Well, there was not a lot of time to decompress.
A controversially condensed 2019 major championship season on the PGA Tour came to a close on Sunday, with The Open Championship resulting in a six-shot romp by Ireland’s own Shane Lowry, an appropriate winner of Ireland’s return to the major stage, which was 68 years in waiting.
As emotionally draining as the week – and the entire major season was, the Tour’s elites will now have to jump back across the ocean, and back onto American soil, as the new schedule places an important World Golf Championships (WGC) up next.
The new WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational is sort of a new event, at least in regards to the WGC stage. The FedEx St. Jude Classic got a promotion after 60 years as a regular Tour event, replacing the former WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on the big show circuit.
This week’s field of 68 at TPC Southwind, the Memphis-located host course, will include the newly crowned Champion Golfer of the Year Lowry (depending on how long the celebration lasts), in addition nearly the entire top section of the Official World Golf Rankings.
World No. 1 Brooks Koepka is also in attendance, and will be playing his first event as the new No. 1 in the FedExCup Standings.
The FedExCup Playoffs are set to get underway next month, and for a lot of these players, this represents a final chance to get their games in tune against elite competition, not to mention the prestige that always comes with WGC events.
Tournament: WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational
Dates: July 25-19, 2019
Where: Memphis, Tenn.
Course: TPC Southwind
Distance: Par 70, 7,237 yards
Architect: Ron Prichard
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,745,000
Defending Champion: Justin Thomas
TV: GOLF (Th-Fr 2-7 pm), CBS (Sa-Su 2-6 pm)
The history of this event combines two former tournaments – the WGC-Bridgestone and the FedEx St Jude Classic. And while the PGA Tour seems to be going with the history of the Bridgestone event, officially (i.e. Justin Thomas is defending), in reality it’s got a lot more of a connection to the FedEx St Jude Classic, including the title sponsor, charity, locale, and golf course.
“St. Jude” has been part of the event title since 1985, as it has a close association with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital of Memphis. The man who the hospital originally has to thank for that association is famous entertainer Danny Thomas, who lent his name to the event in 1969, with St. Jude’s being made the event’s official charity in return. Thomas had founded the hospital years earlier.
The event itself began 11 years earlier in 1958 as the Memphis Open, and has stayed in Memphis for its entire history. A few local courses spent time as host venue, with the current course, TPC Southwind having the honors continuously since 1989.
The inaugural event was won by Billy Maxwell, who got the better of Hall of Famer Cary Middlecoff by one stroke. Middlecoff would win his only title three years later.
Other notable winners include Tommy Bolt, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Gene Littler, Larry Mize, Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Fred Couples, and Greg Norman.
Relative to WGC-Bridgestone bloodlines: Former winners include Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Justin Thomas.
1. New No. 1 Brooks Koepka
It says a LOT about the standard that Brooks Koepka has set at majors when he can finish T4 in the most elite of fields… and it is considered a moderate disappointment.
Koepka came into the week with four major championships in his last nine major starts, and had gone T2-WIN-2 in the first three majors of 2019. He played well enough to get into the penultimate Sunday pairing (although still six strokes back), but shockingly opened with four bogeys.
We wonder if at least some of the blame can be put on the fact that J.B. Holmes was his ultimate nightmare pairing (and he had to watch Holmes take forever to hit each of his 87 – no that’s not a typo – shots), but still, he had to make his own shots, regardless of the external circumstances.
What should be the bigger question with Koepka is that this – while a high-profile event, is not a major championship, and he has been AWFUL in non majors lately (T50, T57, 65 in his last three respectively). It should be noted, though, that his T4 at The Open leapfrogged him over Matt Kuchar for the No. 1 spot in the FedExCup Standings, the first time in his career he has been in that position.
Perhaps the defense of that spot will be extra motivating. Being No. 1 in both the World Rankings AND the FedExCup Standings has to be pretty nice on the ego. He might already have made $8 million on the season, but who couldn’t use another $10 million? Winning this event would go a long way into landing that payday.
