For the fourth time this season, we have a 1st time major winner in Jimmy Walker. This has only happened one other time in PGA Tour history. Walker seized the lead in the first round and never let up for the rest of the PGA Championship. Walker has had a fantastic run on tour, but he has been known as an early season guy who racks up wins on the West Coast swing and in his native Texas. In fact, before his win last week, he had never won east of Texas. Golf fans were treated to a dramatic ending, starting with Walker's birdie on the 17th hole to push the lead to three shots. Not to be outdone, Jason Day--who finished 2nd--got up and down from 240 yards to make eagle and cut Walkers lead to 1 stroke. Walker made an interesting choice hitting 5 wood at the green instead of laying up with his second shot, but was able to make par and win his first major. Walker has always had a lot of game and knows how to win tournaments, so we just might see the floodgates open for him going forward.
As usual with tournaments that take place directly after a major--and this year right before the Olympics--the field is not very strong. Leading the way is Bubba Watson, who won his first tournament at the Travelers Championship and credits that win with launching his career. Although the course might not seem like the best fit for a big hitting player like Bubba, he plays TPC River Highlands very well and is absolutely the favorite to win.
After Bubba, there are some nice 2nd tier options in Branden Grace, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson. They are priced a little high this week comparatively, but all have wins in their career and are certainly in play to win this week. Of the group, I think Zach Johnson is the best fit because the course is not long by any standards and plays to his strengths of hitting fairways and greens.
The field then gets a little murky with Webb Simpson, Paul Casey, Jon Rahm, JB Holmes and Jim Furyk in the next tier. Although they are not the type of players you want to build your core around, it seems like this is where GPP tournaments are won. If you pair one of them with Bubba (or others in the top tier) or if you choose to match up two or three of them, they are all dangerous players who can win events. Webb Simpson has pieced together a solid second half to the season, and he is a guy I like this week on a course that plays to his strengths.
A couple other options down the list are Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Chappell, Tony Finau and Tyrell Hatton. Hatton in particular is playing some very good golf having three straight top 10's. He is a Euro-Tour player, so he may just slip under the radar this week with an attractive price of $7700.
Course: TPC River Highlands (Cromwell, CT)
Course Architect: 1928 (Robert J.Ross), 1982 (Pete Dye) and 1998 (Bobby Weed). The course has seen its fair share of redesigns, most notably when Pete Dye put his mad genius to work and made the course play up to TPC standards. The final redesign was done by veteran Bobby Weed with input from Tour players Howard Twitty and Roger Maltbie. Much of the redesigns were centered around the emerging technology of golf clubs and balls which made this short course defensible against the best players in the world. It is still a birdie-fest, but if the wind blows it can play much harder than one might think by looking at the hole setup and green complexes.
Course Grass: The Tees, Fairways and Greens all feature Bentgrass surfaces, while the rough is a combination of Kentucky Bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass and Fine Fescue.
Course Record: Patrick Cantley shot a 60 (-10) in the 2011 Travelers. Cantley was an amateur at the time playing on a sponsors exemption and finished 24th.
Course Stats: TPC River Highlands plays to a par 70, and will be stretched to just over 6800 yards. The yardage is super, super short in terms of PGA Tour venues, and there are no tricked up holes that make it play longer than the yardage book dictates. The interesting aspect to me is that the course offers scoring opportunities on short par 4's (#2, 340 yards and #15 296 yards) and par 5's, so length off the tee actually matters more than one might think. This doesn't preclude the shorter hitters by any means, it just means there are several ways to skin this cat of a course. According to PGATour..com, eight different par 4's averaged under par in the 2011 edition of the Travelers. Another interesting fact is that TPC River Highlands feature only two par 5's on the entire course, so "Par 4 Scoring" is an important metric to look at this week.
Course Features: TPC River Highlands is a typical parkland course that features tree-lined fairways, elevation changes and multiple doglegs that force players to think twice about hitting driver off the tee. The course is well bunkered, and underwent extensive remodeling of 50+ bunkers after the tournament ended last year. The bunkers play a significant part of the course defense, but that should also tell you something about the difficulty. PGA Tour players would much rather play out of the sand than deep rough, especially around the greens, so there is not much to scare players out there this week. Although the original course designer (Robert J. Ross) was not related to the famous architect Donald Ross, the greens at TPC River Highlands certainly bare a resemblance to Donald Ross's famed turtle shell greens that run off on all sides and funnel balls into collection areas. On the actual green surfaces, the greens tend to be pretty flat which when combined with relatively slow green speeds (10.5 on the stimpmeter) make this course as gettable as any on Tour.
Course Strategy: As I mentioned above, TPC River Highlands is a very short course with very little natural defenses, flattish green surfaces and relatively slow green speeds. So who does this favor? Well, the easy answer to that is everyone. Big hitters like Bubba Watson have an advantage in that they can get home on all of the par 5's, and they can realistically drive two of the par 4 greens. That gives him what could be as many as four eagle putts per round, however that also brings into unnecessary trouble that players like Zach Johnson will not have to contend. Steady players like ZJ, Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk will have plenty of birdie opportunities by simply hitting fairways, and subsequently having short irons into many of the greens.
Key Metrics: Par 4 scoring, Proximity to Hole, Total Driving, Strokes Gained: Putting and Strokes Gained: Approach
1.) Bubba Watson: Watson is a layup this week, and the one guy I think you need to have in your GPP lineups. The Travelers was the site of Bubba's first win as a professional and he remarked at a PGA Championship press conference how much the tournament means to him, and how much it has done for his career. Considering this is a Tier-B event on the schedule, with relatively little competition at the top for Bubba, I am fully expecting a top 3 finish with a great chance at a win.
2.) Zach Johnson: Zach is priced a little higher than he has been at many points this year, but he's actually a bargain when you consider the level of talent in the field this week. Hes won his fair share of tournaments on Tour, including two majors, and his win % is among the top players in the field this week. TPC Hartford is a short track which caters to his specific skillset, so there is very little doubt in my mind that he will return value on his salary this week.
3.) Branden Grace: Grace continued his awesome play last week by finishing T4 at the PGA Championship. He is a world class ball-striker and it showed last week, where he led the field in proximity to hole, a metric that I value highly this week. In only 15 appearances this year, Grace has six top 10's and a win at Hilton Head. I like Bubba as the favorite, but I cannot discount Grace because he is playing at such a high level and still hasn't peaked as a player.
4.) Matt Kuchar: Kuchar disappointed last week by missing the cut in the PGA Championship. I can't really hold that against him though, as he's been one of the most consistent players on Tour over the last three months. Prior to his MC at the PGA, Kuchar's last nine tournaments look like this: 46th, 3rd, 46th, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 3rd, 42nd and 9th. Thats five top 6 finishes in a six tournament run. His ability to keep the ball in play and use his strengths will pay dividends at TPC River Highlands.
5.) Paul Casey: Casey finished 2nd last year at TPC River Highlands, and looked very comfortable moving around the course. He is such a talented player, but just hasn't been able to get over the hump and record the type of wins that would push him into the top 10 players in the world. Make no mistake, Casey does not have a weakness to his game, making him an excellent play on a course where everything is right in front of you. I thought about putting Brooks Koepka here, but his ankle injury worries. Yes, Koepka played awesome last week en route to a top 5 finish, but that was the first time he's played four consecutive rounds in over a month, and if you've ever had an ankle injury, you know how it can tend to be reinjured or tweeked very easily, especially after fatigue from a long tournament sets in.