The Punter's In-Play Blog: Koepka looms large again

Golfer Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka - three back in Memphis

Steve's pre-event 200.0199/1 pick, Brendon Todd, still leads in Memphis but with the world's best on his coattails, can he hang on? Read Steve final thoughts on all three of the week's events here...

"Len Mattiace won from ninth place and fully seven off the lead back in 2002 but that’s far and away the furthest back any winner has come from in the last 25 years. Woody Austin sat fourth and four adrift in 2007 but every other winner since 1995 has been within three strokes off the lead through 54 holes."

08:40 - August 2, 2020

With just one round to go at the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational, my pre-event 200.0199/1 pick, Brendon Todd, still leads. Here's the latest standings with prices to back at 08:30.

Brendon Todd -12 3.7511/4
Byeong Hun An -11 5.69/2
Rickie Fowler -10 6.25/1
Brooks Koepka -9 6.25/1
Justin Thomas -8 10.09/1
-7 and 40.039/1 bar

Todd wasn't at his best yesterday but he kept fighting and bouncing back after mistakes and when he and his closest rival, Byeong Hun An, had both played their approach shots to the par four 18th, he looked like he may even stretch his lead to three strokes.

Todd knocked his approach to seven feet and An found the greenside bunker. The Korean played only an ordinary recovery, leaving himself with just shy of ten feet for par and a two-shot swing was on the cards but it wasn't to be. The Korean, who has been having some much needed putting help from Brad Faxon, stroked in the par save and Todd missed his birdie chance. How telling will that moment be today?

Todd is the obvious place to start and he looks a fair price at around 3.814/5. This is the eighth time he's led or co-led on either the Korn Ferry Tour or the PGA Tour and he's looking to convert for a fifth time. He shot 80 when tied for the lead for the first time through 54-holes to finish 25th at the Athens Regional Foundation Classic in 2008 but he learnt lessons from the experience and won on each of the next four occasions that he led or co-led through three rounds.

He blew a two-shot lead at the RSM Classic in November last year but nobody was surprised to see him slump that day - he was looking to win his third PGA Tour title in-a-row - but there's no doubt he was disappointing at the Travelers Championship at the end of June when he fell apart on the back-nine when duelling with Dustin Johnson. He eventually finished 11th.

That's an obvious negative and so too, to a lesser extent, was his slightly scruffy play yesterday. There are plenty of positives though. In the last 15 years, one-stroke 54- hole leaders have a 32.7% strike-rate on the PGA Tour, his nearest challengers have questions to answer, and it's hard to come from far behind here...

Len Mattiace won from ninth place and fully seven off the lead back in 2002 but that's far and away the furthest back any winner has come from in the last 25 years. Woody Austin sat fourth and four adrift in 2007 but every other winner since 1995 has been within three strokes off the lead through 54 holes.

If An can continue to putt like he did yesterday then he's a huge danger but he's never won on the PGA Tour and Brooks Koepka has demonstrated how quickly a newly-tutored putting stroke can unravel. Like An, Koepka has been working on his putting, under the guidance of Phil Kenyon, and it worked a treat on Thursday but he's now ranking 52nd for Strokes Gained Putting for the week and that really could cost him. He ranks number one for Greens In Regulation.

With Rickie Fowler so difficult to get across the line, and with Justin Thomas as far as four adrift, and putting no better than Koepka, this is a great chance for Todd if he can keep his cool today.

I recycled a few pounds last night by laying Todd and backing Koepka at 7.26/1 as the leaders played the 18th and if the putts start dropping then the defending champion is definitely the big danger from three adrift but given four of the last six winners have been in front through 54 holes and that seven of the 16 men to take a clear lead into round four since 1996 have gone on to win, almost by default, Todd looks a fair price this morning.

Pre-event fancy, Seamus Power, hit the front at the Barracuda Championship on the back-nine yesterday but back-to-back bogeys at 14 and 15 stopped him in his tracks and it's yesterday's in-play pick, Troy Merritt, that will take a four point lead into round four.

Whether that will be enough of a cushion to get him across the line is highly debatable but frontrunners have a decent historically record at the event - albeit at a different venue. The leaders don't tee-off until 22:55 UK time so I'm just going to let that position roll and see what I wake up to.

In contrast, the leaders at the Hero Open on the European Tour tee-off at 12:35 UK time and that event looks even harder to call than the two in America.

