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Big names favored at PGA Championship

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On a challenging course where only the longest, strongest hitters are expected to survive, Dustin Johnson recently figured to be the favorite at this week’s PGA Championship in his home state of South Carolina. The storyline fits.

Johnson’s current form, including a missed cut at the Masters in April, tells a different story.

“D.J. is just in a funk right now, and he’s not doing anything,” Westgate SuperBook golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said.

Bryson DeChambeau is a driving-range circus act who has failed to set the golf world on fire lately, either, and two-time PGA champ Brooks Koepka has fallen off the map after knee surgery.

So who’s the favorite on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island? A wildly inconsistent player who just stopped an 18-month winless streak and has not won a major since 2014, of course.

Rory McIlroy tops the Circa Sports odds board at 11-1. McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow two weeks ago and is a horse for the course at Kiawah Island, where he blew away the field to win the PGA in 2012.

“That’s why he’s the favorite, coming off a win and going to a course where he won by eight shots,” Sherman said. “That’s the narrative, so it’s natural people are looking to bet Rory. He’s like the flavor of the week.”

The Ocean Course is the longest track in major-championship history at 7,876 yards. Perched alongside the Atlantic Ocean, its 10 seaside holes are the most of any course in North America, so it’s a beauty and a beast, especially in windy conditions.

DeChambeau (18-1) ranks No. 1 on the PGA Tour this season in driving distance, with McIlroy a close second. Johnson (17-1) ranks in the top 10. But Augusta National also favors big hitters, and McIlroy missed the Masters cut while DeChambeau disappeared into a tie for 46th, so the size of the drive is not what matters most.

“The last time the PGA Championship was held at the Ocean Course, seven of the top 10 players on the leaderboard were European,” VSiN golf handicapper Brady Kannon said. “The wind is not expected to be brutal this week, but I do believe it will be steady enough, so along with the links style of the golf course, many Europeans should find success again.”

Collin Morikawa of Las Vegas outplayed Johnson on Sunday to win last year’s PGA in San Francisco. It was his first major win, and that’s a trend. Fifteen of the last 21 majors have been won by first-timers, most recently Hideki Matsuyama at this year’s Masters, so don’t be afraid to bet on less accomplished players.

“There’s a lot of good guys in the middle of the list at pretty high odds,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “If you think one of the top guys won’t win, there are some opportunities out there with good prices.”

Sherman said McIlroy had become the favorite “by default.” No elite players are in especially dominant form, and that means more long shots should come into play.

Who will survive four grueling days at the beach? In what feels like a wide-open field, look for these golfers to hit the leaderboard on the weekend (Circa odds):

Justin Thomas (16-1): In the small group of favorites, Thomas appears to be the best bet. He’s more consistent and reliable than McIlroy, DeChambeau, Johnson and Jon Rahm. Thomas’ lone major win was the 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow, and he’s in decent recent form after winning the Players Championship in March. No single statistical category will point you the right way — the eventual winner will need to hit every club in the bag — and Thomas finds the top 10 in most key categories.

Thomas and Morikawa (35-1) have similar all-around games. In the category of strokes gained: approach to the green, Morikawa ranks first and Thomas second this season. Thomas typically ranks well in most other areas — driving distance, strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained tee to green — but his putting has been erratic. If his flat stick gets hot, he’s the most likely champion this week. He’s also due for another major win.

Daniel Berger (30-1): After winning the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, Berger faded from contention. He resurfaced last week at the Byron Nelson in Texas, where he shot 21 under par to tie for third, so he’s suddenly got his groove back. Berger and Viktor Hovland (25-1) rank highly in strokes gained off the tee, and Hovland is another player trending toward a major breakthrough.

“If Berger were to win this week, it wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Sherman said.

Cameron Smith (48-1): Americans have won five straight PGA Championships, but this could be the time to look more at Australian and European players, who tend to fare well in the wind. Smith is an Aussie to watch along with longer shots Marc Leishman (70-1) and Adam Scott (110-1). Leishman lands a lot of top 10s yet rarely wins, and Scott has not won a major in eight years. Smith flies under the radar despite tying for 10th at the Masters in March and tying for second at Augusta in November.

Tyrrell Hatton (54-1): Kannon fired on some bombs in this tournament, including Irishman Shane Lowry, the 2019 British Open champion, at 150-1. Kannon’s search for European players with odds value leads him to Hatton, a 29-year-old Englishman ranked ninth in the world.

“Hatton has won in extreme wind before at Bay Hill in Orlando and has performed very well on paspalum grass surfaces, notching a top-10 finish at the Saudi International in January,” Kannon said. “He can scramble, hit it long and straight, and is one of the best in the world in strokes gained: approach. Since winning in January, Hatton has five top-25 finishes, including an 18th at the Masters. This just might be the course and conditions for him to return to the winner's circle.”

Joaquin Niemann (60-1): In the first tournament of 2021, Niemann deftly handled the wind at the Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. He probably should have won the Tournament of Champions but missed a short putt on the 72nd hole and lost to Harris English in a playoff. Thomas was one stroke back in third.

The talented 22-year-old from Chile is grinding for a win, and Niemann’s odds are drifting (70-1 at DraftKings) into an attractive range. I played Niemann and also took a shot with Abraham Ancer at similar odds. Ancer, who finished one stroke behind McIlroy at Quail Hollow, is a sleeper worth a look.

Long shots offer the most pre-tournament betting value, and that should be especially true this week when most of the favorites appear fragile.

 

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