The Northern Trust
It was a disappointing week for us at the Wyndham and one that I will rue for a while as my decision to look beyond the obvious ‘horses for courses’ picks such as the eventual winner Kisner and one of the play off participants, Si Woo Kim, both of whom we were on here last year, ultimately proved very costly.
Of our selections Will Zalatoris threatened to get in the hunt on Sunday and at -13 through nine holes he was only two shots shy of the number that made the six man play off. A costly bogey, double bogey on 10 and 11 put paid to his chances though and we were left as spectators as the drama unfolded.
So we move on to the home stretch of the PGA Tour season, yes, it’s Play Off time…
As regular followers of the PGA Tour will know the Fedex Cup Play Offs were re vamped two years ago with two main purposes in mind of firstly, shoehorning everything in to the desired finishing time line of the end of August before the main NFL season kicks off and secondly to simplify what the powers that be thought was too confusing a format to the average viewer by the time we reached the Tour Championship at East Lake.
So let’s briefly recap the current format.
As we know all season long players have been jockeying for position in the Fedex Cup race to ensure they finished the regular season in the top 125 ranked players, and with the regular season concluding at last weeks Wyndham Championship those achieving that have moved on to this weeks first Play Off event, The Northern Trust.
The event for the top 100 players, which used to come second in the schedule is no more meaning that the top 125 after this week will be reduced straight down to a Top 70 who will head on to the BMW.
After this we will then head to the Tour Championship, which as most readers will know by now operates a handicapping system whereby the player who leads the Fedex Cup point race going in to the week will start the week on -10, the second place player on -8, the third on -7 and so on down to those ranked 26-30th who’ll start at Level par.
The player who then finishes the week on the lowest score will be the Fedex Cup champion and deemed the winner of the Tour Championship even if they have not shot the best four day total if the handicap were discounted.
So, getting back to this week and the Play Offs get underway at Liberty National GC in New Jersey with The Northern Trust.
Liberty National has played host to the Northern Trust on three separate occasions. Firstly in 2009 then in 2013 and more recently in 2019. In addition the course hosted the Presidents Cup in 2017.
As you would expect for this event the field on show is a very strong one with the only big name missing Louis Oosthuizen, who following his withdrawal from last weeks Wyndham Championship with a neck injury continues to sit out.
At the time of writing Jon Rahm who returns from his second enforced Covid absence of the season is a clear favourite in the market. He is then followed by Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele and Rory McIlroy.
Liberty National GC is a par 71 measuring just over 7370yds.
The greens are Bent Grass.
The course was designed by Robert E Cupp and Tom Kite and opened in 2006.
As noted above the course has been seen three times on tour over the years hosting The Northern Trust. Firstly when Heath Slocum pulled of a major shock to take the title here in 2009 then when Adam Scott was victorious here in 2013 and finally when Patrick Reed lifted the trophy in 2019.
In addition the Presidents Cup was held here in 2017.
Obviously with only three 72 hole stroke play events held here in the past ten years we have fairly little to go on however the over-riding impression from past leader boards is that the key to Liberty National is to be found in the long game, particularly off the tee.
There is plenty of water in play in play and with the course exposed to New York Harbour the wind can be a factor.
So let’s take a look at the last ten winners of The Northern Trust since 2010.
The winners of these events have been as follows;
2020 D Johnson
2019 P Reed*
2018 B Dechambeau
2017 D Johnson
2016 P Reed
2015 J Day
2014 Hunter Mahan
2013 A Scott*
2012 N Watney
2011 D Johnson
*Denotes events played at Liberty National.
As you can clearly see with this list of winners as a rule play-off victories tend to be shared out by the elite players of the game and by and large this is something that we will see has been the historical pattern over the years in all of the play off events, as we go through the next three weeks.
There have of course been some exceptions over the years with the most noticeable one at the Northern Trust coming in the form of Heath Slocum’s win back in 2009. All in all though when looking for the winner over the next few weeks it will no doubt pay to focus on the higher end of the market.
