Yet another result of the COVID-19 pandemic, just one World Golf Championships (WGC) has been played in the past 12 months on the PGA Tour, a three-stroke victory by Justin Thomas in late July’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
This week, the world’s best will congregate again as 24 of the top 25 in the world rankings will be on hand for the WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession. If that sounds unfamiliar, that is because it is. The Workday will be replacing the WGC-Mexico Championship this year, as international travel would still be considered reckless.
Not only is this year somewhat of a new event, we have something close to a true blank slate. The Concession Golf Club, which got its name from a Jack Nicklaus act of sportsmanship at the 1969 Ryder Cup (Geez, did anything NOT happen that year?), will be hosting the PGA Tour for the first time.
Held in Bradenton, Florida, the only player in the field with a history of competitive success here is world No. 10 Bryson DeChambeau, who won the NCAA Individual Title here almost six years ago.
The new venue brings essentially the entire field into play, but still, players need to be ranked, and here are the ones we like best to finish the week as the newest WGC Champion.
15. Joaquin Niemann
The 22-year-old Chilean looked his best self in January, finishing runner-up in both Hawaii events, and asserting himself as someone who should be among the most feared on Tour in the coming decades.
Perhaps unwisely, Niemann opted for rest over heat, taking four consecutive tournaments off before teeing up for last week’s Genesis Invitational. He showed no signs of rust with a 67-68 start, but when the weather got bad on Saturday, Niemann took an absolute nosedive. He bogeyed five consecutive front-nine holes on is way to a 77, and an opening eagle in round 4 was not enough to keep him from finishing over par, as he shot a 72 and finished T43.
A lot of that weekend struggle can be imputed to a horrible putting round on Saturday, but it’s hard to call that anomalous after he finished 146th on Tour last year in strokes gained: putting.
He had made a phenomenal turnaround in that part of his game, currently ranking 48th this season in that same statistic. That could hurt the confidence of a young player, even one as unquestionably talented as Niemann.
World Rank: 29
Odds To Win: 40-1
Last Six: 43, 2, 2, 23, 44, 17
14. Cameron Smith
In his last six starts, dating back to last October, Cameron Smith – the world’s second-highest ranked Aussie (behind only Adam Scott) – has three top-4 finishes, including a solo-fourth at last week’s The Genesis Invitational, where he co-led the field in birdies (20) and showed off his typical mastery around the greens.
Smith was spectacular tee-to-green on Sunday at Riviera, hitting 16 of 18 greens after hitting nine or fewer in each of the first three rounds. The 27-year-old appears on the brink of his breakthrough big-stage win after finishing T2 at The Masters in November.
World Rank: 27
Odds To Win: 50-1
Last Six: 4, MC, 62, 24, 2, 4
13. Patrick Cantlay
Six straight finishes of 17th or better, highlighted by a victory at last fall’s ZOZO Classic @ Sherwood, has Patrick Cantlay leading the FedExCup race, which has to be a relief after he narrowly missed the Tour Championship last season.
The 28-year-old is just two seasons removed from having the Tour’s second-best scoring average (12th this season), and in his last three starts, has posted rounds of 61 and 62.
Cantlay trended the wrong way at Rivieria, however, opening with a 67, but increasing those scores each day before a final-round 72 dropped him from T5 to T10.
Sporting one of the best all-around games on Tour, Cantlay ranks in the top 50 in all six strokes gained: categories.
World Rank: 7
Odds To Win: 18-1
Last Six: 15, 3, 2, 13, 17, 1
12. Rory McIlroy
The streaky ways of the four-time major champion and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy has reached a new level over the past two years.
McIlroy began the 2020 PGA Tour season with seven straight top-5 finishes, then failed to record a top 10 in any of his eight starts following the Tour COVID restart, but had been trending positively again with eight consecutive finishes of T21 or better (4 top 10s) going into last week at Riviera.
At Riviera? The 31-year-old missed his first cut since the 2019 Open Championship, snapping a worldwide streak of 30 consecutive cuts made. One would not be faulted for having concern that his 73-76 start at The Genesis could kick-start another bad streak, but keep in mind, Rory has finished in the top 10 in 25 of 40 career WGC starts, including three wins.
