We now enter the final trio of events of the 2022/23 PGA Tour season, as the St Jude Championship at TPC Southwind, kicks off the FedEx Cup Playoffs this week.
The St Jude Championship is the latest iteration of the FedEx Cup Playoffs’ curtain-raising event. It was previously known as The Barclays (2007-2016) and The Northern Trust (2017-2021); both events always taking place in the Northeast of the United States before moving to TPC Southwind in Memphis last year.
For the first time in the history of the Playoffs, we have just the top 70 players in the FedEx Cup rankings along for the first of these season-ending events, having been reduced from the top 125 players. Something which had been in place since the invention of the series in 2007.
That top 70 will be cut to 50 players following the completion of this week, who will then advance to the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields next week. Before a further cut takes place to determine the top 30 players who will make it to East Lake and the Tour Championship in two weeks’ time.
Last year’s St Jude Championship was a memorable one for Will Zalatoris, as he recorded his first PGA Tour success in the event, getting the better of Sepp Straka on the third hole of an eventful playoff.
Unfortunately, due to Zalatoris recovering from surgery on a back injury earlier this year, he isn’t able to defend his title this week. Though with not only the FedEx Cup to play for, but with players here still looking to stake their claim for Ryder Cup consideration, we’re not short on storylines for this year’s renewal.
TPC Southwind was designed by Ron Prichard in 1988 and prior to taking up this new role last year, had already been a mainstay on the PGA Tour schedule for over thirty years. It held the St Jude Classic from 1989-2018 and then took up duties as the host of the WGC-Invitational from 2019-2021.
This flat, tree-lined course plays as a par 70, measuring 7243 yards and typically provides a stern test; possessing an average winning score of -11.7 over the last ten events staged here.
The challenge all comes in the ball striking. The fairways are some of the tightest on tour and are protected by challenging rough and strategically placed bunkers. Most of the par 4s/5s dogleg and require accuracy off-the-tee to find the correct sides of the fairways, to avoid issues with line-of-sight and help in creating the best angles into the greens.
The bermudagrass greens are small at an average of 4,300 sq. ft. Though should be pretty receptive this week due to the deluge of rain in the area over recent months which is set to continue this week. However, they will still be challenging to hit, especially if not in the correct spot off-the-tee, with the course ranking as the third toughest on the PGA Tour on which to find greens when missing the fairway.
The greens themselves aren’t too challenging, they’re sloped more than severely undulating and don’t rank as particularly challenging to scramble around. Having said that, missing them can still prove ultra-penal, with water – which is in-play on eleven holes – protecting eight of them.
Three of these water holes come on the four par 3s, which includes the lengthy 230+ yard 14th and it is well in-play further down the closing holes, particularly on 18, where it entirely protects the left-hand side of the sharply doglegging hole.
The par 3s look largely manageable if not succumbing to the visual pressure of the water, whilst the two par 5s should be reachable for the majority of the field. It’s the par 4s which look to be the most demanding, with many mid-long length – eight at 450+ yards – and can play longer with the dogleg of the holes prompting most players to lay back to largely the same spot.
It’s a difficult course to overpower and demands a more strategic approach, though with receptive conditions likely, we should be in for a relatively low-scoring edition this year.
Par 4 Scoring
This event has seen strong approach play thrive over recent years, something which could be even more striking this year in the predicted conditions.
Will Zalatoris led the field with his irons when winning last year, with each of the top 4 ranking no worse than 17th. He also sat inside the top 10 in greens-in-regulation, as did Sepp Straka, who finished 2nd and ranked 2nd for GIR; three more from inside the top 10 ranked top 10 in GIR.
Abraham Ancer’s irons were a key reason for his victory in 2021, as he ranked 5th in approach and 6th in GIR. Each of the top 4 that year ranked 7th or better in approach; six of the top 10 ranked inside the top 10.
Justin Thomas ranked 2nd in approach when winning in 2021, whilst Brooks Koepka in 2nd ranked 1st; a further four of that top 10 sat inside the top 10 with their irons. More evidence of strong iron play was on offer from both Brooks Koepka in 2019 and Dustin Johnson in 2018, who ranked 11th and 3rd respectively in approach; whilst they were also amongst the strongest performers in GIR.
