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This week we move from Jeju Island, South Korea to Mississippi for the Sanderson Farms Championship with the event playing second fiddle to the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai. These alternate, second category PGA Tour events really fascinate me - with only 300 FedEx Cup points up for grabs, and no Masters invite for the winner, the fields are always weak. However rookies, veterans and PGA Tour journeymen flying into Jackson this week all have the opportunity to grab a PGA Tour victory and, more importantly, full playing privileges until the close of 2018/19. It's a huge prize for plenty of players but equally a pressure that a large number of the rank-and-file in attendance will struggle to handle mentally if and when they hit the front.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the WGC HSBC Champions event - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Guide: Despite extending the Country Club of Jackson course by 57 yards last year, the course doesn't hold too many fears for PGA Tour pros. At 7,421 yards for a Par 72, length is pretty standard for these modern times, especially as it's set on a flat property with fairways that are wide by modern standards. Trees are a feature on most holes but they're relatively sparse and the course features plenty of straight holes.
Country Club of Jackson, Jackson, Mississippi: Designer: Wilson, 1962, Fought redesign, 2008; Course Type: Resort; Par: 72; Length: 7,421 yards; Water Hazards: 11; Fairways: Bermudagrass; Rough: Bermudagrass, 2.5"; Greens: 6,200 sq.ft average Champion Ultra Dwarf Bermudagrass; Stimpmeter: 10.5ft. Scoring Average 2014: 71.47 (-0.53), Difficulty Rank 27 of 52 courses. 2015: 70.47 (-1.53), Difficulty Rank 46 of 50 courses. 2016: 71.06 (-0.94), Difficulty Rank of 34 of 50 courses.
Jackson Country Club Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for Jackson CC and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on Tour:
Course Overview: The course is a mixture of 2 sets of 9 holes, namely Azalea and Dogwood. John Fought, who re-modelled the course in 2008, is an admirer of Donald Ross's work and as such it's interesting to note that green complexes on the whole are raised and have run-off areas similar to many a Ross design. Greens are pretty average in size - 6,200 sq.ft. average - and feature Champion Bermudagrass, the likes of which were found at previous tournament host course Annandale, but also feature at TPC Southwind, RTJ Trail (Grand National) and Sedgefield (since 2012). Visually the course looks quite tight with Nick Taylor, Peter Malnati and Cody Gribble all ending up mid-division for driving accuracy when winning across the 3 tournaments hosted here in Jackson, Mississippi.
The Country Club of Jackson does present a level of challenge and interestingly we've seen both relatively fast and soft conditions across the 3 renewals held here. Greens tend to be receptive here, but it'll be interesting to see if scoring differs this week as we'll see uncharacteristically chilly conditions rather than the standard 27-28 degrees Celsius. 27th out of 52 courses in terms of difficulty in 2014 was followed by 46th out of 50 courses (soft) and 34th out of 50 courses 12 months ago. The key to contending here seems to be to unlock a relatively difficult set of par-5s - 8th most difficult for Birdie or Better Conversion in 2016 - whilst scoring well on a set of par-4s that are far easier in comparison. Taylor, Malnati and Gribble all topped the field for birdies made on their way to victories here.
Interestingly the top 5 on the leaderboard here last year all featured in the top 11 for Strokes Gained Off the Tee. If that remains the case in 2017, power off the tee is no bad thing. Greens are easy to hit here even with fast stimp conditions, but putting on these Champion Bermudagrass greens isn't easy with Birdie or Better Conversion with the putter being the 28th, 15th and 14th most difficult on Tour across the opening 3 tournaments hosted here. So we're looking for players who are currently scoring well on par-5s, can naturally make birdies and who are confident putters on Bermudagrass.
