THE GREENBRIER: After a blink-and-you-missed-it offseason the PGA Tour returns this week, as a somewhat quirky field mostly comprised of youngsters and middling journeymen will kick off the wraparound season at the oddly-named Military Tribute at The Greenbrier.
According to the tournament website, a major focus of this event will be honoring military and first responders, and “reflecting on the anniversary of September 11, 2001”. But once the first tee goes into the ground on Thursday morning, it will be all about the golf, and this will be the first tournament staged since the Tour instituted their new cut-line policy– 65 players and ties will now advance to the weekend, whereas it had been 70 and ties previously. Also, the “MDF” rule is being eliminated, so there will no longer be a secondary cut if more than 78 players get through to the weekend. This is a sensible change, I believe, and the shift to 65 and ties will reduce some of the two-tee starts and weekend threesomes that certain events have had to deal with.
The course, Old White TPC, will be familiar to most in the field, as it has been a regular stop on Tour since 2010. A par-70 that measures nearly 7,300 yards, it’s a picturesque layout nestled in the West Virginia mountains, and since it’s approximately 2,000 feet above sea level it doesn’t play quite as long as the scorecard would suggest. Scores are traditionally low– Kevin Na fired a 19-under 261 to take home the trophy in 2018, and despite narrow fairways and smaller than average greens, the course simply lacks the defenses to put up a serious fight. Length won’t provide much of an advantage at Old White, as only two of the 8 champions of the Greenbrier Classic ranked in the top-50 on Tour in driving distance at the time of their victory. We’re looking for players who are accurate off the tee and precise with the short and mid-irons… and a little bit of recent good form wouldn’t hurt, either.
With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Joaquin Niemann (29.0)- After kicking off his PGA Tour career in 2018 with four top-10s in just eight starts, big things were expected of Niemann last season, but he struggled with the putter for a few months and was rarely seen on the leaderboard. But the 20-year old ball-striking phenom began to roll it better over the summer and finished the season with a flourish, logging six top-25s and three top-10s over his final eight events. This is a guy who is going to win and win a lot in the coming years, and he just might get that ball rolling this week, as we’ve already seen a glimpse of what he’s capable of at Old White: 14 months ago, in just his eighth professional start, Niemann finished 5th in this event, opening with a 63 and closing with a 64. This will be one of the first times in his brief professional career that he’s been able to return to a course where he’s had success, and given his recent form and a field that’s light on star power, Niemann profiles as one of the clear favorites this week. He’s worth a bet at nearly 30/1.
Robert Streb (70.0)- Streb has missed more cuts than he’s made over the past couple of years, but he showed flashes of form over the summer, and he finished 3rd at the Barracuda Championship just two starts ago. But no matter how Streb is playing, he’s always been a threat at Old White: back in 2015 he finished runner-up in this event after sneaking into a 4-man playoff, and after not playing in 2016 he returned and finished runner-up once again in 2017. Last year he entered this event playing the worst golf of his career, with 13 missed cuts in his previous 16 starts, and still finished 11th (he would go on to miss the cut the next week). So, clearly, Streb is a threat anytime he tees it up at Old White, and the fact that he’s just two starts removed from a top-5 finish makes me think he’s even more dangerous than usual this week. At a price like 70.0, he may be the best value on the board.
David Hearn (158.0)- Like Streb, this is a “horses for courses” play: Hearn has logged five top-30 finishes in seven appearances in this event, including a runner-up in 2015, when he joined Streb in a 4-man playoff that was eventually won by Danny Lee. Hearn had lost his PGA Tour playing privileges before a hot run in August that culminated in a 4th-place finish at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship two weeks ago, cementing his status for the upcoming season and undoubtedly giving him a jolt of good vibes as he heads to the place where he’s made more money than anywhere else. A lot of times you see guys who play well in the Korn Ferry Finals get off to a hot start in the first couple of wraparound events, and given his course history, Hearn is a prime candidate to make some noise this week. His price is understandable considering he’s never won on Tour despite being an on-and-off member since 2004, but if you’re looking for a live longshot, your could do a lot worse.