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The Greenbrier Preview, Picks & Analysis

By: | Mon 09 Sep 2019 | Comments

THEY have hardly had time to draw breath, but the PGA Tour returns for the 2019-20 season with Kevin Na defending his title at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier. The American strolled to victory 12 months ago, playing in the manner that only he can. Slowly. Very slowly. It was only his second victory and he had to wait seven years for it. He could also be in for something of a wake-up call in the months ahead, with the PGA Tour finally sitting up and taking notice of the endless complaints about slow play. Fans and TV viewers have long been frustrated at watching competitive rounds taking five-and-half hours to complete. Paint dries quicker. No, it really does.

The key thing is that many players have finally reached the conclusion that they have had enough, and they want the PGA Tour to act. It all came to a head after Bryson DeChambeau took two minutes to play a simple 70-yard pitch shot at the Northern Trust and the same again to strike an eight-foot putt, which he duly missed. He defended himself after being at the centre of a social media storm, with the likes of Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter and Justin Thomas criticising DeChambeau. Patience is also fast running out with the likes of JB Holmes and Na. 

While the European Tour has already announced new penalties for the coming season, the PGA Tour continue to drag their heels. But they know that something has to be done, that putting players “on the clock” and fining them is no longer good enough. Who knows? We may soon see tournament rounds played in under four hours.

But let’s get back to Na. When he won the 2011 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, most of us thought it would be the first of many. But although he regularly found himself in contention, he struggled to finish the job off and gained a reputation as a choker. It didn’t help that he went through a period where he seemed to be unable to pull the trigger on any shot. Watching him with a driver in his hands was painful. He would go through a long pre-shot routine, get over the ball, step away, go through the whole thing all over again and then seemingly freeze over the golf ball. 

It didn’t help that a certain type of spectator lost patience with him, and vocally let him know it. He also struggled horribly on the greens. Holmes, DeChambeau and Keegan Bradley have been routinely criticised for the time they take to play, but their pace of play is positively rapid when compared with Na, who has sought help from a psychologist.

As hard as he tried, however, he couldn’t seem to get over the finishing line and finished second on six occasions, as well as a whole host of top-10 finishes. Would he ever win again? After a less than stellar opening round at the Greenbrier, where he gave up nearly two strokes on the field in putting, Na found his groove. His performance on the greens on the weekend was first class. His Sunday efforts on the way to a six-under 64 and a five-shot win showed a calmness in the moment he’d been missing. In the third round he made 124 feet seven inches of putts. That was impressive enough, but on the Sunday, it was an incredible 143 feet, eight inches. Six birdies in seven holes set up the win. And a clutch par putt on the 12th, after his only bogey the hole before, showed he was ready. 

He may be much maligned for his pace of play and yips, but Na always maintained a positive attitude, convinced that he would turn things around. And he always managed to somehow keep smiling, even when he took a mind-boggling 16 at the Texas Open a few years ago. On that occasion he had to ask his caddie how many shots he’d played.

Na’s statistics last year were extraordinary. He ranked inside the top 10 in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green (8th), Strokes Gained: Around- the-Green (4th) and Strokes Gained: Putting (2nd), marking just the second winner this season to rank inside the top 10 in all three of these Strokes Gained categories (Dustin Johnson, Sentry TOC). Almost half (42%) of Na’s total strokes gained for the week were a result of his putting performance, gaining +1.772 strokes per round in Strokes Gained: Putting. In the last two rounds Na outperformed the field by +6.91 total strokes on the greens, compared to +0.19 in the first two rounds. Na made five birdies in his opening nine holes of the final round, posting a 29. He’s just the fifth PGA TOUR winner in the ShotLink era to record an opening nine-hole score under 30. Na ranked inside the top four in several key putting statistics leading the field in Putts Per Round (26.50) and One-Putt Percentage (50%). He made three putts from outside 25 feet, tying Francesco Molinari (Quicken Loans National) and Webb Simpson (Players Championship) for the most Total One Putts from this distance by a winner this season.

Those are the sort of figures that will always get the job done.

Greenbrier will see a host of PGA Tour debutants joining the household names. They will step onto the first tee with big hopes and dreams. For most, it will be the start of a long, hard and fruitless struggle but there will be one or two unknowns who will follow in the footsteps of Cameron Champ and Matthew Wolff and change their lives forever by winning. They will be joined by several players who have been here before, regained their playing privileges and once again go in search of glory.

One man who faces a tough decision is Englishman Tom Lewis, who carded a final-round 65 to win by five strokes at the Korn Ferry Tour’s season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship. As a result, Lewis joined 24 other players in earning 2019-20 PGA Tour membership. He now has to decide how to perform a delicate balancing act between the PGA and European Tours. The Korn Ferry Tour awarded the first set of 25 cards for the 2019-20 season at the conclusion of the WinCo Foods Portland Open in August, with a second set awarded after the conclusion of the Finals.

Scottie Scheffler earned the top spot on both The Finals 25 and the combined points list. The 23-year-old earns fully exempt status on the PGA Tour during the 2019-20 season as well as an exemption into the 2020 Players Championship. Scheffler becomes the first player to top both lists since Chesson Hadley in 2017. "It's great to be able to play in The Players next year," said Scheffler, who finished with 10 top-10s and two wins in 20 starts this year. "I have some family close by in Jacksonville so it will be nice to have them come out to the event. It's awesome to be able to compete against one of the best fields in golf, and becoming fully exempt, to be able to set my schedule, that's huge.”

But it was Lewis who dominated proceedings at the finale. After collecting birdies at the third and fifth, he had six more and his 29 birdies this week was five more than anyone else in the field. “It's always been a dream of mine to play on the PGA Tour,” said Lewis, who finished in tie for 11th place at The Open Championship. “Obviously I've achieved some good things on the European Tour and hopefully I can achieve better things on the PGA Tour. I'm looking forward to the year I've got ahead, just to see what the future brings.”

Chris Baker saved par on the 72nd hole to earn his card after more than a decade as a professional. The par save came after a double bogey at the penultimate hole to put his status in doubt. Doug Ghim, the low amateur at the 2018 Masters, got up and down out of a greenside bunker to claim his first PGA TOUR card. D.J. Trahan and Richy Werenski tied for the 24th spot, securing the final available cards. 

To Win:

Marc Leishman. Looking to get his year of to a flyer

Each Way:

Scottie Scheffler. The graduate most likely to succeed

Each Way:

Branden Grace. Beautiful ball striker

Fantasy Picks:

Marc Leishman. A real class act

Scottie Scheffler. Knows how to win

Branden Grace. Due another win

Keegan Bradley. Coming off a decent year

Bryson DeChambeau. Usually plays well at this time of year

Bubba Watson. Looking for a big week

Tom Lewis. On a real high

Martin Laird. Keen to get things back on track

Russell Knox. Still grinding it out

Cameron Smith. Needs to start converting his opportunities

Image Credit: Kevin Diss Photography

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