Winners: 2016: Cody Gribble (-20); 2015: Peter Malnati (-18); 2014: Nick Taylor (-16); 2013: Woody Austin (-20); 2012: Scott Stallings (-24); 2011: Chris Kirk (-22); 2010: Bill Haas (-15).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Tom Lovelady, Chesson Hadley, Brice Garnett, Matt Every and Andrew Landry.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Wyndham Championship and includes PGA Tour, European Tour and web.com Playoff events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2016: Gribble 125/1; 2015: Malnati 250/1; 2014: Taylor 400/1; 2013: Austin 125/1; 2012: Stallings 100/1; 2011: Kirk 30/1; 2010: Haas 22/1. Average: 150/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Jackson is here. 23mm of rain across Saturday and Sunday will lead to lush conditions across the opening stages of the tournament. You would expect the effect of precipitation in Mississippi to be relatively limited due to the hot temperatures of the area, but a northerly breeze (10 mph, gusting to 15 mph at points) will see temperatures plummet. Bests of 14 degrees and 12 degrees Celsius across Saturday and Sunday here in Jackson are half what we saw 12 months ago. There's also the distinct possibility of rainfall overnight on Friday evening, making this a soft course assignment.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of CC of Jackson G&CC winners since 2014 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how the Country Club of Jackson sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Cody Gribble (2016): "Well, first, being in the South, growing up on Bermuda fairways, Bermuda greens, it's something difficult, I think. There were some places in there, I think even on 15 - I think it was 15, yeah, there's some grain running into you. It's not a comfortable feeling when you're having to hit a chip that all that grain is tight going into you. That's something I've been able to learn from a young age, and Randy has done a really good job helping me do that through the years. It goes down to just knowing where the pin is at on every green, and do you have a miss, knowing your misses, knowing where to miss the ball, knowing where you can't miss the ball. I think in the last 54 holes, I've made one bogey, and that was on 12, and the pin was front right, and you cannot miss that ball right. I looked at Bob, and I was like - I watched Andres Romero hit a shot almost in the water left, and he was in a better position than I was 20 feet right of the hole."
Peter Malnati (2015): "I mean, the course suits my strengths really well. Several of the par-4s I'm able to hit a short iron into. Because of the wetness, the softness of the conditions, I think that sort of neutralized the par-5s. Some of the longer hitters were probably able to get up there in two on the par-5s, but I'd say the majority of the field probably couldn't, so the par-5s became a bit of a wedge contest, which plays right into my hands. Like I said, several of the par-4s give you a short iron; plays right into my hands. And then the two holes that you would kind of pinpoint as being longer holes, 16 and 18, I really played well all week. I hit it in the water on 16 in the first round I remember, but outside of that, I think I made nothing but pars, maybe a birdie or two even on 16 and 18. If I have a week where I'm going to take those long par-4s and play them well, I really feel like that's the week when I'm going to be up there and be in contention, and sure enough, it was this week."
Nick Taylor (2014): "Yeah, the finishing holes 16, 17, 18, it was a good finish. But there were some tougher holes, I think. Some scoring holes on the back nine, both par 5s you can get to the front of the green or around them. 15, I did, and I hit it 20 yards from the green. So I'm not sure if it opened the tee up, but a lot of guys hit driver into that. There were some scoring holes, but you have to hit the fairways on all the par 4s to have a chance to go at the pins because if you have the wet Bermuda, it's tough to judge coming out of there, and the greens are so quick. So fairways are key for sure, but they're definitely scoring."
David Toms (2014): "I'm keeping the ball in play off the tee, which is a big deal. Obviously on a golf course like this, it's pretty tight. I've been real patient with my iron shots. When I have a good number and feel good about the club and where the pin is, I'm pretty aggressive, but when I'm in between clubs or the pin is in a spot where I don't feel good, then I'm backing off and hitting to the middle of the green and just taking my two putt and getting out. I think having a pretty good game plan, not necessarily before I start but once you're into the round and really picking the spots to be aggressive."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 3 Sanderson Farms Championship winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2013:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave and winning score since the tournament moved to CC of Jackson in 2014. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
It's clear that up until this point the Sanderson Farms Championship has been volatile in terms of its winners since it moved to its autumn spot in the wraparound season format. Tour rookie Nick Taylor was a 400/1 shot in 2014 and although Peter Malnati had a season's PGA Tour experience behind him, his best main Tour finish before arriving in Mississippi had been 14th in Puerto Rico 18 months earlier. Malnati scored in Mississippi at 250/1 with a few punters stumbling on him mainly because he lived down the road in Knoxville, had won on Bermudagrass greens in Brazil on the web.com Tour earlier in the season and was known for his birdie-making style in softer conditions. Cody Gribble last term was a well-backed form horse who had finished 5th in his last web.com Tour outing and a comfortable 9th on his PGA Tour debut 2 weeks prior in Napa, California. Plenty of punters scored on the Texan rookie at a rather tasty 125/1.
