There’s no Tiger Woods and a brand new system, but who is the best bet at East Lake?
Golf expert Ben Coley is on a hat-trick as he picks out four selections for the season-ending TOUR Championship at East Lake.
- All selections are without FedEx Cup starting scores; clicking them will populate betslip with Sky Bet – prices may differ
‘Peace of mind’ either is or once was the company mantra of FedEx, owners of the PGA Tour close-season. It implies a calmness brought about by due diligence; the sort of tranquility which comes only from knowing all bases are covered. Or in other words, that comfort of knowing your parcel is being looked after in transit. There’s just no feeling like it.
It’s in the spirit of their own mission statement that FedEx have forced the PGA Tour into ripping up the final event of the season, the TOUR Championship. They’re forking out tens of millions of dollars, after all, and want the reassurance that their baby – the FedEx Cup – will be the story. It wasn’t last year, as the purity of actual sporting drama took over courtesy of Tiger Woods, and it wasn’t in 2017, when Xander Schauffele nervily held off Justin Thomas. Schauffele won the tournament, Thomas won the bounty; perfect on the one hand, unacceptable on the other.
So here we are, preparing for the start of an event which has forsaken credibility for simplicity. Instead of a tournament and a season-long points race coexisting, they have been forced together to make an ugly portmanteau of birdies and dollars. The winner of the TOUR Championship is the winner of the FedEx Cup is the winner of $15million. It will if nothing else be easy to follow.
The scoring system goes like this: on Thursday, Justin Thomas, by virtue of his position atop the FedEx Cup rankings, will begin the tournament on 10-under. Patrick Cantlay, in second, is eight-under with Brooks Koepka next on seven-under, and every player attributed a score according to where exactly they sit inside the top 30 players who qualified for East Lake. From there, everything is as you would expect: one less than par is a birdie, one more is a bogey, and these traditional scores will help determine the winner.
What this means is that the best player this week may not win the tournament. In fact, it’s likely they don’t – unless Thomas happens to be the best player again or one of those closest to him produces the low 72-hole total. If the best player is Jason Kokrak, who begins the tournament giving the leader 10 shots, it’ll have to be by an almighty margin if he’s to be called a PGA Tour winner at last. That he’s 300/1 to pull off this feat tells you all you need to know.
Gladly, bookmakers will give us both options. If you want to bet on the winner of the tournament, allocated scores included, you can do so. Thomas begins with a two-shot lead but 72 holes over which to defend it, and he’s a 5/2 chance. I don’t envy those who had to pump the numbers into the system and make adjustments to what was churned out, because this is unprecedented stuff which the players themselves will have to adapt to quickly.
My preference then is to focus on the 72-hole market which ignores pre-allocated scores. Partly, this is stubbornness, but it’s also an acknowledgement that this is what we deal with every week. Working out the value of a two-stroke lead at the beginning of a four-round event is a challenge we don’t have to take on, and I’m not going to.
I also prefer the 72-hole market because I think there’s an angle, and that is the idea that the further down the FedEx Cup you look, the less pressure and greater freedom you’ll find. Kokrak knows he’s got next to no chance to win this thing, and I just wonder whether that’s a mindset advantage he or someone else will be able to exploit – at least over the first couple of rounds.
As such, and in acknowledgement that this could be devilishly difficult to track given that the PGA Tour surely won’t produce two leaderboards, I really do like the look of Hideki Matsuyama here.
Last week’s third place was a little better than ideal, moving Matsuyama to 15th place, but he’s still beginning the event seven strokes behind Thomas and with something close to flawless required if he’s to pick up silverware and the winner’s cheque.
That should give the Japanese licence to go out and be aggressive, which is absolutely when he’s at his most dangerous. We saw as much at a soft Medinah last week as he carded rounds of 63 on Friday and Sunday, and he’s fancied to pick up where he left off when play begins.
Matsuyama ranked inside the top 10 in every key statistical category at the BMW Championship but it’s still the putter which rates a concern, having been obscenely hot in the second round, good in the fourth, but poor in both the first and third.
Still, there are overall signs of progress and it’s clear that he knows that is is the difference between winning as he did so frequently in 2016 and 2017, and finishing third as he has done twice this year.
And as he alluded to last week, he is at last finding some confidence and consistency on the greens for all that there are good days and bad.
“I have seen and received a lot of advice, good advice from some real good putting professionals and starting to get that feeling back that I had three years ago when I putted well and I’m happy about that.”
