Sobel: Stay Away from the PGA Tour Vacationers at the Greenbrier

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Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Russell Henley

I’ve got a few dead-solid locks for this week’s A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier (and yes, that’s really the official tournament name now):

  • Google searches for “falconry” will be way up. Like, increased a few hundred percent week over week.
  • Red, white and blue will be prominently displayed everywhere. I mean, you don’t honor the military with your tourney name during Fourth of July week without going all-in on the patriotic decorations.
  • Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson will each look into the camera and state something to the effect of, “My family and I love coming to this scenic West Virginia getaway, because there are so many unbelievable activities.”

Those two players with five Masters titles between ’em won’t be lying — they really do enjoy their time at the Greenbrier — although they will casually refrain from adding that Jim Justice, the West Virginia governor and Greenbrier owner, has put them each on the payroll as paid endorsers and built houses for them on the property.

Nobody’s ever done that for me, but I’d probably smile for the camera and gush about their facilities, too.

 

But again: They really do like it there. As well they should — the place is pretty great.

I’ve covered this tournament about three to four times in past years, and it’s always been one of my favorites. Stay in a posh hotel, walk five minutes to the course, cover the event in a low-stress atmosphere, then retreat back to the hotel each night for a nice dinner and a few hours in the casino. I still have good relationships with a few players just because we bonded over some late-night blackjack sessions.

The players feel the same way. Most of them treat this one like summer camp, a fun respite from the weekly grind of life on tour, with the entire family in tow and less time devoted to practice than things such as fishing, kayaking and, yes, falconry.

So, what does that mean for the rest of us, who are trying to differentiate the contenders from the pretenders in a fairly nondescript field? If we look carefully, it can mean everything.


Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Bubba Watson

Last year’s winner was Xander Schauffele, who’s 24, unmarried and doesn’t have children.

There was no tourney in 2016, but three years ago, the winner was Danny Lee, for whom fellow pros were helping make a love connection, as they engaged in a hilarious social media campaign called #FindDannyAGirl.

The year before was Angel Cabrera, who’s on the other end of the spectrum, with grown children already.

And the year before that, another unmarried twenty-something, Jonas Blixt, prevailed.

Notice a pattern yet?

In many ways, this event is much like the annual winners-only celebration at Kapalua, with more than half the field in Maui only playing golf in between paddle-boarding in the morning and mai tais on the deck each night.

With so many players enjoying a de facto vacation this week, we should focus on those who are perhaps more focused on themselves.

 

(True story: A few years ago, I touted Webb Simpson as a strong pick at this event. Then on Wednesday evening, I ran into him in the hotel lobby practicing his golf swing. He proceeded to explain that he pulled a muscle lifting one of his kids out of a pool that afternoon and wasn’t sure if he could play the next day. He did, but he hardly lived up to expectations.)

That doesn’t mean a family guy can’t find success here. Kevin Kisner and Jimmy Walker spring to mind as a few players who have strong records at this event.

If we’re following the recurring pattern, though, we should eschew most of those who are checking out the falconry with the fam and instead go with players on a solo mission. That means plenty of young up-and-comers, who are reflected in my picks below.


Favorites

Tony Finau (+1200 to win, +260 for top-five)

Sure, he breaks every rule I just wrote about, as he’s got a flock of kids and very well might treat this week as a vacation. And yes, it’s absolutely ludicrous that the field favorite is a guy who owns exactly one career victory in 110 starts. But it almost feels like two wrongs make a right here. He’s due for another win, so a weak field could be just what he needs.

Russell Henley (+2000 to win, +425 for top-five)

Let’s see … he finished T-6 in his last start … he’s finished fifth in each of his past two Greenbrier starts … and he fares best in low-scoring events. (The Greenbrier has seen a winning score of 13-under or lower in five of six editions.) Everything is set up nicely for Henley this week.

