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After another exciting finish at TPC Sawgrass last week, we move onto the seemingly more tranquil atmosphere of Irving, Texas and the HP Byron Nelson Championship. In the past this tournament was one of the serious domestic events on the PGA Tour where the all of the leading players would gather for the first time after Augusta at the start of April. However those days are long gone and this week Louis Oosthuizen, at 10th in the world, is the highest ranked player in attendance.
Now the fact that Oosthuizen and his close friend Charl Schwartzel are playing both TPC Four Seasons and Colonial CC over the coming 2 weeks is interesting. Both are giving the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth a miss in favour of the second half of the 'Texas Swing'. The reasoning behind this is that TPC Four Seasons isn't your standard PGA Tour track and that can be seen in the Champions list since the D.A. Weibring and Steve Wolford-inspired 2008 course re-design which reads: Adam Scott (08), Rory Sabbatini, Jason Day, Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner. Five world-class players all of whom have contended in WGC and Major Championships, even though Bradley's win in 2011 preceded his Atlanta Athletic Club heroics later that season.
The course itself is extremely technical for a PGA Tour host course. It's main defence mechanism is the infamous Texas wind and winning total scores of 273(-7), 261(-19), 270(-10), 277(-3) and 269 (-11) were all dictated by the strength or total lack of (in 2009) wind in Irving. Naturally the 7,166 yard Par 70 only features 2 Par 5s, both of which are reachable and have to be maximised to contend especially when the wind blows. High winds were a feature across 2 days of both the 2011 and 2012 renewals at TPC Four Seasons and that made the course the 3rd and 4th most challenging Par 70 in non-Majors across those respective seasons. As I write this commentary, 20+ mph wind is forecast across the full 4 days of tournament with only Thursday and Friday early starters looking to have slightly calmer conditions.
I'm expecting a winning total of around -10/270 being required to get the job done this week, so ball striking, scrambling and bogey avoidance will be key constituents of any player wishing to contend this week. The Bentgrass greens are always fairly slow by US standards and pre-event rain will make the greens slightly more receptive. However with tough windy conditions forecast this won't be a putting contest so I'm looking for players who have a strong record of success on technical high-scoring tracks. Previous season experience on Bentgrass greens is vital and I'm also favouring longer hitters from the tee as the past 5 champions are all 290+ yard drivers of the golf ball.
If you're looking for an identikit of the perfect player for TPC Four Seasons I wouldn't look too much further than Louis Oosthuizen who, for me, should go extremely well on his 2nd appearance here this week. We all know that Louis is both long and accurate from the tee and when his game is in full flow he hits plenty of greens in regulation. Last season's missed cut is of no concern to me as he was in an inevitable mini-slump after an early April that had featured finishing 2nd at Augusta and winning the week after in Kuala Lumpur. Louis is a decent enough wind player - he's the 2010 Open Champion after all - who sat tied for 7th after a windy 54 holes at the similar Colonial setup 51 weeks ago. He thrives on Bent greened putting surfaces and his performance at TPC Boston last September highlights his liking for rained-softened receptive greens. He finally managed to get his head around TPC Sawgrass last week where he ranked 12th in Greens Hit on his way to a comfortable 19th place finish and his recent Bentgrass green form reads 6(Blackstone)-MC(Augusta)-10(Redstone)-6(Lake Maleren). Not too shabby. RESULT: WD
Mark Leishman has the momentum, the game and the motivation to win his 2nd PGA Tour victory this week at TPC Four Seasons. His 4th place finish at Augusta was fantastic and brought the Virginia-based Victorian to the attention of millions of golf fans across the globe. But that 4th place finish doesn't guarantee Leishman an appearance at any more of this seasons' WGCs or Major Championships. No, instead Mark needs to be in the OWGR Top 60 after Colonial in a fortnight to qualify for the US Open. But you get the feeling with Leishman that all he's focussed on right now is continuing to play well whilst his form is hot and with a plethora of Bentgrass-greened courses next on the schedule he can truly make the breakthrough and establish himself as a world Top 50 player over the coming weeks. That process starts at TPC Four Seasons where his tournament form is excellent with an 8th on debut here in 2009, 12th in 2010 and 3rd in 2012 behind winner Jason Dufner in windy conditions. Texas has often been kind to Leishman who won his only Nationwide Tour title at Midland Country Club in 2008 and also finished 5th again in the wind at La Cantera GC in 2009 which was his rookie PGA Tour season. 8(TPC Sawgrass)-9(Harbour Town)-4(Augusta) simply highlights how well Marc is playing right now and I'd be surprised not to find him in the mix over the weekend. RESULT: T12
Sea Island, Georgia resident Harris English is one of those rare US players who thrives in windy conditions - hardly surprising I suppose when you live on the eastern seaboard coast. I like Harris who quietly is maturing into a decent PGA Tour professional in his 2nd season on the main Tour and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him contend this week in the Lone Star State where he has performed well previously. 2011 saw English play as an Amateur on the Nationwide Tour and he managed to win at Ohio State GC (Bentgrass greens), finish 2nd in Texas at Midland Country Club (Bent/Poa greens) and finish 3rd at the tight and technical Miccosukee G&CC where Keegan Bradley finished 3rd the season before winning here. Don't ever think that English can't putt well on Bent greens!
