The eyes of many are already looking on Kiawah Island, the site of next week’s PGA Championship, the second major of a thrilling 2021 season. But those people could find themselves missing a compelling fight in Dallas this week.
TPC Craig Ranch, an event that has not hosted a PGA Tour event before, is the host venue for this week’s AT&T Byron Nelson.
The 2020 edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That was especially a shame for this event, which dates all the way back to 1944, when the great Byron Nelson won by ten shots over Jug McSpaden. Do not feel too bad for Jug, though, he played well the next year too, finishing second to Sam Snead by four strokes.
There is nobody named Jug in the field this week, but among who will be there is three of the world’s four highest-ranked golfers, and a certain international player who captivated two countries with his very recent major championship breakthrough.
Those are just a few of the storylines in an intriguing lead-in to the PGA Championship. Here are the ones to watch most closely:
1. Major Matsuyama Eyes Texas
The biggest story this week is the return to action of Hideki Matsuyama. The 29-year-old from Japan ended a four-year winless drought in dramatic fashion, riding a third round explosion at Augusta National Golf Club into a Masters victory, the first major championship of his career.
Once considered among the brightest young stars in golf, Matsuyama had not been quite the same since a 2017 season where he had three victories and three runner-ups. He had none of the former and just two of the latter in the four seasons since.
It was not a career implosion, though: Hideki has remained of the game’s greatest shot-makers, and has earned at least $2.7 million in all four of those seasons, never finishing one outside the top 15 of the FedExCup standings. He was playing well, but something was missing.
Absolutely horrific putting has not helped. In 2020, for example, Matsuyama ranked second on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and fifth in both strokes gained: approach-the-green and around-the-green, but ranked 170th in putting. He is actually ranked 173rd in that same statistic this season, but he putted just well enough to stay ahead of the pack over the weekend at Augusta.
Now, Matsuyama makes his triumphant return to the game after a month of enjoying his newfound celebrity, particularly in his native Japan where the cheer and pride was abundant. He even received Japan’s Prime Minister Award.
It might be fair to question how focused he will be on the upcoming week, and it is not unusual for a player to post a poor result immediately after breaking through in the majors.
Can Hideki not fall victim to the hangover? His confidence and ball-striking should help at an unfamiliar course. He just added this event to his regular schedule in the 2018 season, finishing T16 at that edition, before finishing T23 in the most recent.
2. Spieth Seeks a Texas Triple
Like Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth recently put an end to a winless drought that had dated back to 2017, winning the Valero Texas Open the week prior to The Masters, the 12th win of his career. And like Matsuyama, Spieth will be playing for the first time since The Masters. Spieth finished T3, three strokes behind Matsuyama, for his fifth finish inside the top 3 in just eight career Masters starts.
In 2021, Spieth has emphatically gotten his game back after a disastrous 2020. In his first seven starts of the current season, Spieth missed four cuts, and had nothing better than a T38. Spieth bounced back from a missed cut at January’s Farmers Insurance Open, with a T4 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Since then, he has finished outside the top 15 just once in seven starts, a T48 at THE PLAYERS Championship, and event he has always struggled with. The win was the apex of the streak, but he held several 54-hole leads, and now knows how to win again. In the span of those eight starts, his world ranking rose from 92nd to 28th.
If all that was not dangerous enough for the rest of the Tour, this week’s AT&T Byron Nelson is being held in Dallas, Spieth’s native city. The crowds will be very much in his favor, which has been something he has gathered energy from in the past.
And as he looks to complete the career Grand Slam next week at Kiawah Island, a win this week would give Spieth three-fourths of the Texas Grand Slam: Texas Open, The Colonial, The Byron Nelson and Houston Open – the four iconic Lonestar State (stroke-play) stops, and four of Tour’s longest running events.
3. Kang Seeks Reboot in Texas
At the 2019 AT&T Byron Nelson, held at Dallas’ Trinity Forest golf club, South Korea’s Sung Kang exploded to the top of the leaderboard after a second round 10-under 61, fueled by an absurd mid-round stretch where he birdied six consecutive holes.
The event got interesting late on Sunday, but after birdies on Nos. 14, 15, and 16, Kang ended the week two strokes ahead of Matt Every and Scott Piercy. It was the first career victory for the now 33-year-old.
