The Northern Trust 2017: 10 players to watch, picks to win

By Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange   |   Aug. 22, 2017 at 9:27 PM
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1. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan

Hideki Matsuyama hits off the 15th tee box during the final round of the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
Even though Matsuyama did not become the first Japanese player to capture a major title after tying for fifth in the PGA Championship in his last start, he is playing as well as anyone in the world. He has finished no worse than a tie for 14th in the Open Championship in his last four starts, also tying for second in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by four strokes when he closed with a 61. Matsuyama leads the FedExCup point standings heading into the playoffs, thanks to three victories this season -- the other two in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China and the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Those are among his seven finishes in the top 10, including three runner-up results, and he has won seven times around the world in the last year. Matsuyama, ranked No. 2 in the world, is making his fourth start in the playoff opener, with his best result a tie for 13th in the 2015 Barclays. He is seeking his first playoff victory.

2. Jordan Spieth, United States

Jordan Spieth watches his drive off the eighth tee box during the second round of the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
There was talk earlier in the year that the 2015 FedExCup champion was having a down season, but he has won three times, finished second once and third twice among eight finishes in the top 10 to sit third in the FedExCup standings. He tied for 13th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and then tied for 28th in the PGA Championship while trying to complete the Career Grand Slam, but those results came after he won the Travelers Championship and the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in consecutive starts. Spieth, ranked third in the world, is making his fifth start in the playoff opener and recorded his best finish when he tied for 10th last year in the Barclays at Bethpage Black. His only victory in the playoffs came when he won the Tour Championship two years ago by four strokes over Danny Lee of New Zealand, Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Justin Rose of England to claim the FedExCup.

3. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland

Rory McIlroy watches his drive off the 16th tee box during the second round of the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
After he tied for 22nd in the PGA Championship two weeks ago at Quail Hollow, McIlroy said he was considering taking the rest of the year off because of injuries that have made it difficult to practice on a regular basis since early this season. However, he committed to the Northern Trust late last week and will try to defend his FedExCup title even though he is only 44th in the point standings. Of course, one week can change that with the wild point swings that can take place during the playoffs, and he won the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship last year en route to the title, giving him four PGA Tour playoff victories in his career. McIlroy hasn't won since he prevailed at East Lake last year to wrap up the FedExCup, as his best finished this season on the U.S. tour are ties for fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Open Championship, among his six top-10 finishes and eight in the top 25.

4. Dustin Johnson, United States

Dustin Johnson tees off on the 16th tee box during the first round of the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
Although he hasn't been the same since he sustained a back injury on the eve of the Masters that knocked him out of the first major of the year, Johnson has been able to hold on to his No. 1 world ranking, but he has slipped from the top spot to No. 4 in the FedExCup point standings. He was unquestionably the best player in the world when he captured the Genesis Open, the WGC-Mexico Championship and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in his last three events before being injured, and he seems to be getting back on track. Johnson tied for eighth in the RBC Canadian Open, tied for 17th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and tied for 13th in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in his last three starts. He is making his ninth start in the playoff opener and captured the 2011 Barclays by two strokes over Matt Kuchar at Plainfield Country Club in Edison, N.J., when the final round was postponed by the threat of Hurricane Irene.

5. Justin Thomas, United States

Justin Thomas hits his second shot on the 15th green during the final round at the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
Following 10 days to celebrate his first major victory in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, Thomas should be ready to cap what already has been a career year by making a strong run in the PGA Tour playoffs. He has won four times this season after claiming only one victory in his first three seasons on the PGA Tour, and has risen to No. 2 in the FedExCup point standings and No. 7 in the world rankings. The PGA was Thomas' first win since he captured the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open in Hawaii on consecutive weeks in January, but he has played well all season, with six other finishes in the top 10. He is making his third start in the playoff opener and has performed well in the other two, tying for 16th in the Barclays two years ago and tying for 10th in the tournament last year. Thomas' best finish in the playoffs was a tie for sixth in the Tour Championship last year.

