THE AMERICAN EXPRESS: This week a familiar tournament will have a new look, as the event long-known as the Bob Hope Classic, which has been a pro-am throughout its 62 years of existence and was frequently staged over five rounds and three courses, will drop the amateur portion of the competition due to COVID concerns and will exist as a standard 72-hole event held on two courses.
There are pros and cons to this new iteration of The American Express; on the good side, it will be nice to see the players finally challenged with some Tour-worthy pins on these courses after years of amateur-friendly, center-ish pin placements that led to cartoonishly low scores. The courses, PGA West’s Nicklaus and Stadium, both have intricate green complexes with possible pin locations that could entirely change the nature of certain holes, and the Stadium course in particular, which is the official host course and the one players will see in 3 of 4 rounds, can be a bear if set up properly. It remains to be seen just how crazy it will get in this regard– perhaps tournament organizers want another birdie-fest and will keep the setup relatively friendly, but at least they now have options.
On the bad side, the changes rob this tournament of its uniqueness and quirkiness, as the celebrity/jetsetter factor always made for a light, fun atmosphere and some interesting on-course diversions. The Tour needs more fun, unique events, not fewer, so I fully expect this tournament to return to the old format after this year. But in the meantime, we get to see if PGA West can bear its teeth.
West Coast guys have traditionally feasted in this event, but over the past five years there has been a rash of Southerners capturing the trophy, including last year’s champion, Andrew Landry, who nearly let a 6-shot lead slip away on the back nine on Sunday before hanging on for a 2-shot win over Abraham Ancer. Landry was the second consecutive triple-digit longshot to win here, joining Adam Long in 2019, so this might be a good week to search for value a bit further down the board than usual. The courses at PGA West intentionally cater to many different styles and shot-shapes. With than in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Matthew Wolff (31.0)- It’s his first start of 2021, so there’s some risk here, but a price like 31.0 seems awfully friendly for a player of Wolff’s caliber– he might be one of only three or four guys in the field who can absolutely run away with it if things are clicking. And as we saw in 2020, things “click” quite often for Wolff, as he finished the year with ten top-15 finishes, including three runner-ups, and shot all the way up to No. 15 in the World Golf Rankings. A ball-striking savant, he’s been especially good with his irons lately, ranking 8th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Approach in the wraparound season, and this week that should be more beneficial than is usually the case at PGA West, given the more challenging pin positions that we expect to see. Wolff made the cut on debut here last year but didn’t play great over the weekend, finishing T57… that being said, he clearly liked the course enough to want to return. Given his talent and current price, that’s good enough for me.
Sam Burns (62.0)- Like Wolff, this will be Burns’s first start of 2021, and that obviously adds an element of unpredictability that is reflected in his price. That being said, Burns was looking pretty darn good prior to the break, finishing T7 in November’s Houston Open to give him two top-10s in his last five starts. And if his putting returns to pre-pandemic form, when he could regularly be found in the top-20 in Strokes Gained: Putting, he’s going to turn some of those top-10s into victories, because he’s a gifted ball-striker who is both long and straight off the tee and accurate with his irons, ranking 5th on Tour in GIR percentage. Most importantly, Burns has thrived at this tournament over the past couple of years, finishing T18 in 2019 and T6 last year, so we know he loves the sight-lines and opportunities at PGA West. At better than 60/1, he’s my favorite bet on the board this week.
Adam Hadwin (96.0)- Hadwin makes it 3/3 for us in terms of players who will be making their 2021 debut this week, but unlike the Wolff/Burns situations, in this case a fresh start can only be a positive– Hadwin missed the cut in each of his final three events of 2020 and hasn’t registered a top-10 since July’s Rocket Mortgage Classic. But he’s a seasoned vet who has shown the ability to snap out of slumps before, and he’s generally been a fast starter throughout his career, making lots of money in the January/February months. Perhaps no stop has treated him better than this one– Hadwin absolutely loves it at PGA West and nearly always plays well in this tournament, finishing runner-up in 2 of his past 3 starts (’19, ’17), 3rd in 2018, and 6th in 2016. So backing Hadwin at this event is always a good idea, and the only thing inflating his price is the struggles of 2020. But with a few weeks to iron out the wrinkles… who knows? I’m happy to take my chances on a guy who is awfully tough to beat at PGA West and can currently be had at nearly 100/1.