LAST year’s BMW Championship witnessed one of the most sensational finishes of the season, with not one but two outrageous hole outs across the final green. Dustin Johnson was flying after winning The Northern Trust the previous week by a massive 11 shots and he headed into the final round of this event tied for the lead with Hideki Matsuyama.
Jon Rahm set a blistering target, carding a 64 which left DJ facing a 43-foot putt on the final green to force a play-off. It was a double-breaking, fast, downhill putt which he jammed into the hole. In one sense, it was the greatest long putt on an 18th green anyone had seen for years.
And yet it was not even the best double-breaking, fast, downhill, on the 18th green putt of the half-hour because on the first extra hole Rahm drained one from 66-feet for the win. “I still can’t believe what just happened,” the Spaniard gasped. “I was kind of laughing,” Johnson added, through gritted teeth. Can we get a repeat this week at new venue Caves Valley Golf Club? We’ll soon find out and here’s three players to back.
This new venue is a Tom Fazio design and when the PGA Tour visited another of his creations, Grayhawk, it was notable that it produced specialists. Mike Weir landed a trio of top sixes, including a win, in the three editions of the Frys.com Open it hosted and Alex Cejka was 2-for-2 at landing top 10. Fazio is also responsible for constructing Shadow Creek in Las Vegas which last autumn hosted the CJ Cup.
That week Xander Schauffele got off to a fast start, carding 66-64 to grab a three-shot lead on the field at halfway. He also thrashed a final lap 66, but only finished the week in solo second because of a Saturday 74. He was clearly a good fit for the task, however, and I also like that he shot a superb 62 last Friday. That looked like the first sign of him returning to his elite standard base level after the understandable difficulties of coming to terms with becoming the Olympic gold medal winner.
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And here’s the clincher. This is what he had to day during the CJ Cup: “The Grand Golf Club back at home, that's my home course, and it’s a Fazio design. I definitely do see some design aspects that are similar. There is a level of comfort that I feel on certain tee shots and on the greens, too. They're kind of trickier than people think. It took me a while to figure those out at home and hoping that that'll help me here.”
It’s easy to be put off backing a player who has recent experience of losing in a difficult manner – and there’s no doubt that I dearly wish that our pick in the WGC St Jude Invitational, Harris English, had not led more or less all week and then fallen near the final hurdle. Nonetheless, golfers have the capacity to bounce back from such woes and I’m not done with him.
The key is not only his form, although I like third in the US Open, victory in the Travelers Championship and that near-win two starts ago. It’s that he’s played Fazio designs well in the last 12 months. At Shadow Creek he got off to a poor start (75 for T55th), but finished 66-69-68 for T10th. And then in June it was the other way around: he opened 67-69-67 to lie tied second with 18 holes to play at Congaree in the Palmetto Championship before a Sunday 74 left him T14th. That’s six of eight rounds on Fazio creations have been superb and that’ll do for me.
Final pick maintains the Fazio theme at this par-71 in Baltimore. And it harks back to Shadow Creek in Las Vegas because Schauffele wasn’t alone in having insider knowledge – the winner that week, Jason Kokrak, had it too. In his case it was course knowledge because he’d played the track 25 times in his role as an MGM Ambassador and said: “I know the greens well, I know their intricacies, I know how it plays, I’m comfortable here.” If we remind ourselves that Schauffele said the design principles hold up, that seems like a decent head start for this week too.
Kokrak has added another win to his CV this year at the Charles Schwab Challenge and, although he’s missed his last two cuts, that’s allowed his price to drift into very tasty territory. He also has a nice record in the event: four top 20s in his last four starts including first round leader in 2019 and sixth last year.