Pour one out for the 2021 PGA Tour Super Season. What started all the way back in early September with a Stewart Cink win at the Safeway Open, now concludes in Atlanta, Georgia for the 2021 TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club, featuring the Top 30 remaining golfers on Tour. Before anyone asks, no, I will not be doing a series of Atlanta themed GIFs this week to continue last week’s trend. I am an HBO loyalist and will give no free publicity to the overlords at FX.
Traditionally golf talk throughout the week of the TOUR Championship has nothing to do with the actual event at hand and is instead an open forum of everyone’s suggestions on how to fix the format of the championship. Nobody likes the staggered start format, at least from a fan or bettor’s view point. I would argue that to the players, rewarding those who accumulated the most FedEx Cup points over the course of the year-long season with a tiered head start stroke advantage is the most fair way to go about it. If you’re going to have a long regular season, it is nice to see the long term body of work rewarded in the playoffs as opposed to a sport like the MLB where you can make the playoffs as a Wild Card after a 162 game season and then get bounced from the playoffs after one win-or-go-home game. I could write a whole article about what’s wrong with the TOUR Championship and potential solutions to fix it, but for now, I digress.
So what we do have in front of us this week is a 30-man field vying for the title of FedEx Cup Champion and a $15M check. Because of the stupid format in place, that check is effectively unattainable for 75% of this field, but they can all take solace in knowing that just making it into this week’s event means exemptions into essentially every event on Tour next season and the ability to make their own schedules in 2022. They’re also guaranteed to make no less than $395K this week, which isn’t too bad either. The difference this week as opposed to a traditional week of stroke play is the staggered scoring start. Patrick Cantlay will walk up to the first tee box at 10-under par, and considering how difficult it is to shoot double digits under par here, players like Daniel Berger and Billy Horschel who start at Even par are not exactly able to play for 1st place this week.
With such a short field, this is not a very fun tournament to bet, and all the research I’m putting in will be for the non-adjusted scoring formats for the books who offer without the staggered start scoring handicap. Looking at players with the best chance to shoot the lowest net score this week, I’m going to be honing in on SG: APP, Opportunities Gained, Good Drives Gained, and Bogey Avoidance to “parse” through this field of 30. But in all honesty, I’ll probably just eyeball this field and take a chance on whatever value I can find regardless of what the models tell me. Anyway, let’s see what we can learn about East Lake!
East Lake Golf Club Specs
- Yards: 7,319
- Par: 70 (4x 3’s / 12x 4’s / 2x 5’s)
- Grass: Bermuda Greens, Zoysia Fairways, Bermuda Rough
- Architect: Donald Ross
- Comp Courses: Sheshan International GC, Sedgefield CC, TPC River Highlands, TPC Southwind, Detroit GC, PGA National
- Past TOUR Championship Winners: Dustin Johnson (20), Rory McIlroy (19, 16), Tiger Woods (18), Xander Schauffele (17), Jordan Spieth (15), Billy Horschel (14)
I absolutely love the juxtaposition of East Lake immediately following Caves Valley because this track does everything you’re supposed to do to make a course challenging that Caves Valley failed to do, which should silence anyone in the “golf is broken, roll back the technology” crowd. East Lake transforms from its usual Par 72 layout to a Par 70 for championship play with the 1st and 14th holes being converted to long par 4s. There are no driveable Par 4s which should level the birdie opportunities for the shorter hitters in the field, and there are risky holes like the island Par 3 15th that bring bogey-or-worse into play with errant tee shots.
Over the last 13 years, the winning net score has always fallen between the range of -7 to -13, making this one of the more difficult tests we see all year on Tour, and making it especially difficult for players without a major stroke advantage to go low and make up ground. As is the case with any moderate to difficult scoring event, it will take a solid all around game to contend, which really isn’t something we need to model for in a field that strictly includes strong all around golfers. I do however tend to put more stock on the better T2G players who are more volatile on the greens in these types of events, as you can get away with more missed birdie putts here than you could at a birdie fest like Caves Valley. In that sense, players like Sergio Garcia, Corey Conners, and even Justin Thomas may be worth a closer look than what their recent birdie fest results may suggest.
We have 5 former TOUR Championship winners in the field this week between Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, and Billy Horschel. Horschel is the outlier here, but overall it’s hard to point to any trends with the list of past winners at East Lake, considering they only adopted the modified scoring system in 2019 and the field has always been condensed to the best all around players on Tour. With that said, the easiest way to parse through performance regardless of finishing position is to look at SG: TOT at East Lake over the years, and that Top 10 L24 rounds includes Xander Schauffele, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Billy Horschel, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia, Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth, and Tony Finau.
Looking at comp courses to East Lake, I started by looking back at other places Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele have both played well at, with each dominating here over the years, and that pointed me to Sheshan International Golf Club, host of the WGC HSBC. Sheshan also happens to rate out well according to Data Golf’s course fit tool with similar emphasis on driving accuracy over driving distance to go along with the usual importance of approach and putting. It’s hard to hit these fairways at East Lake, so players who are more accurate off the tee should be able to set up more birdie opportunities than those penalized in the rough, as the greens here are tight, firm, and hard to hold without spin. While this course will be a far cry from a birdie fest, I’ll also be referencing recent performance at Sedgefield CC and Detroit GC, two of the other Donald Ross courses on yearly rotation which we’ve seen within the last few months. If nothing else, they should provide a helpful look at putting, as tiered, undulated greens tend to be the identity of any Donald Ross course (too bad Kevin Kisner couldn’t make it inside the Top 30!). TPC River Highlands, TPC Southwind, and PGA National are other comp courses I’ll be looking at to simulate the moderate to difficult scoring conditions on firm greens. The Top 10 players in terms of total Comp Course History include Xander Schauffele, Rory McIlroy, Abraham Ancer, Harris English, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Sam Burns, Billy Horschel, Louis Oosthuizen, and Hideki Matsuyama.
