The Greenbrier Classic has been a graveyard for favourites and a great event to trade on, so Steve Rawlings is up for this one. Read our man's detailed preview...
"Outsiders have a phenomenal record in this event. Na was a [65.0] chance last year and Schauffele was an [80.0] chance 12 months earlier but he was the first winner not to be matched at a triple-figure price before the off!"
After a two-week break, the PGA Tour resumes this week with the opening event of the 2019-20 season, with the concisely named A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier Classic. I shall refer to it as the Greenbrier Classic or the Greenbrier.
Stuart Appleby won the inaugural Greenbrier as recently as 2010, thanks to an 11-under-par 59 in round four but as the tournament was cancelled three years ago after heavy rain submerged the course completely, this is only the ninth edition. Having been staged in early July last year, the Greenbrier kicks off the new season for the first time.
The Old White TPC Course at The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
Par 70, 7,286 yards
Stroke index in 2017 - 69.31
The Greenbrier is one of the oldest resorts in America, dating right back to 1778 when travellers were attracted to the hot sulphur springs.
Designed by Charles Blair McDonald and Seth Raynor, the golf course opened in 1914 and it's been enjoyed by the rich and famous ever since. The course was restored by Lester George in 2006 and while the players enjoyed themselves in the inaugural event, with low scores all over the place (Stuart Appleby won the event after shooting 59 on the Sunday with a 22 under-par total), the event committee decided it was just too easy and extensive changes were made before the 2012 renewal.
All the greens were reseeded with Bentgrass and 16 holes were changed, with 241 yards added. It worked - the field found less fairways and greens and when Bill Haas, Bob Estes and eventual winner, Scott Stallings, fought out a playoff to decide the title, -10 was as low as they got.
The scoring has crept up again since and Kevin Na's 19-under par last year was the lowest winning total since Appleby's in 2010 but he did win by five strokes and it's still no pushover. And the fact that it plays at altitude doesn't help. Clubbing is very hard and the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in their pomp have been left bemused and missed out on weekend employment here.
After the course was completely devastated by the rain in 2016, Keith Foster was brought in to reseed and rebuild it, although Seth Raynor's original design was largely maintained. In total, 20 bunkers were repositioned and the undulations on the greens were softened to allow for more pin positions but it didn't play too differently.
The greens usually run at around 12 on the stimpmeter and since the two nines were switched at East Lake a few years back, the Greenbrier is now the only course on the PGA Tour that finishes with a par three.
Live on Sky Sports all four days starting on Thursday at 19:00. Featured Group Coverage begins earlier on Thursday, at 12:30 UK time.
First Eight Tournament Winners
2018 - Kevin Na -19
2017 - Xander Schauffele -14
2016 - Cancelled due to waterlogging
2015 - Danny Lee -13 (playoff)
2014 - Angel Cabrera -16
2013 - Jonas Blixt -13
2012 - Ted Potter Jr -16 (playoff)
2011 - Scott Stallings -10 (playoff)
2010 - Stuart Appleby -22
What Will it Take to Win the Greenbrier Classic?
The average Driving Distance ranking of the eight winners at this event is 26 and the average Driving Accuracy ranking is 28.63 so neither stat looks essential.
The Greens In Regulation and Scrambling stats make for interesting reading. The 2017 winner, Xander Schauffele, and the 2014 champ, Angel Cabrera, both ranked number one for GIR and Scott Stallings ranked second when he won in 2011 but the other five winners have ranked 21st, 40th, 43rd, 48th and 34th and it's a very similar story with Scrambling. Four winners have ranked third or better but the other four ranked 47th, 52nd, 62nd and 68th. In most instances, it's a case of hit lots of greens or scramble well (Na ranked only 34th for GIR but second for Scrambling), however, Danny Lee managed to win ranking in the 40s for both stats.
When Stallings took the title in 2011 his Putting Average ranking was just 19th and he ranked only 16th for Strokes Gained Putting but the other seven winners have ranked second, second, first, fourth, first, sixth and first for PA and third, first, second, fifth, seventh, sixth and second for Strokes Gained Putting so to a large extent, the Greenbrier Classic is a putting competition.
Is There an Angle In?
Form at the Sony Open might be worth looking at. The host course in Hawaii, Waialae Country Club, is another par 70 Seth Raynor design and a number of players with form at Waialae have played well here too.
Na has a couple of top-fives at Waialae and Justin Thomas, who hacked up in Hawaii in 2017, hit the front here four years ago. He was matched at just [2.2] on the front-nine on Sunday but he collapsed in spectacular fashion to finish 54th and the runner-up that year, Kevin Kisner, also gives the form a boost. Like Na, he too has finished inside the top-five at the Sony a couple of times.
