FedEX St. Jude Classic Preview, Picks & Analysis
THERE is no Dustin Johnson, Jason Day or Jordan Spieth in the field for the FedEx St Jude Classic at TPC Southwind, all three men opting to continue their preparations for the US Open away from the public gaze.
But don't think for one moment that means the tournament must make do with a second-rate field, because there are plenty of men who believe that the perfect way to prepare for a major is by competing the week before. And TPC Southwind, with its fast, firm greens, offers the ideal test.
The tournament was won in 2010 by Lee Westwood, in 2011 by Harrison Frazer, in 2012 by Dustin Johnson, in by 2013 Harris English, in 2014 by Ben Crane, in 2015 by Fabian Gomez and, last year, by Daniel Berger.
Francesco Molinari has spent much of the past couple of years playing his trade on the PGA Tour. The Italian has yet to win but playing alongside the world's best golfers on a weekly basis has improved his game hugely. Molinari has always been a straight driver of the ball, and plays a high percentage of his shots from the middle of fairways. It goes without saying that this wonderful game is so much easier when it is played from the middle of fairways.
Stick an iron in his hands - especially a long- or mid-iron - and he is world class. Time after time he rifles the ball at the flag. Not many golfers on tour face quite as many birdie putts from the eight-20 feet range as Molinari. So the obvious question is this: if a golfer hits fairways and gives himself so many birdie opportunities, why doesn't he win tournaments on a regular basis? The answer is a simple one - he does not hole enough putts. And he does not hole enough putts because he tends to "come out" of his putting stroke. Molinari is aware of this flaw and has been working his socks off to eliminate the fault. He made a rare return to the European Tour to compete in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, where he finished second to Alex Noren. And the good news is that he putted well.
He has served his apprenticeship in America and is ready to contend. TPC Southwind suits Molinari's game down to the ground and while he probably won't break his duck, you should expect him to enjoy a strong top-10 finish.
Ever since making his breakthrough on the European Tour, many wise sages have predicting big things for Brooks Koepka, and he has gone on to win in America and made the US Ryder Cup team last year. He thrived under the pressure, indicating that the soothsayers might well have been right all along. Koepka is an impressive specimen who apparently has no weaknesses. But if that really were the case then he would contend far more often than he does.
Koepka enjoyed a terrific amateur career and has made a solid start to his professional career, but he is inconsistent. When you look at his swing, it is difficult to understand why this young man would ever struggle. It might well be that is simply too hard on himself. All golfers hit bad shots - and that includes the likes of Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, even Tiger Woods in his prime. What sets these men apart is that they are able to eliminate all thoughts about those shots from their minds. It allows them to focus on the next shot with a clear mind and total focus. Koepka has to learn that skill - and he will. If he doesn't, he can forget all ideas he may have of winning a major.
He could learn a great deal from spending time watching Phil Mickelson. Is there any player on the PGA Tour who hits more wild and woolly shots tan Mickelson? Almost certainly not. Lefty may well shake his head after missing a fairway by 75 yards, but the moment he sets off to find the ball he has forgotten about that shot and is working out a way to get the ball as close to the hole as possible so that he can walk off the green with a par or birdie on the card. Mickelson's last victory came at The Open Championship in 2013 but he has played some brilliant golf since then - witness his play at Royal Troon last year.
Mickelson is a remarkable golfer, and anybody who has written him off may well end up looking rather foolish. He arrives at TPC Southwind with his game in decent shape. Most golfers who miss so many fairways would struggle to break 80 on courses set up to break their hearts. The tougher it is, the faster the greens, the more Mickelson relishes the challenge.
Berger will return to the St Jude Classic with good memories of his 2016 victory, a performance that established him as another one of the batch of brilliant young Americans now plying their trade on the PGA Tour. He is an impressive ball striker with a swing not unlike that of Sergio Garcia, who finally broke his major duck at Augusta in April. Berger will surely win a major and it would come as no surprise if he were to make a successful defence of this title and then head off to Erin Hills in Wisconsin believing that he is destined to win the US Open.
To Win: Brooks Koepka. A born winner
Each Way: Francesco Molinari. Ready for a big finish on the PGA Tour
Each Way: Scott Piercey. Keeps knocking on the door
Brooks Koepka. Potential superstar
Francesco Molinari. Brilliant iron player
Scott Piercey. His time must surely come soon
Daniel Berger. Ferociously competitive
Phil Mickelson. Will win again, just not this week
Steve Stricker. Keeps defying the years
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Great player, brilliant attitude
Ian Poulter. Confidence is everything with Poulter
Sean O'Hair. Finding some consistency at last
Charles Howell III. Just keeps making the money
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