After a 70/1 winner and 30/1 runner-up in The Open Championship, don’t miss Ben Coley’s preview of the WGC-St Jude Invitational.
Royal Portrush to TPC Southwind. I don’t even know where to start with that. The new PGA Tour schedule, though, does mean one high-class event follows another as 64 of the world’s best head to Memphis for the penultimate World Golf Championship event of 2019. Some of them may even prefer this to The Open and certainly, they’re in for better weather and more reliable bounces: this is golf at its most comfortable for the elite.
Tiger Woods and his ailing back are absent – perhaps next year he’ll skip the Open and play the St Jude instead (ed: this is a joke) – but just about everyone else is in town for a no-cut, big-money shootout. Heck, even Shane Lowry is in the field as I write. Whether he’ll see one ball or two when he settles down on that first tee is another matter entirely and it’s hard not to chuckle at the fact the layers make him as likely to win this week as he was last.
Let’s deal with the formalities first. This event is not really new, and neither is the course, but they marry up for the first time. We are effectively talking about the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which used to be played a fortnight after The Open Championship and at Firestone. It is now a week earlier on the schedule and about 600 miles southwest, so when it comes to assessments around cadence and jet-lag, the Canadian Open might be a better form guide. That’s the event which used to offer a nice, relaxed return to this side of the Atlantic.
Then again, we’ve years of course form here because Southwind, a straightforward if not simple par 70, has long played host to the FedEx St Jude Classic on the eve of the US Open. It was won for a second time last year by Dustin Johnson, who signed off a top-of-his-game success with a hole-out eagle, and there’s nobody in this field who has played the course better than the world number two.
At double-figure prices, DJ will do for many but there remain nagging concerns around the state of his game. There were some positives last week, particularly with how he hit the ball, but shuffling his coaching pack, constantly switching putters and generally being less reliable than usual represent real concerns and clear preference is for Rory McIlroy.
Outside of the majors, I don’t think anyone has been better than these two this year, but it’s McIlroy who can finish stronger after an emotional, motivating week back home at Royal Portrush.
McIlroy’s disaster Thursday and rampant Friday will have taken a lot out of him, as well as all the pre-tournament chat, and when it comes to his chances this week I’ve no doubt a weekend off will have done him the world of good.
What’s more, he got to witness Shane Lowry do what he could not and win The Open, and it’s pretty obvious McIlroy was both proud of his potential future Olympic team-mate and inspired by what he witnessed, not just on Sunday but in the days before, too.
Anyone who saw McIlroy’s interview with Sky Sports on Friday night will recognise that he was far less emotional when winning each of his four majors, and when failing spectacularly at Augusta in 2011. This was a real awakening: after years living abroad, he finally came to realise how loved he is at home, how important that home is to him, and perhaps even that he cares deeply about what he achieves in the game.
It could be that a glorious failure at Portrush, where he shot a second-round 65 in difficult conditions to miss the cut by a single shot, precedes a return to the very top of the sport. That’s not to say it will be easy – the competition has improved since he dominated in the summer of 2014 – but McIlroy is absolutely capable of being the best in the world.
Off the tee this year, he’s been that by miles, and Southwind is a great course for those who hit it long and straight. In fact, seven of the last eight winners here topped the tee-to-green charts for the week. McIlroy is half a shot clear of second in this year’s T2G stats. You have to scroll to the final two positions, 197th and 198th, for a gap between two players which is anywhere near as wide.
Not that we need to guess that Southwind suits – we’ve already seen enough to suggest that it does. Back in 2012, Rory’s latest visit, he was the halfway leader and ranked third tee-to-green; in 2010, on his debut in the tournament, he sat 10th at halfway despite not having his best stuff. The fact that he played so well seven years ago is particularly encouraging given that he arrived in poor form – in fact that was the reason he added the event to his schedule.
But it’s not that the switch to Southwind is a positive. McIlroy, after all, was among those who adored Firestone, where he won convincingly once. It’s that he’s already just about worthy of favouritism, and that we could get ahead of the game by forecasting a golden end to a complicated year.
“I learned a lot over the last few days and I’m more motivated than ever to become the golfer and competitor I know I can be,” Rory said on Monday. “Thank you for believing in me and know that I’m giving my absolute most every time I tee up.”
I’ve been doing this long enough to know that McIlroy is the ultimate polarising golfer, and that views tend to be so entrenched that his reaction to The Open won’t change many minds. But I was there on Friday, a magical evening that will live long in the memory, and I saw a player who went through an experience which will change him as a person and could change him as a player.
If it doesn’t, he’s still Rory McIlroy. If it does, maybe he can get back to being, as old caddie JP Fitzgerald famously told him, Rory f***ing McIlroy. The latter would be hard to stop at a course like this one and he’s worth a good bet at double-figure prices.
With doubts around Johnson’s overall form, Jon Rahm being no great fan of Bermuda and Justin Rose’s ball-striking a concern after a torrid Sunday, the eye is drawn to effective defending champion Justin Thomas as potentially the biggest threat to McIlroy in an event which will be dominated by the best players.
Thomas is in fact second in those tee-to-green standings, one place up on 2018, and it was a turnaround in his iron play which triggered both his WGC-Bridgestone Invitational success and the major triumph at Quail Hollow one year earlier.
This has certainly been a good time of year for him, and now back from injury with the approach work firing again he looks set for a strong finish to what’s certainly been a frustrating campaign.
Thomas is a course debutant, but these TPC layouts don’t tend to take a lot of knowing and this has been a good tournament for first-time visitors in the past.
Its greens are bermuda, which this Alabama native who lives in Florida should and indeed does love, and when it comes to correlating courses the mind wanders to PGA National, home of the Honda Classic, where he won last spring.
“I feel like I'm really, really playing well, and I'm close to… I'm even closer than I was in the middle of the season into reeling something good off,” he said at Portrush last week on the back of a productive fortnight of links golf, and this former world number one is primed to go well.
Bryson DeChambeau and Hideki Matsuyama both make some appeal, albeit the former hasn’t played well here in two previous visits. They’re also on the list of players who should finish the season on a high along with Patrick Reed and perhaps even Jordan Spieth.
However, it’s Billy Horschel who looks the best each-way value at a best of 80/1 – despite a missed cut at the Open.
For all that Horschel loves heading to the UK and Ireland, his links record is average and as a quality, high-hitting ball-striker it’s no wonder his best form has come much closer to home.
It includes that famous victory on the bermuda greens of East Lake, a breakthrough in Louisiana where he’s also won a pairs event since, and an excellent record in the aforementioned Honda Classic.
At 32nd in the tee-to-green standings, he’s showing the sort of long-game control we need to see from him and he’s been improving steadily as the year goes on, enough to raise hopes of a FedEx Cup repeat and maybe a Presidents Cup debut if he really fires.
Horschel has four top-10 finishes in his last five Southwind appearances, over which time his scoring average is a rock-solid 68.70, and he’s in a select group of genuine course admirers, calling it among his top-five on the circuit.
Horschel’s FedEx Cup run five years ago came after a missed cut at The Barclays and I would not be at all surprised to see him bounce back in style here.
Posted at 2020 BST on 22/07/19