Northern Trust Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
AND so it begins again. It may only be August, but the PGA Tour season is about to reach its climax as we start the FedEx Cup Playoffs, starting with the Northern Trust Open at Glen Oaks, New York. At the conclusion of the Wyndham Championship, only the top 125 players on the points list now move forward, with one man destined to pick up a mind-boggling cheque for $10m at the end of the Tour Championship at East Lake.
We start off with 125 this week, which will be cut to 100 for the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston, and then reduced to 70 for the BMW Championship. The top 30 then head off to the Tour Championship.
Rory McIlroy won two of the four events last season and lifted the trophy. The Northern Irishman said after the US PGA Championship that he has failed to recover from the rib injury that sidelined him at the start of the year. Apart from his marriage, McIlroy has had a wretched year and may well benefit from taking some time off, but he has announced that despite saying he might take the rest of the year off, he plans to defend his FedEx Cup title. It will be fascinating to see whether he can rescue something from his year. Remarkably, we are now in August and he is still looking for his first victory of the year.
McIlroy is in the field this week and it is to be hoped that he turns up and plays - and that he turns up and plays well.
This tournament was formerly known as The Barclays. It was won in 2010 by Matt Kuchar, in 2011 by Dustin Johnson, in 2012 by Nick Watney, in 2013 by Adam Scott, by Hunter Mahan in 2014, Jason Day in 2015 and last year by Patrick Reed. It may also be timely to look back at the full list of FedEx champions. The first winner was Tiger Woods in 2007 and he did so again two years later. The full list is Vijay Singh (2008), Jim Furyk (2010), Bill Haas (2011), Brandt Snedeker (2012), Henrik Stenson (2013), Billy Horschell (2014), Jordan Spieth (2015) and Rory McIlroy (2016).
Immediately after winning the US PGA Championship, Justin Thomas confirmed that he will be in the field at Glen Oaks. The American has already won four times this year and is now second in the FedEx Cup standings, a fraction behind Hideki Matsuyama. Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Matsuyama have each won three times this season, meaning that these four players have won an incredible 13 events between them. The last time the PGA Tour had four players with three or more victories in a solitary season was 2003, when Woods led the way with five wins.
Thomas has enjoyed a stellar year. After starting with a 73 at Quail Hollow, he reeled off three sub-70 rounds to land the US PGA Championship, and will surely go into the Playoffs as one of the favourites. This will be the third time he has played in the Northern Trust - he finished tied 15th in 2015 and was tied 10th 12 months ago. Would anybody bet against him doing better this time?
There will be a lot of eyes on Reed this week. One of the feistiest characters on the PGA Tour, he was expected to kick on in 2017, but it just hasn't happened for the American. He has missed four cuts, including The Open, and had only four top-10 finishes, which is a miserable return for a man with such huge self-belief. However, there have been encouraging signs recently.
Reed played well at Quail Hollow, finishing in a tie for second place, two shots behind Thomas. He has won five times on the PGA Tour and is a magnificent ball striker with a great attitude. He often enjoys playing the part of the pantomime villain, but be under no illusions - Reed takes his golf very seriously indeed, and he hates to lose. He is one of those golfers you would want on your side if you needed somebody to hole a 10-foot putt to save your life. And that was the big difference at the US PGA - having struggling on the greens for much of the season, he finally started to hole some putts. What is most encouraging about this for Reed is that the greens at Quail Hollow were extremely difficult, hard, fast and with some mind-boggling contours to be overcome.
Confidence is everything in sport, and Reed has rediscovered it in spades. He will surely be there or thereabouts this week.
Several players will arrive at Glen Oaks feeling they have a point to prove. Jason Day is one, Dustin Johnson is another. Day's world ranking is on the slide and he would be the first to admit that this is not a year he will remember with any fondness. There were some good signs at Quail Hollow, but the Australian is currently struggling to string four good rounds together. This week would be a good time to start. And Johnson's season, which began in such brilliant fashion, has come off the rails somewhat since he injured himself in the run-up to The Masters.
Daniel Berger will surely be the next young American to join the elite. With one win under his belt already, Berger has had seven top-10 finishes in 2017. Had it not been for a second-round 76 at Royal Birkdale, he may well have challenged Spieth for the Claret Jug. Berger plays especially well on difficult courses and relishes challenging conditions. He is an outstanding iron player and, like so many of the young Americans now dominating the world rankings, possesses near-magical powers around the greens.
After being punched in the solar plexus by Spieth at Birkdale, there would be no more popular winner of the FedEx Cup than a certain Matt Kuchar. He is to be commended for the dignity he showed in defeat when he must have wanted to lock himself in a darkened room. Encouragingly, he has continued to play well since returning from Britain, finishing 17th at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and ninth at the US PGA. Kuchar is one of the good guys, and everybody loves him. In 2017, he has finished in the top 25 on 14 occasions - it is a level of consistency that is remarkable by anybody's standards. But can he now go on and win a tournament?
Jason Day. Due a win
Justin Thomas. On cloud nine
Daniel Berger. Best of the rest
Jason Day. Close to his very best
Justin Thomas. Could easily win again
Daniel Berger. Gutsy, determined and gifted
Rory McIlroy. Which McIlroy will turn up
Ian Poulter. Good to see him back to his best
Kevin Kisner. In fine form
Paul Casey. Time he finished one off
Jason Dufner. Still a quality golfer
Rafa Cabrera-Bello. Has remembered how to win again
Jordan Spieth. Best brain in the game
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