Approximately 6,600 miles separates Tokyo, Japan – the site of the ongoing Olympic Games and Memphis, Tennessee – the host site of this week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Olympic Golf had its turn last weekend, which saw American Xander Schauffele leave with the gold medal. A number of other elite players, including recent Open Championship winner Collin Morikawa will also be making the trip.
Why would these players subject themselves to such an insane short-term travel schedule? The $10.5 million dollar purse in Memphis might have something to do with it.
World No. 1 Jon Rahm will not be at TPC Southwind, the host venue for season’s third WGC event, due to yet another positive COVID-19 test. After Rahm, you’d have to scroll all the way down to No. 44 Christiaan Bezuidenhout to find the next highest-ranked player not playing the St. Jude this week.
With just two weeks remaining before the FedExCup Playoffs, the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational has no shortage of compelling storylines. Here are six of the best:
1. JT Defends WGC Title
At last year’s event, Justin Thomas overcame a four-shot 54-hole deficit with long-time Phil Mickelson caddie ‘Bones’ Mackay on his bag (illness fill-in), to win by three strokes over the quartet of Mickelson, who coincidentally played with Thomas for the final round, Daniel Berger, Brooks Koepka, and Tom Lewis.
It was the 13th win of Thomas’ phenomenal career – only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods won 13 wins faster. The win also elevated him from third to first in the world, a position he had held in the past.
In the year since, Thomas has picked up win No. 14, occurring at THE PLAYERS Championship in March.
Since then, however, he has been in what has to be considered a slump for him, with a T13 at the Valspar Championship being his best result in nine starts. He also has four starts of 40th or worse, and he missed the cut after a pair of 75s at the PGA Championship.
There is some reason for optimism this week for Thomas. Representing the U.S. at The Olympic Games in Tokyo last week, he followed up a pedestrian start with a 68-65 weekend to finish T22. He had ten birdies to three bogeys in those two rounds.
Between that potential momentum, and going T12-WIN in his two starts at this event, Thomas will be motivated to get his season back on track.
2. Phil’s Return to Memphis
In the nine starts Phil Mickelson has made at TPC Southwind, he has no wins, but three runner-ups, a third place finish, another top 10, a T11, and a T12. That history might lead some to briefly wonder if the course regularly holds the U.S. Open, an event where Mickelson shares a similar history.
One of those runner-ups occurred just last year. Making his fourth PGA Tour start after turning 50, the 45-time Tour winner was bogey free on Sunday, allowing him to move four spots up the leaderboard from T6 to T2.
The great result was especially welcoming for Mickelson, as he had seen a considerable drop-off in his finishes since a solo-third at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. In his next two starts after, he finished T71 at the PGA Championship, and then got knocked out of the first round of the FedExCup playoffs after missing the cut at The Northern Trust.
So, what about his prospects for this year? It has mostly been tough going for Phil, whose second best result in 20 starts this year was a T21 at The Masters. Of course, his one better result was a shocking victory at the PGA Championship in May, his sixth career major championship win.
He followed up that win with a missed cut at the Charles Schwab Challenge, finishes of T62, T61, and T74, respectively, before an opening 80 at The Open Championship destroyed any chance of making the weekend. That is all to say: he has not been great the past two months, but as we saw at Kiawah Island, he can get into the mix at any time, and with the level of comfort he has shown at TPC Southwind, it would not be a surprise if this is his best finish since the PGA Championship.
3. TPC Southwind: Home of the Good Berger
Another one of those players to finish runner-up last year was Daniel Berger, who carded seven birdies on the final day to match the 5-under 65 shot by Justin Thomas.
Berger has been up and down in his career, but this second-place finish was no surprise for anyone who has been paying attention.
Berger has four career victories, with the first two coming at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, the event TPC Southwind hosted before it was promoted to a WGC event. Not only did he win the 2016 and 2017 editions, those were the first two times he had even played the event. He has a tremendous amount of comfort in Memphis, which the field has likely taken note of. They were fortunate that Berger did not qualify for the 2019 edition, but he was back in 2020 and again made his mark.
In 2021, Berger has been a near lock to play the weekend, with 17 made cuts in 19 starts. Seven of those starts resulted in top 10s, with the most notable being his victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
More recently, he finished T7 at the U.S. Open, and in his last start, he was T8 at The Open Championship. One of the most consistent golfers over the past two years, Berger will have plenty of bettors thinking that he picks up his fifth career Tour victory this week.