This is as important on the par 4s as anywhere and I feel it will be these holes that prove most decisive in deciding the fate of this week’s contest.
SG: Off-the-Tee and/or Driving Accuracy
Though the driver is rarely the driving force behind victories, you’re not able to contend with waywardness off-the-tee. Each of the last five winners have ranked inside the top 20 OTT, with Koepka in 2019 and DJ in 2018 ranking inside the top 7. Many of the contenders in those years also ranked at least solidly in driving accuracy.
Finally, there’s a little wind about over the opening couple of days here and despite the receptiveness of the putting surfaces, they’re still small and will be easy to miss. The last five winners have all ranked 23rd or better in scrambling (four in the top 7) and I suspect quality in this area will be needed over the course of the week.
Correlating Events (Courses)
Charles Schwab Challenge (Colonial Country Club)
As a narrow, tree-lined course with tight doglegs throughout and small greens – into which players will be required to hit approaches from similar distances to this week – Colonial Country Club ranks closely in most aspects to this week’s venue and should act as a strong correlating course.
There are many in the history of both events to possess form across the two, but most recently we’ve seen Daniel Berger and David Toms win at the two courses. Meanwhile, 2013 and 2014 St Jude winners, Harris English and Ben Crane have good records at Colonial; English with finishes of 2nd and 5th and Crane has finished 3rd and 8th.
Sam Burns has won at Colonial and finished 2nd here; Andrew Putnam has a 2nd here to go with a 3rd there; Ian Poulter has multiple top 5s across the two events.
Valspar Championship (Innisbrook – Copperhead Course)
The bermudagrass greens are a little bigger at the Copperhead Course, though with tight, doglegging, tree-lined fairways and plenty of water in-play, there are some attractive similarities with TPC Southwind.
Sam Burns is a two-time winner there, whilst Charl Schwartzel has also won there and finished 2nd here.
2021 St Jude winner, Abraham Ancer has a top 5 there, as does Brian Harman, who has two top 6s at Southwind. Further links are on offer from Harris English, with multiple top 10s at the Valspar; Austin Cook and Trey Mullinax possess top 10s there to go with strong records here.
RBC Heritage (Harbour Town Golf Links)
As another course where the fairways are doglegging and tree-lined, with small bermudagrass (base) greens and water in-play, Harbour Town Golf Links can provide a good guide this week.
Brian Gay and Justin Leonard are among players to win at both of these courses. Whilst former St Jude winners, Abraham Ancer and Daniel Berger have finished 2nd and 3rd in the RBC Heritage respectively.
Last year’s runner-up, Sepp Straka has finished 3rd there; Ben Crane, Harris English and Brian Harman have all recorded top 10s; Whee Kim has a 6th there to go with his 2017 runner-up finish in the St Jude.
Honda Classic (PGA National)
I’ll finish with the Honda Classic at PGA National. Though a more exposed course, it has many similarly narrow, doglegging fairways and much like Colonial, requires approach shots from almost identical distances, on average, to here at TPC Southwind into the bermudagrass greens.
Justin Thomas has won both events, while Daniel Berger has won at Southwind multiple times and possesses an excellent record in the Honda, with three top 5s, including a runner-up finish; meanwhile, last year’s St Jude runner-up, Sepp Straka has also won there.
Ian Poulter has finished 3rd there and Billy Horschel has multiple top 5s/10s at both venues.
Conditions are set to be humid and stormy throughout the week in Memphis, both before and during the event. Though there is a testing wind forecast over the opening two days, this looks set to disappear for the weekend and should leave a receptive course there to be attacked more than usual in benign conditions.
Each of the top 70 players who have qualified for this week’s event are set to tee it up at TPC Southwind. This includes 9 of the top 10 players in the world and 17 of the top 20.
Lucas Glover is the last man in the field after his win at the Wyndham Championship last week, with Austin Eckroat the only player to drop out of the top 70 following that event.
Some big names miss out on making the Playoffs, with Justin Thomas falling agonisingly short in spot 71 after almost chipping in for birdie on his final hole at Sedgefield. Adam Scott also misses out, with his top 10 there only enough to move him up to 72nd in the rankings and a subpar week for 2019 Open Champion, Shane Lowry means he too won’t be in action this week.
