A very good question was raised at the end of last week's Greenbrier Classic: are unheralded players going low at Greenbrier because the event is similar to a mini-tour event?
Fair argument. During the middle of the summer, top players are trying to get their games to peak for major championships. Unheralded players know that every opportunity they get, whether it’s on the Canadian Tour, Web.com Tour, or even the PGA TOUR, is a chance to change a career. For Tiger and Phil, a tourney like the Greenbrier might be a chance to try out some new shots, equipment, or just get some more Fed Ex Cup points. If it works, maybe another feather in the cap. The pressure is low for the star player compared to the events they are used to. Meanwhile, these events are majors for a player with no status. He has a chance to be the next Ted Potter, Jr., should the execution match the desire.
The Travelers, perhaps the Greenbrier, and definitely this week's John Deere Classic are perfect examples of events that give players a chance to break out. Many rookies are just finding their stride in mid-summer on Tour. They’re playing courses that are less punishing than many of the tracks they’ve likely played earlier in the year - unless they only played the Bob Hope/Humana. Web.com events are typically set up for low scoring, so there's a comparison with these PGA TOUR events. There is less stress, familiar fields of guys they know, and a journeymen might have a chip on his shoulder knowing that the new PGA TOUR season will ask him to play great in order to keep playing through the Fed Ex Cup playoffs (and kids are getting sponsors exemptions that might take a future spot). It’s time to seize an opportunity. Inexperienced Tour players will still feel more comfortable playing with their peers in pressure situations, who might be prone to throwing their emotions around - good and bad - versus a Steve Stricker.
The prize money this week? $828,000 to the winner, which is less than the big dogs are used to. And Stricks will be a tough defending champ this week at TPC Deere Run, an event that's had five first-time winners in the last 10 years - and nearly more. In fact, history tells us that this event is more likely than most to offer a first-time winner. Why? The stereotype is that the greens are a little slower here and the course is more forgiving. It just feels like your local muni rolled out the red carpet. Silvis, Ill., is a laid back place. As usual, it’s a place where players go low like they’re bowling for strikes. It’s an event Happy Gilmore would probably win. Past first-time champions since 2000: Michael Clark Jr., David Gossett, Mark Hensby, Sean O’Hair and John Senden.
Also, course statistics tell us that this is geared for a shootout: TPC Deere Run ranks 2nd on Tour in longest driving distance average, has the biggest fairways on Tour and averages the most birdies on Tour for ANY event in statistics taken from 2003-2011.
Throughout most of the week, clouds are expected and 20% chance of T-storms every day. Should the course play as soft as usual, we’ll see super low scoring.
TPC Deere Run is almost 7,300 yards, a par 71. Three par-5’s play over 560 yards on the card, which requires two good hits for the average player. The Par-4’s and 3’s really give the strong wedge/iron player a chance to throw down. Six par-4’s are 430 yards or less, which means driver/wedge (or short iron) six times... plus two definitely reachable par-5’s (No. 10 plays 596 yards). There are two par-3’s over 200 yards but the other two play under 180 and downhill. Remember, the ball flies a little longer out here so distances will be a bit less significant. Slightly elevated shots and favorable air are responsible. Greens tend to be a little flatter and reward good iron play. It’s a shootout!
an Illinois native, designed the course with David Gray
in 1999. His philosophy with course design stems from a relationship with Byron Nelson, who was known for designing courses with forgiveness off the tee but generally rolling terrain and big greens. Deere Run falls into this stereotype. It’s all about iron play, making a few putts, capitalizing on wedge opportunities. Driver isn’t necessary at Deere Run for bombers, but since the fairways are so wide, the key is just to avoid deep fairway bunkers. Unless you’ve been working on this shot.
- Zach Johnson. His game is solid and trending: a runner-up finish here in 2007, a win at Colonial, two runner-ups, and four top-10’s. Also, he was T8 at the sister event of the Deere - the Bob Hope - where he shot a final round 71 to fall back from the winners circle. Currently top-10 in Strokes-Gained Putting and has steadily improved as the season's gone on. Close to home (Iowa).
