You like story lines? This week's WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral has them.
Let's get to the short list: 1) The Gil Hanse-redesigned Blue Monster course, which Donald Trump has been pimping for months, 2) Rory McIlroy coming back into his own, despite blowing a lead on the back nine on Sunday at the Honda, 3) Injuries, including defending champ Tiger Woods (back) and past champ Justin Rose (shoulder), 4) the Top 50 players in the world scheduled to compete, a real rarity these days, 5) Adam Scott has the opportunity to gain the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), and 6) Donald Trump's wispy pelt of hair.
We'll see a lot of No. 6 over the next few days -- no one loves the camera like The Donald -- and arguably no one who doesn't swing a stick for a living has done more to grow the game of golf the last couple of years. Like him or not, he is making his mark on the sport and wants to bring more golfers to his swanky resorts around the world. Nos. 3 and 4 are intertwined -- keep and eye on Tiger and his back spasms especially. He's withdrawn from this event in the past, but he's also a four-time winner at Doral (and seven-time winner of this event). Rose, the 2012 champ, withdrew from Honda last Tuesday and hasn't shown us much so far in 2014. And we'll get to Adam Scott and story line No. 5 below.
McIlroy, on the other hand, appears to be getting really close to regaining top form. His key is his driver -- last week he led the field in driving distance and finished 30th in accuracy, a great combination for him. But what stood out to me was his putting -- he finished 10th in SGP on the week despite a miserable day Sunday. If he continues to be an above-average putter, it's only a matter of time before he wins again in the States.
But the story we'll hear the most about this week is the Blue Monster's redesign conducted by Gil Hanse. Hanse is the architect of Rio's Olympic course and is quickly becoming the Rees Jones of the new century, having already redone Tour courses such as TPC Boston and Monterey Peninsula, as well as classic tracks such as Brae Burn, Taconic, and Los Angeles Country Club. His reputation for incorporating original designs with modern shot values shouldn't be overlooked when analyzing the new Doral -- expect defined landing areas with options of how to navigate them, and clear risk/reward opportunities. In the end, it's a completely new course for the players, with plenty of new water features and new angles into the greens. I'm actually more interested in the changes to the greens because I think this year it will have more of an impact on the scoring. (If you're into course architecture, here's a hole-by-hole from Hanse about Doral.)
Winning scores in the high teens are likely a thing of the past at Doral -- I expect this week to play a lot more like the Honda. And I'm discounting putting this week -- there are a lot of new contours in these greens that no one will have seen before. I'd err on the side of the guy who gives himself the most chances, so GIR% and proximity to the hole get the nod. One other note: no one from outside of the top 20 in the OWGR has ever won this event since it moved to Doral in 2007. Say what you want about the course, its host, and the WGC format, but at this event the best of the best usually comes out on top.
Outside of Thursday (possible storms), the weather forecast looks ideal. As a World Golf Championship event, we're choosing between (roughly) the top 70 players in the world and a $1.53 million winner's check -- as Ron Burgandy would say, it's kind of a big deal. Here are my top 10 for the week, with their OWGR in parentheses:
10. Hunter Mahan (31). Right off the bat, I'm bucking one of my theories... but if there's someone I could see ending the top-20 streak of winners at Doral, it's Mahan. He has top-6 finishes two of the last three weeks and is in the top third on Tour in driving accuracy, GIR% and strokes gained putting.
9. Jordan Spieth (12). No reason to think the wunderkind will post anything other than another great result. New venue, no problem for the first-timer. Funny that one year ago he was on his way to a T2 finish in the Puerto Rico open concurrent to Doral… and that result springboarded him to the ridiculous run he's been on since.
8. Jim Furyk (20). The old Doral never really suited Furyk, although he did finish 3rd in this event in 2009 and T2 in 2008. Beyond that, the birdie barrage just wasn't his forte. But the redesign and emphasis on creating good angles into greens -- and not simply being able to overpower the course -- should play right into his game. He showed that his game didn't get too rusty over the winter with solid showing in both LA (T23) and at the match play (T5).
7. Phil Mickelson (5). I can see this going one of two ways for Lefty: he loves the changes to a course on which he's had plenty of success, or he pans the redesign, plays terrible and drifts to the bottom of the field. Since he did offer his input to Hanse before the redesign, I think it will be the former and he'll be in contention (he's also played well at TPC Boston and Monterey Peninsula, other Hanse redesigns). He got his Florida sea legs at PGA National last week and any adjustments in his game should be implemented come Thursday.
6. Zach Johnson (8). Another player who should benefit from the changes at Doral and par's newfound importance. Always the strategist, ZJ ranks 1st in fairways hit, 3rd in GIR%, and 11th in proximity to the hole. That's a great combination anywhere, but it should pay extra dividends this week.
