Planet Golf — 31 July 2020 by GW staff and news services
Thomas reclaims No. 1 with FedEx win

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Justin Thomas wants to make his second stint as No. 1 in the world last longer than the first time around.

“I hope so,” Thomas said Sunday after winning the FedEx St. Jude Invitational to take the No. 1 spot for the first time since June 2018. “I feel like I’m a better player, and I feel like I’m more complete of a golfer now than I was then.”

Thomas dueled defending champion Brooks Koepka down the final holes, sealing the World Golf Championship victory on the par-5 16th. Thomas took the lead for good with his second straight birdie, while Koepka bogeyed the hole.

Koepka pulled within a stroke with a 39-footer for birdie on No. 17. But Koepka put his tee shot into the water along the 18th fairway on his way to double bogey, allowing Thomas to finish up an easy par putt for what wound up a three-stroke victory.

Thomas closed with a 5-under 66 to finish at 13-under 267 and take the $10.5 million winner’s check for his 13th PGA Tour title. At 27, he became the third-youngest player since 1960 to reach 13 PGA Tour wins, trailing only Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a good career so far, but I plan on playing out here for a long time and have a lot of things that I still want to accomplish,” Thomas said. “And every milestone and steppingstone is hopefully something that I can learn from and something that will help me even more in the long run.”

One sign of Thomas’ growth was this was the fifth time he rallied to win, and he matched his biggest comeback after starting the day four strokes back of third-round leader Brendon Todd. Thomas has three wins this season, two since the start of the year.

The last time Thomas was No. 1, he spent four weeks at the top of the ranking. He will supplant Jon Rahm, who became No. 1 after winning at Memorial two weeks ago and tied for 52nd this week.

Koepka will go to TPC Harding Park in San Francisco looking to defend his PGA championship title, and he said he’s feeling good about how he’s playing. He finished with a 69 and tied for second with Phil Mickelson (67), Daniel Berger (65) and Tom Lewis (66).

“I thought I hit a good chip on 16,” Koepka said. “I don’t know what it did. Then another minute I thought it was in for another second. So to make bogey there was disappointing. Obviously drained a big one on 17, and then you’re down one. You’ve got to take an aggressive line on 18, so it is what it is.”

Thomas had Jim “Bones” Mackay on his bag, playing in the same group with Mickelson for the first time since Mickelson split with his longtime caddie. Mackay was a late fill-in for Thomas’ usual caddie, Jimmy Johnson.

“I feel like he knows enough about my game to where he can contribute and be a help, and he was,” Thomas said about Mackay.

Thomas made up the deficit with four birdies on the front nine and just missed another birdie chance on No. 8. His 20-footer on No. 9 tied Todd at 12 under.

Todd, whose putting had carried him through the first three rounds, three-putted for bogey from 23 feet on the par-3 eighth, leaving Thomas alone atop the leaderboard.

Thomas put his second on the par-4 12th into a greenside bunker near the back edge and chopped it out to the rough. He chipped out from an awkward stance to salvage bogey.

That created a five-way tie at 11 under with Koepka, Berger, Lewis and Todd.

Koepka took the lead to himself on the par-4 13th. He hit his approach from 133 yards to 10 feet of the pin, and Koepka sunk the putt for his third birdie of the round to go to 12 under.

After hitting his tee shot 321 yards to the rough 51 yards short of the hole on No. 15, Thomas hit to 6 feet for a birdie, tying Koepka at 12 under with three to play. Thomas found the rough far right of the cart path on the par-5 16th, then hit his third from the left rough 65 yards to 3 feet for his second straight birdie.

Koepka, in the group behind Thomas, tried to answer 42 yards from the hole. His shot landed close to the hole only to keep rolling to the back of the green. Koepka wound up two-putting from 8 feet for bogey.

Finishing on No. 18, Thomas made sure to avoid any danger before Koepka’s final birdie.

“I saw that I had a two-shot lead, hence the reason I hit it right of the universe,” Thomas said of a tee shot that went right of the cart path. “It was not going left, I promise you that.”

