After a thrilling week at the first major championship of the year, the PGA Tour heads to its regular post-Masters stop on Hilton Head Island, a striking paradise located just off the southern tip of South Carolina for the RBC Heritage.
THE talk of the PGA Tour right now is the newly-minted Masters champion Patrick Reed, who could not have ended a year-plus winless drought at a better tournament. Well, Reed is not going to be at Harbour Town Golf Links, the RBC Heritage host venue, which is not unusual; with the exhausting amount of press and attention, it is pretty rare for a major winner to compete the following weekend, but the field still boasts a tremendous amount of talent, especially for an event being held immediately after what many professionals consider the most stressful week of the season.
After the past few weeks have been spent at bombers wonderlands, Harbour Town is a course that rewards shotmaking above all else. That all being said, here is what to look out for this week:
1. WESLEY BRYAN DEFENDS
Wesley Bryan’s first PGA Tour victory came at the RBC Heritage, his home-state event, last year, when he used four consecutive birdies on the front nine, and played mistake-free on the back nine to overtake former major winner and 54-hole leader Jason Dufner to win by one stroke. Bryan was sharp with his irons, and showed few weaknesses over the course of the week, playing all four rounds in the 60s.
It was the breakthrough victory for the man who made his name with trick shots on YouTube.
However, if it feels like you have not heard much about Wes Bryan in the past year, it is because you haven’t. Aside from a T3 at the John Deere Classic in mid-July, he has been irrelevant at best and abysmal at worst on the PGA Tour.
In 13 solo-events after his Harbour Town victory last year (he had a T29 at the Zurich Classic, a team event), Bryan’s strong showing at the John Deere was his only finish inside the top 40. It was also the only post-Heritage start where he finished under par.
The 2018 season has been more of the same disappointment for the 28-year-old Bryan. He ranks No. 95 in the world, although he sure hasn’t played like a top-100 golfer: in 10 events, his best finish was a T27 at the 32-man Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January.
Bryan has missed his past four cuts, and has not played the weekend, or finished a tournament under par, since the CareerBuilder Challenge in the third week of January, where an 8-under week was still just good enough to finish T63.
At The Masters last week, he shot 74-78, making just two birdies to 10 bogeys and missing the cut by three strokes.
Perhaps coming back to a place where he has enjoyed success will get his game going again, but his tee-to-green game has been an absolute disaster, and that will need to be much, much better if he is going to compete this week. Bryan is still putting well, as he currently ranks 16th on Tour in strokes gained: putting, but he is 210th in strokes gained off-the-tee and 204th in strokes gained tee-to-green. He is a short hitter, averaging just 273 yards per drive, which ranks 209th on Tour, but while most of the shorter hitters are very accurate, Bryan has not been much better there, ranking 176th on Tour in driving accuracy.
2. HARD LUCK LUKE DONALD?
Former World No. 1 Luke Donald has an impressive history of finishes at the RBC Heritage:
That is a lot of lucrative paydays for the 40-year-old Northwestern alum from England, but something noticeably absent from that list: a win. Five runner-ups and two addition third place finishes in nine starts makes Donald No. 2 in earnings in tournament history (Jim Furyk), but while he clearly has a tremendous level of comfort at Harbour Towne, he has been unable to break through for a victory.
It is not like Donald traditionally is allergic to wins either: he has five career PGA Tour victories and an additional seven in Europe.
Could this finally be the year for Donald? Looking at his recent form, the answer to that is: probably not. Now barely inside the world’s top 200, Donald looks like a shell of the player he was when he finished first on both the PGA and European Tour money lists in 2011.
Now, he struggles to even make cuts. After falling one stroke short to Wesley Bryan at last year’s RBC Heritage, Donald missed his next eight cuts, before a T49 at the Northern Trust Open knocked him out of the FedExCup Playoffs and ended his disappointing season. So far, 2018 has not been any better. In eight events, he has five missed cuts and finishes of T32, T37, and T64.
Still, there is something about Hilton Head that cooperates greatly with Donald. If he is going to find a way to make something of this currently-lost season, this is likely the week it starts.
3. DUSTIN JOHNSON RETURNS TO HARBOUR TOWN
In the lead-up to this year’s RBC Heritage, the most pleasant surprise was the inclusion of World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, a South Carolina native who has not played this event since missing the cut in 2009.
The 17-time PGA Tour winner has not given a reason for no longer including his home-state event in his regular schedule; it is assumed that it has to do with it being the week after The Masters, and at a course that does not really play to DJ’s strengths, but now affiliated with tournament sponsor RBC, the 33-year-old bomber is back in the field.
The 2017 season was another tremendous year for Johnson. He won four events, including two World Golf Championships and a FedExCup Playoff event, while earning nearly $9 million. In 2018, however, it’s been a mixed bag for DJ.
The season started off hot – his first three events resulted in a win and two-runner ups – but it has been kind of mediocre since. After a solid week at the WGC-Mexico where he finished T7, he was downright abysmal in his defense of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, getting swept in group play. He played The Masters last week, and while a T10 is nothing to be embarrassed of, he was always just kind of on the periphery of contention, but never really part of the story. He finished eight strokes behind winner Patrick Reed.
