So after the pandemonium of the third major of the year, The Open Championship you can forgive some players taking time off last week. There was however a full calendar of events and on the European Tour, Jordan Smith outlasted Alexander Levy during their play-off at the Porsche European Open, whilst Jhonattan Vegas was triumphant at the RBC Canadian Open, on the PGA Tour.
That was Smith’s first European Tour win, whilst Vegas was winning for the third time after successfully defending the title he had won 12 months ago. After waiting five years to follow up his first PGA Tour victory it has taken him exactly a year this time around. There has been a resurgence in the Venezuelan’s game over the past 12-18 months and at just 32, you would expect the best is still yet to come.
The same can be said for Englishman, Smith who followed up an impressive start to his professional career. He has taken natural steps to his current level, winning twice on the EuroPro Tour in 2015, twice again on the Challenge Tour a year later and there’s no reason to think he can’t add a second win this year also. At 24, Smith has time on his hands to improve and hopefully he does just that.
On to this week and it is time for the third WGC Championship of the year, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Tiger Woods has won this event a staggering eight times and whilst he will sadly not be in the field this week, his name will no doubt come up on numerous occasions. Woods won his eighth Bridgestone title in 2013 beating 2012 Champion, Keegan Bradley and Henrik Stenson by a monstrous 7 strokes. Since then, this event has been a much tighter affair each year, with the margin of victory being no bigger than two strokes.
Rory McIlroy won the event in 2014 beating Ryder Cup team-mate, Sergio Garcia by two strokes, whilst Shane Lowry beat Bubba Watson by the same margin a year later. Dustin Johnson then beat Scott Piercy in 2016 by one stroke, but with a score of just -6. Before last year, you had to go back to 2007 when Woods won at -8 to find the last time the winning score wasn’t double-digits under-par so generally speaking, scoring is low at this event.
In six starts at this event, McIlroy has a win and three top-10’s but this week he will play without long-time caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald for the first time in nine years. Fitzgerald, who previously caddied for both Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley was fired by McIlroy, the news breaking just this morning and a new caddie will be announced this week.
There is no information as of yet as to when McIlroy came to this decision but it has often been noted that should he change caddies, he would have won more than he has. The pair have not done badly together though, accounting for 22 professional wins including four major championships but clearly McIlroy felt it was time for a fresh start. After finishing T4 at The Open Championship, despite a horrid start on the front-9 on Thursday, McIlroy will look to vindicate his decision to split with Fitzgerald with a win this week.
The Course and the recipe for success
Firestone Country Club (South), 7,400 Yards, Par 70
This course presents its own challenges but should your long iron play be in good check, you will be rewarded with some chances to score. Scoring well on the Par-4’s is a must around Firestone and will be pivotal to the eventual winner’s success. Of the last five winners, three (Johnson, McIlroy, Woods) have ranked 1st or tied 1st in Par 4 Performance for the week. Lowry and Bradley also ranked 3rd and 4th respectively in the same category, highlighting the importance of scoring well on these holes. Here are the players winning scores over their last five years, compared to their scoring on the Par-4’s.
Dustin Johnson (2016) – Winning Score (-6) Par 4 Performance (-3)
Shane Lowry (2015) – Winning Score (-11) Par 4 Performance (-5)
Rory McIlroy (2014) – Winning Score (-15) Par 4 Performance (-11)
Tiger Woods (2013) – Winning Score (-15) Par 4 Performance (-12)
Keegan Bradley (2012) – Winning Score (-13) Par 4 Performance (-6)
Whilst it does of course help if you are under-par on the Par 5’s as well, of the last five winners only Lowry has ranked inside the top-10 for Par 5 Performance on the week. All of the last five winners have finished the week level-par or better on the Par 3’s as well, with only McIlroy not managing to finish under-par on the short holes.
Of the last five winners only Keegan Bradley ranked outside the top-5 for Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (21st). He was also the only winner of the last five to rank outside the top-5 for Greens in Regulation (11th). Bradley instead gained a stupendous 11.971 strokes Putting that week, more than four strokes better than next-best, Rafa Cabrera Bello. Woods was the only winner of the last five to rank outside the top-8 for Strokes Gained: Putting, ranking 11th.
In the last 22 years there has only been two winners of this event (Hunter Mahan and Shane Lowry) who were not either major champions or have since gone on to win bcome one proving just what calibre of player it takes to win around Firestone.
At the peak of his career Mahan would have been fancied to land a major championship, whilst Lowry has been touted as the sort of player who has the game to win one also. Both players have contended in a U.S. Open (Lowry 2nd in 2016 and Mahan 4th in 2013), and Mahan can also boast a top-8 finish in all four majors, so they have both had their chances so although they don’t strictly fit the mould, they are players with tremendous ability.
