Classic Colonial awaits stellar field

June 10, 2020
Justin Ray

The PGA Tour is returning emphatically this week in Texas.

This week, each of the top five players in the Official World Golf Ranking will be competing. Colonial has never previously had number one and two in the same field, let alone the entire top five.

More than 68 percent of the field this week in Fort Worth has at least one PGA Tour title to his name. About one in every six players in the field are major champions. The winner this week is projected to earn 72 World Ranking points, the most in any event since last year’s BMW Championship. Last year’s Charles Schwab Challenge winner got just 54 points.

Rory and JT are playing here for the first time. Phil Mickelson is here for just the second time in the last decade. With almost all other professional sports still on hold, this is an enormous week for the PGA Tour to showcase itself to a populace starving for competition. A classic layout and an incredible field are the perfect recipe for a memorable week.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

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Last year, Colonial yielded just 2.89 birdies per round to the field, the third-lowest average of any course on the PGA Tour. Only Bethpage (2.40) and Innisbrook (2.85) were stingier. That’s about as tough as the place can play, though: the last time there was a lower birdie average for the week in Fort Worth was all the way back in 2002.

The course was also third-toughest last season in terms of fairways hit (53.5%). The most penalizing fairway to miss last year at Colonial was the fifth, averaging more than half-a-stroke difference in score depending on where a player’s tee shot landed (4.00 scoring average for players hitting the fairway, 4.55 with a miss).

Speaking of the fifth hole, it caps off the three-hole run known as the ‘Horrible Horseshoe.’ Relative to the rest of the course, the name fits – the field averaged 0.58 strokes over par on those three holes for the week in 2019. On the other 15 holes, they were just 0.28. Birdie percentage dropped off a cliff there, too. About nine percent for holes three, four and five – and nearly double that (17.6%) everywhere else.

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Over the last 15 years, putting has been a bit more important at Colonial than at other PGA Tour venues. During that span, the average strokes gained putting rank for winners of this event is 10.6. At all other courses in that span, it’s 13.5. In contrast, distance is typically rewarded less than normal.

That fact is reflected perfectly by the list of players with the best strokes gained total averages at Colonial over the last five years – a group of players better known for short game precision than length:

Jordan Spieth, 2.59

Kevin Na, 2.30

Harris English, 1.91

Kevin Kisner, 1.69

Matt Kuchar, 1.66

PLAYERS TO WATCH THIS WEEK

– Rory McIlroy has had no problem recently when it comes to playing in an event for the first time. Since the beginning of 2019, McIlroy has made his debut in a specific PGA Tour event on four occasions. His finishes: T-4, T-5, Win, T-3, with a preposterous scoring average of 67.3.

Rory was playing incredible golf when the suspension hit – since the beginning of last season, he leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained total, tee-to-green, off-the-tee and long game (off-the-tee + approach). In 14 worldwide starts since The Open Championship concluded, he has a pair of wins and ten top-five finishes.

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Jon Rahm has made three previous starts at Colonial: a runner-up in 2017, tie for fifth in 2018, and an uncharacteristic missed cut last year. Rahm had a brutal week tee-to-green in this event in 2019, losing more than two full strokes per round to the field tee-to-green. Still, his 45 birdies made over the last three years in this event are ranked sixth among all players – a remarkable fact considering he only played in ten of those twelve rounds.

– It’s tough to understate just how good Jordan Spieth has been in his career at this golf course. It’s also tough to understate the swing difficulties he’s fought over the last two-plus seasons.

Since his debut at Colonial in 2013, Spieth leads all players in scoring average, birdie average, one-putts, and – most surprisingly, maybe – strokes gained tee-to-green per round. No player has a better scoring average in this tournament over the last three decades than Jordan does (67.8). Over the last five years, his cumulative score to par (-47) is eleven strokes better than anyone else.

So will this be the place where he rediscovers the old Spieth? When the hiatus hit, his PGA Tour season rankings were an eyesore. Jordan is currently ranked 195th in strokes gained off-the-tee and 198th in approach. Spieth will be one of the most interesting players to watch this weekend in his native Texas.

– Kevin Na will be attempting to accomplish something no player has done since Ben Hogan in 1953: win at Colonial for a second consecutive year. The drought without a back-to-back winner is the longest one by any event on the PGA Tour – Wyndham (1956, Sam Snead) and The Players Championship (1974, have never had one) are the next two events on that list. The numbers suggest Na loves this event – his 68.4 scoring average at Colonial ranks fourth among all players the last thirty years.

Brooks Koepka has some good memories here: in his lone prior start at the Charles Schwab Challenge, Brooks fired a pair of 63s en route to a runner-up finish. When we last saw the reigning PGA Champion, Brooks was fighting his way back into top form following knee surgery. Will time off usher in the return of ‘Major Brooks?’

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Maybe so. In his second place finish here in 2018, Koepka ranked second in the field in strokes gained putting. That was the rustiest facet of his game post-rehab: Brooks is currently 208th of 231 eligible players in SGP, and dead last in approach putt performance. With the big-time feel of this week’s event, it’s tough to imagine Koepka not being in much better form.

– Over the last decade, no player has putted better at Colonial than Harris English, averaging 1.18 strokes gained on the greens per round. Three other players have averaged one or more strokes gained putting in that span here: Brendon Todd, Chris Stroud, and 2017 winner Kevin Kisner.

Collin Morikawa holds the longest active streak of events without a missed cut on the PGA Tour, at 21. He’s a perfect 20-for-20 since turning professional last year. The last time a player began a PGA Tour career with 20 or more straight made cuts was Tiger Woods in 1996-1997.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

The PGA Tour hiatus will have lasted 91 days when play resumes Thursday in Texas. In a 91-day span in the 2000 season, Tiger won the Memorial Tournament, U.S. Open, Open Championship, PGA Championship and WGC Invitational.