ST. JUDE: The FedEx Cup Playoffs get underway this week in Memphis, where a tournament that used to be avoided by most of the big names (Tiger Woods has famously never played the Memphis event) is now part of the PGA Tour’s most lucrative three-week stretch.
Despite the absence of the LIV guys and a few eligible players like Daniel Berger and Tommy Fleetwood, this is still one of the strongest fields we’ve seen all year, as only the top 125 in the final FedEx Cup standings are eligible to play. After this week the top 70 in the standings will move on to next week’s BMW Championship, with the top 30 then moving on to the season-ending Tour Championship. Points are quadrupled both this week and next, so everyone who tees it up this week has a chance to win it all if things shake out right, and by “all” we mean the $18 million (!) that is awarded to the FedEx Cup champion.
The course is a familiar one: TPC Southwind has played host to this event for the past 33 years and has changed very little in that time. A par-70 that measures a shade over 7,200 yards, it doesn’t kill the players with length, but with tight fairways, sticky Bermuda rough, small greens and water hazards in play on more than half of the holes, it’s no pushover. Rain and soft conditions can make the course a bit friendlier, but with hot and sunny weather forecasted for most of the week, I would expect it to play firm and fast. Southwind has a few clear birdie opportunities– the par-5 16th comes to mind, as well as the par-5 3rd– but for the most part it’s a grind out there, with numerous doglegs that force the players to put the ball in approximately the same spot off the tee and approach the small, firm greens with mid-irons. It’s a good test that produces a worthy champion every year– there’s no “faking it” around TPC Southwind.
A red-hot Rory McIlroy heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 12.0, and though this is the first time he’ll be teeing it up since the disappointing ending at St. Andrews, his recent form and record at Southwind would seem to justify the price. That said, I think I’ll be looking elsewhere this week… here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Will Zalatoris (28.0)- While Zalatoris can be pretty scary (and not in a good way) on the greens, he seems to have decided to get comfortable with his unorthodox, twitchy stroke rather than to change it, which I think is the right move for a young player who has experienced such a meteoric rise. He generally does his best work on Bermuda greens like those at Southwind, and he finished T8 in this tournament last year, so he seems to have a liking for the place. Maybe that’s because Southwind is known as a demanding ball-striker’s layout and Zalatoris is an absolute machine tee-to-green, ranking 1st on Tour in strokes gained on approach and 11th in strokes gained off the tee. He was in the news last week for splitting with his longtime caddie mid-tournament, but changes like that sometimes result in a spike in performance… it can be a “freeing” thing, especially if there was some discomfort there. With a pair of top-5 finishes and four top-25s in his past six starts, Zalatoris seems ready for that breakthrough win. This is the week.
Russell Henley (74.0)- Like Zalatoris, Henley’s putting can be generously described as “streaky”, but he’s had a lot of great putting rounds on Bermuda greens over the years, and he’s experienced some success at TPC Southwind, finishing T7 here a few years back. He has something else in common with Will Zalatoris: they are the two best iron players on the PGA Tour, with Henley ranking 2nd in strokes gained on approach, right behind Willy Z. Given Southwind’s reputation as a “second shot course”, that stat is especially relevant this week, as is the fact that Henley seems to have caught fire lately, finishing T10 at the Rocket Mortgage a couple of weeks ago and following that up with a 5th-place showing at the Wyndham last week. He feels like a live one this week, and at better than 70/1 you’d be hard pressed to find better value.
Stewart Cink (475.0)- In all my years writing this column I don’t think I’ve ever tipped someone at a price this outrageous, but you can currently find Cink trading for 475.0 on the BETDAQ exchange. While I realize that 49-year old Stewart Cink winning this week would be an absolute stunner, I don’t think it’s out of the question when you consider the player and the venue. Cink first teed it up in this tournament back in 1997 (!!), finishing 16th, and has made a boatload of money at TPC Southwind. He hasn’t missed the cut here in over a decade, and two of his last three starts in this event resulted in a T4 (’18) and T10 (’17). Moreover, unlike some courses on the schedule Southwind plays at a very manageable 7,200 yards, so length off the tee will not be an impediment for Cink this week (he’s fairly long anyway, ranking 54th on Tour in driving distance). He’s been playing pretty well, too, finishing 27th or better in 3 of his past 5 starts, including a T27 at the Wyndham last week. Age is only a number, and Stewart Cink knows how to get it around TPC Southwind. The price here is ridiculously inflated.