His longest winless streak since his 2008 rookie season is likely to end sooner than not.
World Rank: 8
Odds To Win: 14-1
Last Six: MC, 13, 16, 3, 5, 17
11. Justin Thomas
The World No. 3, Justin Thomas, has eight finishes of T13 or better in his last ten starts, but there could be some cause for concern, as both of those lower finishes were missed cuts occurring his last three starts, including last week at The Genesis where a 77-73 start was worse than all but four of the 120 players in the field, and two of those were amateurs (and another was the shell of the man who used to be Padraig Harrington).
Still, Thomas rarely stays down long, and is unlikely to have another three double-bogey day like he did on Thursday at Riviera. Thomas won the most recent WGC event held, and has four straight top 10s in this event. Expect last week to be an anomaly.
World Rank: 3
Odds To Win: 18-1
Last Six: MC, 13, MC, 3, 12, 4
10. Tony Finau
It seems wrong at this point to not have Tony Finau second, given that he has finished runner-up in his last three worldwide starts. And as everyone who follows golf is painfully aware, this is not a recent trend: the 31-year-old has 10 runner-ups among the 31 top 10s he has accumulated since his last (and only) Tour win at the 2016 Puerto Rico Open.
Those tempted to bet on his breakthrough coming this week in Florida should be encouraged that Finau’s second last week featured a final-round field-low 64, a nice change from a season ago when he ranked inside the top 24 in scoring for the first three rounds, but was 129th on Sundays.
World Rank: 13
Odds To Win: 20-1
Last Six: 2, 2, 2, 4, 31, 8
9. Viktor Hovland
Just a few years removed from one of the best amateur careers in golf history, nobody should be surprised that Viktor Hovland has found himself among the best players in the professional game.
The result of one horrifically bad round in Hawaii, the 23-year-old Norweigan finished T31 in the 42-man field at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Outside of that, he has finished inside the top 15 in six of seven 2021 season starts, including top 5s in three of his last four.
Last week at Riviera, he bogeyed just one weekend hole on the way to a T5, leading the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee and scrambling, just one start after leading the field in birdies at The American Express. The world No. 14 is no longer an up-and-comer. He has arrived.
World Rank: 14
Odds To Win: 22-1
Last Six: 5, 6, 2, 31, 3, 1
8. Tyrrell Hatton
Raise your hand if you realized Tyrrell Hatton was in the top 5 of the Official World Golf Rankings? Liar.
The 29-year-old Brit quietly jumped into the No. 5 world position for the first time last month when he won the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship by four strokes. Hatton has three top 10s in WGCs, with all three coming in this event, or what this event is replacing.
That may not be terribly relevant at a new course, but at least he has proven that he can play well at this time of year. The fiery Englishman is as wildly inconsistent as an elite golfer comes: in the past 4-plus seasons, he has five top 10s in majors, but missed the cut in every major played during both the 2017 and 2020 seasons.
In the two PGA Tour events he played in October he opened 65-68 in both, and then went over par on Saturday (73, 76) before rebounding on Sunday (65, 66). There are no promises with him, but we think he’s more likely to swim than sink in Bradenton.
World Rank: 5
Odds To Win: 20-1
Last Six: 6, 22, 1, 8, 23, MC
7. Bryson DeChambeau
The World No. 10 and reigning U.S. Open Champ has been absurdly hit-or-miss since July, but he has at least one considerable advantage on the field this week: he won the 2015 NCAA Championship at The Concession.
Bryson DeChambeau finished runner-up last year in Mexico, his only career WGC finish of better than 30th (7 starts). The SMU product was a surprise missed cut at The Genesis Invitational last week, reaching as high as 6-over for the tournament, seeming to only be very hot or very cold at any given moment.
World Rank: 10
Odds To Win: 20-1
Last Six: MC, 18, 7, 34, 8, 1
6. Daniel Berger
Outright spectacular in the past 12 months with 10 top 10s in his last 20 starts, including two victories, Daniel Berger rebounded from a surprise missed cut in Phoenix with a dramatic victory two weeks ago (his last start) at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he capped off a final-round 65 with an eagle on No. 18.
