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Aronimink Golf Club makes its return to the PGA Tour after a seven-year break to play host to the BMW Championship, and much has changed since Nick Watney’s success here in the summer of 2011.
Gil Hanse and his team have been in to restore this classic Donald Ross design to something resembling its 1928 opening and that’s meant the addition of a hundred bunkers, many of them clustered together at the side of what are now much wider fairways with the intention of creating a more strategic challenge.
With 18 new tee structures, fairways widened and many greens significantly enlarged, Marc Leishman’s comment that “it’s going to be like learning a new golf course” makes sense and the 70 remaining FedEx Cup contenders will have little time to do so, with the Dell Technologies Championship having ended on Monday.
In other words, this is complicated. Wins here for Watney and Justin Rose only tell us so much, especially as while both are excellent drivers they essentially putted the lights out, and the impact of Hanse’s work is hard to predict. Long-time course member Sean O’Hair says Aronimink is now easier, but beyond that clues are fairly limited and it’s questionable how beneficial having played here in either 2010 or 2011 will prove to be.
Typically, Ross designs require some thought and favour quality ball-strikers. Some will ask ‘when is that not the case?’, but there are certain layouts which require an extra level of accuracy and that’s been true at some noted Ross courses in recent years – Sedgefield, home of the Wyndham; 2013 PGA Championship venue Oak Hill; even Pinehurst, where Martin Kaymer won the 2014 US Open largely by staying out of trouble.
That suggests Rose might again be the man to beat in the state where he won his major, and the fact that his other career highlight – gold at the Olympics – came on one of Hanse’s layouts also offers some encouragement for those in search of it.
Rose returned to form with second place last week, ending with a real flourish, and while the first four wins of his career all followed a missed cut, since then victories have been much easier to spot. Indeed ten of the subsequent 16 have come on the heels of a top-10 finish and he well and truly marked our cards at TPC Boston on Monday where but for a slow start he’d have made Bryson DeChambeau work even harder for his latest title.
The trouble is, Rose is now second favourite and that may be giving too much weight to his course form (1-15). He’s just not quite prolific enough, averaging one win a year in the USA for the best part of a decade, to be ahead of the likes of Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, just behind Dustin Johnson, even if he’s up there with that trio in the battle for world number one spot.
That said, it is possible that the key to finding this week’s winner is to focus on the Dell Technologies Championship leaderboard. The quick turnaround means little time to reset, or to solve a problem, and on the last three occasions this event has been played so soon after Boston, winners had signed for first, second and eighth place on Monday.
DeChambeau isn’t overlooked lightly even if history is against him, no player having yet won three events of the Playoffs, but with so many question marks here it’s CT Pan who gets the each-way vote.
Unlike all of those mentioned, Pan remains somewhat under the radar despite two top-five finishes in three, firstly at the Ross-designed Sedgefield which did prove a solid pointer here both in 2010 and 2011, and then in Boston.
Pan’s runner-up finish at the Wyndham was hard to swallow as he went out of bounds on the 18th tee when fighting for his first title, which perhaps explains a dip at The Northern Trust, but he was right back to his best last week with four rounds in the sixties including a closing 66 to earn a place in this field.
“Honestly, for the whole summer, I’ve felt good about my game,” the former amateur star said on Monday. “I just need to click, need to put everything together to put up good scores for four rounds – which I did this week. I feel great.”
Having missed just one cut since the PLAYERS Championship and that only narrowly, Pan’s form has been solid for some time and while the widening of fairways isn’t in favour of a player who makes his money by being accurate off the tee, he’s playing so well right now that it’s not all that much of a concern.
The case really is that simple. Very few players arrive in better form and while the focus is again on those towards the front of the betting, we can take 125/1, with seven places, in a 70-man field. Throw in some Ross form and his long-held potential and there’s plenty to like.
Bubba Watson is a player I’ve struggled to get right, despite in fact having been my first winner for this website back in 2010, but at 80/1 he’s very hard to resist.
Again, all the focus is on the likes of Johnson and DeChambeau and to a large extent that’s correct, but Watson is also a three-time winner this season, he finished between the two in seventh last week, yet he’s out there at 80/1.
I’m not about to argue that he deserves to be among the favourites, but nor do I see why he should be a bigger price than Paul Casey or Gary Woodland having led the field from tee-to-green last week, again driving the ball superbly but also peppering flags with his irons and scrambling well.
