So the PGA Tour is officially back up and running and I’m delighted to say it would seem that week one of the new ‘for the time being normal’ appeared to go without a hitch.
In the lead up there had been much talk as to how the Charles Schwab Challenge would be effected by a lack of fans but the general consensus seemed to be that their absence wasn’t hugely noticed from a TV viewers perspective, as a fascinating tournament unfolded.
In the end congratulations are due to Daniel Berger who picked up right where he had left off in March to take home his third PGA title after defeating Collin Morikawa in a play-off.
With this victory Berger confirmed himself as very much a ‘June specialist’ as all of his three wins on tour have been posted in the second week of June!
From our end of things it transpired to be a frustrating first week back as the recent frailties of our main hope going in to the weekend, Jordan Spieth, reared their head on the back nine on Saturday and on Sunday. Despite this Spieth stood on the 14th tee after a run of three birdies in four holes within two of the lead, however an out of bounds tee shot on this hole followed by a poor finish saw him slip all the way back in to a four way tie for tenth to only give us a small return.
So we move on and with the first event since the restart completed the revised schedule sees us head to one of the most iconic stops of the year. The RBC Heritage at Hilton Head.
Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head has been the host course for the Heritage since 1969 and the event has pretty much owned its traditional slot of the week following the Masters since 1983. It is a perfect event to follow the drama’s of Augusta, so lets hope it returns in this slot next year.
The current sponsors RBC [Royal Bank of Canada] have been in place since 2012.
This year we have a very strong field on display and as was the case last week all of the worlds top five are teeing it up.
At the time of writing Rory McIlroy is favourite followed by Justin Thomas and Bryson Dechambeau.
Harbour Town is a par 71 measuring just on 7100 yards.
The course is a Pete Dye Design so do look at form on other Pete Dye courses currently played on tour, particularly TPC Sawgrass as well TPC River Highlands and the Stadium Course used for the American Express.
The greens are TiffEagle Bermuda.
Harbour Town is known as one of the most unique tests played on the PGA tour all year. It is seen as a Marmite type of course, the players either love it or hate it. Some players go there once and say “never again”, to others it’s their favourite stop on the tour all year.
What makes Harbour Town so different is the precision required of the tee. length is not important but positioning of your tee ball is.
Finding the fairway isn’t enough at Harbour Town. On most holes finding the correct portion of the fairway is key as otherwise you will be blocked out on your second shot by the trees.
It’s for this reason that shorter hitting, precision players such as Kuchar, Furyk, Gay and Donald have peppered the leader boards over the years.
In addition as players will inevitably miss there fair share of the smaller than average greens scrambling is a key stat this week and one that recent winners here have tended to feature highly on for the week.
Harbour Town is also a true links test with winds normally blowing to 20mph + at some stage of the week.
Every year when assessing the RBC Heritage the most significant factor to weigh up is the mental fatigue that players feel when arriving here on the back of an arduous week at Augusta and there is no doubt this point has had a big bearing on the outcome here over the years.
This year of course though with the revised schedule as it is this factor is not in play and therefore while the type of player who has won here over the years is still hugely significant when looking at the list of champions we need to remember the reason why perhaps some lesser fancied names have triumphed here. So with this in mind lets take a look at the last ten winners.
2019 CT Pan
2018 S Kodaira
2017 W Bryan
2016 B Grace
2015 J Furyk
2014 M Kuchar
2013 G McDowell
2012 C Pettersson
2011 B Snedeker 15th [2011 not played week after the Masters, played 2 weeks after].
2010 J Furyk
So what can we tell from this list? well firstly for want of stating the blindingly obvious Hilton Head is not a course that historically has rewarded the bombers of the game, on the contrary short and straight has always been the order of the day and with the exception of Branden Grace you would have to go a long way down the driving distance charts each year to find the above ten names.
With regards to the relevancy of previous course form here we have a bit of a mixed bag. Some players like Furyk, Kuchar and more recently Grace clearly seem to perform well here consistently year in year out, however the 2018 and 2017 winners, Kodaira and Bryan, were making their debut in the event. Last years winner CT Pan though had played solidly here on his two previous starts finishing 44 and 23.
With regards to form coming in as touched on above this is muddled by the Augusta factor, however it is worth noting that only one of the past five winners, Branden Grace had posted a top 20 finish in their previous two starts and last year CT Pan pitched up here having finished no better than 42nd in 2019 to date before taking home the trophy.
On the other side of the coin three of the previous ten winners, Kuchar, Pettersson and Snedeker had posted a top ten in their start prior to victory here.
This year of course with no Augusta factor in play, and several of the games elite teeing it up who we don’t normally see here, it may just be that this all goes out of the window and the cream simply rises to the top.
Not unsurprisingly for a links course the winning score tends to be dictated by the weather and how much the wind blows.
The lowest winning score over the past ten years was delivered by Jim Furyk when he shot -18 [along with Kisner] in 2015, before winning in a play-off.
The average winning score though tends to come in around -13 or -12 and the latter was the number that CT Pan triumphed with last year.
After a perfect weeks weather in Texas last week to restart the tour we unfortunately may not be so lucky this time around as all four days show a 30-50% chance of a storm.