Other alternate tournament winners and odds since the new style PGA Tour season was put in place can be seen here: Stroud (80/1), Murray (66/1), Points (175/1), Baddeley (55/1), Chalmers (300/1), Finau (50/1), Piercy (25/1), Henry (80/1), Cejka (125/1), Ogilvy (40/1) and Hadley (50/1). Chesson Hadley was the highest ranked of these in 2014 when he won the Puerto Rico Open at 92nd in the OWGR.
Since 2010, only Cody Gribble (125/1) and Scott Brown (50/1) at the 2013 Puerto Rico Open have won one of these alternate events after entering the tournament off the back of a top-10 finish. So not selecting a player based purely on strong immediate form would be a mistake. That philosophy links in well to the psyche of players who enter these second tier tournaments knowing they can win - a pressure that they generally aren't comfortable with.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
Austin Cook was the first to jump out at me from this week's entry list. A web.com graduate and first season rookie on the PGA Tour, the 26 year-old is an undoubted talent who's the sort who may well feature this week. web.com Tour numbers of 7th for Scoring Average, 15th for Total Driving, 12th for Greens in Regulation, 11th for Scrambling, 35th for Putting Average and 5th for All-Round highlight a player who's well rounded and despite finishing 15th in the Regular Season Money List, he also finished 20th in the Tour Finals with finishes of 9th at the Boise Open, 11th at the DAP Championship and 8th at the web.com Tour Championship. 8 top-10s across the season was only equalled by Andrew Landry. So clearly Cook has aptitude at the lower level, but there are a couple of other angles I really like. A Little Rock, Arkansas born and educated individual, Cook will hold the Sanderson Farms Championship in high regard as he still lives in the state which is directly to the west of Mississippi. But another huge positive with Cook is that he has experience on the PGA Tour. Back in 2014 he Monday qualified for the St Jude Classic and went on to finish an impressive 12th in his first professional tournament. He qualified again for the 2015 Houston Open and played with Phil Mickelson in Saturday's final group (shooting -2/70), going on to finish 11th. Other limited 2015 main Tour outings produced 22nd at The St Jude Classic (2nd after 36 holes), 6th at the Barbasol Championship (an alternate event in nearby Alabama), 7th at the RBC Canadian Open and 22nd at the Barracuda Championship. He was a 20/1 shot back then at Montreux and makes plenty of sense this week.
Luke Donald 1pt EW 50/1 Donald WD pre-event.
Luke Donald has a long history of going well on Bermudagrass greens and with the strength of field on offer this week in Mississippi I can see the Hemel Hempstead former World Number 1 having a good week. Despite a steady decline in his recent career, his results on Bermudagrass greens have still been strong: 4th at Copperhead (2014), 2nd at Harbour Town (2014), 7th at PGA National (2015), 2nd at Harbour Town (2016), 2nd at Sedgefield (2016) and 2nd at Harbour Town (2017) tells its own story and on a course where excellent putting is the key, Luke may well like his first trip to Mississippi since 2003. Back then a young and hungry 25 year-old won his first PGA Tour title at this tournament which was then entitled the Southern Farm Bureau Classic and was played at Annandale. That win catapulted Donald into the OWGR top 100 and a year later he came to defend finishing 10th. 4 of his 5 PGA Tour titles have all been on Bermudagrass greens and Luke has shown some form 2 outings ago at the Dunhill Links Championship where he shot 66-69 over the weekend to finish 7th. 21 birdies was a feature that week and undoubtedly Donald has been working hard on his tee-to-green game as he was 7th for Greens in Regulation in Scotland and 20th in the same category on the tiny greens at Monza last time out. That is a huge step forward and he mentioned that the small changes to his swing he has been working on all year have become almost automatic. If the putter fires this week he can feature.
