Paul Williams

Paul Williams' WGC FedEx St Jude Invitational Tips

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Congratulations to the many Shane Lowry backers who cashed winning tickets of anything up to the 70/1 he was quoted early last week. It was a sublime performance from the Irishman who ticked many boxes despite finishing a lowly 51st at Portrush in 2012 and having missed his previous 4 Open Championship cuts. None of that mattered though as the 33 year-old stormed clear on Saturday and held his nerve in tough conditions on Sunday to impressively – and deservedly – take his first Major title. With celebrations running through the night, it will be interesting to see what kind of shape he arrives here in Memphis in – if he arrives at all that is!

On to this week then and despite the Major season having finished and The Masters some 260-odd days away, we still have a lot of top-class golf to enjoy before the year’s through. This week’s event is effectively the promotion of the FedEx St Jude Classic to WGC Invitational status with the Bridgestone Invitational held at Firestone making way. A limited field of 64 players and no halfway cut will see the bulk of the world’s top 50, plus qualifiers, battle it out for the title. Notables not taking part this week include Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler and Francesco Molinari, however a few names aside he have an excellent field to try to decipher here.

With a wealth of data from the FedEx St Jude Classic which has been hosted here at TPC Southwind since 1989, we have a starting point at least this week. The Classic was traditionally the warm-up event for the US Open so attendance from this week’s field wasn’t universal by any stretch of the imagination, however many have played here before and in Dustin Johnson we have a 2-time course winner. Whilst the course has been a constant through the event’s transition to WGC status, its scheduling immediately after The Open does create another dynamic with a large proportion of this week’s field flying straight over from Northern Ireland, either following an early exit on Friday or a gruelling Sunday in the wind and rain.

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Course Overview.

TPC Southwind, Germantown, Memphis, Tennessee: Designer Ron Pritchard 1987 with PGA Tour re-design 2004; Course Type: Technical; Par: 70; Length: 7,244 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 8; Fairways: Zoysiagrass; Rough: Bermudagrass 2.5″; Greens: 5,420 sq.ft average featuring Champion Bermudagrass; Tournament Stimp: 11ft.

TPC Southwind is a tough, technical track, but it’s not only the course that’s difficult as sweltering temperatures in Memphis traditionally turned this tournament in its pre-WGC guise into a real grind. Bermuda rough at 2.5″ doesn’t help the scoring and Southwind also features 8 par-4s of over 450 yards and only 2 par-5s to take advantage of. Green complexes aren’t huge and feature Champion Bermudagrass which isn’t to every player’s taste. You can also say the same about the Zoysiagrass fairways which many say promote flyers.

Hitting the tight, Zoysia (a grass shared only with East Lake, Trinity Forest and last year’s US PGA venue Bellerive) fairways is a huge challenge, but in essence a lack of driving accuracy isn’t a huge penalty here as the average winner’s rank for accuracy across the past 9 years is 33rd. Instead the key to unlocking Southwind is a mixture of patience, aggression on the right holes and mastering of the Champion Bermuda putting surfaces which aren’t for the faint hearted. Birdies come at a real premium; on the flip side both of the par-5s, namely the 3rd and the 16th, are eagle opportunities. It’s all about being aggressive at the right times as purely grinding pars is not enough.

Greens feature Champion Bermudagrass. These greens can be found across PGA Tour events at Quail Hollow (Wells Fargo Championship), Sedgefield Country Club (Wyndham Championship), Trinity Forest (Byron Nelson Championship), the Country Club of Jackson (Sandersons Farms Championship) and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (Barbasol Championship). The 2011 PGA Championship hosted at Atlanta Athletic Cub and won by Keegan Bradley also featured Champion Bermudagrass putting surfaces.