Berger qualified for the U.S. Open with his fifth top 10 finish to go along with his victory at Colonial in June.

Saturday’s Third Round

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Winning a World Golf Championships event easily would be the biggest victory of Brendon Todd’s career.

He has a recent reminder of how to best protect a lead in the final round — even if that memory is a bit painful.

Todd had a two-stroke lead going into the final round at the Travelers Championship in late June only to shoot a 75 and tie for 11th. He shot a 1-under 69 on Saturday at the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational to take a one-stroke lead into the final round. 

“What I learned at the Travelers is just you cannot control the result, you can’t control the way you’re going to feel, where the ball’s going to land, if putts are going to go in …,” Todd said. “The best players in the world treat each final round like it’s just another day, and they just go out there and try to execute and stick to their game and let the results fall as they do.”

Todd started the third round with a two-stroke lead. He had five birdies and four bogeys to put him at 13-under 198 on a nearly perfect day at TPC Southwind with the temperature in the 70s.

The 35-year-old Georgian is looking for his fourth career PGA TOUR victory and third since last fall. This is Todd’s second 54-hole lead since the TOUR’s return to play. He shot a 75 in the final round of the Travelers Championship and tied for 11th.

“I’m excited to be in this position and feel like if I can go out there and swing a little better and keep this putting momentum going, I’ll be in good shape,” Todd said.

Byeong Hun An of South Korea, who had four straight birdies on the back nine, finished with a 66. Rickie Fowler was two strokes back after a 69.

Defending champ Brooks Koepka struggled early before he reeled off six birdies in eight holes for a 68. He was fourth at 9 under.

Justin Thomas, who can become No. 1 in the world with a victory here, was fifth at 8 under after a 66. He won on this course in 2018 before the event became a World Golf Championship in 2019.

“I kind of found something those last 12 holes where I really started hitting some good putts and making them with good speed,” Thomas said. “Yeah, it was nice to shoot 4 under on that back nine to give myself somewhat of a chance.”

Phil Mickelson (66) and Louis Ooosthuizen (68) were in a group five strokes back.

Todd started where he left off Friday, rolling in a 14-footer for birdie on No. 1 to reach 12 under. Todd couldn’t get out of the rough on the par-4 No. 5 on the way to only his second bogey of the tournament.

Fowler holed out from the green-side rough on the par-5 third to pull within two. He then joined Todd atop the leaderboard on No. 7. He hit his second shot from 190 yards to 9 feet and made the putt for birdie.

Todd took the lead back to himself on the next hole with a 22-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth. Fowler answered with a 17-foot birdie putt on No. 9, making the turn with his third birdie and a share of the lead at 12 under. Todd pushed his own birdie chance just right of the hole.

Fowler took the lead to himself for the first time when Todd bogeyed No. 10 to start the back nine. Todd hit into the rough off the tee and couldn’t sink a 13-footer to save par. Todd sunk a 15-footer for birdie on No. 12, taking back the lead when Fowler two-putted from 13 feet for bogey.

Todd hit his approach 166 yards to 3 feet on No. 13 for his shortest birdie putt of the day and a two-stroke lead. But Todd found the water just short of the green on the par-3 14th and threw his hat in disgust at his shot. A bogey dropped him to 12 under.

“That’s the easiest to put on the green, to not hit in the water,” Todd said. “It was a swing that was out of rhythm that was a little bit too often today and to know I hit the water there, it made me pretty mad.”

He made up for it with a 16-foot birdie putt on the par-5 No. 16 for a two-stroke lead again. But he couldn’t get up and down from the rough off the fringe of the green on No. 17 for his fourth bogey.


MEMPHIS — Brendon Todd’s first two wins this season were the feel-good story of the fall, but he’s proving to be more than a sentimental storyline at the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

Todd sits atop a field of the game’s elite. Some stellar short-game play helped him shoot 11-under 129 (64-65) for his first two trips around TPC Southwind this week. Todd now has 10 rounds of 65 or lower this season, tied with Bryson DeChambeau for most on TOUR.

