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Even the hardest of cynics must surely have shed a tear for Justin Thomas last night.
Despite the most body-bending of efforts, the former world number one and 2022 PGA Championship winner failed by a single shot to make this year’s final 70, ensuring rookie Ben Griffin beat him to the final qualifying place- despite missing the weekend.
This is PGA golf 2023, however. Whilst we wait to see if the format changes on a tour with new ownership, we arrive in Memphis with the top 70 players of the qualifying period, themselves searching to get in at the BMW Championship next week- the middle leg of an extraordinarily early end-of-season jamboree.
Southwind offers a similar test that we have seen recently, with driving distance much less of a priority than we usually see in elite fields. Gnarly rough, plentiful water hazards, and small Bermuda greens make this a haven for the consistently high-class ball-striker, summed up well by many of the recent contenders.
The aforementioned Justin Thomas, winner here in 2020, said the course was similar to East Lake, home of the Tour Championship. If players hit the fairway, “it’s not a hard track.”
Multiple-major champion Brooks Koepka said that the rough contains “problems,” whilst Dustin Johnson and Daniel Berger confirmed “you just have to hit it in the fairway.”
Finding the narrow short grass on the par-4 heavy course inevitably leads to a barrage of shots from 150-175 yards, and with winning scores of around 16-under, it’s pretty clear that elite ball-striking will be the main factor this week in a field of superstars.
Recent results confirm the emphasis on tee-to-green prowess, with last year’s champion Will Zalatoris bouncing back to his best from peg to green, with five of the top 10 finishing high in both approach and overall ball striking. Go back a year and four of the top seven ranked top 10 in tee-to-green and six of seven for their irons.
Zalatoris’ tee-to-green figures were often almost unbelievable, but current world number one Scottie Scheffler gives us that and much more.
Since the start of 2022, the man that just couldn’t get over the line has won six times in 28 starts, including the Masters, Players, Match Play, Pheonix (twice) and at Bay Hill. Add to that three top three finishes at the majors and a handful of genuine chances to nab more silverware along the way.
If we are to talk tee-to-green, the 27-year-old is in a class of his own. Only once has Scheffler been outside of the top five for that all-important stat in 13 starts; leading the field at Sawgrass, Oak Hill, Colonial and Muirfield, all classic tests of the golfer and yet over differing distances and layouts.
Quite honestly, the figures are stunning, rarely dipping below double-figures for his combined driving and irons. We are all very aware of his current weakness, however, as I’m sure the player is himself.
Yeah, if he could find positive putting figures each week, the rest may genuinely not bother turning up, and those consistently large losses to the field on the greens are admittedly hard to swallow. Nevertheless, the main selection flirted with a new putter at the US Open for which he managed to at least reverse a worrying trend (+1.02 followed by +0.6 at River Highlands) and will surely realise that this is the only reason he currently stands behind Jon Rahm in the Fedex table.
With Zalatoris overcoming a weak putter last year (even if he maybe should have been beaten in his play-off) and Lucas Glover winning the Wyndham last weekend after five events with a new flat stick, perhaps the best ball-striker in the world can find the half dozen putts to take him across the finishing line once again.
Full respect to current rankings leader Jon Rahm, with better course form (5th and 7th in three starts) and a recent runner-up at Hoylake, but I can’t put both the top two up, even if they are much favoured over the next handful in the market.
A resurgent Rickie Fowler was interesting but I’m saving him for East Lake. Instead, take the still-improving 21-year-old Tom Kim to improve on an excellent first look here last year.
Kim caught the eye of the golfing world when winning both the Wyndham and Shriners in the space of four starts in 2022. The latter, noted as the biggest correlating event to this one by stats site, Tour-Tips.
Victories by five and three shots were more impressive given he beat event specialists Sungjae Im and Patrick Cantlay respectively, whilst he finished 2022 with a set of top 12 finishes.
This year started well, contending for long periods at Kapalua, a track too long for him, and at the American Express before suddenly losing every facet of his renown tee-to-green game.
There were signs of a comeback when 16th at Augusta, and when 23rd at Quail Hollow where his usually high-quality aggressive putting went awry. The Korean again went AWOL for a period until a closing eighth place at the US Open (107th after the first round) was the catalyst for a recent run of sixth at the Scottish open and a runner-up at the Open Championship, the latter after hobbling on to the tee on crutches.
At both venues, Kim’s all-round game settled down to the level we expect, averaging around 21st for approaches, 26th for tee-to-green 23rd for around-the-green and, crucially, sixth for putting, one of his major assets when contending.
Clearly, the injury is a slight worry but, with his place at East Lake almost assured, it is heartening to hear him tell CBS that he is ready to resume his career. After a 13th place finish in the old-style 125-man field last year, I expect him to win one of these play-off events within a couple of years and it may not be at the price we can get this week.
JT Poston (Top 20)
JT Poston continued his excellent recent run with his fourth top-seven finish in five starts last week.
Although never close enough to really challenge, it’s hard to ignore a player that has finished in sixth place when defending the John Deere and then in Scotland, tied-second rather than outright due to chasing ‘too’ hard at the 3M, and then found his best tee-to-green stats of the season at Sedgefield.
With course form reading 20/30/18 in bigger fields, the 30-year-old Sea Island resident is one of three bets for the top-20 market.
Emiliano Grillo (Top 20)
Alongside Poston, take Emiliano Grillo. Winner at Colonial before 15th at River Highlands, sixth at The Open and 10th at Twin Cities, at all three having held a better position at various points and finding at least four shots from tee-to-green in four of his last five completed events.
Sepp Straka (Top 20)
Finally another recent winner, Sepp Straka. Beaten by Zalatoris in a play-off here last year, comes off a victory at Deere Run (see Poston) and an excellent, aggressive runner-up at Hoylake.
Given his top six finish on debut at East Lake last year, expect him to confirm his love of these conditions by leaving behind the understandable missed-cut in Blaine, with his attacking approach play seeing him rank second at the Honda and PGA, fourth at the Memorial and second at The Open.
It doesn’t look that much of a fantasy to believe that two of these can place in the top20 of a 70-man field to make a profit.