The week before any major tournament is always an odd time in the golfing calendar, as golfers choose between teeing it up at that week’s tournament in the hope of finding, maintaining or sharpening up their game in a competitive environment, or deciding to head to the major host course and getting a few extra practice rounds in.
This is particularly exacerbated this week as, leading up to the US Open, ‘golf’s longest day’ – the 36 hole major qualifier – took place on Monday, prompting scores of hopefuls to skip the St Jude in the hopes of guaranteeing a Shinnecock Hills tee time next week.
All of this is to say that the focus of those teeing it up this week is somewhat open to question and therefore it’s probably worth taking a few fliers with some longer odds picks rather than getting too stuck into the pre-tournament favourites.
That statement is somewhat borne out in the list of previous winners of the event, with more maiden Tour victors (4) than world top 20 winners (2) in this decade, and a host of other rank and file PGA Tour pros making up the places during that same timespan.
The venue for this week’s event is TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee, and for those that are coming here for a competitive tune up, it’s an ideal venue for the teak tough test that is the US Open. The 7,244 yard par 70 has consistently ranked amongst the toughest non-major tracks on the schedule during its 30 year history as host, as narrow fairways, smaller than average Bermudagrass greens and some of the hottest and most humid conditions players face all year combine to create an uncomfortable challenge for those competing. Given the imposing challenge presented by Southwind, the PGA Tour chiefs have decided to promote the St Jude to a World Golf Championship event, with the event shifting forward in the schedule to March from next year.
Whilst narrow fairways can ordinarily put a premium on driving accuracy off the tee, a look back at previous champions here does not appear to place any weight on this theory, with none of the winners this decade ranked in the top 10 of the driving accuracy stat during their winning performance.
By the same token, a bevy of long par 4s might ordinarily appear to give the upper hand to longer hitters, but with just two par 5s on the slate, their advantage is lessened. In fact, only Harrison Frazer who ranked 1st for driving distance in 2011, and Daniel Berger, who ranked 6th during his first win in 2016, are amongst the previous winners rated inside the top 10 of driving distance during the week of their win. Therefore, similarly to last week, all signs point to Southwind being a second shot course with a premium on hitting greens and hitting approachs as close to the hole as possible to give more makeable birdie putts on the tricky greens.
The afore-mentioned Berger is prominent in the market (30.0 at time of writing) as he bids to be the Tour’s first winner of the same event on three consecutive occasions since Steve Stricker won the John Deere Classic three straight years between 2009-2011. Berger ranked 1st in strokes gained: tee-to-green during both victories and was inside the top 7 for proximity to the hole on both occasions so those are going to be our starting points this week for stats. Given the course is a par 70, will look at par 4 scoring and consider performance on Bermudagrass greens also when assessing our picks.
The market is headed by 2012 champ Dustin Johnson (8.0), who was a fast finisher last weekend, with Brooks Koepka (11.5), Phil Mickelson (18.0) and Henrik Stenson (18.0) in close attendance. Whilst they are all a threat on any given week, I’m keen to avoid those whose attention might not be on the task at hand so we’ll be looking further down the list for our selections this week.
Luke List (51.0) has felt like a winner in waiting for some time now and this week could be his week to take that next step. A graduate of nearby Vanderbilt University, the 33 year old has clocked up four top 10s on the year to date including a runner up finish at The Honda Classic and podium finish at the Heritage – both played at courses with a premium on iron play.
He currently ranks 3rd in strokes gained tee-to-green on the season, 31st in par 4 scoring and sits 16th in the list of Bermudagrass specialists picking up 0.477 strokes per round on these green types vs his usual strokes gained ranking.
At a workable price in a weaker field, he is a very interesting proposition.
Chris Kirk (91.0) has not made the weekend on his two previous attempts at Southwind but rates a bet at a tasty price given some encouraging recent form and a statistical breakdown which suggests that it’s only a matter of time before his game translates here. The four time PGA Tour winner, who also happens to be a Tennessee native, has 8th and 11th placed finishes in his past four events and shot a third round 66 en route to eventual tie for 52nd last week. However, it’s his statistical breakdown that appeals most as he sits 19th in approach proximity, T41 in par 4 scoring and 35th in strokes gained tee-to-green – all stats that put him in the top 10% of this particular field. A classy player in his prime, he’s still dangerous in weaker events and appears overpriced this week.
Tom Hoge (180.0) fits the St Jude Classic bill of an under the radar, maiden PGA Tour winner this week and could go well at a big price. The 29 year old North Carolina native recorded his best PGA Tour finish of 3rd at the Sony Open to start the year and has a progressive formline of T76-T72-T42-T13 over the past month, with that T13 at the Memorial seeing him ranked 4th on the week for strokes gained approach and 7th in strokes gained putting. He ranks 4th on the season for proximity to the hole and has shown some ability at the course previously, with a tie for 12th on debut in 2015. Whilst he wouldn’t be a sexy pick, he’s got every chance of out running his odds and could go well.
- Luke List – 1 point @ 51.0 (lay 3 points at 10.0)
- Chris Kirk – 1 point @ 91.0 (lay 5 points @ 10.0)
- Tom Hoge – 1 point @ 180.0 (lay 8 points @ 10.0)