Jimmy Walker, who won back-to-back Sonys, has finished 4th here twice and he was runner-up to Jonas Blixt in 2013. The 2013 Sony winner, Russell Henley, led this event at halfway six years ago and he's also finished fifth here twice, Webb Simpson has form at both tracks, James Hahn, who was beaten in a playoff in the Sony last year, finished sixth here in 2015, and the man that led after three rounds in 2013, Johnson Wagner, won the Sony Open the year before.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Outsiders have a phenomenal record in this event. Na was a [65.0] chance last year and Schauffele was an [80.0] chance 12 months earlier but he was the first winner not to be matched at a triple-figure price before the off! Don't be afraid to back an outsider or two and don't worry if this is their first visit to the Old White either. That looks like a considerable plus too.
Kevin Na had course form figures reading 36-7-52-32 but he and Danny Lee, the 2015 winner, are the only winners to have played in the event before they won it. Lee was matched at [170.0] before the off, Angel Cabrera was matched at [160.0] in 2014, Blixt was tipped up by Paul Krishnamurty in his Find Me a 100 Winner column at [130.0] in 2014, and the two playoff protagonists in 2012 both went off at [1000.0]!
When he took the title in 2017, Schauffele became the third rookie winner of The Greenbrier Classic, joining Stallings and Potter Jr. and he was the fourth player to record his maiden PGA TOUR victory at The Greenbrier Classic, joining Lee, Ted Potter Jr and Stallings.
This is not a frontrunner's venue. Kevin Na started slowly last year and he trailed Webb Simpson by eight strokes in a tie for 64th after round one. A second round 63 saw him move up to a tie for eighth at halfway but he was still trailing by a stroke with a round to go. The 2017 winner, Schauffele, was never outside the top-seven and ties but he was five off the lead at halfway and he was still three back with a round to go.
The 2015 winner, Lee, sat second and a stroke out of the lead after the opening round and he trailed by just a stroke after rounds two and three too but the three he beat in extra time came from much further adrift. Hearn sat 48th after round one before sitting alongside Lee after rounds two and three and the other two playoff protagonists were never really in it until the end. Streb sat 48th, 26th and 12th after rounds one, two and three; Kisner sat 27th, 40th and 17th.
This is hard place to lead and no third round leader or co-leader has ever won. Kelly Kraft finished second and Harold Varner was fifth, after the two had began round four tied at the top last year, Sebastian Munoz finished tied for third having led by two through 54 holes in 2017 and there were four men tied at the top with a round to go in 2015 and none of them made the top-five!
The lead tends to chop and change and coming from off the pace to win is perfectly possible. One year after Appleby fired 59 to come from seven back to win the inaugural event, Bob Estes came from six back to get into a playoff (won by Stallings) with a final round of 64. And both the 2012 and 2013 winners, Ted Potter Jr and Jonas Blixt, trailed by four with a round to go.
Cabrera was only two back in 2014 but it's definitely a course where you can come from way off the pace. With the knowledge that his sister was gravely ill and dying from cancer, George McNeill shot 61 to finish second to Cabrera. That moved him up 17 places on the leaderboard and he finished four clear of Webb Simpson in third. The poor man then had to wait around for hours to see if he'd be required for a playoff, having been told after his round that his sister Michelle had died.
Not only has nobody successfully converted a third round lead, nobody leading at the end of any round has won. All the leaders or co-leaders after rounds one, two and three in the first eight editions have all been beaten and the eventual winner has come from behind by an average of 2.875 strokes on the final day.
One of the reasons favourites have such a poor record here is the quality of the resort. Many of the players enthuse about the place, purring about the facilities, and telling anyone that will listen how much their families enjoy this particular PGA Tour stop. It's almost as if the tournament itself is secondary for some and that needs to be considered when backing anyone at a short price but for what it's worth, here's my take on the first three in the betting.
Bryson DeChambeau heads the market and I can certainly see him contending. The last time he was the centre of a media storm, this time last year, he came out and won three events in five starts. The slow-play furore did appear to put him off his stride for a while but he's made of stern stuff is Bryson. He finished seventh at the Tour Championship last time out and he was 14th here on his only previous visit in 2017 - a week before he won his first title at the John Deere Classic. Worthy favourite.
PGA Tour rookie, Viktor Hovland, has bags of potential and he looks sure to win sooner rather than later. He's one of 50 players to graduate from the Korn Ferry Tour (full list here) but he looks short enough for now in what's a competitive enough heat and the in-form Jason Kokrak looks extremely short at around [19.0]. Having finished third here last year and ninth in the Tour Championship last time out, Kokrak brings both course and current form to the table but he's flaky in-contention and is yet to win.
Given the tournament's history, my plan is to lay almost everyone priced at below [100.0], much like I've done at the KLM Open (see preview here) but on a bigger scale.
I haven't got everyone I wanted to in the book yet so I can't set out the figures but I'll display them in the In-Play Blog, as I've done in the KLM Open preview.
In addition to laying all the short-priced contenders, I've thrown a few speculative pounds at both Sam Burns and Korn Ferry Tour graduate, Fabian Gomez. I'm convinced Burns will get off the mark soon and as a former winner of the Sony, Gomez is a great fit.
Sam Burns @ [150.0]
Fabian Gomez @ [160.0]
I'll aim to return sometime on Friday with the In-Play blog.
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