AFTER the glory of golf’s greatest-ever Irish party the focus shifts across the Atlantic and, in this dizzy year of scheduling, there is no letdown in pace as we hurtle to TPC Southwind for the WGC St Jude Invitational. The venue and the tournament are familiar to the calendar, but this is the first time they have been matched together.
To win – Rory McIlroy 9/1
Even four days on from the 30-year-old’s extraordinary second round it is hard to get to grips with the unlikely nature of it. As one who was present on the course, and later behind the 18th green, I was caught up in the extreme emotion of it. I’ve since discovered that many beyond the boundaries of the course were a little less entranced, but McIlroy himself was clearly overwhelmed and it might just be what was required to get the bit between his teeth.
— GOLFPASS (@GOLFPASS) July 19, 2019
He’s subsequently written on social media, of the crowds: “Your support hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, but I am so appreciative and I’ll do my best to let you know that more often. I learned a lot over the past few days and I’m more motivated than ever to become the golfer and competitor I know I can be.”
The Northern Irishman has visited the course twice in the past, notching a top 30 in 2010, but two years later he was seventh having been the halfway leader. The course favours strong performers in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green and no-one matches McIlroy – he’s streets clear in the yearly stats.
Each way – Justin Thomas 14/1
The 26-year-old is a course debutant, but beyond that there are some compelling reasons to believe that he can contend this week. The first is mood. He said after his opening lap last week: “I feel like I'm really, really playing well. I'm close to reeling off something good. Trying to keep my head down and keep plugging.” The fact he made the cut and finished 11th suggests that his words are more than mere bluster. Indeed, it was his first weekend at an Open in four attempts.
Just a video for those who didn’t know how bad it really got out there… my dad took this when we were on 16 green/17 tee. Worst weather I’ve ever played in! ☔️ pic.twitter.com/URFPx3HF1V
— Justin Thomas (@JustinThomas34) July 22, 2019
As already noted, star performers from the tee box thrive on this track and Thomas is no slouch. He might trail McIlroy, but, at second in the seasonal rankings, he’s doing fine. But there are two further factors to note. Past winners at TPC Southwind (which is in Memphis, Tennessee) tend to have proved themselves in hot, steamy regions, on Bermuda grass greens and often on shorter par-70s.
Thomas, a native of Kentucky, is a past winner at Kuala Lumpur CC (twice as it happens), Waialae in Hawaii and PGA National in Florida. Even his second-tier results show good efforts in Louisiana as well as South and Central America. He looks a fine fit for this week’s test.
Outsider – Keith Mitchell 160/1
Golfers like to talk about getting on board the birdie train and Tennessee native Mitchell might call his the Chattanooga choo-choo because he hails from that city, 300 miles from Memphis and he has history when it comes to performing in his home state – he finished third on the second tier and in a very early start blasted a first-round 61 to grab an early lead (an alternative to backing him outright maybe?).
Hole-out eagle in your first Masters appearance?
It's a good day to be Keith Mitchell. pic.twitter.com/0Mfgv5n8Ms
— Golf Digest (@GolfDigest) April 12, 2019
His course debut last year was a solid T37th when the stats suggest that he was at home with the greens, always key when Bermuda grass is on the agenda. And, like the other picks this week, Mitchell is strong enough tee to green, ranking 51st in the seasonal rankings.
There’s also enough in his logbook to suggest the examination will suit him. He was a fine winner of the Honda Classic at PGA National earlier this season, he hit a third round 63 to head into the final lap at Waialae in a tie for third before recording T16th, and he’s performed well in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama. He looks great value as best of the rest.