6. Henrik Stenson, Sweden

Sweden's Henrik Stenson putts on the 10th green on Day two at the 146th Open Championship. File photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI
By ending a winless drought of more than a year when he captured the Wyndham Championship last week, Stenson climbed to 23rd in the FedExCup standings and to within striking distance at the start of the playoffs. The Big Swede claimed the Cup in 2013, when he won the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship during the playoffs, and he has a chance to make another run at the title given the volatility of the point swings during the postseason. If anyone was paying attention, Stenson gave indications that was heating up after what had been a mediocre season for him, as he tied for 11th in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, tied for 17th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and tied for 13th in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in his previous three starts before claiming his 20th pro victory. He is No. 6 in the world and is making his seventh start in the opener, with his best result solo second two years ago at Plainfield in New Jersey.

7. Rickie Fowler, United States

Rickie Fowler hits on the 18th fairway during the third round of the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
Playing some of the best golf of his career, Fowler comes in the FedExCup playoff on a roll, with his worst result in his last five starts a tie for 22nd in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. His other four finishes were a tie for fifth in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, a tie for third in the Quicken Loans National, solo ninth in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and a tie for fifth in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. With nine results in the top 10 on the PGA Tour this season, he is fifth in the point standings heading into the playoffs and is ranked No. 10 in the world. Fowler is making his eighth start in the playoff opener, formerly known as the Barclays, and finished in the top 10 in three of the last four years, with ties for ninth in 2013 and 2014, and a tie for seventh last year. He won the Deutsche Bank Championship during the 2015 playoffs, beating Henrik Stenson by one shot.

8. Jason Day, Australia

Jason Day watches his drive off the second tee box during the third round of the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
Having fallen to No. 9 in the world in what to this point has been a forgettable season because of injuries and family issues, Day can salvage things with a strong run in the FedExCup playoffs. He was No. 1 in the world rankings at the start of the year, but has slipped to No. 9, although he finished second in the AT&T Byron Nelson, tied for fifth in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and tied for ninth in his last start in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Day, who is 49th in the FedExCup standings, will make his 10th in the playoff opener and has finished in the top 10 on four occasions, including each of the last three years. Included was a six-stroke victory over Henrik Stenson two years ago, when he closed with 63-62 at Plainfield, and a tie for second in 2014, one stroke behind Hunter Mahan. Day also won the BMW Championship by six shots over Daniel Berger during the 2015 playoffs.

9. Brooks Koepka, United States

Brooks Koepka hits his second shot on the ninth fairway during the second round of the 2017 PGA Championship. File photo by Nell Redmond/UPI
The U.S. Open champion has continued to play well since winning at Erin Hills, tying for sixth in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, tying for 17th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and tying for 13th in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. His six top-10 results this season on the PGA Tour, including runner-up finishes in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and the Valero Texas Open, put him seventh in the FedExCup point standings and 12th in the world rankings entering the playoffs this week. Koepka is playing in the postseason opener for only the third time, having shot 72-73 -- 145 to miss the cut by three strokes in 2015, before finishing in a tie for 70th last year, but he is a different player at this point. His best result in the playoffs was a tie for 18th in the 2015 Tour Championship and he figures to make it back to the finale at East Lake in Atlanta again, with a chance to win the FedExCup this time.

10. Patrick Reed, United States

Patrick Reed putts while his wife Justine watches at a practice round before The Northern Trust golf championship at the Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury, New York on August 22, 2017. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI
When he tied for second in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow two weeks ago, Reed finally played again like the guy who won five times on the PGA Tour in recent years. His most recent victory came in the playoff opener last year, then the Barclays, when he held off Sean O'Hair and Emiliano Grillo by one stroke at Bethpage Black. Reed tied for fifth the next week in the Deutsche Bank Championship on his way to finishing seventh in the FedExCup race after a tie for 24th in the Tour Championship. He has some work to do in order to get back to the finale at East Lake in Atlanta because he is 38th in the point standings and only 30 qualify for the last event. Reed hasn't been all that far off this season with 12 finishes in the top 25, but he will have to bring his "A" game to the playoffs if he wants to get back into the conversation during the postseason.

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