FedEx St Jude Classic: Koepka set to shine ahead of US Open defence

Golfer Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka – fancied to go well at TPC Southwind
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The PGA Tour visits Memphis for the last tournament ahead of the US Open and Steve Rawlings reckons the reigning US Open champ can grab a trophy before defending his crown next week. Read our man's comprehensive St Jude Classic preview here...

“Brooks Koepka spent much of the early part of the year on the side-lines with a wrist injury but he’s back with a vengeance and on a course he’s already mastered he might just take some stopping should he start well on Thursday.”

Tournament History

The FedEx St Jude Classic was originally known as the Memphis Open and the first edition was back in 1958 so this will be the 61st edition.

This will the 30th time in-a-row that TPC Southwind has hosted the tournament and the event precedes the US Open for the 11th time in as many years but this could well be the last time it does so as the tournament is due to replace the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational next year.

As a World Golf Championship event, the tournament's profile will rise and its place in the schedule is likely to change, although the event will still take place at Southwind.

Venue

TPC Southwind, Memphis, Tennessee

Course Details

Par 70 -7,244 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 70.63

Designed by Ron Prichard, in consultation with Fuzzy Zoeller and Hubert Green, and opened in 1988, TPC Southwind has always been a fairly stern test but it was made even tougher in 2004 when 125 additional trees were planted, 15 new bunkers were added (taking the total up to 96), the par five fifth was converted to a par four (reducing the par to 70), Zoysia fairways were re-contoured and narrowed and over 200 yards were added. The smaller than average greens, which will run at 12 on the stimpmeter, were also changed from bentgrass to Bermuda. Water is in play on 10 holes at Southwind and nine holes are dog-legs.

The yardage is exactly the same as it was last year but the greens on the eighth and 14th have been modified.

With its small high greens, TPC Southwind will offer up plenty of scrambling practice for those in the field preparing for next week's US Open.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days. Featured Group coverage begins at 17:00 UK time and full coverage starts at 21:00 on Thursday.

Last Five Winners

2017 - Daniel Berger -10
2016 - Daniel Berger -13
2015 - Fabian Gomez -13
2014 - Ben Crane -10
2013 - Harris English -12

What Will it Take to Win the FedEx St Jude Classic?

Daniel Berger, who won the last two editions, has driven well here - ranking sixth and 14th for Driving Distance and 11th and 36th for Driving Accuracy but neither stat has been vital.

Nobody hit it further than Harrison Frazar when he took the title back in 2011 but four of the last ten have ranked 50th or worse for DD and two winners have ranked in the 70s so bombing it miles isn't beneficial here. Dustin Johnson is one of the most powerful players in the world off the tee but he reigned it in when he won in 2012, ranking just 19th for DD.

The average DD ranking for the last ten winners is 35.1.

Brian Gay ranked ninth for Driving Accuracy when he won the 2009 edition and he's the only winner in the last ten years to rank inside the top-ten for that stat, although none of the ten ranked worse than 49th. It's not so fiddly that you need to be arrow-straight off the tee and the average DA ranking for the last ten years is 32.4.

Back in 2014, Ben Crane didn't hit it very far or especially straight and he only ranked 47th for Greens In Regulation. He won the title because he scrambled and putted brilliantly but GIR is usually a great indicator and Crane's the only winner in the last eight years not to rank inside the top ten for GIR. Berger has ranked first for Strokes Gained Tee to Green in each of the last two years.

Berger's Scrambling stats have been much worse than most winners. He ranked 24th two years ago and 38th last year but seven of the ten winners before him ranked no worse than seventh.

It never hurts to putt well but the average Putting Average of the last ten winners is only 15.7 and Berger only ranked 21st last year. He also only ranked 20th for Par 4 Scoring which was unusually high for a par 70 track but the three players that ranked first second and third for Par 4 Scoring all finished inside the top-four and ties. And the four winners prior to last year ranked third, fourth, third and second for Par 4 Scoring so that's a stat to ponder.

Is There an Angle In?

It may seem odd given last year's winner was the defending champion, but previous course form is far from essential and debutants have a really good record here.

In his two visits before his win three years ago, Fabian Gomez had finished 15th on debut in 2011 and he'd missed the cut in 2013, and the 2014 winner, Ben Crane, had inconsistent course form figures reading MC-6-33-39-14-12-MC-18, but at least they'd played the course before...

Berger was making his debut when he won in 2016, the 2013 winner, Harris English, was playing in the event for the first time, the 2012 winner, Dustin Johnson, had never played here before either and neither had the 2011 champ, Lee Westwood, who beat another first-timer, Robert Karlsson, in a playoff.

Four of the last seven winners were playing TPC Southwind for the first time and there are numerous examples of other really good debuts too - Matt Kuchar (fifth in 2002), Freddie Jacobson (third in 2003), Zach Johnson (fifth in 2006), Adam Scott (seventh in 2007), Trevor Immelman (runner-up in 2008), Graeme McDowell (seventh in 2009), and Rafa Cabrera-Bello (fourth last year) to name but a few.

There aren't that many teeing up at Southwind for the first time each year and I think it's a great angle in. Berger didn't even have much practice around Southwind before his first win either. Here's what he said after his victory.

"I didn't have much time, played Oakmont Monday, came here Tuesday, Pro-Am Wednesday and just kind of got right into the thick of things and it's nice to get off to a good start."

From a course correlation perspective, check out results for the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, the Sony Open, the RSM Classic and the Puerto Rico Open. The venues used for those four events aren't too dissimilar to this and there many examples of form crossing over.

Harris English, went on to win the OHL Classic in Mexico after taking this five years ago, and Robert Karlsson, who has finished runner-up here twice, traded a heavy odds-on before a late collapse let in English in Mexico.

