It is doubtful that even the most optimistic golf fan could have envisaged the field at Colonial this week.
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In an era where elevated events secure the very best players, the undecorated Charles Schwab Challenge sees the re-appearance of both runners-up at Oak Hill. Scottie Scheffler’s impressive last round push once again secured his place at the top of the rankings, whilst Viktor Hovland seeks to avenge an unfortunate 16th hole, where his dreams of a first major were dashed by one single shot.
Colonial favours no ‘type’ of player other than one that is currently strong with approach play and can take advantage of finding these small greens. In that regard, the old-fashioned ‘greens-in-regulation’ stat becomes more important than usual, offering better chances of putting – after all, finding the short stuff but three-putting from 65 feet means little compared to landing the ball 20-odd feet from the pin and making half of them.
With such a strong representation from the world’s top 20 players, it is tough to find any long-shots that might compete. In that regard, I’ll play it light (as I have at the Dutch Open) and just watch re-runs of the 16th at the PGA at the ad breaks.
Clear favourite Scottie Scheffler trumps the man I consider his biggest rival in Viktor Hovland in a few ways. The 26-year-old was far less bothered about his second place last week, having re-ignited after a poor third round, and has last year’s runner-up finish to boost his chance. That he should have beaten Sam Burns is neither here nor there considering his two wins and numerous placings since, and he comes here leading the 12-week stats for greens and in a top five position for putting average. At 4/1 though, he is very hard to be with.
Tony Finau - E/W
Hovland may well suffer a post-major hangover whilst all my Spieth bullets are lined up for Royal Liverpool in July, leaving our Mexico Open hero, Tony Finau, to take the main stage.
After four wins in 44 starts, the affable 33-year-old has long since shred his reputation of ‘not doing it’ with the start of his winning streak being at the 2021 Northern Trust where he beat Cam Smith in a play-off with Rahm in third, and a host of major contenders further behind. Flying finishes then saw the 33-year-old finish runner-up to Rahm here, and to Rory McIlroy in Canada, before beating lesser field by three shots at the 3M, Patrick Cantlay et al by five at the Rocket Mortgage and a Houston Open field containing Sheffler and Sam Burns by an easy four strokes last November.
It was hard to be too disapointed with 2023 after nine consective cuts, including top 10 finishes at Kapalua and Torrey Pines, and his victory over the then world number one, Jon Rahm, in Mexico was richly deserved.
For the eighth time this year, Finau ranked top-15 for tee-to-green, all off solid iron play, and I’ll ignore his last two being that he’s never taken to Quail Hollow and the finish just outside the top-20 is perfectly acceptable, while he never figured at Oak Hill, compiling some of his worst figures for a while.
In this week’s field he is top-10 for all of ball-striking, approaches and tee-to-green, whilst he brings vital course form to the table with seven cuts that include a runner-up in 2019 and fourth last season. Comp form is good, with four improving top-25s at a similar track in River Highlands, whilst his Texas form works out nicely with an easy win at the Houston Open.
For his last six appearances Big Tone averages just about fifth for off-the-tee, has three outings of 16th or better for iron play and averages better than 20th for tee-to-green.
Having been well away from the pressures of last week, Finau can make it a nap hand of wins inside 50 outings.
Brian Harman - E/W
Respect to the likes of Sungjae Im and Russell Henley, but they plod rather than kick-on in contention, and I’m not sure that will work with such a top end. Instead I’ll take a chance with Brian Harman, a player for whom we can rule out half the events in a season and jump on when conditions are right.
Now 36, it’s easy to forget what the Sea Island resident does on the course, but the last two seasons have been impressive enough to have him well inside the top-50, and assurances of playing in all four majors.
2022 saw the diminutive former US Amateur run up two second place finishes at Mayakoba and Hilton Head, a track facing similar conditions to this week’s. To bolster his claims he finished third at the American Express and the higher-class St.Jude, confirming his top-10s at the Valspar, Wells Fargo, Travelers and The Open to be no fluke.
Of that lot, Copperhead links us nicely to Sam Burns, back-to-back winner of the Valspar and defending champ this week, whilst his eighth place at River Highlands was the lefty’s fifth top-10 in his last eight outings around the Connecticut track.
Harman tends to repeat form at tracks, so note his streak of cuts here from 2014 to 2021, and his three top-10 finishes. As for his miss last year, he fought back from an opening 77 to record 11 shots better in his second round.
The missed cuts at Quail and Oak Hill were by no means horrendous, if probably expected, and concentrate on the positive figures he records from being accurate. Harman finds something here, and could easily repeat his effort at Harbour Town in April when landing his first top-10 of the season.
Carson Young - E/W
Finally, have a shekel or two on Carson Young, a steadily progressive 28-year-old that has worked his way through the ranks via wins on the South America and Korn Ferry tours.
Now settling down after a rough start to his rookie year, he led the Honda Classic after the first round, and followed a week later leading the Puerto Rico Open until halfway, eventually finishing in third.
Results have been mixed but his last six efforts have seen missed cuts followed by top-20s at the Heritage, Mexico and Byron Nelson, all performances that have seen him in the top echelons for accuracy and green-finding.
Carson Young - Top 20
This may be a tough ask on debut, but he’s coming off Tuesday’s impressive five-shot victory at US Open qualifying in Dallas, making nine 3’s in a row and thrashing the likes of Sergio Garcia and Graeme McDowell, making the prices for top-10 and top-20 very attractive.