As John Catlin faded away in Ireland last week, Connor Syme’s birdie blitz – three in the last four holes – saw the column grab a full place, three shots behind impressive front-runner Ewen Ferguson, now victor of two events in 2022 and the winning-most selection from our pre-Xmas Players To Watch in 2022 article.
Over the Pond, the first of the three FedEx play-offs saw Will Zalatoris somehow hold off Sepp Straka to win a richly deserved first title on tour, with those on Tony Finau giving out a little scream as he fluffed a four-and-a-half-footer for par on the 72nd hole, now having to share a fifth place with six others.
The 70 (now 68) play-off qualifiers move to Wilmington CC, a brand-new course for the top league where they will play for the 30 spots available at the finale, held next week at East Lake.
Meanwhile, the DP World Tour faces no such early finish to their year, continuing on to the Czech Masters and the eighth outing at the Albatross Golf Resort in Prague.
At both courses, quality driving looks to be the order of the day.
The more open Czech course offers the type of width available at the desert courses and some of our more famous links, whilst, in Delamere, the 7500-yard course may be a touch tighter than first seems and will require more accuracy – however, the suspicion is total driving based on length from the tee should just about prove an advantage.
It pays to bet a tad carefully when a fresh course is in operation, but with the Play-offs having a rich history of being won by the elite, row along with a trio from the top dozen to start the card.
Matt Fitzpatrick and Tony Finau finished alongside one another in Southwind, and are both expected to show their class around a course that won’t be entirely dissimilar in approach.
The 27-year-old world number 11 has had another season of success, his win at the US Open just reward for eight top-10s from 16 starts, the latest coming just a few days ago when an outstanding eagle at his 69th hole highlighted his approach play – 229 yards to 18 inches.
It’s been like that for a while, with Fitz knocking up a 14th at The Masters, fifth place at the PGA and Valspar, sixth at the Scottish Open and just outside the top-20 at St. Andrews, results backed up by a stunning array of stats.
Currently ranked 7th stroked-gained-off-the-tee, 20th in approach, 2nd around-the-green and top-30 in putting, he highlights his quality with a top-of-the-shop ranking for overall strokes-gained- an impressive haul given the nature of the players behind him.
On a course that will reward good driving, Fitz has had five top-10’s off-the-tee from his last seven starts alongside continually impressive tee-to-green and scrambling stats.
A closing sixth on his only outing in this event, behind Jon Rahm at Olympia Fields, and able to play tricky courses well, he can also attack the wider tracks with relish – expect a top effort again this week however the track plays.
Five years older, Finau hasn’t had that impressive season-long string of performances, but has come to life again over the last three months or so.
Indeed, over that period, the 32-year-old has ranked 6th for ball-striking, 12th for greens-in-regulation, 4th for scrambling and 1st for par-four performance, something crucial around this 7500-yard par-71.
A runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy in Canada followed a closing fourth place at the Charles Schwab, and after a respectable effort at St. Andrews, Finau won back-to-back at the 3M and Rocket Mortgage events, something even his most ardent of supporters could not have predicted.
So impressive was his all-round performance that I was with him to land the unthinkable hat-trick last week and wrote:
At the admittedly lower level 3M and Rocket Mortgage, the 32-year-old led the tee-to-green stats by a mile, the two events combining for a strokes-gained figure of over 30! Finau’s approach game remains as stellar as ever (a combined 14 shots in two events) and he has found an average of over 87 percent of greens!
Okay, he didn’t quite get it done over the weekend, when his usual accurate driving just let him down. It wasn’t by much, but players were at a huge advantage by avoiding the rough and bunkers, and he just had to play too many approaches from off the fairway in order to attack the pins when it mattered.
Still, he should have finished joint-third, and with recent efforts the main reason he ranks top-10 for approaches and tee-to-green for the season, he will know that a small tidy-up of his driver will see him have a myriad of chances on a course that may need 21-under to beat it.
Finau’s event form is decent, and after a month of his best-ever golf, he will expect to improve on an average tournament finish of around 8th place.
Sungjae Im sat alongside Finau in last week’s column, and after a 12th in last week’s opener, can come on again to improve past event stats that read 3/56/11.
The 24-year-old threatened to do a tad better at Southwind but could never get it going on Sunday, his driving proving a little wayward and putting pressure on his putting when it mattered. However, he led the field off-the-tee for the event, rating 13/6/17/13 through the four rounds, and improving his tee-to-green from 81st on Thursday to an average of 18th for the next three days.
Previously, the South Korean star had finished runner-up to Finau at Twin Cities, and to the flying ‘Tom’ Kim at the Wyndham, an event at which he repeats good form.
Over the last three months, Sungjae is ranking 10th for total driving, sixth for ball-striking, 13th for scrambling and 33rd for putting average.
At just a few points shorter than he was for a 125-man event, he will do again this week.
