RBC HERITAGE: This is a strange year, to say the least, and I don’t think anyone is too thrilled about a summer without an Open Championship, a U.S. Open that omits the “open” part (U.S. Invitational??), and a Masters being held without the blooming springtime azaleas.
But there are definite rays of light in the darkness, and one happy story is this tournament, the RBC Heritage, an event that I have referred to in the past as The Great Comedown. This, of course, is in reference to the fact that since 1983 this tournament has had the misfortune of being held the week after the Masters. That means most of the big names usually skip it entirely, the ones that do play are often running on fumes after a week spent in the major championship meat-grinder, and sometimes those that play well are criticized for not having played better the week before, the inference being that the good golf only came out once the pressure was reduced a bit.
The end result is a tournament that usually feels relaxed and oddly muted, which is nice in its own way, but perhaps falls short of what the notoriously supportive Hilton Head community and Pete Dye’s Harbour Town masterpiece truly deserve.
Well this year, Anno Domini 2020, the RBC Heritage finally gets its turn in the spotlight. The stars have come out– the top-5 players in the world are all in attendance, with Rory making his first appearance since 2009 and Rahm and Koepka making their tournament debuts. And the list goes on– Justin Rose is making his first appearance since 2008, Sergio since 2010, Rickie Fowler since 2012; and then you have the young guns- Morikawa, Im, Hovland… they’re all here.
It’s finally a field worthy of the course, and what a course it is. Built by Pete Dye some 50 years ago, Harbour Town is a shortish Par 71 that prioritizes accuracy over distance and requires precision with the short and mid-irons. The bermuda greens are the smallest on Tour and are usually quite firm, making them difficult to find and placing an added emphasis on the short game. The greens, in addition to the overhanging trees that often require players to shape shots from the fairway, are the course’s primary defense and the main reason why it’s held up so well over the years despite minimal architectural tweaks. Harbour Town is the rare gem that frustrates the best players in the world despite not requiring length off the tee.
Traditionally, this has not been the type of tournament to chase the short odds– the past three champions (C.T. Pan, Satoshi Kodaira, Wesley Bryan) have all gone off at triple-digit prices, and Harbour Town isn’t your typical bomb-and-gouge track, so some of the usual suspects won’t have their usual advantages. That being said, the field is uniquely strong this year and there’s no post-Masters hangover to contend with, so this may be a week for the stars to shine. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Sungjae Im (35.0)- The 22-year old Im has taken the PGA Tour by storm this season, rocketing to the top of the FedEx Cup points standings on the strength of four top-3 finishes and six top-10s. He was red-hot before the global lockdown, winning the Honda Classic in early March and finishing solo 3rd at Bay Hill the very next week, and he picked right up where he left off at Colonial last week, finishing 10th after four straight sub-70 rounds. He’s been deadly with the putter this season, ranking 12th on Tour in putting average and 25th in one-putt percentage, and when you putt like that while also ranking 17th in strokes gained tee-to-green, well… that’s how you find yourself atop the FedEx Cup standings. Im missed the cut in this tournament on debut last year, but he was in the midst of a rough patch that included three MCs and zero top-30s in a 7-week span, so I wouldn’t read too much into it. He’s one of the hottest players in the world right now and Harbour Town profiles as his type of place– I’m more than happy to take my chances at a price like 35.0.
Jason Kokrak (74.0)- While he’s certainly not the most consistent player on Tour, Kokrak has been producing good results with increasing frequency over the past couple of years, and he’s off to a good start in 2020, finishing 21st or better in four of his past eight starts. The high-water mark came just last week, when he closed with a Sunday 64 to finish 3rd at Colonial, just a shot out of the playoff. And though Kokrak is perhaps best known for his prodigious length off the tee (315.4 yards per drive, 6th on Tour), and Harbour Town has never been a course that catered to the longer players, he surprisingly has an excellent record in this event, finishing 16th or better in 4 of his past 6 appearances. Given his current trajectory and past success here, Kokrak is a very intriguing option at better than 70/1. Don’t be surprised if he follows last week’s performance with another gem.
Brian Harman (100.0)- Harman is always dangerous on courses that prioritize accuracy and de-emphasize distance, and he plays his best golf on the bermuda-covered courses of the Southeast, so Harbour Town is right up his alley. It should come as no surprise, then, that he has a nice record in this tournament, logging a pair of top-10s over his last six appearances. He’s been striking the ball very well this season, particularly with the irons, as he currently ranks 18th on Tour in Proximity to Hole, and as a result he’s logged some nice results, including one stretch of five top-20 finishes in a 7-week span. He was struggling a bit right before the quarantine, so maybe the break did him good, as he was sharp at Colonial last week, breaking par in 3 of 4 rounds and sneaking into the top-25. This feels like a Harman type of week– it’s a good course fit, he comes in with a bit of momentum and confidence after last week, and he should be very comfortable only a couple of hours up the road from his home in Sea Island, Ga. He’s my favorite longshot on the board.