Sanderson Farms Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
WHILE the world’s elite players are competing for huge money and a WGC title in Shanghai, a surprisingly strong field assembles for the Sanderson Farms Championship, which offers a first prize of “just” $780,000, 300fedEx Cup points and, crucially, a two-year PGA Tour exemption.
It was won 12 months ago by 41-year-old Ryan Armour, who produced the four rounds of his life at the Country Club of Jackson, shooting 4-under 68 to run away with the tournament. Armour’s fourth-straight round in the 60s was good enough for a five-shot victory over Chesson Hadley, and his first PGA TOUR title, in his 105th TOUR event.
He was the fifth first-time champion in the last seven years. It was won in 2011 by Chris Kirk, in 2012 by Scott Stallings, in 2013 by Woody Austin, in 2014 by Nick Taylor, in 2015 by Peter Malnati, in 2016 by Cody Gribble and last year by Armour.
Armour joined the PGA Tour 11 years ago splitting his time between the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour, and he went from 2011 until 2014 without making a single start open the PGA Tour. Life was tough. At some point, he said, he realised he needed to stop trying to keep up with the young, big hitters, and stick to what he does best, a somewhat boring but awfully effective game of fairways and greens, fairways and greens.
And last year he did precisely that, hitting 15 of 18 greens and 10 of 14 fairways on the final day. For the week, he ranked third in driving accuracy, first in proximity to the hole on approach shots, second in strokes gained putting – and next-to-last in driving distance. He also led the field with 28 birdies for the week, including six on Sunday. And even when he did experience a hiccup with a three-putt bogey at the 16th, he followed it with a huge birdie putt at the 17th. It was just one of those weeks. The win, said Armour, was “a big monkey off my back, I’m not going to lie. There’s a lot of emotions running through my head right now. … It’s great. It’s job security, which I’ve never really had out here. It’s vindication, I guess. That wouldn’t be a good word. Validation is a better word, that you don’t have to hit it 330 in the air to win golf tournament. I hit a lot of fairways. I hit a lot of greens. I made a lot of putts.”
Asked how he ignores the longer hitters, Armour said: “First, you giggle. It’s pretty funny how far some of these guys hit the ball, but somehow you have to believe in something out here, which is I don’t hit it 330. The fact is, I hit fairways and greens, and somehow that works.”
So who is going to follow in his footsteps this time around? There will be a lot of attention on the wonderfully named rookie Cameron Champ. He was one of the best amateurs in the USA and enjoyed a lot of success on the Web.Com Tour in 2017-18. He has been tipped by many to win soon, and he appears to have every shot in the book. Crucially, he has a wonderful short game and a terrific temperament, which he will need if things don’t go according to plan straight away - and they seldom do in this game.
Just ask Sean O’Hair, who sometimes looks like the most naturally gifted player out there but other weeks couldn’t hit a barn door from six feet. The 36-year-old was rookie of the year in 2005 and seemed to have the golfing world at his feet. He has won four times but a man with his gifts should have won many, many more times. He has a well-documented troubled relationship with his father, who set out to turn the young Sean into a tournament pro and treated him pretty shabbily when, as his father saw it, he failed to deliver the goods.
Marc O’Hair signed management contracts with his son, says he invested $2 million in his boy's professional future and subjected Sean to a physical and psychological regimen that would make most drill sergeants blush. Sean finally broke free in 2002 and has barely exchanged a word with his father since. He won his first tournament, the John Deere Classic, in his rookie season in 2005 but, incredibly, the last of his four wins came at the 2011 Canadian Open. He admits that he still struggles with confidence issues and it is clear that his upbringing affected him deeply. There would be no more popular winner. Make no mistake, O’Hair has the game to win majors and represent his country at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and he is still young enough to do both.
Former FedEx Cup winner Bill Haas is another who has struggled with consistency in recent times. He is also in the field, looking to rediscover the form that made him one of the best players in the world for a time. And proving just how difficult this game can be, he is joined by former winner Martin Laird, whose world ranking has also slipped to the extent that he no longer qualifies for WGC events, Sangmoon Bae, who is still trying to rediscover his best form after his spell of national service in the South Korean army, and Aaron Baddeley, a man who seemed to promise. The Australian possesses one of the best-looking swings on the PGA Tour and is widely regarded as one of the best putters in the game. So why is it that he finds himself ranked 251st in the world? This is a man who was once as high as 16th but now seems to have an annual struggle to keep his playing privileges. It makes no sense.
Chris Kirk. Looking for route back to the big time
Aaron Baddeley. Sweet, sweet swinger
Cameron Champ. Huge potential
Chris Kirk. Time to win again
Aaron Baddeley. Somebody this good should not be struggling like he does
Cameron Champ. Will be a winner soon
Sangmoon Bae. Shaking off the ring rust
Martin Laird. Class act
Cody Gribble. Will become a serial winner
Robert Streb. Could have been a contender
Bill Haas. Brilliant ball striker
Sean O’Hair. Would be a popular winner
Scott Stallings. Hugely underrated
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