The Skinny: Key to winning? Gotta go low
An interesting trend is being reversed on the PGA Tour this year. Jeff Maggert's opening-round 72 at last week's FedEx St. Jude Classic marked just the second time in 2006 that the tournament winner produced an over-par score in a round. Maggert's first-round 72 on the par-71 TPC at Southwind course joined Rory Sabbatini's final-round 72 on the par-71 Riviera CC at the Nissan Open. In 2005, the winner had an over-par round 12 times, and it happened 11 times in 2004, after never reaching double figures from 1996 to 2003.
There's no easy explanation for why this happened. Maybe the bomb-and-gouge strategy that's been put in play in recent years by the tour's longest hitters can lead to higher scores if the gamble doesn't pay off, but more often "no guts, no glory" results in lower total scores even if going for a par-5 green in two doesn't produce eagles and birdies.
We probably won't see a winner with a single-round score of 73 or higher this week, even though Muirfield Village has been toughened and lengthened. Jack Nicklaus has lengthened it to 7,373 yards -- up from the 7,018 yards it played when Tiger Woods won his second and third Memorials in 2000 and 2001. Nicklaus also made the bunkers tougher by bringing in new rakes -- yes, rakes (more on that later) -- but the par 5s remain vulnerable for players with a high ball flight. But what makes me so certain you won't get a winner with a round over par is because that hasn't happened at the Memorial since 1990 when Greg Norman shot 73-74 in the first two rounds and still won the rain-shortened event.
Why? Because even in the rainy, windy conditions that seem to plague the Memorial annually, the winner usually has a solid statistical week -- and he dominates the par 5s. Bart Bryant played the four long holes in 8-under par a year ago, producing rounds of 69-69-66-68 for the second win of his career. Nobody predicted Bryant's emergence, but look what else he did at Muirfield Village: He tied for the tournament lead in fairways hit with 47, was T-3 in greens in regulation with 53 and was T-4 in total putts with 107. Bryant was also 10th in approach-shot distance to the pin, leaving his average approach less than 32 feet from the pin. It's no wonder his scores were so low.
There's more: In 2004 Ernie Els was 10-under on par 5s, led the field in putting and was fourth in driving distance. Kenny Perry was 8-under in 2003 and led the field in sand saves, was third in greens hit and T-3 in approach distance to the pin. Tiger was 14-under on the par 5s and led in GIR when he won in 2001. That tells me the pick this week should be someone with solid all-around stats who plays well on the long holes.
Even with Woods absent, the field is loaded with players like that. Thirteen of the top 16 players in par-5 scoring are in the field, and five of those (Phil Mickelson, Lucas Glover, Vijay Singh, Jose Maria Olazabal and Brett Wetterich) are also in the top-10 in the tour's all-around statistic.
Four of those five -- Wetterich, not surprisingly, is the odd man out -- have had top-10 finishes at the Memorial, but only Singh has a victory. Mickelson hasn't played there since 2002, Glover has a T-8 in his only appearance (2005) and Olazabal was 10th in 2003.
Glover: This guy has too much game not to win sometime this year. He has six top-10s and is in the top 50 on tour in every major stat except sand saves. That last stat could pose problems, though. Nicklaus has imported rakes with fewer tines, allowing for more furrows in the sand. That will make bunker shots more penal because the lie won't be as smooth and players won't be able to spin the ball as easily.
Mickelson: It may not be fair to pick Mickelson every time he plays, but you have to play the hot hand, and if the stats say he's one of the leading contenders, that's good enough for me.
Sergio Garcia: The Spaniard hasn't done much at Memorial since finishing T-2 in 2001, but something tells me this might be his week. A bad round could do him in, however. If it does, it will likely come on Sunday. His best final round this year is a 73 at the Masters and at Bay Hill.
Wetterich: He may be the odd man out above, but I'm including him here. Why? Because his win at the Nelson, though sandwiched by missed cuts at Charlotte and Fort Worth, was part of a strong run for the Cincinnati native. Did you know he was T-6 at Houston and T-4 at New Orleans in his previous two starts? Now, I don't think there's any way he'll win this week, but I didn't think he'd win in Dallas, either.
I might be mistaken, but isn't muir the Scottish word for village? That would make the name of Nicklaus' course Villagefield Village ... Props go out to my colleague Bill Fields, who told me to pick Jay Haas to win the Senior PGA Championship last week. So who does Bill like at this week's Champions Tour event in Iowa? Dana Quigley ... The most interesting early-round pairing this week features Wetterich, John Daly and Mark Brooks. How many times do you think Brooks will come within 50 yards of the other two players off the tee?
John Antonini is a senior editor for Golf World magazine.