The First Tee at The RBC Heritage (Harbour Town Golf Links)
As much as it pains me to say this, congrats to Masters winner, Danny Willett. I am a fan of Willett, he has a really steady game that matches his unflappable demeanor very well, and he did what you have to do at Augusta National. Namely, bide your time and give yourself a chance come the back nine on Sunday. Amen Corner has seen a lot of incredible things happen on Sunday at the Masters, but this year will be one that is talked about for years to come. Jordan Spieth was cruising along, and at one point held a five shot lead over his nearest competitor, but that all came to a crashing halt when he dumped not one, but two shots in the water at the Par 3 12th hole. That ultimately led to a quadruple bogey 7, which all but sunk his chances at becoming only the fourth player in history to repeat at the Masters. I've been a vocal fanboy of Spieth's since he turned professional, and he's been my favorite at the Masters for the third consecutive year. From that end, it was a tough pill to swallow and moved me out of a deep finish in the Milly Maker, but I've also played and watched enough golf to know that one shot can mean the difference between winning and losing. Willett's win was made even more sweet by the fact that his wife was due to give birth to their first child. All in all, it was a fantastic Masters and one that will be remembered for a long, long time.
Given the fact that the Masters is the week before, there is always a decline in the strength of the field at the RBC Heritage. With that said, Harbour Town Golf Links is a course that players love to play, located on the golf-rich island of Hilton Head, South Carolina.
The field is highlighted by World #1 Jason Day, who made the commitment to play at Harbour Town. He is the overwhelming favorite, although I don't think the course sets up well for him with respect to his elite skills, specifically his length off the tee.
Aside from Day, there are quite a few 1B talents that are in the field this week. Paul Casey, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Branden Grace, Zach Johnson, Bill Haas, Jason Dufner and Graham McDowell to name a few. Additionally, last year's runner up Kevin Kisner is also in the field, and has been playing good golf thus far this year.
There is also a nice contingent of young studs in the field. Justin Thomas, Mathew Fitzpatrick, Jamie Lovemark and Patton Kizzire are some players that have made a name for themselves and should bring youthful energy to the tournament.
And I cannot forget, Bryson DeChambeau, the low amateur at The Masters, who is turning pro this week prior to the start of the RBC Heritage. DeChambeau has had a storied amateur career, becoming one of only five players to win both the NCAA individual championship and the US Amateur championship in the same season, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ryan Moore. He has an interesting game, and an even more interesting approach to the game, blending—in his words—art and science into his golf game. DeChambeau plays with equal length clubs, meaning his 3 iron, 7 iron, wedge and all other irons are all the same length…something that he has in common with no other players on tour.
Harbour Town is one of my favorite courses on the Tour schedule for several reasons. Hilton Head is somewhat of an adopted second home for me, as I've spent a considerable amount of time there over the years. My college team went on Spring Break there each year to compete against other colleges, and I've made upwards of ten trips there since I left college. I've also had the unique opportunity to play Harbour Town on three occasions, and I absolutely fell in love with the course.
Harbour Town was opened for play in 1969, and was designed by Pete Dye with an assist from Jack Nicklaus, who offered design input. The result is a course that is extremely unique among courses on the PGA Tour. Harbour Town is a par 71, and will max out at just under 7,000 yards, extremely short by PGA Tour standards. Despite the lack of overall length, the course is not short in a way that long hitters can take advantage of, as Pete Dye structured the course so that there is a healthy amount of dog legs, hazards and fairway breaks, so that any advantage long hitters had is somewhat neutralized. This also includes extremely tight fairways, which place a premium on driving accuracy. The course has seen some renovations since last year's tournament. The tee boxes, fairways and rough were all seeded with Celebration Bermuda, a very resilient strain of Bermuda that is favored by warm weather areas.
Additionally, the greens at Harbour Town were reseeded with Tif-Eagle Bermuda, one of the leading strains of turf used at championship courses around the world. The greens are a big part of the challenge at Harbour Town, and are some of the smallest on Tour. The greens at Tour courses average out to be 6,600 square feet, while Harbour Town average out to be 3,700 square feet. When you combine tight fairways and greens that are roughly half the size of the average Tour course, you have a track that is heavily favored towards small-ball players. That theme stays true when you look at recent winners of at Harbour Town, which include Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, Graham McDowell and Brandt Snedeker.
The metrics I am paying most attention to this week are driving accuracy, proximity to hole, greens in regulation and scrambling stats. With the greens being so small, you want guys who are dialed in with their approach shots, but also in the event they miss the green, you want guys who know how to get up and down with consistency.
- 1.)Brandt Snedeker: As a former champion, Snedeker has the course knowledge to get around Harbour Town and is my favorite this week. While he doesn't have a stellar record at Harbour Town independent of his victory, he is peaking right now, and his putting stroke is one that should rack up a lot of birdies this week. T9 at the WGC Match Play, T10 at The Masters, as well as a victory in hurricane like weather at Torrey Pines. He's shown himself to be a great player in bad conditions, but the control with his irons is why I like him so much this week.
- 2.)Jason Day: He just couldn't get it going in the right direction at Augusta, which is probably eating him up given the fact that he had more than his fair share of opportunities to match the winning score. Even with marginal play, he still finished T10, which speaks to his incredible skillset. Prior to the Masters, he's coming off back to back victories including the WGC Match Play. I don't think the course setup necessarily gives him a big advantage, evidenced by the fact that he is 205th (out of 210) in Proximity to Hole, an important stat to consider when there are such small greens. With that said, he's still the #1 player in the world, and he sits 4th in strokes gained putting, which should help him make up for his lack of prowess in proximity.
- 3.)Paul Casey: Casey is another player peaking at the right time. He tied for 4th at the Masters, after going low with a 67 in the final round. Prior to that, he's racked up three top 10's in his last four starts. Casey is 20th in GIR %, 21st in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, 17th in total driving and 10th in ball-striking. He's also perfect with three top 25's in three tries at Harbour Town.
- 4.)Kevin Kisner: Kisner lost in a playoff last year to eventual champion Jim Furyk, one of three playoff losses in 2015, which is really good and really tough at the same time. His game is a great fit for Harbour Town, which shouldn't be a surprise given his success at Pete Dye courses. He's 7th in driving accuracy, 27th in total driving, 6th in birdie average, 41st in Strokes Gained: Putting and 3rd in All-Around rankings. His biggest strength is that he doesn't have a weakness, which should serve him very well on a course that demands you play near perfectly tee to green. He's knocked on the door quite a few times in the last year and a half, but this is the week where I can see him getting over the hump.
- 5.)Branden Grace: Grace made his debut last year at Harbour Town, and promptly ripped off a 7th place finish while finishing 8th in Strokes Gained: Putting and 3rd in scrambling. Those are two metrics that are extremely important at Harbour Town, and it's even more impressive given the fact that it was the first time he's seen the course. Grace is a super talented player, and is just starting to hit his stride on the PGA Tour. He's 17th in GIR % this year, and if he can combine that with some of the magic he had on the greens last year, Grace has a great chance of throwing up a top 10 and competing on Sunday.