5. Sergio Garcia (9). This could be a good spot to use Sergio. He made the cut just inside the number last week at Honda, but played great over the weekend to surge to a T8 finish. He finished T2 here last year, but more importantly with a brand new course, the advantage goes to the best ball strikers. Sergio also hasn't finished worse than T11 in the wraparound 2013-14 season, and his worst finish worldwide was a T19 in Abu Dhabi in January… and he won the next week in Qatar.
4. Jason Day (4). There are safer choices in the field this week, but like last year when I predicted it would be 'The Year of Adam,' I'm giving that moniker to Day in 2014. Now that's he's broken the seal to get a big-time Tour win, as he did two weekends ago at the WGC Match Play, there is nothing holding him back. I don't think he'll win this week, but I do think he'll be in the picture. If you see him hitting a lot of those 275-yard 4-woods off the tee, that would be a great sign -- that'll mean he's hitting a lot of shots from 190 to 210 yards into the greens, which is his bread-and-butter distance and will take some big numbers out of play.
3. Rory McIlroy (6). He just looked like he fell asleep at the wheel on Sunday at the Honda, which is a shame because he was teetering on event domination for the first 54 holes. There are a lot of things to like about Rory's game right now, and he's finished in the top 10 in pretty much every stroke play tourney he's playing in over the last four months.
2. Graeme McDowell (15). He has an excellent record in this event and the redesign's new requirements should play to his game. If the course does indeed play more difficult, I want GMac on my team. He loves tough courses and always finds a way to get the ball in the hole.
1. Adam Scott (2). His worst finish at this event over the last three years is a T13 in 2012, but that's almost a side story. With a win (and a sub-par Tiger performance), Scott can claim the No. 1 spot in the OWGR -- great performances in big events will do that. Scott has made no secret that he now schedules his year differently, playing fewer events, trying to get in top form for the majors. He played last week at the Honda, cruising to a T12 with no rounds over par (and that's saying something). So now that he's knocked the rust off, what will he do on a course where his advantages -- ball striking and distance -- should only be more so? In short, he deserves to be the No. 1 player because he's been the best player for almost a full year now.
Player(s) to Avoid: Tiger Woods. Sure, his back could be fine, and he's certainly owned Doral more than anyone else over the years. But when coupled with his recent track record (MDF at Farmers, WD at Honda, nothing inside the top 10 since The Barclays last August), I'm staying away. There are just too many other reliable options this week. Charl Schwartzel is another one. Has two top-4 finishes at Doral in the last four years, but the 74-73 showing at the Honda has given me pause.
Suspicious Omissions: Keegan Bradley (don't like the redesign for him), Dustin Johnson (only one of his eight wins has been in the South - FedEx St. Jude in 2012 - and I don't like him on heavily bunkered courses), Bubba Watson (playing great, but you never know with Bubba), Luke Donald (showed encouraging signs last week at PGA National), Matt Kuchar (like him down the road more than this week), Graham DeLaet (should be a factor with his solid ballstriking, but lots of unknowns this week for him).
Sleepers: Harris English has been too good of late not to include here, and he ranks 8th in GIR% and 56th in proximity to the hole. Jimmy Walker will fly under the radar this week, but with three wins in his last nine events and the Doral redesign leveling the field somewhat, he could sneak up the leaderboard. Chris Kirk likes southern grasses, plays well on tough courses and has 16 top 25's over the last 14 months, with only three missed cuts. Thomas Bjorn has been playing well, is the type of grinder this new course could require, and should be considered in deeper leagues.
Last week: Decent, but not spectacular. Will MacKenzie (T6) was the cream of my 'top 5' crop, with Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka also playing the weekend. I had Rory ranked No. 2 out of the big guns, but of course had Charl ranked ahead of him and he's still asking for the license plate of the PGA National truck that ran him over. Peter Hanson was another stink bomb, missing the cut and providing us another reason to dislike the Swedish. OK, no one dislikes the Swedes… but that was a big disappointment for me. Accurately pegged letdown performances by Tiger, Phil and Henrik Stenson, and properly set expectations for Keegan, Zach and Sergio.
The best of the rest head a little further south than Doral to the Puerto Rico Open, a concurrent event at another Trump property. The winner's share is only $630K at this event, so I do not recommend using any of the few well-known names in the field -- there's simply no evidence to indicate they will do well. Here's who I have my eye on:
1. Chris Stroud. His last seven events: T3, MC, T3, T20, MC, T19, T12 (Honda). Finished T18 here last year. Poised to win in 2014, and it wouldn't be a shocker if it happens this week.
2. Scott Brown. The defending champ got off to a hot start in the 2013-14 season, but has cooled of late. Nothing like a trip to the tropics to heat up again.
3. Brooks Koepka. He's in the same, non-member status predicament that Spieth was in last year at this time… only Koepka is already ranked 70th in the world, jumping an amazing 373 spots over the last 14 months. He has a chance with good play to get into The Masters. Finished T33 at the Honda last week.
I also like David Hearn, Morgan Hoffman, Seung-Yol Noh, Brian Stuard, and Jhonny Vegas.
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