U.S. Open Course Preview and Picks

Well well well… it’s U.S. Open week and they return to the historic venue we know as Pebble Beach in California. As some people may know, they play the “AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am” here every year in February. The winning score usually ranges between -17 and -20. In other words, the course is usually very easy. It’s a par 72 course with four par 5s, and the rough is not very difficult.

The course layout will be completely different this week for the U.S. Open. Driving the ball in the fairway will be essential. The fairways will be much narrower than we usually see at the Pro-Am. As is the case with most U.S. Opens, if you drive the ball in the rough, it’s going to be long, thick, and nasty. Although Pebble Beach is much shorter than a normal U.S. Open track, the rough can still be very penal.  Many times players will have to lay up to a number they like for their 3rd shot, to try and get up and down on the longer par 4’s and par 5’s.

Short-game is also going to play a crucial role this week. The last time a U.S. Open was played at Pebble Beach, the winning score was won with an even par score by Graeme McDowell. The average percentage of greens hit in regulation by the field was 51%. To give you some perspective on just how low this number is, the worst player on the tour ranked 209 out of 209 players for greens in hit regulation, is Seamus Power who hits 59.47% of GIR. The 100th ranked player in the statistic is at 66%. In other words, people are going to miss greens this week as Pebble has some of the smallest on the PGA Tour. This course will really test your short game and this tournament will be won by someone who has a great short game and can grind out pars vs. the birdie fest we usually see at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

The most important statistic/trait a golfer needs this week is a sharp iron/approach game. This is the case at many tournaments on the tour, but it’s much more pivotal this week. As I mentioned earlier, it’s tough to hit these greens in regulation. If you’re hitting good approach shots, you’re going to relieve a lot of stress from your short game and won’t have to grind as much to save pars. On top of that, Pebble is not like a normal U.S. Open, where you really need to hit the ball far and straight. A lot of players will be clubbing down off the tee and it’s much more of a second shot course compared to places like Shinnecock Hills and Erin Hills (which put a premium on length off the tee).

One last thing I want to mention before I get into my power rankings is that wind has the potential to be a big factor this week. The course is played right along the ocean. If the winds really pick-up, it’ll make the course much more difficult and favor the guys with lower ball flight.  So, if you’re into that sort of narrative, it might be worthwhile to pick some guys who play well in the wind, in your office pools, DraftKings teams, and bets (you can reach out to me for advice on what players I like in that category).

Alright let’s get into my Top 5 Power Rankings…

5. Jason Day – Day has a lot going for him going into the U.S. Open, yet is under the radar. He has good history at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am including a T4 back in February. Although the course is going to be much different, I think playing here previously with strong course history, has the chance to lead to success this year. More importantly Day is one of the best wind players on tour with his low ball flight. We know he’s one of the best short-game players and putters in the world as well. If this turns into an absolute grind fest, like it was in 2010, it would be a great benefit to Day. The concern that gives me a little pause with Day, is that he’s not the strongest iron player. I’ll choose to bet on his short game prowess and grinder mentality this week and overlook his spotty iron stats.

4. Tiger Woods – People who know me well, know that yes I like Tiger Woods, but I’m not your ultimate Tiger Woods fan who can’t look at him with an unbiased point of view. I truly think this is a great chance for him to win another major. We know Woods can win here (or anywhere) as he dominated here in the 2000 U.S. Open. Looking at the bigger picture though, out of all 156 players in the field, over the last 50 rounds, Woods ranks 4th in SG Approach, 5th in Greens in Regulation Gained, 19th in SG Around the Green, and 9th in SG on Par 4’s between 400-450 yards. He actually ranks as the number 1 overall player in my statistical model over the last 50 rounds. I see no reason why we shouldn’t see him in his Sunday red, in contention on Sunday night.

3. Jordan Spieth – It took me about 4 months but I’m finally back on the Spieth train. If you read my Masters blog back in April then you know that my number one story-line was how bad Spieth was playing and whether or not he could put it together for the Masters. He ended up finishing 21st that week and is now coming into the U.S. Open with 3 straight top 10’s. If you’ve been paying close attention the last few tournaments, Spieth has been otherworldly with his putter and short game. He’s also gained strokes off the tee in 3 consecutive tournaments. As I mentioned before, distance is not a key factor this week and Spieth will be able to club down off the tee and focus on hitting fairways. Although his iron game has still been a little off the last few months, it appears his improvement off the tee has given him utmost confidence in the 2 traits that we’ve always known him for… the putter and short game. Should that continue this week, Spieth could be in store for a great finish at Pebble. Spieth is one of the best grinders on Tour as we saw with his U.S. Open win back in 2016 at Chambers Bay and his 2017 win at The Open. I should also mention that Spieth won the Pro-Am back in 2017. Watch out folks Jordyyyy is back!

