PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: After a strange, tumultuous few months we finally get some major championship golf in 2020, as the world’s best have descended upon the San Francisco Bay Area this week for the 102nd edition of the PGA Championship. (and yes- it’s the PGA, not the US PGA. Calling it the “US PGA” is the equivalent of calling the Open the “British Open”. But I digress…) This is the first time that the PGA has been the first major held in a calendar year, but the global pandemic has given us a lot of “firsts”, and considering that much of California is still under lockdown and spectators won’t be allowed on site this week, we should probably be grateful that this tournament is happening at all.
The venue is a familiar one to golf fans– TPC Harding Park, one of the world’s best known municipal courses and a place that has had two distinct periods in the sun, separated by a few decades: back in the 1960s, when the PGA Tour played an annual event at Harding Park that was won by the likes of Gary Player, Ken Venturi, and ChiChi Rodriguez, and the current era, which began with a massive renovation in 2004. Since then, the course has hosted a Presidents Cup and two WGC events, not to mention the Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Championship on three occasions.
Originally designed by Sam Whiting and Willie Watson nearly 100 years ago, Harding Park is a straightforward parkland-style course featuring thick rough, numerous doglegs, and fairways lined with large, often impenetrable trees. Though it measures only 7,234 yards, it actually plays quite long, as it will be a par-70 this year (it played as a par-71 in the 2015 WGC Match Play, the last time it hosted an event of this magnitude) and features seven par-4s of 460 yards or longer. In other words, this won’t be a wedge-fest, even for the bombers. And if the reports about the greens being firmer than usual are correct, we may see some U.S. Open-style carnage out there. Harding Park is certainly capable of providing a stern test.
More than any major, the PGA has been accused over the past few years of course setups that were too bomber-friendly, and indeed 8 of the past 9 stagings of the championship have been won by players ranking in the top-20 in driving distance. Brooks Koepka prevailed in both the 2018 and 2019 editions with a bomb-and-gouge style, and as he looks to become the first man since Walter Hagen to win three consecutive PGA Championships, he has to feel awfully comfortable with the challenge ahead, because Harding Park also fits the mold of a course that caters to the longer guys. When Tiger Woods won the WGC-AmEx in 2005, he edged out none other than John Daly in a playoff after Long John spent all week blasting drivers over the corners of doglegs. And more recently, in 2015, the final of the WGC-Match Play came down to Rory McIlroy vs. Gary Woodland, two of the longer players on Tour. Without a doubt, length off the tee will provide a significant advantage this week.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to see that the top of BETDAQ’s Win Market is almost entirely populated by bombers– Koepka (12.5), Justin Thomas (13.0), McIlroy (15.5), Jon Rahm (17.0), Bryson DeChambeau (18.5)… power players all. And every one of those guys, with the possible exception of McIlroy, has flashed some serious form over the past few weeks, so this is a tournament without a clear favorite, but with plenty of viable contenders. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?! Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Dustin Johnson (25.0)- After a couple of really strange weeks for Johnson in early July– his 80-80 disaster at the Memorial followed by an early flameout at the 3M Open– he got things back on track last week in Memphis, breaking 70 in all four rounds and finishing 12th. He’s just three starts removed from his victory at the Travelers, and now that he’s regained some positive momentum he’s sure to have one goal and one goal only this week: the Wanamaker Trophy. He was close to getting his hands on it last year, finishing runner-up to Koepka at Bethpage Black, and now he comes to another course that should suit his power-oriented game quite well: Harding Park. Not only has Johnson had tremendous success throughout his career on old-style layouts which feature thick rough and firm greens, but he’s had particular success in the state of California, winning twice at Pebble Beach and once at Riviera. His recent inconsistency has sweetened the price a bit this week, and I’m not complaining. DJ is certainly worth a bet here at better than 20/1.
Abraham Ancer (84.0)- Though he doesn’t have the type of length off the tee that is ideal for a place like Harding Park, Ancer has posted some nice results on long courses over the past couple of years, as his penchant for finding the fairway and excellence with his mid-to-long irons has been enough to compensate for his lack of power. He’s been playing the best golf of his career this season, logging eight top-15 finishes in his last 12 starts, including a pair of runner-ups. He’s fresh off a nice week at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude, where he fired 65-66 over the weekend to finish 15th, giving him seven rounds of 66 or better over his last four events. Given his form and steadiness, it sure feels like a breakthrough win is right around the corner for Ancer, and a week like this– where he can lean on his terrific ball-striking– might be his best opportunity. He may be the best value on the board at a price like 84.0.
Phil Mickelson (128.0)- Does Lefty have another one in him? The better question may be, does Harding Park have enough space to accommodate him? While Phil still hits it plenty far enough, finding fairways has always been a bit of an issue, and there’s no going through or around some of the thick Cypress trees that line much of the course. That said, driving distance is generally thought to be more important than accuracy at Harding Park, and Mickelson seemed very comfortable on the course during the 2009 Presidents Cup, where he finished with a record of 4-0-1. The fact that he’s coming off his best week of the year, a runner-up in last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude, is also notable– very few players in the history of the game have been able capitalize on momentum and harness good play as well as Phil has. Plus, he a native Californian who always seems to play well out West– in more ways than one, this is a great venue for him. He may be past his prime, but he’s still very capable, and at better than 120/1 I’m happy to take my chances with Mickelson this week.