Sam Horsfield was matched at just 1.422/5 when he turned for home during round three with a five-stroke lead but he flittered shots away on the back-nine yesterday and he now leads by just one over Denmark's Rasmus Højgaard, Welshman, Oliver Farr, and Finland's Mikko Korhonen.

There are as many as 13 players within three of Horsfield's lead and picking the winner is tough. I'm hopeful that in-play pick, Højgaard, can kick on and secure his second win but I was really quite confident of his chances last week when on at 120.0119/1 and he could only finish second in the end after a slightly disappointing final round.

Playing in the final two-ball may give him an added boost this week but with so many within touching distance he's going to have to go low again. Of the others in-contention, Thomas Detry is an obvious danger but he's yet to win and continues to flatter to deceive and if forced to pick an alternative, I'd plump for another Dane - J.B Hansen.

Twice a winner on the Challenge Tour in 2018, Hansen is an extremely streaky player. He fired in a six-under-par 66 yesterday, despite starting and finishing his round with bogeys. He's alongside Detry and five other players in the group tied for seventh and he might just press the leaders if he gets on another roll today. Hansen turns 30 in two weeks and I'm a bit of a fan of following players on or around significant birthdays so I thought he was worth adding to the portfolio for tiny stakes at 40.039/1.

It's been a very busy week as I've also been working on my US PGA Championship preview and I'm hoping to get that published tonight, after the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational has ended, but at the very latest it will be out first thing tomorrow.

11:10 - August 1, 2020

Defending champ, Brooks Koepka, was matched at a low 2.3411/8 after a decent start to his second round at the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational but putting woes struck on the back-nine and it's my pre-event 200.0199/1 pick, Brendon Todd, that leads at halfway. Here's the latest standings with prices to back at 10:55.

Brendon Todd -11 4.03/1
Rickie Fowler -9 5.69/2
Brooks Koepka -7 7.26/1
Chez Reavie -7 19.018/1
Byeong Hun An -7 25.024/1
Matthew Fitzpatrick -6 15.5
Sung Kang -6 80.079/1
-5 and 21.020/1 bar

I traded some of my Todd wager back at 8.07/1 and 5.04/1 yesterday so I went a bit early but that's easy to say now. If he'd played his back-nine like Koepka played his (three-over-par), he'd be a very big price now and I'd have missed my opportunity to take some profit. Whatever happens now, he's been a great trading vehicle but I'm certainly not losing faith in him.

Todd's been fairly solid in-contention in the past. He's successfully converted both of his previous halfway leads and he's won three times already on the PGA Tour (twice this season) but this is a big step up on his three previous titles and he had a disaster when duelling with Dustin Johnson down the back-nine at the recent Travelers Championship.

The weather this week could be construed as a bit of a negative too. Tee times were brought forward yesterday to beat the rain and the course could be soft today and not how it traditionally plays over the weekend. TPC Southwind gets harder and faster as the week wares on as a rule so excellent scrambling and a brilliant touch around the green is what usually reaps rewards but if it's really soft over the weekend, it could be a bit of a birdie-fest. That's not a plus for Todd who's scrambled immaculately so far.

Stats-wise, although very recent first round leaders have struggled, and Matt Fitzpatrick could only finish fourth having led by two at this stage last year, clear halfway leaders have a decent record, with nine of 18 going on to convert since 1996. Some big names have failed though. Koepka finished third five years ago, having led by a stroke at halfway, and with weekend rounds of 72 and 69, Rory McIlroy fell from first to seventh eight years ago. Todd most certainly has a task on his hands and the first few holes today will be crucial.

Alone in second, thanks to birdies at his last two holes in round two, Rickie Fowler is the biggest danger to Todd but I'm always happy to be against Rickie. He's ridiculously inconsistent in-contention and definitely not one to go to war with. This is the 20th time he's sat first or second at halfway and he's looking for his third win. He's unquestionably better from off the pace and he's zero from seven when sitting second at this stage.

Koepka was going along nicely yesterday until he missed twice form three feet on the par four second hole (his 11th of the round) and he lost his way a bit after that. I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if he muscles back in today but it is a concern as to how fragile his game is. He came into the event in poor form so it's hard to know which way he'll go now and the dangers to Todd, with the conditions having softened, may come from much further back.

Daniel Berger was seven adrift at this stage when he defended the title in 2017 and we've seen a number of winners come from five back this century so if Todd wobbles and the scoring's low the whole tournament could be blown wide open.