Matsuyama has five TOUR Championship appearances behind him and he’s getting better with experience, finishing inside the top five in two of the last three years. In 2018, he was typically excellent from tee to green – third for fairways and greens, first in approach play – only to rank 27th of 30 in putting, while in 2017 he produced one of the ugliest putting displays you’ll see to rank dead last.
However, he’s also led the field in putting at this course back in 2016 so it’s not the surfaces themselves which are presenting a problem, and I’m happy to chance him finding something decent at a layout which otherwise suits him down to the ground. East Lake is an old-school par-70 which rewards quality iron play, and there remain few better in that department.
Like Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas over the last fortnight, Matsuyama also brings serious motivation to the table having now gone two years without a victory, and while he’s unlikely to be changing that this week there’s an excellent chance he’s the best player in the field.
Paul Casey begins a shot further back on two-under and circumstances appear perfect for him to once again shine at East Lake.
The Englishman has four top-five finishes in five visits to the sort of classical course he loves, one not dissimilar in terms of requirements to Copperhead, where he’s picked up two PGA Tour wins over the last two seasons.
Bar the Masters, where Casey talked up his own chances only to fail miserably on Thursday, he’s had another excellent year and this has always been an ideal course at which to end the PGA Tour season when it comes to picking up a big cheque.
With $5million separating payouts for second and eighth, there is a lot on the line here but it’s the fact that Casey has a heck of a lot on his plate when it comes to collecting the trophy which may make him all the more dangerous in the 72-hole market.
Casey plans to come out and attack and if things do click for him, there simply aren’t many better equipped to score at East Lake specifically. From a position where he won’t have to think about the title until the weekend at the earliest, that puts him right towards the top of my shortlist.
Next is Kevin Kisner, who simply looks like he’s coming to the boil – perhaps in time to earn a second Presidents Cup start despite qualifying having concluded on Sunday.
A World Golf Championship winner earlier this year, Kisner lost form mid-summer but is back on track now, with finishes of 30th, 27th, 12th and ninth since the Open at Portrush.
Finishing inside the top 10 last week was a serious effort given that the course was long, soft, wide and simply perfect for the long ball, which Kisner just does not possess as one of the shorter but more accurate players on the circuit.
Having made very few mistakes despite being at a huge distance disadvantage, Kisner looks to have built up enough confidence to be a serious factor on an old-school layout in Georgia, where he went to college and the state in which he secured his first PGA Tour win at the back-end of 2015.
Third on his last start at East Lake, we know this Donald Ross design suits him perfectly and 66/1 looks far too big to my eye, especially as he starts the week alongside Casey and therefore up against it when it comes to landing the jackpot.
Clearly, these players are used to competing for the sport’s riches and just because he starts with a lead to defend, Thomas can’t be ruled out in the 72-hole market, a comment which also applies to Cantlay, Koepka and all those who feel their chance is a realistic one. Indeed you could argue they’ll benefit from a greater sense of focus as the week begins.
However, as has been alluded to by the absent Jordan Spieth, the temptation for those out in front will be to defend a little and that’s not easy at a course with its fair share of risk and reward. It’s also very much against the mindset of a modern professional and even if they pull it off, it leaves them vulnerable in the market I’ve targeted.
It’s this new variable which shapes my thinking, reserving the right of course to reassess next time this absurd thing comes around, and it leads me to Lucas Glover as the final selection ahead of Charles Howell III and Kokrak.
The latter is respected and can take huge pride in the way he sealed his place here, one which comes with a Masters invite and more, but he hasn’t played this course before and while there are exceptions, it’s always hard for first-time visitors to overcome that handicap.
It’s been 10 years for Glover, but he does have some positive course form to call upon courtesy of a couple of top-10 finishes, and the man from Greenville, South Carolina (yes, that one, fellow Murder Etc. listeners) will be looking forward to teeing it up in Georgia again.
Glover has earned his spot through being fabulously reliable this season, one of the best of his major-winning career, and his heightened consistency has come from finding a workable putting stroke.
Yet again last week it was perfectly good – Glover ranked 30th of 69 players and whenever he’s mid-pack, he’s dangerous – and with the iron play firing as it has most years, he looks like a player who is ready to win again.
This scoring system will stop him doing that from 10 behind, but that gives this fragile sort the benefit of freedom as he’ll need something really special to get unlock the big bucks.
Like Casey, when you give someone with this level of ball-striking ability the freedom to go and fire at flags, with nothing to lose should it not quite come off, there’s potential for something special. At 70/1 and with just 26 players to beat for an each-way return, that’ll do for me.
Posted at 1700 BST on 19/08/19.