TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP BETTING PREVIEW
This week players head to East Lake Country in Atlanta, Georgia for the final event of the 2019/20 season, the Tour Championship.
This will be the 2nd year we see the Tour being played with a Starting Stroke Index, with FedEx Cup (FEC) Points Leader Dustin Johnson starting the tournament at -10. From there FEC Number 2 starts at -8, FEC Number 3 at -7, FEC Number 4 at -6 and Number 5 at -5. This then plummets down to those ranked 26th to 30th starting at Even (full list below).
How Much Do These Starting Strokes Matter?
The question this week is how much do these starting strokes matter. While I don’t love taking much from a four round sample, we can look to last year for an answer to this. Last year Rory McIlroy came in at 18 under par from starting position number 5 (-5) to win by 4 shots over Xander Schauffele, who started the week in position number 6 (-4). The two torched East Lake, shooting 13 and 10 under respectively, the two best rounds of the week.
The leader going into the Tour Championship Justin Thomas finished 3rd at 13 under while Patrick Cantlay, who started in 2nd didn’t manage to finish in the top 20.
I made the case last year and I will do it again this year, that the market is far overvaluing these starting strokes. But before breaking down the plays, let’s preview East Lake Country Club.
First thing first, here are 30 players who’ve advanced to the TOUR Championship and their starting scores.
This will be important for our later analysis:
-10 Dustin Johnson
-8 Jon Rahm
-7 Justin Thomas
-6 Webb Simpson
-5 Collin Morikawa
-4 Daniel Berger, Harris English, Bryson DeChambeau, Sungjae Im, Hideki Matsuyama
-3 Brendon Todd, Rory McIlroy, Patrick Reed, Xander Schauffele, Sebastian Munoz
-2 Lanto Griffin, Scottie Scheffler, Joaquin Niemann, Tyrrell Hatton, Tony Finau
-1 Kevin Kisner, Abraham Ancer, Ryan Palmer, Kevin Na, Marc Leishman
E Cameron Smith, Viktor Hovland, Mackenzie Hughes, Cameron Champ, Billy Horschel
East Lake Country Club is a traditional, Par-70 layout measuring 7346 (long!) with only two Par 5s. This is absolutely one of my favorite stops and it is unlikely scoring will get out of control like we have seen at many post Suspension PGA Stops.
East Lake has been the host since 2004 and winning scores since 2010 have ranged from -8 to -13. It is fair to say that while the winner this week will have a total score much higher due to their head start, that range for their 72-hole score will be what is needed to be victorious.
This Donald Ross designed course’s main defense is its lightning fast Bermuda greens which are pitched back to front with run-offs into collection areas in play for errant approaches. Bermuda putting specialists can be targeted as the grain of Bermuda has an effect on putts that is unlike its counterparts, Bent and Poa. While Approach is always a component of winners each week, East Lake absolutely demands accuracy off the tee as well.
Fairways are surrounded by trees and thick Bermuda, making errant drives extremely penal. This isn’t to say Approach isn’t important. Only Bill Haas in 2011 has won at East Lake without being in the top 9 in Greens in Regulation. Simply stated, the winner here will likely be the guy striking it the best who makes a few putts.
East Lake is a rare course where winners have actually gained more strokes on average per round Off the Tee than they have on Approach. Therefore, this week I will be equally weighing SG: OTT and SG:APP in my model. Fairways Gained and Greens Gained will be added to round out the importance of striking.
The Tour Championship Outright Plays
⛳ TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYS ⛳
Starting Strokes Count
|Total Units Invested
The Play – Tour Championship 2024
If the market is over valuing starting strokes, fading the top of the market is the only place to start. This number implies that either DJ or Rahm win this tournament a little over 50% of the time. Despite how well these two are playing, there is no way that is the true percentage.
The form of these guys cannot be argued against. DJ has a 2nd, 1st, 2nd in his last 3 events while Rahm has two wins in his last 5 starts. They both specifically excel off the tee and I don’t see an end to that. However, there are chinks in both of their armour.
For DJ, he is riding the wave of an extremely hot putter. He has gained 3, 5.4 and 6.8 strokes putting in his last three tournaments which is his best 3 tournament stretch of putting since 2015.
There are similarities between the greens of the last three courses, lack of undulation. TPC Harding Park, TPC Boston and to a certain extent Olympia Fields have no where near the undulating greens that DJ will see this week at East Lake.
Last time DJ saw difficult greens? The Memorial where he lost over 6 strokes with the flat stick.
His current ball striking will keep his floor relatively high but there are plenty of opportunities for guys starting below him to go low, if the putter wavers and for some reason his approach game isn’t there he will give up that 10 stroke lead quickly.
Whereas DJ can struggle with the putter, Rahm is consistently one of the best on the short stuff and is ultimately one of, if not THE best, combination of driver/putter on Tour which keeps his floor extremely high.
However, Rahm can get erratic with his irons. He has lost strokes on approach in two of his last four starts, which is a death sentence if you’re trying to win a golf tournament. Even when he does excel striking his irons, he rarely gains over 5 strokes on approach.
On a course where you have to find the right area of the greens to make birdies, any letdown from Rahm with his approach game will open the door to the rest of the field.
The Field – Tour Championship 2024
While this bet gives us exposure to the entire field, there are three guys that I like to take advantage of any wavering from DJ or Rahm that I will touch on briefly.
JT is one of the few players in the field who has the OTT game to go right along with Rahm and DJ. His approach game is second to none but where he has struggled recently is with the putter.
We have had a string of Bentgrass greens, JT’s least favorite surface statistically and are back on what the Southerner grew up on, Bermuda.
Consider how well he strikes the ball he is one 4 strokes gained putting performance away from duplicating what Rory did last year.
My son’s game is a perfect fit for East Lake. While short, he is one of the straightest drivers on Tour, a necessity this week, which will give the other best iron player in the world a chance to shine with his biggest strength.
Putting is always Morikawa’s biggest issue, but he has shown the ability to get it going, gaining 8 strokes putting en route to his PGA Championship win.
Another putting performance like that and Morikawa will be your 2020 Player of the Year.
I’ve raved about Berger enough in this space but even after a disappointing 25th last week, he still leads the Tour in total strokes gained since the restart. Another native Southerner will have no problem navigating the grain of the Bermuda surfaces and his all-around ball striking can be put on full display on a course like Eastlake.
That is it for this week’s write up. Thank you for reading! I am free all week for any questions and be sure to check out the FORE! Profit Podcast, my full card on Wednesday Afternoon and my live Q and A Wednesday Evening (pushed back to Thursday this week).
All of James Mazzola’s weekly content is available via @jmazzjd on Twitter.