Ben Coley has two selections for the Palmetto Championship, where a new course makes for a difficult puzzle to solve.
1.5pts e.w. Harold Varner at 40/1 (BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
1pt e.w. Seamus Power at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Come July and the Open Championship, part of the challenge will be to assess the worth of a warm-up game at The Renaissance Club, which will host the Scottish Open a week earlier. It's a familiar dance we perform prior to most majors, and in many ways part of the fun. How much of a role did Hideki Matsuyama's ho-hum Texas Open effort play in a historic Masters win? Would Dustin Johnson not have won the same event in November had he skipped Houston a week before?
The truth of it is that preparation is personal, and need not require imitation. Yes, it can help some to get ready for a links challenge on another links course, but if Johnson or Brooks Koepka go on to win the US Open next week, the Palmetto Championship will have played its part. That it is set to contrast Torrey Pines in almost every way, from geography to agronomy, doesn't have to matter.
Congaree Golf Club looks like it could be one of the highlights of the PGA Tour season, and it's a shame that this event is a one-off to fill the void left by another cancelled Canadian Open. Designed by Tom Fazio, it features in various lists which rank America's best private golf clubs, and the promise of firm, fast conditions, shaved run-offs, nothing in the way of rough and tricky, raised greens whets the appetite more than a sadly but not surprisingly poor field.
A new course, on the eve of a major, and with US Open qualifiers having taken place on Monday guarantees a degree of guesswork, but we at least know that at 7,655 yards, this is the longest par 71 on the PGA Tour. We also know that Luke List holds the course record, and those two things perhaps suggest power will be particularly important.
"It’s a golf course that really on paper does not suit my game," said regular visitor William McGirt, apparently confirming that view. "When you look at the scorecard and you see 7,800 yards, I’m not a bomber. So you have a very long golf course with no real penalty off the tee for spraying it."
Then again, firm and fast comes up in every article relating to Congaree, and could dramatically shorten the course. I tend to take such comments with a pinch of salt, because for reasons unbeknown to me, the PGA Tour appears to regard firm and fast as the exact opposite of desired conditions. How much control it will have given that this course is built on sand and made to get rid of the rain which has been falling is just one more unknown to add to the list.
My suspicion is that by the end of the week, we might be asking ourselves why we didn't back in-form Koepka in a really weak field, but the advice has to be to tread carefully. If you are having a bet, make it a smaller, speculative one, or even take 18 holes to gather some evidence. Being in the dark isn't always a bad thing, because the other side are too, but there are too many unknowns for comfort.
Of the realistic winners, HAROLD VARNER stands out for a few reasons and is one of just two selections.
First of all, while length should be beneficial, more than once this has been described as a second-shot course. Missing greens in the wrong spots certainly seems the surest route to trouble, and at 42nd in strokes-gained approach, Varner is one of the very best iron players in this field.
He also has some form which might correlate quite well, namely his efforts at Liberty National and Riviera, two of the longest par 71s on the circuit, as well as his victory in the Australian PGA Championship. This course is built in the image of ones like Royal Melbourne, and though Royal Pines is not part of the famous Melbourne sandbelt, it boasts similar characteristics.
Then we've some local ties, Varner calling neighbouring North Carolina his home. Here in South Carolina, he was second in The Heritage in April and went on to play nicely enough in the PGA Championship, and his only blip lately came in the Wells Fargo in Charlotte, NC. Varner says that's his fifth major and perhaps put a little too much emphasis on playing well in it, but he was seventh in North Carolina at last year's Wyndham.
More recently he shot 64-67 through the middle rounds at Colonial and then finished mid-pack at the Memorial, where his iron play dipped. That he nevertheless comfortably made the weekend tells you Varner's all-round game is in good shape: in fact, he is gaining strokes throughout the bag this season, and among this field ranks fourth in strokes-gained total, a decent enough gauge of overall form.
This is his fourth start in succession, but Varner placed on his fifth and sixth starts back in 2018, and at 79th in the world this looks a really good opportunity to pass his previous high (73rd) and push on towards that all-important top 50. Above all else I think he's a little better than 40/1 says he is.
Big-hitting Keith Mitchell makes some appeal from the same section of the market. Proven on bermuda greens and with a PGA Tour victory to his name, he should go well here if able to bounce back from the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a US Open place on Monday.
Fellow Honda Classic winner Sungjae Im is a bermuda specialist who starred in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, but he's been out of sorts and odds of 20/1 don't quite reflect that. This is true of several players at the front of the market, including Johnson himself, and with eve-of-major shocks fairly common, the rest of my shortlist is made up of players who seldom feature in these columns.
The only one of them who makes the staking plan is SEAMUS POWER, who appears to be in good form and will certainly benefit from the space off the tee which is on offer here.
It was a similar set-up at the recent Byron Nelson, another event which visited a new course, which helped Power to contend and eventually finish ninth. Long having been errant with driver in hand, courses which afford him some extra room are always going to help.
"I like it," was his assessment of Craig Ranch. "It's easier off the tee I guess a little bit longer, but my irons, as I said my irons have been good, so I feel like get after a lot of pins that some other guys can't, and then my wedges and putting have been good the last two weeks.
"All in all, feel like any time I tee it up here I'm going to have a pretty good chance."
Power got away with poor driving there and if the same is true at Congaree, his dazzling short-game, and that improvement in his approaches, could prove an ideal formula.
