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Stat attack!: Greenbrier Classic preview

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July is a month for vacations, and the PGA Tour’s top stars are doing just that this week. Bubba Watson is the only top 10 player on the Official World Golf Ranking in the field at the Greenbrier Classic (there are no top-10 players in the European Tour’s Alstom French Open). Jimmy Walker (ahem) and Steve Stricker represent the top 20 in West Virginia and only 12 of the top 50 players are present. With the stars away, are some players more inclined to succeed than others? Identify those players and you might uncover this week’s winner.

To find out who plays well in weaker tournaments, I started by looking at the Official World Golf Ranking. The world ranking is scheduled to award 42 points to the Greenbrier Classic champion. There have been 10 PGA Tour events this season where the winner has been given 42 or fewer points. And as expected, there are players who clean up at those events. Walker won two such tournaments – the Frys.com Open and the Sony Open (he also won at Pebble Beach, which gave 44 points to the winner, just missing our threshold). Webb Simpson also finished in the top 25 all four times he played a weak-field event, including the Las Vegas tournament, which he won. Here’s a list of the players in the Greenbrier field who have at least four top-25 finishes in weak-field events in 2013-14, along with the percentage of their season earnings that have been a result of those weeks.

Top finishers in weak-field* events in 2013-14

 Player Starts Cuts Top 25 Money Pct. of season money Best
 Brendon Todd** 7 7 5 $715,028 25.24% T-6 Humana, Valero
 Will Mackenzie 9 5 5 997,490 55.96 T-2 Texas
 Jeff Overton 9 7 5 835,251 81.60 4, Zurich
 Jimmy
 Walker***
4 4 4 2,112,740 42.82 Won Frys, Sony
 Webb Simpson 4 4 4 1,610,017 64.71 Won Las Vegas
 Daniel
 Summerhays
8 7 4 841,078 65.71 T-2, Texas
 Brian Harman 8 7 4 599,672 43.99 T-6 Memphis
 Jerry Kelly 9 6 4 803,190 81.09 3, Sony
 Carl Pettersson 9 5 4 650,610 63.83 T-3 Memphis
 J.J. Henry 9 7 4 351,009 74.91 T-13 Memphis
 Andrew
 Svoboda
10 6 4 963,680 89.32 T-2, Zurich
 Ben Martin**** 10 6 4 592,447 42.44 3, Puerto Rico

* The tournaments with the ranking points awarded to the winner are as follows. Frys.com Open (28), Las Vegas (36), McGladrey (32), Mayakoba (24), Sony (42), Humana (40), Puerto Rico (24), Valero Texas (40), New Orleans (36), FedEx St. Jude (42).

** Todd also won the Byron Nelson Championship, which just missed the threshold, awarding 44 points to the winner. If include the Nelson, Todd has won 69.09 percent of his season earnings in such events.

*** Including the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which earned Walker just 44 ranking points for winning, would give him 66.91 percent of his season earnings in such events.

**** Martin had made the cut in his last seven starts, with additional thirds at the Heritage and at last week’s Quicken Loans National, which is another reason to consider him: The hot-hand effect.

Most of these players should make the cut and finish among the leaders. But be forewarned that just because Jerry Kelly, for one, plays well in such events, it doesn’t mean he’ll win the Greenbrier Classic. It just means he has a good chance to play well. Someone from this group might win, but Walker stands out.

Consider that when Jonas Blixt won in 2013 for his first PGA Tour win, Walker was one of four players who finished two strokes back. Walker has parlayed that runner-up into three victories this seasson. Matt Jones and Stephen Bowditch have also won in 2014. Perhaps Johnson Wagner is waiting for this week for his breakout 2014 performance.

Greenbrier Classic leaderboard in 2013

 Finish  Player Best event since Greenbrier
 Won Jonas Blixt Second at 2014 Masters, Fourth at 2013 PGA
 T-2 Jimmy Walker Won Frys.com, Sony Open, AT&T Pebble
 T-2 Stephen Bowditch Won Valero Texas Open
 T-2 Matt Jones Won Shell Houston Open
 T-2 Johnson Wagner 10th, 2013 Reno, no top-10s in 2014

Here’s how the top 50 players on the World Ranking in the field have fared at the Greenbrier 

 World rank Player 2013 2012 2011 2010
 3 Bubba Watson T-30      
 17 Jimmy Walker T-2 MC T-4 T-4
 18 Steve Stricker   T-22    
 25 Keegan Bradley   T-46 T-43  
 29 Patrick Reed MC      
 31 Webb Simpson T-41 T-7 T-9 MC
 35 Bill Haas T-9 T-33 2  
 38 Kevin Na   T-7   T-36
 41 Jonas Blixt Won      
 45 Chris Kirk   MC T-49  
 47 Brendon Todd   T-49    
 50 Gary Woodland T-62 MC T-4 MC

Normally, I wouldn’t expect any player not named Tiger Woods to finish in the top five at the same tournament four times in five years. But with Walker’s pedigree at Greenbrier, it’d be silly not to consider him option No. 1.

As for option No. 2, there is another trend to consider at the Greenbrier. A common denominator among Greenbrier winners is that none of them had played the tournament. After Stuart Allenby won the inaugural event in 2010, Scott Stallings in 2011, Ted Potter in 2012 and Blixt were all making their first appearances in West Virginia. I wouldn’t get too worked up about this. It’s bound to end as the tournament ages. Besides, of the 32 first-timers in the field at press time, only two – Chesson Hadley and Tim Clark – are in the top 100 on the FedEx Cup standings.

First-time players in the Greenbrier field who are also the top 150 in the FedEx Cup standings

 FedEx rank Player Best finish in 2013-14
 52 Chesson Hadley Won Puerto Rico Open
 98 Tim Clark T-2 McGladrey Classic
 102 Tim Wilkinson T-7 AT&T Pebble Beach
 113 Bryce Garnett T-7 Shell Houston Open
 126 Tyrone Van Aswegen T-16 Byron Nelson 
 128 Gonzalo Fdez-Castano T-24 Honda Classic
 137 Hudson Swafford T-8 Sony Open
 141 Andrew Loupe T-4 Valero Texas Open

In addition to his win at Puerto Rico, Hadley was fifth at Las Vegas and T-13 at Memphis. If it weren’t for six missed cuts in his last seven starts, he would be someone to consider from his list as he plays well in the weak-field events discussed above. So does Wilkinson, and he’s made five cuts in a row. Food for thought.

One final point: Don’t get too worked up about early round leaders at the Old White course. Because the course usually plays to a subpar scoring average, plenty of players can make moves in later rounds. In fact, the first, second, or third round leader/co-leader has never gone on to win in the tournament’s four years.

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