Golf’s First Major is Finally Here…Things Just Got Interesting

Updated: August 3, 2020 – Justin Thomas is back atop the golf world with the No. 1 ranking back in his grasp. When looking ahead to the 2020 PGA Championship this week at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, it makes sense for him to lead the odds board considering his scorching hot play not only this season but particularly since the PGA Tour returned from its hiatus.
 

 
Perhaps tweaked by Thomas’ hot play is Bryson DeChambeau, who was attempting to make his own claim as “best golfer in the world.” DeChambeau has seven top 10s in his last nine events played, including a win at the Rocket Mortgage Classic earlier this month. That he missed the cut at the Memorial Tournament a couple weeks later or finished T30 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational ahead of the PGA Championship is of little matter.

 
And then there’s Jon Rahm, who took over the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings after winning the Memorial only to cede it back to Thomas on Sunday. He may not be on the same kind of run as DeChambeau, but his year has been solid for him with four top fives and two second-place finishes along with his victory a couple weeks ago.
 
As a result of Sunday’s action, Thomas and DeChambeau are ahead of the field at 10-1 to win the only major championship of the 2019-20 season, according to William Hill Sportsbook. They’re situated just barely ahead of Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy, while Tiger Woods saw his odds fall after a couple weeks off down to 11th of the 150+ competitors this week.
 
Here’s a look at the updated odds for the 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park from Aug. 6-9, via William Hill Sportsbook.
 
· Justin Thomas: 10-1

· Bryson DeChambeau: 10-1

· Brooks Koepka: 11-1

· Rory McIlroy: 11-1

· Jon Rahm: 14-1

· Patrick Cantlay: 18-1

· Dustin Johnson: 20-1

· Xander Schauffele: 22-1

· Collin Morikawa: 22-1

· Webb Simpson: 25-1

· Tiger Woods: 28-1

· Rickie Fowler: 35-1

· Tony Finau: 35-1

· Tyrrell Hatton: 40-1

· Hideki Matsuyama: 40-1

· Daniel Berger: 40-1

· Gary Woodland: 40-1

· Viktor Hovland: 40-1

· Patrick Reed: 45-1

· Justin Rose: 50-1

· Jordan Spieth: 50-1

· Tommy Fleetwood: 50-1

· Matthew Fitzpatrick: 50-1

· Adam Scott: 50-1
 
Things will continue to get interesting in pro golf over the next few weeks. A World Golf Championship came first, last week in Memphis. Then follows the PGA Championship in less than a week, and the Tour playoffs and the U.S. Open after that. After a month and a half of play since golf’s return, who is best positioned to make a run?
 
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): It feels like we’ve seen brilliance and B.S. from each of the game’s best players. Justin Thomas blew a big lead late. Jon Rahm didn’t get it going until the Memorial. Rory seems stuck in neutral. Bryson was cruising along until making a 10. Koepka is hampered by a bum knee and his buddy DJ is working through a dinged up back. So … I look elsewhere! And Xander Schauffele is the man. He has played tough golf courses as well as anyone not named Koepka the last few years, and he’s been very solid since he returned. Get your betting slips in, folks!
 
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: I’d say Rory. He likes summer golf. He’s due. He’s playing well, at times. He’s won PGA Championships twice before. Tanned, rested, ready — Rory.
 
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@alanshipnuck): And don’t forget that Rory won the Match Play at Harding Park! He’s been a forgotten man lately — I, too, think that changes as we get to the meat of the season.
 
Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): If anything, these past few weeks have reminded us how futile it is to predict in this game. But I’ll bite … Tony Finau! So close these last two starts, and now with his Tour-leading 30th Top 10 in last few years. New caddie on his bag, and a swing tweak to add even more distance. If this guy isn’t due, I don’t know who is.
 
John Wood, Tour caddie: Collin Morikawa. He’s just ALWAYS there. He’s as brilliant a ballstriker as there is in the game today, seems unflappable, and played his collegiate golf across the bay from Harding Park. I know someone this good can’t fly under the radar, but outside of those big names mentioned above, he’s as good a bet as any.
 
Tony Finau, who split with his longtime caddie and now has his swing coach, Boyd Summerhays, on the bag, had an excellent week at the 3M, finishing T3, three shots behind winner Michael Thompson. But the week also represented another missed opportunity for Finau, who now has 30 top-10 finishes since his first and only Tour win, in 2016. Do you suspect his Sunday struggles are more physical or mental?
 
