Golf expert Ben Coley fancies Billy Horschel to win the Wyndham Championship while there's also hope for an out-of-sorts Ryder Cup candidate.
The Wyndham Championship is evidence that PGA Tour professionals know what they’re doing when they are allowed to pick and choose which events to play.
Every year, the head of the betting for what’s now the final event of the regular season looks impenetrably strong, a collection of horses for this particular course who know exactly what it takes to score at the Donald Ross-designed Sedgefield Country Club.
This classical, tree-lined par 70 is easy enough pickings these days and will offer up a very different test to Bellerive a week ago. Here, the emphasis is on accuracy, power isn’t much of an asset and the size and shape of the greens is in total contrast. That’s why most of those who rely on hitting driver 330 on the fly simply don’t consider the Wyndham as a worthwhile stop.
What I particularly like about the tournament, especially from a punting perspective, is that it has thrown up all kinds of results. We’ve had veterans Henrik Stenson and Davis Love, youngsters Si Woo Kim and Patrick Reed, a breakthrough for Webb Simpson, a return to form for Sergio Garcia and an absolute skinner courtesy of Arjun Atwal, with little on the face of it to tie these players together.
However, look beyond just the champions and it’s pretty clear what’s required so my staking plan will focus on sharp iron players who, just as Kim did, could even win here without the help of the putter. Most of them look huge players if the flat stick does behave.
First, Billy Horschel looks the best bet from the head of the market in preference to Webb Simpson, who has been cut and, while reliable here, does have to get back on the bike having narrowly secured Ryder Cup qualification last week.
Focus shouldn’t be a problem given Simpson’s local ties and, as he named his daughter Wyndham after winning his first PGA Tour title here, this event is clearly close to his heart. He looks solid but not quite big enough to get stuck into and it’s Horschel who is preferred.
Two years ago, Horschel finished fifth here but there had already been clear hints that Sedgefield suits his game. Back in 2011 on his debut at the course, the Floridian sat sixth through 54 holes only for the pressure of round four to cost him a high finish in the formative stages of his career.
Back then, Horschel was a hot-headed type who got in his own way far too often and that probably cost him again a year later, when he’d moved onto the fringes courtesy of three sub-70 rounds before shooting a costly 73 on Sunday.
These days, he’s mellowed considerably and turned his competitive edge into a positive, one which helped him go all the way in the 2014 FedEx Cup with form figures of 2-1-1 securing him in excess of $10m and effectively altering the way the US make their Ryder Cup selections.
The second of those two victories came at East Lake, another classical Donald Ross test, and either side of that golden run he’s won in Louisiana and in Texas to confirm that this part of the US brings out his best golf.
Another victory in Louisiana earlier this year – this time with a partner – means 2018 has been a success but Horschel will still feel like he ought to have at least earned a place in the conversation for a Ryder Cup pick and I think he can do that by winning here.
Bar an out-of-the-blue success in the Byron Nelson at a course made for his game, Horschel’s success has always been telegraphed by a significant improvement in his iron play. Typically an outstanding driver, when he starts capitalising on that by firing his approaches close he quickly builds confidence.
It’s that which makes him so appealing here. Last week in the PGA, Horschel ranked seventh in strokes-gained approach and felt on Thursday that he “easily could have shot six, seven, eight-under”, and it’s notable that all others inside the top 10 in that category finished inside the top 20.
Horschel’s failure to take advantage of his approach work is obviously a negative, but this course is even more tilted towards those in control of their long-games and having ranked fourth from tee-to-green when second in the Barbasol two starts prior to that, it was no flash in the pan.
Clearly, this time of year is a good one for Horschel and at 43rd in the FedEx Cup and 95th in the world, victory here would go a long way towards locking up major starts next year and could even earn him that coveted Ryder Cup place.
Speaking of the Ryder Cup, I’m of the opinion that Sergio Garcia is up to ending the debate as to whether he’s worthy of a captain’s pick by going extremely well here.
Six years ago, Garcia arrived on the back of a missed cut (76-75) at the PGA Championship having also failed to make the weekend in the Open, yet put all that behind him to win his first PGA Tour title since the 2008 PLAYERS Championship.
Something similar is required if he’s to make the European side but while his form is a worry, I do believe it’s been overplayed. It’s not long since he was contending until the final hole of the Open de France having been 12th in Germany a week earlier, and he played nicely for three rounds at Firestone a fortnight ago.
In-between those efforts he of course missed two more major cuts, making it four for the season, but he was one shot off the required number at Bellerive last week after a costly mistake towards the end of his round.
Having also missed the cut in Canada, some have it that he’s completely lost but Garcia opened with a five-under 67 there, too, so there have been flashes of what he can do – enough to think a repeat of 2012 is within his compass.
