THE NORTHERN TRUST Tournament Preview

THE NORTHERN TRUST 2021 Tournament Preview: Everything You Need To Know About Liberty National Before Tee Off

FINALLY, the event I have been waiting ALL year for, the 2021 NORTHERN TRUST at Liberty National to kickstart the FedEx Cup Playoffs. I live in Jersey City roughly 2 miles from Liberty National so I purchased tickets for Thursday and Sunday the minute they went on sale. I have not been to a PGA Tour event in person since the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, so really pumped for this one. If you’re reading this and planning to go Thursday or Sunday, hit me up! You can find me on Thursday following Sebastian Munoz’s group for a majority of the day decked out in Flex Seal attire, and Sunday I will (hopefully) be following along one of my outrights if they’re still in contention.

I’ve never been to Liberty National or played it, so I’m just as blind coming in as anyone. There have been 4 professional events held at Liberty National in its young history since the course was established in 2006. It’s hosted the Barclays in 2009 and 2013, the Presidents Cup in 2017 and THE NORTHERN TRUST in 2019. In terms of Fantasy National, we only have data from the 2013 Barclays and 2019 NORTHERN TRUST to go off of, so we’ll have to lean more heavily on comp course history to project success for what this track demands.

THE NORTHERN TRUST rotates across different northeast venues year to year, but besides geography, each course in the rota tends to play drastically different. The 2020 TNT played at TPC Boston was a joke of a birdie fest, where Scottie Scheffler shot a Friday 59 and Dustin Johnson trounced the field with a closing score of -30. At Liberty National and Ridgewood CC the two years before, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau grinded out more moderate winnings scores in the mid-teens, and the two years before that, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed won in very difficult conditions at Glen Oaks and Bethpage Black. There is common ground in the fact that the best players tend to come out on top at this event regardless what kind of course it’s played on, as FedEx Cup Playoff golf has the full attention of all of the world’s best, jockeying for position at East Lake.

There are some FedEx Cup point motivation narratives on the line for the Top 70 to advance to the BMW Championship the following week, but I’m not really paying that much mind. Instead, I’m looking for players who have performed well on other comparable moderate distance, moderate scoring, and links-style courses, as well as players with strong approach, around the green, and putting on Bent grass. Here’s a look at everything you can expect from playoff golf at the 2021 NORTHERN TRUST.

Liberty National Course Specs

  • Yards: 7,353
  • Par: 71 (4x 3’s / 11x 4’s / 3x 5’s)
  • Grass: Bent (Fairways, Rough, and Greens)
  • Architect: Robert Cupp & Tom Kite
  • Historical Cutline: Even
  • Comp Courses: Royal St Georges, Shadow Creek, Olympia Fields, Royal Portrush, Innisbrook, Bay Hill, TPC Scottsdale
  • Past Winners (NORTHERN TRUST): Dustin Johnson (20, 17), Patrick Reed (19, 16), Bryson DeChambeau (18), Jason Day (15)
  • Past Winners (Liberty National Events): Patrick Reed (19), America (17), Adam Scott (13), Heath Slocum (08)

I love THE NORTHERN TRUST, mainly because it’s usually the only event on the Tour schedule played close enough to me where I can actually attend in person. It’s also a full field event so loaded with talent that you can usually catch a number in the high-teens or low-20s for elite players, and that range on the odds board is where winners tend to live for THE NORTHERN TRUST. I remember hitting Dustin Johnson at 20/1 last year, and other recent winners in Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau have floated in that mid-range in years past as well. Overall, this is an event and a course meant to test the best players in the world, which means you’re going to need to come in with good all around form. There are just 5 players in the field who enter this week averaging 1+ Stroke Gained per event in all Major categories (OTT, APP, ARG, P) over the last 24 rounds: Harris English, Jordan Spieth, Scottie Scheffler, Seamus Power, and Jon Rahm.

It’s a tricky week to pinpoint course horses with such scattered course history to go off of, but from what we can gather, the Top 10 players SG: TOT at Liberty National are Adam Scott, Abraham Ancer, Jason Kokrak, Jordan Spieth, Harold Varner III, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Justin Thomas, and Patrick Reed. Adam Scott is an interesting case this week, coming off of his best start of the year in 2021 at the Wyndham Championship where he folded over a 4-footer for the win in the first playoff round. He doesn’t jump off the page as the best fit for Liberty National, especially with how he’s playing overall in 2021, and yet he’s still finished 1st in 2013 and 5th in 2019. Regardless, he’ll still probably be a fade for me this week.