Do not expect the Florida native to back down this week; he was a runner-up at the last WGC event held and is closing in on his first world top 10 ranking. He is likely supremely confident after somehow carding four eagles at Pebble.
World Rank: 15
Odds To Win: 30-1
Last Six: 1, MC, 7, 10, 23, 17
5. Xander Schauffele
If Tony Finau had four career victories, he might look a bit like world No. 4 Xander Schauffele, who has eight runner-up finishes since his last victory, which came at the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions, the first event of that calendar year.
Three of those runner-ups have come in his eight starts this season, including two in the past three weeks. The 27-year-old is in the midst of an impressive streak of 16 straight top-25 finishes, and 26 in his last 28 starts.
Schauffele’s past victories have prevented him from getting the full Finau treatment from the media, but he will start to hear more soon if he has another Sunday like he did three weeks where he blew the 54-hole co-lead. He is a safe bet to at least find the first two pages of the leaderboard.
World Rank: 4
Odds To Win: 14-1
Last Six: 15, 2, 2, 5, 17, 17
4. Jon Rahm
It feels like the world No. 2 Jon Rahm has been quiet as of late, but looking at the record, he has somehow finished inside the top 7 in six of his last seven starts. Combined with the two late-season 2020 wins, few in the world are in better form than the 26-year-old Spaniard.
Rahm’s final-round 66 last week at Riviera, the best 18 holes of his T5 finish, should be especially encouraging, as the Spaniard has a tendency to carry over momentum between events.
As usual, he has been a beast in the tee box, ranking 4th this season in strokes gained: off-the-tee, and is even a spot higher than that in strokes gained: tee-to-green. He has yet to taste victory in the WGC though, but has posted two T3s in four starts in this particular event.
World Rank: 2
Odds To Win: 10-1
Last Six: 5, 13, 7, 7, 7, 2
3. Patrick Reed
There is probably nobody in the field who benefits more from the paucity of fans than the increasingly unpopular Patrick Reed, who won this event a year ago at Chapultepec in addition to the 2014 edition at Doral, which was actually his first career WGC start.
Reed has thrived in the WGC format as of late, with six finishes inside the top 16 in his last eight starts. Combined with his overall solid play as of late, with nine top 15s since last summer’s Tour restart, featuring a victory at Torrey Pines in his most recent Tour start, there is little reason to not believe in the No. 11 this week. That is, unless your bookie penalizes for controversy. It always seems to find him.
World Rank: 11
Odds To Win: 30-1
Last Six: 66, 1, MC, 21, 3, 10
2. Brooks Koepka
The four-time major champion broke out of his injury-related slump in a big way on Super Bowl Sunday, coming from behind to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Brook Koepka’s follow-up to that eighth career victory was a T38 at Riviera, which was disappointing in a vacuum, but it should be noted that his result can be largely imputed to a ghastly third-round 77 amid horrible conditions.
Outside of those 18 birdie-less holes, he was more than solid, carding at least five birdies in each round. The Florida native has five top-6 finishes in WGC events, and has gone win-T2 in the most recent two that were contested (both the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational).
World Rank: 12
Odds To Win: 28-1
Last Six: 38, 1, MC, MC, MC, 7
1. Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson looked shockingly un-DJ-like in the final round of last week’s Genesis Invitational. Sitting in a tie for second through 54 holes, just two strokes off the pace of a winless Sam Burns, many expected Johnson to be standing in the winner’s circle come Sunday night. But a back-nine bogey binge led to a 1-over 73 that sent him tumbling down to T8 on the final leaderboard.
Had he converted the victory, which he was largely favored to do going into Sunday, it would have been his fifth title worldwide since last June. In that time, the world No. 1 also has three runner-ups and four additional top 12s.
We would not read too much into what happened at Riviera: DJ is still sporting the best form of his highly-accomplished career, and with Tiger Woods not in attendance, he has, by far, the most WGC titles in the field, with three of his six coming in this event (2015, 2017, 2019).
World Rank: 1
Odds To Win: 6-1
Last Six: 8, 1, 11, 1, 2, 6
Next Five: Matthew Fitzpatrick, Webb Simpson, Sungjae Im, Scottie Scheffler, Tommy Fleetwood