WGC BRIDGESTONE: A select field of 76 players will tee it up this week at a familiar venue– Firestone Country Club’s South Course– for the year’s third World Golf Championships event, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Formerly known as the World Series of Golf, this tournament became part of the WGC family back in 1999 and has produced some memorable moments over the years, many of them involving Tiger Woods, who won this event a record eight times.
The Tiger Era is over, however, and a new crop of young bombers will now look to tame Firestone, which, at 7,400 yards, is the longest par-70 course on the PGA Tour. And it’s not “empty” length, either– seven par-4s measure over 460 yards, and the 667-yard 16th is one of the most difficult par-5s in the world, a rare three-shot hole that regularly plays over-par (last year’s average score: 5.19). There’s very little trickery at Firestone; it’s simply a straightforward bear of a course, one that features thick rough and small, lightning-fast greens. The rough is really the course’s primary defense, and when it’s lush, as it was last year, scoring can be brutally difficult: only nine players broke par in 2016, and Dustin Johnson’s 6-under total was the highest winning score that this event had seen since 2005.
Johnson is back to defend and has a little momentum after a top-10 in Canada last week, but BETDAQ’s market leader is Jordan Spieth (9.6), who put on a putting exhibition at Birkdale a couple of weeks ago and has a strong record at Firestone, finding the top-10 twice in his last three appearances at this event. Spieth and Johnson are joined atop the market by the usual suspects– McIlroy (11.5), Fowler (19.0), Matsuyama (21.0), etc.– but this field is exceptionally strong, with as many as 50-60 players having a legitimate chance to win this week. Here’s three who I think may be a bit undervalued:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm (24.0)- The driver is the most important club in the bag at Firestone, and that bodes well for someone like Rahm. The big-hitting Spaniard is supremely confident with the big stick in his hands, as he demonstrated in his unintentionally hilarious press conference this week, when, in response to a question about his strategy on the par-4 18th, he just shrugged quizzically and said “I guess I’ll just hit the driver as hard as I can.” Rahm’s refreshingly earnest attitude and impressive shotmaking ability have propelled him to the brink of superstardom, and though he struggles with his temper at times, he’s proven to be the type of player who can get on a serious roll: when he gets hot, he stays hot. This will be his debut appearance at Firestone, but that didn’t seem to matter much at the Farmers earlier this year or at the Irish Open last month, when he blitzed the field and won by six shots. In fact, Rahm hasn’t played many familiar courses in his brief pro career– most weeks are “debut appearances” for him, and yet he continues to put up astonishing numbers: two victories, six top-5s, and eleven top-10s in 18 worldwide starts this year. Firestone seems like a perfect fit, and a price like 24.0 is great value for a player of Rahm’s caliber. I’m backing him enthusiastically this week.
Daniel Berger (64.0)- Nearly everyone who wins at Firestone is long off the tee, and Berger certainly fits the bill. Despite his slight 170-pound frame, he averages nearly 300 yards per drive and has been a fixture in the top-25 of the PGA Tour’s “Strokes Gained: Off the Tee” stat over the past couple of years. Like Rahm, he’ll be making his debut appearance at Firestone (he withdrew prior to Round 1 last year), but he seems like a good fit stylistically and has experienced some success on Midwestern golf courses, dating back to his runner-up finish at the 2015 BMW Championship held at Conway Farms. He’s been red-hot lately, finding the top-5 in three of his past five starts, including a win at the St. Jude Classic and a runner-up finish at the Travelers. His last start came at the Open, where he played three days of brilliant golf and tied for 27th despite a 2nd-round 76. Berger is young, fearless, and in top form: the lack of course history just isn’t enough to keep me away, especially at a price like 64.0.
Bill Haas (136.0)- Haas doesn’t bomb it off the tee like Rahm or Berger, but he is one of the best long iron players in the world and generally excels at courses that feature lengthy approach shots, as Firestone does. He also has a history of playing well on difficult courses, and he seems to save his best stuff for the bigger tournaments– the stronger the field, the better Haas seems to play. He’s become a regular at this event and has made quite a bit of cash here over the past few years, finding the top-25 three times (including a 7th-place finish in 2013) and never finishing worse than 41st in his past five appearances. And despite missing the cut at the Open, where he was derailed by a poor second round, he has been playing well this summer, recording top-25s in four of five starts prior to the Open, including a 5th-place showing at the U.S. Open. Haas hasn’t won in awhile but he’s very capable, and breaking through at an event like this would fit his career pattern. He’s certainly worth a bet as a 135/1 longshot.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Brooks Koepka (1.91) vs. Rickie Fowler (1.91)
Koepka is playing with house money after his U.S. Open victory and is looking quite relaxed and confident on the greens, which is where he has struggled at times in the past. Firestone is not Royal Birkdale, however, and Koepka will be dealing with greens that are approaching 14 on the stimpmeter in his first start since the Open. Fowler is the superior putter and he also happens to have a terrific record at Firestone, with four top-10s in seven career appearances, including a runner-up finish in 2011. Prior to the Open, where he tied for 22nd, Fowler found the top-5 three times in four starts. Recommendation: Fowler at 1.91
Branden Grace (1.91) vs. Justin Thomas (1.91)
Thomas is long off the tee and isn’t afraid of a strong field, so in that sense he seems like a good pick this week. He’s missed three straight cuts, however, and he wasn’t particularly impressive on debut here last year, shooting 76 on Sunday and finishing in the middle of the pack at 5-over. Grace, on the other hand, has a solid record in this event, appearing five times and finding the top-25 in each of the past three years, including a T10 last year. He’s coming off a 6th-place finish at the Open. Recommendation: Grace at 1.91