While Harbour Town has a reputation of being a place where the shorter guys can thrive, nobody will be counting out DJ this week. He might be best known for his length, but he has proven consistently that his game has no weaknesses. He currently ranks 14th on Tour in both strokes gained” around-the-green and strokes gained: putting.
4. BUILDING OFF AUGUSTA SUCCESS
While many players who spent last week at The Masters are in recovery mode this week, the RBC Heritage still comprises a surprising amount of high-end golfers who are looking to build off the successes they found at the world’s most famous tournament.
Among those include:
Paul Casey: After his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, there were high expectations at The Masters for the man who had finished in the top six of the previous three editions. Casey underwhelmed early, just making the cut on the number with a 74-75 start, but tournament record watch was on in round 4 when Casey was 9-under thought 15 holes, including making it through daunting ‘Amen Corner’ in an unthinkable 8 strokes. A bogey-bogey finish kept him two strokes short of Augusta immortality, but a 65 was still the second-lowest round of the Day (Jordan Spieth, 64), and rose him to a respectable T15 for the week.
Cameron Smith: The 24-year-old Aussie, in the midst of a breakthrough 2018 season, had only played Augusta once, finishing T55 in 2016, but despite the course’s reputation for being unforgiving to those with little experience, Smith finished T5 in this year’s edition. He showed off his best on Sunday with a 6-under 66 that included six back-nine birdies.
Webb Simpson: Similar to Casey, Webb Simpson did little in the first two rounds, but exploded on Sunday. The highlight of Simpson’s T20 finish was back-to-back eagles on Nos. 7 and 8, only the fourth player in Masters history to accomplish that feat. Suddenly one of the best putters on Tour, Webb will be a popular pick to win at Harbour Town, where he was in third place after 54 holes a year ago.
Marc Leishman: It has been a very up-and-down season for Leishman, and we very much saw his “up” early last week at Augusta, as a 70-67 start put him in the final Sunday pairing with eventual champion Patrick Reed. A third-round birdie-free 73 on Saturday severely hindered his chances of capturing career major No. 1, but a final-round 70 that included five birdies over his final seven holes meant a solo-9th place finish, his fifth career top-10 in a major.
Charley Hoffman: For the second straight year, the four-time PGA Tour winner Hoffman was a part of the early story at Augusta, this time hitting 4-under after the tournament’s first 14 holes. The 41-year-old found the going much tougher on Friday and Saturday, shooting matching 73s, but Sunday brought Hoffman’s A game again, as he shot a final round 67 that included an ace on 16, the only hole-in-one of the week. Hoffman finished T12, which outdid his stellar 2017 performance where he was the 18-hole leader.
5. OTHER PAST WINNERS IN THE FIELD
While a significant amount of the spotlight will be focused on defending champion Wesley Bryan, he is not the only man in field to have experienced victory at Harbour Town Golf Links. Several other former tournament winners will be featured as well:
Matt Kuchar: The seven-time Tour champion Kuchar bested perennial bridesmaid Luke Donald by one stroke in the 2014 edition. After round one of last week’s Masters Tournament, Kuchar looked like he might finally break through for that elusive first major championship, as a 4-under 68 had him in second place. Three consecutive rounds of par or worse dropped him to T28 for the week, but he had posted top-10s in his previous two events and has not finished outside the top 11 at Harbour Town in five years.
Brian Gay: The 2009 Heritage field had no idea what hit them when Brian Gay was flawless in a 10-stroke romp, setting the tournament record in the process. In recent years, injuries have halted his most dominant form, but he has shown signs of life this season, with three top 10s, including a T8 at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He was T6 at this tournament last year, and his current short game is the best it has been in a long time.
Branden Grace: The steady South African won at Harbour Town just two years, as a final round 66 allowed Grace to overtake 54-hole leader, (surprise, surprise) Luke Donald. Another player who spent last week at Augusta, Grace was not part of the story over the first three days, but put together one of Sunday’s best rounds, carding birdies on five of his final six holes to sneak just inside the top 25. Grace was T11 in his championship defense last year.
Jim Furyk: The tournament’s all-time earnings leader, Furyk finished atop the leaderboard in both 2010 and 2015, both of which went to a playoff. The 2015 victory over Kisner was the most recent win of Furyk’s 17-win PGA Tour career. The now 47-year-old has struggled to regain the consistency of his prime years, and shockingly did not even qualify for The Masters, but a T7 at last month’s Valspar Championship was a very encouraging sign.
Graeme McDowell: Starting the final round of the 2013 RBC Heritage four strokes back of Charley Hoffman, McDowell nearly won in regulation, until a bogey on the 72nd hole dropped him into a playoff with Webb Simpson. McDowell was able to compose himself and needed just one extra hole to vanquish Simpson for his first victory since he took the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. McDowell has added one more PGA Tour victory since 2013, the 2016 OHL Classic, but he has found his way on few leaderboard more recently, as a T10 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in November is his only top 10 over the past two seasons. Statistically, the 38-year-old has not been awful this season, but a declining iron game has led to fewer birdie opportunities, which is a big problem at a shotmakers course like Harbour Town.