New World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Davis Love III shows no sign of slowing down and his golf since the start of July has been decent enough. The victorious 2016 Ryder Cup captain and 2017 Presidents Cup captain's assistant seems inspired to keep playing top-level golf - a win at the age of 53 would make him the oldest ever to capture a PGA Tour victory and it may not be as far-fetched at is sounds. Remember that Davis won the 2015 Wyndham Championship at 51 and his play since the start of July has been excellent. 29th at the Greenbrier Classic saw Love shoot 63-69-68 to be in 5th spot going into Sunday. A return to Sedgefield Country Club saw Davis in contention throughout, eventually finishing 10th, and since then 10th at the Champions Tour Pure Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach and 28th at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia highlight a player who keeps playing great golf - an opening round of -5/67 was good enough for 8th in Malaysia. 3rd (2012) and 4th (2005) at TPC Southwind allied to his Sedgefield win and 10th place finish highlight a player very comfortable on Champion Bermudagrass greens.
Big Tom Lovelady could be a surprise package this week. A powerful hitter who ranked 3rd for Driving Distance, 1st for Birdie Average, 1st for par-5 Scoring Average and 10th for All-Round on the web.com Tour this year, the Jupiter, Florida resident has a power-packed game. Raised and educated in nearby Birmingham, Alabama, CC of Jackson will undoubtedly feel like home this week. 3rd at the Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship played at Ohio State Golf Club last month guaranteed Tom his spot on the PGA Tour this season and that tournament seemingly links well to the Sanderson Farms Championship. Every winner around Ohio State GC since 2013 has finished in the top 10 in Jackson - Seung-yul Noh (2013), Justin Thomas (2014), Andrew Loupe (2015), Grayson Murray (2016) and Peter Uihlein (2017) have finished 8th, 4th, 10th, 8th and 4th here. Throw in defending champion Cody Gribble who was 5th at Ohio State preceding his victory here, plus top 5 finishers Luke List, Lucas Glover and Xander Schauffele, all of whom have top 9 finishes at Oho State, and you can see the link is strong. Lovelady played well enough on his PGA Tour debut at Silverado last time out finishing 43rd and in the top 10 in the field for Birdies. I can see the Predictor Number 1 finding the test this week far more to his liking.
Putters thrive at the CC of Jackson and Brian Gay had a little renaissance last season, making the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the first time in 4 seasons. 13th at Waialae, 6th at Harbour Town, 6th at TPC San Antonio, and 3rd at RTJ Trail were the main points providers, with the Texan finishing the season 16th for his trademark Strokes Gained Putting. Bermudagrass is dominant across all of those courses and although we're taking a slight step into the unknown with Brian this week on the basis he's never played this course competitively, it's a pretty educated guess to assume he'll like it, especially if softer conditions make this more of a wedge-fest on a couple of the long par-5s. His record starting in Mississippi and across neighbouring states is a little eye-opening: starting in Louisiana he was 5th at English Turn in 2001; 5th (2004), 4th (2007), 1st (2009) and 6th (2016) at TPC Southwind in Tennessee; 3rd at RTJ Golf Trail in Alabama last year and 2nd at Annandale here in Mississippi in 2008. A 3-time winner on Bermudagrass greens, the last of which coming in 2013 at PGA West, Gay has a history of taking advantage of these alternate events as well. His first Tour win was at the Mayakoba Classic at El Camaleon in 2008, which he backed-up again with 5th in 2011. 3rd at the Barbasol Championship on his second-last visit to the Southern States bodes well for this week.
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