2. Hideki Matsuyama – Sick of me writing about this guy yet who has never won a major and hasn’t won a PGA event since 2017…well too bad because I’m still riding on this train. Deki’ rates out in the top 5 in pretty much any timeframe you run my statistic model, from the last 12 rounds to the last 100 rounds. Other than the PGA Championship, in which he lost 0.8 Strokes off the tee (yet still finished 16th), he has gained strokes Off The Tee, Approach, and Around the Green in every…single…tournament… he’s played in going back to January. The guy has been on absolute fire with his irons all year. His short game which had abandoned him a little back at the end of last season has been spot on all year as well. He is DUE for a major win here sooner rather than later. He’s also coming off a 6th place finish at The Memorial 2 weekends ago, his 4th top 10 of the year and second best finish of the season. He’s peaking at the right time and you know that I already hit his 38-1 odds to win the tournament pretty hard.

Image result for cantlay

Photo credit: Golf.com

1. Patrick Cantlay – People who know me well will tell you this is another guy I bet almost every week (except 2 weeks ago when his odds were as low as I’ve ever seen and of course he goes on to win). If you still haven’t heard of Patrick Cantlay, then he’s probably the best golfer on the tour you’ve never heard of. I’ve been talking him up for over 2 years now. He’s been arguably the most consistent golfer on tour this year. Take a look at his last 12 starts on tour…

Cantlay

Photo credit: Fantasy National

9 top 10’s in his last 12 starts… not too shabby. So we know he’s coming in with good form. Another guy who’s grading out in the top 10 of my overall statistical model, whether I sort it by the last 12 rounds or last 100. If you could build an ideal golfer, Cantlay might be your guy. He really doesn’t have any weaknesses in his game. He hits the ball straight and long, is strong around the greens and one of the best iron players in the world. Pebble is set-up perfectly for Cantlay due to his strong all-around game. If the winning score is around -10 he’ll have no issue getting there and being in contention. If it’s an absolute grind-fest with the winning score around par, that can suit Cantlay as well considering we just saw him at the PGA Championship grind to a 3rd place finish with a final score of -2. I expect him to breakthrough and win his first major.

There’s nothing like a west coast U.S. Open! You get home from work around 6 o’clock and are able to watch golf until 9 p.m. As always feel free to reach out to me for advice or if you just want to talk about the tournament in general. Good luck in your pools, DraftKings teams, and bets!

tiger woods GIF

2018 Masters Preview

The best sports week of the year is finally here. It’s Masters week and I couldn’t be more excited. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning throughout this entire week. Don’t bother trying to reach me between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, unless it’s about the tournament. Per usual, I took off Friday at work to watch all day. That really is “a tradition like no other” for myself.

What makes the Masters so great you may ask? It’s the beautiful course viewed through your HD TV, the birds chirping in the distance, the non-stop coverage on the Masters website through their exceptional shot tracker, featured group coverage, and the coverage of Amen’s corner. It’s the tradition of legends Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Arnold Palmer (R.I.P. King) showing up every single year to hit the ceremonial opening tee shot. It’s the memories Tiger Woods has created over the years and the thought of him finally getting a chance to add a new one this week. The list goes on and on.

Let’s talk a little about how golfers succeed at Augusta National. First things first, experience plays a major role at Augusta.  This is true more than any other course/ tournament on the PGA Tour. The last time a first-timer won at the Masters was 1979. It’s only been done 3 times in history. Take note of this when picking guys on your betting list, Masters pools, and DraftKings teams this week.

We constantly see the same names, with years of experience, show up near the top of the leaderboard every year. The Jordan Spieth’s, Tiger Woods’, Paul Casey’s and Bubba Watson’s of the world always seem to play well at Augusta National, due to their knowledge of the track over the years.

Beyond experience, driving distance and Par 5 scoring play a huge factor. This course has four Par 5’s and that’s where you can make a lot of your hay in trying to score. When you look back at some of the winners/guys near the top of the leaderboard over the years, many of them are long hitters. Bubba Watson (who led the field in driving distance when he won back in 2014), Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods, etc. These are some of the longer hitters on tour and all finished around the top 15 in Par 5 scoring in their victories.

