PGA Championship Tournament Preview

2021 PGA Championship Tournament Preview: Everything You Need To Know About Kiawah Island Ocean Course Before Tee Off

You feel that? It’s a Major week, baby! I’ve been looking forward to this tournament at Kiawah Island for a long time with so many storylines coming in, and all the hype about the longest course in PGA Championship history. I haven’t had a chance to attend too many PGA Tour events in my life, but I have been to 2 of the last 5 contested PGA Championships at Bethpage Black and Baltusrol, so they’ve always felt particularly special to follow along for me.

I have two traditions every single Major. I play the $200 Single Entry on Draft Kings, and I set up all of my Outrights to pay out $1,000 with a win. That’s a lot of units on the line for me personally, and it means a heightened focus on the process. As part of that process, here’s a look ahead at the upcoming content schedule you can expect the rest of this week.

  • Tuesday – Blood, Sweat, & Tiers: Breaking down the Highest Upside Bet, Best DFS Value, Dark Horse, and Fade within each pricing tier
  • Wednesday (AM) – Prop, Lock, & Drop It: My 5 favorite Prop Bets with full insights and rationale
  • Wednesday (AM) – The Vig PGA Championship Betting Preview Podcast
  • Wednesday (PM) – Final Thoughts: A full recap of my approach, strategy, and final placed bets for the 2021 PGA Championship
  • Friday (PM) Pick The Pup Weekend Betting Preview Podcast

Okay, there’s a lot to get into this week so without further ado, let’s get started!

Kiawah Island Ocean Course Specs

  • Yards: 7,820
  • Par: 72 (4x 3’s / 10x 4’s / 4x 5’s)
  • Grass: Paspalum Tees, Fairways, & Greens
  • Architect: Pete Dye
  • Comp Courses: Whistling Straits, PGA National, Bethpage Black, Shinnecock Hills, Quail Hollow, Chambers Bay, Any Recent Open Championship Course
  • Past Winners: Collin Morikawa (20), Brooks Koepke (19, 18), Justin Thomas (17), Jimmy Walker (16)
  • Other Notable PGA Champions in the Field: Jason Day (15), Rory McIlroy (14,12), Jason Dufner (13), Keegan Bradley (11), Martin Kaymer (10)

Let me start off by saying, never in my life have I seen a course rating over 79, which means a scratch handicap can expect to shoot 7 over par on average. Holy crap, this is going to be a beast.

The 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island pre-dated ShotLink, so unfortunately we do not have the aid of SG correlation charts to profile success in 2021. We do however know that this Pete Dye course is extremely long, will be difficult to score on, will feature high, sustained swirling winds, and offer plenty of trouble from anywhere outside of the fairway. With that information, we can deduce that a combination of both Distance and Accuracy OTT, precise Approach (particularly while managing wind), a strong Around The Green game to scramble for pars/avoid bogeys, and (to a lesser extent) ability to putt well on Paspalum greens is going to be the formula for success here. There are only 5 players in the Field who rank above average in each of these stat categories: Daniel Berger, Scottie Scheffler, Paul Casey, Keegan Bradley, and Emiliano Grillo.

Kiawah Island features all the bells and whistles of your tried and true Pete Dye tracks, but it pushes the boundaries in distance compared to every other Dye track we’ve seen on Tour so far this season (Stadium Course, Harbour Town, TPC Sawgrass, TPC Louisiana, Austin CC, TPC River Highlands). Due to the sheer disparity in distance this week, it’s not enough to simply go back to Dye specialists. What I love about Pete Dye tracks is that they really reward players who can position themselves well off the tee and set up their second shot by creating angles and avoiding the many strategically placed hazards. What’s fascinating about Kiawah Island, is that the length of the course is going to require the field to take out Driver while still positioning themselves off the tee. That’s a stark difference from courses like Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass where players could club down in order to set up their second shots. Because of the Distance premium, I’m looking for a combination of players who play Pete Dye Courses well and also score well on Long & Difficult Courses. A blended 50/50 model of these two characteristics gives us a Top 10 of: Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Paul Casey, Webb Simpson, and Si Woo Kim.

