WGC-FEDEX ST. JUDE: Scheduling in general can be tricky, and this is particularly true for a global sport like golf, where you have to take into account various tours, tournaments, television schedules, prior commitments, and other outside influences while trying to make room for a new tournament or sponsor.
All that being said, I don’t see how staging a WGC event the week after a major– on the other side of the world, no less– can be considered anything other than a scheduling disaster. And it’s not like the players are heading to the Hamptons to play Shinnecock, or to a coastal California gem– no, it’ll be steamy Memphis, where four sweltering days at the decidedly unglamorous and none-too-friendly TPC Southwind await. How did this happen? How is it that a WGC event, supposedly one of the most prestigious (not to mention lucrative) tournaments in the world outside the majors, gets shipped to a destination that Tour players have avoided like the plague for 30+ years, to be staged the week after The Open?
I realize the actual explanation is rather tedious: Bridgestone chose not to renew their sponsorship of the Bridgestone Invitational and so FedEx agreed to take on a bigger piece of the pie, in the process transforming their flagship event, a PGA Tour staple since 1958, into a WGC event. And there’s no doubt that this is a huge win for the city of Memphis, golf fans in the area, and this particular tournament, but it’s an unavoidable fact that most upper-echelon Tour players have systematically avoided this tournament over the years, for the simple reason that playing golf at TPC Southwind in July is closer to a sentence than a leisurely activity.
An unfortunate case in point: Tiger Woods has never played this tournament in his career. But now that it’s a WGC event, with the accompanying purse, prestige, and ranking points, he’s… still not playing. Neither is Rickie Fowler, Francesco Molinari, or (to no one’s surprise) Shane Lowry. The Memphis folks are kind of bummed about it, as you’d expect. But again: what did they expect, exactly? Slapping the WGC name on this tournament is sort of the lipstick on a pig thing, right? (as an aside: I love Memphis. Used to live there. The bbq, Beale St, love it. But truth is truth)
But enough bellyaching: bottom line is we have 64 of the world’s best players teeing it up this week, with $10.2 million on the line.
TPC Southwind is a demanding layout that requires both accuracy off the tee and precision with the irons. At 7,244 yards, it isn’t particularly long, but finding fairways is a must if players hope to attack the small, firm greens. For the first time in a while, the players will be seeing Bermuda grass this week, which, combined with the odd scheduling, could produce a few surprises.
AFTER LOWRY GLORIOUSLY CAME THROUGH FOR US LAST WEEK (he wasn’t the only one doing a little celebrating on Sunday evening, I can assure you), it feels a bit like we’re playing with house money now, and a lot of times that’s when good things happen. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Dustin Johnson (11.0)- It’s been a disappointing summer for Johnson, I don’t think anyone would deny that: the man who entered the year as the world’s best player failed to crack the top-30 in either of the last two majors, and has finished no better than T20 in any of his past four starts overall. But let’s put things in perspective: he was runner-up at both the Masters and PGA Championship, and in his last seven non-major starts, he’s posted a victory, four top-10s, and six top-20s. His ball-striking was just fine at Royal Portrush until things got a little sideways on Sunday, and a return to his native Bermuda greens could be just what the doctor ordered for his putting. DJ has a dominant record at TPC Southwind, winning this event both last year and in 2012, and notching two other top-10s in just five total starts. He’s surely ready to get things back on track after the Open disappointment, and there’s simply no better place for him to do it. He’s the favorite this week, make no mistake.
Hideki Matsuyama (28.0)- Though his odds are probably a bit short to truly be considered “under the radar”, there’s certainly not a lot of noise around Matsuyama at the moment. He hasn’t yet won this year, hasn’t logged a top-5 on the PGA Tour since January, and is coming off a missed cut at the Open. But I have a hunch that he could bust out in a big way this week: TPC Southwind is a strategic ball-strikers layout that Matsuyama should be able to dissect with his tee-to-green brilliance. Remember, he’s still one of the world’s best ball-strikers, ranking third on Tour this year in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, and he had logged top-25s in six consecutive starts prior to his MC at Royal Portrush, including a T7 at the 3M Open earlier this month. So he’s been close to putting it all together, and the one good thing about his abbreviated week at Portrush is that it gave him a two-day advantage in rest and preparation for this week. Watch out for Hideki– he’s fresher than most, striking it well, and heading to a course with narrow fairways and small greens.
Brandt Snedeker (68.0)- Though he hasn’t found paydirt since last year’s Wyndham Championship, Snedeker has danced around the winner’s circle a few times this season, logging top-5s at the Safeway Open, Players Championship, RBC Canadian Open, and most recently the Rocket Mortgage Classic, where he tied for 5th in his last start before a disappointing MC at Royal Portrush. A Tennessee native who played collegiately at Vanderbilt, Snedeker has grown up on and around courses just like TPC Southwind, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s recorded some nice finishes in this event over a handful of appearances, including a T5 in 2007 and a T6 last year, a performance that included a second-round 62. With two top-5s in the month of June, more course knowledge than almost anyone in the field, and a history of getting hot (no pun intended) this time of year (remember- his victory at the Wyndham last year came in August), Snedeker just may be the best value on the board at a price like 68.0.