The rough off the fairways is short compared to other courses on tour. This helps play in the bombers favor. As long as you’re not wild and hitting your drives into the woods on every tee shot, missing fairways usually aren’t too costly.

Now I’m not saying average to shorter hitters can’t win here. It’s happened over the years (i.e. Zach Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Danny Willet.) All 3 of them have characteristics that help make up for their lack of distance off the tee. They’re phenomenal iron players (Willet was when he won but is trash now), putters, and excel in their short game around the greens. If you’re a strong iron player, this usually means you’re hitting greens in regulation, which means you’re giving yourself birdie looks on the greens instead of trying to scramble around the difficult Augusta greens.

Let’s dig into the field. There are 76 players in the field. The top 50 and ties, along with anyone who’s within 10 shots of the leader will make the cut and play through the weekend. Here’s a list of all 87 players and how they qualified. http://golfweek.com/2018/03/26/2018-masters-field-list-and-how-each-player-qualified/

I’m going to do an in-depth analysis on Tiger, then I’ll give you a quick hit on all the top guns after that. Here we are in 2018 and on most betting websites Tiger Woods is once again the favorite to don the green jacket come Sunday at Augusta National. It would be an absolutely incredible story…it gives me the goosebumps just imagining him winning as I sit here and type this out.

With that said, there’s one huge reason why I won’t be backing Tiger’s betting odds or DraftKings price of $10k this week. Tiger’s success this season has for the large part been at tighter golf courses, that don’t demand you to hit driver off the tee and allow you to club down with a fairway metal or iron. This won’t be the case at Augusta. You’ll pretty much need to pull out driver on every Par 4 or Par 5. The driver has been Tiger’s downfall in his return. He ranks 149th out of 214 golfers in Strokes Gained Off the Tee on tour, which essentially is a statistic displaying how you hit the ball off the tee compared to the rest of the golfers. If Tiger is wayward with his driver this week, and hitting it into the woods forcing himself to constantly scramble around Augusta, then he will have little to no chance to win. I’m not saying I don’t think he can win and fix his driver problem, but I think it’s a lot to combine that along with the pressure of competing at a major on the back 9 on a Sunday. We haven’t seen Tiger do it for almost 10 years and I’m not sure he’s to that point yet.

Let’s talk about the rest of the top tier of the field…

  • Dustin Johnson 10-1 – A forgotten man over the last few months. DJ came into the Masters as the betting favorite last year and then had an incident where he fell down a flight of stairs (nobody believes that’s what actually happened) and had to withdraw before the tournament. Now DJ is not getting a lot of hype going into Thursday but I wouldn’t sleep on him. He’s the longest hitter on tour, ranking #1 in Strokes Gained off the Tee and is quietly having the best putting season of his career. Mix that with the fact that he finished T4 in 2016 and T6 in 2015 at Augusta, I for one am not sleeping on DJ.
  • Justin Thomas 10-1  – The hottest golfer on the tour the last 6-9 months, Justin Thomas is a popular name to win heading into the tournament. Thomas has a few starts at Augusta with his best finish being T22 last year. I think it’s safe to say he’s a much better player today than a year ago. With that said, I have a weird feeling he may not be mentally tough enough to take down a green jacket yet. I could be eating those words big time come Sunday.
  • Rory McIlroy 10-1  – I’m one of those people who just can’t quit Rory. Up until his win at the Arnold Palmer a few weeks ago, Rory had been hot garbage this year… in large part due to his dismal putting. He got some tips prior to the Arnold Palmer from former pro Brad Faxon, one of the best putters the tour has ever seen. Rory went on to have the best putting performance of his career. We know he has the distance, and short game (22nd on tour in scrambling) to pick up the career Grand Slam and finally win the Masters. If he continues his hot putting he could be the one receiving a green jacket from Sergio come Sunday night.
  • Justin Rose 12-1 – I listened to a Masters preview podcast the other day. They asked about 25 people who their pick to win was. About half of them said Justin Rose. Rose is confident too, saying earlier this week, “I’m where I want to be, knowing I’m going in as one of the favorites and it’s my time really to do it.” Rose has come SO close at Augusta over the years. Take a look at his results below…

Justin Rose Masters

Photo credit: Wikipedia

On top of his fantastic past form at the Masters, Rose is coming in to the event in amazing form over the last several months. It would be pretty surprising if he isn’t in the running to win come Sunday afternoon.