Jordan Spieth (8/1) – Fresh off his Open Championship win, Spieth will look to continue improving his record here at Firestone, finishing 49th on debut before finishing 10th in 2015 and 3rd in 2016. Spieth has led the Par-4 Performance category here in the last two years and is more than capable of posting back-to-back wins.
Rory McIlroy (10/1) – After struggling on his debut here in 2009 (67th in 80-man field), McIlroy has looked very comfortable with this layout. Form figures of 9-6-5-27-1 since are very impressive but he has not played here for the last two years. After finishing 4th at The Open, he will be hoping to finish the season strongly, starting here.
Dustin Johnson (11/1) – The winner of the first two WGC’s of the season, Johnson is aiming to become the first player to win three WGC’s in one season. Despite winning a record 18 WGC’s, Woods still never managed to win more than two in one season. Johnson won this event last year after seemingly struggling in his first starts, in which he finished no better than 15th.
Rickie Fowler (20/1) – After an indifferent week at The Open where he in the end finished T22, Fowler will be relishing the chance to play Firestone, a course he has enjoyed in recent years. Fowler finished 2nd here on his second course start in 2011 and has also posted three consecutive top-10’s in the last three years.
Brooks Koepka (20/1) – Koepka has limited experience at Firestone, in comparison to the other market leaders but finished 6th on debut here in 2015 before withdrawing in 2016 after 13 holes due to an ankle injury. Now injury free and over his early season slump, his last two starts have come at major championships, winning the U.S. Open and backing that up with a T6 at The Open Championship, further cementing his reputation as one of the world’s best. He should enjoy this layout once again and fits the mould of a WGC Bridgestone Invitational winner nicely.
Here are my selections for the 2017 WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
Brooks Koepka 20/1 (Coral 1/4 odds 5 places, Boylesports 1/5 6 places) 1.5pts e/w:
There is not much to say that I didn’t mention in the snippet above. Koepka is now ranked 10th in the World Rankings and his play warrants that in recent weeks.
After struggling at the start of 2017, things started to look up after he made it into the last-16 at the WGC World Match-Play. He finished T11 at the Masters and 2nd on his next start at Valero Texas Open, suggesting a very big upturn in form. The Florida native then performed admirably at The Players Championship, finishing T16 before going on a run of average play once again. Despite not excelling he still made the next three cuts leading into the U.S. Open which he of course won.
A T6 at The Open Championship confirms he is still in good form and any slump he may well have suffered due to his first major win did not materialise at Birkdale. With this in mind, it is worth rolling with him until his form dips, especially at a course he has played well at before.
Koepka was the only player at Firestone in 2015 to post four sub-70 rounds over the week and although he didn’t quite go low enough to really threaten Lowry it is clear he liked his first look at the course.
The American has six top-10 finishes in his last thirteen major starts including a win and four top-6’s and whilst he has yet to make a real impact at the WGC events, beyond his 6th here in 2015, it is worth chancing that he is going to ride this clearly massive wave of confidence right now in another strong-field event.
Branden Grace 50/1 (UniBet) 1pt e/w:
Branden Grace played well two weeks ago at Royal Birkdale, largely thanks to his third round 62, a first of its kind in major championships. Grace shot two rounds of level par and a four-over 74 either side of the 62, and the pair of 70’s were impressive enough in their own right. This all led to the South African finishing in a tie 6th at the Open Championship, another solid performance in a big event.
Grace has now finished T6 and T15 in his last two events, which extends a run of some decent results. He finished T27 at the Masters, T11 at the RBC Heritage and T10 at the Valero Texas Open during a good run in April before a relatively average run once again. After a T48 at the Players and before a T50 at the U.S. Open, there was a T9 finish at the BMW PGA Championship to follow up his good showings on the PGA Tour and suggest that he was still in decent form.
To take his game to the next level, Grace needs to turn these good showings in big events into results and a win here would be the natural progression. Two top-5’s at the U.S. Open, a T4 at the PGA Championship and the T6 at the Open Championship two weeks ago show he can mix it with the very best but he still still yet to get over the line in a field of the highest quality.
He has been steadily improving at Firestone finishing 36th and 65th on his first two starts, before finishing 23rd, 17th and 10th on his last three starts at the course. Given his showing at Birkdale and his recent form in America, I thought 50/1 about a player of his calibre was worth chancing this week.
Total Points Staked this week: 5
Profit/Loss for 2017: -17