Winds of change
The FedEx St. Jude Championship leads off the FedEx Cup (FEC) playoffs for the second year in row. No stranger to high level golf, TPC Southwind is prepared to cut an elite field nearly in half. Memphis has hosted the PGA TOUR for quite some time. As a reward to their passionate crowds and FedEx's money what was a regular TOUR stop has been elevated a couple of times.
- St. Jude Classic 1989 - 2018
- WGC Invitational 2019 - 2021
- FedEx St. Jude Championship 2022...
The par 70 layout covers 7,243 yards of Zoysia and Bermudgrass. While it was a weekly TOUR stop, the average winning score was 14 under par. Soft summer conditions and a spot on the schedule a week before the US Open never attracted the strongest fields. All of that changed in 2019 when the world's elite started dropping in. The average winning score jumped to 16 under par and the average pre-tournament winner's odds in the last five editions is only +2000 (20-1). TPC Southwind is playoff worthy test.
Eleven holes have water in play including four of the last five and the course displays 75 bunkers. You'll hear it in the press conferences, the field of 70 has respect for this venue. Not your average TPC, this course takes serious T2G work. The top 70 on the FEC points list are here and they want a large piece of the $20 million dollar purse. It's been almost two months since we handed out an elevated purse at the Travelers.
The big bucks are back and so is the big three and this time Rory, Rahm and Scottie are in great form. Very rarely do we get the best of the best firing on all cylinders, so this should be really entertaining. It's Memphis in the summer so we have plenty of heat in the forecast. The summer has been wet dumping over a foot of rain in the region during July. In the GCSAA report, there was a comment stating the amount of rain has even precluded some tournament preparation. More rain is predicted during the tournament. Just over an inch is forecasted, but we will see what happens. As we saw at the Wyndham, it is storm season down south.
The St. Jude is the first of three playoff rounds to complete the season. Seventy will be cut after Southwind to the top 50 for Chicago and the BMW Championship. Another US Open caliber course awaits in Olympia Fields. Their North Course also boasts a par 70 scorecard. The Tour Championship takes us back to Atlanta and East Lake Golf Club. One more par 70 course making each stage a tight scoring affair. Does the par really make a difference? We'll get into that and whole lot more in the outrights section.
As for now, stop thinking about the Ryder Cup and wrap you head around some serious target golf. The greens at TPC Southwind are small. They average just 4,300 sq/ft in size and are covered in Bermudagrass. Hot, humid, wet conditions make those surfaces grainy and sticky. Experience on southern style grass is an advantage at TPC Southwind. Any affinity for warm weather success wouldn't hurt either. Get ready as the best ramp up for one more run in 2023 of stroke play success. There's a ton to play for and I can't wait to see who steps up to take it home.
St. Jude Championship starts in...
Par 70 scoring is a thing. It sounds like hyperbole, but those two strokes make a big difference. On the PGA TOUR scoring average rankings, two strokes is the difference between first and fifty-seventh place. Obviously not a complete “apples to apples” comparison, but I believe you get the point. Scoring without two extra par 5s places a heavy emphasis on approach play. No longer can you grab an extra birdie or two by just being close to a par 5 green in two shots. Players must create birdie chances with their iron play.
Over the last five years, winners at TPC Southwind have gained average of six plus strokes (6.6) against the field on approach. Unlike so many PGA TOUR courses, this venue tests more of your mid-iron approaches. Forty-eight percent of your attacking plays come from 150-200 yards. The TOUR average for that range is 38%. Nine holes have a birdie rate over 15% so with an efficient iron game, a player can separate and score from the fairway.
The five toughest holes are par 4s (5, 17, 12, 18, 7). Par 70 scorecards generally have two extra par 4s in replace of those missing par 5s. At TPC Southwind, seven of those 12 par 4s measure over 450 yards in length. I believe par 4 scoring tells a story at Southwind. The contenders will create birdie chances by hitting fairways and converting birdies on these holes. Hitting those fairways is not easy in Memphis. The average width is 25 yards which ranks inside the top 10 for tightest landing areas on TOUR.
From the fairway, the average green size you are looking at is 4,300 sq/ft. Much smaller than the Donald Ross targets a week ago and sitting further away, the complement of skills needed on par 4s proves who has the best chance at winning. The average GIR rate at TPC Southwind (59%) is under the TOUR average of 66%. A classic ball striking test, don't be surprised if we see elite players rise to the occasion.
If the big three (Rahm, Rory, and Scottie) are firing on all cylinders, how can they be beat? Who can slip past them to secure the round one win. Putting will play a significant role in all of this. Converting birdie opportunities on par 3s and 4s takes a functioning flatstick. TPC Southwind greens are smaller than average and relatively flat. Outside of the 0-5' range, each other five-foot measured increment (5-10, 10-15, etc.) allows for more made putts than the TOUR average. If you can putt, Southwind will let you sink a couple.
That's significant and how we will determine our winner. Since we expect a cutline over par and total winning score in the high teens, converting birdies is key to contending. Aside from the scoring chances, keep the ball out of trouble. Water lurks in many places and can create double bogeys quickly. Bogey avoidance is one skill, but five holes have a double bogey rate over five percent. An elite field doesn't allow for any big mistakes.
Much was made last week discussing the significance of making it into the top 70. The cut in Memphis is even more important. Those in the top 50 who move on to the BMW Championship become the "designated" few to start the 2024 season. Entering elevated events for a mid-tier player can be a career changer. If you missed the top 70, you have all fall to return to the TOUR. The top 50 followed by the top 30 really sets you up for future financial success. Since every player in this field can contend for those 50 spots, we are bound to see more playoff drama than ever before in this round.
