Rickie Fowler can upstage Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in the Memorial Tournament - that's the view of our golf expert Ben Coley.
The Memorial Tournament shares much in common with the Masters. Both are played on courses so manicured that they appear as if from another world. One will make you a major champion, the other has Jack Nicklaus as host. And for all the pimento cheese sandwiches of Augusta National, Muirfield Village boasts milkshakes whose reviews are so unanimously positive that you’d think twice before lobbing one at a far-right MP.
Augusta is of course considered to be a broad, all-around test, but with wide fairways and little in the way of rough, it’s little wonder the best iron players in the sport have thrived there. Indeed, the best iron player the sport has ever seen won there for the fifth time six weeks ago, and Tiger Woods now returns to another of his happiest hunting grounds, otherwise known as Jack’s Place.
Woods won’t start favourite because of the presence of Rory McIlroy, but he will do for many. If you’re willing to forgive a missed cut at the US PGA, there aren’t many negatives at a course where he won in 1999, 2000 and 2001, latterly by seven, and then twice more in 2009 and 2012. With Nicklaus courses always categorised as ‘second-shot’, he’s got an excellent chance.
As for McIlroy, he’s long looked like a Memorial winner in waiting. In fact, his seven starts here look a lot like his 11 starts at Augusta and one day you’d expect the door to swing open – probably at both. He stayed the course for a top-10 finish in the PGA last time and does look the most likely champion, even if he’s not really threatened since that electric finish to the PLAYERS Championship in March.
However, whether because of its position in the schedule or some other factor which is hard to compute, the Memorial hasn’t necessarily got the roll-of-honour you’d expect – certainly not in recent years.
The likes of William McGirt and David Lingmerth have upstaged Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose respectively, and beyond the front two in the market there are reasons to question whether this smaller-than-typical field is as strong as its host deserves.
Johnson isn’t here, neither is Brooks Koepka, and Justin Thomas is bound to be rusty on his first start since the Masters. Thomas hasn’t been taking a voluntary break, rather nursing an injured wrist, and the fact that he’s joint-third-best in the betting along with Patrick Cantlay and Justin Rose tells you something.
For once, I find myself surprised that Rickie Fowler isn’t considered the most likely winner of the tournament outside the big two and he therefore gets the headline vote.
Fowler’s missed cut at Colonial last week probably explains the price, but it shouldn’t really be a factor. He was caught up in some foul weather on Thursday afternoon and was quickly out of the running, just like Rose and Xander Schauffele, but the way he battled back on Friday suggests it was a mere bump in the road.
Despite not putting as well as he usually does and therefore failing to sustain a title bid at the Masters, it’s been a good year for Fowler, who finally broke his duck in Phoenix back in February.
That event had been a source of great frustration for him and the same is true of this one, where he’s twice been runner-up and played well again for eighth last year.
Fowler’s wider form at Jack Nicklaus-designed courses includes victory in the Honda Classic, always a nice pointer here, and given how comfortable he is on fast, undulating greens, it makes perfect sense that he’s at home at Muirfield Village.
Hideki Matsuyama’s form at the course entitles him to respect, too, but Fowler – who tends to contend on his final start before a major – looks more reliable. He’s preferred to Cantlay, who seems sure to play well, of course, but has gone off twice the price (and more) at both majors this season. I can't quite see what would make them equals now.
As well as that Nicklaus form at places like Anandale, Montreux, Glen Abbey and even Harbour Town, it’s certainly worth a glance at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the other PGA Tour event which has been played in Ohio.
Matsuyama has won both titles, but what’s really interesting is the record of some of the lower lights across both courses. Take McGirt and Lingmerth, for example – they’ve both won here, and in three starts between them in elite company in the Bridgestone have never failed to make the top 10.
Last year’s final edition at Firestone, where Woods has long dominated, saw Kyle Stanley finish second. He’d lost a play-off for the Memorial two and a half months earlier. In sixth was Anirban Lahiri, who was second here a couple of years ago, and alongside him was Cantlay, who looked like winning for much of the 2019 edition.
These are strong ties which relate to the fact that tournaments in this part of the United States are few and far between. Plus, both Firestone and Muirfield are classical, parkland courses where strong drivers have thrived, and with the former disappearing from the schedule, it’s absolute worth pulling at the thread while we can.
As such, I’ll give Aaron Wise another spin at three-figure prices.
This brilliant young talent might have missed the cut here last year, but that's easily forgiven. Wise had gone on a run of 2-1-MC in the preceding three weeks and needed a break to reflect on what was an imperious breakthrough in Texas.
