A stellar field will assemble in Ohio on Thursday for the Memorial Tournament and our man's hot on the chances of Bubba Watson. Read Steve's in-depth preview here...
“Bubba Watson arrives at Muirfield as the 18th best player on the planet with two wins already in the bag and I was over the moon to be able to back him in excess of [40.0].”
First staged in 1976, the Memorial Tournament is an invitational event with only the top-75 on the previous PGA Tour season's money list guaranteed a place in the line-up.
The brainchild of 18-time major winner, Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament always attracts a strong field and this year's 43rd edition is no exception.
Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin Ohio.
Par 72, 7,392 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 72.8
Set in 240 rolling, wooded acres, Jack Nicklaus designed Muirfield Village himself and he often tinkers with it. It was named after his favourite Open Championship venue and built in 1974 on land acquired eight years earlier. It's a strong but fair test. The fairways are fairly generous but the rough, consisting of a blend of Kentucky bluegrass, fescue and rye, is pretty penal and it always strikes me how lush the whole place looks. Water comes into play on 11 holes and the smaller than average bentgrass greens are undulating and fast.
In addition to this event, Muirfield has also hosted the 1987 Ryder Cup, the 1998 Solheim Cup and the Presidents Cup in 2013.
Live Featured Group coverage on Thursday and Friday from 17:30 (UK and Ireland time) and full live coverage from 19:30 on Thursday and Friday, 17:30 on Saturday and 17:00 on Sunday.
Last Five Winners
2017 - Jason Dufner -13
2016 - William McGirt -15 (playoff)
2015 - David Lingmerth -15 (playoff)
2014 - Hideki Matsuyama -13 (playoff)
2013 - Matt Kuchar -12
What will it Take to Win the Memorial Tournament?
Length off the tee used to be advantageous around Muirfield but not anymore. The first and second 12 months ago ranked 28th and 35th for Driving Distance, the two playoff protagonists two years ago ranked 50th and 68th for DD and in 2016, three of the top-five and ties, including the winner, David Lingmerth, ranked in the 60s for DD.
Avoiding the rough off the tee is much more important than whacking it miles. The first two home last year ranked seventh and first for Driving Accuracy and the DA ranking of the last ten winners is 14.9. The average DD ranking of the last 10 winners is 35.4.
The 2012 and 2013 winners, Tiger Woods and Matt Kuchar, both ranked first for GIR and so did last year's victor, Dufner. The 2016 winner, William McGirt ranked seventh for GIR and the two players that ranked first and second for GIR three years ago, Francesco Molinari and Jim Furyk, both finished inside the top-five. The average GIR ranking of the last ten winners is 10.1.
Dufner only ranked 30th for Scrambling but the ten-year average for the winners is 19.3 and he only played the par fours in five-under-par. That was three shots worse than Anirban Lahiri in a tie for second and Bubba Watson in a tie for sixth and most winners rank better than that.
Only Kevin Streelman played the par fours better than the two playoff protagonists in 2016 and nine of the last 12 winners have ranked first or second for par four scoring. That wouldn't be unusual on a par 70 track, with only two par fives, but given Muirfield is a par 72 with four, it's a stat to consider closely this week.
Is there an angle in?
The last three winners have been tricky to find, and they weren't in terrific form. Dufner had finished inside the top-15 five times and he'd finished fifth in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, alongside Patton Kizzire, and the 2016 winner, William McGirt, had a couple of top-tens. But David Lingmerth really went against the grain, with a best finish before winning of tied 13th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and form figures that read 44-MC-MC-MC-33-MC after his 13th at Bay Hill. Prior to 2015, strong recent form had been a huge indicator and I'm inclined to believe it will be again this time around.
In the 20 years before Lingmerth won, every winner had recorded a top-ten finish earlier in the season and only two of the 20 hadn't finished inside the top-four somewhere. Half of the 20 had won previously and three of them had won a week before winning here so strong current form is usually a plus and that's a big positive for course specialist Justin Rose.
For those who like a course correlation, Ben Coley has spotted a very strong link to Firestone, home of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which also happens to be in Ohio.
Last Memorial winner who doesn't have a top eight at Firestone? Carl Pettersson, 2006. When you consider Lingmerth (7th & 6th) and McGirt (7th sole visit) are among the winners here, that's telling.— Ben Coley (@BenColeyGolf) May 28, 2018
Is there an identikit winner?
It's a mixed picture regarding how well-fancied the winners have been here. The very recent trends point towards this being a good event for outsiders and first time winners.
Bart Bryant in 2005 and Carl Pettersson in 2006 were big outsiders but the next seven winners were all very plausible candidates. The last four winners have ranged from tough to find to impossible.
Dufner was matched at [100.0] before the off but like the 2014 winner, Hideki Matsuyama, he went off at between [70.0] and [80.0] but the two in between were huge outsiders, matched at more than [700.0] before the get-go.
Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus have all won the tournament twice, Kenny Perry has won it three times and Tiger has claimed the title five times. Rose came within a whisker of winning it a second time three years ago, so past winners do well here. Although again, it is a bit of a mixed picture as three of the last four winners were all breaking their ducks on the PGA Tour here.
Dufner was only the third first round leader to go on to win in the tournament's 42-year history but victory was claimed in unusual fashion. Having been tied at the top through 18 holes, he moved five-clear of the field in round two before a disastrous 77 on Saturday saw him drop four off the pace, set by Daniel Summerhays, in a tie for third. Trading at around [12.0] before round four, Dufner bounced back brilliantly, shooting nine strokes better to win by three.
Dufner was the only player to go odds-on 12 months ago but three other players traded at less than 2/1 (Rickie Fowler [2.02], Bubba Watson [2.7] and Summerhays [2.82]) and this has been a great place to trade the short-priced contenders in-play.
In addition to the winner two years ago, Matt Kuchar traded at [1.95] and the runner-up, Jon Curran, hit a low of [1.4] in regulation play and [1.28] in extra time.
Justin Rose was trading at around [1.7] when he led by three with a round to go three years ago and he hit a low of [1.3] in-running. And there were all sorts of shenanigans in 2014 when Bubba Watson failed to convert a two-stroke 54 hole lead...
Bubba hit a low of [1.42] and Kevin Na, who had begun round four trailing by seven, was matched at just [1.12] before losing in a playoff to Matsuyama. And Matsuyama had hit a low of [1.2] in regulation play before he looked like he'd thrown it all away with a double bogey at the 16th.
Kuchar was two clear in 2013 with a round to go when he won but five of the six winners before him were three, four (three times) or five strokes behind after 54 holes, so I'll be looking for a few closers at decent prices with a round to go.
The back-nine at Muirfield is tougher than the front-nine and the five hardest holes on the course were all after the turn 12 months ago.
The par five 15th hole has a tournament average of just 4.68 and it's consistently one of the easiest holes faced throughout the tournament's history but after that the finish is really tough and the last three holes have historically averaged more than half a stroke over par. Last year the three averages 0.73 over-par.
The par three 16th, which was the hardest hole last year, averaging 3.37, now has a pond guarding the front and left of the green, the long par four 17th fairway has strategically placed bunkers to trap any errant tee shots and the 18th is a brute of a hole that's averaged the toughest hole on the course with a tournament average of 4.24. It's a long dog-legged hole with a raised green and getting a par there with the tournament on the line is never easy.
This is a superb tournament and you probably won't find a stronger field all year outside the majors and the Players Championship.
Dustin Johnson, with tournament form figures dating back ten years that read 68-14-33-4-19-MC-46-13-3, is the favourite. But he's very closely followed by brand new world number one, Justin Thomas, last week's winner, and course-specialist, Justin Rose, the Ohio-based Aussie, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
Thomas took a while to get to grips with Muirfield, finishing 37th on debut in 2014 before missing the cut two years running but he was fourth last year and whilst his 11th in the Players Championship last time out was a disappointment, he finished really strongly over the weekend with rounds of 68 and 66.
Rose is my idea of the most likely winner amongst the market leaders - his entire game, including his often-woeful putting, was immaculate last week and as highlighted above, strong current form, and even a win last time out, has been a great indicator here. If he plays like he did over the weekend at Colonial, he'll be hard to beat but will the putting hold up, and how will he start on Thursday? Justin is very often slow out of the blocks so could be one to consider closely after round one.
Although local and familiar with the venue, Jason Day's 15th 12 months ago is his best effort from nine starts and he's missed the cut on three occasions.
Rory McIlroy's course form figures read a more encouraging 10-5-MC-57-15-4 but Sunday was the fourth time this year he's failed to convert a great chance on the European Tour this year. I'm more than happy to swerve him too. And the same can be said of Jordan Spieth, whose putting continues to be a problem.
There's been money for course specialist Tiger Woods, and Rickie Fowler has a couple of seconds here but as per usual, he's too short given his propensity to get in his own way in-contention.
I'm delighted to see such a strong turnout because I've been waiting for this event for Bubba Watson and I was hoping for a decent price. Given how strong the line-up is, I've managed to get a really nice price.
Bubba Watson took his time to get to grips with Muirfield but the penny has clearly dropped and he really should have won here already. He led here before round four in 2014 and traded odds-on before messing up the par-five 15th with the tournament at his mercy and he hit the front again 12 months ago in the final round when he had no right to be in-contention.
Bubba spent last year tied to Volvik's vivid coloured ball and he suffered as a consequence. The entire season was a washout and his sixth-place finish here was by some distance his best effort. That alone made the performance remarkable but the way he played the short holes made it incredible in the extreme.
Nobody played the par fives or the par fours better than Bubba but he played the par threes in a ludicrous 11-over-par. Nobody above him played them any worse than two-over.
Watson arrives at Muirfield as the 18th best player on the planet with two wins already in the bag and I was over the moon to be able to back him in excess of [40.0].
Bubba Watson @ [44.0]
I'll be back later with my Italian Open preview.
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