The Northern Trust 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

When the Northern Trust was played at Liberty National in 2019, Jon Rahm finished tied for third. Credit: Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports

The three-week sprint to $15 million, aka the FedEx Cup playoffs, begins Thursday morning at Liberty National in the shadow of the lady herself, across the bay from New York City.

It’s a spectacular place to start. The Northern Trust rotates between Liberty National and TPC Boston. Previous champions on the roughly 7,400-yard, par-71 layout are Patrick Reed (2019), Adam Scott (2013) and Heath Slocum (2009).

The course features bentgrass greens, fescue rough and water hazards that can cause trouble on a dozen holes. Because of the location, wind can be a factor, sometimes freshening to 15-20 mph in the afternoon.

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I like the layout, in part because of the setting, and also because of the challenge it presents. Bombers can attack it. Fairway finders can have success too. The greens are some of the smallest on the PGA Tour, layered with slopes to runoff areas and are difficult to hit. The pros find one in regulation 61.4 percent of the time compared to the Tour average of 65.6.

Roughly one-third of the approach shots are launched from beyond 200 yards. There are only three par 5s, so players must capitalize on each opportunity. In the past, the course has produced bunched leaderboards on Sunday. The 16th and 17th holes provide excellent birdie chances and a closing 30 or 31 is within reach.

With only Louis Oosthuizen opting out, the 124-man field is the strongest in the history of the Official World Golf Ranking, per reports. That fact combined with a course demanding excellence throughout the bag led to a top-heavy Power Rankings this week. Our models and study of past results produced a list loaded with players who do everything well and putt their best on bentgrass, for the most part.

The forecast calls for a chance of rain early in the week, temperatures in the mid-to-upper 80s with a fair dose of humidity and a chance of shower or two later on. All in all, the weather shouldn’t be much of a factor.

Bargain Bin

  • Talor Gooch, Chris Kirk, Troy Merritt, Maverick McNealy, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Wallace

As always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

20. Abraham Ancer – I generally fade a pro in his first start after his first PGA Tour victory but Ancer’s consistent performance this season, cool disposition and Liberty National record (runner-up in ‘19, gaining 4.3 shots on approach) are too impressive to ignore.

19. Adam Scott – Missing a 4-footer to win a playoff stings but the better news is Scotty arrives in New Jersey fresh off his best ballstriking week since the Honda in March and should be prepared to attack a course he loves. He won here in 2013, closing with a 66 and finished fifth in 2019, closing with 65. In between, he represented the International side here in 2017.

18. Harris English – Finished top four in three of his last four starts. Wasn’t even eligible for the Northern Trust two years ago. Top 10 in the field in putting on bentgrass. Another player who does everything well and hopes that formula can solve Liberty National.

17. Viktor Hovland – Bentgrass is the Norwegian Forest Cat’s worst putting surface and the progress he was showing around the greens evaporated in his last two outings. Looking for his first top 10 since back-to-back top 3s at Valspar and Wells Fargo. Top 21 in the field in SG: Approach, Good Drives Gained, scoring on par 5s and proximity from 200 yards or more.

16. Webb Simpson – Led the field in SG: Approach last week as he recorded yet another top 10 at the Wyndham. Likes the course based on his previous comments and past results (T-18 in 2019 and T-15 in 2013 when he opened 67-66).

15. Hideki Matsuyama – Bad week on and around the greens (and possibly fatigue) led to a short week in Greensboro, however, his iron game remained steady and he won the Masters on bentgrass greens, making one clutch putt after another. He’s third in the field in SG: Approach, 116th in Putting. You know what you’re signing up for with Hideki.

14. Rory McIlroy – Iron game has been strong since his Wells Fargo victory. He’s gained at least 4.1 strokes on approach in each of his last five measured starts. Loves this time of year – has five FedEx Cup playoff victories. Finished T-6 at Liberty National in 2019 despite an average week on approach and T-19 in 2013.