Aside from battling out for a trophy, players will also be jostling for position inside the top 50 in the FedEx Cup rankings to enable them to move on to the next stage of the Playoffs.
Hideki Matsuyama is the most notable name sat outside those spots at #57 currently, with Cam Young, Lucas Glover and Nick Hardy in spots 48-50 all looking down precariously at those attempting to take their spots in next week’s field.
Scottie Scheffler heads the betting at 7/1. Though he continues to produce sensational numbers with his tee-to-green game, the putter remains a source of struggle and he is easy enough to leave alone at these prices. For all he could well destroy a field if he does find something on the greens.
Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm come next in the betting and much like Scheffler are easy to ignore here at around 8/1. Both men are more than capable of winning anywhere but I don’t consider this type of setup to be ideal for either and would need a little more juice in the price to tempt me.
Instead, I’m going to begin with a couple of players on the periphery of the top section in the betting, starting with Tony Finau.
2 pts Tony Finau each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 30/1
Finau won the equivalent of this event at Liberty National in 2021 for his first win in five years; a win that set about a fruitful couple of years, as he has gone on to record a further four wins since.
The most recent of these wins came in the Mexico Open in April this year after he’d made an impressively consistent start to the year. His form suffered slightly following that, but he looked much better when 7th in the 3M Open on his latest start and can build on that for a strong end to the season, starting this week.
Finau looked good across the board at TPC Twin Cities, ranking 8th tee-to-green and gaining strokes in each area. Though more encouraging was his improvement on the greens – which had largely been the cause of his iffy run the previous two months – where he ranked 28th.
This all-round strength has been on show for much of the season but it’s with the irons he excels most, ranking 7th in approach and 17th in GIR; a ranking of 16th in par 4 scoring meaning he ranks highly in each of the key areas I highlighted for this week.
He’s also a solid scrambler, ranking 31st and top 50 with the driver; a club he’s added managed to find a greater level of accuracy with for the most part this year.
Finau has played here five times before and looked to finally get the hang of the place last year when finishing 5th – his best finish in the event.
In addition to that, he has an excellent record at Colonial, where in eight starts he’s missed just one cut, recorded finishes of 2nd and 4th and hit the top 25 on a further three occasions.
Finau has gone from a player who couldn’t buy a win to one of the most prolific winners on tour in the last two years and I’m expecting him to make a strong play for a seventh PGA Tour success this week.
1.5 pts Max Homa each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 33/1
Speaking of prolific winners, Max Homa is another six-time PGA Tour winner who has enjoyed a particularly successful spell over recent years, with five wins since early 2021. He finally recorded a long overdue first major top 10 at The Open on his last start and with his irons starting to fire again, he looks a contender this week.
Homa has been largely excellent this year, hitting the top ten on seven occasions including that sixth PGA Tour win, at Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open earlier in the year. However, his form has suffered at and around each major, as talk inevitably gathered as to why this now elite golfer couldn’t do it in the very biggest events.
He got that monkey off his back with his 10th at Hoylake and should be full of confidence this week, making his first start since then.
His performance there was the most recent in a nicely trending run of form, as he finished 12th in the Scottish Open and 21st in the Rocket Mortgage Classic on his two previous starts.
Homa has hit the ball nicely over those starts and was one of the best ball-strikers in the field in Liverpool, ranking 5th OTT and 18th in approach. His approach display was particularly encouraging as it was much more like the quality of approach play he was producing earlier in the year.
He ranks 17th on tour in approach for the year as a whole. He’s also been driving it well over the last three months, ranking 31st and is 20th in scrambling this year. This quality tee-to-green then enables this typically excellent putter to be a force on the par 4s; holes on which he ranks 22nd in scoring average.
Homa hasn’t quite gotten the hang of TPC Southwind as yet, with a 42nd-place finish last year his best in six visits. Though much of that form came prior to his newfound level and with top 10s at Colonial and Innisbrook offering promise, he can improve again in Memphis.
