Greenside view of No.3 at TPC Summerlin
Las Vegas is a place of drama. It’s a place of illusion. It’s a place where dreams come true and dreams are shattered. It’s also the site this week for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, where 10 of the last 16 winners were first-time champions, but nine of the last 16 winners never won on the PGA Tour again. Located just minutes from the dancing water fountains and steady clang of slot machines on Las Vegas Boulevard, TPC Summerlin plays host to the event for the 10th consecutive year, and momentum on this glamorous desert course can yo-yo like a bouncing ball in a roulette wheel.
Outside of last week’s Sanderson Farms Championship alternate event, Shriners’ 144-man field is the weakest of the new season to this point, with only five players who competed in last month’s TOUR Championship at East Lake and two players currently ranked in the top-30 in the OWGR. That means any high-rolling underdog who hits a hot streak at the right time can bring home the Shriners trophy, which was renamed the Howard Hughes Cup this year to honor the late billionaire’s relationship with this event. U.S. Presidents Cup rookies Charley Hoffman and Kevin Chappell are joined by defending champion Rod Pampling, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, Safeway Open runner-up Tony Finau, and rookie Maverick McNealy (in on a sponsor invitation) are the main headliners in Sin City.
TPC Summerlin features generous landing areas and large, receptive bent-grass greens, providing ample opportunity for scoring. Winding its way through visually stunning arroyos and canyons, this 7.255-yard, par-71 track is protected by 99 bunkers (51 around the greens), Bermuda rough that will generate some fliers, and four water hazards that can wreak havoc coming down the stretch. At an average elevation of 2,700 feet, Summerlin plays shorter than its stated length, and local knowledge (think Nevada residents Kevin Na and Ryan Moore) can be a huge advantage, particularly in club selection on approach.
The average winning score at Summerlin since 2008 has been almost 22-under par, and each of the last nine winners recorded at least 25 birdies or more en-route to victory. Hey it’s the city of excess, right? Proximity to Hole should be a key metric as historically the field hits about 75-percent of the Greens in Regulation. Only hellacious pins (or late night Vegas debauchery) can slow down this inevitable birdie-fest. It won’t be easy to make up ground on the leaders, so Par Breakers and Bogey Avoidance are also meaningful. Finally, pay attention to weak field bullies and easy course specialists. In events with OWGR Strength of Field ratings of 250 or lower (Shriners is rated 175; compare a typical PGA Championship rating of about 900), Webb Simpson, Moore, and Finau are top ruffians in weak field events over the last three years. While J.B. Holmes, Simpson, and Jimmy Walker top the list of easy course technicians when the field average score is below par.
18Birdies GPS view of No.3 at TPC Summerlin
The first chair-balancing act at Summerlin comes on the 492-yard, par-4, No. 3, which played 0.27 strokes over-par and was the toughest hole on the course last year. It immediately dangles risk-reward off the tee with the cerebral challenge of a double fairway. Bolder players choosing the left side will have a shorter and cleaner angle into the green, but significantly more placement and precision is required than drives opting for the right. Approaches from the right side will have to contend with a bunker and desert wash fronting the putting surface, and a peanut-shaped bunker that regularly attracts stray shots in the back. Because the green plays shallower from this side, distance and spin control has to be particularly sharp.
No. 15 is a straightaway, 320-yard, par-4 that can be reached in one with a flawless tee shot. However, players who gamble off the tee face a severe penalty if they miss the green as it’s perched well above a desert wash that runs alongside it and beyond. Five deep bunkers also surround the long, narrow green and will collect drives and approaches that fail to hold the putting surface. Staying safely to the right off the tee leaves only a short wedge into the green, but that also shallows the severely undulating target on approach.
The slightly downhill, 560-yard, par-5 16th will surrender plenty of red numbers and is reachable in two for players with enough length off the tee and guts to hit their second shot over the large water hazard fronting the green. There will also be some dramatic scoring swings, however, when egos aren’t checked on aggressive approaches to tight pins. Players who overshoot the green will find one of two bunkers behind the putting surface and leave themselves with hair-raising splash shots back towards the water.
Beautiful Mountain range views from the green No. 17
Misfires on the 196-yard, par-3 No. 17 will find trouble the size of Egyptian pyramids. The 17th hole plays downhill and into a green closely guarded by a harrowing lake on the left and bunkers on the right. Depending on hole locations it can play between 180 and 210 yards. Birdies here are rare, and walking away with par is a nice gift heading to the final hole.
Aggressive drives on the 450-yard, par-4 finishing hole will leave players with just a short iron into a very deep green. However, from the tee or on approach, any shot left will be scorecard massacre. The 18th hole moves right to left with a lake protecting the green on the left and a plague of bunkers guarding the right and back. No. 18 renders a scary visual no matter where a player is on the hole, and can be a nightmare for closing out a round.
Players to Watch
The good news for Kevin Streelman is he’s hitting greens at a clip of nearly 80-percent, and more than half of his putts have come from inside 10-feet. The bad news for Streelman is that almost everyone in the field will be hitting greens at Summerlin, and Kevin’s ranked 126th on Tour in putts made from that range. Scores are certain to be low this week, but that doesn’t mean Summerlin is without its pitfalls. Kevin’s a disciplined, cerebral player who won’t press to make up lost shots, and avoiding bogeys will be as important as making birdies. In two events this season Streelman’s finished T-13 at the Safeway Open and T-10 last week at the Sanderson Farms, and his overall game is trending in the right direction. Kevin’s a streaky putter and these greens are perfect, so I’m betting he catches fire early and positions himself for a serious run at Sunday contention. Look for Streelman to finish inside the top-10.
It’s been hit-or-miss for Kevin Na at Shriners the past few years. Na’s only win on Tour came here in 2011, then he missed the cut in 2012. Na finished T-2 in 2015 but missed another cut last year. Kevin’s on-again, off-again performance here suggests this week will be an on-again year for him if you believe it’s a pattern. There are some questions marks with Na’s current form, however, as he’s coming off a mediocre run in the first two legs of the Asian Swing to begin the season, finishing T-44 at the CIMB Classic, and T-47 at the CJ Cup. Na’s also ranked 174th on Tour in Greens in Regulation, and 83rd in Proximity to Hole. Those are the kinds of numbers that don’t get you to the weekend at Summerlin. Na to finish outside the top-30.
Seven of Tony Finau’s 12 rounds at Shriners have been in the 60’s, and he’s shown the ability to stack birdie on top of birdie on top of birdie here. Finau finished last season with a pair of T-7s at the BMW Championship and TOUR Championship and was solo runner-up at Safeway to open the new season. Which is to say, Finau’s closing in on his second career win. When Finau’s game is firing, he’s one of the best on Tour in eagles made and birdie conversions. If Tony can tightrope his way around a few blow-up holes this week, he’ll be flanked by Vegas showgirls on the 18th green as he received the winner’s trophy.