A week that promised so much at the halfway stage with Fleetwood, Lowry and Schniederjans all in the hunt took a massive downward turn over the weekend. It looked like there would be no returns at all for a period over the weekend before a closing eagle pulled Ollie into the places and Cantlay grabbed a share of 6th place. This returned 11pts which nearly broke us even on another frustrating week.
But it’s quickly back on the horse again for the final major of the year and it looks like being a cracker even if nobody will be able to watch it on TV!
2018 pts advised =355.70
2018 pts returned = 357.30
ROI = 0.50%
US PGA Championship
The final major of the year for the final time, the US PGA takes place this week at Bellerive Country Club before a scheduling slot sees it moved to May next year. If that switch isn’t enough to irk metathesiophobes the world over then the decision to show the TV coverage on new online streaming site “Eleven Sports” could just be enough to send some over the edge! Jordan Spieth stands over his 6ft putt to win the PGA and become the 6th man ever to win the career grand slam…..”buffering”. Improvements in the way we watch things have been fantastic over the last 10 years but they have to be as an addition to live TV and the fact we now have to stream a golf major isn’t for me and has to be considered a negative. It will make a nice change from criticising Sky Sports this week though!
Anyway I digress, even if people may struggle to watch it the US PGA is shaping up to be an excellent finale to the major season and we seem to have a fitting course for the brilliant field. Bellerive is said to be a very fair all round test and it looks a very difficult puzzle to solve with so many of the top players arriving in fine form.
The course is in St. Louis, Missouri so we are 6 hours behind the UK and Bellerive COuntry Club is a potentially very long, 7317 yard par 70. The course was designed by Robert Trent Jones back in 1960 with its first major arriving just 5 years later when the U.S. Open came to mind. It has only hosted 4 top professional events since with two of those being Seniors events. The other two events were the 1992 US PGA won by Nick Price and the 2008 BMW Championship which was won by Camillo Villegas. Robert Trent Jones’ son Rees Jones carried out an extensive redesign to bring the course up to modern standards ahead of that 2008 event. He aimed to bring it back to his father’s vision while making adjustments for longer distances players are hitting the ball.
The course is parkland with slightly below average width fairways and the reports are that the rough is up. The fairways wind through trees and water which is in play on 11 holes. Part of the redesign involved pushing the fairway bunkers up in line with the landing areas of current driving distances however the very longest will still look to fly these. One of the trademark features of this and indeed several of RTJ’s courses involve heavily tiered greens and with greens averaging 8200 sq feet they are in good use here. They also feature tightly mown fringes and heavily sloping run-offs so players will require their iron game to be on point if they wish to hold the appropriate area of the green. While the long game will be enough of a test it looks likely that these green complexes could well make or break the week. Other courses to have featured similar tightly mown run-offs recently are Pinehurst No. 2 and Shinnecock Hills.
Other Robert Trent Jones original courses include Hazeltine, Valderrama and Spyglass Hill while his redesigns include Baltusrol, Congressional, Oak Hill, Olympic Club and last week’s Firestone. His son Rees has redesigned plenty of championship courses recently including Atlanta Athletic Club, East Lake, Cog Hill and Torrey Pines. Perhaps the most important course correlation could be Hazeltine which was both a Robert Trent Jones original and redesigned by Rees just like Bellerive. Leaderboards from any of these courses are worth a look at to find potential angles in.
The greens this week are bentgrass so we would normally think lush green surfaces like Augusta, TPC Boston, Houston GC, Muirfield CC and again Hazeltine. However while the majority of the large greens should be perfect I have seen some photos of them looking a little weathered in places. The fairways are a different grass again with the slightly more peculiar zoysia grass in play. Three courses on Tour to feature this grass are East Lake, Trinity Forest and TPC Southwind, but this isn’t something I’d get overly hung up on myself.
It would be easy this week to fall into the trap that I have fallen into many times recently at the US majors and that is over playing the need to find fairways. Several times I have sided with straight drivers and shotmakers only to see the same bomber types sitting on the leaderboard. The 2016 US PGA at Bellerive was the most recent example of this as I went with steady shot makers. But Day and Walker hit it everywhere off the tee and still found a way of finding the green and letting their putters do the talking. Despite everything we are hearing about the course I’m not convinced this will be too big a test of accuracy off the tee. Firestone is supposed to be hugely demanding off the tee and yet look at the names that were still on the leaderboard all weekend, Thomas, McIlroy, Day and Dustin Johnson. Among them they hit an average of 50% of the fairways yet such is the quality of their recovery approach games it didn’t really matter. So while suitability to the course and form at similar venues will be key, I think the most important factor will indeed be current form and an iron game that has seen them play well all year long on the championship courses. That is often what gets it done at the final major of the year looking back at history and I’m expecting more of the same.
Some fairly random trends
The last 10 PGA winners had finished inside the top 28 at Firestone
The last 6 PGA winners ranked inside the top 36 in Strokes Gained: tee to green during that season.
The same 6 all finished inside the top 40 at that season’s Masters.
