BMW Championship Tournament Preview

2021 BMW Championship Tournament Preview: Everything You Need To Know About Caves Valley Golf Club Before Tee Off

On to leg #2 of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, as we head to Owings Mills, just outside of Baltimore, Maryland for the 2021 BMW Championship. Like THE NORTHERN TRUST, this event also rotates across multiple locations year to year, and this time around we’ll be greeted by a course brand new to the PGA Tour in Caves Valley Golf Club. Since we’re in Baltimore and I am who I am with my HBO biases, we are tee’d up for a week full of references to The Wire. I’m finding wire-to-wire winner props, I’m fading my blacklist guys still in the mix (Tringale, Wise) because a man’s got to have a code, I would have already faded Wallace because we know how that goes in Baltimore (he ejected out of THE NORTHERN TRUST early to avoid that fate here anyway), I’m gassing up Mav McNulty, and I’m gonna spam the hell out of Wire GIFs like this one if anyone disagrees with my picks on Twitter.

While new to the PGA Tour, this course has hosted championship events on the Senior Tour in 2017 & 2002, the LPGA International Crown Team Match Play event in 2014, the NCAA Women’s Championship in 2009, and the NCAA Men’s Championship in 2005. Fun fact, the Team Play event at the 2005 NCAA Men’s Championship was won by the University of Georgia, led by Kevin Kisner, Brendon Todd, and Chris Kirk. Just what we needed, another reminder that Kevin Kisner is a big #TeamGuy in the closing weeks before Ryder Cup rosters are finalized.

The 2020 BMW Championship was sick, the highlight event of 2020, and I’m actually really bummed we won’t be returning back to Olympia Fields for awhile after it delivered the most ideal finish golf fans could have asked for. A playoff in the FedEx Cup Playoffs between the two best players in the world which required a sweeping double-breaker 40+ footer from Dustin Johnson to fall for Birdie just to force the playoff with Jon Rahm. Rahm then buried a sweeping double-breaker 66 foot birdie of his own in the opening round of the playoff to secure the win. Rahm also overcame a mental lapse where he was assessed a stroke penalty for picking up his ball on the green without marking it. He shot an opening round 5-over 75 and was T60, trailing first round leader Hideki Matsuyama by 8 strokes after R1 before storming all the way back for the win.

I remember all of these details well because the BMW Championship was my biggest hit of the 2020 season, jumping on Jon Rahm live at +6600 after the opening round. I really don’t like to live bet, but after seeing this strategy pay off at this event a year ago and again with Xander at the Olympics, there’s a good chance I reserve a live bet placeholder on my card once again this week. Like Kasumigaseki, there’s a good degree of guess work at hand to handicap this Tom Fazio-designed course in Caves Valley Golf Club, having never hosted a PGA Tour event before, so waiting a round to see how the course is playing in a week that will already be starved for value with this loaded, limited field seems like the smart way to go.

As we head into the 2021 BMW Championship, I’m expecting some easy scoring conditions that will favor longer hitters, so I’ll be looking closely at Driving Distance, Ball Striking, Birdies or Better Gained, and performance on recent comp courses to project success again this week. Here’s a look at everything you can expect for this week’s action at Caves Valley.

Caves Valley Golf Club Course Specs

  • Yards: 7,542
  • Par: 72 (4x 3’s / 10x 4’s / 4x 5’s)
  • Grass: Bent (Fairways & Greens)
  • Architect: Tom Fazio
  • Comp Courses: Quail Hollow, Conway Farms, The Old White TPC, TPC Potomac, TPC Deere Run, Congressional, Shadow Creek, Kasumigaseki CC, Congaree
  • Past BMW Winners: Jon Rahm (20), Justin Thomas (19), Keegan Bradley (18), Marc Leishman (17), Dustin Johnson (16)
  • Hole By Hole Breakdown

Contrary to what we saw at Olympia Fields at last year’s event, the BMW Championship has typically been a low scoring affair, which has yielded more “Non-elite” winners than THE NORTHERN TRUST has in terms of FedEx Cup Playoff History. Prior to Jon Rahm’s victory at -4, Justin Thomas, Keegan Bradley, Marc Leishman, Dustin Johnson, and Jason Day had each won this event 5 straight years at -20 or better. Some of that may be due to the elevated talent in the field at this stage of the season, and some of that is due to these courses typically falling right around 7,200 years each year, which elite players are able to feast on. In any case, we should expect another week with winning scores approaching 20-under par, so making birdies will be key. The Top 10 players in Birdies or Better Gained in this field are Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Harris English, Cameron Smith, Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Kokrak, Jhonattan Vegas, and Patton Kizzire.

Typically when going into a course that no pros have seen before, I like to give a slight edge to the younger players who are typically disadvantaged by inexperience to the Tour veterans in the field around them who have seen and navigated usual Tour stops year to year. That at least was the theory going into the WGC Workday at The Concession and Palmetto Championship at Congaree and there seemed to be some merit to that with wins from young guns, Collin Morikawa and Garrick Higgo.

What we do know about the course this week, is that it’s moderate in length, has some narrow treelined fairways surrounded by bunkers that will put some pressure on tee shots, and features some drastic elevation changes, particularly on the Par 3s. There are reports that the crew is growing out the rough, but I don’t expect it to be any more penal than your average Tour stop. The two nines have distinct differences going out as a relatively flat “links” format with water surrounding several holes and coming in as a more woodland, treelined track with some steep elevation changes on several holes. Looking at the hole by hole flyovers, this layout seems to favor bombers as there are several fairway bunker and tree line hazards that can be carried with long drives. If the crew continues to tighten the fairways, this should continue to favor bombers if they go on to lay out this course so that even fairway-finders struggle to find fairways. The Top 10 players in Driving Distance this week are Bryson DeChambeau, Cameron Champ, Rory McIlroy, Jhonattan Vegas, Matthew Wolff, Jason Kokrak, Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, and Xander Schauffele.