In fact it took him until Firestone to click, and it’s sixth place there which throws him onto the radar for the Memorial at another long course where taking advantage of the par-fives is vital.
Since finishing an admirable 17th on his Masters debut, Wise has started to hint that he’s ready to contend once more. Off the tee in particular he’s been outstanding, and for all this course’s reputation as a test of iron play, a look at the roll-of-honour shows players whose entire careers have been built around the big stick.
On the back of another strong ball-striking week in the PGA Championship, the third in a row where he ranked inside the top 25 for strokes-gained tee-to-green, the 22-year-old is a solid putting week away from hitting the frame and will very much do for me.
Cameron Champ also makes the shortlist with his driver having clicked again recently. In the three events to start the season, he ranked first, second and first for SG: off-the-tee, picking up his first title along the way, so it’s encouraging that he’s been third and fifth in his last two.
However, there appear to be some underlying issues in other departments so even the standout 200/1 isn’t enough to tempt me in, and instead it’s Billy Horschel who goes in next.
Of all this week’s bigger-priced selections, Horschel is the one I like most as he arrives on the back of his best iron performance since the PLAYERS, which was in turn his best since that red-hot FedEx Cup run last September.
Horschel’s PGA Tour successes have in the main come soon after his long-game clicks, and having also led the field off the tee in Texas, where he finished 19th, that is absolutely the case here.
Of course, bad luck would have it that this upturn coincided with the sort of poor putting week which has become rare for the Floridian, however he’s relied upon to prove that a blip and get back to taking chances.
Having gone close at Anandale, Harbour Town and PGA National, played well in both starts at Montreux and produced some eye-catching rounds here, Horschel’s Nicklaus form is strong and he’s been on a consistent run of form since the spring.
All that has been missing is the driver. Having ranked 17th off-the-tee last year and regularly inside the top 40 on Tour before that, Horschel is down at 127th this time, and that’s why leading the field at Colonial felt like a significant turnaround.
When coupled with what's been a more steady improvement with his approach shots, it looks like he's the sort of player about to turn a top-20 finish into a top-five.
Gary Woodland boasts a profile similar to that of Cantlay, in that he should play well but doesn’t scream value, and I’d prefer to take a chance on the classier Henrik Stenson next at something in the region of 50/1.
Granted, it’s not been a brilliant year for the Swede, but he’s certainly started to turn things around and there was a lot to like about the way he fought to make the weekend at Bethpage.
Ultimately, an uber-long golf course, softened by rain and with thick rough surrounding greens was just not what he wants yet there were only two players in the field who produced better numbers with their approach shots.
Should Stenson bring either that or his earlier efforts in Texas and North Carolina with him to Ohio, then he should have plenty of opportunities on a course where he contended in 2012 and shot 66 on his way to 13th place when returning from a five-year absence last year.
It's taken time for the veteran, who turned 43 last month, to adjust to not having Gareth Lord alongside him. Recent evidence suggests he's getting there and with a big summer ahead, it's time to get the blood pumping on a Sunday afternoon rather than a Friday evening.
Louis Oosthuizen is driving the ball well and is playing much better than his form figures suggest. The South African nosedived over the weekend of both the PGA and the Masters, but was inside the top 10 at halfway in each and might see things through a little better here.
He’s respected along with Jason Kokrak, whose form has been so consistently good for so long that he must fancy his chances of improving upon a miserable return at this particular course.
Kokrak grew up in Ohio and is preferred to Luke List of the big-hitting options around the 80/1 mark, but there’s more to this test than blasting away off the tee and the final name off my list was probably that of Abraham Ancer.
The Mexican fired an opening 65 to lead here last year and while fading thereafter, it was a sign that he could threaten on his second appearance at Muirfield Village. The course certainly holds fond memories, as he explained in the interview room after that scintillating Thursday opener.
“My freshman year of college I got the Jack Nicklaus Award and I got to come here as a freshman, Sunday, get that award from Jack,” he said.
“That was incredible and I just I can't imagine, it was like deja vu walking the fairways, watching from outside and now playing. It's a dream come true obviously.”
Having been fifth at Glen Abbey, also placed in Maryland at the Quicken Loans National and bagged a share of 15th just a couple of weeks ago at the PGA, there’s plenty to like about this solid driver at three-figure prices.
Russell Knox could also go well – he has Nicklaus form, likes fast greens and bagged a top-10 finish last week – while Joaquin Niemann also deserves a mention having been a close sixth here last year.
Posted at 1315 BST on 28/05/19.