From the 2014 US Amateur Championship finals, through to turning professional and rooming soon after, Davis Riley and Will Zalatoris have had a close relationship. So much so, that now WillyZ has done it, don’t expect it to be long before his close friend does the same.
Whilst Willy has been mopping up close finishes in majors, those close to both suggest there is nothing much between them, with Riley’s caddie, Lance Bennett, saying he is growing mentally every week and is “elite level” off the tee.
A couple of months ago, the PGA Tour website reported that, “his old coach at Alabama, Jay Seawell, says he’s had no better iron player – high praise, considering the longtime Crimson Tide coach counts Justin Thomas among his ex-players – in Tuscaloosa.”
So, what about the figures?
In his rookie year, 25-year-old Riley should have won the Valspar Championship, letting defending champion Sam Burns in after a triple-bogey 8 during his final round. That error, and the subsequent play-off loss, took a couple of weeks to shake off, but he returned with three back-to-back top-10 finishes at the pairs event in New Orleans, in Mexico and at the Byron Nelson.
Form dropped after a run of form figures 13/4/13, but it returned at the Wyndham when 13th (7th through the middle two rounds) and again last week at St. Jude, where he was listed as sixth in the all-round-ranking, courtesy of being 15th in driving distance, 12th in accuracy, 25th in greens and 35th in putting.
Perhaps inspired by his companion, Riley has yet to reach his considerable ceiling, and will be looking to cement his place inside the top-30 for next week’s decider.
Currently 27th in the FedEx lists, and seeking a place in the top-50 of the OWGR in order to gain access to all the significant events, take Riley to thrive at a good price in a limited field.
On a thorough examination of the Czech Masters, there are only two value bets in my mind.
Accepting the claims of Richard Mansell, Hennis Du Plessis, Wilco Nienaber and the like, I simply can’t pull the trigger at the prices.
Whilst the first-named makes some appeal, this column was on at 45-1 a couple of weeks ago, and taking a non-winner at less than half that price makes no actual sense this week, despite his claims on the book.
I seem never to call Antoine Rozner correctly, but if he is back in some sort of form, he is surely too good to be listed outside of the top-10.
Two wins on the tour included a top-class tee-to-green game at Dubai and Qatar, something that takes the pressure off his inconsistent, but occasionally brilliant, putting.
Whilst he has missed two of his last three cuts, the Frenchman has recorded positive figures for approaches and tee-to-green in all six events since the beginning of June, even finding over four-and-a-half strokes in two rounds at the Hero Open last time.
Just a couple of months ago, the 29-year-old made four cuts in a row, the all-round lists finding him ranking 19/18/48/16 and it surely is when, not if, he arrives back in the world’s top-100.
Form here does tend to repeat.
Short favourite, Thomas Pieters, should have won more than twice, stalwarts Soren Kjeldsen, Tom Lewis and Eddie Pepperell turn up more than once in the top-10, whilst Andrea Pavan, who cannot hit the proverbial barn door, has a victory and third place finish.
Rozner may not have that course experience, but he beat Richard Bland et al by seven shots in Prague on the Challenge Tour, and given the course will forgive any waywardness off the tee, can prove classy enough to at least challenge for a place on the front page of the leaderboard.
I class Renato Paratore in a similar vein – impossible to predict but plenty good enough to beat this standard of field when right.
And ‘right’ he may well be.
The Italian opened up a ridiculous price early doors on Monday, but there remains some margin in anything over 40/1, particularly after a comeback to form over the last two weeks.
Another who has won twice on the DP World Tour, the 25-year-old is closely matched with Rozner and Rasmus Hojgaard, having lost in a play-off with both in Mauritius, before beating the Dane in the ‘lockdown’ British Masters at Close House.
Prior to that, Paratore had beaten Matt Fitzpatrick, Chris Wood, George Coetzee and Jamie Donaldson at the 2017 Nordea Masters, that hint to links form a welcome boost to his chance this week.
His current form may as well show 11 missed cuts in a row, although it is 10, split by a 58th at the Irish Open, but something happened in Wales when he started finding fairways.
From nowhere, the affable Paratore ranked top-10 for driving accuracy and putting average, or, in modern terms, in positive figures for tee-to-green and putting – finding an average of 7.5 shots across the last two tournaments with the flat stick.
Nothing breeds confidence like confidence, and after a pair of top-five finishes, he comes to a course at which he has plenty of experience.
Paratore will know what to do here, having had six outings. The first was in 2015, when he led on debut before finishing fifth, and he then made four of the other five weekends.
Finishes don’t stand out, with a best of 27th, but he’s not been in this sort of form when coming into this event.
With plenty of experience playing in Dubai – he lives in that part of the world – he again brings the right type of course correlation to this week.
Oh, and don’t worry if he is a bit off the pace at halfway – over the last two weeks, he was never closer than at the line.