The Shriners Hospitals for Children Open should have at least a handful of reliable favorites, players who can be predicted to steadily scale the leaderboard and rise into contention by Sunday.
It’s Las Vegas, after all, where handicapping such a field comes as natural as Ernie Els’ swing.
Not so at the birdie-festival known as TPC Summerlin, where the past three champions needed a first-round 60 (Rod Pampling last year), a final-round 61 (Smylie Kaufman in 2016) and a third-round 62 (Ben Martin in 2014) to have a chance.
Here’s another blueprint for victory, authored by Webb Simpson in 2013: Open with 64-63 and then cruise to a six-stroke victory.
If going low was that easy, all 144 players teeing it up Thursday must believe they have a legitimate shot to pocket the $1.224 million winner’s check.
“You have to have one of those rounds,” Pampling said. “The golf course genuinely sets up so you can do that. That’s the beauty of the course here. If you’re playing good, you can shoot really low. But if you’re a touch off, it’s still a struggle.”
Somebody has to be a favorite, though, and Tony Finau is it, based probably on the fact he’s made three straight cuts and notched a second-place finish at the Safeway Open last month. Finau is at 15-1, according to the Westgate sports book. Former UNLV standout Ryan Moore, the 2012 Shriners Open champion, was among a foursome at 20-1.
“You definitely have got to be thinking about putting the accelerator down this week,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion who’s making his second Shriners Open appearance. Asked his chances, McDowell grinned and said, “I feel like I might be a sleeper pick.”
Only a few holes on the 7,255-yard course appear to bother players. No. 17 in particular has their attention, a downhill 196-yard par-3 to a narrow green with water on the left side.
Most agree that TPC Summerlin’s front side is the trickier of the two nines. On the back nine, the key scoring chances come at No. 15, a short par-4 that players can drive, and No. 16, a 560-yard hole where par 5 will be considered a bad score.
“The course sets up for anybody. Long hitter, short hitter, it doesn’t matter,” said Bubba Watson, who figures to let fly his drives on every hole possible.
“The course is very fair for everybody. But you’ve got to make putts.”
Pampling, 48, who was never considered a big hitter — even earlier in his career — made several memorable putts last year, capped by a 32-foot birdie at No. 18 on Sunday.
He only needed two putts to make par and clinch his first victory since 2006, but Pampling finished with a dramatic flourish and beat Brooks Koepka — one of the longer hitters on the PGA Tour who would go on to win last year’s U.S. Open — by two shots.
“I think it’s all gettable,” Pampling said. “The golf course opens itself to a lot of big hitters and a lot of shorter hitters, so putting is the key and so it’s hard to pick a favorite.
“You have a couple strong holes, but after that you can get to most holes. But the rest are definitely gettable.”
If you go
What: Shriners Hospitals for Children Open
Where: TPC Summerlin (par 71, 7,255 yards)
Field: 144 players
Purse: $6,800,000/winner $1.224 million
Defending champion: Rod Pampling