Just 45 miles from where they played last week, the PGA Tour is more or less in the same place this week, but Colonial Country Club will be seeing an infinitely better field for the Fort Worth Invitational than the AT&T Byron Nelson did.
Headlining is world No. 3 Jordan Spieth, who will face much stiffer competition than he did in Dallas, including stars such as Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, and Rickie Fowler, not to mention a resurgent Webb Simpson coming fresh off one of the most dominant performances in PLAYERS Championship history.
There are many, many juicy storylines for the tournament with history going back to the 1940s, but here are some of the more prominent ones this week at the course colloquially called “Hogan’s Alley” – a homage to Tour legend Ben Hogan, who won this event five times:
1. KISNER DEFENDS
Kevin Kisner won the 2017 Fort Worth Invitational off the strength of a torrid back nine Sunday stretch, adding birdies on 10, 11, 12, and 15 to reach 10-under for the week, and clipping an impressive runner-up group that contained both Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm. It was the second victory of Kisner’s career.
One year later, Kisner is still looking for win No. 3, but has contended at big-time events since, including the PGA Championship (T7), the Tour Championship (T3), and the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play (2).
The 34-year-old University of Georgia product has asserted himself as one of the best putters on Tour, and in the current season, he ranks 12th in strokes gained: putting.
Coming into Colonial last year, Kisner was cold, with his previous two finishes being a missed cut and a T56, so those concerned about Kisner missing his last two cuts coming into this year’s edition should not completely count him out.
There is clearly something about this course that suits him well, as he also finished T10 in 2016 and T5 in 2015. With three consecutive Colonial top 10s, it should not be surprising if he contends again this year.
Kisner’s 2018 has been a mixed bag. Three top 10s in 14 events this season is solid, he has been accurate off the tee, and he has continued to boast a near-spotless putting game. However, he has been largely underwhelming tee-to-green (he ranks 158th on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green), and he has struggled badly with closing tournaments.
At the WGC-Match Play, Kisner coasted to the championship match, but was then absolutely pummeled 7&6 by Bubba Watson. At the RBC Heritage last month, Kisner was just three strokes off the final round lead before a Sunday 72 left him in a tie for 7th.
A final-round 76 at the CareerBuilder Challenge plummeted him from in contention to a dismal T50. Most recently, at the Zurich Classic, Kisner and teammate Scott Brown were the 54-hole co-leaders, but collapsed down the stretch on Sunday, playing the final seven holes in 5-over and posting a 77, dropping them out of the top 10 entirely.
If Kisner contends through three rounds again at Colonial, he could struggle to stay loose in round 4. He will need to get out of his own way.
2. SIZZLING SIMPSON IN ACTION
Webb Simpson was the 54-hole leader at last year’s Fort Worth Invitational, but after carding just one birdie in the final round, Simpson had to settle for a T5. Coming into this year’s version, absolutely no one will be thinking about that.
The reason is the fact that Simpson absolutely shellacked an elite field at THE PLAYERS in his last start, taking a seven-stroke lead into the final round and winning by four. Simpson had been playing well in 2018, and his improvement with the putter has been nothing short of inspiring, given that he was one of the players most affected by the anchoring ban several years ago, but nobody saw that kind of domination happening from a man who had not won on Tour for nearly five years.
Even considering his 2012 U.S. Open victory, his Sawgrass smack-down was unequivocally the best performance of his career.
Simpson had been somewhat under-the-radar this season, but now he has the Tour’s attention again. In his first start since THE PLAYERS, can he keep the heat going, or has he been too distracted to be a serious contender?
He has shown the ability to post great finishes in bunch before. He has also played well at Colonial before, going into the final round in last year’s Fort Worth Invitational with the lead before setting for a solo-fifth.
Since 2010, he has only played the event one other time, finishing T3 in 2016. There is certainly an excellent mix of course history and current form with Webb, but players more commonly experience a let-down after an emotional, career-defining kind of triumph.
In the current season, Webb has been just so-so off the tees, but has been above average to excellent in everything else; especially with his putter, where he is 5th on Tour in strokes gained: putting. Just two years ago, he finished the season ranked 177th in that same statistic.
3. A WISE PLAY
Webb Simpson is not the only player in the Fort Worth Invitational field coming off a life-altering victory. Aaron Wise, a college star at the University of Oregon, captured his maiden title last week, a three-stroke victory at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
The field was very weak as far as PGA Tour events go, but there was no questioning how dominant Wise was in just his 26th career PGA Tour start. A third-round 68 was his WORST score by three strokes.
The 21-year old hit 89% of his fairways and 92% of his greens in regulation. For the week, he gained 16.7 strokes on the field total in a 23-under effort. It was one of the most “the future is now” type moments of the season.
Expecting Wise to go back-to-back is probably unreasonable to the point of being laughable, especially given the difficulty of Colonial and the fact that Wise has never played as a professional, but between the victory at Trinity Forest and the T2 he posted in his previous start, at the Wells Fargo Championship, he is scorching hot. There is no questioning the confidence in his game right now.
4. IS KOEPKA BACK?
Webb Simpson and Tiger Woods stole most of the attention at THE PLAYERS two weeks ago, but one performance that cannot be overlooked was the sizzling 9-under final round of Brooks Koepka, which included an albatross, and vaulted him up 52 spots on the final leaderboard, into a tie for 11th.