- SG: APP / SG: BS
- Good Drives Gained
- Par 4 Scoring
- Opportunities Gained / Birdies Gained
- Bogey Avoidance
- SG: Putting (Bermuda)
- Course History
Stats To Avoid
- Par 5 Scoring
- Driving Distance
A few things jump out to me this week looking at the correlated stats to success historically at East Lake. The most notable stat I’m seeing is the disparity between importance of SG: OTT vs. Good Drives Gained. It’s very rare to ever see Good Drives Gained pop higher than SG: OTT, and in this case, it’s by a significant margin with Good Drives Gained rating out as the #10 top stat of the week compared to SG: OTT all the way down to #28. That makes sense considering how difficult it is to find these fairways at a high percentage, while also considering the number of doglegs with forced layups, so players who consistently set themselves up to reach greens in regulation with their approach shots should find more consistent success this week. The Top 10 players in terms of Good Drives Gained are Corey Conners, Collin Morikawa, Sungjae Im, Harris English, Jon Rahm, Louis Oosthuizen, Daniel Berger, Patrick Cantlay, Viktor Hovland, and Abraham Ancer.
It’s tough to pin down the identity of this course, understanding it doesn’t really favor long hitters or fairway finders with any strong correlation. It’s a moderate-to-difficult scoring track, which generally means to put higher stock on SG: ARG, but even that, which tends to be the least correlated of any SG metrics to high finishes, does not pop at East Lake. So instead, the most straightforward default is to look at the top T2G players coming in, who are also above average putters on Bermuda greens. This week there are just 5 players above average in both over the last 24 rounds: Louis Oosthuizen, Harris English, Abraham Ancer, Viktor Hovland, and Sam Burns. A lot of the recent form may be skewed by the WGC St Jude which was the last prominent event played on Bermuda, but it’s interesting to note the overlap between that list and the top of the WGC St Jude leaderboard.
I don’t always use Par 4 Scoring in my models because it’s always a given that the best players are scoring well on Par 4s, and Par 4s will always make up a majority of the holes on any given PGA Tour course. But with that said, it’s always just a bit more important to score well on the Par 4s at a Par 70, and it never hurts to include a little recent form indicator in your models, so I’m going to look at it a little more closely this week. The Top 10 in Par 4 Scoring this week are: Louis Oosthuizen, Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Kevin Na, Jordan Spieth, and Tony Finau.
There are 7 players who rate above average in the Top 5 correlated stats for East Lake: Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm, Louis Oosthuizen, Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger, Viktor Hovland and Justin Thomas. There are 3 players who are above average in all 10 top correlated stats, and they happen to be the Top 3 in SG: TOT coming into this event: Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, and Louis Oosthuizen.
What To Look Out For at the 2021 TOUR Championship
The TOUR Championship is a complete conundrum. It is the highest stakes tournament of the PGA Tour season in terms of prize money, it is the most concentrated field of elite players we see all year, and it is a final event to crown the FedEx Cup champion, and yet from a fan standpoint, people are not amped up to watch this. The most hardcore golf fans often take the week off from tuning in, even if just to watch the final round on Sunday. Unfortunately golf is at its most entertaining when we have large fields to follow and long odds to chase on the betting board, and in a playoff structure, we get further and further away from those parameters the deeper we get into the playoffs. In any case, we’re here now, and while I may not be overjoyed to bet a couple 10/1 outrights in a modified format this week, it is at least a fair solution for the players to reward them with a fatter check than say Ezekiel Elliot or Davante Adams will be making this year. This is not a bold prediction, but I believe Jon Rahm will win the FedEx Cup, even starting 4 strokes back of Patrick Cantlay as the #4 seed. Will I bet him as one of the odds on favorites? Probably not, but I may run back the Masters parlay once again to convince myself I’m getting some sort of value with a Jon Rahm win.
Normally I would include my player pool here, but there’s only 30 players to choose from, so I don’t really think it’s worth whittling down a list or projecting where values may be before pricing comes out. It’s the TOUR Championship, and everyone who’s still in the field is an elite player in good form, so you’ll be hard pressed to find many comfortable fades this week. That said, a small handful of guys I do expect myself to target in DFS includes Louis Oosthuizen, Viktor Hovland, Sungjae Im, Corey Conners, and Abraham Ancer. The only players I’m actively avoiding this week are Collin Morikawa and Patrick Reed (if he’s able to play), as they are not coming into this event fully healthy.
This week, I’m putting a premium on SG: APP and Good Drives Gained, followed by a balanced mix of Par 4 Scoring, SG: P (Bermuda), Opportunities Gained, Bogey Avoidance, and Course & Comp Course History. The #1 player in my model this week is Louis Oosthuizen, who is Top 10 in this field in every single category with the exception of course history at East Lake. I think especially in DFS formats, people will be looking for any reason to fade players in such a tight field, so the question marks about Louis’ neck and drop off in performance since The Open make him an appealing leverage play this week. Rounding out the Top 10 of the model, we have Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm, Daniel Berger, Viktor Hovland, Patrick Cantlay, Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama, and Abraham Ancer.