Let’s take a view from players as to how TPC Southwind has set up in the past and what skill-sets the course favours:

Daniel Berger: “This golf course is playing tougher than last year. You just have to hit it in the fairway, otherwise it’s difficult to get it close and as the week goes on, its going to get firmer and faster so it will be even tougher. As a group we made some birdies early, but the momentum fizzled out. That was mainly because we didn’t hit enough fairways on the back-9.” Daniel Berger (2016): “My speed control has been great. The greens feel like I’m just at home and, you know, I love the Bermuda and I don’t even read grain here. I just look at it and see it and it’s just from years and years of putting on it. It’s nice to kind of get two grind-out pars on last two holes. It’s the hardest course I’ve ever played in my life. It’s just extremely long and extremely penalizing. The greens are very slopey. You have 10-footers that break four, five feet. Speed control is going to be huge, and fairways.

Fabian Gomez: “I’m the kind of guy that usually, you know, my driver is straight. And in this course, you know, many, many holes you have to be really, you know, competitive with your driver. And also so many holes you need to play like a fade, you know, and I cannot play that for me, really tough to hit a fade and that’s the situation. Also, it’s a course that usually you have to play with the wind. And I’m the kind of player that I feel comfortable playing with the wind, you know.

Greg Owen: “Yeah, the fairways aren’t as firm as they normally are. They firmed up since the practice days because of the rain, but they’re not bouncing like they can do in previous years. The greens are perfect. I mean, they really are good. They’re rolling properly. They’re accepting good shots. It’s all about hitting fairways and greens. I hit most of them today, so it’s always well for a good score. It suits my eye pretty good.

Ben Crane: “I got in the rough a number of times. I’ll tell you what, this is no golf course to play from the rough. It makes it so difficult. You get a lot of fliers, hard to control the ball. Scrambling around these greens is just incredibly difficult with the rough around the greens. Grainy lies. It makes some of the guys look silly. I’m telling you, this is a tough golf course right now. It’s drying out and, you know, I mean, I think single digits might even win this tournament. Kind of depends what a few guys do. It is a very tough test of golf right now.

Lee Westwood:It’s quite tight. You need to drive the ball straight although, you know, it does give you opportunities, you know, where it’s not driver on every hole as well. But there is a massive premium on hitting the fairways here. You know, holes like 18, 12, you know, if you’re not in the fairway there and 15, you can make par difficult. So, you know, the fact I think it tests up every aspect of your game. You got to drive the ball well and hit the fairway. Lots of greens sort of run across you so not only got to hit the right distance and the right line and right distance as well. The greens are immaculate, really. There’s no excuses for not making putts.

Retief Goosen: “I like this golf course. It’s a golf course you need to hit a lot of different kind of shots off the tee. It’s not a golf course that you can just blast away at it, not that I can anymore anyway. So actually a lot of holes now doglegs I don’t have to worry about running out so that’s good. The course is in really good shape. A little bit more rough throughout than there has been in the past. You pretty much have no chance of stopping it on these greens with the rough. Today, I kept it fairly good on the fairway and the back-9 was a couple of bad drives but depends what happens now, the weather this afternoon. If it rains the greens will get softer and make the course play quite a bit different than it did this morning. This course played tough this morning. The fairways running out pretty good and, like I say, some of the greens are really tough to get close. Yeah, it could rain, could have a delay and come back tomorrow morning, no wind and the guys shoot 7, 8-under. Who knows? As it’s playing now, it’s tough out there. Hopefully we won’t get too much rain. I prefer the course to play hard and fast.

Tournament Stats. We’ve published some key player statistics for this week’s WGC that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well on this track: Form/Course Combined Stats | Current Form | Course Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.

Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.

Winners & Prices (FedEx St Jude Classic). 2018: Dustin Johnson, 7/1; 2017: Daniel Berger 28/1; 2016: Daniel Berger 33/1; 2015: Fabian Gomez 400/1; 2014: Ben Crane 175/1; 2013: Harris English 66/1; 2012: Dustin Johnson 20/1; 2011: Harrison Frazar 275/1; 2010: Lee Westwood 12/1.

Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. Hot and sticky conditions are expected throughout with temperatures approaching 90 Fahrenheit in the afternoons with negligible wind speeds.

Tournament Trends & Key Factors.

Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 9 winners of the FedEx St Jude Classic played here before the event gained WGC status gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:

  • 2018, Dustin Johnson (-10). 320 yards (1st), 53.6% fairways (36th), 68.1% greens in regulation (10th), 78.3% scrambling (4th), 1.59 putts per GIR (2nd).
  • 2017, Daniel Berger (-10). 305 yards (14th), 55.4% fairways (36th), 68.1% greens in regulation (10th), 65.2% scrambling (38th), 1.69 putts per GIR (21st).
  • 2016, Daniel Berger (-13). 310 yards (6th), 60.7% fairways (11th), 75.0% greens in regulation (1st), 66.7% scrambling (24th), 1.69 putts per GIR (15th).
  • 2015, Fabian Gomez (-15). 293 yards (39th), 53.6% fairways (43rd), 68.1% greens in regulation (8th), 73.9% scrambling (8th), 1.61 putts per GIR (4th).
  • 2014, Ben Crane (-10). 271 yards (62nd), 58.9% fairways (30th), 58.3% greens in regulation (47th), 83.3% scrambling (2nd), 1.69 putts per GIR (14th).
  • 2013, Harris English (-12). 290 yards (69th), 53.6% fairways (40th), 66.7% greens in regulation (9th), 70.8% scrambling (17th), 1.69 putts per GIR (14th).
  • 2012, Dustin Johnson (-9). 301 yards (21st), 57.1% fairways (18th), 69.4% greens in regulation (4th), 68.2% scrambling (7th), 1.74 putts per GIR (28th).
  • 2011, Harrison Frazar (-13). 317 yards (1st), 57.1% fairways (46th), 69.4% greens in regulation (8th), 77.3% scrambling (2nd), 1.64 putts per GIR (1st).
  • 2010, Lee Westwood (-11). 302 yards (15th), 60.7% fairways (42nd), 65.3% greens in regulation (9th), 72.0% scrambling (12th), 1.70 putts per GIR (16th).

A razor-sharp short game looks to be the prerequisite at TPC Southwind where simply hitting fairways and greens won’t get the job done. Mastering the gnarly putting surfaces really is the key here, as is top-class scrambling. Only 30 players across 2012-2018 have broken 70% Greens in Regulation at Southwind, so it’s clear that making par from off the green is as critical as maximising the number of greens hit in the first instance.

Current Form: last 10 event form of FedEx St. Jude Classic winners since 2010 reads as follows:

  • 2018: Dustin Johnson: 1/9/2/16/7/59/10/16/17/8
  • 2017: Daniel Berger: MC/7/MC/16/MC/39/5/27/36/65
  • 2016: Daniel Berger: MC/28/11/61/5/10/20/17/9/67
  • 2015: Fabian Gomez: 57/MC/70/47/44/MC/59/MC/27/MC
  • 2014: Ben Crane: 69/69/32/MC/43/MC/MC/MC/MC/37
  • 2013: Harris English; MC/7/57/50/61/MC/6/33/17/MC
  • 2012: Dustin Johnson: MC/38/WD/43/61/5/4/9/35/19
  • 2011: Harrison Frazar: MC/54/51/MC/MC/MC/MC/MC/MC/14
  • 2010: Lee Westwood: 3/2/17/9/30/8/2/38/4/10

Course Form: previous form here at TPC Southwind of those same winners reads as follows:

  • 2018: Dustin Johnson: 1/10/24/5
  • 2017: Daniel Berger: 1
  • 2016: Daniel Berger: Debut
  • 2015: Fabian Gomez: 15/MC
  • 2014: Ben Crane: MC/6/33/39/14/12/MC/18
  • 2013: Harris English: Debut
  • 2012: Dustin Johnson: Debut
  • 2011: Harrison Frazar: MC/MC/WD/MC/69/14/MC
  • 2010: Lee Westwood: Debut

Previous form and course form pertaining to the winners of the FedEx St Jude Classic in the past may prove to be little more than background information given the event’s new status and position on the schedule. With elite players using TPC Southwind in the past to get their games ready for the US Open, the eventual winner – Dustin Johnson aside – may have had very different motivations than those here this week. That said, 6 of the 9 winners since 2010 had recorded a top-10 finish in one of their previous 4 starts so some indication of form wouldn’t go amiss.

