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The 7th AT&T National tournament takes place for the 5th time at the Congressional Country Club in the suburbs of Washington this week. Organised by the Tiger Woods Foundation and held in honour of the United States Military, the National marks the 5th and final invitational status tournament of the 2013 PGA Tour, following on from Bay Hill, Harbour Town, Colonial and Muirfield. An invitational tournament field is smaller than a regular PGA Tour event and in 2013 the field features 132 players, up from 120 in previous years, so as to give more players an opportunity to play given the shortened August ending regular season.
This week's field is interesting in itself as Tiger Woods (strained left elbow) and Justin Rose (fatigue) don't feature in it after being scheduled to play. Rory McIlroy, who loves the Blue Course at Congressional after winning the 2011 US Open here, has again chosen to play the Irish Open, as has Graham McDowell. Of the rest of the World's Top 10 players, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald and Louis Oosthuizen have all passed on taking an invite to play for varying reasons. So, in essence, the field is light on real depth of quality and that's never a great thing at an invitational with a smaller field. So it should come as no surprise that the golf odds compilers have been harsh this week, especially when a glance at the AT&T National champions list highlights high-class luminaries such as Tiger Woods (09/12), K.J. Choi (07), Anthony Kim (08), Justin Rose (10) and Nick Watney (11). The rank-and-file or Tour maiden doesn't feature. So Adam Scott starts as the 12/1 favourite, from Jason Day (14/1), Hunter Mahan (16/1), Brandt Snedeker (20/1) and the tremendously in-form Billy Horschel (22/1). Even Tour maiden Graham Delaet starts as short as 33/1 this week.
Last week I highlighted what will be key motivating factors at this late June point of the season and, sure enough, non-Open Championship qualifier Ken Duke popped up to win his first ever PGA Tour title at TPC River Highlands last week and move into 20th spot in the FedEx Cup standings. So to recap:
Now let's get this straight, the Blue Course at Congressional is an absolute monster. Re-designed to host the 2011 US Open, the course now plays at 7,569 yards, making it the second longest course on the PGA Tour and a Par 71 to boot! Many were surprised last season when Tiger Woods won the tournament by 2 shots from Bo Van Pelt with a winning score of -8/276, which was 9 shots higher than Rory McIlroy's record US Open winning score of -17/267. That made Congressional the hardest of all non-Major courses in 2012 with an average 73.06 or +2.06 shots above Par per round. However to put things into context, Rory's win in 2011 was powered by extremely soft course conditions, which certainly wasn't the case 12 months ago and it's worth remembering that McIlroy won by 9 shots from Jason Day.
One look at the Blue Course and you can see that this is a totally different test from the TPC River Highlands, Merion and St Jude tests of the previous 3 weeks. 7 Par 4s measure over 460 yards, with the signature 18th measuring 523 yards. The 6th hole is the shortest Par 5 at 555 yards and 2 of the course's Par 3s measure 218 and 233 yards respectively. Fairways are hard to hit, uneven in their profile and the Fescue rough is expected to be at 4" and non-graduated. Greens were the 7th hardest to hit in 2012 and that wasn't aided by pure bentgrass surfaces that, in general, tilt from back to front and ran to 14.5 on the Stimpmeter. That's Augusta fast!
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The weather in Maryland has been dry in the run-up to the AT&T and apart from some potential thunderstorms there will need to be a considerable deluge pre-tournament to make the Blue Course play anything apart from firm and fast. Expect this classical gem to play technical tough - and that's with winds that are forecast to be tranquil.
Apart from Tiger Woods in 2009 no player has finished in the Top 6 of the US Open and gone on to win the AT&T National. In reality it would have been easy to build cases for Jason Day (desperately needs a 2nd PGA Tour 'W'), Billy Horschel (playing the Jason Dufner role of attempting to gatecrash the US Presidents Cup team) or Hunter Mahan (winless in 2013). Adam Scott is a worthy favourite but only TW and Zach Johnson have become Masters Champion and gone on to win a PGA Tour title in the same season since 2000. So I'm sticking to my guns and offering up Brandt Snedeker as a credible winner this week at a course where he has had real success in the past. 17th at Merion, 8th at TPC Sawgrass and 6th at Augusta is the kind of understated form that I'm looking for and his CV is littered with Par 71 and Par 72 success. Motivation-wise I think Brandt wants to prove to himself that he can contend before the Open Championship in July and the AT&T National fits the bill perfectly. Traditionally a great putter and scrambler, Snedeker has added steel and consistency to his ball-striking in 2013, where he ranks in the Top 25 for the first time in his career. The forecast lack of wind this week will aid his chances and the AT&T National throws up a lot of winners who'd won previously that season. Sneds is available at 18/1 - 6 Places EW with BetVictor. RESULT: T8
