Ben Coley expects some of golf's biggest powerhouses to come out firing in the Travelers Championship, with Justin Thomas nominated as the best bet.
The first two weeks of PGA Tour golf this summer have been utterly enthralling. We've already had one play-off, and ought to have had two; Abraham Ancer deserved a little more than he got in South Carolina on Sunday, and Webb Simpson's putter probably ought to have been asked to go and perform another miracle in what would have been a Monday play-off.
Winners have been there to find, helping to at least undermine if not dispel concerns that, now everything is new, everything before would count for little. Simpson was a well-backed 28/1 chance at a course made for his game. Before that, Daniel Berger picked up where he left off in the spring, the hiatus doing nothing to cool one of the hottest players in the sport. There will be those who backed both.
My selections have been a little underwhelming, and it's certainly been a frustrating fortnight from that perspective. Both events could've ended in a decent each-way payout, but ultimately it has been an expensive resumption. I'm very hopeful, though, that the Travelers is where things change, because TPC River Highlands might just serve up something closer to obvious than predictable, and I'm not about to turn down the chance to take advantage.
JUSTIN THOMAS is, for my money, absolutely ideal for this and whether you want to go win-only or continue to tap into enhanced each-way markets, my advice is to get with the player I consider to be the most likely winner of the tournament.
Unlike in previous years, where the Travelers sat on the back of the US Open and allowed for opportunists like Chez Reavie to catch some of the giants sleeping, or Bubba Watson to put another poor effort in his national championship behind him, there should be no excuses for the game's best players here on what's a quality, fair golf course.
Without disparaging Harbour Town, which is popular partly because it is so different, it's a course which does its best to frustrate the modern golfer and it's perhaps little surprise that the finish was eventually fought out between two who are something of a throwback, in their own individual ways.
Thomas finds his aggressive nature shackled at such courses and it took until the weekend for him to flourish, carding a 66 he called the worst of his life on Saturday, before Sunday's run through the field was stopped in its tracks by some seriously unfortunate timing. Standing over an 11-foot birdie putt at the 17th, Thomas had eyes on shooting 61 to post 19-under and it might have made the leaders think twice had thunderstorms not arrived.
As it was, the late starters sailed past 19-under as Thomas had to settle for 17, his momentum halted at the penultimate hole before his drive ran through the fairway and likely cost him a final birdie chance at the last. In the end, it was about the right result: victory would have been outright theft, and a top-10 finish is probably as good as we should've expected at a golf course like Harbour Town.
River Highlands might be another Pete Dye design which is short on the scorecard, but its fairways are wider, and the minor details paint a very different picture. This is an altogether more rounded test, with the short 15th, two reachable par-fives and a sensible set of par-threes set against a series of mid-to-long par-fours which remain demanding, and tend to determine the outcome of the tournament.
Thomas has been the most consistent par-four scorer around since 2017, ranking second, third, third again, and currently sitting third for this truncated 2020 season. More so than most at the top of the sport, he builds his scoring around these holes and that's a reflection of how strong he is with mid-to-short irons and wedges. Although, let's face it, this isn't a game with a real weakness.
Since the resumption his irons have fired, his driving has started to improve, and River Highlands is the course he's most familiar with of the three visited so far. That's another small advantage he has over some of his chief rivals, his relationship with this tournament dating back to a 2013 invite which saw him finish 30th as an amateur. He thought he played terribly, which perhaps explains much of what he's achieved since.
It's not that 2013 effort which really encourages me, nor a closing 62 for third in 2016, rather it's last year when he ranked second in strokes-gained tee-to-green only to finish dead last of 70 in putting. That tells us a share of 36th does no justice at all to his performance - in fact he was a quarter of a shot worse than Reavie when you combine everything bar the putter, which can be written off completely as an aberration, especially as it came on the heels of Pebble Beach and the US Open.
One year on and he's putting and swinging well, hours of lockdown work with his dad, Mike, paying dividends. He left Harbour Town delighted with where his game is, and said he'd have posted 30-under 'if I had a putter worth a crap the last three days'. That's a little over the top - his putting stats were pretty solid - but it tells us just where he feels his game is.
And that really is the key with Thomas. Go through all of the world's very best players and not one of them has a stronger relationship between wins and what happened in their previous start. Eight of his 12 titles have followed a top-10 finish, and the only time he's won after a missed cut came on the back of the 2018 Open Championship, that links form proving irrelevant when he rocked up at Firestone.
With Rory McIlroy clearly below his best over the last fortnight, seemingly unsettled by not being able to stick to his workout regimen and having had his own momentum halted by the break, it's Thomas who looks the man to beat here. And while this is a stacked field, that's been true of most of his wins, which have come along about once every seven starts over the last four years. As with most of the best players around, you'd be laughing if you'd backed him blind.
The fairness of this course, a spot of rain to soften it up, and the fact we're in week three rather than week one, convinces me we're in for a particularly strong leaderboard, and I wouldn't be ruling out McIlroy given he's gone round here in 64 twice already. Bryson DeChambeau's tee-to-green game seems sure to earn him a weekend chance and Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose have returned to form, as Jon Rahm surely will soon.
