5 Storylines: FedEx St. Jude Classic

After another successful week at Jack’s Place, Muirfield Village for The Memorial Tournament, the PGA Tour makes its annual pilgrimage to Memphis for the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

It will not draw quite the field that The Memorial did, but still features a plethora of top-end players looking to get in form for next week’s U.S. Open, and players hungry to continue to make a name and a living, even if they will not be at Shinnecock Hills in a week.

In a very motivated field, this is among what to look out for:

1. LAST CALL FOR SHINNECOCK

A good number of players in the FedEx St. Jude Classic field will have Shinnecock Hills on their mind, with the U.S. Open being held next week. They will be looking at this week as a final tune-up in hopes of bringing their best games to the second major of the year.

General View of Shinnecock Hills. Credit: Getty Images/David Cannon

For a few in the field, however, it goes beyond that. Some of them still need to qualify for next week. After sectional qualifiers on Monday, the vast majority of the U.S. Open field is now set, but there is still one route open: get in the top 60 of the OWGR after the FedEx St. Jude.

Here are a few players currently outside the bubble, who are still holding onto hope for next week:

PATTON KIZZIRE

World Ranking: No. 65

It is shocking that a man who has won two PGA Tour events this season and currently ranks 7th in the FedExCup Standings does not have a spot at the U.S. Open, but that is the reality for the 32-year-old Kizzire, who fell outside the OWGR top 60 last month and has not been able to get back in front.

Credit: Getty Images/Tom Pennington

In his last six events, he has four missed cuts, a T64, and a T71. At the Columbus, Ohio sectional on Monday, Kizzire made a tremendous run at one of the 14 spots for grabs, carding birdies on 14, 15, 16, and 17 in his second round, but at 5 under, he missed the top 14 by one shot.

He desperately needs to get his game back on track this week in Memphis if he wants to tee it up at the U.S. Open for the second time in his career.

JAMES HAHN

World Ranking: No. 81

It has been a very up-and-down season for Hahn, but he chose the wrong time to slump. He made his first 12 cuts of the season, and had a number of quality finishes, including a solo-second at the Sony Open, a T11 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and a T14 at the Genesis Open.

Credit: Getty Images/Sam Greenwood

He has spent most of the past year ranked in the 60s, but could not get on the right side of that line when U.S. Open exemptions were granted.

Since starting 12 for 12 on the season in cuts made, Hahn has played in five events, and missed the cut in all five, including last week at The Memorial Tournament, where he shot 78-67 to miss the weekend by one stroke.

Hahn went to the Springfield, Ohio sectional on Monday, but failed to grab one of the open spots, despite playing against a weak group. This will be his first attempt at TPC Southwind since placing T6 in the 2014 edition.

BILLY HORSCHEL

World Ranking: No. 86

The man who finished T4 in his U.S. Open debut five years ago, has played significantly better since an awful showing at The Masters, but still has not been able to qualify for the second major of the year. He won the Zurich Classic in late April, but as a team event, it did not award world rankings points.

Credit: Getty Images/Matt Sullivan

He did not play well enough in sectional qualifying in Memphis on Monday and is down to his last chance this week. Fortunately, Horschel has a tremendous history at the FedEx St. Jude, finishing in the top 10 in each of his last four attempts, including a T4 last year.


2. TWO TIME DEFENDING CHAMP: DANIEL BERGER

Daniel Berger is batting 1.000 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic: two starts, two victories. The 25-year-old has shown a comfort at TPC Southwind exhibited by just a few players on a few courses.

In 2016, his first start in the event, he was able to hold the 54-hole lead despite never having won a PGA Tour event before. He shot a final round 67 to hold off a ridiculously great trio of players in Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, and Steve Stricker by three shots.

Credit: Getty Images/Sam Greenwood

In his 2017 encore, he started the final round three strokes out of the lead, but posted a bogey-free 4-under 66 to win by a stroke over Charl Schwartzel and Whee Kim.

Those two victories remain the only two titles of Berger’s career. Those are far from his only career highlights, however. He was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in a 2015 season where he was twice a runner-up, he placed T10 in his first attempt at The Masters, and he posted a combined 12 top-10 finishes between 2016 and 2017.

His tee-to-green game is beyond his years, and he has managed to stay consistent, and often gets into contention.

While he has been mostly solid in 2018, he has not quite taken the step forward that many thought he might. In 14 events, he has made 12 cuts, but has yet to place inside the top 10, although he has finished in the top 25 six times.