Webb Simpson and Justin Thomas are trading at only 21.020/1 and 22.021/1, despite trailing by six and seven strokes respectively, demonstrating the lack of faith in the market behind the leaders, but the one I like this morning at a huge price is Kevin Na. He's alongside Thomas after a second round 64 and I thought he was a shade too big at 140.0139/1 given he'll be suited to coming from off the pace.

Having concentrated most of my efforts on trading the WGC event yesterday afternoon, I missed the big move by Sam Horsfield at the Hero Open. He's now tied with the first-round leader, Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez, on 13-under-par and he's the warm favourite at just 3.1511/5.

That pair are three strokes clear of Thomas Detry on -10 but the one I like at the prices is Alexander Bjork at 18.5, who trails by four. He was unlucky not to win the British Masters a couple of years ago at Walton Heath, so he clearly likes playing in England and he looks a little over-priced this morning. The second round is already underway and it will be live on Sky at 12:30.

The Barracuda Championship looked a tough one to call before the off and it looks no easier at halfway, given they still go 10/1 the field. I could happily leave the event alone but I have had a tiny bet on Troy Merritt at 15.5. He's only three points behind the halfway leader, Kyle Stanley, and he'll be buoyed by the news that he's got into next week's US PGA Championship following a few inevitable last withdrawals. I thought that news might give him some added impetus but with as many as 11 players within four points of each-other, it looks a very tricky event to call.

10:40 - July 31, 2020

Having been matched at what now looks like a ludicrously high 46.045/1 when the market first opened, the defending champion, Brooks Koepka, leads the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational after an impressive eight-under-par 62 first round. Here's the first round leaderboard with prices to back at 10:30.

Brooks Koepka -8 3.613/5
Rickie Fowler -6 12.011/1
Brendon Todd -6 23.022/1
Sung Kang -5 100.099/1
Justin Thomas -4 8.27/1
Matt Kuchar -4 44.043/1
Max Homa -4 46.045/1
Chez Reavie -4 50.049/1
Bryson DeChambeau -3 16.5
Viktor Hovland -3 25.024/1
-3 and 28.027/1 bar

Brooks Koepka came into this week's event with form figures since the restart reading an uninspiring 32-7-MC-62-MC but there were signs of improvement in his second round at the 3M Open last week where he missed the cut by a stroke, thanks largely to a few short missed putts.

Since missing the cut last week, he's spent time with his swing coach, Claude Harmon, his short game guru, Pete Cowen, and he also hooked up with putting wizard, Phil Kenyon, and with his US PGA Championship hat-trick bid now less than a week away, it looks like it's all coming together nicely at just the right time. So, typical Brooks then.

In addition to seeking a third straight US PGA Championship title, Koepka is also bidding to win this event for the second year in-a-row but he wouldn't be setting a precedent. Prior to the event being granted WGC status, Daniel Berger won the old FedEx St Jude back-to-back in 2016 and 2017 and when Dustin Johnson won here in 2018, he too was winning the tournament a second time, having also won it in 2012. But as you'll see below, he would be the only player other than Tiger Woods to defend a WGC event...

I like stats but that one can definitely be filed under irrelevant. There's zero chance of it having an effect on Koepka and now he's found his groove, he may just take some stopping. On the last four occasions he's led or been tied for the lead after the opening round he's either won or finished second but first round leaders have struggled here of late...

World number one, Jon Rahm, opened up with a 62 of his own last year but eventually finished seventh (beaten by six strokes) and we have to go back five years for the last time a first round leader or co-leader finished inside the top-six.

We also have to consider that there's at least some chance that yesterday's brilliance, after so much poor stuff, could have been a flash in the pan so I'm happy to leave Koepka alone for now and see what today brings.

I'm obviously very happy that pre-event 200.0199/1 pick, Brendon Todd, is tied for second (all his stats were very good yesterday) and I'm glad I've had a saver on Justin Thomas but I am adding one more this morning and that's Matt Kuchar.

Kuchar has won at the right correlating courses and I thought he was worth a small investment at 46.045/1 given he's no bigger than 33/1 on the High Street.

*Please note, with poor weather forecast the second round tee times have been brought forward, with the first players teeing off at 1pm UK time.

Ryan Moore and Adam Schenk are tied at the top of the Barracuda Championship leaderboard after round one and given this tournament (albeit at a different venue), with its Stapleford format, has favoured those up with the pace early on, I've had a look at both but neither makes any appeal.

Moore led at the Memorial Tournament last month but finished 33rd and he fell from first to 27th at the WGC Mexico Championship back in 2017. And Schenk has held the first round lead three times (twice on the Korn Ferry Tour and once on the Latinoamerica Tour) and he's finished 17th, 17th and 24th.