1 pt Corey Conners each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 70/1
As one of the strongest ball-strikers on the PGA Tour, Corey Conners should be a good fit for this test and can reap rewards for his continued consistency by claiming the biggest win of his career this week.
Conners has missed just four cuts in eighteen starts in 2023 and has finished inside the top 25 in over half of those, with his second win in Texas back in April his standout result of the year so far.
He’s looked good in recent weeks, finishing 9th in the Travelers Championship three starts ago and followed with a 19th-place finish in the Scottish Open. Though he was down in 52nd at The Open, he endured an unusually poor week in approach. With every other area of his game in tune there, it’s easy to forgive that off week.
Another reason it’s easy to forgive is that the Canadian is one of the strongest iron players on tour, ranking 13th and is 19th in GIR. Whilst a ranking of 17th off-the-tee gives us extra evidence of that ball-striking prowess and plays a big part in him being a good par 4 performer, ranking 30th in par 4 scoring average.
Though Conners has finished top 30 three times here, including a 28th-place finish last year, this quality with the long game leaves me feeling he hasn’t quite made the most of his starts at TPC Southwind and is capable of much better. Something that is backed up by a strong record at Harbour Town, with a finish of 4th among other top 25s, whilst he’s also recorded three top 20s at Colonial – including an 8th in 2018 – and has two top 25s in the Valspar.
As ever, the putter is the one concern with Conners, though he does tend to show up better on bermudagrass and if at his ball-striking best this week, he won’t need to putt superbly to put himself in the conversation.
1 pt Emiliano Grillo each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 80/1
Emiliano Grillo has long been another problem putter. Though he’s currently enjoying his best period since 2018 with the club and as a player who has always excelled with his ball-striking, this should make him a danger this week.
These improvements in putting, where Grillo ranks top 20 on tour over the last three months, has brought about an excellent period of form for the Argentinian since the middle of April.
Over the last four months, he’s made eleven starts, in which he’s recorded five top 10s. His best effort came when winning the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial at the end of May for his first win in seven years.
His form has remained strong since then, particularly over the last month-and-a-half, where he’s recorded three top 15s, including a 6th in The Open two starts ago and he was 10th when we last saw him at the 3M Open a fortnight ago.
Grillo’s strength usually comes from his ball-striking and he’s been particularly strong in approach over this hot period of form, ranking 13th. In addition to that he ranks 27th in GIR and has been rock-solid with the driver, where he finds plenty of fairways.
He enjoyed a solid debut effort of 31st here last year, looking especially good over the opening two rounds, with rounds of 67 and 66, though couldn’t sustain it over the weekend.
His form at correlating courses offers added promise, where he’s recorded finishes of 3rd and 8th to go with his win at Colonial this year. He’s also finished 2nd and 7th in the RBC Heritage and hit the top 10 in the Honda Classic
Grillo is enjoying his best PGA Tour season since his rookie one in 2016 and if the putter holds up, there’s no reason why he can’t carry this over into the lucrative Playoff events.
1 pt Taylor Moore each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 100/1
Taylor Moore impressively held off the likes of Jordan Spieth and Tommy Fleetwood to win his first PGA Tour title earlier in the year at the Valspar Championship. His form had suffered a little following that, though there were some more positive signs when 4th at the Rocket Mortgage Classic four starts ago and coming into this week off the back of a 22nd in last week’s Wyndham Championship, he looks in a sound place to make a good run in the season-ending Playoffs.
Moore does everything to a decent standard and whilst his ball-striking can be a little in-and-out, he rarely goes through a serious lull. This was evident last week, as despite largely struggling with the long game for most of the week, it all came together on the Sunday as he shot a best-of-the-day 7-under, where he ranked 6th in approach and 7th OTT; a level of performance I’m hoping he can carry over into this week.
If the long game is a little off, he has the ability to scramble well around here, ranking 19th on tour this season and is another who rates well on the par 4s, ranking 30th.
He ranked top 20 in approach here last year, as he finished 31st on debut, shooting three under par rounds for the week.
Moore’s ability to control his ball-striking better on similarly strategic courses is not only evidenced by that win at the Valspar, as he finished 11th on debut at the RBC Heritage this year. Which provides us with hope that he can improve on his encouraging debut effort here last year.