Morikawa and Wolff, in that order, but each can be overlooked this time.
Posted at 1350 BST on 13/10/20
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