RELATED: Full leaderboard | New coach helps Koepka

Todd will start the weekend with a two-stroke lead over Rickie Fowler. Brooks Koepka is in third place, lurking four shots off the lead, along with Presidents Cup participant Byeong-Hun An and Chez Reavie.

A win this week would undoubtedly be the culmination of Todd’s incredible comeback from a four-year slump. He could become the first three-time winner this year. This is just his seventh WGC start.

Todd’s two wins in the fall – at the Bermuda Championship and Mayakoba Golf Classic – showed that not only could he survive those difficult seasons but he could become better than ever. A win this week would put Todd as high as No. 2 in the FedExCup standings with just two weeks remaining in the regular season.

“In my whole life, this is definitely the most confident I’ve ever felt with my golf game. It’s probably the most versatile I’ve ever been ball‑striking‑wise,” Todd said Friday. “I still don’t hit it far, but I feel like I’m able to shape shots a little bit. And my short game’s solid, so it just kind of comes down to how the putting is.”

Todd ranks 68th in the 78-man field in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee but is in the top 10 in the other three Strokes Gained categories.

He has just one bogey this week despite missing 12 greens.

His putting has been even better, calling it “as good as it gets.” Todd holed a 46-footer Thursday and added a 50-footer Friday. He’s missed just one of his 12 attempts from 4-8 feet, as well.

Todd leads the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. He’s gained 6.8 seven strokes on the greens in the first two rounds, setting a new career-high for the first two rounds of an event.

His previous record for the opening two rounds was +6.04 in the 2014 AT&T Byron Nelson, which was the first win of his career.

Todd had to wait five years after that Nelson win to re-enter the winner’s circle. In between his first two wins, he finished outside the top 180 in the FedExCup in four consecutive seasons and made just five cuts from 2016-18. He had to return to the Korn Ferry Tour to regain his card.

Fowler hasn’t had a top-10 since January, but is pleased with his ball-striking after some recent work with swing coach John Tillery.

Koepka hasn’t hoisted a trophy since winning at TPC Southwind last year, but he shot 62 on Thursday. He reached 10 under par and was in the lead when he made the turn Friday, but stumbled to 38 on the final nine holes.

A duel between Todd and Koepka would be a contrast in styles. Koepka is 21st on TOUR with an average driving distance of 307.2 yards. That’s more than 35 yards longer than Todd, who ranks ahead of just seven players in the driving-distance statistic.

Koepka can overpower a golf course, though his length often overshadows his stellar iron play and underrated short game. He leads the field in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green this week. Todd, on the other hand, uses his putter as an equalizer

This wouldn’t be the first time since the season’s resumption that Todd has gone toe-to-toe with one of the game’s big bombers, though. One month ago, Todd took a two-shot lead over Dustin Johnson into the final round of the Travelers Championship.

Todd opened the final round with 11 straight pars as he watched several birdie putts slide by the hole. He was still just two back before playing the final seven holes in 5 over, including a triple on the 12th hole. Todd said he wasn’t intimidated by his final-round foe, though.

“Sunday at Travelers was a tough day for me, but I felt prepared for that round. I felt like I handled it really well. I was calm, I was confident, I hit awesome shots for the first 11 holes and really even for the last six holes, but 1 through 11 I burned five or six edges,” Todd said. “I was hitting really good putts and it just wasn’t my day on the greens and it was Dustin’s on the greens. He kept making putt after putt after putt and put pressure on me.

“I think that was just a day that just didn’t go my way and kind of spiraled the wrong way.”

Now Todd has a chance to make amends and walk away with the biggest title of his career.

“It would be really, really satisfying,” he said. “I feel like as a junior golfer, college golfer, I was always winning big events. Now I’m capable of winning big events on the professional stage. I’m really excited to have the confidence now and the tools in my game to compete for these titles. Just having a chance to win one is a big deal right now.”