7 of the last 8 finished inside the top 32 of that season’s opening WGC event (Doral/Mexico)
4 of the last 6 winners led the Tour in “Par Breakers” that season.
The last 7 winners all finished the season inside the top 32 in Scoring Average.
5 of the last 6 winners finished the season inside the top 24 for Par 5 Scoring.
As a further aside to these trends I think it is also worth noting 2008 Bellerive winner Camillo Villegas’s stats that season; 3rd in scoring average, 8th in par breakers, 6th in strokes gained: tee to green, 2nd in par 5 scoring and 14th in 3-putt avoidance outside 25ft. There are only two par 5s at Bellerive but that stat tells us a lot more about the capabilities of a player and some of the longer par 4s will play closer to a par 5 yardage this week.
These trends all combine to give us quite an accurate profile of what is usually required to win a US PGA. A powerful, long off the tee, aggressive, low scoring player who is in form and has been there or thereabouts at several of the year’s big events. The first two names that are thrown up are the glaringly obvious Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. The cases for both are extremely compelling and I could just as easily have had 6pts win on both and left it at that. However in this size of a field I’m just about happy to let them both go at the prices. Those less happy could do worse than look at the 50/1 for the dual forecast as a saver bet. That would surely give you a good run through to the weekend at a decent price. Instead I’m going down the field a little with some each way options and some players with very similar profiles.
Jason Day is the perfect PGA Championship player and with his iron game looking back somewhere close to its best last week at Firestone he looks the pick at the prices for me. I think we can ignore the fact he lost 5 shots over the final 6 holes as he was only interested in chasing down Thomas for the win so he stayed aggressive right to the end. Firestone isn’t really a course where you can chase like that so we should instead focus on the fact he was 5th in strokes gained: approaches and 2nd to only Thomas for birdies. The improvement in his approach game is key as he has putted and scrambled as well as ever all year and he ranks 1st in strokes gained: putting and 2nd in strokes gained: around the green. The rest of his stats also back up his suitability for another contending PGA effort as he is 8th in par breakers, 8th in scoring average, 32nd in strokes gained: tee to green and he has the all important top 28 at Firestone (10th) and the top 40 at the Masters (20th). Day has as good a US PGA record as anyone lately with 4 top 10s in addition to his 2015 win. An excellent each way alternative to the two stand-outs at the head of the market.
Jon Rahm also has the perfect combination of scoring power and touch to make him look like a future US PGA winner. He also fits the majority of stats and trends here as well as being one of the best players in 2018. That is a recipe for success at the final major of the year and he has been high up on my short list for this all year. Rahm had also been guilty of average iron play recently so it was very reassuring to see his numbers last week. He ranked 9th in strokes gained: approaches, 5th in strokes gained: around the green and 2nd in GIR. Throw in his impressive season long stats of 2nd in par breakers, 17th in par 5 scoring, 11th in strokes gained: tee to green and 8th in the all-round ranking and we have an excellent PGA winning profile. Rahm also has an impressive bank of form at the bigger events even if he did miss the cut at both the Opens. He posted top 20s at WGC Mexico, the Masters and most importantly last week so he is very much rounding back to form. If we are to see another first time major winner this week it could be Rahmbo that gets first blood. Another rock-solid each way pick at 25/1.
While it leaves me potentially open to Bellerive actually suiting the plodders, I can’t leave Tony Finau out such is his consistency in the big events this year. The 50/1 maybe isn’t fancy given we haven’t really seen him properly contend in any of them but it still looks a sound each way bet with 8 places. Finau has finished 27th in the WGC Mexico, 10th at Augusta, 5th at the US Open, 9th at the Open before his 10th place finish at Firestone last week. Above all it has been his powerful long game that has helped him but he also ranks 12th in the all-round ranking and I think a slightly tougher than normal US PGA layout could be perfect for Finau. He also ranks 13th in scoring average, 16th in par breakers and 15th in strokes gained: tee to green. His iron play was particularly strong last week as he was 6th in strokes gained: approaches. Given he has managed top 10s at all the other majors it looks highly likely he could add another at the venue that should suit him best of the four. Finau has been cut to 40/1 this afternoon. I’d make this price border line but as I’ve backed him already I will keep him in. His major record this year give us at least some nice each way terms if little value on the outright market.
Just in case it all goes horribly wrong and this event actually does require a strategic, plodding effort I think Matt Kuchar looks a little like the forgotten man here at 66/1 so I’ll add him to the team. Kuchar has had a steady if fairly unspectacular year but his last 2 results make him look hugely over priced here. He was 9th at the Open before 14th last week where he ranked 5th for scrambling and 11th in strokes gained: approaches. If these green complexes do become treacherous there aren’t too many more consistent short games on difficult courses than Kuch. A worthy each way back up to the bombers at 66/1.
