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Thomas, Koepka top picks in golf's 1st major

By Wes Reynolds  (Point Spread Weekly) 

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Justin Thomas
© Imagn
Justin Thomas won his 13th PGA Tour event last weekend at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational by three shots over Brooks Koepka, Tom Lewis, Daniel Berger and Phil Mickelson. Jon Rahm’s reign as world No. 1 lasted just two weeks, and Thomas now holds that spot and the role of co-favorite in the PGA Championship with Koepka at 10/1. Koepka is trying to become the first man to win three consecutive PGA Championships since Walter Hagen in the 1920s, when it was a match-play event.
 
Meanwhile, Thomas is endeavoring to become the first player to win a major while being No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking since Rory McIlroy did it at the 2014 PGA. The two chalks have also won the last three PGA Championships, and the last player not named Thomas or Koepka to win the Wanamaker Trophy was Jimmy Walker in 2016 at Baltusrol. Thomas led the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green last week in Memphis, which should be no surprise considering he leads the PGA Tour in that category for the season. 
 
McIlroy has two Wanamakers in his trophy case and is 12/1 to add a third. Last time the PGA Tour played TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, this week’s venue, McIlroy won the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play as the No. 1 seed. However, McIlroy has yet to even post a top-10 finish since the restart in June. Rahm, priced at 16/1, is arguably the best player yet to win a major, but it’s a matter of when Rahm finally gets the first of potentially multiple majors since he’s only 25. Bryson DeChambeau (16/1) has been the talk of the golf world this summer with his added bulk and out-of-this-world game off the tee. Xander Schauffele has been an early wise-guy play as he has been cut down to 18/1 from where I bet him at 25/1 several weeks ago. Rounding out the OWGR top-10 players are Dustin Johnson (20/1), Webb Simpson (25/1), Patrick Cantlay (25/1), Patrick Reed (50/1) and a returning Adam Scott (60/1), making his first appearance since the restart. 
 
Tiger Woods (30/1) is making just his second start since the pandemic, competing only at the Memorial three weeks ago. Woods won at Harding Park in October 2005 when he outlasted John Daly on the third playoff hole to take the WGC-American Express Championship. Woods also had arguably his best appearance in international team competition here in 2009, going 5-0 to lead the U.S. over the International team in the Presidents Cup. 
 
The Event
 
The 102nd edition of the PGA Championship was scheduled for May 14-17, but what’s old is new again as the schedule changes forced the PGA back to what had been its traditional August date until last year. The PGA of America is the organizer of the event. The sanctioning body was founded in 1916 by American department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker, and the PGA Championship trophy bears his name. From 1916-57, the PGA was a match-play event. 
 
TPC Harding Park is the first West Coast venue for the PGA since Sahalee, just outside Seattle, in 1998. The winner receives a five-year exemption for the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and Players Championship plus a PGA Championship lifetime exemption. The winner also receives five-year PGA Tour and seven-year European Tour exemptions. 
 
Here is the criteria to gain entry into the PGA Championship:
— Every former PGA champion.
— Winners of the last five U.S. Opens.
— Winners of the last five Masters.
— Winners of the last five British Opens.
— Winners of the last three Players Championships.
— Current Senior PGA champion.
— The low 15 scorers and ties in the previous PGA Championship.
— The 20 low scorers in the last PGA Professional Championship for PGA club and teaching professionals.
— The 70 leaders in official money standings on the PGA Tour, starting one week before the previous year’s PGA Championship and ending two weeks before the current year’s tournament.
— Members of the most recent U.S. and European Ryder Cup teams, provided they are in the top 100 of the Official World Golf Ranking one week before the start of the tournament.
— Any tournament winner co-sponsored or approved by the PGA Tour since the previous PGA Championship.
— The PGA of America reserves the right to invite additional players not included in these categories.
— The field is a maximum of 156 players. Vacancies are filled by the first available player from the list of alternates — those below 70th in official money standings.
 