Brian Harman (+3000 to win, +650 for top-five)

Sticking with another Georgia Bulldog. I really don’t think Harman has it in him to treat a tourney like summer vacation. There are reasons why he’s often labeled with terms such as “gritty” and “gutty.” Nobody owns more top-10s this season — and nobody is burning more to finally win one of ’em.

Jimmy Walker (+3000 to win, +650 for top-five)

Following the Players Championship two months ago, I wrote about the contenders and where we should look to pick them in the coming months. Here’s what I wrote about Walker: “After a guy has slumped, I always like to look at where he found some modicum of success during that period. Walker’s T-18 at last year’s Greenbrier should prompt a much better result now that he’s playing better.” Even after last week’s T-60, I’m sticking with this.


Ray Carlin – USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jimmy Walker


Mid-Tier

Brandt Snedeker (+6500 to win, +1400 for top-five)

Higher odds than guys such as Danny Lee and Kevin Streelman? Yes, please. It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for Sneds so far, but a shorter course should serve him well. If he’s going to bounce back into the world’s top 50 for majors and WGCs and maybe even a longshot Ryder Cup berth, he needs to start playing really well, really soon. He knows that, too.

Andrew Putnam (+7000 to win, +1500 for top-five)

Here are his results since late March: 5-32-8-82-42-20-2-27. Putnam is clearly starting to feel more comfortable on the PGA Tour and has learned that he can contend on the game’s highest level. Don’t be surprised if he sneaks in another top-five finish this week.

Anirban Lahiri (+7500 to win, +1600 for top-five)

I wrote this about Lahiri last week, as well, but since he’s already competed in more majors and WGCs than players with similar PGA Tour pedigrees, it feels like Lahiri holds himself to a higher standard, as if he knows he should be teeing it up among the world’s best on a consistent basis. As such, he’ll treat this week as a business trip.

Kevin Chappell (+8500 to win, +1800 for top-five)

Last Saturday, I finished 12 holes with three buddies at the Golden Bear Club in Orlando before the inevitable summer-in-Florida lightning strikes started. We retreated for the comfort of the 19th hole, where I found Chappell sitting with instructor Sean Foley. They told me they’d gotten in a full day of practice before the storm. What does it all mean? Either I just wanted to humblebrag that I ran into them, or it shows that Chappell is serious about getting his game in shape entering this week. Choose the former at your own peril.


Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Brandt Snedeker


Longshots

Abraham Ancer (+10000 to win, +2100 for top-five)

Last month, when he climbed the board at the Byron Nelson, I tweeted: “Question: Who’s leading the Nelson? Answer: Ancer.” Well, he’s since played well enough that I’ve tweeted out the same bad joke two more times, just for the sake of posterity. That’s three times in the last month that he’s at least shared the lead during some point of a PGA Tour event. For a young player still trying to find his way, this is some nice progress.

Ben Crane (+13000 to win, +2800 for top-five)

Crane has finished 13th or better in three of his past five starts — and his reward is being a 130-1 longshot this week? Crane is just the type of player who could sneak a sixth career win this week without much fanfare ahead of time.

Sam O’Dell (+25000 to win, +5000 for top-five, +900 for top-20)

Gonna be honest here: I couldn’t pick O’Dell out of a lineup. I’ve never seen him hit a golf ball. But I do know this much: He’s a four-time West Virginia Amateur champion, which means he not only has some game, but he knows his surroundings this week. Here’s guessing he’s teed it up at the Greenbrier a few times before — which makes him a fun top-20 flier to root on.

Norman Xiong (+30000 to win, +5000 for top-five)

Here’s a prediction: Xiong will never again be 300-1 in a PGA Tour event. Making his debut this week, the Oregon product received some hefty praise from coach Casey Martin. “At 19 years old,” he told Ryan Lavner for a GolfChannel.com story, “I think Tiger [Woods] is the only guy I would defer to as being better than Norman.” For those who have profited off Joaquin Niemann’s precipitous rise from top amateur to solid pro, expect a similar trajectory from the talented Xiong.

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