Sergio Garcia defends his title in the Sanderson Farms Championship, but Ben Coley has eyes on a big-priced winner in what looks an open event.
1pt e.w. Patton Kizzire at 66/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Keith Mitchell at 80/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Chris Kirk at 80/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. John Augenstein at 150/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Hayden Buckley at 200/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Anirban Lahiri at 225/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Davis Riley at 250/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Sergio Garcia's victory in the Sanderson Farms Championship last year busted some tournament trends, but above all else was a demonstration that when an elite golfer plays elite golf in a field which features very few of them, they are going to win or nearly win. In the end, Garcia almost had his pocket picked by a charging Peter Malnati, only to produce a sumptuous approach to the last and birdie it to win by one. That 18th hole represented the tournament and perhaps even the sport in microcosm: flusher beats putter.
It's putters who've generally ruled here, though, right from when Nick Taylor won the first edition to be played at Jackson Country Club. He ranked seventh in putting, Malnati and Cody Gribble both led the field, Ryan Armour and Cameron Champ both ranked second, Sebastian Munoz sixth. Garcia, who gained a mighty 12-plus strokes with his ball-striking, could afford to languish in 28th, putting to a better-than-average standard in terms of the field, but well below it versus past champions.
The other established norm here in Mississippi has been for first-time winners to emerge. That has nothing to do with the course and everything to do with assembled fields, packed with Korn Ferry Tour graduates and others who do not dine at the top table. Garcia's victory came during the only season which began without a fresh class, and while surely none would've beaten him anyway, there were fewer candidates. Runner-up Malnati is a former winner here and only Kris Ventura and Cameron Davis entered Sunday as likely champions who were maidens at the time.
One year on and we now have our Korn Ferry Tour graduates, which include those who lost their PGA Tour cards only to win them back immediately, plus whatever we'd call Will Zalatoris. Virtually all of them are seeking that first victory, John Huh and Austin Cook the notable exceptions, and it may well be that one of them proves capable, but it's Sam Burns who appears to be the man to beat.
Burns was third here in 2018, he adores Bermuda greens, he's from the south like so many other Sanderson success stories, and he was very close to making the Ryder Cup side. He also happens to be something like the ideal fit here in Jackson: someone who is capable of the strong driving performance which so many winners have produced lately, but can also light up the greens. In fact he's one of the very best putters in this field, particularly on this surface.
Burns also led this field in birdie-or-better percentage last season, a category which has been key here: the first five champions all led during the week, Sungjae Im did so when losing a play-off to Sebastian Munoz, who ranked sixth, and Garcia was second. If there is to be a logical champion from the front of the betting then it may well be the Louisiana native, who would be preferred at the odds to Will Zalatoris given how important putting is likely to prove.
That said the front of the market is best avoided, a comment which applies to Burns following his absence, Zalatoris following a missed cut here last year, and even flying Mito Pereira whose putter seems to be his weakness. Generally this is the sort of thing I don't dwell on for longer than a minute, but we have to acknowledge who has won here. Malnati is one of the best around, the returning Cody Gribble looked like he could be, and some of these promising types might be exposed.
For that reason my speculative staking plan begins with PATTON KIZZIRE, who ranked third among this lot in birdie-or-better last year and can light up the greens.
Like Burns, the 35-year-old is prone to producing off weeks with his irons but he was solid throughout last season, ranking 78th to continue what's been a steady climb over the last five years. His other weakness can be the driver, which is above average in distance but below in accuracy, but this course has generally allowed for that and did so when he finished fourth on debut.
Back then, Kizzire was 51st in strokes-gained off the tee but excellent in all other departments while in 2017 he finished 10th thanks to his short-game and he's done more than enough to suggest he's capable of winning in Jackson, which in American terms is a short hop across the border from his home in western Alabama.
Southern ties have been an excellent pointer here, with Malnati having made Tennessee his base, Gribble hailing from Texas, Garcia and Champ now based there and Munoz having attended college in the Lone Star State. Local hope Jonathan Randolph produced two of his standout PGA Tour performances here in Misssissipi, Munoz's schoolmate Carlos Ortiz has gone very close twice, and JT Poston, who hails from South Carolina, is more comfortable at this course than most.
This is to do with the climate and the grass, with lies in Bermuda rough often hard to judge, and lines on Bermuda greens often hard to read. Those who face these challenges in practice or better yet grew up honing their skills under these conditions ought to be at an advantage, and we've seen that play out in this tournament.