The Course
TPC Harding Park hosts its first major, with the Presidents Cup coming there in 2025 as well. It was designed in 1925 by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, renovated in 2002 and reopened in 2003. The course is named after the 29th president, Warren G. Harding, who was an avid golfer and died in office while visiting San Francisco in 1923. Harding Park is a public course owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and operated by PGA Tour Golf Course Properties. The track has come a long way since 1998, when it was actually used as a parking lot for the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. Harding Park is a flat parklands course surrounded by Lake Merced. It will play as a par-70 of 7,234 yards but could play longer considering expected windy conditions. Six of 10 par-4s measure 450 yards or more, but there are also two risk-reward drivable par-4s, Nos. 7 and 16. The fairways and 4-inch-thick rough are composed of Kentucky Bluegrass with Ryegrass and the greens are Bentgrass/Poa Annua. The Poa seems to be taking over, and the greens may be less grainy than what the players saw last time out. To win, players will have to hit a lot of drivers. On the surface, bomb-and-gouge golf looks like the recipe for success, but the fairways are narrow at 22-30 yards wide and the rough looks like it could be punishing.
 
PGA Championship Recent History
2019: Brooks Koepka (-8/272) Bethpage Black, 10/1
2018: Brooks Koepka (-16/264) Bellerive, 20/1*
2017: Justin Thomas (-8/276) Quail Hollow, 45/1
2016: Jimmy Walker (-14/266) Baltusrol, 125/1
2015: Jason Day (-20/268) Whistling Straits, 14/1**
2014: Rory McIlroy (-16/268) Valhalla, 5/1***
2013: Jason Dufner (-10/270) Oak Hill, 40/1
2012: Rory McIlroy (-13/275) Kiawah Island, 20/1
2011: Keegan Bradley (-8/272) Atlanta Athletic, 175/1****
2010: Martin Kaymer (-11/277) Whistling Straits, 50/1*****
 
* - All-time PGA Championship 72-hole scoring record
** - Most strokes under par ever for a major
*** -  Largest margin of victory at PGA Championship
**** - Playoff win over Jason Dufner
***** - Playoff win over Bubba Watson
 
PGA Championship Trends, Angles and Stats
 
The week before:
— In 12 of the last 14 years, the PGA champion has finished in the top 20 the previous week.
— In five of the last eight years, the PGA champion has finished top 5 or better the previous week.
Year PGA champion Week-before finish
2019 Brooks Koepka 4th
2018 Brooks Koepka 5th
2017 Justin Thomas 28th
2016 Jimmy Walker 11th
2015 Jason Day 12th
2014 Rory McIlroy 1st
2013 Jason Dufner 4th
2012 Rory McIlroy 5th
2011 Keegan Bradley 15th
2010 Martin Kaymer 22nd
2009 Y.E. Yang 18th
2008 Padraig Harrington 20th
2007 Tiger Woods 1st
2006 Tiger Woods 1st
In recent years, top-class players have essentially dominated the major championships. The last 32 major winners have been ranked inside the OWGR top 50. The last man to win outside the top 50 was Keegan Bradley, then ranked 108th, at the 2011 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club. 
 
You’ll have to be good with the driver this week. So we’ll examine Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee and Driving Distance. 
 
Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee
1. Bryson DeChambeau (1) 1.120
2. Cameron Champ (2) 1.017
3. Sergio Garcia (3) 0.864
4. Rory McIlroy (4) 0.801
5. Jon Rahm (6) 0.710
6. Xander Schauffele (7) 0.682
7. Jason Kokrak (8) 0.647
8. Bubba Watson (9) 0.646
9. Scottie Scheffler (10) 0.619
10. Dustin Johnson (11) 0.583
11. Viktor Hovland (12) 0.575
12. Paul Casey (13) 0.571
13. Corey Conners (14) 0.561
Driving Distance
1. Bryson DeChambeau (1) 324.4
2. Cameron Champ (2) 321.3
3. Rory McIlroy (5) 312.9
4. Bubba Watson (7) 312.3
5. Matthew Wolff (8) 311.9
6. Jason Kokrak (T9) 311.3
7. Adam Scott (11) 310.3
8. Scottie Scheffler (12) 309.9
9. Tommy Fleetwood (T16) 308.2
10. Brooks Koepka (18) 308.1
11. Tony Finau (19) 308.0
12. Dustin Johnson (T20) 307.3
13. Erik van Rooyen (22) 307.2
Note: Every PGA Championship winner from 2011-19 has averaged 300+  yards in driving distance for the season. 
 