2. How Can Lowry Follow THAT Up?
If Shane Lowry somehow (shows up and) performs better here than he did when he won last week’s Open Championship, it would have to possibly be the greatest WGC win ever. That is how dominant the 32-year-old Irishman was in his homeland, taking the final major of the season by six strokes.
We have never seen Lowry after a major win before, but what we do feel comfortable saying confidently is that he will be showing up in Memphis having celebrated, and having celebrated hard. It is more common than not for a new major champion to struggle in their next start (see: Woodland, Gary – who missed a cut in one of the weakest fields of the year in his first post-U.S. Open victory start), but one thing to not about Lowry is that he tends to be streaky. He gets hot and stays hot, and he has never been hotter.
This event also represents his only career victory on U.S. soil, when he took the Bridgestone title four years ago, so that could further add to the good feelings, even if it was at a different course.
Update: Lowry has officially withdrawn.
3. Justin Thomas (Sort Of ) Defends
This could be a critical week for Justin Thomas. The nine-time PGA Tour winner is undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, but he has struggled a bit to get back his mojo since an injury led to an extended post-Masters break. He had been well below his standards in four starts since his return, but showed a significant amount of his old self in finishing T11 at The Open Championship last week.
However, Thomas had one of the best rounds in the field going on Sunday, until he triple-bogeyed the 17th hole. It could have easily been his fourth career top-10 in a major. That might be a mental hurdle to jump, but it should be noted that Thomas is technically the defending champion of this event.
It might have been at Firestone, but it was still in the predecessor for this same event, and he did stare down an equally-elite field for the win, his first victory in a WGC event. Despite that defending champion status, he is more of a wildcard than a bonafide favorite.
The major season did not go his way, but he is a former FedExCup champion. He knows how to play at this juncture of the season.
4. DJ Also Defends (Sort Of)
Last year’s event held at TPC Southwind, the FedEx St Jude Classic was the Dustin Johnson show. A 67-63-65 start had him as the 54-hole co-leader, and then a Sunday 66 made him the six-stroke champion, the biggest margin of victory since David Toms pulled off the same feat 14 years earlier.
Even better, DJ ended in style, holing out from 171 yards on 18 to end the week. It is difficult to end an event in a more impressive way.
Winning last year’s event definitely is a check in DJ’s “pros” column, but this is a much different course (it had to be modified greatly to fit WGC standards), and a much, much stronger field.
Also, while DJ is still great, as evidenced by his No. 2 ranking in the OWGR, he is going through a rare slump. He won the WGC-Mexico Championship earlier this year, and finished runner-up at the season’s first two majors, but since his T2 at the PGA Championship, he has made four starts, and has finishes of T20, T35, CUT, T51. That is very un-DJ-like.
5. Rory Needs A Bounce Back
The Open Championship was set up perfectly for Rory McIlroy to snap his surprising five-year majorless drought. Most notably, it was being held in his native Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years, so the crowds were behind him and then some.
In addition, he was in the midst of a fantastic season, highlighted by two wins, including THE PLAYERS Championship, along with 11 top-10s in just 14 PGA Tour starts – all while moving to No. 3 in the world rankings.
However, it did not turn out the way the 30-year-old had hoped. His very first shot of the week was a drive that he sent sailing out of bounds, which led to an opening-hole quadruple-bogey en route to an opening-round 8-over 79.
He did admirable in shooting a 65 and chasing the weekend cut, which he missed by a single stroke, but it was still a greatly disappointing conclusion to a major he probably had circled the day it was announced.
Now, he has to put that memory behind him and focus on the FedExCup race, which he won just three years ago. It will not be easy, though, as the FedExCup playoffs simply do not provide the same motivation as a major, despite the advertising blitz launched by the PGA Tour during The Open broadcast.