It's a key switch from the Fortinet Championship, in California, and Kizzire played sneakily well there to be ninth through 54 holes. Earlier in the year he finished ninth, third and third in three starts in Texas, and he'll be relishing a return to something a little more familiar.
It's also worth noting how good he's been at this time of year, which fits with the Kizzire profile in general. For a long time before his breakthrough in Mexico, the languid southerner has been considered something of a sleeping giant, and he's been able to win two PGA Tour events which attract somewhat weaker fields and are away from the busy, major-packed summers.
Not only has he won in Mexico and Hawaii but he's gone close at the Shriners, in this, over in what was the Safeway Open and then last year at the RSM Classic. This is when he's at his most dangerous and for all first-time champions in the event have been common, his proven ability to go ahead and win when things do come together sets him apart from many at the odds.
Similar lines of logic suggest Scott Stallings must have a big chance and he considers this something of a home event now he's based in neighbouring Tennessee. Stallings has gone well here, too, and made a good start to the season, but it's approaching eight years since the last of his three PGA Tour wins and he looks a little short to my eye.
KEITH MITCHELL and CHRIS KIRK are both better players and slightly bigger in the betting, and I'll chance them despite the one or two concerns which explain why they're low down the betting.
With two high-class top-10 finishes in his last four starts, Mitchell is an obvious form candidate and he's another who isn't just from the south, but has shown his best form here. That includes a really impressive victory in the Honda Classic, two top-six finishes in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, third in the Byron Nelson and sixth in Houston.
At the start of 2021 he went really well again on the Bermuda greens of Waialae in the Sony Open and his stats on the surface would look a lot better, and be more useful, if they ignored the whopping 12 strokes he lost at the Valspar Championship when there was a set-up problem with his putter.
Beyond that, Mitchell is plainly capable of a field-leading performance with the driver — he's done it twice lately, at the 3M Open and again on an old-fashioned, tree-lined course in the Wyndham Championship — and I think he's being wrongly overlooked because he's missed the cut on both of his previous starts here in Jackson.
Ultimately, he'd played badly for months prior to last year's renewal and yet only missed the cut because of his short-game, and in 2017 he was a Korn Ferry Tour graduate who had missed the cut by a long way a week earlier. Despite all this he's driven the ball to a good standard only to putt hopelessly, but he's in and out at the best of times and four rounds is nowhere near sufficient to draw conclusions.
My view is that this is an excellent set-up for a very talented player, proven in better company, arriving in better form than most, and as such at 80/1 he's the bet of the week.
Kirk was the 54-hole leader here in 2016 having won the event under its previous guise, and he spoke at the time about why it is he is so well suited to Jackson Country Club.
"Growing up in the South and playing on Bermudagrass, having the experience of reading those lies and being able to tell what the ball is going to do, or make an educated guess anyway, definitely helps," he said. "I definitely enjoy the golf course here, as well. It's in absolutely perfect shape. Putting on these fast Bermuda greens is definitely my favourite surface that we play on for sure."
Kirk ranked third in putting that week, but subsequent visits have been undermined by what he's done on the greens. His approach play has been solid throughout, but he's not the type to get by on ball-striking, especially as he lacks power off the tee, so when the putter went cold a year ago, he faded from inside the top 20 at halfway to obscurity by Sunday night.
Having putted terribly in the BMW Championship last time there's obviously a worry he'll be hamstrung again, but Kirk's best putting performance of the season came on the Bermuda greens of TPC San Antonio, and the closest he came to winning was at the Sony Open, scene of his second-best putting stats of 2021.
Kirk has won seven times as a professional, six of them in the southern states: Mississippi (here in 2011), Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Georgia. He's in fact from Tennessee but went to college and lives in Georgia. There is absolutely no doubt that he's a better golfer in this part of the country, and if he can find something with the putter he can win this for the second time.
Chad Ramey played really well here as a Monday qualifier in 2018 and has come a long way since, establishing himself as one of the best and most consistent Korn Ferry Tour players, and picking up his first win of note back in June.
Ramey is from Fulton, Mississippi, so it won't be a surprise if many latch onto him this week, but at 80/1 he's short enough for me. There's always a chance that inexperience youngsters are handicapped by playing at home rather than benefiting from it and while that wasn't the case three years ago, things are probably a bit more serious now he has a card in his hand.
At bigger prices, I prefer JOHN AUGENSTEIN and HAYDEN BUCKLEY.
Augenstein is a former US Amateur runner-up who was briefly in the mix in the Masters last November, and has since progressed with virtually every start. Last time out he ranked third in strokes-gained approach when sixth in the Fortinet Championship, and already this non-member is close to the FedEx Cup points tally he may need to guarantee himself a spot at KFT Finals next autumn.