Length is highly important here, but it’s not a good idea to be in the 4-inch rough. So you have to be as long as you can but also in the fairway, and Total Driving (Driving Distance Rank +  Driving Accuracy Rank) should indicate who can give themselves chances on the greens. 
Total Driving
1. Paul Casey (1) 85
2. Jon Rahm (2) 87
3. Lucas Glover (3) 99
4. Dustin Johnson (4) 106
5. Bryson DeChambeau (T6) 113
6. Daniel Berger (8) 115
7. Scottie Scheffler (9) 117
8. Xander Schauffele (10) 118
9. Viktor Hovland (T11) 120
10. Doc Redman (T11) 120
11. Gary Woodland (T11) 120
12. Jazz Janewattananond (14) 122
A strong ball-striking game is important pretty much every week, but it’s especially crucial at a major. Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green, Strokes Gained: Approach and Greens In Regulation give us an idea whom the better ball strikers are.
Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green
1. Justin Thomas (1) 1.928
2. Hideki Matsuyama (2) 1.619
3. Sergio Garcia (3) 1.532
4. Collin Morikawa (4) 1.507
5. Rory McIlroy (5) 1.499
6. Xander Schauffele (6) 1.362
7. Patrick Cantlay (7) 1.339
8. Jon Rahm (8) 1.209
9. Bryson DeChambeau (9) 1.195
10. Tony Finau (10) 1.098
11. Viktor Hovland (11) 1.085
12. Webb Simpson (12) 1.082
13. Daniel Berger (13) 1.032
Note: The PGA champion rated ninth or better in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green for the previous event in the last 10 years.
Strokes Gained: Approach
1. Justin Thomas (1) 1.072
2. Collin Morikawa (2) 1.053
3. Hideki Matsuyama (3) 0.859
4. Patrick Cantlay (4) 0.822
5. Russell Henley (5) 0.796
6. Viktor Hovland (6) 0.784
7. Webb Simpson (7) 0.769
8. Paul Casey (8) 0.755
9. Marc Leishman (9) 0.751
10. Joaquin Niemann (10) 0.740
11. Tyrrell Hatton (11) 0.726
12. Gary Woodland (12) 0.715
13. Doc Redman (13) 0.633
Greens In Regulation
1. Jim Furyk (1) 74.60%
2. Emiliano Grillo (3) 72.51%
3. Corey Conners (4) 72.40%
4. Xander Schauffele (5) 72.02%
5. Russell Henley (6) 71.99%
6. Harris English (8) 71.83%
7. Hideki Matsuyama (10) 71.26%
8. Doc Redman (12) 70.76%
9. Bryson DeChambeau (13) 70.72%
10. Webb Simpson (14) 70.68%
11. Tyrrell Hatton (15) 70.63%
12. Tom Lewis (T16) 70.51%
13. Paul Casey (20) 70.42%
I often say putting can come and go, but the tee-to-green and ball-striking portions of the game have fewer inconsistencies. This is a major championship, so players will have to scramble to save tough pars. 
Scrambling
1. Brendon Todd (1) 68.23%
2. Daniel Berger (2) 68.01%
3. Abraham Ancer (4) 66.76%
4. Kevin Na (T5) 66.29%
5. Justin Thomas (T5) 66.29%
6. Xander Schauffele (7) 66.18%
7. Bryson DeChambeau (8) 65.61%
8. Harris English (9) 65.49%
9. Bud Cauley (12) 64.98%
10. Brian Harman (T14) 64.64%
11. Alex Noren (T14) 64.64%
12. Rory McIlroy (16) 64.63%
13. Kevin Kisner (17) 64.41%
Note: Numbers in parentheses indicate the overall ranking on the PGA Tour within the category. 
 
