Charles Schwab Challenge: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a weekly fantasy golf picks piece applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
I’ve missed pro golf. The emergence of new stars and return of old ones. Great players matching birdies in the final round. Charges on the back nine on Sunday and yes, even the odd collapse on the 72nd hole. All of it – the action. We’ve all missed it for 91 days, the longest hiatus since the 1980s. On Thursday morning, at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, the PGA Tour returns.
And does it ever.
The Charles Schwab Challenge, but forever simply Colonial, is finally getting the field it deserves. Altogether, 16 of the top-20 players in the world have convened for a tournament that began in 1946 on a course where Ben Hogan won four of the first seven titles and five overall. Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson have their name carved in the Champions Wall too.
We’ll all be watching on TV, not a fan on site. The last time we saw the PGA Tour players they were assaulting TPC Sawgrass on a beautiful day in the first round of the Players Championship. By the next morning, the sports world was frozen due to the threat of COVID-19.
Golfers practiced and played as the quarantine reached weeks and then months. Some returned to the competitive arena via local mini tour events or gathered at a social distance and played rounds with their buddies at home. Still, there’s nothing quite like the rush of tournament golf. And barring an injury or the birth of a child, rarely does a pro take such a lengthy break from competition.
How will the hiatus affect scoring? That’s a tough question to answer. The weather forecast in Fort Worth this week is hot, humid and minimal wind, roughly 10-12 mph each day. The golf ball travels miles on the firm fairways and even farther out of the crispy Bermuda rough. The greens are usually excellent. The average winning score is 14 under the last five years and since 2000, every winner but one reached double digits in the red.
With no recent tournament results to favor this week, I studied past results at Colonial, paid close attention to the Las Vegas odds and favored ballstrikers. There’s no telling who is on form. Hot streaks can fizzle and reignite in the span of three months.
In an ordinary year, many of the world’s best (McIlroy, Thomas, Johnson) would not visit Fort Worth, bypassing the tight fairways and small greens for another course where they could unleash their horsepower. But they’re just as anxious to play as we are to select a fantasy team and watch. Maybe more of the game’s stars will realize what they’ve missed all these years and make a week in Fort Worth part of their schedule in the future.
For now, let’s just be glad they’re back.
Golfer power rankings
25. Kevin Kisner – Quiet since his match play victory in Austin in the spring of 2019 but has good memories at Colonial, having slipped into the plaid jacket behind the 18th green in 2017.
24. Kevin Na – Rode a hot putter to victory last year and finished T-4 in 2018 at Colonial, but he’s only 99th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy this season, which is concerning.
23. Andrew Putnam – One of the Tour’s best putters (6th, Strokes Gained), has found the smooth surfaces at Colonial to his liking, finishing T-20 in 2018 and T-3 last year.
22. Joel Dahmen – Top 25 in the ballstriking strokes gained categories among the players in the field. Also like that he shot 58 on his home course during the Tour break.
21. Charley Hoffman – One of the Tour’s best ballstrikers has played the weekend in all 11 starts at Colonial, finishing inside the top-10 once.
20. Shane Lowry – He gets to enjoy his Champion Golfer of The Year status a little longer because The Open will not be held this summer. One of the game’s elite scramblers can put his touch on display here.
19. Russell Knox – Never finished outside the top 25 in four starts at Colonial, paced by a T-8 in 2019. Precise with his driver and irons, Knox ranks top 5 in SG tee-to-green at Colonial among players in this star-studded field.
18. Collin Morikawa – Perhaps he addressed his pitching and putting during the break (outside the top 125 in both areas). His ballstriking is impeccable (T-8 in Strokes Gained) on Tour, which should produce a memorable Colonial debut.
17. Matt Kuchar – Finished in the top 10 three times in 11 starts at Colonial, including a runner-up in 2013. Thrives during weeks where the fairways are difficult to hit, ranking fourth in strokes gained overall.
