PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: The eyes of the golf world turn to New York this week for the year’s second major, the PGA Championship, which is making its May debut after being held in August for many years. It should prove to be a good move for the event– long regarded as golf’s “lesser” major, the PGA was almost becoming an afterthought in its August timeslot, particularly after the creation of the FedEx Cup Playoffs and the introduction of Olympic golf, which would’ve required the PGA to change dates every four years. But now, this tournament has the stage all to itself, and with 99 of the world’s top 100 players set to compete at one of the cathedrals of the sport, Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, we should be in for quite a show.
Bethpage Black, as it is commonly known, has hosted two U.S. Opens, with the last one being won by Lucas Glover in 2009. Since then, it’s hosted The Barclays twice (’12, ’16), though in those years the course wasn’t set up like it will be this week– with its teeth on full display. Make no mistake, at nearly 7,500 yards and playing to a par-70, with thick, punishing rough and firm, fast greens, Bethpage Black has the potential to be one of the most difficult courses in the entire world. Only four players finished the week under par at the ’09 U.S. Open, and we can expect the red numbers to be few and far between again this week. Heavy rains have pelted the grounds for the past three days, so even if the weather improves as the week progresses– which it is expected to– the course will be playing every bit of its 7,468 yards. Drivers and long irons will be the name of the game, and the shorter players should be at a distinct disadvantage. This is big-boy golf, in every sense.
The top of BETDAQ’s Win Market looks pretty much like you’d expect– Dustin Johnson (11.5) and major-machine Brooks Koepka (12.5) are at the head of the class, followed closely by Rory McIlroy (13.5) and Tiger Woods (15.5). All eyes will be on Tiger this week after his historic Masters triumph, and he did win the U.S. Open at Bethpage back in 2002, but I can’t help but think that he’s slightly overvalued here, considering he hasn’t teed it up in competition in over a month. Still, he’s sure to have his backers… I just won’t be among them, choosing to ride with these three instead:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Dustin Johnson (11.5)- I heard someone on television the other day say that it’s been a “quiet year” for Dustin Johnson. Well, if you consider seven top-10s in ten PGA Tour starts and a win at the WGC-Mexico as “quiet”, then you’ve got some interesting standards. Fact is, DJ is the best player in the world, and he’s been playing like it: since his victory in Mexico in February, he’s finished 5th at the Players Championship, 6th at the Valspar, runner-up at the Masters, and 28th at the RBC Heritage, where he led heading into the final round before running into some trouble on Sunday. In other words, the guy either wins, or nearly wins, every week he tees it up. And he’s a perfect fit for Bethpage Black, as he’s one of the best, and longest, on Tour with the driver in his hands, and excels on bent/poa putting surfaces like the ones he’ll see this week. It’s no surprise, then, that Johnson has already experienced success at Bethpage, finishing 3rd in The Barclays in ’12 and 18th in ’16. Confidence and course knowledge will not be an issue. Picking the favorite can sometimes feel like giving up, but it’s difficult to turn away from DJ this week. His price is short, but not short enough.
Xander Schauffele (32.0)- Though he’s yet to win a major, Schauffele has become known as something of a big game hunter over the course of his brief career– he’s won the Tour Championship and a WGC event, and he’s logged podium finishes at the Open, the Masters, and the Players Championship. Clearly, this is not someone who shrinks from the spotlight: he’s proven that he plays his best golf on the biggest stages. His runner-up finish at the Masters came just last month, and it was only surprising to those who haven’t been paying attention, as Schauffele has found the top-25 in five of seven starts since his victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions back in January. Though he’s never played Bethpage in competition, he profiles as a good fit for the course, as he ranks in the top-30 on Tour in both driving distance (304.0) and GIR percentage (69.84%). Of course, Schauffele ranks in the top-30 in just about every statistical category, including eagles, birdie average, scoring average, strokes gained tee-to-green, putts per GIR, and, most importantly, money won (3rd) and FedExCup points (2nd). He’s simply one of the best players in the world, and is a nice value this week at better than 30/1.
Jason Kokrak (120.0)- The PGA Championship has not necessarily been a tournament that has been dominated by the favorites over the years, which has sometimes contributed to its reputation as the “lesser” major. Since 2000, we’ve seen names like Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel, Y.E. Yang, David Toms, Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, and Jimmy Walker hoist the Wanamaker Trophy, and though some of those guys have had more success than others, none appear to be on the road to superstardom. Were Jason Kokrak to win this week, it would be a stunner, but it wouldn’t be without precedent, and frankly it probably wouldn’t be as big of an upset as many would make it out to be. Kokrak is playing the best golf of his career– he’s made the cut in all 15 of his PGA Tour starts this season, and has found the top-25 in six of his last eight events, including a runner-up finish at the Valspar in March. Bethpage Black is a bombers delight, especially given the current rain-softened conditions, and not many guys in the world bomb it as far as Kokrak, who averages nearly 305 yards per drive. Moreover, we’ve seen Kokrak play well at Bethpage before: he tied for 7th in the 2016 Barclays, a performance highlighted by a second-round 66. So here we have a player in good form, who is a good fit stylistically for the course and has experienced success there before. What more could you want of a 120/1 longshot?
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Rickie Fowler (1.76) vs. Francesco Molinari (2.24)
Molinari has been on quite a run for the past year-plus, but you have to wonder if that run came to an end at the bottom of Rae’s Creek last month. Sometimes a sudden collapse like that can have lasting effects, and Molinari did miss the cut at the RBC Heritage the following week, his first MC of the season. But regardless of all that, he’s just not a good fit for Bethpage Black on account of his lack of length off the tee. Fowler, on the other hand, has experienced success at Bethpage before, finishing 7th at the 2016 Barclays, and is coming off a 4th-place showing at the Wells Fargo Championship. Recommendation: Fowler at 1.76
Rory McIlroy (1.78) vs. Tiger Woods (2.22)
I certainly understand if you’re a little hesitant to bet against Tiger after watching him turn back the clock at the Masters, but we haven’t seen him on the course since his putt dropped on the 72nd hole, and it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be at his sharpest this week after a month full of celebrations and back-slapping, but no competitive golf. Of course, there’s no guarantee he’d beat McIlroy even if he was at his best, as Rory has been playing some pretty spectacular golf himself in recent months– the Players Championship victory was an obvious highlight, but he was back at it in Charlotte two weeks ago, finishing 8th at the Wells Fargo. Rory is probably the day-in, day-out better player nowadays, and he’s likely a little sharper this week, too. Recommendation: McIlroy at 1.78