Selections
Xander Schauffele 20/1
For regular listeners to our VSiN show “Long Shots,” I mentioned several weeks ago that I bet Schauffele at 25/1. Some sharp overseas money has agreed with that sentiment, and he is now down in the range of 18/1 to 20/1. 
 
Schauffele has five top-6 finishes the last three years in majors and a top-3 finish or better in every major with the exception of the PGA. 
 
While he didn’t come in for us last week in Memphis, Schauffele finished a respectable T-6th and had bogey-free rounds on Thursday and Sunday. He finished four shots back of Thomas at 9 under par. The most impressive feat is that he ranked 74th of 78 players in the field for Strokes Gained: Approach. He lost an average of -1.39 strokes per round last week. That’s nearly six strokes for the tournament, which could have made the difference in at least contending for the win. His strength is more off the tee, but his iron play is better than he showed. He rates well into the top 10 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee, Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green, Greens In Regulation and Total Driving. 
 
Furthermore, Schauffele is also in the top 10 for Scrambling and actually led the field in Memphis for Strokes Gained: Around The Green, so he’s one of the best in the game at escaping trouble. 
 
Patrick Cantlay 28/1
Continuing with the California theme as Schauffele and Cantlay return to their home state for 2020’s first major. Schauffele (San Diego) and Cantlay (Long Beach) should relish being back in the Golden State. 
Cantlay showed he has the game to contend in majors last year with a T3 at the PGA and a T9 at the Masters, where he held the lead for a brief spell Sunday. 
While a T-35th last week in Memphis isn’t exactly inspiring and the week-before angle would disqualify him from consideration, Cantlay did shoot 8 under on the weekend, fourth best in the field. That could be a buy sign similar to what we saw with Rahm shooting 64 Sunday at the Workday and then winning the Memorial the next week. 
Cantlay ranks fourth in Strokes Gained: Approach and seventh in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green. 
 