But it's DUSTIN JOHNSON who looks overpriced as the chief threat among the best players around and he's put up accordingly.
Johnson has struggled since last summer, both with his fitness and behind-the-scenes as he decided to end a longstanding relationship with Claude Harmon, before going back to work with his old coach late in 2019.
That explains much of what went wrong following the PGA Championship, and we can probably draw a line under it and begin to look forward to a return to his best over the coming months, with last week's share of 17th enough to suggest he could win again as early as this Sunday.
Johnson has taken some time to restore his long-game, but the RBC Heritage suggested he might just have done it. Off the tee, it was his best performance since last summer's Canadian Open; his approach shots haven't been as good since the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Combined, he gained more than eight strokes across those two, vital departments. Typically, he wins when he gains around 10.
Finding those extra couple of shots could be as simple as returning to River Highlands, where he can generally choose between three-wood and driver - it'll be the former at that short 15th hole, but he can reduce the par-five 13th to driver-short iron and even get the big stick out and fire down the corridor of the 18th hole if he wishes.
Johnson, who said he has 'got a lot of confidence in the game' last week, hasn't played here since 2014, preferring to take a week off after typically contending for a US Open. Now, he's able to return to a course I'm sure works for him, with an opening brace of 66s back then enough to suggest as much along with a solid effort in his rookie season six years before that.
It's not surprising he faded in 2014, either, as it was his seventh week in succession and he was planning to go on holiday right after. Six years on and while the Travelers would back then have been an inconvenience, now it appears as though it arrives at just the right time. If he can just sharpen up slightly on and around the greens from last week he could burst back into the winner's enclosure at a price we just don't often see next to his name.
Hopes of Johnson doing so are enhanced by wins at Austin Country Club and Crooked Stick, two other Dye designs, plus the fact that nobody - not even Bubba - has enjoyed greater success on this type of bentgrass/poa annua putting surface. Half of his 20 PGA Tour wins have come on greens similar to these, with his body of work in California particularly encouraging.
Ancer has (not unreasonably) been cut to 33/1 on the back of a simply awesome ball-striking display and is left out as a consequence, with JOAQUIN NIEMANN considered a superior talent and better value.
For all of Ancer's consistency, which should translate into victories beyond the Australian Open soon enough, he lacks the explosive ability of Niemann and the Chilean was almost as impressive from tee-to-green when fifth at the Heritage.
Significantly, that was his first start at the course. Now, he gets to return to Connecticut for another go at the Travelers Championship, where he carded four rounds in the sixties last summer to also finish fifth, doing everything well having not arrived in obviously good form.
It's no coincidence that Niemann's breakthrough on the PGA Tour came at the course he knew best, and I also believe it not to be a coincidence that it came in West Virginia, because in a short career at this level he's generally been most effective on bentgrass as the Tour edges up the east coast.
In fact, Niemann said last weekend that he felt like he was still figuring out bermuda, so a switch to surfaces which are much more similar to the Greenbrier has the potential to turn a negative putting figure into a positive one, which would give him a huge chance at a course where he can play the game the way he wants to play it, working shots left and right, high and low, as necessary.
Although we're a long way from West Virginia, look through the book of bentgrass courses and you'll see a sizeable upturn - in fact I'd go as far as to say all of his best form coincides with it. Not only has he been first and fifth at the Greenbrier, he's been fifth here and at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Michigan, sixth at the Memorial in Ohio, 10th at the John Deere in Illinois and 17th at Potomac in Maryland.
Combined with his form and ability, and the fact he's competed with the best already this year at the Tournament of Champions, and Niemann justifies the contracting price in an event where I expect either a superstar or a superstar-in-waiting to get it done.
Patrick Cantlay waltzed round here in 60 blows as an amateur, a course record which stood until Jim Furyk's 58, and is hugely respected, but I put him up at 28/1 for the PLAYERS and it's hard to support him at a similar price here. The reason for that is he's not played since, likely conceding a sharpness advantage to the very best players in the world, and I would want compensating for that.
Similarly, albeit at a much bigger price, the case for Doc Redman last week doesn't quite carry over yet he's now shorter in the market. For those who haven't had an eye on him, the youngster was again brilliant with his irons, and off the tee, as he finished 21st. I lost count of the short putts missed but those four shots he lost around the greens ultimately cost him a top 10 and he'll pop up if he does find a short-game.
To complete the set of recent-selections-who-threatened, Brian Harman will do for many here at a best of 80/1. He has an excellent record at the course and back-to-back top-30 finishes, when selected on these pages, set him up nicely for it. I thought it was interesting that he said Harbour Town actually doesn't set up well for him and he was very bullish about his prospects now playing a course that does.
Bullishness counts for plenty, particularly for a habitual underdog like Harman, but he too looks to have been found and I'm happy to stick to three, despite compelling cases for Patrick Rodgers and Bud Cauley at prices, and the temptation to chance Jason Day and Phil Mickelson one more time.
Posted at 2000 BST on 22/06/20
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