Brian Gay has won both this event and the OHL Classic, Robert Allenby has lost a playoff at both and the likes of Justin Leonard, David Toms, Rory Sabbatini, Charles Howell II, and even a few more obscure players that we rarely see feature, like Johnson Wagner, Heath Slocum, Dicky Pride, Bob Estes and Justin Hicks, have shown-up well at both venues.

This was Gomez's first PGA Tour title but he'd previously thrown away the Puerto Rico Open in 2013 and he's since gone on to win the Sony Open in Hawaii. And that looks like an event that correlates well too. David Toms has also won both tournaments and recent St. Jude Classic winners, Harris English, Harrison Frazar and Brian Gay, have all also been placed in Hawaii.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

Berger has been reasonably well fancied in each of the last two editions - trading in the low 30s before the off on both occasions - and being in his early 20s, he's gone against the grain in that respect also. Outsiders and vastly experienced players have fared well here in the past.

Gomez was matched at [610.0] three years ago and Crane was a [270.0] chance in 2014. In addition to those two, the likes of Harrison Frazar, Woody Austin, Jeff Maggert, Len Mattiace, Bob Estes, Notah Begay, Ted Tryba and Dicky Pride have all left punters scratching their heads over the last 20 years or so.

Prior to Berger's initial success two years ago, only four other men in their 20s had won here since 1989. Pride in 1994, Begay in 2000, Dustin Johnson in 2012 and English in 2013. And in that period, six winners have been in their 40s. Gomez was 36 three years, Crane was 38 in 2014 and Frazar was only days away from his 40th birthday seven years ago.

In-Play Tactics

Berger's victory last year was unusual given he started so slowly. He trailed by six after the opening round and by seven at halfway. He was matched at a whopping [190.0] in-running but that's not really surprising given the general rule of thumb here is to be up with the pace throughout.

In 2016 Berger had been tied for tenth and just two back after round one and he was three clear of the field after rounds two three and finally four. Gomez was only two off the lead in a tie for eighth after round one three years ago. He sat fourth at halfway and he led after round three and when Crane won here four years ago, he was the sixth wire-to-wire winner since 1996. He was the first winner on the PGA Tour to fail to record a birdie in round four since Justin Leonard had won here in 2005, suggesting that this really is somewhere that you can start fast and cling on.

The par five 16th hole is the easiest on the course year after year and it only averaged 4.54 12 months ago but the back nine is generally tougher than the front and the finish is fairly tough. The 17th and 18th holes were the second and sixth hardest 12 months ago.

The front nine is slightly easier than the back (averaged 35.22 compared to 35.42) but the hardest hole on the course last year, and for the fourth year in-a-row, was the par four fifth.

Market Leaders

With the US Open now just over a week away, the market here is dominated by the last two US Open winners - Dustin Johnson (who also won here in 2012) and Brooks Koepka - and I've very keen on the latter.

DJ has lost his spot at the top of the world rankings to Justin Thomas and although he's playing OK, he hasn't reached the heady heights achieved before he fell down the stairs at Augusta last year, on the eve of the US Masters. His current form figures read a respectable 10-16-17-8 and his course form figures read 1-10-24-WD-5 so it's all there in front of us but at the prices, I much prefer Brooks...

Brooks Koepka spent much of the early part of the year on the side-lines with a wrist injury but he's back with a vengeance and on a course he's already mastered he might just take some stopping should he start well on Thursday.

After a missed cut in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, playing alongside Mark Turnesa, and an unremarkable 42nd at the Wells Fargo, Brooks sparked in to life at Sawgrass with a final round 63 to finish 11th and there was plenty to like about his second placed finish in the Fort Worth Invitational on debut last time out.

His form figures here read an impressive enough 19-3-2-37 and I can see him lining up at Shinnecock to defend next week with a win under his belt.

The two men vying for third favouritism, Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson, are the two men that duelled so superbly at Troon two summers ago and both command plenty of respect.

The Open Champion of 2016, Stenson, just shades Lefty and he's an interesting proposition given he's lightly raced here, he putts Bermuda brilliantly and that he been playing well of late.

He's been finding fairways and greens for fun over the last couple of months but he's putted poorly since he finished second at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That might improve on these greens.

Mickelson simply loves Southwind and it's perhaps surprising that he hasn't taken the title yet. He's enjoying an Indian summer to his career this season with the highlight being a playoff win in Mexico and he has form figures here that read 58-2-11-3-2-9. It could very easily be his turn this time.

Selections

I was hoping Brooks would take in this event before he defends at Shinnecock when I watched him perform so brilliantly at Colonial Country Club last time out so he was always going to be a wager at a double-figure price.

I wanted to back a first timer or two and I particularly liked Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Tony Finau but I really don't like their prices and debutant, Shane Lowry, is interesting given he qualified for the US Open on Monday but again, I thought he was short enough, so after the Brooks bet, I've got for a few wild outsiders and just one first-timer.

Wesley Bryan caught the eye in the Memorial Tournament and he'll much prefer the Bermuda greens here, Patton Kizzire's already won at two courses that correlate with this one this season - at the OHL Classic and the Sony Open - so although he's badly out of form, I was happy to try him again, and I was also happy to back the man he beat in a playoff in Hawaii - James Hahn, who was sixth here on his latest visit in 2014. And finally, I've missed the really juicy prices but I'm happy to add debutant Mackenzie Hughes. He won the RSM Classic two years ago and like Lowry, who didn't quite make the portfolio, Hughes was another to qualify for the US Open on Monday so he should be in good spirits.

Selections:
Brooks Koepka @ [12.0]
Wesley Bryan @ [170.0]
Patton Kizzire @ [240.0]
James Hahn @ [240.0]
MacKenzie Hughes @ [320.0]

I'll be back later with my Shot Clock Masters preview.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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