Everyone, take a deep breath.
The U.S. Open pressure cooker has been left behind, with a handful of players jetting from Winged Foot to the more laid-back setting of this week’s Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. Rather than knee-high rough and narrow fairways, players this week will face generous landing zones along the picturesque coastline of the Dominican Republic.
While the field doesn’t boast a ton of star power, there are some names to watch: Graeme McDowell is back to defend his title from a year ago, and joining him is fellow major winner Henrik Stenson. Fresh off his T-6 finish at Winged Foot, Will Zalatoris headlines the field as a betting favorite. And there’s plenty to play for this week. While this event was originally scheduled for March, opposite the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, it’s now a full FedExCup point event before returning to its usual March spot on the calendar in 2021. That means that this week’s winner will earn an invite to the 2021 Masters in addition to the usual trappings that accompany a PGA Tour victory.
From Zalatoris’ recent hot streak to Stenson’s expectations and those who are looking to follow in McDowell’s footsteps, here are the burning questions to consider before play begins in the Caribbean:
Can Will Zalatoris turn Korn Ferry dominance into a PGA Tour win?
Zalatoris has been crushing it on the developmental circuit this year, with 11 straight top-20 finishes including a win since returning from the break in June. That performance earned him a spot in last week’s U.S. Open, where he promptly led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach and finished the week T-6 alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
Zalatoris is considered a can’t-miss prospect, albeit one whose PGA Tour ascent has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no promotion avenue available at the start of the 2020-21 season, the 24-year-old is facing another year of Korn Ferry starts before he’s able to gain full status on the PGA Tour. Of course, that could all change with a big performance this week.
Zalatoris is listed as a +1300 betting favorite according to PointsBet Sportsbook, a sign of both his perceived talent and the relative lack of strength in the 144-man field. Should he win this week, he would earn an immediate PGA Tour card and become fully exempt through the 2023 season. It’s nearly unprecedented for a Korn Ferry regular to step up to the main stage and win a PGA Tour event, but the stars could be aligning this week for one of the game’s biggest prospects.
Which veteran is best positioned to rekindle his career in the D.R.?
Last year McDowell broke through for an important victory in Puntacana, one that gave the former U.S. Open champ a two-year Tour exemption and much-needed scheduling stability. He has since built upon that momentum, winning earlier this year in Saudi Arabia and returning to the top 50 in the world rankings.
Events like Puntacana tend to break in one of two directions: an opportunity for a rising star to earn a watershed win (see Viktor Hovland this year in Puerto Rico) or a chance for a grizzled veteran to get back on his feet. That’s what McDowell did last year, and there are several notables in the field looking to follow his lead. Among them is Pat Perez, who was ranked inside the top 20 in the world a couple years ago and has since fallen outside the top 150. Perez has battled injury issues in recent months, including a pair of injury-related withdrawals last month, but he enters off a T-9 finish at the Safeway Open.
Also in the field is former Presidents Cup participant Charley Hoffman, who advanced to the BMW Championship every year from 2007-17. He hasn’t made it back since, though, and has tumbled to No. 151 in the world rankings. Hoffman is now four years removed from his most recent win, although he and Perez do share another similarity: both won at Mayakoba, another oceanside event played on similar paspalum grass.
Will Henrik Stenson perform like the top-ranked player in the field?
At No. 43 in the world, the former Open champ is the top player in Punta cana based on the world rankings. It’s hardly the first time that Stenson has been the top seed based on that metric, but certainly the first in a while given the Swede’s recent slide.
Stenson got back into the winner’s circle at the Hero World Challenge in December, but that was an unofficial event. To find his last official Tour victory, you have to go back to the 2017 Wyndham Championship more than three years ago. He has slipped from sixth in the world to 43rd in that span, and now finds himself on the cusp of his worst ranking since 2013. The 44-year-old has made only four Tour starts since his win in the Bahamas last year, missing three cuts (including the PGA and U.S. Open) and finishing T-35 at the no-cut WGC event in Memphis in July.
Stenson is still exempt on Tour through 2023 thanks to his various wins, including the 2016 Open at Royal Troon. But he has largely split time between the U.S. and Europe in recent years and hasn’t cracked the top 10 in a PGA Tour event since a T-9 finish at last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Can a teen sensation surprise with a strong performance?
The youth movement is alive and well on the PGA Tour, and a pair of participants this week are taking that notion to the extreme. Both Akshay Bhatia and Joohyung “Tom” Kim were born in 2002, around the time that Tiger Woods was scooping up major trophies like candy. Both now 18 years old, they’re eager to make an impression this week and potentially accelerate their professional learning curves.
Bhatia turned heads with his decision to eschew college and turn professional last year at age 17, and he struggled to find his footing while missing cuts in both PGA Tour and Korn Ferry starts. But he finally played the weekend earlier this month in Napa, where he finished T-9 after going 66-68 over the weekend. That top-10 finish earned him a spot in this week’s field, and he’s hoping to add to his non-member point haul as he looks to gain full-time status on a major circuit.
Joining him in the field this week is another fresh face, and one likely not well-known to American fans. Kim has been racking up titles on the Korean pro circuit, winning four times since last year including a victory in July. He’s now on the cusp of the top 100 in the world and making his third PGA Tour start in recent weeks, having played the PGA Championship and made the cut at Safeway. Having only turned 18 in June, he’s six months younger than Bhatia but also poised to make several more starts on this side of the Pacific in the coming months. A strong performance this week would go a long way toward boosting those prospects.