With limited course history to go off of, it will be more important than ever to factor in recent performance at comp courses as a proxy. The two courses that jumped out to me most when looking through Liberty National hole-to-hole were Shadow Creek and Royal St George’s, just going off of the hazards in play, overall hole distances, and a similar expected range of scoring in the mid-teens. So it was reassuring to see that Data Golf also lists these as the top two tracks based on course profile. Collin Morikawa, Jason Kokrak, Xander Schauffele, and Jon Rahm lead the list of players in this field who have turned in strong results at both events earlier this year. In addition to these top comps, I’m also looking at Olympia Fields, Royal Portrush, Innisbrook, Bay Hill, and TPC Scottsdale as similar moderate scoring, moderate length courses that demand a solid all around game to contend. The Top 10 players SG: T2G at all comp courses L36 rounds are Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Kokrak, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, and Tyrrell Hatton.

Looking at the hole by hole breakdown, a majority of the holes will funnel into the Par 4 450-500 range we’re used to seeing on more difficult tracks, with many of those requiring a forced layup. The Top 10 players scoring from this hole distance are Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Branden Grace, Abraham Ancer, Matt Wallace, Chris Kirk, Shane Lowry, and Seamus Power. The crew at Liberty National have made efforts to add distance each year we’ve returned, and early reports have shown they may be pushing tees back closer to 7,400 yards. In any case, there are too many hazards between the fairway bunkers, fescue, and water throughout the course to attempt to bomb & gouge this course, and at the same time, the rough isn’t especially penal where players are unable to score if they barely miss the fairway, so I won’t be over-analyzing OTT stats to handicap this event. Instead I’m looking more closely at Proximity in the 75-100 and 175-200 ranges where many holes force players to lay up to. There are 7 players in the field who rank Top 25 in each of these proximity ranges: Stewart Cink, Daniel Berger, Viktor Hovland, Kevin Streelman, Doug Ghim, Lanto Griffin, and Brian Stuard.

Key Stats

  • SG: APP / SG: BS
  • Birdies or Better Gained
  • Bogey Avoidance
  • Par 3: 225+ / Par 5: 500-550
  • Prox 75-100, 175-200
  • SG: SG
  • SG: Putting (Bent)
  • Course & Comp Course History

Stats To Avoid

  • Driving Distance
  • SG: OTT
  • Prox 200+

There was a very clear formula to project success at Sedgefield CC (that’s why the entire world was on Russell Henley, and why I was so emphatically sure Kevin Kisner would win), you just needed to hit fairways to create birdie opportunities and be a strong Bermuda putter. With Liberty National however, there’s a bit more nuance. The two previous winners here in Adam Scott and Patrick Reed are polar opposites in many ways. Reed is a shorter hitter who gains all of his strokes with his short game, Scott is a long, superior ball striker who tends to give back strokes to the field with his short game. The simplistic way to go about handicapping this week is to say that Liberty National is a fairly difficult test that will require a strong all around game to contend. There are just 7 players who come in ranking above average in SG: OTT, APP, ARG, and P (Bent): Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Lucas Glover, Charl Schwartzel, and Harold Varner III.

With just two years of data to go off of at Liberty National, it’s hard to expect any significant trends to read from when looking for correlated stats for success, however from what the stats tell us, Liberty National demands a very similar profile to the Tour Average. That’s usually to be expected on difficult tracks that require a strong all around game, so it’s little surprise that we see this in the opening round of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Where we do see the largest premium compared to Tour average is in SG: SG, SG: P, SG: APP, P5 500-550, and P3: 225+. The most premium stats I’m going to be looking at this week are SG: BS, SG: APP, SG: SG, and SG: P (Bent). There are 9 players who rank Top 50 in each coming into this event: Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns, Abraham Ancer, Patrick Cantlay, Hank Lebioda, Xander Schauffele, Seamus Power, Talor Gooch, and Jason Kokrak.

In terms of stats that don’t matter this week, I won’t be weighting Driving Distance, SG: OTT, and Prox 200+ very much at all when evaluating the field. The common ground there is that there’s really not a ton of length to this course, and many of the moderate-length holes still require a forced layup that largely levels the playing field off the tee.