For me, the key to success this week will be from the second shot and in where players who can maximise GIR, and scrambling when inevitably missing greens, will prevail. Par 4 performance is key, however chances must be taken wherever possible and those most comfortable on the Champion Bermuda putting surfaces should hold an advantage. A smattering of recent form is also good, however with this week’s event being so different to a cold, wet and breezy Northern Irish links, I’m not getting too hung up on last week’s result.

My selections are as follows:

Justin Thomas 3pts EW 18/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfred

The bookmakers are struggling to split the 4 players at the top of the leaderboard this week with Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm all rating as 11/1 shots or shorter this week. DJ has won twice around these parts, however he’s been decidedly off the boil since finishing 2nd at Bethpage in May; Rory too will need something of a bounce back to contend this week after missing the cut at Portrush despite his best efforts on Friday. Koepka and Rahm both endured frustrating final days on the Northern Irish coast with JB Holmes’ slow play infuriating the world number 1 and the Spaniard shooting himself in the foot at the start of the round for the second day in succession. Any of the 4 could win of course, however I saw enough in Justin Thomas last week to suggest that he can continue his progress after injury and get back in the winner’s enclosure here this week.

The FedEx St Jude Classic wasn’t a regular fixture on every player’s schedule given its proximity to the US Open, so the tournament’s elevation to WGC level means that a number of players are making their competitive debuts here this week at TPC Southwind, included in that list is Thomas. 4 of the previous 9 winners of the event in its regular PGA Tour event guise have been debutants and given the 26 year-old’s record on Bermuda-greened tests in warmer climes, I suspect he’ll hit the ground running here.

As the regular PGA Tour season works towards its close given the new condensed schedule, few will be fresher than the 26 year-old whose enforced mid-season break due to a wrist injury means he’s played far less golf than most. His long game’s looked in decent enough shape as he’s got himself match fit once again with only the putter lagging behind, however 24 birdies and an eagle at Renaissance Club suggests that his touch is now returning and a 1.58 putting average last week at Royal Portrush bodes well ahead of this week’s task on Champion Bermuda putting surfaces identical to those that produced his maiden Major title back at Quail Hollow in 2017, where he led the field for Total Putting.

On a par-70 layout where scoring on the par-4s will likely play a major part in determining the winner, it’s interesting to note that he ranks 4th for Par-4 Scoring on the PGA Tour for the season-to-date. His last win came at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational last year, the event that made way for the St Jude Classic’s promotion, effectively making him the defending champion of this WGC. He strolled to a 4-stroke victory that week over Kyle Stanley and with 4 top-10 finishes in his last 5 WGC starts, he’s clearly completely comfortable at this kind of level.

For me, another win is just around the corner for the Kentucky man, an assertion that he alluded to in interview at The Open last week, “I feel like I’m really, really playing well, and I’m even closer than I was in the middle of the season into reeling something good off.” 11th last week was frustrating for his backers, however save for a lost ball on the 17th hole as he endured the worst of the squalls, he’d have finished in a loftier position still and undoubtedly a few points shorter in the betting. Nevertheless, that was still a big personal best at The Open for Justin and with his spirits improving by the week I can see him going very close this week. Result: T12

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Andrew Putnam 1pt EW 70/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfred

Despite limping home in 77 strokes on Sunday at Portrush, I saw enough in the 3 rounds prior to that tough closing day to suggest that Andrew Putnam is worthy of an investment this week. After finishing 4th at the Scottish Open, the 30 year-old sat in 12th position going into Sunday on the Northern Irish coast courtesy of rounds of 70/67/70 and although he still recorded a personal best Major performance, it could have been significantly better had he held it together on Sunday. Wind and rain isn’t the Washington man’s strongest suit though, so heading back to the more familiar heat, humidity and almost dome-like conditions of TPC Southwind should help him put that final day quickly out of his mind.

2nd at the Sony Open was a positive way for Andrew to start 2019 having acclimatised the week before at Kapalua courtesy of his Barracuda Championship win the year before which marked his maiden success. That win came after a sequence of form which included 2 top-10 finishes in his previous 6 starts, so having finished 3rd at the Charles Schwab Challenge in May, combined with his aforementioned Renaissance Club effort, he arrives here in an identical vein of form.

