The 2018 WGC Bridgestone Invitational preview with Skeeter McGillicuddy
Firestone, Akron, Ohio, Jack country…the best. These words are truly evocative to a certain generation raised on the PGA Tour from afar in a time when you had to read about results in a newspaper. So steeped in history is this event, despite the constant reinvention, that it illustrates the truly civilising power of time – for my generation at least.
Xander in his sweet way lamented the lack of excitement in golf after his excellent showing at Carnoustie. Firstly I have to admit I was mortified to see him in contention as I wrote him off in the wind that never came. It was never forecast but I live in the UK and couldn’t bring myself to believe that on at least one day the beast would emerge. As for excitement – where was this lacking at the Open? Golf is slow – period. How is it that golf is so popular and yet the critics constantly write it off? Slow play is a curse but even the fastest pros would take 3 ½ to 4 hours. So lets just accept that the beauty is in the delayed gratification, the build up to the 72nd, a story bubbling up over four days. What bettor indication of a truly advanced society that so many can “waste” so much time and energy in pursuit of putting a ball in a hole?
Last year Hideki put his ball in the hole in 61 shots on Sunday to win going away by 5. He battled manfully in the Open but that was never going to suit his game. Back at Firestone he’s got to be a much more solid proposition.
The 2018 event will be the last at Firestone Country Club but the course will still be on the rota. Tiger, an eight-time winner and, co-course record holder, who scraped into the event, would certainly lament the loss of the venue from the tour. Coming off his faltering finish at the Open and some great recent form incredibly he’s verging on favouritism. I can’t have him at the price, 14/1. He just seems to find the demons in his game under pressure. I’ve no doubt he’ll put it all together one Sunday but what we have witnessed this season, where often in contention he’s come apart, that will do for me now. At 40/1 yes…14/1..no thanks.
Firestone is a 7,400 par 70 with large, quick, bent grass greens, and punishing rough. In short ideal for a driver of the ball. If you can hit fairways and when you miss, miss it long, you can gouge it out of the rough. All the attributes of a power driver are amplified here. You must average 320 ish off the tee here – so it seems. The list of winners illustrates the point. Matsuyama, Dustbin, Rory, Scott, Tiger. Even Shane Lowry averaged 325 in his 2015 win.
Hitting it long however is in itself not enough – the winner will need to hit greens. The average GIR figure for the last eight runnings is around 6th. Once on these large greens most winners finish very near the top of the putts per GIR tables.
My shortlist includes Xander (price gone for now given his exposure to the wider market), Bryson (sloppy finish in Europe and the criticism that followed must have had some effect), Kevin Chappell (so tempted given really solid form at the Open and just outside the top 10 on tour in Total Driving – but price gone), Scott (strong tee to green but putting still not where it needs to be), and finally Patrick who’s worryingly getting a reputation for being a nice bloke.
Emiliano Grillo 1 pt e/w @ $126 with Bet365/Ladbrokes
Kyle Stanley: 1 pt e/w @ $101 with Ladbrokes
Tyrell Hatton: 1pt e/w @ $71 with Bet365
Hideki Matsuyama: 1pt win @ $51 on Betfair (Bet Detective)
An interesting stat emerged last week around top ten finishes since 2012 across all tours.
Well Rory didn’t blot his top ten record and truth be told with an ounce of luck and any decent putting and he trots up in the Open. The wedge he hit on the 72nd just about summed up his week…..not quite. He hits in 5 feet, gets to 7 under and it’s a whole new ball game.
So despite his price being nearly half at 11/1 I just can’t see him not being in the mix. He’s driving was insanely good at Carnoustie with distance (a given) but also accuracy that hasn’t always been the case this season, and with his carry he’ll blow deep from where his strength and flight will set up umpteen chances. He has to take them of course but as previously stated this is his best putting season for 5 years. I say his because he’s ranked 110th in strokes gained putting but he ranks very high in most other categories. Plus Carnoustie illustrated how he can dig it out of deep rough with the very best of them. Finally he loves it here. A win and 4 other top 10’s in 7 starts, confident on the back of his Open performance, and with some softness predicted, it all looks go for Rory.
Of Grillo at the Open…
Grillo has failed to train on to win as the expression goes but he’s still a class ball striker with much stronger putting to go with it. A best-placed third on the PGA tour this year along with two top 10’s in his last six starts is good enough form for me. Not a high hitter he’ll find a natural bedfellow in these rock hard fairways. The one worry in a stats set filled with positives is his strokes gained around the green, just, ranked 103rd, on the flipside somewhat contradicted with his scrambling rank standing at 26th. Grillo hits it straight (70.27%) and hits greens (70.59%) plus is ranked 13th in strokes gained putting at 0.574. Consider that this is the first season he has ever posted a positive figure and you gain an insight to how vastly improved he’s become on the greens. An outrageous talent with a really solid debut 12th in the 2016 Open this is one stable star we are not going to death ride.
For me nothing has changed. He failed to make the cut at the Open – not great – but so did Dustbin, Thomas, etc. While Grillo is not a huge hitter by any means he fits into the Zac Johnson mould – shortish but accurate. Despite his relative lack of length Johnson has plotted his way around Firestone to good effect with numerous top tens including a runners up last year when blown away by Hideki. Grillo’s stats suggest a really healthy all round game including 8th in the stokes gained total category, so we can forgive him poor showings at the US Open and the Open. He has a solid 14th here on debut and at 125/1 looks a nice price.
Kyle Stanley ran for us earlier in the season at the Memorial when he lost to another pick Bryson in the playoff. Back then it was his course suitability and his great tee to green game that attracted me to his chances. Ranked 4th in both fairways and greens it was only a matter of time – so I thought. Like Rory and Grillo he is also having a great year on the greens – for him. He’s slipped slightly in those key categories but is still 70% plus on fairways and greens and his performance at the Open was solid getting it to 3 under on Saturday night. As for putting, some perspective. This is the only year on record, since 2009, that he has posted a postive strokes gained figure – extraordinary and evidenced by some great putting down the stretch at the Memorial. A good showing at 100/1 wouldn’t surprise.
Finally there is Tyrell Hatton. The volatile Englishman makes his debut here and I’m delighted. One he’s fun to watch, good or bad , but in contrast to the three others on this weeks team he can really putt. A lowly 51st at the Open was preceded by three really solid performances. The big key is that at one point last year he was ranked number one in putting on the PGA Tour. That alone is some accolade and can’t be faked. While entertainingly bonkers I also get the impression Tyrell is not so much the thinker and with so little happening in his head he can play with huge confidence when on a roll with a history of going low. Ranked 24th in the world this is a player who finished 6th in the US Open and tied for third at WGG Mexico and 11th at the WGC HSBC – all this season. He’s inconsistent yes, but he’s also a big time player and 70/1.