Zak: There is nothing — NOTHING! — wrong with the physical version of Tony Finau. So I’d guess there’s something mentally he needs to check off before getting it done. I think he tipped that off by changing up his caddie situation. He knows he’s damn good and now he’s going to make moves on it. I suspect he gets it done very soon.
 
Bamberger: It must be really hard for Tony to make a caddie change. They ate so many meals together, reviewed so many shots together, came up on Tour together. That he could make the move shows a mentality we have not seen on Sundays. I’d have to think the struggles are more mental than physical. Tiger would say the same. I think his next five years will be better than his last five. That’s asking a lot.
 
Sens: The caddie change tells you everything you need to know about where Finau himself thinks he needs a boost. That’s a psychological change, not a physical one. He’s looking to sharpen the edges around the great physical arsenal he already has.
 
Shipnuck: You have to remember that Finau came from nothing, and that he has an entire Brady Bunch of kids. It’s easy to imagine that his first few years on Tour he was happy to finish in the top 10, collect a big check, secure his job and take care of his family. Now he needs to find an entirely different approach. That’s not easy for such a gentle giant.
 
Wood: It’s timing. Once he crosses the line in a big one, he’ll tell himself, “That wasn’t that hard.” I think he may be trying to do too much to answer all the doubters on Sunday, rather than just being Tony Finau. I know he lacks nothing to win more. I saw him up close at the Ryder Cup in France, as well as really up close at the President’s Cup in Melbourne. There aren’t many tougher places to play than a team event on the road, and he had the goods there. Once he realizes he just has to be who he is and not something more, he’ll start winning. A lot.
 

 
Another sport — baseball — has returned, like golf, with no fans. But you wouldn’t know it from watching some of the coverage: With an assist from augmented reality, Fox has incorporated digital spectators and canned crowd noise into its coverage. Would golf coverage benefit from fake fans?
 
Zak: For some reason, I hadn’t pondered this until now. I’m going to say no, because touchdowns are touchdowns and three-pointers are three-pointers. But can someone on the tech side decipher the importance of a 71st hole par putt from eight feet? I’m going to guess no, and hope that golf just stays away from it.
 
Bamberger: I hope not. Those major-league games would feel less empty at minor-league parks. Nobody is being fooled. At least golf has enough sense not to try to fool us.
 
Sens: As someone who watches a good deal of sports with the volume off, I can’t say I’ve missed the spectators much at all this year. Definitely not to the point where I feel the need to hear piped in cries of “You da man” during the closing stretches on a Sunday.
 
Shipnuck: I definitely missed the crowd at Memorial — can you imagine the bedlam that would have ensued on that great 18th hole amphitheater with the back-to-back bombs by Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa? It was hard not to feel a little cheated watching at home. But overall, I’ve enjoyed the pure, uncluttered telecasts.
 
Wood: God. No. Please. You won’t find a bigger baseball fan than me, and I cannot stand the fake crowd noise and the cardboard cutouts. It’s contrived and phony. I would much rather be able to really hear the game, cursing and all.
 
While the PGA Tour resumed play last month, the LPGA Tour kicks off its restart at the Drive On Championship on Friday. What do you think the LPGA has learned from the PGA Tour’s resumption and what storyline should we be tracking as the women return?
 
Zak: The LPGA has learned (best it can) how to move about from tournament to tournament. Mike Whan told a small group of media how valuable it was to him and his staff that they could call up PGA Tour execs for insight into how to make the roaming circus happen. I anticipate they nail it as well as the Tour has. That being said, Whan said straight up, “If we can’t play pro-ams, the LPGA is going to have some challenges.” I know it has little to do with who wins and loses, but that’s a storyline worth tracking. That tour is better off when its members play with fans to derive sponsorship value. Can it do it safely?
 
Bamberger: That’s a good point, Sean. The mechanics of moving and staying healthy are so important — the single-most important thing, really. The LPGA — along with this website and Golf Channel and various other outlets — have to do a better job of telling the stories of the players on the women’s tour. If we don’t know the players, we don’t care about what they do. Wisely or not, we seem to care a great deal about Bryson DeChambeau and his exploits, on parking lots, near course fences, in the gym, on the tee, driver in hand. But the Korda sisters make much better swings.
 
