ST. JUDE CLASSIC: The PGA Tour heads to steamy Memphis, Tennessee this week, where the heat index is expected to top 100 degrees (F) and a full field of 156 players will sweat it out before heading to bucolic Long Island for next week’s U.S. Open. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time in the city, I can tell you that Memphis has some great things to offer– barbecue, nightspots, live music, history– but the weather in June is not among them.
Nevertheless, a fairly strong field has gathered for what has become a pre-Open tradition: a sun-soaked week at TPC Southwind, which is set to play host to this event for the 30th consecutive year. A par-70 that measures a little over 7,200 yards, Southwind is no joke: its abundant water hazards can be difficult to avoid, as the course has produced more water balls than any on Tour over the past 15 years, and it’s nearly impossible to hold the small, firm greens from the sticky Bermuda rough, so putting the ball in the fairway is absolutely essential. It’s been eight years since the winner of this event posted a score lower than 13-under, so we shouldn’t expect a birdie fest, though, in fairness, the guys will probably be looking back at Southwind wistfully when they’re wrestling with Shinecock next week.
Daniel Berger has won this tournament in each of the past two years and can still be backed at a healthy 30/1, but it’s difficult to imagine him pulling off the three-peat considering he hasn’t posted a top-30 finish in six weeks and has yet to find the top-10 in 14 starts this season. Dustin Johnson, a winner here in 2012, heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 7.8 and is sure to draw plenty of action this week despite the frightfully short odds, while fellow bombers Brooks Koepka (11.0) and Henrik Stenson (12.5) are blue-chip options as well, though as with Johnson they’re not exactly saddled with attractive prices.
This event has a history of producing some long-odds winners, so I’ve decided to steer clear of the top of the market this week and take my chances with these three:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Luke List (34.0)- List is in the midst of the best stretch of his career, finishing 26th or better in 9 of his past 12 starts. He nearly closed the deal in February’s Honda Classic before losing in a playoff to Justin Thomas, and he was close again at the RBC Heritage in April, finishing just one shot out of a playoff after a disappointing Sunday 72. Both of those tournaments were held at courses that have a lot in common with TPC Southwind: they feature tough bermuda rough and firm, grainy bermuda greens, and driving the ball well– as in, in the fairway– is critically important. List is one of the longest guys in pro golf and his tee game is a weapon, as he currently ranks 4th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee. So it seems like List should play well at a course like Southwind, and indeed he has: last year, he had missed three straight cuts prior to this tournament and would go on to miss two in a row afterwards, but he finished 18th here. In 2016 it was a similar story, as this event was List’s only made cut in a five-tournament stretch. Now he comes in playing the best golf of his career, just two starts removed from a top-10 at the Wells Fargo, his fifth top-10 of 2018. At better than 30/1, I’m fairly enthusiastic about List this week.
Joaquin Niemann (42.0)- Niemann was generally regarded as the best amateur in the world prior to turning pro a few weeks ago, and he’s certainly lived up to the billing thus far. In just five PGA Tour starts the young Chilean has already logged three top-10s, including two in a row heading into this week. Though he’s never played TPC Southwind in competition, he should feel right at home with the heat, humidity, bermudagrass, and narrow fairways, as all of those are hallmarks of golf in South America. Three years ago another South American, Fabian Gomez, came out of nowhere to win this tournament, but Niemann is an altogether different sort– a can’t miss prospect who has the potential to make a Jon Rahm-like impact in his first few months as a professional. Some may think these odds are rather short for a guy with such limited experience, but the way things are trending I think it’s likely that opportunities to back Niemann at prices like this will become increasingly rare.
Ben Crane (108.0)- This has traditionally been a tournament that produces longshot winners, one of those being Crane, who took home the trophy in 2014. But Crane’s success at TPC Southwind wasn’t a one-time thing– on the contrary, the Nashville resident is a quintessential “horses for courses” option this week, as no course on God’s green earth has treated Ben Crane better than this one. In addition to the victory, Crane has six top-20 finishes here and has finished worse than 41st just twice in 12 career appearances. He’s as steady as they come, always finding the fairway and the fat side of the green, and his lack of length off the tee doesn’t really hurt him at Southwind. Plus, he’s in good form at the moment, as he’s made seven straight cuts and is coming off an 8th-place finish in his last start, the Ft. Worth Invitational. I’m telling you: don’t sleep on Crane this week.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Dustin Johnson (1.69) vs. Brooks Koepka (2.1)
Koepka is coming off a runner-up finish at the Ft. Worth Invitational, where he fired a brilliant Sunday 63, so I can see why some would be enthusiastic about backing him at better than even money in a heads-up situation. And if it were any player other than Johnson in the head-to-head, I may be inclined to agree with that assessment. But DJ has yet to finish outside the top-20 in ten starts this season, and he seems to be inching closer to top form after his top-10 at The Memorial last week. Johnson has three top-25s here in addition to his win in 2012, so Southwind clearly suits him, and he’s simply a better, more consistent player than Koepka. Recommendation: Johnson at 1.69
Daniel Berger (1.94) v. Tony Finau (1.75)
Finau is clearly having a better season than Berger, there’s no debating that, and he’s proven over the last couple of years that he can excel on many different styles of courses, not just the “bombers only” tracks that suited him early in his career. But if there is a style that troubles him, it’s probably shortish, tight courses that require precision with the short and mid-irons– courses like TPC Sawgrass, where he finished a disappointing 57th three weeks ago, and, yes, TPC Southwind. This will be Finau’s first appearance at this event, so there’s some uncertainty there, while Berger is the two-time defending champion who has a lifetime’s worth of good memories and course knowledge to draw from. And it’s not like Berger has totally lost his game or anything– he’s made the cut in 6 of his past 7 events and has a couple of top-20 finishes in that span. I think he’s a good heads-up bet against Finau this week. Recommendation: Berger at 1.94