4th at the HSBC Champions was an excellent effort on Putnam’s WGC debut and having featured on the leaderboard for long spells last week at The Open, he’s clearly becoming more accustomed to rubbing shoulders with players in these elite fields. The fact that this WGC has moved to TPC Southwind can only be positive for Andrew – 2nd last year was impressive in that he proved that the course really suited his eye, ranking 2nd for Driving Accuracy, 1st for GIR and also 3rd for Scrambling. Combine that with putting performances of 6th (Charles Schwab), 1st (Memorial), 1st (US Open) and 5th (Travelers) before hopping across the pond and we have a potent combination on our hands. Result: T24

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Chez Reavie 1pt EW 60/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfair

A missed cut last week for Chez Reavie wasn’t a massive surprise given he’d also failed to make the weekend on his 2 previous Open Championship starts, however that result, coupled with the fact that he also missed the cut at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, has kept a lid on his price a little here this week. That first effort in Detroit wasn’t remotely surprising either seeing as he’d won the Travelers Championship the week before and I’m happy to disregard those 2 most recent results and take the price on offer here in a short field.

Like Putnam, a return to far more familiar surrounds at TPC Southwind could see an instant bounce back to form for Reavie and the case for the 37 year-old is fairly straightforward when looking at his course history. After missing the cut here on debut back in 2011, he’s shown steady improvement since with finishes of 27th in 2013, 12th in 2015, 4th in 2017 and 6th last year. He led at the halfway point on that penultimate effort and over the years he’s clearly got to grips with the track having recorded impressive Driving Accuracy, GIR and Scrambling stats at various points over those efforts. Also of note is that he’s putted in the 1.7s on these Bermuda surfaces on each of those 4 efforts, critical for a player who can go missing with the flat stick at times.

Par-4 scoring is an important factor here at Southwind so it’s interesting to note that he lapped the field in that respect on his way to victory at the Travelers Championship last month, shooting -13 for those holes with his nearest competitor at -8. The missed cuts will have afforded Chez a little more downtime than many of the others this week and at the price on offer I’m happy to take a chance on a player who’s tasted victory in the past few weeks. Result: T27

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Brandt Snedeker 1pt EW 70/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfair

Another player who missed the weekend at Royal Portrush completes my team this week. Truth is, Major Championships have proven to be challenging for Brandt Snedeker over the past couple of seasons with a best finish of 16th at this year’s US PGA Championship the only ray of sunshine in an otherwise drab set of results. That will turn around eventually – after all he’d notched a top-10 Major finish in each of the 6 seasons prior to that – however for now he’s clearly not getting on at golf’s biggest events.

If Majors themselves have proven problematic, the week following a Major doesn’t seem to hold the same issues for Brandt as 3 of his 9 career PGA Tour victories have come immediately after a Major: twice at the Wyndham Championship in 2007 and 2018 following the US PGA Championship, plus at the Canadian Open in 2013 following The Open. His 2011 win at The Heritage came a fortnight after Augusta – with a 4th place finish in Texas wedged in between – and if these results are more than just coincidence then perhaps there’s value in supporting him here this week.

Aside from last week’s effort, the 38 year-old’s recent form hasn’t been that bad: top-5 finishes last month at both the RBC Canadian Open and Rocket Mortgage Classic suggest that his game’s in relatively good shape and 5th earlier this season at TPC Sawgrass where he topped GIR is good form in elite non-Major company. What really grabs my attention though are his results on courses that correlate well, for instance at East Lake (Tour Championship winner 2012) which shares these Zoysia fairways and at Sedgefield where he secured his latest Wyndham Championship title on the Champion Bermuda greens last year, shooting 59 on the opening day and never looking back.

5th here at TPC Southwind in 2007 and 6th last year add more fuel to the fire and in a short field on a course that has been kind to him in the past, I’m happy to look past last week’s effort. Result: T27

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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 16:55BST 22.7.19 but naturally subject to fluctuation