Top 10 Correlated Stats with SG: TOT
Top 10 Correlated Stats with SG: TOT at Liberty National

Taking the Top 10 Correlated Stat categories for this week at THE NORTHERN TRUST, there are 9 players who rate out above average in all ten: Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Abraham Ancer, Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Charley Hoffman, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau.

I do want to harp on this list for second because it’s easy to overlook these charts. Looking back at the last 4 events played at courses with enough course history to pull correlation stats from, 2 of those winners were above average in each of the Top 10 Correlated stats. Abraham Ancer at the WGC FedEx and Lucas Glover at the John Deere. Cameron Champ did not pop at the 3M, however all 3 runner ups (Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Vegas) did, and while we knew Kisner was not going to be a model guy last week, Playoff finalists Roger Sloan and Branden Grace did pop up in these Top 10 stats as well at the Wyndham, so I’ll definitely be taking a closer look at the above list of 9.

Spotlight: Jason Kokrak

12 Things You Didn't Know About Jason Kokrak - Golf Monthly

Tough act to follow this week after handing out Kevin Kisner as the spotlight player of the week at the Wyndham Championship. I’m not as bullish on Kokrak this week as I was on Kisner; that’s not a knock on Kokrak by any means, I may never have more conviction on a player at a given event again this year than what we saw with Kisner last week. But one thing they share in common that I do like is a buy-low position coming off of disappointing results the week prior on courses that did not suit them as well. Kokrak had high expectations at the Wyndham Championship as a Top 10 favorite, however the formula I’ve followed religiously in 2021 never seems to fail: Bet Kokrak on Bent, don’t bet on Kokrak anywhere else.

Jason Kokrak picked up the first 2 PGA Tour victories of his career this season at the CJ Cup and Charles Schwab Challenge. Both victories at Shadow Creek and Colonial CC came on Bent grass as a credit to his hot putter and great all around ball striking.

In terms of the (limited) Course History, Kokrak ranks 3rd SG: TOT at Liberty National behind 2013 Barclays champion Adam Scott and 2019 TNT runner up Abraham Ancer. In his two prior trips to these grounds, Kokrak finished T9 in 2013 and T12 in 2019. In both instances, he gained 8+ strokes T2G, but lost strokes on the greens. Now in the midst of the best season of his career, Jason Kokrak has completely flipped the script with his putter and ranks #1 SG: P on Bent grass L36 rounds in this field, so we should expect an even higher finish on the board this year than his past trips if the putter continues to cooperate.

Kokrak also ranks 4th in the field in Comp Course history, with a win at Shadow Creek to go along with T15 finishes at Innisbrook, Bay Hill, and Olympia Fields within the past year in addition to his historical prowess at Liberty National. While distance is simply a “nice to have” on this course, his rank of 10th in this field Driving Distance should give a slight advantage on some of the longer Par 3s and Par 4s with forced layups, even bringing Eagle into play on the 600+ yard Par 5, a built in advantage over a majority of this field.

What To Look Out For at the 2021 NORTHERN TRUST

Patrick Reed Wins The Northern Trust At Liberty National

Playoff time is here! I’m riding in high off the Kevin Kisner lock of the week, and I’m going to be in attendance for two days at Liberty National, so the vibes are good! As is the case with most loaded field events, there are a few players I’m leaning towards at the moment (Kokrak, Reed, Spieth), but ultimately I’m going to stay patient and wait for one or two elite players to drift into a value range. There are many paths to win on a course like this, so I don’t think it’s the worst strategy to just stockpile a bunch of good value outrights if the books slip.

With all the course fit profiles in mind this week, I’m leaning early towards the below player pool, broken out by projected pricing/odds tier.

This week, I’m putting a premium on SG: APP, Course + Comp Course History, SG:BS, Birdies or Better Gained, Bogey Avoidance, SG: SG, SG: P (Bent), and P4 450-500 Scoring. The #1 player in my model this week is Jordan Spieth, which I think makes sense in a model I’ve removed SG: OTT from. He’s Top 20 in every category I fed in, and Top 10 in all but SG: P – Bent and SG: BS. Rounding out the Top 10 this week is Jon Rahm, Abraham Ancer, Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Jason Kokrak, Daniel Berger, and Patrick Cantlay.