Anywhere else and I’d err on the side of caution, but Garcia’s record at Sedgefield reads 3-4-1-29, he averages three-under per round and his association with the event goes right back to 1998, when he was handed an invite and contended here as an amateur.
The Spaniard says he’s loved the course from the moment he saw it and he knew full well what the mission was in 2012, answering questions all week. It’s easy to underestimate his mental fortitude but Garcia has it in spades and can serve up the latest demonstration by contending.
Victories for North Carolina’s Love and Simpson were very popular with the locals and it’s possible that William McGirt becomes the latest in a string of players to perform well on home soil.
(Note: McGirt complained of a hip injury when sixth in his last start and expects to miss 2019 following surgery)
Before winning at Muirfield Village two summers ago, McGirt had said that if and when his first PGA Tour title did arrive, he’d love it to be here in Greensboro as he was born a couple of hours away in Lumberton and now lives just over the border in South Carolina.
He threatened to do it, too, leading after a round-one 62 in 2015 having opened and closed with rounds of 64 a year earlier, and while there are some less impressive efforts in there it’s clear the course is one he can beat.
McGirt’s game is more about accuracy than power and he’s started to strike the ball really well lately, stringing together a run of results which reads 12-29-6 and all courtesy of sharp improvements from tee-to-green.
Now at 112th in the FedEx Cup standings, he’s got a free shot at things over the next fortnight having been out of sorts for most of the year and this self-confessed fan of Ross courses – he grew up playing one and is now a proud member of Pine Crest Country Club – looks to have turned the corner at an ideal time.
Jason Kokrak’s recent form, powered by ball-striking, catches the eye and he’s more effective at courses like this than you’d perhaps imagine, while Ollie Schniederjans is on the shortlist after hitting the crossbar for us in this event last year at twice the price he is now.
Chad Campbell is the man in position to move from outside to in when it comes to the FedEx Cup’s top 125, both in terms of his position – 126th – and the fact that he’s found form with a couple of top-10 finishes of late.
He’s respected at 100/1 having played well here in the past and finished third at the Ross-designed Oak Hill in a major championship some 15 years ago, but I can’t bring myself to back a player whose last win came over a decade ago at a price which, relatively speaking, looks short enough.
Instead, I’ll take a chance on Tyler Duncan taking to the course at the first time of asking.
Duncan has made 10 cuts in succession, with rounds of 63, 64, 65 and 66 among his recent starts, and this pure ball-striker should see this as his final realistic chance to end a solid rookie season with a victory.
Simply put, Sedgefield should be perfect for a game based around finding fairways (30th) and hitting greens (16th) and his recent numbers in both departments have been outstanding.
Duncan gained in excess of 10 strokes on the field from tee-to-green when 12th in the John Deere and over eight when 17th behind Dustin Johnson in Canada, so it really is just a matter of waiting for that putter to click and taking full advantage when it does.
There are no guarantees that it will this week, of course, but two of his top-five putting performances of the season have come in his last four starts and, here at Sedgefield, that sort of level would do nicely enough if the long-game continues to fire.
Duncan is just outside the top 100 in FedEx Cup points so his card and place in the first Playoff event are secure. The hope is he can run free, capitalising on the confidence he gained at the US Open and has built on since, and if he does that he may not be far away at all.
Hunter Mahan started brightly here last year and has taken further steps forward since to earn a place on the shortlist along with South African’s Rory Sabbatini and Tyrone van Aswegen, the latter one of those close to the FedEx Cup bubble, but my final selection is a real flier.
We have seen some huge prices land here and Harris English, at a general 200/1 or 250/1 in a place, has the class to pull a rabbit out of the hat and save his playing rights.
Once spoken of as a potentially top-class type, English has gone backwards since winning twice in 2013 and now sits 132nd in FedEx Cup points.
His highest finish this season is fifth in the Dominican Republic, but his best pound-for-pound performance came way back in January when finishing eighth at the Farmers, played on a golf course he’s extremely comfortable on.
That ought to be the case again here, where he’s never missed a cut, contended on debut only to fall to 10th and, generally speaking, has tended to hit a lot of greens.
Of course, there’s an argument that his game is so far away from where it used to be that these performances are irrelevant, but there is a small ray of light which has emerged over the last few weeks and comes courtesy of improvement off the tee.
English has been destructively bad with driver in particular for some time now, but from the Quicken Loans to the Barbasol gained shots four weeks running and it was a cold putter which cost him in the latter and then in Canada one week later.
Last time out, he ended that run of missed cuts, albeit with a low-key result in a weak field, but it’s something to cling onto and when players of his class have their backs against the way, just occasionally they find the right answers.
English has a very strong record on Ross designs in general, his winning form plus efforts at Sawgrass, Colonial, Waialae and Hilton Head correlates nicely, and just maybe he’s improved sufficiently off the tee to be the one to write the FedEx Cup story this week.
Posted at 1620 BST on 14/08/18