To close, I'm going to lean heavily on efficient scorers for the playoffs. Guys who have proven they can contend when par is 70. The top 10 par 70 players on TOUR features: Rory, Xander, Scottie, Hideki, Collin, Finau, Fitzpatrick, Keegan, Sungjae, and Rose. Notice Jon Rahm didn't make that list (ranked 11). This edge over four rounds of par 70 scorecards will make a difference. Not just four rounds this week, three rounds of playoffs and 12 total rounds. Olympia Fields North Course next week and East Lake to close the Tour Championship are also par 70 courses. These guys can score on the par 4s and in the end will have the best chance to take home the better part of $80 million dollars.
Outright winners - St. Jude Championship
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Celine Boutier wins a major and the Women's Scottish Open in back-to-back weeks! The depth of the LPGA continues to impress in 2023. When it comes to major championships, the middle tier players have been stepping up for some time. From 1999 to 2003, 17 of the 20 majors contested were won by four women (Sorenstam, Webb, Inkster, Pak). In the last five years, 16 of the 23 majors played have been won by first timers. That's a significant paradigm shift in twenty years. If you look at 2013 to 2018, only 30% of the major titles went to first time major winners.
All four previous major winners in 2023 are first timers. The trend is your friend for breaking through to LPGA history and I believe that will continue at the AIG Women's Open. Contested at Walton Heath Golf Club just south of London, the ladies will be navigating a composite course from the New and Old eighteen-hole layouts. The championship scorecard shows a par 72 stretching 6,881 yards. That's a hefty total if the Tournament Officials decide to stretch it. For those who are familiar with this aesthetically appealing layout, here's the breakdown of which holes will be used for the women's final major of 2023.
- Front nine: Old course holes 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 (par 35)
- Back nine: Old course holes 12, 13, New course 12, 13, Old course 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 (par 37)
Blending in a couple of the New course holes into the back nine presents a twist to the Women's Open which began in 1976. In 46 editions, Europe has managed to win the title 16 times. That makes sense considering the links style golf we so often see. This year we feature a parkland layout. Will that make a difference for the target style play of the American and South Korean players in the field? Since the start South Korea has only won six Open trophies and the USA 11. We haven't seen an American winner since 2014, and there have only been three US winners since 2000.
Only four women from the USA cracked the top 25 in Scotland. The LPGA is truly a global game and with the depth catching up to the elite of the Rolex World Rankings, I won't be surprised if we see a fifth first timer at Walton Heath. Before we get to the skill set needed, let's take a brief look at the forecast. Somewhat better than Scotland, temperatures will be in the mid 70s for most of the tournament. Rain is predicted for Friday through Sunday. Just traces each day (35% chance), I don't believe it will cause much concern for the players. Evian and Scotland were played in more challenging conditions. Thankfully, it seems as if the golf will lead the story in the London region.
The field of 144 players will be cut after 36-holes to the top 65 and ties. Those who make the weekend have an opportunity to collect a portion of the $7.3 million dollar purse and $1.095 million for first place. All the elite are on board as we will see the entire top 25 of the Rolex World Rankings tee it up. It is the last chance to grab a major title and certain players feel some pressure to perform. Throw in the added anxiety of Solheim Cup qualifying and one magical week can change a career.
Part of our list below follows the first-time trend and what we have been witnessing all year who can blame me. Brand new superstars are emerging every week on tour and there's no reason why this week won't be any different...
AIG Women's Open starts in...
First time for everything
Ashleigh Buhai took home the trophy at Muirfield one year ago with brilliant approach play and timely short game recoveries. The seaside links tested the ladies in every aspect of ball flight control. What a difference a year makes as we head to Surrey in southwest London. Walton Heath is your traditional parkland style golf course. The first thing you will notice comes outside the fairways and greens. Beautiful fields of heather cover the area in between holes. Much like the fescue up north in Scotland let's start by keeping the ball in play off the tee.
At 6,800 yards, this test will favor the longer hitters who find the fairway. Modern golf is a power game and many of the young European players have figured it out. The Annika generation is beginning to take hold and their ability to express athleticism gives them an edge over 72 holes on major venues. The length of WHGC is felt on the par 4s. The 12 average over 400 yards (404). From the very start, players will see four strong par 4 tests to begin each round off the first tee. Most of those drives also favor a fade. Nine of the 15 tee shots move left to right off the tee. Modern power players tend to favor this ball flight, so WHGC will be appealing to their eye on the teebox.
The length adds up on approach. Forty-five percent of the approach shots are played from over 150 yards. Those three par 3s average 173 yards and if you cannot control your long irons and hybrids, there are 31 green side bunkers just waiting for an errant approach. Sixty-three bunkers in all cover the landscape of this championship composite layout. The addition of holes 12 and 13 from the New course really epitomize the test. Two long par 4s that value great driving and approach play. Both have a strategic fairway bunker and two more greenside. Set side by side, they lack room in every way for an errant shot.
Contenders will be missing greens and bogey avoidance is key to keeping your championship round going. I have taken a careful balance of sub-par hole scoring, birdie or better percentage and weighed that against each player's ability to save par. The tournament leaders will manage about 70% of the GIRs. Determining who wins will come down to who saves par after missing and who converts on the GIRs you do hit. Par 4 scoring certainly gives you an edge when there are 12 of them. If you haven't noticed yet, WHGC only has three par 5s and three par 3s. The "four shotters" dominate the test for this field.
Finishing off a major championship takes great putting. Walton Heath's greens are a little smaller than average. This is an inland layout. The test is not avoiding water and wind. The best ball strikers will contend. Those who can convert birdie putts will dominate the Sunday morning finish. When we get there, I expect to see all four of these players featured in the final holes.
Outright winners - AIG Women's Open
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Who will our tenth winner be?
Chances are we find out this weekend.
Last major for the LPGA, enjoy the beauty of Walton Heath.
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