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PGA Tour roars back with Schwab Challenge

By Wes Reynolds  () 

After a 91-day pause since The Players Championship was canceled in March, the PGA Tour returns Thursday for the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. Colonial Country Club usually boasts a solid field for this event, but this year’s edition could be the best in the tournament’s 74-year history. Sixteen of the top 20 players in the Official World Golf Rankings will tee it up, including the top five. The event will have no spectators but will likely have a massive audience on the Golf Channel and CBS as the PGA Tour returns to the sports landscape. 

World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, playing Colonial for the first time, is the 10/1 favorite at Westgate Superbook USA and Circa Sports. McIlroy has a record of stellar form when debuting in PGA Tour events. In fact, he has finished in the top five in his last four inaugural appearances, including a victory at last year’s RBC Canadian Open. He leads the tour in Scoring Average (68.437) and ranks second in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green and Driving Distance. Jon Rahm, the world No. 2, is the second choice at 12/1 and tied for second in his 2017 Colonial debut. No. 4 Justin Thomas (16/1) is also making his rookie appearance at Colonial and is the only top-five player with a win in 2020 after taking the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua. Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, Nos. 3 and 5, respectively, had knee surgeries in 2019, and neither player, especially Koepka, has been at his best. The market indicates that, with both priced from 30/1 to as high as Koepka’s 40/1 at Circa Sports. Kevin Na returns to defend his title at odds of 60/1. 

The event

The Charles Schwab Challenge was established in 1946 and is the longest non-major tour event held at the same site. Much like the Memorial Tournament is for Jack Nicklaus and Bay Hill is for Arnold Palmer, the tournament at Colonial is closely associated with the late Ben Hogan, who lived in Fort Worth and won the event five times between 1946 and 1959. Annika Sorenstam participated in the 2003 tournament, becoming the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias made three cuts as an amateur in 1945. Sorenstam’s entry drew high media attention, but she shot 71 and 74 and missed the cut by four strokes. Due to its invitational status, the Charles Schwab Challenge field is ordinarily just 120 players. However, it was bumped up to 148 this year to make up for the loss of several tournaments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament has never had the top two players in the world at the same time since the OWGR began in 1986, but this week it will have the top five. 

The course

Colonial Country Club was designed in 1936 by John Bredemus and Perry Maxwell. It is just five minutes northwest of Texas Christian University. Colonial is a classic par-70 of 7,209 yards. The fairways and rough are Bermudagrass, and the smallish greens averaging 5,000 square feet are Bentgrass. Average fairway width is about 27 yards, lower than the tour average. Power and distance are not much of an advantage. Long-term history shows the best way to win is to hit the fairways and putt the lights out. The fairways are firm and fast — it last rained in the Dallas-Fort Worth area May 25 — and the greens will need watering. Temperatures are expected to reach the mid-90s, so a typical hot Texas June weekend awaits the players. It is also very rare for a younger player to win here. In fact, every winner in the last 18 years has been 30 or older except Jordan Spieth in 2016. 

Ball striking and putting are the recipe for success at Colonial, as indicated by the Strokes Gained statistics for its last four champions.

2019 — Kevin Na (-13). SG Off the Tee: 18th; SG Approach: 1st; SG Around the Green: 58th; SG Tee to Green: 2nd; SG Putting: 2nd.

2018 — Justin Rose (-20). SG Off the Tee: 4th; SG Approach: 1st; SG Around the Green: 19th; SG Tee to Green: 1st; SG Putting: 21st.

2017 — Kevin Kisner (-10). SG Off the Tee: 30th; SG Approach: 23rd; SG Around the Green: 2nd; SG Tee to Green: 5th; SG Putting: 3rd.

2016 — Jordan Spieth (-17). SG Off the Tee: 5th; SG Approach: 30th; SG Around the Green: 6th; SG Tee to Green: 7th; SG Putting: 2nd.

The only outlier in putting was Rose in 2018, when he ranked 21st. But his ball striking carried him to a three-shot victory. 

