PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: The year’s final major is here, and Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis will be the venue as the PGA Championship celebrates its centennial. Though it’s widely regarded as the least prestigious of golf’s four majors, the PGA generally has the strongest field, and this year is no exception, with 98 of the world’s top 100 players set to vie for the Wanamaker Trophy.
Bellerive has seen championship golf before, though it’s been awhile. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. track last hosted this tournament in 1992, when Nick Price triumphed, but since then the course has been renovated, with several holes being lengthened, bunkers being added, and some greens being changed. We last saw the current iteration of the course ten years ago, when Camilo Villegas took advantage of rain-softened conditions to post 15-under 265 and win the 2008 BMW Championship. The rough will be up this week and sunshine is expected Thursday and Friday, so it may not be target practice out there, but I still expect some low scores at a course that boasts some of the largest greens in all of championship golf.
Don’t get me wrong: the greens aren’t easy, as a matter of fact they’re said to be freakishly undulating and very segmented, meaning simply finding the putting surface by no means guarantees a par, but if there are guys out there hitting 14-15 greens per round– and there will be at Bellerive– then low scores are sure to follow. The course is long, measuring over 7,300 yards, but it’s not punishingly long, and in the ’08 BMW the first page of the leaderboard was populated by the likes of Tim Clark and Jim Furyk, so bombing the ball obviously isn’t a prerequisite for success. It’s not the type of layout that is going to produce a lot of big numbers– water only comes into play on a handful of holes, and OB/lost ball areas are practically nonexistent. But there aren’t many easy birdies out there, either– the course only has two par-5s, neither of which are reachable in two for the vast majority of the field, so guys will have to dial in with the irons and find the proper segments of the greens to generate opportunities.
With so many of the world’s top players coming into this week playing great golf, we could be in for quite an exciting four days. Dustin Johnson (9.8) heads BETDAQ’s Win Market after a victory at the Canadian Open and a Sunday 64 at Firestone, but defending champion Justin Thomas (15.5) looked positively dominant last week, and Rory McIlroy (14.5), Justin Rose (25.0), Brooks Koepka (23.0), and Jason Day (21.0) have all flashed championship form of late. Tough to argue with a bet on any of those guys.
Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Rory McIlroy (14.5)- Dustin Johnson may be world No. 1 and Justin Thomas may have the best top gear in the sport, but I have a hunch that Rory is going to be awfully tough to beat this week. He’s been striking the ball beautifully for the past few months, finishing 16th or better in 9 of his past 11 worldwide starts despite an occasionally balky putter, and last week at Firestone the putter came alive, propelling him to the final pairing on Sunday despite a below-average week with the wedges and short irons. It just feels like all the cylinders never quite click for McIlroy, and yet he still finds himself in contention nearly every week. He’s got a great history at this event, having won twice, and Bellerive seems like his kind of place: you’ve got to drive the ball well and be precise with the mid-irons to give yourself chances, but if you can do that, you can score. In all four of his major victories he’s finished at 13-under or better, so he’s been more of a threat at courses that offer scoring opportunities than at the “par is a good score” bloodbaths like Shinnecock. Don’t be surprised if he snaps his 4-year major drought this week and hoists the Wanamaker Trophy for the third time– I’m happy to hop aboard at the current price.
Patrick Cantlay (64.0)- Cantlay has really blossomed over the past couple of years, but because he’s yet to seriously contend in a major and has been outshined by some of his 20-something peers, he still flies under the radar somewhat and is legitimately underrated. He’s been playing great golf lately, finding the top-15 in four of his past five starts, including a 12th-place showing at the Open and a T6 at the WGC-Bridgestone last week. That gives him ten top-15s and a victory (Shriners Hospitals for Children Open) in 17 PGA Tour starts this season, a pretty sporty resume for a guy who’s floating around in the 60/1 range. As well as he strikes the ball– he ranks 8th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green this season– there’s absolutely no reason to think he won’t like it at Bellerive, and his results in majors have steadily improved this year: MC at the Masters, T45 at the U.S. Open, and then T12 at the Open. Cantlay is a real threat this week and should be backed enthusiastically at a price like 64.0.
Aaron Wise (126.0)- At just 22 years old, Wise is obviously short on experience and were he to win this week it would be quite remarkable. That being said, he’s shown a certain fearlessness in his first full year on Tour– he’s definitely a guy who seems to play better once he sniffs contention– and he broke through with a win at the Byron Nelson back in May, so he clearly has the game and the nerve to get the job done. The Byron Nelson, if you recall, was held at Trinity Forest this year, a place that, as some have pointed out, shares a lot of similarities with Bellerive: both courses are relatively long, both have zoysia fairways, and both are known for their large, segmented green complexes. Wise fell off a bit after his victory at the Nelson, but he played great last week, closing with back-to-back 67s to finish 6th at the WGC-Bridgestone, so he heads into this week with some momentum. Normally you like to go with guys who have a bit more major championship experience, but Wise is just too good to be listed at 125/1, and the possibility exists that Bellerive is a good stylistic fit. If you’re looking for a “live” longshot, you could do a lot worse.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Francesco Molinari (1.8) vs. Henrik Stenson (1.94)
Molinari’s white-hot run came to an end last week, as he posted a four-round total of 1-over and finished in the back-half of the field at the WGC-Bridgestone. So now that we know he’s mortal, it’s fair to speculate about how the notoriously short-hitting Italian will fare at the longish Bellerive, especially after news that the course was softened, and therefore lengthened, by a torrential downpour on Tuesday that forced the cancelation of all practice rounds. Stenson, meanwhile, seems perfectly suited for the challenge ahead: he leads the PGA Tour in GIR percentage and ranks 12th in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, and he already has two top-6 finishes in majors under his belt this season. Recommendation: Stenson at 1.94
Tiger Woods (2.16) vs. Justin Thomas (1.66)
Tiger has been close lately, and his Sunday run at the Open was fun to watch. But by any objective measure, he’s a clear underdog in a head-to-head matchup with Thomas this week, and JT’s price here doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me. Over the past couple of years Thomas has established himself as a dominant force with tools unlike anyone else in the game, including Johnson and McIlroy, because Thomas seems to have a certain feel with the putter that those two lack. When he puts it all together he can seem untouchable, and his dominating win at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone was reminiscent of some vintage Tiger performances. Thomas has shown a knack for following success with more success, so I expect him to play well this week and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he were to become just the second player to win back-to-back PGAs. The other guy to do it? Yep, you guessed it. Recommendation: Thomas at 1.66