With the tournament jumping around from venue to venue over the years it would be foolish not to focus on the past leaderboards here.
Firstly, if we look at the 2019 leaderboard while you might assume that the winner Reed got the job done with his trademark short game that was not actually the case as he only ranked 27th for the week on the dance floor and 25th around the greens. Instead the key to his success was off the tee as he ranked second in strokes-gained-off-the-tee, 11th in Driving Accuracy and fourth from tee to green.
Behind Reed we then saw Abraham Ancer, John Rahm, Harold Varner III and 2013 champion here Adam Scott, all of whom could be seen as players who thrive with the long game.
In 2013 when Scott triumphed Graham Delaet, Justin Rose, Gary Woodland and Tiger Woods filled the runners up position, while going back to 2009 as already mentioned Heath Slocum pulled of a shock victory and he was chased home by Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods.
From the last two leaderboards at least then it would seem clear to me that this is a course that favours strong ball strikers who flourish from tee to green.
With regards to the recent form of the winners of the Northern Trust coming in to the event a pattern had developed over recent years, which can be seen from the table below.
From 2013-2017 all the winners had been in strong form coming in to the week leading to a conclusion that we should look for a marquee player with good momentum coming in. In 2018 Bryson Dechambeau somewhat bucked this trend and took the trophy on the back of some fairly mediocre form, however the last two winners Reed and Johnson brought solid recent form in to the event with Johnson last year bouncing back in his previous outing from his bizarre fortnight which saw him shoot 80 80 before withdrawing the next time out.
Three Previous Starts – most Recent First
2020 D Johnson 12 WD MC
2019 P Reed 22 12 10
2018 B Dechambeau MC 30 51
2017 D Johnson 13 17 18
2016 P Reed 22 11 13
2015 J Day 1 12 1
2014 Hunter Mahan 7 15 MC
2013 A Scott 5 14 3
2012 N Watney 31 MC 19
2011 D Johnson MC 48 2
2010 M Kuchar 10 9 21
Finally from a winning score point of view the two events held in 2013 and 2009 were won with scores of -11 and –9 respectively however in 2019 Patrick Reed triumphed with a total of -16.
With rain and some storms in the forecast both leading in to the week and across the tournament days we could unfortunately see some disruption this week. In addition it may well be that the players are greeted with a course that plays on the softer side.
Temperatures look set for the high 70s to low 80s whilst wind could be a bit of an issue with gusts potentially creeping above the 15mph mark.
As I always say though…this could all change!
I have gone with four players this week as follows;
RORY MCILROY –22/1 – 2.5pts e/w 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 43rd
As is always the case when all the big names are looking to fire at this time of year it is ‘you pay your money and take your choice’ on those vying for favouritism.
Yes we can see a shock from time to time in the play-offs however ultimately one look at the roll of honour in this event which has seen wins for Reed and Dechambeau sandwiched in between two trophies for Dustin Johnson over the past four years tells you pretty much all you need to know.
Of those at the top Rahm is naturally a worthy favourite and having shown he can triumph on the back of a covid absence he could easily do so again. That success did though come on a course he knows and loves as much as any and I have enough doubt in my mind that he may not be able to repeat that trick that I am happy to pass at the odds.
The quartet of Spieth, Johnson, Morikawa and Schauffele will of course have their supporters for a host of valid reasons however at the odds the player who stands out the most and I am keen to side strongly with this week is Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy as we know has been in something of a transitional period over recent months as he has been working on some swing changes under the tutelage of Pete Cowen.
Despite the obvious ‘work in progress’ the Northern Irishman has still managed to post a win in May at the Wells Fargo and a seventh at the US Open at Torrey Pines so clearly all was not lost, however with the Quail Hollow win having come about largely due to a hot putter it may just be that the most eye catching performance Rory has produced since he embarked on these changes came last time out in Memphis.