4. And… Then There’s Brooks Koepka
Four-time major champion Brooks Koepka was the last player with a realistic chance of catching Thomas late, but had to settle for a co runner-up after a bogey-6 on 16, the easiest hole on the course statistically, followed by a double bogey on 18 after sending his drive into the water. Dropping from solo-second to co-second cost him over half a million dollars in earnings.
The runner-up came one year after Koepka claimed the 2019 WGC FedEd St. Jude Invitational, overcoming a one-stroke 54-hole deficit to Rory McIlroy to win by three over Webb Simpson. In addition, Koepka had some strong performances at TPC Southwind before it became a WGC, finishing third in 2015 and T2 to Daniel Berger in 2016 (Phil Mickelson was also a part of that runner-up trio).
Similar to Berger, Koepka is exceptionally comfortable at this course, and the high-pressure environment of the WGCs makes it even more intriguing for him.
Koepka is arriving in Memphis in excellent form. Since winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, he finished runner-up at the WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession and the PGA Championship.
In his last three starts, he has finished T4, T5, and T6 respectively, with two of those coming in majors. He opted-out of last week’s Olympic Games, which might have been a good idea given his knee issues over the past year. He should be more than ready to go this week.
5. Tokyo Olympians in The Field
None of them are likely to admit it publicly, but those in the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational field who spent last week in Tokyo have to be more than a little annoyed that such a profile event starts days after they compete on the other side of the world.
The lengthy trip back to Memphis will make it difficult to prepare, both physically and mentally. Those who weren’t there clearly have an advantage in that regard.
Most notable among those Olympians is gold medalist Xander Schauffele, who finished T6 in this event a year ago. His victory in Tokyo represents his first win anywhere since January of 2019.
Perhaps more significantly, it was the first time he has successfully held onto a 54-hole lead, as he was unable to do so in his previous four attempts. Given the difficulty Schauffele has had closing at majors in recent year, succeeding with a gold medal on the line could give him tremendous confidence in his inevitable future major contentions.
Also in Memphis this week are four of the players who competed in the crazy seven-man bronze medal playoff. The man who won it on the fourth extra hole, Taiwan’s C.T. Pan, did not qualify for this WGC event, but the last man he eliminated, world No. 3 Collin Morikawa is.
The 24-year-old won the PGA Championship in his previous start, in what was his PGA Championship debut. Morikawa also won a February WGC event in Florida.
The other three are reigning Masters Champion Hideki Matsuyama, who was representing the host country of Japan, Paul Casey, who has been phenomenal in 2021 and has contend in multiple majors, and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, who held the 54-hole lead in the 2019 edition of this event.
Joaquin Niemann and Cameron Smith were one stroke out of qualifying for that bronze playoff, and will be playing the WGC this week.
Others include Shane Lowry, who has three top-12s in his last four Tour starts, Corey Conners, Viktor Hovland, Abraham Ancer, Jhonattan Vegas, defending champion Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed, Sungjae Im, Carlos Ortiz, and Marc Leishman.
It will be very interesting to see how that talented group is able to handle their likely fatigue this week.
6. Oosthuizen On Fire
After Koepka and two-time winner of the FedEx St. Jude Classic Dustin Johnson, the most notable, and definitely hottest player among those who were not in Tokyo last week is 38-year-old Louis Oosthuizen.
The South African is having a career season, and appears motivated to pick up the second win of his PGA Tour career, the first coming in a seven-stroke blowout at the 2010 Open Championship. Shockingly, he has never won on U.S. soil.
In his last seven Tour starts, Oosthuizen has four runner-ups. He was second in the team-format Zurich Classic, followed by the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, and in his most recent start two weeks ago at the 3M Open. He also contended at the Open Championship, leading after each of the first three rounds before falling into a share of third on Sunday. Oosthuizen has made 17 of 18 cuts on the season, and is up to eighth in the OWGR.
Louis’ entire game has been clicking during this hot streak, but he has done the most damage with his putter, where he ranks first on Tour in strokes gained: putting. He is also second in strokes gained: total and has the Tour’s second best scoring average.
In addition to his torrid recent play, Oosthuizen has played both editions of this event well. In 2019, he bounced back from an opening 73 to finish T20.
Last year, he was among a very talented group to finish T6. After a week off, he has to be feeling great about his chances.