THE NORTHERN TRUST: The FedEx Cup Playoffs haven’t always been warmly embraced by some golf enthusiasts, with many viewing the series as a cynical money-grab of entirely manufactured significance. And they may be right, but you can’t deny that the end result is nothing to complain about– a few top-quality tournaments, starting with The Northern Trust this week.
Most now know the way it works with these Playoff events: the fields are limited, with the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings teeing it up this week and then the top 100 following the conclusion of this week’s event advancing to next week’s Dell Technologies Championship. After that, the top 70 qualify for the BMW Championship before the field is whittled down to 30 for the season-ending Tour Championship.
So in terms of field strength, these tournaments– and especially this week’s event, which features the top 125 in the standings– compare favorably to a major or a WGC event, which, to me, renders the “are the Playoffs a good idea?” discussion moot, because it’s tough to argue with the finished product, right? I mean, the best of the best teeing it up at a classic A.W. Tillinghast design… doesn’t get much better than that in the waning days of summer.
New Jersey’s Ridgewood Country Club is the Tillinghast course in question; it’s a classic tree-lined parkland-style course that is nearly a century old but was given a modern makeover by Gil Hanse a few years back. It’s hosted this tournament three times in the past– in 2008, 2010, and 2014– but it will be new to many in the field, and even those who have played it before will have to adjust to some differences, as the “Championship Course”– a composite of Ridgewood’s three nines which is used in competitions– will be ordered differently this time around. Same holes, but in a different order.
As for the holes themselves, a look back at the 2014 event and a perusal of the players’ comments this week paint a picture of a straightforward ball-striker’s layout in which accuracy off the tee is more important than distance. It seems like the type of course where someone like Jim Furyk would feast, and indeed Furyk finished 8th here in 2014 and 12th in 2008. Stewart Cink said of the course, “It’s just a solid test of your execution. And you’ve got to strike it well off the tee.” The rough will be long and lush, and the bent/poa greens will be extremely slick. Expect a “U.S. Open Lite” type of week.
Dustin Johnson won this tournament last year, when it was held at the Glen Oaks Club on Long Island, and he heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 10.0, followed by Justin Thomas (14.0), Jason Day (14.5), and Tiger Woods (17.0). But don’t sleep on some of the longer-odds guys this week– this is a new, unfamiliar course for many and it’s not a “bomber’s only” track, so the pool of players who have a realistic chance of winning is quite large. That should make for a fun weekend.
Okay, down to business. Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jordan Spieth (22.0)- Spieth has had, by his standards, a tremendously disappointing season, failing to pick up a victory in 20 starts and logging just one top-10 since the Masters. But things have turned around after a horrendous two-month stretch and he seems to have control of his game again, putting himself right in the thick of it at the Open before settling for 9th and then closing with rounds of 66-69-66 to finish 12th at the PGA Championship. So he rolls into this week with some momentum, and any place that demands precision and consistency tee-to-green but doesn’t require outrageous length off the tee is generally a good fit for Spieth. Ridgewood is such a course, and when a 21-year old Spieth played this event in 2014, the last time it was held at Ridgewood, he handled himself quite well, finishing 22nd after a Sunday 67. This just feels right to me– he’s familiar with the course, he’s tasted contention in two of his past three starts, and he’s finally starting to look like himself on the greens after an uncharacteristic bad stretch with the putter. The trend lines are all pointing in the right direction, and we know Spieth is a winner who knows how to close the deal on Sunday. I’m happy to hop aboard at better than 20/1.
Matt Kuchar (80.0)- Kuchar has missed two cuts in his past four starts, which is a bit unusual for someone who is considered one of the Tour’s most consistent players. But a closer look suggests that there may be nothing to be concerned about at all– he missed the weekend by just a shot on both occasions, shooting 71-70 at Bellerive two weeks ago and 69-72 in July’s RBC Canadian Open. In his other two starts over the past month, he finished 9th at the Open and 14th at the WGC-Bridgestone, so, again, any concerns about the state of his game are probably unwarranted. And there is even less concern about how he fits at Ridgewood– after winning this event in 2010 and finishing 5th in 2014, the last two times it was held at Ridgewood, we can safely say that nobody in the field is as well-suited for this course as Kuchar. That alone makes him worth a bet at a price like 80.0, and the fact that his form is “sneaky-good” right now– he’s simply playing a little bit better than most seem to realize– just seals the deal. Kuchar may be the best value on the board this week.
Stewart Cink (154.0)- Is ageism at play here? I’m half-joking, but I do believe that if a 25 or 30-year old player were on the type of run that Cink is at the moment, they would be viewed as much more of a threat than what we’re seeing with the 45-year old veteran. I mean, three top-5 finishes since June, including a 4th-place showing at the PGA Championship in his last start, to go along with a championship pedigree that includes six PGA Tour victories and a major, and yet Cink is trading at 154.0 here? What gives? It’s not his record at Ridgewood, where he’s 3/3 on made cuts and found the top-15 in both 2010 and 2014. And Cink has never come into this event on the heels of a top-5 finish, so there’s reason to suspect that we may see his finest performance yet at Ridgewood. Tee-to-green, he’s still as good as anybody– 30th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, and a splendid 6th in Strokes Gained: Approach. If he gets hot with the putter this week, look out.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Francesco Molinari (2.1) vs. Justin Rose (1.77)
Rose silenced injury concerns with a solid performance at the PGA, where he broke 70 in all four rounds and wound up finishing 19th. He’s now found the top-25 in each of his past eight PGA Tour starts, an impressive run, no doubt, but one that pales in comparison to what the man he’s matched up with here has been doing. With apologies to Brooks Koepka, Molinari is the hottest player on the planet at the moment, with three victories and two runner-ups in his past eight starts, plus a 6th-place showing at the PGA two weeks ago. The chance to back him at better than even money in a heads-up situation is just too tempting to turn down, especially at a course where his lack of length off the tee won’t hurt him. Recommendation: Molinari at 2.1
Brooks Koepka (1.87) vs. Justin Thomas (1.77)
Any argument against these guys in the overall market is strictly price-related, making it irrelevant in this situation. Look, there’s basically nothing bad you can say about Koepka or Thomas– they’re both top-5 players, one is a near-lock for Player of the Year after winning two majors and the other is attempting to become the first player to win back-to-back FedEx Cup titles. The real question here is how Koepka will respond to his thrilling victory at the PGA: will he be able to bring the intensity and focus needed to play his best? How could he, all things considered? And keep in mind that Koepka has only won one “non-major” in his career, so maybe intensity/focus/attention level is a genuine issue for him. He followed up his U.S. Open victory in June by going 19-39-MC in his next three starts, so we have a template of what it may look like and it’s not encouraging. Thomas is simply dealing with fewer concerns and “what-ifs” this week. Recommendation: Thomas at 1.77