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PGA Tour Course Preview: Safeway Open

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Safeway Open: Course Insight

Fairway view of No.15 at Silverado Resort

It might not feel like a season opener with the shortest off-season of all sports, but the 1st of 49 FedEx Cup tournaments in the 2017-2018 PGA Tour season kicks off this week at Napa’s Silverado Resort and Spa for the Safeway Open. Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, defending champion Brendan Steele, and John Daly headline a 144-man field that isn’t terribly strong, as Lefty is the only player ranked inside the top-30 in the OWGR. For new Web.com graduates and rising stars like Beau Hossler, Maverick McNealy, and Cameron Champ however, Safeway has the amped-up feel of a big-time event and is an opportunity to make a name for themselves in the same way Justin Thomas, Emiliano Grillo, and Tony Finau did here in years past.

The North Course at Silverado is a winding 7,166-yard, par-72 track that’s routed in different directions through distinguished oak trees, and features a stirring mix of doglegs, water hazards, and elevation changes that test a player’s full arsenal of shot-making. Undulating, Bentgrass, Poa Annua green complexes that run about 11.5 inches on the Stimpmeter, and deep, strategically placed bunkers compliment this classic layout and force players to remain focused from tee to green. The front nine is noticeably tighter off the tee, putting a premium on angles, playing to optimum spots, and avoiding the three-inch-thick Kentucky Bluegrass and Perennial Ryegrass rough. While the back nine tee placement is mostly about keeping the ball out of Silverado’s pristine, white fairway bunkers.

Scoring hasn’t been a problem on this Robert Trent Jones designed and Johnny Miller renovated course since it began hosting Safeway in 2014, giving up winning scores of 15-under par or lower each year. Course history reveals Proximity to Hole, Birdie or Better Percentage, Par 4 Scoring, and Par 5 Scoring are the key metrics to predicting a champion. Smashing it off the tee isn’t a significant advantage at Silverado as all four par-5s are getable for most players, and only a pair of par-4s will require muscling up. Each of the last three winners were ranked inside the top-11 in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green.

Noteworthy Holes

No. 5 is a 538-yard, double-dogleg par-5 that rewards players who take an aggressive line with their driver over mature oak trees on the right side of the fairway. A clear second shot into the large green bracketed by two bunkers will have players California Dreaming of legitimate eagle opportunities. Less aggressive players who opt for the left side off the tee will have no chance to reach in two and will bring a devious fairway bunker into play that could make an approach into the green a difficult task.

Inside view of No. 8 at Silverado Resort

The short, 360-yard 8th hole is a dogleg-left par-4 that plays over Milliken Creek and then up to a raised green protected by formidable bunkering. Proper spin control on approach will be crucial as the green is severely sloped from front to back, and will challenge the best putters on the course. Shots that miss the green will invite potential disaster.

Precise distance control on the 189-yard, par-3 15th is required not only for the best scoring opportunity but also to avoid the risk of being a round killer. Any shots flared to the right get rinsed. Misses to the left give rise to incredibly perilous recovery shots. And firing long will leave players with a very difficult pitch out of heavy rough, particularly with right pin positions. Par is a good score here.

18Birdies Caddy+ view of No.17 at Silverado Resort

The risk-reward play off the 17th tee on this 375-yard, dogleg-left, par-4 will shave the left corner of the fairway leaving a clean angle into the green on approach. Players need to be wary of cutting off too much, however, as a grove of large redwood trees will block the green for drives overcooked left. A safer tee shot favors the right and provides an unobstructed angle into the green. On this side of the fairway, however, players will have to contend with and carry a deep greenside bunker on the right that can leave a challenging up and down. Bogies come just as easily as birdies on No. 17 and that should produce dramatic momentum shifts and great fireworks coming down the home stretch.

Players To Watch

Phil Mickelson passed Tiger Woods for the most wins (25) in Presidents Cup history last week, and the 47-year old is playing with a youthful vigor that’s starting to make him look like golf’s version of Benjamin Button. Lefty was firing on all cylinders for Team USA and comes into wine country in great form. Still, I have to believe getting reacquainted with the California sunshine won’t be enough refresh him from an emotionally exhausting and rewarding week at Liberty National. Mickelson’s going to hit the ball all over the planet during the day, enjoy a sip or two of the Napa wines at night, and finish outside the top-25 come Sunday evening.

When Bryson DeChambeau won the John Deere Classic three months ago, the self-described innovator known for his scientific approach and artistic temperament said he felt vindicated. Since DeChambeau’s maiden victory, however, he went on to finish outside the top-30 in six starts to end his season, and some would argue his complete body of work looked consistently mediocre at best. Despite the obvious struggles of his rookie year, DeChambeau remains a supremely confident player, and when he’s on form and comfortable, he’s also a very straight and moderately long driver who hits a lot of greens. That puts Silverado right up DeChambeau’s alley. With a year of tinkering, experimenting, and learning about himself under his belt, I expect Bryson to flourish this season and finish inside the top-10 this week.

Winner Prediction

Ollie Schniederjans is another first-year player destined to break out this season, and he’ll jump out of the gate quickly with his first Tour win this week. Schniederjans won’t be in awe of situations that find him in contention anymore, which means he’ll make fewer mistakes and his already impressive Birdie or Better Percentage (ranked 38th last season) will only get better. Ollie can get a bit loose from the tee, which can potentially hurt him at Silverado, but he still managed to hit greens at an admirable 66-percent clip last year. Expect Schniederjans to see plenty of chances to make birdies on Silverado, eat up the par-5s, and become this new season’s first champion.

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