Watson should in theory be suited by the widened fairways on his debut here and has a solid record on Ross designs in general, while he’s been second and 10th in this event in recent years and will relish his return having missed the 2017 edition through a loss of form.
With the Ryder Cup looming and the FedEx Cup jackpot still firmly on the radar, there’s no reason he can’t build on an encouraging fortnight and if the putter does warm up, he could be a huge factor at a price which underestimates him.
Hideki Matsuyama continues to edge closer to his best while regular readers will know I find it very hard to leave out Jordan Spieth, but the most tempting of those just behind the favourites are Tiger Woods and Patrick Cantlay, with the former preferred.
For the second week running, Tiger drove the ball well at TPC Boston and I quite like that he refused to speak to the media after the final round, the first time he’s done so this year. While the new, friendlier Woods has been fun to watch this year, maybe the difference between playing well and winning is, well, a little bit of anger.
He’ll certainly be motivated by the success of expected Ryder Cup partner DeChambeau, especially after they played together in round three last week, and I would prefer to back him on classical, par 70 course right now. It’s been under such conditions that he’s produced much his best this year (OK, Copperhead is a 71) and that combination of wide fairways and a need for precision on approach should play to his strengths.
Woods’ iron play has been outstanding throughout this remarkable comeback and if the putter and driver both behave during the same week, there’s every chance he can win. Two events remain for that this season, both on suitable courses, and there’s nothing to read into his so-so effort here in 2010 as he was injured and, as discussed, so much has changed since.
“I think in general here in the last probably month and a half I’ve really turned the corner,” he said last week. “I’ve really hit some good shots and I’ve really played well from tee to green. And it’s just a matter of just getting one little hot stretch with the putter and get it rolling and get the momentum on my side and just get things rolling.”
I agree with that assessment and this looks a good opportunity for Woods in front of a real sporting crowd, which could be similar to that which roared him into the mix in St Louis at last month’s PGA Championship.
As for Cantlay, he was 20th here as an amateur in 2010 and his ball-striking last week was excellent, but he looks the right sort of price to me even at the standout 40/1 and is left alone for that reason.
Sedgefield specialist Webb Simpson grew up playing Ross courses in North Carolina and isn’t ruled out at 50/1 – again, why he’s the same price as Tyrrell Hatton I’ve no idea – while nobody plays Ross courses better than Henrik Stenson, who’d have been on the radar but for so many terrible mistakes last week.
Anyone who went well in Boston should be respected, meaning the likes of Abraham Ancer and Emiliano Grillo come into calculations, but I’ll finish with two who failed to make all that much of an impression but are out to big prices as a result.
First, Brandt Snedeker has won at both Sedgefield and East Lake and contended at Pinehurst, putting this old-school golfer on the radar at any old-school Ross design, and he looks a good price at 80/1.
Snedeker won just three weeks ago before withdrawing with back spasms ahead of The Northern Trust, but that appeared to be behind him as he shot 66-68 over the final two rounds in Boston.
While it’s hard to know just what it’s worth, it’s no bad thing that he was 16th here in 2010, improving as the week went on, and as a fairly prolific winner who ranks 28th in par-four scoring he just looks to have been dismissed too lightly here.
We know Snedeker has what it takes to win these late-season Playoff events having won the FedEx Cup in 2012 and he’ll still feel that he’s entitled to be considered for the final Ryder Cup selection at the conclusion of this tournament, especially if he wins it.
Snedeker is also 32nd in the FedEx Cup standings with only the top 30 advancing to East Lake. As he hovers around 50th in the world, the quickest path he has to invites to all of next year’s majors is to play well this week and he’s capable of doing so.
Brandt Snedeker knows how to get the job done – especially at courses like this one
Finally, Ian Poulter can bounce back from a poor performance at TPC Boston, a course he says he hates and will be glad to see the back of.
Poulter has never made it to East Lake and needs a huge week to do so, but he’s at his most dangerous with his back against the wall, a fact demonstrated once more when he won in Houston to earn his Masters return in the spring.
He’ll tee off on Thursday having secured his Ryder Cup place and contended for this event in 2012 soon after he was named in the Medinah side, something he also did in 2010. These small motivating factors, combined with the fact that we can ignore his performance last week, make Poulter of interest in an event where it’s hard to form a strong view.
Posted at 1145 BST on 04/09/18.