6. Portrush Studs (Other Than Lowry)
While the final standings of the FedExCup leaderboard make it appear as though only one player showed up, there were a number of high-end golfers who have to deal with the emotions of having realistic championship hopes and not winning. And they have to do it just one week later on a different continent.
At the top of that list is Tommy Fleetwood, who was in the final Sunday pairing with Lowry and was the only player to put anything resembling pressure on him. Then there is Tony Finau, who was the best player among the lead groups on Sunday, shooting an even-par 71 and finishing solo-third.
Tyrrell Hatton, Danny Willett, and Patrick Reed are in the field after top 10s at Royal Portrush.
Perhaps even more interesting are those who were in contention, only to collapse late. J.B. Holmes will get a lot of attention for that, given that he shot one of the worst final rounds in Open Championship history, but Memphis will also be hosting Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar, and Jordan Spieth, who all saw their profiles take big hits on the final day.
Kuchar, particularly, played so poorly in his Sunday 8-over 79 that he not only dropped from 12th to 41st on the leaderboard, he lost his spot atop the FedExCup Standings that he had held since March. With two wins, and two runner-ups on the season, he will be highly motivated to regain control and validate his hard work.
The power rankings this week offer no huge surprises, although we feel Justin Thomas is deserving of a spot in the top 10. He seems to be back in form and enters off a T9 in Scotland, and T11 at The Open, which could have been a top 5 if not for a triple bogey on the 17th hole. For the second week in a row he’s the only top-10 player in the field not appearing on this list.
We also think Bryson DeChambeau is ranked way too high. The SMU product missed the cut at The Open – his fourth MC in his last eight starts.
Top 10: WGC-FedEx St. Jude Inv
Rank-Name (OWGR, Odds)
1. Rory McIlroy (3, 9-1)
2. Bryson DeChambeau (7, 28-1)
3. Dustin Johnson (2, 9-1)
4. Brooks Koepka (1, 10-1)
5. Tony Finau (17, 33-1)
6. Jon Rahm (8, 12-1)
7. Shane Lowry (17, 22-1)
8. Patrick Reed (23, 40-1)
9. Patrick Cantlay (10, 20-1)
10. Hideki Matsuyama (32, 33-1)
Top Sleeper: Sergio Garcia
This is probably an exceptionally big name for a “sleeper”, but that is what happens in an elite 68-man field. Sergio has clearly not been on the top of his game this season (if he does not find a win by the end of the year, it will be the first time since 2010 he did not have a victory at least somewhere), and his major championship outings since his Masters breakthrough two years ago have been just ghastly, but he seems to still have some comfort on the WGC stage, with a T6 in February’s WGC-Mexico and a T5 at late March’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Possibly more encouraging, while the results on Tour have not been particularly good since his T4 at the Wells Fargo Championship nearly three months ago, he has been showing some signs of life, opening both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship with rounds in the 60s. He also ranks fourth on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green and 12th in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
This could very well be a week where everything comes back together for four days. At 63rd in the FedExCup Standings, Sergio can set himself up excellently for a run at East Lake with a strong showing this week.
Stat of the Week
2 – The number of career wins at TPC Southwind by players in this week’s field.
Despite this being an elite-field event, and TPC Southwind having continuously hosted the FedEx St. Jude Classic since 1989, only Dustin Johnson’s wins in 2012 and 2018 are wins represented among this current field.
None of the other recent winners qualified, including Daniel Berger, who won the event in both 2016 and 2017. The biggest name recent winner who is not here is probably Lee Westwood, who took the 2010 edition. Westwood had dropped considerably down the world rankings in recent years, although his T4 at last week’s Masters jumped him up to 52nd from 78th place.
“I suppose I woke up this morning not sure if I had what it takes to win a major”
– Shane Lowry
Full Field & Odds
WGC-FedEx St. Jude Inv | TPC Southwind | Memphis, TN | July 25-29, 2019