PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: The year’s final major is upon us, as the strongest field in professional golf has gathered at the renowned Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina for the 99th edition of the PGA Championship.
This will be the first time that Quail Hollow has hosted the PGA, or any major for that matter, but it’s a well known and widely admired course that has played host to the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship since 2003 (with the exception of this year, when the tournament was held up the coast in Wilmington) and will host the President’s Cup in 2021. It’s a long, tree-lined layout that can be quite tricky when conditions are firm, though it should be noted that rain is in the forecast for this week, so a firm and fast track is unlikely.
Soft conditions will make the course play really long, however, and considering we’re taking about a 7,600-yard par-71, I’m thinking that some of the shorter guys will have trouble keeping up this week. Reinforcing this notion is the fact that the rough is reportedly light and several hundred trees have been removed over the past year, which means that, theoretically anyway, accuracy off the tee has been de-emphasized. The tree removal was part of a major renovation that included redesigning several holes on the front nine, including the opening two holes, and re-sodding all the greens with Champion bermudagrass.
The greens will present a true challenge this week– always tricky and undulating, they’re now apparently faster than ever, with Kevin Na saying earlier this week that they’re “almost too fast”. With the expected soft conditions, difficult greens and tucked pins will be required to keep scores in check, and I have a feeling the PGA of America will set things up as tough as they can in this regard after seeing both the U.S. Open and Open Championship come under fire for not providing the type of challenge that people have come to expect at a major championship. But it’s taken 14-under or better to win the Wells Fargo five of the last seven times that it’s been held at Quail Hollow, so I’m not sure they’ll be able to set it up tough enough to satisfy the “par is a good score” crowd.
The scoring record at the Wells Fargo is 267 (21-under), set by Rory McIlroy when he won the event by seven shots back in 2015 (the 7-stroke margin is also a tournament record). It was Rory’s second victory at the Wells Fargo, so he obviously loves Quail Hollow, and his tee-to-green game was tremendous last week at Firestone, where he finished 5th despite struggling with the putter. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that McIlroy heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 8.4, though those odds do seem a bit short for someone who hasn’t posted a victory in 2017 and doesn’t seem to have much confidence with the putter.
McIlroy is joined atop the market by the usual suspects– Spieth (11.0), Matsuyama (14.0), Johnson (15.0), Fowler (17.5), etc.– but don’t be afraid to look for the longer odds this week. The majority of players in the field are familiar with Quail Hollow, so there’s a chance that they might feel a bit more comfortable this week than they normally would at a major. And with a field as deep as this one, there are plenty of bargains to be found a bit further down the market. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Rickie Fowler (17.5)- Fowler has been knocking on the door at major championships for awhile now, and most people agree that it’s only a matter of time until he gets one. I heard him talk earlier this week about how he feels he’s been pressing a bit too much in the bigger events, sort of “trying too hard” instead of letting things come to him. This type of self-awareness in encouraging, and you really get the sense that Fowler is in a good spot mentally right now. He’s certainly been playing well, logging five top-10s (including three top-5s) in his last seven worldwide starts, with one of those coming last week at the WGC-Bridgestone, where he made up for a slow start by shooting 67-66 over the weekend. And he’s had great success at Quail Hollow over the years, winning the Wells Fargo in 2012 and coming close several other times, including in 2016, when he tied for 4th and finished just two shots out of a playoff. Current form, course history, experience… there’s a lot to like about Fowler this week, and I’m enthusiastic about him despite the relatively short price.
Daniel Berger (60.0)- I was on Berger at the WGC-Bridgestone last week and I’ve decided to play him again, as I’ve had strange luck this year with players I’ve backed going on to win the week after I back them. I like Berger this week for the same reasons I liked him at Firestone (where he finished 17th): he’s great off the tee, averaging nearly 300 yards per drive and regularly hovering near the top of the PGA Tour’s “Strokes Gained: Off the Tee” stat, and he’s had a big summer, winning the St. Jude Classic in June and following that up with a runner-up at the Travelers, a 5th-place showing at the John Deere, and solid performances at the Open (T27) and the WGC-Bridgestone. But he has something going for him this week that he didn’t have last week: course experience. While he was making his debut appearance at Firestone, he has eight competitive rounds under his belt at Quail Hollow and has fared well, finishing 28th on debut in 2015 and tying for 17th in 2016. The changes made at Quail Hollow over the past year have apparently placed even more of an emphasis on driving it long and straight, which should suit Berger fine. At a price like 60.0, he may be the best value on the board this week.
Xander Schauffele (140.0)- Three months ago, most golf fans– even those who follow the sport closely– had never heard of Xander Schauffele. He’s a 23-year old San Diego State product who had only played in two PGA Tour events prior to this season and, in early May, was coming off a stretch of 7 missed cuts in 8 starts. And then, magic: suddenly he morphed into one of the best ball-strikers on Tour and has been contending ever since, finding the top-20 in five of his past six starts and picking up his first victory at the Greenbrier Classic. He was at it again last week at the WGC-Bridgestone, breaking 70 three times in four rounds en route to a T13. He had never played Firestone in competition, just like he’s never played Quail Hollow, but it certainly helps when you average over 305 yards per drive, as Schauffele does. Quail Hollow is going to be a monster this week– 7,600 yards that is expected to be softened, therefore lengthened, by persistent rains– so Schauffele’s length should be a tremendous advantage. It would be a stunner if he were able to pull off the victory, no doubt, but he’s a red-hot youngster whose ceiling is unknown, and he absolutely bombs it, which should be a key to success this week. He’s a longshot, but a live one.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Dustin Johnson (1.91) vs. Hideki Matsuyama (1.91)
DJ is still trying to get back to top form after his fall at the Masters, and though recent signs have been encouraging– he found the top-10 at the RBC Canadian Open and snuck into the top-20 at the WGC-Bridgestone last week after a final-round 66– he strikes me as a bit overpriced and overvalued this week, especially when you consider that he has historically avoided playing at Quail Hollow. Matsuyama, on the other hand, has a nice history at Quail Hollow, finishing 20th at the Wells Fargo in 2015 and 11th in 2016, and there’s no denying that he’s at the top of his game after blitzing Firestone with a final round 61 a few days ago. And Matsuyama always seems to come up big in the biggest events: he finished 4th in the PGA last year and has logged top-15s in all three of this season’s majors. Recommendation: Matsuyama at 1.91
Justin Thomas (1.8) vs. Thomas Pieters (2.1)
Since Thomas won back-to-back events in January, no player on the PGA Tour has been more consistently overvalued. He has all the tools, no doubt, but he just hasn’t been playing very well lately, missing the cut three times in his past four starts. And considering he missed the cut at the 2016 Wells Fargo, which was the last time he’s seen Quail Hollow in competition, I’m just not sure why some people seem to like him so much this week. Pieters played beautifully at the WGC-Bridgestone last week, finishing 4th despite struggling a bit with his driver over the weekend, and he’s proven to be the type of guy who isn’t afraid of the big moment. Recommendation: Pieters at 2.1