Hideki Matsuyama 40/1
He’s a perennial disappointment in majors but comes in under the radar. Matsuyama has three top-25s since the restart, but remember the last time there was a full-field major-championship-type event, he was the first-round leader at the Players Championship with a 9-under 63. 
The ball-striking stats are always there (second in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green, third in Strokes Gained: Approach, 10th in Greens In Regulation), but the putting stats are usually dreadful for a player of his talent level. 
However, he does seem to like this course, having reached the round of 16 at the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play, where he ran into McIlroy, who dominated that event. 
Jason Day 48/1
It has been a lean two years for the former world No. 1. He hasn’t finished top 3 or better since winning the Wells Fargo in May 2018. Numerous injuries and swing changes dropped Day out of the OWGR top 60, but three straight top-7 finishes at the Workday, Memorial and the WGC event may indicate he has found something.
Day recently split with longtime swing coach and former caddie Colin Swatton, and it has seemingly done him some good to get back to basics. The short game has always been Day’s strength, and he still rates second on the tour in Strokes Gained: Around The Green and 4th in Sand Saves. However, he rated 10th in the field last week in Memphis for Strokes Gained: Approach, and the iron play has long been the weakest part of his game. 
Windy conditions are expected, and Day has a lot of experience with wind on the West Coast. He has won twice at Torrey Pines and is a perennial contender at Pebble Beach, including a fourth this year while completely out of form. That previous success also indicates he should be able to roll the ball well this week on the Bentgrass/Poa Annua greens.
Tony Finau 50/1
Two weeks ago at the 3M Open, Finau fell short of a win once again, tying for third. That near-miss added to a list he’d prefer not to top. 
Most top-10s without a win on the PGA Tour since 2016-17 season:
1. Tony Finau 30
2. Tommy Fleetwood 16
3. Kevin Streelman 15
4. Byeong Hun An 15
It would almost be fitting if he were to finally break through with a win where you’d least expect it. 
Sergio Garcia 86/1
Garcia is now 40, so the opportunities for wins will decline, but he has won at least one worldwide event in nine consecutive years. His last stateside win was the 2017 Masters, his lone major. He still has some gas left in the tank, and perhaps Garcia is out to prove he’s not ready to fade away.
Garcia is still one of the best drivers in the world. He ranks third on the tour in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee and Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green. In fact, he was second in the field at Memphis last week off the tee but never got it going anywhere else. The putter holds him back more often than not. Nonetheless, the wind could be the great equalizer, and a great driver like Garcia with a strong record in the wind could surprise. 
Shane Lowry 134/1
Lowry has failed to register a top-10 finish on the PGA or European tours since winning the British Open at Royal Portrush last summer. However, he comes into this week with some momentum off a T6 finish in Memphis last weekend. 
He had regular caddie Bo Martin, who returned from paternity leave, back on the bag, and that definitely gave Lowry some momentum. Last week he ranked second in Strokes Gained: Around The Green, second in Scrambling, sixth in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green, seventh for Greens In Regulation, 13th in Total Driving and 14th in Driving Distance. Furthermore, he was second for Strokes Gained: Approach in Sunday’s final round. 
This is a big price for the No. 26 player in the world who joins Koepka, Woods and Gary Woodland as reigning major champions. 
Danny Willett 150/1
Another wind specialist, I bet Willett after the Memorial, where he finished 32nd but was fourth after three rounds before a Sunday round of 82. He played better than his finish and also finished fourth at the Rocket Mortgage Classic two weeks before. 
Willett had success at Harding Park at the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play, having defeated players such as Patrick Reed, Lee Westwood and Tommy Fleetwood on the way to the semifinals before losing to Woodland. The No. 48 seed defeated Jim Furyk, then fifth in the world, to finish third. 
I mentioned earlier bets on VSiN’s “Long Shots” of Bryson DeChambeau at 25/1, which is obviously a better number than the current market, and Paul Casey at 50/1, which is a substantially worse number than the current market price.
 
English Championship
 
Sam Horsfield (30/1) earned his first European Tour victory last weekend at the Hero Open by one stroke over Thomas Detry, who is slowly becoming the Belgian Finau. He just can’t get into the winner’s circle, with five finishes of third or better in the last four seasons. Horsfield, the fourth choice this week at 18/1, is just 23, and the young man from Manchester has the potential to be a breakout player across the pond and perhaps in the U.S., where he has lived since he was 5. Detry, having a runner-up and an eighth to his credit since the restart, is the tournament favorite at 12/1. Lee Westwood (14/1) is not traveling overseas due to concerns pertaining to the pandemic, so he has stayed in the UK. Rasmus Hojgaard (16/1) has three top-6 finishes since the restart, including a runner-up two weeks ago at the British Masters. The 19-year-old from Denmark became the third-youngest player to win a European Tour event in December in Mauritius at just 18 years 271 days, and he comes from an excellent amateur pedigree. Andy Sullivan disappointed last week with a 41st-place finish after a fourth at the British Masters. He and New Zealander Ryan Fox, with back-to-back top-15s to his credit, are priced at 20/1. 
 
The Event
 
The English Championship is a first-time and likely one-time event due to this year’s schedule changes. It is the third tournament in the UK swing. Since U.S. Open sectional qualifying events were canceled this year due to the pandemic, the USGA is offering spots for the top 10 non-exempt players in aggregate after the first five events. This week’s venue, Hanbury Manor, hosted the English Open from 1997-99. Lee Westwood won the 1998 event on this course. 
 
