In the first of two antepost previews, golf expert Ben Coley digs out the best long-term wagers for the Masters and the PGA Championship.
With just five months separating the unique 2020 Masters and what will hopefully be a more traditional renewal in April, one of the key questions to answer is just how much stock we should place in Dustin Johnson's November romp. My answer is befitting of an antepost golf preview, in which the only certainty is uncertainty itself. I just don't really know.
You could argue for instance that any Masters debutant has had the chance to get a look around Augusta and bank some valuable experience without the pressures brought by patrons; that they got a look at Augusta's greens and their famous contours, without having to deal with them at their most fearsome. You could argue that anyone who played well on their first visit can put that very recent experience to use on their second.
But you could also argue that those who made their debut in November didn't get the full Masters treatment, and should therefore still be considered debutants, or at least have their records marked with an asterisk. How would they have fared with huge crowds, and greens less receptive? Will we even have both those Masters norms back in April?
Such confusion, combined with the fact that we'll get 10 or even 11 or even perhaps 12 places come the spring, makes this particular renewal less appealing than it might have been. What really do we gain by betting now? The Masters will likely be won by a member of the elite, and in the main they're priced cautiously. Take Xander Schauffele at 20/1. He might start 16/1, maybe even 14/1, but is that edge worth it for half as many places? Probably not - given that he could just as well stard 25/1 or even 33s.
HARRIS ENGLISH, however, stands out a mile as the exception - an elite player with the potential to have his odds slashed in the coming months - and rates the best bet I can see at this stage.
Up to a career-high 29th in the world rankings, there's absolutely no doubt that English is a better player now than he was even in 2013, when winning twice on the PGA Tour. Only the sport's fixation with winning undermines that argument: by any and every other metric, he has never been better. And by some, including DataGolf's world rankings, he's in fact a good deal better than his current position. They have him eighth.
Some will roll their eyes - how can a player without a win in seven years be the world's eighth-best player - and I understand that. But English's strokes-gained data, i.e. scoring relative to field and field strength, puts him at an elite level - he was sixth last year in strokes-gained: total on the PGA Tour, splitting Tyrrell Hatton and Daniel Berger. The only missing piece of the jigsaw is to end the winless run, and I see no good reason why he can't do that at one of his favourite early-season stops like the Sony Open or over at Torrey Pines.
Whatever the specifics, I don't see his form tailing off - English was always meant to be world-class, and now he's showing it. Yet because his progression is so steep, and his career path so wild, he's a rare example of a player who continues to be underestimated - certainly at elite level. Towards the end of 2020, he was shorter in the betting for the Mayakoba Classic than the likes of Tony Finau and Viktor Hovland, third only to Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka. It may not be long before he graduates to that position regardless of the stature of the event.
Put simply, if English carries on doing what he's been doing for over a year now, he'll start much shorter than 100/1. Whether he goes off in the 25-33/1 bracket will depend entirely on whether he wins, but a mere continuation of his consistency will make three-figure prices, even the general 80/1, appear generous in the extreme.
For me, that will just about do - which is a good thing, because he doesn't really have any form at Augusta. A missed cut on debut was followed by a share of 44th, and on neither occasion did he tick off a sub-70 round which has so often pointed to future Masters success. That isn't ideal. But nor does form several years ago tell us much about the here and now, and English - fourth in the US Open, remember - is operating towards the very top of the sport.
To my eye, he plainly has a much better chance than his price, and I for one am totally convinced by his renaissance. That's why he's the bet here at 100/1, and I would strongly advise considering him for all four majors. The fact that he's 50/1 for the PGA Championship, which is later in the year and harder to win owing to a stronger field, further underlines that the prices on offer for a tournament which is less than four months away are behind the times.
In all likelihood this discrepancy is based solely on his Augusta course form, and it's true that standard, pre-tournament calculations are likely to see him overlooked. All of the key trends, which pointed to Johnson if not some of those closest behind, are against English. That's why I likely won't be siding with him at much shorter odds come the spring, but I do believe he will be much higher up the betting. At the prices on offer he has to be backed.
