FedEx St Jude Classic: Ben Coley's betting preview and tips

Last Updated June 05 2018, 16:07Golf
Tony Finau
Tony Finau

Tony Finau can make a splash at Southwind in this week's FedEx St Jude Classic - that's according to golf expert Ben Coley.

Recommended bets

2pts e.w. Tony Finau at 25/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) - game made for this course and peaking for it

2pts e.w. Charl Schwartzel at 28/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) - resurgent this spring and 2nd here last year

1pt e.w. Joel Dahmen at 125/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) - playing very well right now; top-20 in 2017

0.5pt e.w. Peter Malnati at 300/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) - local man has won in Tennessee before

0.5pt e.w. Malnati to lead after R1 at 150/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - fast start well within Malnati's reach

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TPC Southwind and the FedEx St Jude Classic is the final stop on the road to the US Open, and many in this week's field will be fighting fatigue having taken part in the so-called 'longest day in golf', with 36-hole qualifiers for the season's second major completed on Monday night.

Assessing the worth of form in those shootouts is difficult enough before considering which players are likely to withdraw from this event having taken care of business. Adam Scott will certainly do so, but what of Keegan Bradley and Russell Knox, for instance? Knox has played five weeks running and would benefit from giving this a swerve, but will the lure of a winnable event on a course which should suit prove too strong?

As for Bradley, he's put together successive big weeks and, given that it's almost six years since he last won an event and the season doesn't end at Shinnecock, can he afford to skip one he had a chance to win on his first and only start way back in 2011?

Perhaps the best approach is to focus on those we know will tee it up at Southwind, a par 70 which Phil Mickelson said last week plays brilliantly, even if it doesn't always look much on television. That feels like a fair assessment of this TPC layout, one whose primary defence is a collection of long par-fours which, combined, make for a real challenge even if none is particularly daunting in isolation.

The formula when it comes to winning has varied down the years. Short, straight players have always had a chance here - the likes of Brian Gay and Ben Crane two obvious examples - but the last couple of renewals have seen a shift towards longer, younger types, albeit each had to demonstrate some kind of control. Daniel Berger broke through with his first win thanks largely to a brilliant tee-to-green performance, and he didn't need to putt well when defending last year; on both occasions, ball-strikers and bombers laid down the biggest challenge.

One thing notable about Berger's love for the course is that it developed rapidly. He was comfortable here on arrival, owing perhaps to the Florida-like climate and bermuda greens, and that allowed his long-game to shine. Berger won on his first visit to TPC Southwind, just as Harris English, Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson had done earlier in the decade; others, like Mickelson and Steve Stricker, returned after lengthy breaks to chase home winners and this is a course which does not take a whole lot of knowing. As many have said, it's right there in front of you.

With that in mind, this looks like an excellent opportunity for Tony Finau to land his second PGA Tour win.

At 18th in strokes-gained tee-to-green, Finau certainly looks the part on paper when we look at recent winners of the event and it could even be significant that his victory at TPC Stonebrae on the Web.com Tour came at the chief expense of Berger and Fabian Gomez, who between them have won the last three renewals of the St Jude Classic.

More relevant is his excellent play throughout the season, so often on demanding courses, and there was much to like about Finau's return from a three-week break at the Memorial Tournament last week. With all aspects of his game firing, he closed with his best round of the week for 13th place and should now be focused on what could be a career-changing fortnight.

I wrote prior to the Memorial that the elite players who make up the front of the market always tend to prove vulnerable, perhaps distracted by the major championship which is fast approaching, and that again proved to be the case. I think it applies here, too, when we consider that the best players so often go well without winning; DJ's victory is an exception, but he'd missed most of the spring due to injury and needed to fully apply himself on his second start back.

Berger certainly had no excuse when it came to giving this event his full attention, searching as he was for his breakthrough and then seeking to defend, and the fact that Finau's sole win so far came in a low-key Puerto Rico Open means that he, too, should understand the significance of this opportunity.

Finau's form prior to majors is strong - he's made all eight cuts, with three top-eight finishes including in two of his last three - and in a field which is easy to pick apart beyond the four who sit ahead of him in the market, he looks ideally placed to take advantage.

When English won here in 2013, I put up eventual seventh Shawn Stefani, who led through 54 holes and has since added a second top-10 finish at Southwind. Part of the case related to certain correlations with Copperhead, home of the Valspar Championship, and that helps make the case for Finau as he was fifth there in 2017.

It also points towards the other class act I like the look of here, 2016 Valspar champion Charl Schwartzel.

With wins in Florida and, of course, Georgia, playing in the southern states seems to suit the South African and prior to last week's missed cut at the Memorial, he'd returned to his best with ninth in the Wells Fargo and second in the PLAYERS Championship.