Recent history/winners

2019: Kevin Na (-13/267) 70/1

2018: Justin Rose (-20/260) 20/1

2017: Kevin Kisner (-10/270) 33/1

2016: Jordan Spieth (-17/263) 7/1

2015: Chris Kirk (-12/268) 35/1

2014: Adam Scott (-9/271) 18/1*

2013: Boo Weekley (-14/266) 100/1

2012: Zach Johnson (-12/268) 16/1

2011: David Toms (-15/265) 33/1

2010: Zach Johnson (-21/259) 50/1**

* — won playoff over Jason Dufner

** — tournament scoring record

Selections

Jordan Spieth 45/1

Spieth is No. 56 in the OWGR, his lowest ranking since his rookie season of 2013. No one can deny he has regressed from his elite form of 2013-17, but he has made 22 of his last 24 cuts dating to the 2019 Players and has six top-10s dating to the 2019 PGA Championship. Nonetheless, he hasn’t been that close to winning in quite a while. If there’s a spot to get back on track, it should be here. Spieth won in 2016 and has two runners-up to go along with two other top-10s. He has finished eighth or better in five of seven appearances and has never missed the cut at Colonial. The layoff might have done him some good since his instruction is local. Cameron McCormick, Spieth’s coach, is based at the Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, in the Dallas area where Spieth lives. Spieth is a definite horse for the course. He is the top player in overall Strokes Gained per round over the last 10 years.

Jordan Spieth + 2.41

Webb Simpson + 1.82

Jon Rahm + 1.74

Kevin Na + 1.68

Sergio Garcia + 1.54

Tony Finau + 1.45

Emiliano Grillo + .145

Harris English + 1.44

Kevin Kisner + 1.42

Matt Kuchar 60/1

Kuchar might show up in a great frame of mind, considering he likes this course a great deal and on deck is the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, S.C., where he is a former winner and a perennial contender. Kuchar has never missed the cut in 11 appearances at Colonial. He has three top-10s here, including a runner-up in 2013. Kuchar already has a 2020 victory at the Singapore Open on the Asian Tour in January, his third worldwide win in 14 months. He followed that with a tie for second at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera. Kuchar likes classic-type layouts, and Colonial certainly fills the bill. He also has four top-10s in his last 10 season debuts, so he tends to come out of the gate solidly off longer layoffs. 

Ryan Palmer 70/1

Palmer lives in Colleyville, a suburb of Fort Worth, so this hometown event will mean more to him than most. Despite not having won here, he is a course specialist. No player in the field has logged more tournament rounds here. 

56: Ryan Palmer

52: Rory Sabbatini, Zach Johnson

46: Kevin Na, Jim Furyk, John Senden, J.J. Henry

45: Chad Campbell, Brian Gay

43: Charley Hoffman

42: Matt Kuchar

38: Bill Haas, Lucas Glover

37: Pat Perez

36: Jason Dufner

35: Chris Kirk, Vaughn Taylor

34: Steve Stricker

32: Kevin Streelman

Palmer has four top-six finishes in his last eight appearances here and shot all four rounds in the 60s last year, finishing sixth. Palmer has six finishes of 21st or better in his last eight tournaments, including a T4 at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He was in the final Sunday pairing at this year’s Farmers Insurance Open, though with McIlroy and Rahm, and shot a poor 77 to end up T21. This is a play on course experience. Palmer will be as equipped as anyone to know the sightlines off the tee and know when and where to attack or play it safe. 

Harris English 70/1

English is a bit of a speculative play because he looked to be coming into form before the stoppage in play. His resurgence started after he had to play in the Korn Ferry Tour finals, when he logged four top-six finishes in the PGA Tour’s Fall Series. In 2020, English has two solid top-20s at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the Honda Classic followed by a respectable T9 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. He has a solid record at Colonial, making five of six cuts and never finishing worse than 30th. He also was fifth in 2012 and was the runner-up in 2016, when he ran into a hot Spieth.

Abraham Ancer 80/1

Ancer comes in making 11 straight cuts, with four top-10 finishes in that span. He has made two cuts here with pedestrian finishes in the 50s, but he looks to be on the rise and is now in the OWGR top 30. Good price value here.

Kevin Kisner 90/1

Kisner, like English and Kuchar, loves tight layouts, especially shorter par-70s. The 2017 winner here has very much fit into the boom-or-bust category at Colonial. In six appearances, he has a victory, a top-5 and a top-10 but also two missed cuts. The Aiken, S.C., native gets a home game next week at the RBC Heritage, so he should be in a positive frame of mind in his return to tournament play.

Tom Hoge 145/1

Hoge played at TCU, so he is very familiar with Colonial and has made the cut all three times he has played this tournament. Before the pause in play, Hoge was playing arguably the best, most consistent golf of his PGA Tour career, with two top-six finishes and four top-15s in 2020. The layoff could work against him but could also be mitigated by restarting play at a course with which he is highly familiar.

Jason Dufner 165/1

Dufner is a real long shot, but he was the runner-up here in 2012 and ’14. He’s obviously nowhere near his form of 2012, when he was a top-10 player in the world, nor of 2016-17, when he won events each season. Nevertheless, he has good experience here and might surprise.

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