It is also his only victory. Kang might be coming in as the defending champion, albeit at a different course, but the current version of him looks nothing like the man who reached 23-under-par for the week to win.
In the 2020 season, Kang was playing well early on, and among his three starts before the COVID-19 layoff were a T2 to Max Homa at The Genesis Invitational, and a T9 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which was in spite of a third-round 78. He hit the break at 39th in the FedExCup Standings, and 52nd in the Official World Golf Rankings.
The Tour then went on hold for three months. It came back in June, but Kang’s game did not. In nine starts of the 2020 season when play resumed, he missed five cuts, and had nothing better than a T44. Two of his made weekends still resulted in finishes outside the top 70.
Even worse, 2021 has been an unmitigated disaster for Kang. In 21 starts, he has missed 13 cuts. Among those eight he made, five of them were results of worse than T59. His best event this season, to his credit, was at a big event: he was T29 at The Masters (the November one, he did not qualify for the April one).
He has played 16 weekend rounds. Eight of those were a 75 or worse, with two in the 80s. It has not been his year.
Statistically, he has been even worse: in strokes gained: putting, Kang ranks 176th on Tour, losing -.327 strokes to the field on average. That is his BEST ranking in the strokes gained categories… by far.
Kang is 200th or worse in the other six. His worst is 216th in strokes gained: total, out of 217 qualifying golfers. Only D.A. Points, who has missed 11 cuts in 12 starts (he was T45 at the Bermuda Championship) has been worse.
4. Struggles at The Top: DJ, Rahm Question Marks
Matsuyama and Spieth might be riding high at the moment, but the two highest-ranked players in this week’s field sure are not.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson was playing the best golf of his illustrious career over the latter part of 2020, with a victory at The Masters in November, the second major championship of his career, the highlight of a seven-event stretch to end the season, where he had two wins, three runner-ups, a T3, a T6, and a T8. He won the FedExCup Championship and was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year.
The 2021 calendar year looked good early, with DJ finishing T11-T8 in his first two PGA Tour starts, and a win at a European Tour event in Saudi Arabia.
Since then, however, his invincibility has appeared to have worn off. In his last six starts, a T13 at the RBC Heritage, where he never contended has been his best result. He missed the cut at his defense of The Masters, and was T48 at both THE PLAYERS Championship, and at the Valspar Championship a week ago. His talent is undeniable, but his current form is questionable.
World No. 3 Jon Rahm has been mostly tremendous in the past year, and went into The Masters last month off of eight top 10s in his previous ten starts.
Nobody knew what to expect at Augusta, as his wife delivered his first child, a son named Kepa, days before the tournament began. Rahm had three rounds of even-par 72, before exploding for the field-low round of 66 on Sunday to finish T5.
Rahm followed that up with a T7 while teamed up with Ryan Palmer at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, an event that is hard to read into good or bad. He did not tee up again until last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, and shockingly, he missed the cut by two strokes.
Rahm has a history of long hot streaks, and he will want to begin another one soon before he goes to Kiawah Island next week in search of his first career major win. The 26-year-old is undoubtedly the best player in the world without a major yet.
5. DeChambeau Coming Back Around?
Rory McIlroy stole most of the headlines at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, where he ended a long winless drought of his own, but Bryson DeChambeau also drew waves for something that happened on Friday.
After a 3-over 74 in the second round, DeChambeau did not wait for the rest of play to finish up. Assuming that he was going to miss the cut, he flew to Dallas. He then learned that he actually DID make the cut, and had to charter a jet back to Charlotte last minute, which is ridiculously expensive. Not wanting to withdraw and lose the FedExCup and World Ranking points, he just hoped to at least earn back the money he lost with the sudden air travel.
It ended up being the right decision. The 27-year-old shot two rounds in the 60s to propel all the way up to T9 on the final leaderboard, which came with a check for $228,825.
It also got his season going back in the right direction. DeChambeau won the U.S. Open in a six-stroke blowout last September, and added a win at The Arnold Palmer Invitational and a T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship more recently.
However, he struggled to a T46 at The Masters a few weeks after a poor week with an early exit at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Now, he comes to Dallas in much better form, looking to add a ninth career victory to an impressive resume. He has played the Byron Nelson just once, missing the cut at the 2017 edition.
An unfamiliar course should give him an advantage, as the man who leads the PGA Tour in scoring average and strokes gained: tee-to-green.