Branden Grace and Patrick Rodgers are both tempting propositions but I've decided to leave the event alone for now.

The second round of the Hero Open is well underway this morning and European Tour legend, Miguel Angel Jimenez, has got to the lead. I'll be back either this evening or tomorrow morning with a look at the state of play there at halfway.

18:40 - July 30, 2020

The first round of the Hero Open is drawing to a close and it's been a great day for the Spanish. The ever popular, Pablo Larrazabal, signed for an eight-under-par 64, shortly after Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez had posted a deeply impressive ten-under-par 62 this morning to take the lead but there was no question who was the star of the show.

At the age of 56, and 32 years after his first appearance, Miguel Angel Jimenez sauntered to an eight-under-par 64 of his own in what is his 707th start on the European Tour. That nudges him by the previous record holder, Sam Torrance, and the new tally is highly unlikely to ever be beaten.

It was a disappointing day for my pre-event picks, although 200.0199/1 chance, Joel Stalter, is within touching distance of the lead on -5, despite bogeying the 18th. Jordan Smith started nicely this morning and was matched at a low of 14.5 but as you'll see with my tweet below, it all started to go wrong when the coverage started. He birdied the par five 17th but still ended up playing the last five holes in three-over-par, and Justin Harding was plodding on nicely before finding the water on 17. He finished bogey-bogey to post -2 when I was hoping for -5 at least after his drive on the reachable par five 17th.

It wasn't all bad news though. I tried to back last week's fancy, Rasmus Højgaard, at 34.033/1 as he birdied the 12th to get to -3 for the round but failed to get matched. Inexplicably, I forgot to cancel the bet and I presume that when he very nearly went into the water on the par four 16th with his approach, some of the wager got matched. He drained a birdie putt there, eagled 17, posted six-under-par, and he's now vying for favouritism with Larrazabal!

Thomas Detry, who posted five-under-par, is the third best after round one and the runaway leader can be backed at 14.5. Jimenez is a 15.014/1 chance.

I'm going to leave the event alone for now and I'll be back in the morning with a look at the other two events - the Barracuda Championship and the WGC - FedEx St Jude Invitational. Their first rounds have not long started but there's already Featured Group coverage live on Sky of the latter.

11:25 - July 30, 2020

The Hero Open, which I've previewed here, is already underway and Spain's Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez is setting the pace, having shot 29 on the front nine. I think we can expect quite a low winning score this week!

I'm kicking the blog off super early as I've added a couple of picks since my three previews were published. At the Hero Open, I've now backed Guido Migliozzi, who I also backed last week at the British Masters. He was very well backed at the start of the week so I thought I'd missed the price but as is so often the case with so many players, he drifted back out again before the off and I was happy to take 70.069/1. He tees off this afternoon.

I haven't added anymore in the WGC - FedEx St Jude Invitational, which I've previewed here but there's still time to follow Dave Tindall in on his top-ten and top-five picks here, and he's also looked at the First Round Leader market here.

In the Barracuda Championship (previewed here), I've now added Seamus Power at a triple-figure price as he currently ranks 14th in the key Birdie Average stats (here), and finally, it's always worth checking out Paul Krishnamurty's Find Me a 100 Winner piece (here) if you like backing an outsider or two.

Hero Open Pre-Event Selections:
Justin Harding @ 36.035/1
Jordan Smith @ 42.041/1
Guido Migliozzi @ 70.069/1 (added after preview published)
Calum Hill @ 110.0109/1
Joel Stalter @ 200.0199/1

In-Play Picks:
Rasmus Højgaard @ 34.033/1
Alexander Bjork @ 18.5
J.B Hansen @ 40.039/1

WGC - FedEx St Jude Invitational Pre-Event Selections:
Justin Thomas @ 14.5
Tyrrell Hatton @ 36.035/1
Brandon Todd @ 200.0199/1
Kevin Kisner @ 200.0199/1

In-Play Trades:
Matt Kuchar backed @ 46.045/1
Brendon Todd layed at 8.07/1, 5.04/1 and 3.02/1
Kevin Na backed @ 140.0139/1
Brooks Koepka backed @ 7.26/1

Barracuda Championship Pre-Event Selections:
Aaron Wise @ 80/1 (each-way Sportsbook)
Seamus Power @ 120.0119/1 (added after preview published)

In-Play Pick:
Troy Merritt @ 15.5

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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