Temperatures look set to sit in the mid to high 80s all week while the wind, which is the most important factor here, does not look to be too much of an issue with nothing more than 10-12mph in the forecast all week.
As I always say though this could all change!
I have gone with six players this week as follows;
BRANDEN GRACE – 50-1 – 1.5pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED - 61st
I put up Branden Grace in this event last year and I began my preview with the following lines….
”Call it a lazy selection if you will but to me anytime Branden Grace is available at 50-1 or thereabouts in this event I will be backing him.”
I backed Grace here at 40-1 in 2016 as I was happy to ignore his recent ‘so-so’ form and instead focus on his 7th place here the previous year and he rewarded us in spectacular style with the win.
My logic then in backing him was I felt the course was perfect for his game and he then rubber stamped this once more with an 11th place finish the following year, again when in no great form coming in.”
Last year unfortunately the South African failed to deliver the goods finishing a lowly 61st, a result which made more sense as the extent of his malaise through the year became more apparent. This year however, while it has still been a mixed bag from Branden to a certain extent, he has returned to the winners enclosure at the South African Open, to go with a top ten in Phoenix and a strong return at Colonial CC last week. On this basis my words from last year echo in my head and I am more than happy to take the odds on offer.
If we look more closely at Grace’s week at Colonial we will see that his iron play and putting were both really strong until Sunday, with the warm putter certainly catching my eye.
Unfortunately when in with a great chance of victory going in to the final day Branden’s game deserted him somewhat, however for someone who is as proven a serial winner as he is I am happy to just put this down to a bad day at the office rather than any kind of issues handling pressure. I am quite sure if he gets in to the mix this time around it will be a different story and he is ‘must back’ for me this week.
JT POSTON – 66-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED T8th
Next up for me this week is North Carolina native JT Poston.
Poston landed his first PGA Tour title in his home state at the Wyndham Championship last August when he memorably went 72 holes without making a bogey.
Since that victory JT has been solid but unspectacular notching four top 15 finishes so far this campaign in amongst a bunch of top 40s and three missed cuts.
Last week Poston returned from the three month hiatus to turn in an eye catching performance at Colonial CC, finishing tenth, his best return of the season to date.
Looking at JT’s performance last week what was particularly encouraging was the fact that in addition to his customary strong putting, all other departments of his game appeared to be working well as he finished the week fifth in DA and 14th in good old fashioned GIR, both of which bode well for a trip to Harbor Town. In addition he was fifth is SGOTT and 17th in SGTTG.
So having established that the 27yr old has returned to action in solid nick we will find plenty of further encouragement in his performance at Harbor Town last year when he finished sixth.
After opening up that week with two rounds of level par 71 JT shot rounds of 67 and 66 over the weekend to surge through the field and what was most striking was that in his interviews at the end of the week he said that he hit the ball really well all four days but had been hampered by being on the wrong side of the draw on Thursday and Friday, when the wind had picked up.
A resident of St Simons Island Poston is clearly comfortable by the coast and/or on shorter tracks, something borne out by the solid performances he has produced at the RSM, Sony Open, Mayakoba and Players Championship in his time on tour to date, in addition to his win at Sedgefield CC of course.
Finally one last piece of encouragement can be found in Poston’s college career in that he won the 2015 Wexford Plantational event at Hilton Head. While this event was not held at Harbor Town Poston you would think would have good positive vibes when returning to the area, one he must surely know well, and I am expecting him to thrive here again this week.
JOEL DAHMEN – 80-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 48th
Next cab of the rank for us this week is Joel Dahmen.
Joel kept himself busy during the break and most noticeably was seen at the Scottsdale Open in May where I had my one outright golf bet of ‘lockdown’ on him. Unfortunately Joel was unable to deliver on that occasion as when going in to the final round in the box seat and with the tournament at his mercy he inexplicably stalled.
Moving on and it is safe to say we can dismiss that effort from the 32yr old and instead focus on what is turning in to another highly impressive season on the PGA Tour for him with seven top 20s to his name already.
Significantly also for this week three of those efforts, which all resulted in top 12 finishes, came on shorter coastal tracks at Mayakoba, Waialae and Pebble Beach, while another came last week at Colonial where Joel finished 19th.
At Colonial Joel finished seventh for the week in approach play and this is an area, which has been a strength this season as a whole, as he ranks 15th in that department, as well as 10th in SGTTG.
Conversely the area holding the man from Washington back so far this season is his putter, for which he currently ranks a lowly 160th on tour, so while he didn’t pull up any trees with the flat stick last week a rank of 31st is certainly an improvement.
Sixteenth last year on his debut at Hilton Head Dahmen is certainly a player who falls firmly in to the ‘maiden winner waiting to happen’ category and as I have said before when backing him, he is one good putting week away from getting the job done.
A University of Washington graduate it will not be lost on Joel that last years winner here CT Pan attended the same college and it may just be that he follows in Pan’s footsteps this week to bag his first tour title.
MATTHEW NeSMITH – 200-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED 33rd
If you are going to roll the dice on PGA Tour rookie Matt NeSmith once this season at huge odds then this is the week.