Now let’s talk about Paspalum because I have some very strong thoughts here which I’m using as the basis of my approach to player selection this week. I have a theory and it goes like this: Anyone can putt well on Paspalum. Anyone. It’s the only grain-less grass type in golf and rolls very slowly. No grain means one less factor players have to adjust for when making their reads. If the green is sloping a certain way, that’s the direction the ball will roll every time, and generally speaking, it’s easier to putt (and specifically avoid runouts for 3-putts) on slow greens. Now the thing with Paspalum is, it doesn’t really grow naturally in the United States, so up until now, the PGA Tour has only played on Paspalum greens in international events, which unfortunately means no ShotLink data. While we cannot model against SG: P on Paspalum, we can use deductive reasoning to assume that the top players SG: TOT on Paspalum must have putted well. For what it’s worth, most events on Paspalum happen to be Birdie Fests (Puerto Rico Open, Corales, Mayakoba), so the theory that SG: TOT is largely influenced by putting in these events holds up pretty well. Get a load of this list of Top 5 SG: TOT on Paspalum, L36 Rounds: Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Adam Long, Emiliano Grillo, Keegan Bradley. Team No Putt’s Holy Trinity of Hideki, Grillo, and Keegan, all in the Top 5! I’m not including any putting stats in my model this week on the sheer notion that literally any player on Tour is capable of putting well on these greens. In the same vein, players like Sungjae Im who typically rely on gaining strokes putting to compensate for T2G shortcomings, are the ones I’ll be looking to fade/target against this week.

Key Stats

  • SG: T2G (Recent Form)
  • SG: APP / Ball Striking
  • SG: ARG / Bogey Avoidance / Scrambling
  • Driving Distance / Driving Accuracy / Good Drives Gained
  • SG: TOT – Paspalum Courses (Putting Proxy)
  • SG: TOT in Long, Difficult Scoring conditions
  • SG: BS in High Winds

Stats To Avoid

  • SG: P
  • 2020 PGA Championship Course History
  • Birdies or Better Gained
  • 3-Putt Avoidance

My firm stance for the week is going to be that you don’t need to be a great putter coming into this event to have success, therefore it makes sense that the greatest area of emphasis would fall under Recent Form, SG: T2G. The prototypical player to have success here should ideally be Top 50 T2G and Above Field Average in SG: APP, ARG, Driving Distance, and Driving Accuracy. There are just 7 players in the field this week that meet that criteria: Jon Rahm, Cameron Tringale, Paul Casey, Scottie Scheffler, Keegan Bradley, Matt Wallace, and Harold Varner III. Coincidentally they each sort of have their own reputations for not delivering in big moments. Rahm and Casey have never won a Major in their decorated careers, Tringale, Scheffler, Wallace, and HVIII have never won on the PGA Tour, and Keegan Bradley has gone “Full-Keegan” enough times for us to assume if he gets a lead, he won’t sustain it. Go figure.

Since we can’t model off of Course History SG Data at Kiawah Island, it’s important to factor in similar conditions to proxy success. Using a combination of SG: BS in High Winds, SG: T2G on Pete Dye Courses, SG: TOT at Long & Difficult Courses, SG: T2G at the above Comp Courses, and SG: TOT on Paspalum, just 8 players rank T40 across all categories: Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Sergio Garcia, Gary Woodland, Adam Scott, and Matt Kuchar. That’s a full list of Major winners apart from Tony Finau and Matt Kuchar (unless you want to give Kuch a nod for his honorable “5th Major” win at THE PLAYERS in 2012).

Now we get to the good stuff: The Model. I entered all the key stats listed above into my model, weighted in the following order (all L36): SG: T2G, SG: APP, SG: BS (High Winds), Driving Accuracy, Driving Distance, Scrambling, SG: T2G (Pete Dye), SG: TOT (Comp Courses), SG: TOT (Paspalum), Bogeys Avoided, Good Drives Gained, SG: TOT (7,400+ Yards & Difficult Scoring). I actually re-ran this a few times initially with different weighting because I just couldn’t believe who made his way to the top. But no matter the weighting, my model is led by none other than former PGA Champion and T3 finisher at the most recent Kiawah Island contest in 2012…Keegan Bradley. Below is the full Top 10 from my model, complete with pricing and odds from Draft Kings.

  1. Keegan Bradley ($7,300, 100/1)
  2. Paul Casey ($7,700, 50/1)
  3. Corey Conners ($7,600, 66/1)
  4. Viktor Hovland ($9,300, 28/1)
  5. Justin Thomas ($11,300, 12/1)
  6. Jon Rahm ($10,500, 12/1)
  7. Charley Hoffman ($7,300, 100/1)
  8. Rory McIlroy ($11,500, 10/1)
  9. Emiliano Grillo ($7,000, 100/1)
  10. Webb Simpson ($9,200, 33/1)

Spotlight: Viktor Hovland

Viktor Hovland firing on all cylinders entering Bay Hill

I’m not the first person to endorse Viktor Hovland at the 2021 PGA Championship, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. The Puff, Puff Paspalum Prince is back in his comfort zone (as comfortable as one can be on the longest course in PGA Championship history), returning to the surface he’s picked up his first two early Tour victories (Puerto Rico Open & Mayakoba Classic). In truth, being a Paspalum Specialist is not especially noteworthy, given the notion that anyone can putt well on it, but if we already know Hovland’s Ball Striking (especially from long range proximity) is going to be elite, it’s very reassuring to know we should expect a good putting round as well.