Since this track is brand new to the PGA Tour, it will be as important as ever to reference comp course history, just as we had before the Olympics at Kasumigaseki CC. Coincidentally like that course, Caves Valley is also a pretty easy scoring tree-lined Tom Fazio design. The two best comps I could find to this course on the PGA Tour in terms of the layout, projected scoring difficulty, and premium on Distance OTT + Approach and Birdie-making are The Old White TPC (host of The Greenbrier) and Conway Farms (host of the 2017, 2015, and 2013 BMW Championship). Past winners on The Old White TPC and Conway Farms in the field this week include Joaquin Niemann, Xander Schauffele, Kevin Na, and Marc Leishman. In addition to these courses, I’m also looking at Congressional, TPC Potomac, and TPC Deere Run as other comparable undulated, treelined easier scoring venues. On the through line of Tom Fazio designs played for the first time ever this season, I’m also putting some stock into performance at Shadow Creek, Congaree, and Kasumigaseki. Wrap that altogether and the Top 10 players in terms of Comp Course History are Joaquin Niemann, Jason Kokrak, Sebastian Munoz, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Keegan Bradley, Harold Varner III, Marc Leishman, and Collin Morikawa

Key Stats

  • SG: APP / SG: BS
  • SG: OTT / Driving Distance
  • Birdies or Better Gained
  • SG: Putting (Bent)
  • Comp Course History

Stats To Avoid

  • Driving Accuracy
  • SG: ARG

I’m not going to over-complicate the modeling this week when we have a field of just 70 players and a ton of guess work needed as to how this course will actually play out. What I do know is that Driving Distance will be incredibly helpful here, as will the ability to make birdies and eagles, so I’ll be weighting both heavily in my model in addition to the always important SG: APP and SG: BS stats. I’ll also be looking at history on the aforementioned comp courses and putting on Bent grass. There are just two players who rate out above average in the field all 5 categories, my two favorite plays from last week, Jordan Spieth and Jason Kokrak. Focusing in on just the top three stat categories of the week this week in Approach, Driving Distance, and BoB Gained, there are just 5 players who rank Top 30 or better in the field: Xander Schauffele, Jhonattan Vegas, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, and Charley Hoffman.

The course’s best defense will likely be the Par 3s. Normally I would weight that heavily in my model with that being the case, however the reason the Par 3s are going to play difficult is due to severe elevation changes, which is not super common on the PGA Tour. That said, it’s really not more than just a footnote. We probably won’t see many birdies on the Par 3s this week and avoiding bogeys on them will be key to sustaining a decent round.

Spotlight: Joaquin Niemann

Joaquin Niemann wins by six at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier

There are a lot of signs pointing me in the direction of Joaquin Niemann this week. If scoring in this event is as easy as we expect, then that should open the door for the “Non-elite” class to contend here like we saw when Keegan Bradley and Marc Leishman won the BMW in 2018 and 2017. That’s not a knock on Niemann, I still think he’s an elite talent, but I do think it’s less a foregone conclusion that a player sub-20/1 wins this week as we expected before THE NORTHERN TRUST, and that opens the door for a player like Niemann who should open with some appealing odds.

We’ve talked about the Greenbrier connection, and beyond Niemann’s win there in 2019, he also finished T5 there the year prior. In addition to the Greenbrier, Niemann also finished T6 at Shadow Creek earlier this season, T10 at the John Deere Classic in his last appearance, and T17 in his lone appearance at the Quicken Loans in 2018 at TPC Potomac. Wrap that altogether and Niemann ranks #1 in SG: TOT, SG: T2G, SG: BS, and SG: OTT at Comp Courses.

When it comes to Joaquin Niemann, his success in 2021 has gone as far as his around the green game will let him. Fortunately for this week, I don’t expect SG: ARG to be an impediment to competing, as players should hit these greens in regulation at a high clip and when they don’t, the areas surrounding the greens seem to be pretty straightforward to navigate. It’s also encouraging that as of this writing through three rounds at THE NORTHERN TRUST, Niemann ranks 18th in the field SG: ARG, gaining 1.7 strokes so far. In any case, Niemann should be able to lean on his Distance advantage (14th Driving Distance) and Putting on Bent grass (16th) to remain in contention this week.

What To Look Out For at the 2021 BMW Championship

Jon Rahm Sinks a Big Putt to Win Playoff at the BMW Championship - The New  York Times

Whenever we see a course on the PGA Tour for the first time, the practice reps the players get in the week of the tournament become paramount to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of the course for the first time. Considering THE NORTHERN TRUST has pushed into a Monday finish, a majority of this field will not be seeing Caves Valley until Tuesday. That should in theory give an advantage to players like Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, and Collin Morikawa who are free to get a leg up on the field if they choose to arrive in Baltimore early. There’s nothing but quality players left in this field, but depending on where pricing falls, I don’t necessarily think this is a week you need to have exposure to a sub-20/1 player like we felt at THE NORTHERN TRUST last week.

Below is an early look at players I’ll be looking to target by projected pricing tier before odds and pricing are released on Monday (or Tuesday, who knows).

This week, I’m putting a premium on Driving Distance, SG: APP, and Birdies or Better Gained, followed by a balanced mix of SG: BS, SG: P (Bent), and Comp Course History. The #1 player in my model this week is Jason Kokrak, who once again looks poised, at least from a model standpoint, to capitalize on his strengths of Driving Distance and Bent Putting. Rounding out the Top 10 this week is Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Jhonattan Vegas, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Harris English, and Brooks Koepka.