The Course
 
Hanbury Manor Golf Club is in Ware, Hertfordshire, England, about an hour’s drive north of London. It is part of the Hanbury Manor Hotel, which is a converted Victorian country house bought by Marriott in 1999. The course was designed in the early 1900s by six-time Open champion Harry Vardon as a nine-hole course, which now serves as a tree-lined back nine. Jack Nicklaus II came in 1991 and turned it into an 18-hole layout, and the front nine is a bit more wide open. Hanbury Manor will play as a par-71 of 7,042 yards. The fairways are relatively easy to hit and the greens are a creeping bentgrass, so they will be relatively smooth and manicured, and birdies should be plentiful.
 
Angles and Trends
 
We don’t have any recent course form considering the last event played here was in 1999. Nevertheless, we can look back to that event to get an idea what skill set is required. 
 
Place Player Score GIR Field Ranking
1st Darren Clarke -20 9th
2nd John Bickerton -18 13th
T-3rd David Carter -14 4th
T-3rd Stephen Leaney -14 4th
T-5th Andrew Coltart -13 9th 
T-5th Colin Montgomerie -13 1st
As you can see, Hanbury Manor looks to be a second-shot course, so let’s examine the important second-shot statistics. 
 
Greens In Regulation
1. Connor Syme (1) 75.00%
2. Adrien Saddier (2) 75.00%
3. Jordan Smith (4) 74.57%
4. Ashley Chesters (5) 74.20%
5. Alexander Levy (6) 74.17%
6. Ross Fisher (7) 74.00%
7. Cormac Sharvin (9) 73.54%
8. Gavin Green (10) 73.39%
9. Brandon Stone (11) 73.09%
10. Maverick Antcliff (13) 72.65%
11. Thomas Detry (14) 72.55%
12. Matthew Jordan (16) 72.45%
13. Lorenzo Gagli (17) 72.22%
Strokes Gained: Approach
1. Lorenzo Gagli (4) + 1.31
2. Pedro Figueiredo (5) 1.31
3. Andy Sullivan (6) 1.30
4. Thomas Detry (7) 1.01
5. Renato Paratore (8) 1.00
6. Adrien Saddier (10) 0.91
7. Ashley Chesters (11) 0.91
8. Oliver Wilson (12) 0.91
9. Joel Sjoholm (13) 0.86
10. Ryan Fox (14) 0.82
11. Zander Lombard (17) 0.73
12. Louis De Jager (19) 0.73
13. Lee Slattery (20) 0.69
 
Selections
Aaron Rai 35/1
Rai was tipped here last week and ended up with a top-10. He’s always accurate off the tee and has ranked in the top 5 in that category for the last four years. Rai also has strong GIR numbers year in and year out. Now at the midpoint of the UK swing to gain a U.S. Open spot, just one more good finish could get it done for Rai.
Lorenzo Gagli 40/1
The Italian leads the European Tour for Strokes Gained: Approach and is 13th for Greens In Regulation. He finished ninth in Austria three weeks ago and has taken the first two weeks off of the UK swing but should come in fresh this week. 
Ashley Chesters 50/1
GIR has been important on this course in the past. Chesters ranks in the top 7 for GIR (4th) and Strokes Gained: Approach (7th).
Matthew Southgate 80/1
Southgate was 35th at the British Masters and 22nd last week at the Hero Open in his first two starts on the tour reboot. He actually played better than his finish indicated with a ranking of eighth in All-Around. 
Max Kieffer 80/1
The German finished sixth last week just up the road at the Hero Open, where he shot 67-68 on the weekend and tied for the best mark in last week’s field. 
Sean Crocker 100/1
Raised in California, young Crocker would surely rather be playing in his adopted home state this week, but the 23-year-old is grinding away on the European Tour. He posted a 2020 season best of 15th last week at the Hero Open. The two-time All-American at USC has a good enough tee-to-green game (33rd SG: Off-The-Tee, 34th SG: Approach) but needs some putts to drop.
Adrien Saddier 100/1
Like Chesters, Saddier who fits the ball-striking statistical profile. The Frenchman rates second on tour for GIR and sixth in Strokes Gained: Approach.
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