  • Jordan Spieth 12-1 – The golden boy Jordan Spieth. How could we ever forget his improbable win as a 21 year old at Augusta back in 2015…or his stunning collapse the next year in which he threw away another green jacket. I was on record saying Spieth would rid all of his demons from the collapse and win last year. He gave himself a chance but had a very stagnant Sunday. Now here we are again. Spieth hasn’t won on tour this year, unlike years past, but his game is in a weird place right now. Statistically speaking he’s basically been the best golfer on tour in Strokes Gained Tee to Green the last several months. At the same time he’s been absolutely atrocious putting this year which is insane considering putting is his forte. If he putts well this week I think Spieth will win. That’s a big IF right now though. This past weekend at the Houston Open, Spieth was once again #1 in the field in SG Tee to Green… but 109th in SG putting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y93wiRllAD0

  • Bubba Watson 14-1 – Well Bubba is back! It was just a few months ago you could bet Bubba 50 or 60 to 1 on many websites. Fast forward a few months later and he’s won 2 events this season and is one of the favorites to win. Bubba always has to be taken seriously at Augusta due to his course history (former 2 time winner), length off the tee, and ability to shape shots around a course that requires some imagination in hitting approach shots. Obviously Bubba needs to be taken as a threat to win and I think we’ll know by the end of Thursday whether he has a real shot to compete. If he gets out to a solid start, then Bubba will be in what us golf fans call “his happy place”… but if he struggles and gets out to a slow start, Bubba has never really been known to grind and fight back.
  • Phil Mickelson 16-1 – What an unbelievable world we live in to see Tiger Woods and Phil Mickleson both come into The Masters as favorites to win after all these years. We all know Phil has a great track record at Augusta with 3 Green Jackets, but I can’t see him winning it this year. Yes – he won at WGC Mexico last month, a tournament with many of the best golfers in the world, but this was Phil’s first win since 2013. I just can’t picture him out-dueling the young guns and winning 2 times in a month’s span.
  • Jason Day 16-1 – It wasn’t that long ago that Jason Day was the #1 golfer in the world. He had a down 2017 season due to some off the course issues with his family. He has looked better in 2018 and already won the Farmer’s Insurance Open. Here’s my issue with Jason Day this week/this year. He has been carried by an extremely hot putter. He ranks #1 in Strokes Gained Putting. On the other hand he ranks 185th on tour in Strokes Gained Approach to the Green and has had 5 consecutive tournaments in which he’s lost strokes in this category. This is a good indicator that he’s not hitting his irons well and while he’s a superb player around the greens, it just seems like too much needs to go right for him to have a chance to win this week.
  • Rickie Fowler 18-1 – For the first time in a few years Rickie actually comes into the Masters a little under the radar and not feeling as much pressure as years past. This is in large part due to Tiger’s return and the other top end golfers winning this year. With that said, it’s been a bit of a disappointing year for Rickie. He doesn’t have a top 10 since January and has had a few “blow-up” Saturdays and Sundays to play himself out of contention. It’s hard for me to imagine he’s finally going to put it all together and deal with the pressure of a back 9 at Augusta. After all Rickie has never won a major.w
  • Jon Rahm 18-1 – Rahm is similar to Jason Day. He has a win under his belt but has struggled with his irons for most of the year. He’s ranked 137th in SG Approach and has been a very strong putter throughout the season. The reason I have some optimism for Rahm is he is so dynamic off the tee… ranking second in SG Off the Tee. He is one of the best drivers of the golf ball on tour and could feast on these Par 5’s throughout the week. Rahm is similar to Bubba in the way he wears his emotions on his sleeve. If he starts slow it could spell trouble (see his 2017 US Open), but if he starts out fast, I see him competing on the back 9 on Sunday.
  • Sergio Garcia 25-1 – I can’t recall any golfer going from such a villain to beloved by golf fans like Sergio has. People used to hate him when Tiger was in his prime. Now after finding love in his life and winning the Masters, who doesn’t like Sergio!? He recently had his first child and named her Azalea after the beautiful flowers all around Augusta National and name of the 13th hole on the course. The guy even wore his green jacket in his wedding dance last July which is absolute swag! He’s one of the best ball-strikers on tour from tee to green and has clearly shown he can now win at Augusta. I bet a lot of people think he’ll be content after last years win and won’t compete, but I actually have high hopes for Sergio this year. I’m not sure I would bet on him to win, but at only $8.6k on DraftKings he makes for a great play.
  • Paul Casey 25-1 – Another guy who has a pristine track record at Augusta, finishing T6, T4, and 6th the last 3 years. He’s also of the Sergio mold as one of the best ball-strikes on tour. Casey ranks second on the tour in SG Tee to Green. I can’t look past the fact that Casey has won 1 time (a few weeks ago at Valspar) over the last several years. He’s also never won a major, but if Sergio could do it last year… maybe it’s Casey’s turn this year?