To expand further and at the WGC McIlroy opened with a two over round of 72 before closing out the week with three straight 66s to post a 12th place finish. Even more key though was the fact that Rory lead the field at TPC Southwind in strokes-gained-off-the-tee, improving his numbers every day, was second in Driving Accuracy for the week, second from tee to green and third in approach play. Basically everything in the long game was firing on all cylinders and it was only a stone cold putter, which prevented him from a far higher finish.
Still, with that performance coming straight off the back of a strong showing at the Olympics, where he missed out on the bronze medal in the play-off, it seems clear that something has clicked in the long game areas that Rory has been really working on and if you combine that with odds of 20/1+ on offer that makes him ‘must bet’ material for me this week.
While, on a course, which seems to clearly reward strong tee to green play, the above would be more than enough for me to side with the four time Major Champion, more encouragement can be found in McIlroy’s past course history here and in the North East area in general.
Firstly Rory finished sixth here two years ago even though he struggled with his approach play, ranking 53rd for the week, then if we cast the net wider he memorably landed his first Major in the North East at the US Open in Maryland, he has triumphed twice at the now defunct Deutsche Bank in Massachusetts and has also won across the border in Canada.
Finally it may well be that with the forecast calling for storms leading in to the event and more rain as the week progresses, Rory gets soft conditions, which we know have historically played in to his hands in the past.
All in all while in a field of this strength it is hard to be overly confident on any one player McIlroy looks a standout bet at the odds to me this week and I am keen to be on board.
ADAM SCOTT – 40/1 – 1.5pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Top of any golf punters staple diet is the combination of course form meets current form and therefore while it will win no awards for originality I can’t avoid backing Adam Scott this week.
Scott entered last weeks Wyndham Championship precariously positioned in the Fedex Cup standings and in grave danger of missing the Play-off’s for the first time since they came in to existence.
Seventy two holes later however Adam had taken care of business in that department and found himself with a four foot putt to win the tournament on the first hole of a six man play off. Unfortunately for the Aussie his historical putting frailties raised their head at just the wrong time and after missing that putt he had to watch Kevin Kisner hole one of a similar length at the next play-off hole to bag the trophy.
As agonising as that missed opportunity for a victory no doubt was for Scott the laid back 41yr old doesn’t strike me as someone who will dwell too much on that miss and I instead expect him to take the positives from the week in North Carolina and push on.
If Adam could have hand picked a course to build on last weeks performance Liberty National would quite possibly have been the one. A winner here in 2013 he returned here in 2019 to finish sixth despite having made only two starts in two months in which he missed the cut at the Open and finished down the field in Memphis at the WGC.
This year Scott should return with a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude as having been on the verge of missing out another strong week will see him push his way in to the top 70 and move on to the BMW Championship.
The concern with Scott remains his long game off the tee, which has been the root of his poor play this season, however I am happy, to take a leap of faith that the combination of the confidence gained from last weeks result and a return to a course that clearly fits the eye, will lead to further improvement in that area and I am keen to have him on side this week.
COREY CONNERS – 55/1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED T8th
I sided with Corey Conners in this event two years ago when it last came to Liberty National and while he was unable to bring us a return there was enough to like about his 21st place finish to bring me back to him this week.
While Conners has been unable to add to his lone PGA Tour win since the event was last played here there is no doubt that he has become a far more accomplished player over that two year period and one whose name is regularly seen at the top end of leaderboards in big events.
One of the strongest players from tee to green on tour the Canadian’s obvious attraction to me this week is that his strengths would appear to fit perfectly with what we have seen is needed to conquer Liberty National over the years.
Ninth off the tee, tenth in driving accuracy, 13th from tee to green and 14th in both approach play and greens in regulation this season tells you all you need to know about Corey’s strengths this season and indeed every season. Basically if he can putt half decently he’s a threat!