Sens: I don’t know that this will leap out as a storyline, but it’s certainly a selling point for the LPGA: with all the issues surrounding runaway distance the PGA Tour, the way it has made the game more one-dimensional, the way it has made great courses increasingly obsolete, the LPGA offers a refreshing antidote. You get to watch players hit a wider variety of shots on courses that are playing more closely to the way they were designed to play. A traditionalist’s delight.
 
Shipnuck: The key takeaway is how much vigilance is needed, from the players as well as their inner circle. The folks on Tour were a bit cavalier at the outset of the restart, which manifested in all the forced withdrawals at Hartford. Recognizing their season was in jeopardy, the players and other stakeholders quickly found religion. The LPGA has no margin for error, so total buy-in is required from the outset. As for storylines, the Bryson-ification of the PGA Tour has only made more plain the joys of watching LPGA players take apart courses with finesse, precision and strategy, not caveman power.
 
Wood: They are in for a difficult time I’m afraid. They are coming back while the PGA Tour is about to start playing big events. World events and playoffs and majors galore, and other sports, namely basketball and baseball, are coming back as well. I agree that they’ll need to play pro-ams to engage more with fans. They’re great for the PGA Tour as well, but not as important as they are for the LPGA.
 
Ernie Els jumped into the distance debate this week, saying that neither equipment nor the length of courses need amending. “We need a serious premium on accuracy,” Els said. “Make the Tour rough knee high, fairways fast and firm, which is fair for all players.” Agree?
 
Zak: I can sense a slight exaggeration from Ernie, but his point remains. Knee-high rough is not the answer, nor is calf-high rough. At least not week-in and week-out. I had multiple Tour caddies explain the differences between 3M and Memorial setups this week. While they all tended to believe it was a bit extreme, the firmness of the fairways and greens coupled with longer rough and some wind were the exact recipe for testing the world’s best. Those are all more reasonable solutions than just letting the grass grow and grow and grow.
 
Bamberger: Only with the F&F part. The game lacks balance now. There’s too much emphasis on the tee shot. It’s certainly not the players fault. But foot-high rough doesn’t make golf more interesting, it makes it less interesting. We want to see all manner of shots, including the recovery shot. Tiger became Tiger on the basis of his recovery game, his iron play, his driving game, his chipping game. His everything.
 
Sens: I agree to a point. Problem is, there comes a point where defending through course conditions alone leads to flat-out goofy setups, and then you’re not making it more fair for anyone. At that point is where I start to think: rolling back the ball is the better long-term solution.
 
Wood: Of course, he’s correct. I would love to see firm fairways, hard greens, deep rough every single week. But It’s not going to happen. There’s no way for tournaments to collude to make course setups more difficult, with more emphasis on hitting fairways. And here’s why: the tournaments are in competition with each other to attract players. When a player is choosing a schedule, they’re just like anyone who plays golf: a major factor in deciding where they play is choosing someplace they enjoy. They know a handful of times a year, namely U.S. Opens, the Masters, they’re going to have to play courses with less room for error. But week-in, week-out, they won’t do it. And to be honest with you, I don’t think the networks would enjoy it either. Long drives sell. The ratings just simply wouldn’t be as good if the guys who can hit it 350 are hitting 4-irons off every tee.
 
Shipnuck: John’s point is well-taken, and amplify’s Michael’s: the setup Ernie is advocating sounds dreadfully boring. Who wants to watch the best players chipping out sideways? It’s fun at a few select majors, but every week would be a snooze. And the problem with resting everything on firm/fast setups is that it’s an outdoor game, and rain showers are common in the spring and summer. To test players with the current benign Tour setups we need courses that are 9,000-10,000 yards, but that requires an obscene amount of land, water and maintenance hours. The only real solution is obvious: throttle back the equipment. But Ernie and many others are paid to subvert that point.
 
During the first round of the 3M Open, Sangmoon Bae hit his drive on the par-5 18th in the water, hit his approach into the water, then holed out from 250 yards. What’s the most ghastly-to-great hole you’ve ever witnessed?
 
Zak: Happy Gilmore at the Tour Championship? Wasn’t there myself but it certainly comes to mind. Fred Couples on the bank at Augusta? Tiger Woods left of 16 green? Apologies for taking the obvious answers.
 
Bamberger: Interesting question, because it so often goes the other way. I’d have to say that five-footer JVD made to get himself into the Open playoff at Carnoustie in 1999. After the trauma he endured to get there, that putt was amazing. But Spieth at Royal Birkdale, from the driving range after that crazy slice, has to be up there, too.
 
