CHARLES SCHWAB CHALLENGE: It’s been three months since the PGA Tour paused its schedule, and I’m sure Hideki Matsuyama is still bitter about his beautiful Thursday 63 at TPC Sawgrass being rendered meaningless. The rest of us have had far more significant concerns lately, like staying alive, not unwittingly killing our parents and/or grandparents, and, more recently, social justice and the effects of civil unrest here in the States.
Given that backdrop and a sporting public that is thirsting for action like never before, I don’t think it’s over-dramatic to suggest that this is the most significant staging of the tournament now known as the Charles Schwab Challenge in the event’s 74-year history. The field is absolutely stacked, as the players are apparently as eager as the rest of us to get back to life as normal: the top five in the world rankings are all in attendance, and the middle of the market is reminiscent of what you generally see at a major or a WGC event– quality players with big, fat prices next to their names. Considering the caliber of champion that this tournament normally produces– a major champion has donned the tartan plaid jacket in 6 of the past 10 years, for instance– and the loaded field, I think we can expect this week to play out very much like a major championship, with the world’s top players battling it out on a classic golf course that’s stood the test of time.
Making it this far in the preview without mentioning the host course is truly burying the lede, because that course– the historic Colonial Country Club in Ft. Wort, Texas– will undoubtedly be the star of the show this week. Dubbed “Hogan’s Alley” after the legendary Iceman triumphed here five times, Colonial is an old-style layout full of doglegs, narrow tree-lined fairways, and small, tricky green complexes. It’s not particularly long, measuring 7,200 yards, and several of the holes essentially force the players to put the ball in the same place off the tee, so this is not a “bombers only” week– accuracy and precision iron play are what is required at Colonial (it’s Hogan’s Alley, after all). Depending on the wind and the length of the rough, the course can be a bear, and last year only the winner, Kevin Na, finished the week at double-digits under par (-13).
The long layoff has obviously created some uncertainty around players’ form entering this week, so it’s tough to feel great about swallowing the short odds and backing a McIlroy (10.5) or a Rahm (15.5). But the cream does tend to rise at Colonial, and both Rahm and McIlroy were playing phenomenal golf prior to the lockdown, so I’m sure they’ll have plenty of takers. As for me, I’ll be hoping these three can stir up some post-quarantine magic:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Webb Simpson (27.0)- Simpson has developed into one of the most consistent players in the world, a machinelike ball-striker with great feel around the greens. Occasional putting troubles are all that has held him back, and “held him back” is relative, of course, as Simpson has amassed five PGA Tour victories during his career, including the 2012 U.S. Open. One of those wins came in Phoenix back in February, so the taste of victory is still fairly fresh, and the putter has been awfully reliable in this current stretch of 5 top-10s in his last 6 starts. Will the layoff have affected his rhythm? Who knows? What I do know is that Simpson has been scorching hot since November of last year, and his brilliant iron play and comfort with tight, difficult courses would seemingly make him a good fit at Colonial. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s had a few near-misses in this event, including a T3 in 2016 and a 5th-place showing in 2017. He’s one of the favorites this week for sure and a decent value at better than 25/1.
Scottie Scheffler (60.0)- A Dallas native who starred collegiately at the University of Texas, Scheffler estimated this week that he’s played “hundreds” of rounds at Colonial, so although this will be his first time teeing it up in this event, course knowledge and familiarity will not be an issue. The young Scheffler has been awfully impressive in his debut season on the PGA Tour, finding the top-30 in 10 of his 13 starts and logging three top-5 finishes. He’s a birdie-making machine, ranking 5th on Tour in Birdie Average (4.52 per round), and his exemplary ball-striking (20th on Tour in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green) should serve him well this week. With the hometown gallery sure to be behind him and the whole world watching, this would be quite a time for Scheffler to pick up his maiden victory, and he’s got the game and pedigree to do it. At a price like 60.0, he’s probably my favorite bet on the board this week.
Steve Stricker (310.0)- Betting on a guy in this price range is usually akin to buying a lottery ticket, but I’m telling you- don’t sleep on Stricker this week. The U.S. Ryder Cup captain had been very active prior to the shutdown, playing in five regular Tour events and one Champions event between January and March, and he made the cut in his last two starts– Riviera and Bay Hill. He still has game, and more importantly, he still thinks he has game. Now he comes to one of his favorite old stomping grounds, Colonial, where he won in 2009 and has made the cut in all five of his appearances since. And it’s not like he’s been sweeping the dew on Sunday mornings these past few years– he finished 7th here as recently as 2017, and the next year, in 2018, he fired an opening-round 65. He knows his way around the course, his relative lack of distance won’t hurt him here, and you’d think that he’s as fresh and healthy as he’ll ever be after the extended layoff. If you’re looking for a live longshot this week, look no further.