In this major above all others, I want to believe any antepost selection is a realistic title contender. That might sound obvious, but in the Open and the US Open there's mileage in taking some massive odds and essentially playing for the places, even if they're limited to six. So, while the standout 300/1 offered about Carlos Ortiz is too big and the 250/1 by the name of CT Pan does catch the eye after he was seventh last month, these are players we might be able to back at similar odds with more places and with better, more relevant evidence to consider first.
With the top of the market so compact, that leads me to SUNGJAE IM who is on offer at a general 40/1 despite finishing a gallant second to Johnson on debut.
In part that reflects a scepticism, which I share, as to the relevance of November's form. It also highlights the robustness at the very front of the betting, which is pretty much a closed shop. For someone like Im to go off below 20/1 for the Masters he'd need to have won twice at least in the interim, and probably very close to the start.
Still, he is a player who I firmly believe has an ideal game for Augusta. Im's iron play in particular is awesome when he's firing, and he's confident and creative around the greens - which you need to be. Clearly, he was not overawed by his debut here, just as he coped brilliantly with his first look at Royal Melbourne, and these wonderful courses appear to bring out the best in his wise-beyond-its-years game.
In that respect he reminds me of Jordan Spieth, who was second on his Augusta debut before winning it in a canter the following April. And though there are some exceptions, in general those who turn up and get to grips with the course at the first time of asking have enjoyed success upon returning - Spieth and Jason Day lately, but even someone like Dan Pohl once upon a time. Fuzzy Zoeller, famously the last debut Masters winner, performed better than most defending champions when 19th.
I can see Im building a brilliant Augusta CV over the years, and would argue that he should in fact be better suited by the firmer conditions we ought to be able to rely on. Increased media and fan presence is hard to be as certain of but it wouldn't unduly worry me as he's already risen to the challenges he's faced in a brilliant young career.
Im is also in the process of and may now have completed buying a house in Atlanta, Georgia, where he says he feels comfortable. Hopefully then he'll be all the more at home and, given his relentless schedule, there must be a good chance he's at least done enough to underline his credentials by the time April comes around.
The fact that he's so well suited to the events played in Florida is just about enough to convince me to side with him now at the price on offer. There is certainly a good chance he arrives as one of the world's form players and in that scenario, people will convince themselves that November's runner-up finish is a strong pointer. If it proves to be, he's a definite contender to have DJ presenting him with a green jacket.
As with the US Open, which will be previewed in part two on Wednesday December 23, we have a PGA Championship venue which has hosted just one previous major - but in the fairly recent past. It's approaching nine years since Rory McIlroy won by eight shots at Kiawah Island, and the form itself probably isn't worth much.
One of the interesting features of the event was the impact of the wind on the Ocean Course, designed by Pete Dye. In rounds one, three and four, conditions were decidedly playable, with soft fairways and greens playing right into Rory's hands. In round two, he shot 75 and just one player - Vijay Singh - broke 70. Clearly, if the wind does pick up the dynamics of this course can suddenly shift.
Beforehand, everyone had been talking about the advantage the big-hitters possessed. Ernie Els listed Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and, perhaps oddly, Tiger Woods, as 'super-long bombers' who were at a massive advantage. He could so easily have listed McIlroy, and could so easily have claimed to be bang on. And yet second went to David Lynn, with Carl Pettersson, Ian Poulter and Blake Adams in the frame, and Ben Curtis, Tim Clark and Graeme McDowell not much further behind.
This far out I would keep an open mind and instead focus on some of the other small, potentially notable pointers provided by that renewal. First, there was a strong Carolinas flavour to the leaderboard - Kiawah Island is in South Carolina, not far up the coast from Harbour Town. Rory had already won at Quail Hollow in neighbouring North Carolina, Lynn almost did so a year after this (lost play-off), and Pettersson was a long-time North Carolina resident who won two of his five PGA Tour titles across the two states.