Sens: Great real world example, Michael. But as with so many things in life, the finest illustration comes from Bugs Bunny.
 
Wood: Bill Haas, 18th hole, Tour Championship playoff vs Hunter Mahan. Sigh. Damn you Bill. And of course Spieth at the 13th at Birkdale, vs. Kuchar. Damn you, Jordan. (Laughing, of course)
 
Shipnuck: We feel your pain, Woody. One time at Cruden Bay I was playing with my friend Matt Ginella and on a drivable par-4 he blew his tee shot off the planet, declared it lost, reteed … and lipped-out the next one. Routine tap-in par.
 
 
This article originally appeared on Golf.com.
 
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PGA Championship 2020: Data confirms the way tour pros play TPC Harding Park will look nothing like how average golfers struggle there daily

 

 
PC Harding Park’s debut as a major-championship venue may do more than showcase a venerable public track to the world and its greatest golfers. Instead, thanks to the current technology of statistics tracking, it may provide a telling—maybe even chilling—demonstration of just how wide the gap now exists between average golfers and the game’s elite.
 
Using data from Arccos, the GPS-sensor-based performance-tracking system, which has tracked more than 1,500 rounds played at TPC Harding Park, the evidence suggests that the average golfer, let’s say a 15-handicap, would have a best possible score at Harding Park that’s likely 23 shots worse than a tour pro’s average score. Stated another way, the best a 15-handicap might do playing from the 7,234-yard back tees at Harding Park would likely be 94. The last time elite professional golfers played rattle-bottom at TPC Harding Park, the average score was a shade less than 71.
 
Of course, given the current state of the choking rough surrounding TPC Harding Park’s narrow fairways and raised greens for the upcoming PGA Championship, that difference in practical terms likely would be even greater. Still, the data from Arccos suggests that how TPC Harding Park plays for regular Joes will not be how it’s navigated by touring pros. That’s not to say the world’s best players will find it a pushover. In fact, the last time it hosted an elite pro stroke-play event, the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, only 24 players finished the week under par. And that was when it was 150 yards shorter than it was for Tiger Woods’ playoff victory over John Daly.
 
Here’s how our numbers were developed: Arccos uses the data from every shot that every player using the company’s sensors hit during a round at TPC Harding Park. Through the company’s Arccos Caddie feature, strategies are developed by an artificial intelligence platform to recommend the best way for a particular player to attack a hole in order to shoot his or her lowest score. Through Arccos Caddie’s A.I. and machine learning, it might suggest an average hack would score lower on a long par 5 (for instance, Harding Park’s 607-yard fourth hole) by teeing off with a 3- or 5-wood because of a greater likelihood of playing the rest of the hole from the short grass.
 
Again, these 15-handicapper’s scores are likely the best of best-case scenarios (because the Arccos Caddie A.I. metric is calculating the way to play the hole that statistically leads to the lowest score, not the most likely way the hole would be played). In reality, especially with the PGA Championship penal setup, it gets uglier than a bar fight at 2 a.m. For example, on a hole like the 494-yard 12th, Arccos estimates that our average golfer would miss the fairway 53 percent of the time, not only bringing in to play the rough but out of bounds to the left that would see even a tiny pull bouncing down Lake Merced Boulevard. That quickly brings triple-bogey 7 into play. Even the recommended strategy of laying up with a 5-wood is going to miss the short grass a third of the time. The numbers also predict that Mr. Average’s 58-degree pitch from 72 yards falls short as often as it hits the green, landing in a greenside bunker that statistically he’s more likely to take four shots to get in the hole than he is to take two. So that best-case scenario of a 6 might become a worst-case scenario of a 10 without all that much going wrong.
 
Of course, even getting on the short grass at Harding Park doesn’t make it necessarily easy. Playing the same tees as the pros, there are par 4s that will require three shots for the average golfer to reach the green, and again, that’s in the best of circumstances where all three of the amateur’s shots find closely mown areas. That’s not counting the ninth and 12th holes, the two par 4s that are converted from their usual par 5 for the paying customers during the PGA Championship. In all, a typical 15-handicapper might find eight holes playing as three-shotters, where a tour player might take three to reach the green only once in his round, at that beastly fourth hole. Maybe.
 
