Q&Gray: Can the Bash Brothers break out of slump in Memphis ahead of PGA?
The year’s first major is just around the corner, but first there’s a WGC trophy to play for. A field of 78 will contest the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational this week in Memphis, including 44 of the top 50 players in the world rankings.
From a shaky defending champ to another former world No. 1 looking to bounce back and a former winner hoping to rekindle good vibes, here are the burning questions to consider as the Tour touches down in the birthplace of rock & roll for a star-studded event before the scene shifts to TPC Harding Park:
Can back-to-back title defenses break Brooks Koepka’s slump?
The COVID-19 pandemic reshuffled the Tour’s calendar, putting together two events that Koepka won two months apart a year ago. In May he successfully defended his PGA Championship title, then he stared down Rory McIlroy to win again in Memphis.
But that victory at TPC Southwind remains his most recent triumph, and now he enters a pivotal two-week stretch as defending champ where he has more questions than answers. Koepka is still well outside the top-125 bubble and needs a quick result to have a chance to qualify for the playoffs. But the more pressing concern is his inability to right the ship despite multiple attempts to fix a bum left knee and turn around a prolonged slide.
Last year, Koepka leaned on strong ball-striking at Memphis, but he also led the field in strokes gained: putting for the week. This season he’s 137th in approach shots and 140th in putting. He has now missed two of his last three cuts, has just one top-10 finish since August and appears to be hemorrhaging confidence. Any signs of life this week would be considered welcome heading into a date with history at TPC Harding Park.
Which Dustin Johnson are we getting this week?
DJ seemed like a world-beater barely a month ago, torching TPC River Highlands for a third-round 61 en route to winning the Travelers Championship. In his next start back at the Memorial, he finished near the bottom of the pack after consecutive rounds of 80.
A rogue misfire isn’t the end of the world, especially for a player like Johnson who has made a career out of shrugging off disappointing shots or results. But then he seemed equally out of sorts at the 3M Open during an opening 78, after which he spoke briefly with reporters but never mentioned an injury. Hours later, he had withdrawn after citing an injured back.
Johnson has had ample success at TPC Southwind, winning in both 2012 and 2018 before it became a WGC event. He was quick to point out that his WD in Minnesota wouldn’t cost him a start, and if he is back to full speed this week he could easily contend for his second post-lockdown victory. But if he falters once more, that could be a significant blow to his chances at next week’s PGA Championship where otherwise he’d be considered one of the pre-tournament favorites.
What will Jon Rahm do in his first start as world No. 1?
The much-discussed penalty at the end of the Memorial Tournament shouldn’t take away from the clinical dissection Rahm completed over the weekend at Muirfield Village, leaving a strong field in his wake to the point where he could absorb an unexpected two-shot addition without batting an eye.
This week he officially tees off as world No. 1 for the first time, becoming just the second Spaniard to do so since the OWGR came into existence in 1986. He finished seventh last year in Memphis, and has essentially become a top-10 staple for the 12 months since, racking up world-ranking points all along the way.
Rahm’s fiery emotions will be put to the test next week under the crucible of major championship pressure, where he’ll surely be considered among the short list of players most likely to lift the Wanamaker Trophy. But first, this week’s trip south offers him a chance to try the No. 1 ranking on for size – and perhaps show his peers that he didn’t acquire it by happenstance.
WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational: Full-field tee times | Full coverage
Can Daniel Berger rekindle his TPC Southwind magic?
The last time Berger teed it up in Memphis, he was looking for a three-peat at the now-defunct FedEx St. Jude Classic. That was back in 2018, and while he missed the cut that week, his affinity for this week’s layout is evident: each of Berger’s first two wins on Tour came on this course, and in consecutive years.
A wrist injury subsequently stunted his growth, to the point where last year when Southwind first hosted a WGC event, Berger wasn’t even in the field. But he’ll certainly be there this week, coming off a breakthrough victory at Colonial in the Tour’s first event after the lockdown. He followed with a T-3 finish at Harbour Town and only saw a run of four straight top-5 finishes end in his most recent start at the Memorial.
Back inside the top 30 in the world, Berger is playing the best golf since he helped the U.S. to an easy victory at the 2017 Presidents Cup. A return to one of his favorite courses on Tour could provide an extra level of confidence for a player who has already regained his groove in recent weeks.