A University of South Carolina graduate and resident of Aiken, a couple of hours or so away from Hilton Head, Nesmith hit the golfing headlines by proposing to his now wife Abigail on the 18th green at Hilton Head some two years ago before they tied the knot last fall.
NeSmith and Abigail fell in love with Hilton Head during his regular visits to events in the area in his college days, one being a five shot victory in the 2015 Players Amateur played at nearby Bluffton.
When the Covid-19 pandemic ground the PGA Tour to a halt NeSmith no doubt reflected on the fact that this years RBC Heritage would be a casualty of the break so I am sure he will be as delighted as anyone to see it back on the schedule.
Another reason Matt will I’m sure have felt frustrated at the hiatus was at the time the suspension he was playing some really solid stuff making eight of his previous nine cuts. Furthermore his three best finishes of the season to date have come at the RSM Classic, Pebble Beach and Puerto Rico, three events which leap out as correlating well to here, where he finished 14th, 11th and sixth.
49th last week at Colonial to blow the cobwebs off the strength of the 26yr olds game is clearly from tee to green, particularly his approach play, and irrespective of any connections to the course and the area this is a venue you would expect to suit him down to the ground.
Backing players on tour due to local connections/positive associations can of course be a double edge sword as you run the risk that the pressure of wanting to perform can weigh too heavily. However there have been several occasions over the years where these type of connections can lead you to huge priced winners and anyone who backed Steven Bowditch at the 2015 Byron Nelson [played at the site of where he got married four years earlier] or Billy Hurley III when he won the 2016 Quicken Loans [close to where he grew up and was in the Navy] will still quite possibly be dining out on the profits. On this basis and at the prices on offer I am happy to chance my arm that NeSmith can add his name to that type of list.
SEPP STRAKA – 400-1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 9 - FINISHED 33rd
Having rolled the dice once on NeSmith I’m going to roll it again on Sepp Straka, a man who did us a huge favour when placing for us at odds of 300-1 earlier this year at The American Express.
Straka is known on tour for being one of the more accomplished ball strikers out there and when the course fits his game he can really spring to life.
My logic in backing Straka at the Amex included his third place finish at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship played on a Pete Dye design and he showed that week in the desert when shooting two bogey free rounds of 65 & 66 on the Dye designed Stadium Course how much he enjoys the late designers layouts.
Following on from this I included Sepp as a big outsider play at TPC Sawgrass in March and witnessed him shoot a strong opening round of 67 before events came abruptly to a halt.
The Austrian has two fourth place finishes to his name already this season both coming straight on the back of some poor play so last weeks missed cut at Colonial is not much of a concern to me. Instead I will focus on the fact that even though this is Sepp’s debut at Harbour Town you would have to think again that this is another Dye venue which will favour his strong iron play and at the massive odds on offer I am happy to take a risk.
BRYSON DECHAMBEAU – 16-1 – 2pts Win - FINISHED 8th
Finally having included a couple of massive priced plays I will finish things off with what I guess would be classed as ‘a saver’ on Bryson Dechambeau.
The reason the ‘write up’ on Bryson is languishing at the bottom of the preview is not in anyway an indication of my thoughts on his chances, far from it, in fact to me he is the most likely winner this week. It is simply the fact that most readers probably don’t need me to lay out the case for him.
Fourth and third here already in his career Bryson is producing some amazing stuff at the moment, having finished in the top five in each of his last four starts.
As we know Dechambeau does things very much his own way and so far every career change/adaptation he has made has proved to be ‘bang on the money’. Another win is undoubtedly imminent and in my eyes it would be foolish to ignore his obvious chances this week.
UPDATED 16th JUNE
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - BRIAN STUARD - DK VALUE - $6600 - FINISHED 52nd - DK POINTS TOTAL 67.5
It should be noted that two of my main team picks, Nesmith and Straka sit comfortably in the sub $7k category this week, but as always I shall add a couple more DK plays in this bracket, the first of which is Brian Stuard.
Stuard's is a name that always springs to mind when the tour reaches shorter coastal tracks and his career is littered with strong performances at tournaments like the RSM Classic, Sony Open and The Mayakoba.
Similarly at Harbour Town Stuard has been a regular feature at the weekend over the years having not missed a cut here in his last five visits with a best placed finish of fifth.
Buoyed by a final round 64 on Sunday at Colonial when playing solo in the first group out Brian should be relishing the week ahead and I expect another strong performance from him this week.
PICK 2 - DOC REDMAN - DK VALUE - $6400 - FINISHED 21st - DK POINTS TOTAL 94.5
A former US Amateur champion as one of the shorter, straighter hitters from tee to green on tour Harbour Town should be a venue that suits Redman's game down to the ground.
A native of N Carolina Doc attended college in S Carolina at Clemson, and based on this he received a sponsors invite to play here in 2018, one which he made the most of to finish 50th.
Whilst Redman is yet to produce anything spectacular this season he showed last year when he finished second at the Rocket Mortgage Classic that he has what it takes to perform at this level.
An impressive 20th at the Open Championship last season also marks our card that he is comfortable on a shorter links track and I expect a solid showiing from him this week.