Harris' first season on the PGA Tour last year saw him finish in the Top 10 at Harbour Town (Technical Par 70 type setup), Sedgefield (Par 70) and 5th in very windy conditions here in Texas at nearby Colonial. He actually caught my radar at PGA National last March where he shot a 3rd Round 66 in windy conditions which meant he went out in the final group with Rory McIlroy, so it was no surprise to see that he has played well in windy conditions at Colonial, Sea Island and Copperhead recently. There are no doubts that English prefers Par 70 layouts and his 2 latest appearances - 33rd at TPC Sawgrass and a 6th at TPC Louisiana - included strong Greens in Regulation and Putting Average stats. Top 10s at Waialae, Copperhead and TPC Louisiana highlight a young player who could thrive this week at a great price. RESULT: T17
There's no doubt in my mind that Angel Cabrera right now is as serious about his golf as he's been since 2009 when he played and finished 13th in the Tour Championship in his one and only appearance at the PGA Tour finale. Back then he not only won The Masters, but also took some non-Majors very seriously such as the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone where he finished 4th and the Deutsche Bank at TPC Boston where he also finished 4th. 2009 also coincided with the Presidents Cup where Cabrera successfully made the International Team for the 3rd time in his career. Now I'm seeing parallels in 2013 where 2 recent domestic wins in Argentina, plus 8 pay cheques from 10 appearances on the PGA Tour, have led to a new-found consistency of performance not seen since the aforementioned 2009.
Cabrera as ever is striking the ball hard from the tee, but is finding fairways and greens far more consistently and his performance in the breeze at Augusta was brilliant. So is the upsurge in form anything to do with qualifying for the Presidents Cup this September? Well in my opinion it's no coincidence as Angel sits in 14th place and this week sees the World Number 65 making his debut on the Bentgrass greens of TPC Four Seasons, a course that I think will suit his game well. Technical high-scoring conditions will aid the motivated 2-time Major Champion. RESULT: T12
Tough conditions are a great leveller and 'strange' names can rise to the tops of leaderboards. Take here 12 months ago when Dicky Pride, J.J. Henry and Joe Durant came out of nowhere to contend. Well I always look out for Andres Romero as a surprise package and he's well worth covering this week at a tasty price. Romero is as streaky and unpredictable as they come, but in general he prefers Bentgrass putting surfaces and is an extremely strong wind player.
It's been a long time since Romero hit the scene with impressive performances on the European Tour, but a CV that contains 3rd/8th at The Open, 6th at Firestone in 2007 and a win at TPC Louisiana in 2009 highlights a player than can play in high-scoring conditions. Since those heady days Romero has remained winless on the PGA Tour, but 4th at TPC Old White (Par 70 -9), 3rd at Shaughnessy (Par 70 -3) both in 2011 and 2nd at Muirfield Village (Bent greens -7) behind Tiger Woods last year highlight a player who's comfortable when scoring is high. Romero also found a hot putter last week at TPC Sawgrass and that's interesting because across the Bentgrass greens of TPC Four Seasons, Colonial and Muirfield last season the Argentine ranked 6th, 10th and 3rd in Putting Average. With wind likely to cause some serious damage this week don't be surprised to see Romero gravitate towards the upper echelons of the leaderboard. RESULT: MC