13. Jason Kokrak – In a week of limited course history, Kokrak’s record at Liberty National is among the best. He finished T-9 in 2019 and T-12 in 2013 with four of the eight rounds in the 60s. One of the Tour’s most improved putters, he thrives on bentgrass (5th in strokes gained) and there are similarities between this week’s test and Shadow Creek, where he won last fall.

12. Justin Thomas – Despite a lackluster summer, Thomas finished ninth in the final regular season standings. Pretty good “off year.” Also won a couple million at TPC Sawgrass. Again, a rather lucrative slump. Loves the FedEx Cup playoffs (finished T-12 at LN in ‘19) and dialed his irons in Memphis, gaining 6.1 strokes on approach. Don’t be surprised when he contends again. His fantasy and outright prices will never be better.

11. Dustin Johnson – Five top 25s in his last six starts. Bettered the field average in every significant Strokes Gained category in finishing T-10 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude two weeks ago. Opened 63-67 at Liberty National in 2019 but faded to T-24 on the weekend. Owns the most wins (6), top 5s (13) and top 10s (21) in the FedEx Cup playoffs.

10. Xander Schauffele – He’s the best in the field on par 5s and taking advantage of all three at Liberty National is key to scoring. He’s also 12th in SG: Putting on bentgrass. The Olympic gold medal is great but he’d like to add a PGA Tour victory before the season ends.

9. Bryson DeChambeau – He’s the best in the field on shots longer than 200 yards, which should serve him well on the three par 5s and the challenging 11th hole. Although the back nine at TPC Southwind went poorly two weeks ago, he gained 3.4 shots on approach for the week – his best iron play since the Players in March.

8. Daniel Berger – Ranks top 25 in the field in SG: Approach, par-5 scoring, SG: Putting on bentgrass and Good Drives Gained. Enters in solid form after posting yet another top 10 in Memphis. At 10th in the Ryder Cup standings, needs a good week to impress the captain.

7. Paul Casey – Likely the second best iron player in the game, he’s gained at least 4.1 strokes on approach in seven of the last eight measured starts, posting seven top 10s in the U.S. in 2021, including a pair of majors, the Players and two weeks ago at TPC Southwind.

6. Brooks Koepka – Feels like he’s undervalued and possibly overlooked this week. Been a hard player to predict. Has five top 6s (including three majors) in his last nine outings but also three MCs and a T-54. Tied for 30th with four rounds of 70 or better at Liberty National in 2019.

5. Scottie Scheffler – Brings his best game against the strongest fields. Top 10s at the Memorial, PGA, U.S. Open, The Open and a T-14 most recently at WGC-FedEx St. Jude. He’s 12th in the field in par-5 scoring and 21st on 400-450-yard par 4s.

4. Jordan Spieth – Ranks top 10 in the field in par-5 scoring, short game, 400-450-yard par 4s and SG: Approach over the last 36-50 rounds. Been dealing with a couple of nagging injuries, which has limited his schedule this summer. Just knows how to score, finishing T-12 last time out.

3. Collin Morikawa – The game’s best on approach endured a rare off week with the irons at Memphis but still managed a T-26. The three past champions at Liberty National ranked top 15 in the field in fairways (Morikawa is first in Good Drives Gained).

2. Patrick Cantlay – Each of his four PGA Tour victories have come on bentgrass greens and he’s fourth in the field in putting on the surface over the last 50 rounds (compared to 54th on all greens). Solid all-around game fits well at Liberty National, top 20 in par-5 scoring and 400-450 yard par-4 efficiency.

1. Jon Rahm – Nobody in the game has been more consistent over the last year. He’s in the top 3 in SG: Total whether you review the past four rounds, the past 100 or any figure in between. The only minor negative is he’s 57th in SG: Putting on bentgrass. But that wasn’t an issue in his T-3 at Liberty National two years ago.

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