The Arccos data shows a course that exacts a brutish toll from tee through the green on average players. Using Arccos’ proprietary strokes-gained metric, average golfers (compared to scratch players) were -4.2 strokes gained/driving, -5.4 strokes gained/approaching the green, -3.2 strokes gained/short game and -2.3 strokes gained/putting. The average score of all players (scratch, single-digits and 100-shooters) using Arccos at Harding Park was 89.3. (The average handicap across the 1,509 rounds recorded by Arccos was 12.3.)
 
The numbers suggest that under normal conditions TPC Harding Park’s challenge might be slightly greater on the approach shots than it is off the tee, but the rough might change that scenario. But buried in the numbers are some other oddities that show there is no letup at any point. According to the Arccos data, the average golfer is losing more than two strokes to a scratch player on short-game shots of less than 25 yards, and even losing almost a full stroke on putts from 10 feet or less.
 
Applying the strokes gained metric to individual holes reveals another stark separation point between average golfers and elite tour players. Based on the data, the three hardest holes for a typical golfer would be, in order of difficulty, the long par-5 fourth hole, the elevated green, par-3 third hole, and the 10th hole, which is a par 5 where a score of 5 would be a celebration for the average golfer and a consternation for the elite pro. Statistics from the 2005 WGC event showed the field averaged 4.7 shots on the 10th hole. Currently, however, the Arccos Caddie best-case scenario gives the average 15-handicapper a potential score of 5.8—if he or she hits the fairway. However, Arccos Caddie predicts that happens less than half the time, which naturally brings double bogey or worse into play.
 
But while the fourth, third and 10th holes were among the hardest for average golfers at TPC Harding Park, for elite pros those three holes likely will play much easier. In 2005, the 10th was the easiest, the fourth, even at 600-plus yards, was 16th hardest, and the third was the easiest of the four par 3s.
 

 
Looking at representative holes shows how elite power changes everything. For instance, on the par-3 17th, an average golfer might hit 5-iron, while a tour player would likely hit 8-iron. On the 12th hole, converted par 4 mentioned earlier with out of bounds down the left, the average golfer following the lead of Arccos Caddie’s artificial intelligence, plays a driver off the tee, a 5-wood layup and a 58-degree wedge third shot. By contrast, an elite professional would likely hit driver and then maybe as little as a 6- or 7-iron on to the green.
 
The 10th hole might provide the clearest illustration of how the tour game has lapped the average golfer’s game. From the same tee, the average golfer’s 233-yard drive would likely be nearly a football field short of a tour player’s bomb. And while the average golfer’s best strategy would be a 200-yard 5-wood to set up a 118-yard pitching wedge to the green, a tour player would reach the green in two not with a wood, but likely with a 4-iron or less. Arccos estimates the absolute best an average golfer could expect is a bogey while tour data from 2005 shows a scoring average of 4.7 with four times as many birdies and eagles as bogeys and doubles.
 
By contrast, what the PGA Tour statistics from 2005 also suggest is that the hardest holes for the pros will be those converted par 4s, the ninth and the 12th, each playing around 500 yards. Both were in the top five toughest holes back then and figure to be again for the PGA Championship.
 
Going through the entire round reveals even greater disparities. Based on Arccos Caddie’s recommended best-case strategy, our prototypical 15-handicap hits his approach shot with nothing shorter than a 7-iron on 15 of the 16 par 4s and par 3s and only hits wedges as approach shots when they’re the third shot on six of the par 4s. For a tour player, other than the two par 5s, the two converted par 4s and the 251-yard par-3 eighth hole, 13 approach shots might very well be 7-irons or less.
 
Of course, this entire assessment is theoretical. Things change with damp conditions where the rough eats golf balls and stifles aggressive play even before it starts. And when the chill wind creeps in over Lake Merced making 10 miles per hour feel like 30, trees change from scenery to sorcery, literally swallowing balls out of the sky. So, the actual scoring reality at TPC Harding Park will go beyond what any computer simulation can estimate. At that point, golf at a beefed up major championship venue like what awaits us this week isn’t a numbers game, it’s bloodsport.
 
“It’s a big boy golf course,” defending champion Brooks Koepka understated. “You look at the back nine there, starting on about 13, 14, it gets really interesting. I think those holes set up for quite a few disasters and some good golf.”
 
Maybe. But nowhere near as many disasters as the average golfer is likely to find.
 
 
By Mike Strachura
 
This article originally appeared on GolfDigest.com.

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