THE NORTHERN TRUST: The PGA Tour is intent on making the FedEx Cup Playoffs something other than the wind-down that post-majors golf has traditionally been, and this year they’ve further tweaked things by shifting the PGA Championship from August to May and starting these Playoffs two weeks earlier, while also changing it from a 4-event to a 3-event series. All of these machinations, including cutting the TPC Boston event out of the regular rotation, are driven by one goal: to get things wrapped up prior to the start of NFL season, when the focus shifts dramatically for most red-blooded American sports fans.
Time will tell whether the new arrangement results in the desired boost in interest, but most seem to like the new ordering of the majors, with the Masters first and the Open last, and I’m sure the majority of the players themselves are happy with both the contraction and the move from September to August.
By now, most know the way it works with these Playoff events: the fields are limited, with the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings qualifying for the series. The top 70 following the conclusion of this week’s event qualify for next week’s BMW Championship at Medinah, and then the field is whittled down to 30 for the season-ending Tour Championship. The money involved is almost cartoonish at this point, as a $35 million “bonus fund” is divided amongst the players at the conclusion of the Tour Championship, with a cool $10 mil going to the winner. That’s in addition to the prize money for each event, of course, which in the case of The Northern Trust is a $1.62 million first prize and a total purse of $9 million.
The course this week is Liberty National Golf Club, a super-exclusive private club that was built on top of a toxic waste dump not far from the Statue of Liberty. Originally designed by Bob Cupp and Tom Kite, it’s been universally panned by both tour pros and Wall Street types spoiled by the classic courses that dot Long Island. The complaints seem to boil down to the fact that it’s simply not much fun to play: a par-71 that measures nearly 7,400 yards, it’s an absolute bear, and with numerous water hazards and patches of brutally thick rough to contend with, big numbers can be difficult to avoid. It’s played host to this event twice, in 2009 and 2013, and it also hosted the 2017 Presidents Cup, so several guys in this week’s field have seen it before.
World No. 1 Brooks Koepka heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 10.0, and he’s deserving of his status as the favorite, but with a field of this caliber it’s awfully difficult to bite on those short odds. I think I may take a chance with these three instead:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Patrick Cantlay (27.0)- Liberty National is an unforgiving test that requires accuracy off the tee and precision with the irons, as poor approach shots are severely penalized by the steep run-offs and challenging undulation around the greens. And if what we’re looking for is boring, fairway-and-greens type golf, we’re not going to do much better than Cantlay, a ball-striking machine who ranks third on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and is in the midst of a career year, with 12 top-15 finishes and a victory in 18 starts. His breakthrough probably has more to do with his putting than anything else, as an area that was once a weakness is a weakness no longer: Cantlay ranks 17th on Tour in total putts per round (28.45) and 14th in birdie conversion percentage (33.97%). He’s only four starts removed from his win at the Memorial and fresh off a 12th-place showing in Memphis, so his game is in good shape, and though he’s never played Liberty National in competition, he has all the tools to succeed there. I’m happy to hop aboard at better than 25/1.
Jason Day (60.0)- It’s a bit jarring to see Day’s name beside such a big price, and bettors’ lack of faith can be directly attributed to the fact that he’s gone T66-MC-T40 over his last three starts. But upon closer inspection, he may not be quite as far off as it would first appear: he was going along nicely at Portrush before coming completely undone over his last six holes on Friday, and he played solid golf at the WGC-St. Jude after a disappointing 2-over 72 on Thursday. Plus, he finished 8th at the Travelers Championship just six weeks ago, so his current “slump” may be nothing more than a few bad holes spread out over three events. At any rate, we know he has championship mettle, and he has considerable experience at Liberty National, finishing 12th in this event in 2009 and 25th in 2013, the only two times it’s been staged at Liberty, and competing in the 2017 Presidents Cup as well. And though a player’s choice in caddie rarely affects his pre-tournament outlook, Day will have Stevie Williams on the bag this week, and if nothing else Williams should have deep knowledge of the course after being on the bag for Tiger’s runner-up finish in ’09 and Adam Scott’s victory in ’13. All things considered, Day looks to be worth a bet at nearly 60/1.
Rory Sabbatini (128.0)- At 43 years of age and going on 9 years since his last PGA Tour victory, the clock is ticking on Sabatini’s career, and considering his… err… “colorful” reputation, I doubt there will be too many tears shed when he eventually fades away. But if you expected him to go quietly, you would be mistaken: Sabbatini is in the midst of a renaissance of sorts, with six top-10 finishes in his last 11 starts, including a T3 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic six weeks ago and a 6th-place showing at the Wyndham Championship last week. He’s really caught fire with his irons and has been making birdies in bunches, now ranking 32nd on Tour in birdie average (4.05 per round) despite being outside the top-150 in that stat back in April, when his current hot streak began. Furthermore, he’s experienced success at Liberty National, finishing 13th in this event back in 2013 after shooting par or better all four rounds. He’s certainly not a fan favorite and doesn’t win very often, but this might be a good week to back Sabbatini, especially at a price like 128.0.