Thursday’s First Round

MEMPHIS — A breezy day on one of the PGA TOUR’s most penal courses isn’t the ideal setting for a struggling player, but it brought out the best in two of the game’s biggest names.

TPC Southwind was softened by rain, but Thursday’s scoring average still was just a quarter-stroke under par. The Bermuda rough is difficult to judge, an inconsistent breeze rustled the trees and no course on TOUR has had more water balls since 2003.

Brooks Koepka made it look easy in the first round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, displaying the bravado that brings out his best when conditions are toughest.

Koepka matched his career-low round with a 62 Thursday at TPC Southwind. It gave him a two-shot lead over Rickie Fowler and Brendon Todd

Todd has already won twice this season after a remarkable comeback from a prolonged slump. Koepka and Fowler, on the other hand, are winless.

Koepka ranks outside the top 125 in Strokes Gained: Approach and Strokes Gained: Putting this season, but on Thursday he was among the best in the field in those facets of the game. He missed just four greens and led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach (+3.36). He was fourth in Strokes Gained: Putting (+3.11), as well.

“I never felt like I had to work too hard today, which is different than it has been,” Koepka said.

He couldn’t have regained his form at a better time. Not only is he facing a fortnight of title defenses, but he’s 136th in the FedExCup with just three weeks remaining in the regular season.

Koepka has just one top-10 this season and has finished outside the top 60 in his past three starts.

Last week’s missed cut at the 3M Open may have been a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to work with his coaches, Claude Harmon III and Pete Cowen. It was Koepka’s first time seeing Cowen since THE PLAYERS. Koepka also added another coach to his stable. He started working with putting coach Phil Kenyon this week, as well.

Koepka has been struggling with a left-knee injury – he had stem-cell treatment after last year’s TOUR Championship, but re-injured it at the CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES – but Cowen recently told the Daily Mail that the knee isn’t the culprit.

“When you get an injury as bad as that you’re never 100% right again,’ said Cowen. ‘But I don’t think it’s a problem. That’s finding excuses for the fact he’s swinging it badly. We don’t need excuses, we need to sort it out.”

Koepka, who thrives on criticism, appreciates the Englishman’s frank talk.

“With Pete, it’s more psychological. He’ll beat me down,” Koepka said. “He’ll jump on me. I enjoy that, when someone tells I can’t do something.”

Fowler also played well Thursday after struggling with his iron play and putting this season.

Fowler is 89th in the FedExCup standings and in danger of missing the BMW Championship for the first time in his 11-year career. He’s never finished worse than 43rd in the FedExCup, but he has more missed cuts (five) than top-10s (two) this season. His results since the Return to Golf have belied that inconsistency, as he sandwiched two top-25s between three missed cuts, including an 81-68 roller-coaster in his last start at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide.

Fowler started working with swing coach John Tillery last fall. He saw quick results, finishing in the top 10 in his first two starts of the calendar year. Those remain his only top-10s of the season. Some more work with Tillery before arriving at TPC Southwind resulted in Fowler’s best round since January.

Fowler ranks 96th in Strokes Gained: Approach this season after finishing in the top 50 in that statistic from 2015-18. But it hasn’t just been his ball-striking.

He’s also 75th in Strokes Gained: Putting, a statistic he led in 2017. Over the last four seasons, Fowler has the third-highest Strokes Gained: Putting per round (+0.52) among players with at least 200 ShotLink-measured rounds.

He was in the top 10 in both Strokes Gained: Approach and Putting on Thursday. He hit 13 greens, didn’t miss a putt inside 10 feet and holed three from outside 15 feet. His only bogey came on his last hole of the day, when he missed the fairway left and decided to lay up short of the green.

“Today was an accumulation of the work last week and just freeing myself up and simplifying thoughts and just playing golf versus working on the range,” Fowler said. “I was able to get a lot of good work with the putter last week and get myself back into some better positions to free up the putter. I was pulling a lot of putts, I was kind of tense with it, so it’s nice to see things kind of pay off.”

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