While all of Corey’s top tens this season either came before Christmas or in the first four months of the year he arrives this week having posted two solid top fifteen finishes at the Open Championship and the Olympics before a mid-division finish at the WGC Fedex St Jude where he perhaps understandably ran out of steam on Sunday on the back of the previous week at the Olympics. Noticeably though he was still third for driving accuracy that week and eighth in strokes-gained-off-the-tee.
Finally I can’t help thinking that with the New York area having a strong Canadian contingency this is a part of the world Corey must be comfortable in.
Conners has been knocking on the door of a second PGA Tour success for a while now and at a venue, which has seen poorer putters like Adam Scott and indeed fellow Canadian Graham Delaet flourish in the past this strikes me as a great opportunity for him to finally strike again.
JHONATTAN VEGAS – 125/1 –1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED MC
Finally, in an event where as highlighted earlier strong form coming in is often a key pointer, I am going to roll the dice at big odds on Jonny Vegas.
Vegas arrives in New Jersey on a run of results, which has seen him post five top sixteen finishes in his last six starts with the highlights being two runner up finishes at the Palmetto Championship and 3M Open.
At Sedgefield CC, where Vegas finished 15th last weekend he signed off with his best round of the week, a 63, posting nine birdies along the way, so he should certainly arrive here in good spirits.
So we’ve established Vegas is in fine form however what particularly intrigues me is his performance here two years ago when he finished 38th.
Whilst that result is nothing on paper to get excited about Jonny ranked sixth that week in approach play and tenth off the tee. Furthermore he made 20 birdies across the week, ranking ninth in that category and posted two eagles. Unfortunately though he also posted one triple bogey and one double over the week ,along with a host of other dropped shots, meaning he finished down the leaderboard.
Tellingly though Vegas had arrived that week in really poor form with nothing better than a 31st place in seven starts since May. This year of course it is a totally different story and on a course we know he can score on I expect the sloppy mistakes to be far less prominent and if that is the case he could really be a factor.
As noted right at the beginning a win for a ‘lesser standing player’ like Vegas in event like this is not something we would expect however the 36yr old is one of those players who has a certain ‘X factor’ about him and as a three time tour winner, two of, which came across the border in Canada, he clearly knows how to get the job done.
At the odds on offer of course for ten each way places we don’t need Vegas to win to bag us a nice return, however arriving in the form he is I have a hunch he could have a great week.
UPDATED 17th AUGUST
FANTASY DRAFTKINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - SEPP STRAKA - DK VALUE $6400. - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS TOTAL 30.5
On a course, which has been shown to reward a strong tee to green game when it has previously seen on tour the first name that catches my eye in the sub $7K bracket is Sepp Straka.
After some solid early season form its been a 'hit & miss' summer for The Austrian, with only a tenth place at the Travelers to show amongst a bunch of MC.
In his last couple of starts however Sepp appears to have turned a corner as a tenth place at the Olympics was followed by a 15th place last week at the Wyndham.
At Sedgefield CC Straka closed out his week with a 63 and after a slow start in the long game department his tee to green numbers were very impressive from Friday onwards.
If Sepp can maintain his trademark tee to green strength this week he should be right in his element at Liberty National and I am happy to chance him to do so at $6400.
PICK 2 - MARTIN LAIRD - DK VALUE $6000. - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS TOTAL 35.5
Languishing right down at $6000 we find Martin Laird and as another player whose strengths lie in finding fairways and greens I am happy to risk him at that price this week.
The Scotsman it must be said has struggled to produce anything of real note since his superb victory at the Shriners last Fall, however he was solid at the John Deere recently, produced three strong rounds at the WGC Fedex before fading on Sunday and then missed the cut on the number last weekend.
Nothing great then but clearly not too far off with his game and as a player who ranks 14th on tour in Driving Accuracy and 25th in good old fashioned GIR he should be at home here.
Add to that the fact that he has made both of his previous cuts here and he looks worth risking at the price.