Schwartzel will have been disappointed not to feature at Muirfield Village, but I do like the fact that he followed a nightmare 77 with a second-round 69 as he's not always been known as a player to fight for his score.

One bad round since the middle of April is certainly easy to forgive, especially when you consider that Schwartzel was second here last year, despite a third-round 74. The circumstances were similar as he'd produced a massive performance in the spring, this time at the Masters, but his performance at the Memorial was not of the standards expected.

Clearly, Southwind is a suitable golf course and his long game has improved beyond measure of late, just in time for another crack at this title. His performance at Sawgrass was especially encouraging as, in his words, it's an event Schwartzel has "skipped willingly" before as it just doesn't play to his strengths.

"It's been feeling good for about a month, two months now," Schwartzel said there. "It just hasn't sort of kicked in. I think playing with Louis (Oosthuizen at the Zurich Classic" freed me up a bit, and I've got good feelings. I feel like I'm playing the way I should play."

Schwartzel looks fully focused right now and should be expected to go very well.

Charl Schwartzel
Charl Schwartzel is back to his best and fancied to go well

There is always scope for an upset in events like this one, given the course and the position it holds on the calendar, and Keith Mitchell is one such tempting option. Born locally and a friend of English, he has shown glimpses on and off this year but his performance at Muirfield Village was too poor to excuse, despite complaints of a broken putter.

James Hahn is a proven winner who goes particularly well on tough courses and has correlating form in the Sony Open, Byron Nelson and Louisiana Open, and he's the one who came closest to making the staking plan. Hahn has been out of form but his second PGA Tour title came on the back of a similar sequence of missed cuts almost exactly two years ago, and he did improve on an opening 78 to miss the cut by one with a second-round 67 last week.

Hahn, who has form at this course having been sixth on his last visit, would've been selected were he able to build on last Friday's effort in US Open qualifying, but he struggled badly on Monday, shooting two-over before calling it a day, and on balance can be left alone.

Instead, the in-form Joel Dahmen is preferred.

Dahmen's recent form reads 25-16-16-20, his run starting in the Zurich Classic, and he took his run of under-par rounds from 12 to 14 in US Open qualifying where he lost out in a play-off.

Clearly, that was a blow but this 30-year-old is not the sort to dwell on such sporting disappointments, having lost his mother to cancer when a promising junior, then beaten it himself back in 2011.

Rather than dwell on a missed opportunity, Dahmen can be expected to take the positives from coming up short in an 11-man play-off in Memphis and build on last year's 18th place in this event, one of his best performances of the year.

While he's from the north west, Dahmen's standout efforts on the Web.com Tour have come in the south east courtesy of third place in the Louisiana Open and third in Nashville, while his sole PGA Tour top-10 came at Las Colinas - another tough par 70 with definite ties to Southwind.

Dahmen has gained strokes on the field in every department bar putting in each of his last three starts and if the flat stick returns to the levels shown at Quail Hollow, he's good enough to capitalise on his accurate long game and go close.

David Lingmerth plays difficult courses well and was something of an eye-catcher last week before narrowly missing a US Open spot, while Braden Thornberry - who did earn a US Open debut - is the second-ranked amateur in the world, finished fourth here last year and is described by one coach as being "as good as anyone you will ever watch."

The latter is certainly tempting at three-figure prices but my final selection is even more speculative, with Peter Malnati chanced at big prices both outright and in the first-round leader market.

Malnati calls this one of his favourite events, and that's largely because he grew up in Tennessee. On his debut in it, he opened with a round of 65 and contended all week before a poor Sunday saw him fall to 19th, and while two missed cuts have followed he did shoot an opening 67 last year despite a double on his very first hole.

More recently, big cheques have been hard to come by but Malnati has caught the eye, leading at halfway in the Wells Fargo and sitting 20th at the same stage of the Byron Nelson, and there are enough positives for this dynamite putter to be a factor if he can keep the ball in play.

Six times this season he's been inside the top 10 after the first round, evidence that a fast start is possible, and it's significant that his best so far came courtesy of a 65 in the Sony Open - a tricky par 70 which has always been a decent pointer towards success at Southwind.

Malnati loves putting on bermuda greens, as he demonstrated when winning his sole PGA Tour title to date in Mississippi, and there has to be a chance he's built up enough confidence in recent weeks to take a big step forward here.

"It's really nice to be here in my home state," he said a couple of years ago. "I'm 400 miles from home, but home state and I feel some support here.

"I know I grew up playing golf, amateur events here in Memphis. I know families here and my mom and my wife are here and yeah, it's certainly a home state event."

Malnati's first victory on the Web.com Tour came in Tennessee and while unable to earn a US Open spot on Monday, I don't mind that given the prices on offer.

Posted at 1120 BST on 05/06/18.

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