The PGA TOUR is officially out of action until the Tournament of Champions in January but this week's "unofficial" event will hold us over in the mean time.
The Hero World Challenge benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation. It's an exclusive, 18-man field that is INVITE ONLY.
The unofficial tag gets air quotes because while there are no FedExCup Points up for grabs this week, there is still a $3.5 Million purse and OWGR ranking points at stake. Everyone that tees it up in The Bahamas this week will be guaranteed four rounds of action and a six-figure payday. Not a bad deal just ahead of the holidays.
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Albany will be playing the host role for the fourth straight year. This Ernie Els creation was opened in 2010 and it looks like something straight out of a video game. It's the healthy green grass mixed with white sand that really makes it pop.
Albany uses rolling terrain and heavy bunkering to resemble a links-style layout but the sandy areas with native vegetation remind you of the desert courses you'd find in the Southwest.
Situated on the island of New Providence, this is not supposed to be a tricky course. The majority of tee times on this course will come from vacationers and local celebrities.
The fairways are quite generous but the greens are small. As long as you aren't spraying into the bushes, you should have no troubles off the tee.
Situated less than a mile from the ocean, there is no escaping the coastal winds. That is really the defense of this course but that was also a known factor during the design of the course. As long as the winds don't come from the wrong direction or swirl then scoring conditions remain easy here for 18 of the world's best.
The scoring conditions are also made easier on this par-72 layout from the fact there are FIVE par 5s. There are also five par 3s but the par 5s are more important for fantasy purposes. That is a lot of birdie opportunities. Looking at last year's winner (Rickie Fowler), he racked up a whopping 30 birdies on the week, but no eagles. That was the case for most in the field last year as nobody in the top 5 found a single eagle on the par 5s.
There was lots of hoopla about Tiger's chipping struggles upon his return here last year but truth be told, everyone struggles around these greens here at Albany. The grass is grainy bermuda and Jordan Spieth described it like chipping out of mud, at times, due to spotty growth patterns of the grass. The best solution for that is to just hit more greens. That's easier said then done when the winds picks up to 20 MPH as it often does around here. The putting surfaces are also bermuda.
Sifting through some past quotes over at the Fantasy Golfanac, let's try to break down the course to see how they will play...
Justin Thomas: "the thing is everyone's going to struggle around the greens out here. The ball, I mean the lie that I had on 14 there I would have loved to hand a couple people in the audience my wedge and see how they would have done. That part is difficult for anybody, but you can get some squirrely lies."
Charley Hoffman: "the greens are rolling great. They're good, fast, Bermuda greens and I'm thankful that I'm getting the greens somewhat in a timely fashion to where I'm able to make birdies."
Justin Rose: "It feels like a home game but I'm not really sure it's an advantage. Especially in a crowd and an atmosphere like this, it's a lot more intimate so I know everybody, I can see everybody. When you're playing in front of thousands of people, everybody can blend in and you can get focused a lot easier, where here I know exactly where my kids are, I know exactly where my wife is and my friends are. So it requires a bit more focus from my point of view or an attempt to focus a bit more."
J.B. Holmes: "I don't necessarily think the course is made for me. A lot of people shot some good scores. A lot of the par 5s are reachable for a lot of people."
Bill Haas: "I do like the fairways, they're generous off the tee, and I do like the greens being small which puts an emphasis on hitting a good iron shot and the greens surfaces are excellent. I think it fits everyone's eye. I don't think there's a player out here that's going to say this course doesn't suit me. I think a guy like Bubba, I played with him today, him being long is certainly an advantage. It's an advantage every week. But I also think a guy like me and Zach Johnson can do well and that's the mark of a good golf course."
Overview: It's a second-shot course as the fairways are easy-to-hit for everyone. Dealing with wind is a huge factor these guys talk about, but dealing with the grainy bermuda is also a big factor.
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
Plantation Course at Kapalua
Muirfield Village GC
Pebble Beach Pro-Am
The Club at Nine Bridges
El Camaleon GC
The RSM Classic
Kapalua is an obvious link, given they are both island courses with generous fairways and easy scoring conditions.
Muirfield Village cracks the list because Jack Nicklaus likes to give golfers an easy test off the tee but make it harder as they get closer to the green. That resembles the test here in The Bahamas.