Harbour Town might offer some kind of clue itself, all of which points to Webb Simpson. The former US Open winner took the RSM Classic there last June, having previously been beaten in a play-off by McDowell. He's held the lead deep into the final round at Quail Hollow and, born in North Carolina, his first PGA Tour win came at the Wyndham Championship in his home state.
Then there's the fact that Simpson is a former winner of the PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass, surely Dye's best-known work. Adam Scott, himself a PLAYERS champion, said the courses were "in some ways, very similar" and McIlroy has of course since gone on to win what some call the fifth major.
Put all of that together, and Simpson becomes really interesting, especially given that he's a former major champion who more recently has four top-10s in his last 10 starts at the highest level. All that being said, I didn't think 33/1 offered us very much to work with, and he's very likely to be the same kind of price with a few more places tagged on when May comes around. I wouldn't be comfortable recommending him now at anything short of 50/1.
Dustin Johnson has a strong book of relevant form which now extends to TPC River Highlands, where he won the Travelers last summer. Also a winner at Crooked Stick, he so famously ought to have won this event at Whistling Straits, so his Dye record is exceptional, he's from South Carolina, and 11/1 could look generous as he goes out in search of the third leg in a potential career grand slam.
He'd be the one at the front of the market, but without knowing the forecast or how the Masters has played out, my selections at this stage are SI WOO KIM and VIKTOR HOVLAND.
Kim has clearly benefited from joining Claude Harmon's stable and should perhaps have won the Wyndham for a second time back in August. Like Simpson and McIlroy, he's a winner at Sawgrass and if we bring in Harbour Town, he lost a play-off there in 2018 when again he really ought to have added a third title to his collection only to be mugged by Satoshi Kodaira.
It's undoubtedly been a frustrating couple of years then, but with that Sawgrass win, 14 rounds of par or better to his name at River Highlands, plus a very decent 20th at Crooked Stick all to his name, Kim has built up an eye-catching Dye record - and he's also been a persistent threat in the Carolinas.
His record in this major amounted to very little prior to 2020, when he finished 13th at Harding Park, and now that he's evidently fit and firing again, this huge talent can continue to climb the world rankings. He hinted in the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills and before that when landing the PLAYERS that that he's capable of winning a major, and 200/1 is worth taking in anticipation of a very good 2021.
For very good reasons he was shorter for the last PGA Championship, and I can see people cottoning on to his Dye form if he reaches this one in good shape. The fact he'll get to visit Harbour Town just prior to this, and that he has a good record at Augusta and has gone really well in the season-opening events on the west coast, all leads me to believe he could be on many a shortlist in May.
Hovland should also flourish over the coming months and prove himself a key part of the European Ryder Cup side come September, all being well. He signed off the year with an excellent win in Mexico followed by a top-five straight off the plane in Dubai, and having been forced to sit out the Masters will be raring to go when major season comes around.
Like English, he's tempting to some degree for all four, as so far he's made all four major cuts - two as an amateur - and appears ready to go on and contend throughout 2021.
Why here? First and foremost the PGA is traditionally the most open to a first-time winner, and so often it's the easiest of the four - or else the least complicated - which lends itself to a younger champion. Hovland would of course be following Collin Morikawa and one of the overriding memories of his win at Harding Park was how many youngsters were in the mix coming down the stretch.
Then there's the fact that the greens here at Kiawah Island are paspalum, described in places as a 'cousin' of bermuda but certainly distinctive. Hovland's two PGA Tour wins so far have both come on such greens, and while I wouldn't go overboard with that information - both were pretty weak fields and he wound up the best player in the mix on each occasion - it does at least offer hope that he can get to grips with these pretty easily.
With his improvement around the greens well-documented courtesy of work with Pete Cowen, there's no limit to how far Hovland can go and he can prove a major player in all four majors, the Olympics and the Ryder Cup in what could be a memorable campaign. At this stage, however, he makes most sense as a potential winner of the PGA.
Posted at 1700 GMT on 16/12/20
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