You may say, on such a long, difficult course with whipping winds, shouldn’t we be concerned about Hovland’s short game? In theory yes, but Hovland has defied this logic time and time again this season. Torey Pines, Riviera, Innisbrook, and Quail Hollow are four of the most recent difficult scoring courses we’ve seen on the Tour circuit which put a premium on short game due to lower-than-average GIR percentages as a result of more long approaches from off the fairway. Hovland’s finishes on those courses? T2, T5, T3, T3.

Everything is trending Hovland’s way coming into this week. Over the last 36 rounds, he’s #2 SG: TOT, #5 T2G, #3 BS, and #2 OTT. He’s Top 40 in both Driving Distance and Accuracy, 11th in GIRs Gained, 4th in Proximity 200+, and Top 10 in both Par 4 Scoring and Par 5 Scoring. In his 10 previous starts within the last 6 months, Hovland has 6 T5s.

Hovland is sporadically priced across the markets this week. I’ve seen him as low as the 7th favorite at +1800 ahead of Xander Schauffele on FanDuel Sportsbook, and I’ve seen him as high as the 18th favorite at +3500 behind Tommy Fleetwood on theScore Bet. I may be a bit biased on the Spotlight Star, but I’ve found myself agreeing with the former valuation and betting the latter.

What To Look Out For at the 2021 PGA Championship

PGA Championship: Rory McIlroy wins by record 8 strokes | The Star

Rory McIlroy was the last to win at Kiawah Island, taking down the 2012 PGA Championship on these grounds in dominant fashion. He shot a Friday 75 and still went on to win by 8 (!) strokes with a final total of -13. Since he was the last to win on this course, and emerged victorious the last time he teed it up at the Wells Fargo two weeks ago, it should come as little surprise that Rory is your odds on favorite again this week. Beyond Rory, we also saw a predominantly European top of the leaderboard here back in 2012, highlighted by David Lynn (2), Carl Pettersson (T3), Ian Poulter (T3), and Justin Rose (T3). It’s no stretch to say the windy lowlands of the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island are reminiscent of the European Links course conditions that the Euro Tour players may be more accustomed to, and this PGA Championship may ultimately have more of the look and feel to an Open Championship, despite the gaudy yardages.

Collin Morikawa is your defending PGA Champion, but as impressive as that victory was, I’m putting very little stock behind any performances at TPC Harding Park to carry over into this year’s event. In every conceivable way, Harding Park is the opposite of Kiawah Island. The Par 70 TPC Harding Park played 600 yards shorter in cold August conditions in front of no fans. It was also heavily treelined and guarded from wind and different grass. I love that Morikawa showed the guts to pull out a Major victory at such a young age, but I won’t be including any blanket PGA Championship event history in my research this week beyond that.

One final value player I need to talk about, who falls just short of a Spotlight feature, is Emiliano Grillo. Grillo has shined in every comp course setting we’ve seen him in over the last 6 months. His last 3 finishes on Paspalum? T6 at Corales, T11 at the Puerto Rico Open, and T8 at Mayakoba. His last trip to a Pete Dye Course? T2 at the RBC Heritage. Last we saw him on a long, windy, difficult scoring course? A T14 in his previous start at the Wells Fargo. The consistency at the Paspalum events really jumps out at me as something sustainable, given the previously mentioned stats that play to the advantage of weaker putters. Grillo also joins Scottie Scheffler and Viktor Hovland as the only 3 players in the field this week to rank Top 40 in both Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy, a crucial combination to avoid trouble for four days. If he can continue to stay hot T2G and Ball Striking, he’ll be an appealing play to hang tight once again this week in the conditions he loves.

I’ve tried my best to restrain myself, but have already put in 6 “Futures” before kicking the research into overdrive. I regrettably hold a Francesco Molinari 100/1 ticket, placed last November, which has currently dwindled down to 210/1 live value given his treacherous recent play. On a brighter note however, I’m feeling good about the other values I have with Charl Schwartzel 200/1, Marc Leishman 100/1, Keegan Bradley 100/1, Daniel Berger 41/1, and Viktor Hovland 35/1. Assuming the Molinari ticket is already dead, I’ll likely add 2 more outrights to round out my card by the end of the week.

And that’ll wrap it up for the 2021 PGA Championship Preview! It’s a week full of content, so be on the lookout for new articles throughout the week.