- Jeff Overton. Ranks fifth on Tour in 2012 in approaches from 50-125 yards. Stricker led this stat by 11 shots at last year's Deere over Mark Wilson. Overton is known for being a prolific short iron/iron player. His driver tends to get very wild which keeps him out of big events. Should he get the putter going, this is his week. Recently had a birthday, two top-10’s this year. Time for him to step up. Additionally, he makes a lot of birdies: sixth on Tour in Total Birdies in 2012. On paper, he’s perfect for TPC Deere Run. Indiana boy, good Midwestern fit.
- Steve Stricker. As mentioned, led field in 50-125 yards last year with -24 in 50 attempts, nearly up and down HALF the time. Oh yeah, he also has three consecutive wins here and is coming off a steady week at Greenbrier.
- Daniel Summerhays. Not a flash in the pan, plays well in shootouts. Won twice on the Nationwide Tour in very low scoring, not to mention I’ve personally seen him shoot in the 20’s for 9 holes in college at BYU on a legitimate track (Golden Horseshoe, WV). Fifth last week, T4 at Memorial, 7th in Puerto Rico, T5 at Mayakoba. He’s a great player. Sneaky long, 9th on Tour in par-3 birdie leaders (a couple short par 3’s at Deere), 3rd in GIR from 200+ yards. Has some unique talent, will be fun to see him play this week.
- Brian Harman. Won’t be long before the Georgia Bulldog breaks through. He watched Charlie Beljan contend last week - a player who beat him in a match to win the 2002 US Junior, an event Harman won the next year and would go on to be the No. 1-ranked junior over Beljan. Iron play is a clear strength for the lefty. He's 14 made cuts in 21 events this year, but besides a 61 at the Honda Classic has been less than dynamic. However, his last three starts were very promising: despite a 76 in the final round last week that followed three straight rounds in the 60’s, he was T11 at the AT&T National with a final round 67 at Congressional (final rounds were his weakness on the West Coast Swing) and a T24 at Travelers, where he shot a 65 and had two other rounds in the 60’s.
Sleeper: Gary Christian. T18 at Travelers two starts ago (MC last week), but ranks top-10 on Tour in 50-125-yard approaches. I like that stat a lot. He was T14 at the Hope/Humana, which is an equivalent event. I think he’ll break out; he needs a good week as he's outside the top 300 in rankings. His name has been floating around, not a lost soul.
Blake Adams. Due for a trophy or … anything. Missed out on a British Open birth unless he's in the top-5 this week (Potter and Leishman won the separate money list). So he is left with 81st in the Fed Ex Cup standings - in that precarious position where he could end up being a borderline player with a mediocre second half of the season, or he could break into an elite group. Tee to green, he can contend. Five top-25’s and one top-10 this year, which is not great for his opening 36-hole efforts. He ranks 3rd on Tour in Total Birdies so hopefully this is a chance to erase the mistakes (usually putting) that hold him back.
Coming off strong weeks: Troy Kelly, Ted Potter, Jr., and Martin Flores. Each have excellent short games and will be riding high in confidence after struggling this year and coming out on top last week.
Nick Watney. Three top-10’s and six top-25’s so far in 2012, and he didn't start the year well at all. Can get hot with the putter.
Local flavor: Luke Guthrie of Illinois debuted at the St. Jude and had a T25. Should be a good course for him here.
Others to watch: K.J. Choi and Stewart Cink are looking to avenge bittersweet seasons.
Jason Kokrak was the talk of the Tour after his top-10 at Pebble Beach and a lot of guys like Tripp Isenhour started coming up to him on the range and patting on the back, saying they were picking him to win, etc. I don’t like that, Tripp. Let the kid play. And I think he will this week - one of the longest on Tour, East Coast kid who is due for a good performance.
Huge sleeper: Russell Knox has gained valuable experience this year and ranks top-10 on Tour in approaches from 100-125 yards. He’s got a streaky putter, made the cut at Greenbrier last week. Contended at Zurich Classic, but has been struggling on weekends. He doesn’t have any resume to suggest he can win, but I think players who get their first taste of TPC Deere Run will welcome the opportunity to score at any given time. Michelle Wie chips in for birdies here.