Berger had an impressive T11-T14-T11 stretch in January, but has not made a ton of noise since. Statistically, he has played well, and he ranks positively in every strokes gained category.

If Berger is going to make it three-for-three, he will need to elevate his game above its recent form. In his last four starts, a T32 at The Masters is his only finish inside the top 50.

In his most recent start, Berger finished a dismal T57 at THE PLAYERS Championship. He actually led the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green and was fifth in greens in regulation, but he struggled badly with everything else.


3. HEAT CHECK: BROOKS KOEPKA

Next week, Brooks Koepka will be making his first major championship defense, as he tees it up at the U.S. Open one year after capturing a low-scoring affair at Erin Hills. This week, however, is also an important part of his U.S. Open prep, as he is one of the highest profile players in the field for the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Credit: Getty Images/Icon Sportswire

In Koepka’s fifth full-time season on the PGA Tour, he will be playing the FedEx St. Jude for the fifth consecutive year. It has become one of his must plays, and based on his results, it is easy to see why he likes TPC Southwind.

In his first attempt (2014), he posted a T19 off the strength of bookend 67s. He followed that up with a 64-67 start in 2015 that had him as the 54-hole leader. He finished T3. Koepka did even better in 2016, finishing in a tie for second place.

Last year was easily his worst showing, but even in a T37, he started 69-66 before fading on the weekend. For the most part, he has been excellent at this course.

This year, Koepka is coming in hot. A wrist injury took three months away from his 2018, but since he came back in late April, he has shaken off the rust and then some. At THE PLAYERS Championship, he rose over 50 spots on the Sunday leaderboard into a tie for 11th when he posted a phenomenal 9-under 63 that included a late albatross.

In his next start, he finished solo-runner up at the Fort Worth Invitational, and looked like the only player on the field that was worthy of being on the same course as winner Justin Rose. Koepka has shot rounds of 63 in three of his last five rounds, and if he is not too distracted by what is coming up for him next week, he seems likely to continue his tear in Memphis.


4. SLAM WATCH: PHIL’S U.S. OPEN PREP

It is safe to say that nobody wants the U.S. Open more than Phil Mickelson. The man who turns 48 years old on Masters Saturday needs the victory to complete the career grand slam, and he has come agonizingly close in the year’s second major many times, finishing runner-up a record six times. His mind will be focused on nothing else.

Credit: Getty Images/Matt Sullivan

Yet, he will be in the field for the FedEx St. Jude Classic this week. Phil considers this event to be an important part of his U.S. Open prep, and even if he probably does not stay up late at night dreaming about winning in Memphis, he plays the event incredibly well.

Over the past five years, Phil has finished T11 or better in all five TPC Southwind starts, including runner-ups last year, and in 2014.

Phil has cooled slightly off the pace he was on in February-March when he strung together four straight top-six finishes, including a playoff victory over now No. 1 Justin Thomas at the WGC-Mexico Championship.

Still, he has continued to put together a tremendous season. In the past month, he finished T5 at the Wells Fargo Championship, struggled badly at THE PLAYERS, but rebounded with a quality T13 finish at last week’s Memorial Tournament, playing his final three rounds in 12-under-par.

Mickelson’s short game has been great, like it always is, as evidenced by his No. 2 Tour ranking in strokes gained: putting. He is also 3rd in birdie average and 5th in strokes gained: total. Memphis might not be at the front of his mind, but he has been excellent this season and has a great history at this course. He is likely to contend again, regardless of how much he actually cares.


5. WHERE DOES NIEMANN GO FROM HERE?

Another big name in the FedEx St. Jude field is a 19-year-old who has made an emphatic start to his professional golf career. Joaquin Niemann, the pride of Chile, has made just five starts since turning professional, after a wildly successful amateur run, and has finished in the top 10 in three of those.

Credit: Getty Images/Keyur Khamar

At last week’s Memorial Tournament, he was the co-leader after each of the first two rounds. He struggled on Sunday, but a T6 in a field as strong was what Muirfield Village draws is more than a little impressive. He was also solo-sixth at the Valero Texas Open and T8 at the Fort Worth Invitational.

This will be Niemann’s first attempt at the FedEx St. Jude, and despite a complete lack of experience here, is still considered among the tier-2 favorites.

At 223rd in the world rankings, Niemann is not going to be at Shinnecock Hills next week, but he will be motivated to keep the recent form that has already allowed him to be able to accept unlimited sponsor’s exemptions. He will be a big factor in professional golf for a long time.

Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.

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