Augusta National makes the list because finding fairways is pretty easy at ANGC but the approach targets are tougher.
The Club at Nine Bridges is another island test where winds are a big factor.
The CareerBuilder and Pebble Beach Pro-Am are both easy scoring environments with laid-back atmospheres.
El Camaleon shares the regional link, grainy greens, and coastal conditions.
Lastly, The RSM Classic finds its way onto the list as a coastal course with tricky, bermuda greens.
Thursday: Overcast with a high of 74 degrees. Winds NNE around 10 MPH.
Friday: Slight chance of rain with a high of 77 degrees. Winds E at 12-to-15 MPH.
Weekend: Things get dicey on Saturday with thunderstorms possible and wind eclipsing the 20 MPH mark. Things should calm back down on Sunday.
There isn't a big weather angle to play here with such a tiny field. There are no tee-time waves to target. Golfers with comfort in the wind can be given a slight boost, though.
Golfers to Watch
I'm not sure if he owns a place at Albany or is just a frequent visitor but he lists Albany as a club affiliation on his PGA TOUR profile and was also sharing his visits down here via social media as far back as 2016 before the U.S. Open. Having a residence here would help explain how he become somewhat close with Tiger. He should be very comfortable this week, despite it being his tournament debut. He's also won three of his last five events played, so there's that.
Also a home game for Tiger who calls Albany home or at least his second home. Woods will have the benefit of last week's warmup against Phil. That should help him from a competitive standpoint but after the match he said he's still ramping up after the short offseason rest.
He demolished this course on his debut but is also quoted saying he thought he had no chance to contend here. His main worry was the heavy winds. If the forecast shifts to become extremely windy then maybe knock him down a peg or two. Otherwise, he should be good to go on a course with FIVE par 5s.
Going back to the home-game theme, Rose is a local here. If you read the quotes section above, you'd know that Rose doesn't consider it much of an edge. In fact, he said it causes him to lose focus at times because he has full awareness of all his friends and family following him compared to a normal event where they get lost in the huge crowds. There are no worries from a form perspective (six straight top 10s including a WIN in his latest start). The concern? He skipped the season-ending Euro Tour Championship and also skipped the Hong Kong Open, an event that is hosted by one of his new sponsors, HONMA. Could he be testing out some new sticks this week? It's possible.
Set to make his first appearance against his Ryder Cup teammates since the Le Golf National aftermath. I wouldn't lock him in as a guaranteed starter this week. It was odd to see him on the field list after hearing his comments in Hong Kong last week. "You know, Tuesday afternoon, I really felt like there was a pretty good chance I wasn't even going to tee it up and play the event. I couldn't get the ball off the ground." When asked about his ribs he also said, "They are struggling. The ribs and my side don't feel great. But I was pleased and happy with the way I was able to grind it through, even though I don't feel anywhere close to 100 percent." Beware the injured golfer? Or beware the Ryder Cup villain looking to secure a guaranteed six-figure payday just by showing up?
We may be missing Spieth after his wedding this weekend but Fowler and JT should represent the Baker's Bay SB crew very well. Fowler is the defending champ here and also has some success at Playa del Carmen. These tropical, coastal courses are right up his wheelhouse.
Making his first start since welcoming ARROW into the world at the beginning of November, their third child and second boy. Love that name. Day will be making his fifth start at this event but first time since it moved to Albany. Will Nappy Factor work in his favor this week?
He should love the desert aspect of this course, possibly reminding him of home back in Arizona. However, he's also talked about his struggles with bermuda in the past. He's made big strides since joining the TOUR but these grasses are no walk in the park here at Albany. He should demolish this course from tee-to-green but the wildcard will be how he fares on and around the greens.
Ranking the Field
1. Dustin Johnson
2. Justin Rose
3. Tiger Woods
4. Rickie Fowler
5. Jason Day
6. Justin Thomas
7. Tony Finau
8. Bryson DeChambeau
9. Henrik Stenson
10. Hideki Matsuyama
11. Patrick Cantlay
12. Jon Rahm
13. Gary Woodland
14. Bubba Watson
15. Patrick Reed
16. Keegan Bradley
17. Xander Schauffele
18. Alex Noren