I’m also going to give Thomas Pieters a chance at a huge price. I was slowly coming around to the idea that he might just not be that good earlier in the year as plenty persisted with backing him at what felt like value prices. He disappointed continuously but it seems like he has at least stopped the bleeding a little over the summer. He is on a run of 6 cuts made and he returned top 40s in all of those. While he didn’t make the field at Firestone he was 28th at the Open and 6th at the Scottish Open before that. Pieters finest hour came at the Robert Trent Jones designed Hazeltine when he racked up 4 points out of 5 on his Ryder Cup debut. Hazeltine has also been reworked by Rees Jones and may be the best pointer in this week. It played long and there was lots of talk that the rough would be penal and fairways would need to be found. Pieters powered his way round the course aggressively attacking the flags on the similarly tiered greens. Has to be given one final chance here at 125/1 just in case that was the real Thomas Pieters rather than the one we have seen teeing it up most weeks since.
Rafa Cabrera-Bello keeps pulling me back in at majors due to the consistency of his long game on these sort of courses. Having turned a corner last week on a similar test he looks very likely to post another top 20. Sits 27th in scoring average on Tour and 9th in strokes gained: approaches. The little bonus is that he ranks 1st in 3-putt avoidance from outside 25ft, highlighting how much his lag putting has improved. Enjoys Robert Trent Jones designs having scored 2.5 pts from 3 at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine and he has recorded two top 20s at Vaderrama. Worth another go at 5/1.
Another value play in the top 20 market looks to be Ross Fisher. He posted a 17th at Firestone last week where he was 11th in strokes gained: tee to green. Fisher also plays well on RTJ tracks with a 19th at Hazeltine in 2009 and a very impressive record at Valderrama of 6-23-14-11-14. Probably doesn’t score well enough to trouble the leaderboard but another top 20 well within reach for his consistent tee to green game.
Aaron Wise was close to an each way bet but his price has been battered in since his 6th place at Firestone. Has all the tools to go well here at Bellerive but contending is maybe asking a bit much. Sits 11th in par breakers so he has been scoring well all year and his 14th place in the all-round reminds us he is capable through the bag. This turnaround in form following 6 missed cuts should be followed with a top 20 bet at 11/2.
1st round leader
Keegan Bradley would have been gutted to miss out on one of his favourite stops last week especially after signing off with a 64 at Glen Abbey the week before. That followed a Friday 63 and brought about a 4th place finish where he actually ranked 2nd in total putting for the week. If he has found a stroke he is comfortable with then he could be a massive danger during the rest of the season. Bradley is a former PGA winner and looks suited to this course where approach accuracy is key. If he can keep that hot putting streak going then he could post another low one from a nice early tee time. 11 of his last 14 opening rounds have been in the 60s with a 65 the pick of the bunch at the Greenbrier. He also ranks 6th in early round scoring for the season. There is some 80/1 with 8 places or 100/1 with 6 places available and both look excellent bets. I’m siding with Betfair’s 80/1 and 8 places as general scoring looks like it might be low in perfect golfing conditions.
Troy Merritt won’t have had the ideal preparation that most of the field have had. He had to undergo emergency surgery to remove a blood clot at the start of the week but retained hopes of teeing it up here. If he does he might be playing rather care free and he has been going low quite a bit on Thursdays already this season. He shot a 62 on his way to winning the Barbasol just 3 weeks ago and that is just one of many opening rounds in the 60s. He can be very hit or miss but when he is playing well his approach play can be immense as he confidently fires at flags. His opening PGA Tour win was around Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in 2015 so he clearly likes his courses. If he is fit to play then he has a nice tee time of 8:51 and could do some damage freewheeling. If he’s not we will get our money back.
Finally I’m taking a massive punt on YE Yang getting off to a good start here. Largely through the Hazeltine link having won his US PGA there in 2009 but he has also had a solid season in Japan. He won just 8 starts ago and is coming in off a 12th place finish on his last start in July. He shot an opening 66 that week which was preceded by opening knocks of 70, 70 and 69. He hasn’t played on the PGA Tour since last August but we know he is capable. Worth a very small bet at 200/1 with 8 places.
Summary of Bets
Jason Day – 2.5pts ew @ 22/1 (1/5 odds 8 places Betfair)
Jon Rahm – 2pts ew @ 25/1 (1/5 odds 8 places Skybet and Betfair)
Tony Finau – 1pt ew @ 40/1 (1/5 odds 8 places Skybet and Betfair)
Matt Kuchar – 1pt ew @ 66/1 (1/5 odds 8 places Skybet)
Thomas Pieters – 0.5pt ew @ 125/1 (1/5 odds 8 places Betfair)
Rafa Cabrera Bello – 2pts Top 20 @ 5/1
Ross Fisher – 1pt Top 20 @ 9/1 (Betfair)
Aaron Wise – 1pt Top 20 @ 11/2
1st Round Leader Bets
Keegan Bradley – 0.75pt ew @ 80/1 (1/5 odds 8 places Betfair)
Troy Merritt – 0.5pt ew @ 150/1 (1/5 odds 7 places Coral)
YE Yang – 0.25pt ew @ 200/1 (1/5 odds 8 places)
Weekly pts advised = 21pts