Shooting the lowest Sunday score by three strokes had to be an enormous relief for the reigning U.S. Open Champion, who has been trying to rediscover his top form after a four-month layoff caused by a wrist injury.
It was the 28-year-old Koepka’s third tournament back: he missed the cut paired with Marc Turnesa (who?) at the Zurich Classic, and finished T42 at the Wells Fargo Championship the week prior to THE PLAYERS.
The question now is, to what degree is Koepka “back”? Nobody shoots a 63 at TPC Sawgrass by pure luck, but the score looks anomalous when compared with his first three rounds, where he shot 70-70-74.
Did something click in that final round, or was that just a day where Koepka was really, really feeling it?
In that round, he gained an absurdly high 7.3 strokes tee-to-green, one day after losing 3.8. He had two bogey-free rounds, finished second in scrambling, and was sixth in strokes gained: off-the-tee.
Impressively, he nearly had to withdraw after mildly re-aggravating his wrist after a Wednesday incident on the driving range, where he had to check up after a support staff golf cart crossed closely in front of him.
This week at Colonial should tell a lot about where Koepka is in his return. He is no doubt anxious to shake off all the rust before his championship defense at next month’s U.S. Open. Surprisingly, this is his Fort Worth Invitational debut, so a disappointing week cannot necessarily be imputed to the injury layoff, although a strong performance would speak very highly.
5. SPIETH’S PUTTER STRUGGLES
For the second-straight week, Dallas native Jordan Spieth is playing what is essentially a home match. The crowd was behind him as much as they were anyone at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson, which was played at a brand-new course (Trinity Forest) where Spieth is a member.
Unfortunately for the world No. 3, he needed much more than good thoughts from the crowd in a disappointing T21 finish against the weakest field he will face all season.
Hopes were very high coming into the week, not just due to the home crowd and his special knowledge of the course, which most of the field was seeing for the first time, but because he his recent form had been mostly good, posting 68-65 in the middle rounds at THE PLAYERS after finishing third in his previous two individual events. He looked especially good on Sunday at The Masters, tearing off a final-round 64 that was nearly the greatest comeback in major championship history.
Spieth’s problem at Trinity was the same problem he has had all season: putting yips.
Normally a remarkable putter, the 24-year-old three-time major champion ranks an embarrassing 190th on Tour in strokes gained: putting. With the rest of his game clicking as it normally does, his putter has torpedoed his results, as zero victories and just four top 10s in 13 starts falls significantly short of the lofty standard he has set.
Despite the flatstick fumbles, he is still the odds-on favorite this week, and he has played Colonial exceptionally well in the past. He was the 2016 champion and took runner-up honors last year and in 2015, about as great of a three-year stretch as a player can have on any course.
The former University of Texas star was also T14 in 2014 and T7 in his 2013 tournament debut. Spieth plays Hogan’s Alley as well as anyone since, well, Hogan.
6. CHAMPION’S CHOICE
One of the interesting twists to the Fort Worth Invitational is the inclusion of “Champion’s Choices,” which involves the former event winners awarding spots to two players who were not otherwise eligible.
This year, the champions went with the youth movement, deciding on 19-year-old Joaquin Niemann and 21-year-old Sam Burns.
The ridiculously precocious Niemann is still two years away from being able to drink his missed cuts away at an American bar, but he already looked primed to become the world’s greatest Chilean athlete who did not play professional soccer.
After holding the No. 1 spot in the world amateur rankings for 48 consecutive weeks (second most all-time), Niemann went professional one month ago and scored a large payday right off the bat, placing T6 at the Valero Texas Open.
He missed the cut in his next two professional starts, including right on the number at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson, but the Tour is definitely on notice.
Sam Burns was a collegiate standout at LSU, winning the Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year award just last year. No longer an amateur, Burns won a Web.com Tour event in April, and more impressively, finished T8 at the PGA’s Honda Classic earlier this year, despite being paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds. He has struggled in his last three starts, but appears to be well ahead of the curve in his first professional season.
7. ADAM SCOTT SEEKS SHINNECOCK
Adam Scott has played in every U.S. Open since 2002 and has qualified for the past 68 major championships, but with less than a month to go before this year’s national Open, Scott currently finds himself on the wrong side of the bubble to play at Shinnecock Hills.
The 37-year-old former World No. 1 has not looked himself over the past two seasons. After winning back-to-back elite events in March of 2016 (The Honda Classic and WGC-Cadillac), Scott has come up empty since, and has gone nearly the same amount of time without as much as a top 5.
Not all is lost for Scott, though. While his putting continues to cause him headaches, he has placed well over his last two starts, posting a T11 at THE PLAYERS two weeks ago, and following that up with a T9 at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson.
After the Byron Nelson, the top 60 in the world rankings were automatically qualified for the U.S. Open, and finishing T9 rather than solo ninth means that Scott currently sits at No. 61.
The Aussie will have another chance this week, as the same condition applies at Colonial. Scott should be confident given his current form, and the fact that he won the event in 2014, but he has just a T24 and a T55 in two Colonial starts since.
According to projections, a top 10 finish would almost guarantee Scott a ticket to Shinnecock next month.