Now for my list of sleepers:

Hideki Matsuyama 35-1: One of my favorite golfers on tour. People who know me well may remember back in 2015 when I attended TPC Boston, I was following Hideki around just yelling “Hidekiiiiii” anytime he’d walk by me. He gave me a puzzled look like why is this random American fan cheering for me… little did he know I’m just a huge fan of his game! This was back when he was far less known by golf fans. Hideki has had a slow start to 2018. Part of this was due to a wrist injury he developed back in February at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He returned a few weeks ago and while he didn’t have any top finishes in his 2 starts, he’s looked healthy. Hideki’s last 3 finishes at Augusta are T11, 7th, and 5th. His biggest downfall this year has been his off the tee game as he’s currently ranked 133rd on tour in SG Off the Tee.  This is a far cry from his 26th ranking last year. Other then that, all his strengths remain between his exceptional short game and strong iron play. Hideki has long been known for his strong game off the tee and I expect him to find it this week. I’m projecting a top 5 finish for Hideki and will have an outright bet on him to win.  Let’s not forget this is still the 6th ranked golfer in the world. 

Alex Noren 40-1/Tyrell Hatton 55-1: I’m grouping these 2 guys together since they both primarily play on the European Tour (although Noren has played in the US a lot more this year). They’re both of the same mold. Great Tee-to-Green game and can putt lights out if their putters get hot. I expect to see both of these names on the European Ryder Cup team come September. Both made their first appearance at Augusta last year, and missed the cut. Now with a year of experience on the course and good current form, they are worth keeping an very close eye on.

Adam Scott 55-1: A former green jacket winner, Scott has underwhelmed over the last year or so. Scott won the green jacket back in 2013 with an anchored putter (long putter), they have since prohibited these on the tour and Scott’s putting is the source of his downfall over the last year. It is EXTREMELY painful to watch him putt sometimes. I truthfully think I’m better than him standing over a 5 foot putt. Still I look at guys like Rory and Paul Casey who have had their own problems putting, and both found a way to catch a hot putter and win this year. Scott has the length off the tee, ball-striking skills, and is a former winner… if he somehow gets a hot putter this week, then watch out.

Gary Woodland 125-1: Woodland has missed his last 2 cuts at Augusta and never finished better than 22nd at a major. On the reverse side, he’s playing the best golf of his career, winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open back in February, and his best major finish (22nd) came back in August in his last major, the PGA Championship. I do worry about his around the green play, as he’s 167th on tour in Stroke Gained Around the Green. Still all the other aspects of his game are checking out as good-to-great between his driving, putting, and iron play. He’s one of the longer hitters on tour and could do damage on the Par 5’s. At the very least he’s worth some good exposure on DraftKings at a price of $7,200.

My prediction to win the Green Jacket is…

Rory

Photo Credit: USA Totday

Winner: Rory McIlroy

Rory has 4 straight top 10’s at Augusta. Some people would say “he never was truly in contention” but top 10’s at The Masters are nothing to scoff at. I think he really found something in his putting a few weeks ago at The Arnold Palmer Invitational. If he can just have a solid to good putting week, there’s no reason he won’t be in the running come Sunday afternoon. On top of that, if I had to pick one guy to step up and make a birdie at a Par 5 on the tour I’m picking Rory or Dustin Johnson.  Rory will use his distance off the tee to his advantage and feast on the four Par 5’s. Although he hasn’t won a major since 2014, we’ve seen him close on the back 9 at a major before. The only major Rory hasn’t won is The Masters and I think that’s added motivation this week. Rory will be the one to receive the green jacket from Sergio come Sunday night and finally complete the Career Grand Slam in winning all 4 majors!