16. Sungjae Im – The FedEx Cup leader hired a new caddie, Albin Choi, during the break. Choi earned $242,000 in 110 Korn Ferry Tour starts from 2015-19 and helped Im to his first career victory at the Honda Classic in March. Their chemistry should keep Im climbing toward a top 10 world ranking.
15. Patrick Reed – Reed will, more than most, enjoy playing without fans. During a recent interview he mentioned a renewed commitment to improved fitness and nutrition. Hasn’t played this Tour stop since 2016, when he finished T-15.
14. Tony Finau – Can leave the driver in the bag on Colonial’s many doglegs. Finished runner-up in 2019. He’s 10th on the PGA Tour this season in SG: Approach-the-Green.
13. Viktor Hovland – This is his first look at Colonial but his golf DNA is a good match for the precision required to solve the par-70 layout. Played many rounds in sultry conditions during his time at Oklahoma State so he should thrive in the hot, humid air of Fort Worth.
12. Dustin Johnson – Not the first course that comes to mind when one envisions DJ’s towering tee shots, but his record here is fine – pair of cuts made with a T-14 in his most recent appearance in 2014 – and supreme talent is an asset on any layout.
11. Brian Harman – Solid, but not spectacular, through the years at Colonial. Hasn’t finished worse than 31st in last six starts and twice cracked the top 10. He’s 20th in Strokes Gained on this course among players in the field, strong in all the ballstriking areas.
10. Webb Simpson – Game fits Colonial, where he’s posted two top 5s in the last three starts. Was on track for a career year before the break, climbing to fifth in the FedEx Cup and seventh in the world. Ranks 40th in driving accuracy, seventh in greens in regulation and first in birdies (five per round).
9. Joaquin Niemann – The unexpected break arrived at the ideal time for the young Chilean, who had missed three cuts in a row. Returning to Colonial, where he tied for eighth last year in his second start, should reboot his season. He’s a top-20 ballstriker on Tour.
8. Brooks Koepka – The 90-day break occurred at an ideal time for Koepka, too, who was rusty and disgusted during his pre-pandemic starts. The confident countenance we’ve come to expect from the four-time major champion had faded. It’s not too far below the surface, though. Finished second at Colonial in his only appearance (2018).
7. Corey Conners – Tied for eighth in 2018 and T-31 last year and possesses the tee-shot accuracy and iron play required to navigate the narrow corridors of Colonial. He’s 18th on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation and thrives when conditions and layout place a premium on finding fairways, per Fantasy National.
6. Jordan Spieth – In seven starts at Colonial, the Dallas native has five top 10s, including a victory in 2016, sandwiched between two runner-ups. Perhaps the three-month layoff provided time to rediscover his swing and regain confidence.
5. Rory McIlroy – He’s never played in the PGA Tour’s annual stop at Colonial, however, he’s been the most consistent player in the game over the last year. Until he plays bad, I’ll assume he won’t.
4. Harris English – Strong history at Colonial includes a pair of top-5 finishes, highlighted by a runner-up in 2016. Ranks 24th in the FedEx Cup thanks to supreme ballstriking (fifth in greens in regulation). Hoping he found ample time to join the money games on Sea Island during the break.
3. Justin Thomas – Like many of his peers near the top of the World Golf Ranking, JT is making his first appearance at Colonial. While it’s easy to see why he’s skipped the event in the past, it’s also unwise to overlook a player that’s second on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation.
2. Marc Leishman – Skipped the Charles Schwab Challenge the last two years. Prior to that he made seven consecutive cuts here. Already has a PGA Tour victory in 2020 and his prowess in the iron game (fifth in SG: Approach the Green) bolsters his case this week.
1. Jon Rahm – Data Golf released a report ranking Rahm’s current stretch of torrid golf as the 10th best on the PGA Tour since 2004, based on strokes gained. It’s an interesting list (Tiger from 2006-08, is first). Rahm also enjoys a sterling record in Fort Worth with a pair of top 5s in his young career.