The PGA Championship, the second major of the golf season, returns to Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma, beginning Thursday. Southern Hills is a classic venue, having held seven majors before this week.
The last time we saw the PGA tee it up at Southern Hills was 2007, when Tiger Woods won it with a winning score of 8-under par. Before that, Retief Goosen won the U.S. Open in 2001 and Nick Price won the PGA in 1994 at Southern Hills. Back then, the course required accuracy off the tee and a great short game. The common thread among the leaders in those three major championships was hitting a high percentage of greens in regulation.
In 2019, Gil Hanse was called in to make some changes to Southern Hills. The biggest change was removing the dense rough around the greens. Players will now find runoff areas surrounding the putting surfaces, much like Augusta or Pinehurst No. 2. Any ball landing near or on an edge this week will likely roll off of the green for a very difficult chip shot.
Hanse also removed numerous trees, which will create more room off the tee. Players will not have nearly as much trouble finding the fairways, but proper placement will still be key. Southern Hills has a great deal of undulation and fairways often slope in one direction while a dogleg turns the opposite way. Rarely will players find a perfectly flat lie in the fairway this week.
And that leads me to iron play. I believe hitting precision irons may be the most important asset this week. Being able to work the ball in both directions from the fairway, negotiate the wind, find greens in regulation — and show a deft chipping touch when missing greens — will go a long way toward hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy.
Here are the full tournament head-to-head matchups that I considered and those that I played:
Considered (19-21 YTD)
— Xander Schauffele (-115) over Viktor Hovland
— Hideki Matsuyama (-120) over Viktor Hovland
— Shane Lowry (-130) over Joaquin Niemann
— Daniel Berger (-125) over Brooks Koepka
Played (15-18 YTD)
— Daniel Berger (-135) over Jason Day. Berger fits the profile of a great iron player and wind player and a short-game specialist. He is second in the field in Strokes Gained: Approach, 12th in Greens in Regulation and 41st in Scrambling. Day hits a high ball and that could be a detriment in the wind. He’s 91st in the field in SG: Approach and 84th in GIR. Berger is also 11th in Bogey Avoidance to Day's 96th.
— Gary Woodland (+ 145) over Russell Henley. The stats are pretty close between these two players but the price is not. Woodland has two top-five finishes plus another top 10 among five top 25s in the last three months. Interestingly, Woodland finished sixth in the 2018 PGA at Bellerive and eighth in the 2019 PGA at Bethpage Black, two venues that have also hosted U.S. Opens. He also has ninth- and 14th-place finishes at Colonial Country Club, which was designed by the same architect as Southern Hills (Perry Maxwell). Henley finished 50th at Bellerive and his best-ever finish at Colonial was 58th. The outright market prices are pretty close with Henley around 100-1 and Woodland around 125-1. The head-to-head price indicates a wider gap than what I believe exists.
— Chris Kirk (-135) over Kevin Kisner. Kirk has excellent short-game and scrambling stats and enough length off the tee. He's ninth in the field on SG: Par-4s of 450-500 Yards and 18th in Proximity from 125-150 yards. We know Kisner's strength is the short game, but short is also the problem. He'll be the first to admit that long courses are not his strong suit. I think Kirk will have some success this week, and this 7,400-yard, par-70 is probably too much for Kisner.
— Max Homa (+ 125) over Tony Finau. This is another case in which the stats don't match the discrepancy in price. Homa should be + 110 or a pick’em. He is better than Finau on approach, hits more greens in regulation and putts far better from inside of 10 feet. Homa just won on a very difficult golf course (Potomac) and hasn't missed a cut since January. Finau finished second in Mexico on a much easier golf course against one of the weakest fields of the year and has three missed cuts since January. At one very well respected book in Las Vegas, Homa is actually a few points lower than Finau in the outright market.
Check out “LongShots” this week for every play from myself, Matt Youmans, Wes Reynolds and our two guests, Dave Tindall from BetFair and Jeff Davis from Circa Sports. You can find it at VSiN.com/podcasts.