The Irishman also boasts some strong form both in South Carolina and on Fazio designs. In fact, one course ticks both boxes, and he was 10th at Thornblade, while finishes of T5 and T7 at Fazio's Corales Puntacana layout again tie in with that additional room. That he's been sixth at Harbour Town, the PGA Tour's regular South Carolina stop, is another small positive for all the courses look very much unalike.
Power withdrew from his US Open qualifier on Monday when his chance had gone, however he was just a couple of holes from the finish in Georgia, and was five-under for his second round having shot level for his first. Added to ninth place in the Nelson and a similar finish on the Korn Ferry Tour in April and his bank of form suddenly looks quite strong in a field such as this one.
Overcoming the disappointment of failing to qualify for Torrey Pines might be a slight worry, but Power was T12 in the St Jude Classic in 2018, days after losing a play-off to make it to Shinnecock. He held the first-round lead that week and another strong start could follow in an event which might just be made for him.
Back in 2011, Harrison Frazar qualified for the US Open, then won the St Jude Classic in a play-off, his sole PGA Tour win. Since then it's been an unsurprising mixed bag in terms of how those featuring in 'golf's longest day' have performed when taking up an engagement on the PGA Tour the same week.
Last time this applied, in 2019, the field for the Canadian Open was particularly strong, Rory McIlroy eventually winning in style. With that in mind, Collin Morikawa, Erik van Rooyen and Sepp Straka performed quite well having earned places at Pebble Beach on Monday, for all the latter appeared to run out of steam at the weekend.
In 2017, Stewart Cink went from qualifying nearby to leading through 54 holes in Memphis, where three of the eventual top 10 behind Daniel Berger had followed the same path. One of them was Meenwhee Kim, who lost a play-off to make the US Open field, but bounced back to finish T2. Scott Brown meanwhile shared the first-round lead with Cink having also suffered play-off heartache less than 72 hours earlier.
All of this is to say that players will respond in different ways, but the dynamics of this particular week are slightly different. Congaree is new to most of this field, yet many of those in the Ohio qualifier won't arrive until Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, and their preparation could be difficult — not least because of the nature of a course which does offer options off the tee.
JT Poston sealed his US Open spot and was therefore able to fly in on Monday night, which puts him at an advantage along with Chez Reavie and Rafa Cabrera Bello. Throw in the fact Poston already knows and loves Congaree, and has won the Wyndham Championship in neighbouring North Carolina, his home state, and he becomes somewhat interesting at 100/1.
As for List, he of the course record, I'd be slightly worried he withdrew from his US Open qualifier a day before teeing off, given his history with injuries. Still, his best performances this season have come on longer courses, and we only have to go back to the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek for evidence of how valuable a little extra knowledge can be when most players are visiting for the first time.
Erik van Rooyen has links form and a touch of class, and he too is on course to make the US Open, but the fact he's yet to finish his second round in Ohio is a worry. My best guess is that he will withdraw from this tournament as soon as that place at Torrey Pines is confirmed, and he surely will not be alone with others likely to follow.
Sung Kang could be among them but he has at least completed his 36 holes, and looks set to scrape into the field for the third major of the season after an excellent second round. Kang is a PGA Tour winner who might feel he doesn't need to come to the Palmetto Championship, but he is way down the FedEx Cup standings and on balance I expect him to stick to the schedule, perhaps keen to do what he did in 2019 and win an event on a new course on the eve of a major.
Most of all, I like the small signs of improved form he's shown lately, shoring up his driving, stepping up markedly with his irons at the Memorial, and also sharpening up around the greens. All these have been small steps in the right direction but middle rounds of 65-66 at Colonial, 32nd last week and Monday's performance are all encouraging for a player with a definite touch of class in this grade.
Kang is prone to wild swings in form but can be electric with his irons, and is used to making up for some errant tee shots. He's another to consider at three-figure prices, but whether he makes the US Open automatically or not, he will have to hang around for a few more hours on Tuesday in case he's required for a play-off, and that isn't ideal.
Tyler McCumber is a big-hitter whose closest call came on a Fazio design, Vincent Whaley's excellent run extended to Monday where he was close to qualifying, and Satoshi Kodaira has found form in the wake of Matsuyama's Masters win. All are respected at prices along with Hank Lebioda, whose approach play has been very good, and Kevin Chappell, who plays long courses well, has links form, and shot a pair of bogey-free 66s on the Korn Ferry Tour two weeks ago.
Chappell in particular is really tempting at 200/1 but I suspect he's still not quite ready to put four rounds together at this level, which is the challenge that faces new professionals John Pak and Davis Thompson. Both arrive in the paid ranks having been world-class amateurs, whose recent form is good, and comparisons with Matt Wolff (won on third pro start) and Collin Morikawa (sixth) are easy to draw.
Then there's Bryson Nimmer, a capable local who is in on an invite. He has finished 25th and 27th in his two Korn Ferry Tour starts recently and was 39th in the Puerto Rico Open in February. A missed cut at the Heritage is also on his form chart but the way he responded to a shocking 80 in round one, with a Friday 68, was admirable, and he's not the worst bet for a top-20 finish at 11/1.
As you can tell, there's a lack of conviction here, and when your shortlist looks like mine, you either throw some darts, or determine that it might be a week to keep something back. I've opted for the latter.
Posted at 1120 BST on 08/06/21
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