That effort at Silverado earned him another go here in Jackson and he too could improve for the switch to the southeast. Augenstein is from Kentucky but went to college in Tennessee, and there will surely be an element of support here from friends and family who are able to make the trip down to Jackson.
As mentioned that can go one of two ways but unlike Ramey he has built up some good, recent PGA Tour experience now, his last 12 rounds reading 69-68-69-70-68-65-69-70-68-69-70-68, and it may already tell us something that his putting in Texas and North Carolina was better than last time out on poa annua in California.
Winning as a non-member is rare but not insurmountable and Augenstein has greater substance to his recent form than many at shorter prices. Given that he also trumps most for potential, he is well worth chancing here.
Buckley arrives with something to prove on the greens but he's another from Tennessee who could find greater comfort on Bermuda. If that's the case, the way he struck the ball in the Fortinet Championship gives him every chance to get competitive on his return to Jackson, where he made the cut on a sponsors' invite three years ago.
That wasn't as impressive an effort as Ramey's, nor was he as effective on the Korn Ferry Tour, but he drove the ball much better than his fellow graduate and I like his winning habit: he did it quickly on the Mackenzie Tour and the Korn Ferry Tour, where he triumphed as the last man into the field in Florida earlier this year.
His unorthodox swing and the fact he didn't exactly have a huge amateur pedigree would make Buckley easy to underestimate, but three top-sevens in his final five Korn Ferry Tour appearances and an eye-catching missed cut on his PGA Tour debut proper suggest he'll return to Mississippi with legitimate hopes of contending for the first time at this level if he can get that putter going.
DAVIS RILEY is a young local with bags of talent and he too knows how to get the job done, having done so twice on the Korn Ferry Tour. It's been a fast rise for this one-time amateur star, but not an unpredictable one: he's long been touted as one of the brightest prospects in the United States.
Will Bardwell's feature on Riley is well worth a read and makes clear the regard in which he's held, not just by his college coach ("Every step he’s ever taken, I don’t think he’s been uncomfortable") but the likes of Zalatoris, who said: "The kid’s got the best golf swing I’ve ever seen, but he’s also got one of the sharpest minds in the game. It’s just a matter of time before he’s gonna be a top-10 player in the world. There’s no question about it. It’s not an if. It’s just a when."
Such comments are hard to live up to and right now Riley is out of form: since June his best finish is 15th in the Pinnacle Bank Championship, after which he was 20th in Boise. Since then, he's missed both cuts, including on his first start of this new PGA Tour season.
However, Riley's approach play was outstanding in California, where he missed the cut by a shot, and he's learned a lot since four solid rounds saw him share 39th here back in 2019. Back then he ranked seventh in approach play, and while he missed the cut a year later, he'd made a solid enough start and was in far worse form.
The other factor of interest is that the first of those two KFT wins came in Panama, where subsequent Sanderson Farms winner Armour has triumphed, as has course specialist Ortiz. It's an old, tree-lined course which can be difficult and while Riley's victory says more about his talent than anything else, the potential for it being a good form guide definitely exists.
He can't be backed with confidence but has huge potential and in a difficult event, that's enough for me.
Finally, ANIRBAN LAHIRI has plenty to recommend him at 200/1.
The Indian clearly has a touch of class and having lost his way, things are starting to look up: he's managed two top-five finishes on the PGA Tour this year, and made the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Underpinning the improvement has been solid driving — he's gained strokes off the tee in each of his last eight starts — and while the putter is in and out, it was good on Bermuda in the Barbasol and likewise in Texas back in April, when close behind winner Jordan Spieth.
If he does emulate compatriot Arjun Atwal and win out here it will likely be in this sort of company, and when last he played Jackson he was seventh after both the first and second rounds.
"I like this golf course," said Lahiri. "Last year was my first time here, and I really like the way it sets up. It reminds me a lot of the tracks I grew up playing in Asia. Probably not greens this quick, but similar to look at."
Lahiri has putted poorly in both visits yet still finished 45th and 37th, and with his form looking better now than in both 2019 and 2020, he has a good chance to improve on those efforts — especially if he can dodge the nightmare third rounds which have been his undoing.
The 34-year-old has ranked as high as 33 in the world and from his base in Florida, he's got his game back in the shape required to climb back up to where he feels he belongs. His form really does look solid, he ranked seventh among this field in birdie-or-better last season, and that process could speed up at a course he knows and likes.
Posted at 1400 BST on 28/09/21
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