RIDGELAND, S.C. - Dustin Johnson gave the field a glimmer of hope Friday at the inaugural Palmetto Championship.
Johnson started the week at Congaree Golf Club as a +800 betting co-favorite alongside Brooks Koepka. But while Koepka missed the cut after two mediocre rounds, Johnson had everything clicking for the first time in months. After an opening 65, he birdied six of his first 16 holes in the second round to join Chesson Hadley as a co-leader at 11 under. That move ballooned his live odds at PointsBet Sportsbook all the way out to -225, and throughout the day he was a better than odds-on favorite despite not holding the lead.
But one slip of the club may have let a few contenders back into the tournament, as Johnson's glove hand gave out on his final tee shot of the day. It led to wild miss left and eventually a double bogey, and he heads into the weekend at 9 under - two behind Hadley but at least two clear of everyone else. His odds reflect that combination of form and standing on the leaderboard, as the world No. 1 is now +100 to win in his native South Carolina.
Updated odds to win Palmetto Championship (via PointsBet)
+100: Dustin Johnson
+400: Chesson Hadley
+1300: Harris English
+2500: Erik van Rooyen
+3000: Garrick Higgo
+4000: Doc Redman
But with 36 holes to go on a relatively unknown layout, the trophy engraver is not yet at the ready. Here's a look at some of the players with the best chance of chasing down the 2020 Masters champ - or holding him at bay:
Why not start with the man topping the standings? Hadley went out early Friday and torched Congaree for the second straight day, following a 6-under 65 with a second-round 66. At 11 under he's the only man ahead of Johnson at the halfway point, and he's got a hot putter to thank for it.
Hadley had missed four cuts in a row and nine of his last 11, and even as recently as Monday's U.S. Open sectional qualifier his game wasn't quite where he needed it to be. But a few minor tweaks have paid off in a big way, as Hadley leads the field in SG: Putting through two rounds after rolling in more than 208 feet of putts with a club he named after his grandmother.
"She actually passed away earlier this year, but she was just like the most lovely and sweet, kind woman," Hadley said. "That's how I want my putter to be. Lovely and sweet and kind, right? She's just good to you, right? So she's 'Nana.'"
Hadley will have a tall task holding off Johnson, and the two will play together in the final pairing Saturday. But he does know what it takes to win on Tour: Hadley won the 2013 Puerto Rico Open en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. That field didn't feature the world No. 1, but it's something to build upon - and it's not everyday you get +400 on the guy with a two-shot lead through 36 holes.
The Fresh Face
That would be long-hitting Wilco Nienaber, a 21-year-old South African who currently leads the European Tour in driving at more than 324 yards per shot. Nienaber is making his first-ever PGA Tour start ahead of next week's U.S. Open, and he's looking to become the first player to win his Tour debut since Jim Benepe edged Peter Jacobsen at the 1988 Western Open. After matching rounds of 68, Nienaber heads into the weekend T-4 and five shots behind Hadley, even if he's still not exactly sure about protocols on this side of the Atlantic.
"When I got here at registration, I had no idea what to do," Nienaber said. "The first step I had to do in registration, I wasn't even sure what to do. So that's a little bit different, because I'm not sure where to go and what to do."
Nienaber has been able to lean on the driver on a course with no rough that tips out above 7,600 yards. Unsurprisingly, he leads the field in driving distance this week at 338.2 yards. But the long ball has also been somewhat accurate - he led the field in SG: Off-the-Tee Thursday - and he flashed some short game Friday while holing a bunker shot for eagle on the par-4 third hole.
In fact, somewhat of a South African bonanza has broken out this week at Congaree. With only three participants in the field, the country boasts a trio of top-10 contenders through two rounds: Erik van Rooyen is alongside Nienaber at 6 under, while Garrick Higgo is one shot back and T-10.
Nienaber started the week at +15000, and he's still a relative longshot at +5000 with two rounds to go. But his advantage off the tee won't diminish anytime soon, and he could be the only guy in the field who can challenge (or surpass) Johnson's brute force with driver in hand.
Harris English was the first winner on Tour this year, topping Joaquin Niemann to win a playoff at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He's been rather quiet since, failing to register a top-10 finish in 11 subsequent starts, but he's back in the mix and tied for fourth alongside Nienaber and others at 6 under.
After the second round, the 31-year-old shared that some of his recent struggles are tied to a nagging back injury he sustained nearly three months ago.
"I hurt my back at The Players," English said. "I never really had any back injuries before I had to pull out of The Players, and I haven't been 100 percent since then."
English has been trending in the right direction, but he admitted he still had apprehensions about Friday's early tee time. The summer heat helped keep him loose, and he's now in the mix after rolling in at least 95 feet of putts over each of the first two rounds.
English broke a seven-year victory drought with his win at Kapalua, but he could be ideally poised to take advantage of another opportunity if Johnson and Hadley start slowly in the third round.
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