WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational Preview
Those who haven’t kept a close eye on this season’s schedule may be surprised to see the Open Championship being immediately followed by a WGC event.
Having a major and a WGC in consecutive weeks isn’t a new phenomenon as previously the Bridgestone Invitational had preceded the PGA Championship.
But to have a WGC on the back of a major played overseas adds a different dynamic. This isn’t a gentle wind down at Hilton Head or in Canada; this is one of the biggest money-spinners on the calendar.
The extra twist is that it’s a new addition to the WGC calendar with the regular-season St. Jude event being promoted in status.
After a string of new courses to try and fathom out, gamers will be glad that the venue hasn’t changed. Yes, TPC Southwind in Memphis has been a permanent stop for 30 years.
It’s a field of just 64 and the event is no-cut.
TPC Southwind is a tough par 70 measuring in at 7,244 yards. A design team featuring architect Ron Prichard and U.S. Open winners Fuzzy Zoeller and Hubert Green came up with the original layout before Loren Roberts helped upgrade it in 2004, the main alteration being a change of the greens from Bentgrass to Champion Bermuda. A hint on what to expect can be found in its previous place on the schedule. The St. Jude acted as the warm-up event for the U.S. Open and was set up accordingly. There are plenty of water hazards to be found while a key trait is the number of par 4s over 450 yards (eight of them). The Zoysia fairways are also spotted at East Lake and Trinity Forest.
2018: Top five finishers (Dustin Johnson, Andrew Putnam, J.B. Holmes, Stewart Cink and Richy Werenski) all ranked in the top ten for both SG: Approach and SG: Tee to Green. None ranked in top ten for SG: Putting.
2017: Winner Daniel Berger ranked 1st for SG: Tee to Green but 44th in SG: Putting.
2016: Four of the top five (Daniel Berger, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson) ranked in the top seven for SG: Tee to Green. Mickelson did it on the greens, 1st SG: Putting.
2015: Fabian Gomez was 1st for SG: Tee to Green although others did it with the flatstick.
Also note that the last three winners were all ranked in the top five for SG: Off the Tee. Long and straight driving certainly works well here. SG: Tee to Green is clearly a key indicator.
Dustin Johnson: “I just like the golf course. It plays tough. You know, you got to drive it in the fairway and control your ball coming into the greens and, you know, it just seems like every year the scores are never very low here. I hit maybe seven (drivers). I hit a good amount of driver.”
Phil Mickelson: “I think it’s the most underrated golf course we play on tour. I think the beauty of this course is in its simplicity and how it really challenges you with precision, not necessarily overwhelming length. But the greens are small. You have to shape shots, and you have to hit it in the proper position or you get blocked out by trees. I think that this TPC Southwind is one of our best courses we have.”
Daniel Berger: “I think a lot of it reminds me of the golf course that I grew up on. Bermuda greens, a lot of familiar tee shots, and overall it’s just, it feels like I’m back home. I know it’s Memphis, but it reminds me a lot of Florida.”
Steve Stricker: “It’s a tough course. You got to really pay attention around here. You got to keep the ball in front of you. You got to put it in play, bottom line. You got to get it in the fairway and if you’re playing out of the rough around here it’s going to be difficult. You can play out of the rough but you can’t control the ball. You get those jumpers and the greens aren’t that big so if you want to be aggressive into some of these hole locations you got to be playing from the fairway.”
One other key factor is the weather. This is Memphis rather than Northern Ireland so temperatures are pushing towards the 90s in tournament week rather than creeping into the 60s as they were at Royal Portrush. There’s chance of a t-storm on Sunday but winds look fairly gentle (5-8mph).
The Leading Contenders
DJ was a low-key T51 at Portrush and it followed MC (Rocket Mortgage) and T35 (U.S. Open) so something isn’t right. That makes him a course form v current form dilemma as he’s had great success at TPC Southwind with two wins (2012 and 2018), a fifth, a tenth and a T24 in just five starts. If Tee to Green > Putting this week, DJ should be just fine.
The most vivid impression of Koepka at Royal Portush was him missing putts of around 8-15 feet time and time and time again. As a double U.S. Open champ, TPC Southwind should be a good fit and the evidence is there in a 5-for-5 slate which includes second (2016) and third (2015). A slightly hotter putter should in theory lead to a title challenge but he puts so much in to majors that fatigue could kick in, just as it did when Koepka took T57 at the Travelers the week after the U.S. Open when he admitted he couldn’t stop yawning.
McIlroy shot one of the best rounds of the week at Royal Portrush (a Friday 68) but, unfortunately, it followed one of the worst of his career (Thursday 79). We know his game is in great shape this year (two wins) but who knows where is head is after last week’s chastening Open experience. McIlroy last played TPC Southwind in 2012 but T7 shows he liked it and his 2019 ranking of 1st in both SG: Off the Tee and SG: Tee to Green points to a big bounce back week after the MC in Northern Ireland.
The Spanish bull led the Open Championship in round one and looked as if he could be the week’s dominant force. It didn’t play out that way but T11 was his best Open finish by a distance and followed form of 1-2-3. It’s his first start at TPC Southwind but he ranks 4th in SG: Off the Tee and 15th Tee to Green so it should be a track that suits.
JT’s tied 11th at Royal Portrush was something of a breakthrough for him at The Open after poor previous finishes and could have been even better but for a triple at the 71st hole. It added to T9 in the Scottish Open and he should have a spring in his step after an encouraging fortnight on the links. With his putting starting to catch up with his long game again, Thomas could easily make his first start at TPC Southwind a winning one.
Last year’s Open runner-up threatened a repeat performance but a row about a non-confirming driver knocked him a little and a 78 in Sunday’s tough weather led to T41. Third in the U.S. Open on his previous start, Schauffele already has a WGC win to his name having landed last October’s HSBC Champions in China. Ranks in the top 15 for both SG: Off the Tee and Tee to Green this season. Course debut.
A third in the PGA Championship and a brilliant performance to win at Memorial made Cantlay a hot pick for the last two majors but he couldn’t justify the hype, posting T21 at Pebble and T41 at Portrush. He’s another of the elite names seeing TPC Southwind for the first time but, again, his game looks a great fit. Cantlay is 4th Tee to Green, 10th Off the Tee and 12th on Approach.
As with Rory, Fleetwood’s mindset makes him a tricky one to weigh up and there is no course form to go on either. There were plenty of positives in his second place at Royal Portrush but he was hugely disappointed not to push Shane Lowry harder in Sunday’s two-horse race to the finish. His game is definitely trending though after a brief lull and he’s another top 20 dweller in both SG: Off the Tee and Tee to Green.
There’s a sense that Rose has done it by smoke, mirrors and a hot putter for 54 holes in the last two majors. But Sundays flush out the flaws and Rose closed with 74 at Pebble to fall to third and crashed to a R4 79 at Portrush to sink from T4 to T20. You can add the Farmers Insurance winner to the lengthy list of top players without a previous start at the course.
Without hitting the peak of his form, Stenson has pieced together three top tens and an Open T20 on his last four starts. And what bodes well for this week, he’s done it via top-class ball-striking. Finally, we have a leading contender with some course form. Stenson has pegged it up here three times and posted MC (2009), T13 (2012) and T26 (2018). He’s twice shot 66.