In my mind Rickie Fowler is always at his strongest on classical, testing Par 72 tests. It's no surprise then to see that Rickie's best results this season have come at Bay Hill (3rd) and Torrey Pines (6th), both tournaments where we were on board. So after being burned a few times recently by not keeping a consistent strategy with 'target' players and missing out on 100/1 (Weekley) + 66/1 (English) winners as a consequence, I'm loath to leave Fowler behind on a course that I'm sure will suit the Jupiter, Florida-based player who is now in his 4th season on the PGA Tour. Fowler won his first Tour title last season at Quail Hollow (classical bentgrass green Par 72) and he has also finished 2nd at Muirfield (on debut in 2010), 2nd at Firestone (2011) and 5th at Torrey Pines (2010). Fowler sat 9th at Augusta back in April, before capitulating on Sunday and that sent his form into a mini slump, but 10th at Merion 2 weeks ago (his 2nd Major Top 10) and a half-decent 13th last week at TPC River Highlands which featured a tidy tee-to-green game, suggests to me that Fowler is ripe to contend this week at the Blue Course which he has experience of via the 2011 US Open. Interestingly Fowler needs to win or go on a serious Top 5 run to grab an automatic Presidents Cup spot. Fowler is available at 28/1 (5 places EW) with Betfair Fixed Odds. RESULT: T21
Martin Laird, like Snedeker, thrives on longer Par 71 and Par 72 setups so I'm more than happy to add the Scotsman to this week's Congressional team. It's a strange time for Laird who is enjoying another season of success on the PGA Tour and competing well in high-profile tournaments. Despite beating Rory McIlroy into 2nd place at TPC San Antonio (technical, long Par 72) the weekend prior to Augusta (qualifying for The Masters in the process) and finishing a fantastic 5th at TPC Sawgrass (technical Par 72) last month, the World Number 54 is an outsider looking in when it comes to the Open Championship next month which naturally is being hosted in his homeland. His only route into The Open is to grab a FedEx Cup Top 20 exemption (he currently sits 27th) or, if that fails, win at Deere Run. Laird will be all too aware that he has a great chance this week on a course that provides a little width off the tee which suits his long driving, allied to a high ball flight which works well on firm putting surfaces. A lack of wind will work for Martin this week and I'm keen on a 3-time PGA Tour winner whose wins at TPC Summerlin (bentgrass green Par 71) in 2009, Bay Hill (classical long Par 72) in 2011) and TPC San Antonio this season all have merits when linking form-wise to Congressional. 11th here last season and boosted by a US Open best 21st at an 'alien' Merion a fortnight ago. RESULT: T54
I highlighted at TPC Four Seasons a few weeks back that 'El Pato' is a focussed individual in 2013 and that he's having by far his best PGA Tour season since 2009 where he qualified for his one and only Tour Championship and won the little matter of a Green Jacket into the bargain. Grabbing an automatic qualification spot in the International Presidents Cup team seems to be his main focus and, to that end, the Argentinean has risen from a season starting 267 on the OWGR to his current 55th rank, powered by a magnificent 2nd at Augusta, a win the week after at the Abierto del Centro tournament (in Argentina) and some decent results in domestic PGA Tour action, including a fast finishing 9th at TPC River Highlands on Sunday. That currently places him 'on the bubble' in an automatic 10th spot in Nick Price's squad and Angel is savvy enough to know that a Top 5 this week at a Congressional course that is sure to suit will pretty much seal the deal. Recent bentgrass form of 12(TPC Four Seasons)-31(Colonial)-9(TPC River Highlands) were all on tight Par 70's where his big hitting style gets cramped, so Congressional will be like heaven to him this week. Discount his 2 MCs here as the 2-time Major winner wasn't as motivated back then; instead focus on a game that delivered 70% of greens hit last week and 3 sub-1.8 bentgrass putting performances across his last 3 domestic PGA Tour outings. You've been warned........he's ready. Cabrera is available at 80/1 (5 places EW) with Betfair Fixed Odds. RESULT: T13
We can all remember Marc Leishman's sterling performance at Augusta in April when he tamed the fast bentgrass putting surfaces to capture his first Major Top 5 finish. Fact is, Marc gravitates to the top of leaderboards at harder golf courses where scoring is higher so it's no surprise to see that his best performances on the PGA Tour have been at Torrey Pines (classical Par 72), Bay Hill (classical Par 72), TPC Four Seasons (technical Par 70 with bentgrass greens) and Cog Hill (classical long Par 71 with bentgrass greens). To be fair, I was dumbstruck when he captured his first PGA Tour title when he shot a blistering final round 62 to capture The Travelers title at TPC River Highlands 12 months ago, but I'm liking Marc for a number of reasons this week. Firstly, he's still in decent nick. Secondly, he's bentgrass putting surface positive and thirdly, he needs to perform right now to qualify for the Open Championship (has to be same route as Laird) and to grab a Presidents Cup spot (he sits 13th in the standings currently). Leishman has played both tournaments on the 'new' Blue Course finishing 51st at the US Open and 32nd at the AT&T National last year, the week after winning at TPC River Highlands. With a high target score expected this week Marc is a great addition at 20/1 for a Top 6. RESULT: MC
I'll close this week with an 'insurance' enhanced win-only bet on Jason Day. Yes, he's only won once on the PGA Tour and yes he finished 2nd at the US Open a fortnight ago, but I've been a supporter of our Predictor Model Number 1 pick since 2010. Fact is, he's far too good a player not to win soon and Congressional is just about the perfect track for the talented World Number 18, as it rewards tactical placement, patience, scrambling, long hitting and a liking for the fastest bentgrass greens. A classical technical course 'monster' who knows in his own mind that a win this week will prove all the doubters wrong and be the perfect platform to challenge for Majors in the very near future. RESULT: T21