After an enthralling weekend, things get back on track with ‘standard’ 72-hole events on both sides of the pond.
In Europe, the DP World Tour continues an excellent, varied, schedule by hosting the 21st running of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, taking in rounds at Kingsbarns, Carnoustie and St. Andrews, before finishing the pro-am format at the Home of Golf.
It’s been just a few weeks since Cam Smith broke Rory McIlroy’s heart here at the 150th Open, and much has changed since, most notably the Aussie’s defection to the LIV tour. Given the proliferation of amateurs, the course won’t be set up anywhere near as tough as it was in August, but with some wind and rain expected, it will be as unpredictable as we can get it.
The PGA Tour resumes the always-bizarre wraparound season, this time at the Sanderson Farms, once an ‘opposite’ event, but now a fully fledged member of the schedule.
‘Average’ is the word I’d use to describe this event, as that is exactly what it is.
Average width, average length, average greens, and whilst fairways and greens will always help, the last four winners have ranked in the top four for strokes gained off the tee. 2018 champion, Cameron Champ, summed it up best by saying,
“I felt like if I was further up, even in the rough versus hitting a 3-wood being 40 yards back, I would rather be up there. I guess that’s the game plan.”
The top of the market is predictably strong, with the ‘best’ player in the world, Rory McIlroy, rightly heading the market. However, backing golfers at 9/2 will not make anyone rich, especially given the way Rory has failed to convert chances here and recently at The Open, Wentworth and at the Italian Open.
Given links courses in Autumn offer a unique test, it is no surprise to see home players have won two-thirds of the 21 events held here so far, with the first seven being won by either an Englishman, Scot, or Pádraig Harrington.
That theme can continue this week with the back-in-form Robert MacIntyre, a player that may well be sitting on the odds-list next to Tyrrell Hatton before too long.
The 26-year-old has long been considered a high-class recruit to the professional ranks, and while we always expect more, the eventual second win in Italy has to have settled any self-doubt.
The Scot has been on the tour for just over three seasons, so it’s tough to feel disappointed at a record that shows five top three finishes and 12 further top-10s.
Included in those top performances are a pair of top-10s at The Open at Portrush and St. George’s, where a better tee-shot on the final par-five would have resulted in a comfortable top five, and a tied-12th at The Masters, easily good enough and significant enough to be competitive in this grade, and on a course that will suit.
MacIntyre’s versatility has already been shown with his wins at the gettable Cyprus Showdown and most recently at the far tougher Italian Open, coming through the field on Saturday, before shooting the lights out on Payday, eventually beating Matt Fitzpatrick in a play-off.
Previous best efforts of 2022 were 13th at Mount Juliet and 12th in Himmerland, both courses with an eye on the factors required here, whilst his stats have settled into a decent level – top-7 in tee-to-green for three of his last four events – with everything working around his natural ability.
Just after the Scottish Open in July, he admitted that, “My head hasn’t been right. I’m getting down on myself pretty easily. When it all clicks in and I start getting momentum going, I’ll be back to myself. Golf’s a funny game and it’s not been kind to me just now, but it will be.”
He’s back, and the best bet of the week.
Given the bookmakers often react quickly to form changes, back up the Scot with players that may look out of form, but arrive at conditions that suit much better.
Thorbjorn Olesen is one of those players that is very hard to read, but when showing something, and getting to windy links, he is an almost must-bet.
First and second around here in eight starts, the Dane has had a tumultuous couple of years, but looks to be close to his best once again, a best that includes top performances in Dubai, Scilly, Qatar and Perth, all relevant for this week’s test.
It may have involved a bit of a closer finish than desired, but the one-shot victory at The Belfry in May came after showing a bit at both Abu Dhabi and Qatar, more evidence to his liking of windy Middle East tracks.
It’s true that he’s been very in-and-out since then, but in both Italy and France, his overall figures point to a player in full control of his game. Yes, we must forgive the poor performance on the greens at Le Golf National, but these are a completely different test and I’d wager he will return to the positive putting figures of his previous six outings.
Having withdrawn from the BMW International in June, the 32-year-old has four top-20 finishes, 22nd and 30th finishes on the card, returns to a favoured venue, and can make his way again up to the top echelons of the tour.
I’ll continue to put up Ewen Ferguson as he seems to drift further down the market each week as, frankly, a convincing two-time winner should not be triple-figures, especially he could legitimately be chasing a fifth title of the year this week.
