Last week’s PLAYERS Championship is always one of the most anticipated events of the PGA Tour season. Webb Simpson made this year’s edition a little anticlimactic by building a seven-stroke lead through 54 holes, but even if the winner was never in doubt on Sunday, the action in the other spots was largely intense.
Among other things, we saw Tiger make a run, Brooks Koepka card an albatross, and Justin Thomas play well enough to reach No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time.
This week’s AT&T Byron Nelson does not have the same kind of cache that THE PLAYERS does, and the field is infinitely weaker, but being held at a brand new course, Trinity Forest Golf Club, the tournament looks wide open for the taking.
Here are some of the more intriguing storylines coming into the week:
1. SPIETH, THE GOLDEN CHILD
There is no debate about who the star of the AT&T Byron Nelson field is: it’s Jordan Spieth. Ranked No. 3 in the world, Spieth is not only the highest ranked player in the field (No. 9 Hideki Matsuyama is second), he gets what is essentially a home game as the Dallas native is member at Trinity Forest Golf Club.
At a course that is new to basically everyone else, Spieth’s course knowledge should be considered an enormous advantage. The 24-year old has had good feelings about this event for a while. His Byron Nelson start in 2010 at the age of 16 was the tournament that put his name on the map for many golf fans.
Incredibly, he even contended, reaching the first page of the leaderboard through three rounds before dropping to T16 on Sunday.
In fact, that 2010 tournament was his best Byron Nelson finish, but the teenager who showed incredible promise in that event has become a superstar since, with 10 career victories and three major championships.
The 2018 season has been a mixed bag for Spieth. Statistically, he is playing fantastic, as usual, except for one part of his game where he has struggled badly: his putter.
Sudden putting yips has been the biggest reason why Spieth is winless on the season, although he had been trending positively, posting back-to-back third place finishes in his previous two individual events before last week’s PLAYERS Championship.
At TPC Sawgrass, Spieth got off to a miserable start with a 3-over 75, but a second-round 68 got him barely in front of the cut line. He then played a phenomenal third round, carding nine birdies in a 7-under 65 that moved him precipitously up the leaderboard, and into a popular Sunday pairing with Tiger Woods.
In Sunday’s final round, Spieth was quiet through 16 holes, with two birdies and one bogey putting him at 1-under par, but then he made some serious noise. He nearly aced the iconic 17th island green hole, and tapped in for birdie. As incredible as he was on 17, though, he was just as bad and then some on 18. His tee shot was a disaster – not even coming close to dry land, and he then four-putted for a quadruple-bogey 8 that dropped him from T17 to T41.
His putter again was a big let down on Sunday, where he lost more than three strokes to the field.
Spieth is the tournament favorite, and for good reason, but if he wants to meet those high expectations this week, he will need to keep building on what he had been doing before that miserably poor 72nd hole at THE PLAYERS.
2. HORSCHEL DEFENDS
Billy Horschel did not come into last year’s AT&T Byron Nelson in the best form. The former FedExCup Champion who put together an all-time great playoff run in 2014 had not won again since. He had failed to qualify for last year’s Masters and when he stood on the tee at the Byron Nelson, he had missed his previous four cuts. He needed the win. Badly.
A 68-65-66 start got Horschel into the final pairing on Sunday, where he stood just one stroke out of the lead of James Hahn. His final round was not immaculate, but a late 59-foot putt was a career highlight, and he made a playoff against the much-higher regarded Jason Day. Horschel made par on the first playoff hole, and just as he was getting ready for the second, something shocking happened: Day missed a gimmie three-footer for par, handing Horschel his fourth career PGA Tour victory.
That is not to say Horschel did not earn it. He put on a putting clinic last year at TPC Four Seasons, and even if Day helped with an all-time gaffe, Horschel still made the shots he needed to, when he needed them.
A notoriously streaky player, the 31-year-old Florida native has been very up-and-down since February. Similar to last year, Horschel suffered through an extended slump, missing five cuts in a six-event stretch (he was T54 in the event he did make the cut). His Masters was especially poor, as he hacked his way to a 76-79 start and missed the cut by a mile.
