The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 4, 2013

Greenbrier Classic difficult to forecast

Some favorites obvious; others fairly obscure

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS —  It’s that time of the week.

I put it off as long as possible, but for some reason readers seem to believe it’s my job to make predictions.

It’s not that I mind forecasting a few winners. I follow the game of golf very closely — I’ve spent enough Sundays sitting on the couch with an Arnold Palmer and The Golf Channel to be labeled an expert — and feel confident that I know enough to make an educated assessment of the field in this year’s Greenbrier Classic. The problem is that I’ve had about as much success picking winners of golf tournaments as I’ve had in picking out the right outfit for my wife to wear out to dinner.

But I’m prepared to give it a try — the golf, not the outfit. Here are five players to watch this week. A couple of them are obvious, and a couple are about as obscure as a loose piece of trash blowing across the fairways of The Old White TPC.

I apologize to all of them, though. Now that they have the curse of my selection, they’ll probably be packing their bags and heading to the airport before the first Saturday tee time.

1) Bill Haas — I was asked last Monday to pick an early favorite, and Haas was my choice. He’s always played well on The Old White TPC — he lost out in a playoff in 2011 and posted rounds of 68, 69 and 65 last year before a final-round 72 took him out of contention. But, more importantly, I just felt he was too good to keep playing the way he had been playing — missing three cuts in four events prior to last week’s AT&T National.

His breakout came one week earlier than expected.

Haas won the AT&T National with a final-round 66. I would have looked like a genius, had I only been picking winners for that tournament instead of one a week later.

I’m going to stick by him as my favorite, though, especially since he’s obviously found his game and he has a comfortable pairing the first two days, playing with fellow Wake Forest Demon Deacon Webb Simpson. But the chances of back-to-back wins for anybody on the PGA TOUR are only slightly better than my odds of selecting the correct footwear to go with that dinner outfit.

2) Phil Mickelson — “Wow. What a brilliant pick Mr. golf expert,” you say. “That’s really going out on a limb to pick the No. 6 player in the world, the highest-ranked player in the field.”

But how could I go against him?

I hear you too naysayers. “He hasn’t even made the cut in his first two trips.”

I view that only as more motivation. Lefty likes this course — obviously, he’s back for the third straight year — and he’s heard plenty of ribbing from Greenbrier chairman and CEO Jim Justice about missing the weekend on his last two trips.

He’s also been playing very well. Contrary to those who believe that finishing as the runner-up at the U.S. Open should label him as a failure, it’s actually a huge feather in his cap. How many golfers out there would give their big toe for a chance to finish second at the U.S. Open — especially six times?

In 13 events this season, Mickelson has made 11 cuts and finished in the top three five times. Those are numbers of a golfer playing well, and I expect no different from Mickelson this week.

3) Bubba Watson — Watson — the younger one — is not only a fan favorite here, he’s also a statistical favorite. Like Mickelson, Watson is coming off a disappointing finish — he blew a late lead to finish fourth the last time out at the Travelers Championship — but like the other famous lefty in the field, he’s also done enough to convince me he’s playing close to the top of his game.

Watson seems in his element here at The Greenbrier, and he’s already been here for a week, heading to the West Virginia hills a little early instead of playing at last week’s AT&T National.

His score on Wednesday’s pro-am indicated he’s figured out some things about The Old White TPC.

Don’t expect the former Georgia Bulldog to follow in the same trap as the other big stars — Mickelson and Tiger Woods — and miss the weekend. He enjoys it here too much.

4) Jonathan Byrd — This is one of those dark horse picks I mentioned above, but like I thought about Haas last week, I just feel that Byrd is too good to keep playing the way he has been. He’s missed five cuts in the last six events, and that’s just not like the 2002 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year.

Byrd looked comfortable and relaxed playing with youth from The First Tee on Tuesday, and his game showed signs of coming around.

The Sea Island, Ga., native has had good rounds here before — he carded rounds of 64 and 65 in 2010 and 64 in 2012 — and the sulphur springs at The Greenbrier may be the perfect potion for getting him back on track.

5) Patrick Reed — Raise your hand if you had heard of Scott Stallings or Ted Potter Jr. prior to their wins at The Greenbrier Classic. Shame on those of you who don’t work for the PGA TOUR but still have your hands in the air. What did your mother teach you about telling the truth?

The Greenbrier Classic has had a history of rewarding the game’s unknowns with life-changing wins, so I had to find a true surprise among this year’s field.

Reed seems to fit that mold.

The Texas native hasn’t won an event since helping lead Augusta State to a pair of national championships in 2010 and 2011 and then turning pro, but his game seems to be really coming together. He’s made 11 cuts in 19 starts and finished in the top 10 twice. Reed played well at both the FedEx St. Jude Classic and the Travelers Championship, and he plays the “thinking man’s game” that can lead to success on The Old White TPC.

If a player comes out of nowhere for the third straight year, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Reed’s that guy.

With that, I’m headed back to the buffet. I heard there’s Mexican food in the media room.

— E-mail: chuffman@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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