As discussed multiple times, the 26-year-old wasn’t experienced enough in contention to take advantage of a final round lead in Kenya, but used that when out-grinding his opposition in Qatar, and proving far too good for compatriot Connor Syme and co at Galgorm Castle.
Just two weeks later, Ferguson was the best player on the Himmerland course, only to be denied by Oliver Wilson’s bizarre putting, a result that links in very well here. After all, the Englishman has only ever won twice, his first being here in 2014.
The Glasgow-born player is the only golfer to have held the British Boys, Scottish Strokeplay and Matchplay titles at the same time, his win at Royal Liverpool in 2013 coming via a comprehensive 10 & 9 victory. Winning the Scottish Champion of Champions and finishing in third place at the Irish Amateur Open led to a place on the 2016 Walker Cup team where he contributed one win from two singles matches (beating Maverick McNealy) in a comprehensive victory over a certain Bryson DeChambeau et al.
Shut your eyes and ignore the last two missed-cuts. This event should mean he can load up on his driving, allowing his top-grade iron play to present plenty of chances to return to the ranking of first for tee-to-green that he showed in Ireland and Denmark.
At the Sanderson farms, coming off such a highly strung Presidents Cup may not suit the obvious pick Sam Burns, especially after a series of results that won’t flatter him. Still, should he win, that would be the third leg of a Max Homa-Team USA-Burns three-peat of 2021. It rarely happens.
In a tough event to start the year proper, just a couple to be with.
Start the plan off with Sahith Theegala to gain revenge on the event that first made his name.
Just the fifth person to win the Haskins, Hogan and Nicklaus awards in college, the Pepperdine athlete was always going to do something in the professional game, but few thought it would come in his second event as a full PGA Tour player.
12 months ago, the 24-year-old shot a bogey-free third round 67 to take a lead into the final round at the Country Club of Jackson, but faded to finish in eighth place behind Sam Burns after a bizarre attempt to hit the hero shot from a bunker. Absolutely no connection with Ewen Ferguson at all, except that he too faded from the lead to 8th on his first attempt at landing a title with an overnight lead, and he soon won twice.
Like the Scot, Theegala learned from the experience to lie in sixth at Torrey Pines, before a sponsor’s exemption allowed him into the Raucous Phoenix Open, where again he took a lead into the final round. This time, he lasted to the short par-four 17th, when fate would conspire against him, a bad bounce leaving his ball in a water hazard, and costing him that vital shot that left him out of the final play-off, one that served up the first win for eventual world number one, Scottie Scheffler.
What has followed has been a steady flow of improvement, coming from behind to finish seventh in the Valspar, fifth at Muirfield, second at the Travelers and 16th at Deere Run before a run at the FedEx finals, eventually qualifying for the Tour Championship. The knowledge he is among the best of the maidens on tour should have given him confidence for the 2022/23 season, and supporters cannot ask for more than an opening sixth place at the Fortinet, when he was never outside of the top 10.
Expect a victory this season, it’s where, not if.
Is Benny back?
Subject of the best of Sam Harrop’s parody songs, Byeong-Hun An (as he is officially named) would be one of the most popular winners of recent times, and after an extremely encouraging opener, is worth taking the chance with at the price.
The youngest-ever winner of the U.S Amateur, when winning 7&5, he should have made the following year’s qualifier, giving way late in his semi-final. It wasn’t long, however, before he made his way through the ranks, winning the BMW at Wentworth in just his first full season on the European Tour, gaging up by six shots from Thongchai Jaidee and Miguel Angel Jimenez.
And it’s not gone quite right since, all down to the putter – back to Sam again:
Let’s concentrate on the positives – which may include the player sending the crooner one of his own putters – and witness significant improvement over the last few months.
Down a level on the KFT, Benny found something from somewhere, winning his first event for five years at the Suncoast Classic, his seventh best performance according to the OWGR.
Almost certainly securing his card, the Korean followed up his win with a never-nearer 12th and second in April, and lay inside the top 10 before the final round at Memorial Health in July, whilst in-between he nabbed 14th place alongside Sungjae Im.
Two weeks after the Korn Ferry Tour finals, Benny was back on the PGA Tour with a bang, finishing in fourth behind defending champion Max Homa and Danny Willett, the latter a winner of both the BMW PGA and Alfred Dunhill Links.
Ranking second in driving, third in tee-to-green, fourth for around-the-green and better than field average for putting.
If he’s back, and has confidence in the short stick, there is no reason he can’t repeat his 2019 effort here, when third on debut.