However, Horschel made a sage decision after that Masters failure: he switched putters. Suddenly, he could not miss on the greens and went on a three week tear where he finished T5 at the RBC Heritage, T11 at the Valero Texas Open, and then a victory at the Zurich Classic, where Horschel’s putter was the catalyst for the team of he and Scott Piercy.
Horschel has played one event since that win: THE PLAYERS Championship, which he had mixed results at last week. He started off hot with a 4-under 68 and a second round 70 kept him in the mix.
Unfortunately, after started with three birdies on his first four Saturday holes, Horschel collapsed, playing his next six holes in 5-over, and a 73 was too much to overcome against a field that had a lot of low scores. A Sunday 70 meant a T37 finish. His putter gained him nearly seven strokes on the field over the first two rounds, but the weekend gave two of them back.
3. KUCHAR’S DROUGHT
The 2018 PGA Tour season has seen the end to some significant winless droughts from great players. Phil Mickelson broke a five-year drought at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Paul Casey won for the first time since 2010 when he took the Valspar Championship. Ian Poulter’s six-year Tour drought ended last month at the Houston Open, and just this last week, Webb Simpson’s runaway victory at THE PLAYERS was his first in over four years.
Could Matt Kuchar be next? The 39-year-old is known as a very steady player and a top 10 machine, but perhaps surprisingly, he has not stood in the winner’s circle since the 2014 RBC Heritage, a winless streak of more than four years. The consensus is that Kuchar is too good to have not won in so long.
2017 was more of the same for Kuchar. He ended the season in tremendous form, with finishes inside the top 20 in 10 of his last 12 starts, including a runner-up to Jordan Spieth at The Open Championship.
2018, however, has been nothing special. In 14 events, Kuchar has made every cut, but only three of those starts led to a top 10 finish, with a best finish of T5 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
There has also been a huge discrepancy between Thursday and Sunday Kuchar as of late. In his last six starts, he has consistently gotten himself into contention early, shooting five rounds of 68 or better. Unfortunately, he has been running out of gas on Sunday, and he did not break 70 in any of those six final rounds. With a weak field this week though, even Kuchar’s B game could mean a high finish.
4. SERGIO’S STREAK
Ranked No. 14 in the world, Sergio Garcia, a man with 33 professional victories, is the third highest ranked player in the AT&T Byron Nelson field. That alone should give Sergio tremendous confidence going into the week, but with his recent form, that is not likely the case. For the second week in a row, the discussion around Sergio is his struggles despite playing an event where he would usually be considered among the favorites.
The good news is, Sergio made the cut at THE PLAYERS, the first time he has reached the weekend in four events. The bad news is, while he was physically at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday and Sunday, his game was somewhere else.
With a third-round 75, combined with a Sunday 76, which tied for the field’s worst, Sergio finished in 70th place in an event where he is the all-time earnings leader. He had 11 birdies in rounds 1 and 2, but just three in rounds 3 and 4. He did not leave feeling any better than he had been.
As usual, the main culprit has been his putting, but if he can get the flatstick to a passable area, like he has for most of the past 13 months, he could bust out of his slump in a big way this week.
Even with his struggles, his iron game has been on this year, and he currently ranks 4th on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green. It also helps that Trinity is a links-style course, something Sergio has plenty of experience with.
5. WALKER’S RENAISSANCE
Jimmy Walker, a Texan, should feel at home this week at Trinity Forest. What should be making him feel even better though, is that he has finally rediscovered his form over his past four starts.
From 2014-2016, Walker had six victories, with the last of those being his best: a triumph at the 2016 PGA Championship. Since then, golf has been a struggle. He had just one top 10 in 2017, and started his 2018 season with four missed cuts in his first six events. His struggles made sense once it was revealed that he was battling Lyme Disease, but there was no realistic timetable of when he might be 100% again.
As of late, however, things have been trending upward for Walker. He chased a T20 at The Masters with a solo-fourth at the Valero Texas Open. He was inside the top 25 again at the Zurich Classic, and then last week, he finished in a tie for 2nd at THE PLAYERS, his first time inside the top 2 since his PGA Championship win.
At TPC Sawgrass, Walker shot 70 or better in all four rounds, and that last round featured zero bogeys and 16 of 18 greens in regulation.
In a tournament held at a new course, recent form could play a bigger role than usual, and Walker has the best recent history of anyone in the field.