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2018 Honda Classic Picks & Preview, And Is Bubba Back?

2018-honda-classic-picks

Every weekend hacker is looking for the latest and greatest product to deliver a miracle to their game. And the manufacturers know it! That’s why the Golf Channel is chock full of commercials to try and entice you to buy their products with buzz words such as “jail-break” or “twist-face” technology that promises longer and straighter shots. Hell, you’ll even see infomercials for gimmicks such as the Square Strike Wedge or the GX-7 Metal, products that claim to be lifesavers to your game and instantly cure all your ailments off the tee or around the green.

Case in point – my dad swears by his trusty Polara Golf Balls, a brand that’s landed on the non-conforming list of the USGA. Polara created a self correcting golf ball thanks to a dimple pattern that reduces the amount of spin off the club face, even on off-plane swing paths. As a long time sufferer of a slice, my dad uses these exclusively tee to green before switching to a Titleist or Callaway to putt. The trade off is that you can’t hit it nearly as far as you would a normal ball, as evidence when I rib him that we can build a Wal-Mart between my Pro V1 and his Polara. But every Fathers Day he gets a fresh box of Polara’s from me, and because of his loyalty to the brand Polara recently filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy to allow them to reorganize instead of the Chapter 7 that’d force them out of business for good.

For most people, changing balls or spending $2,000 on a new set of Taylor Made M4 irons and metals doesn’t do jack squat for your game. If you’re double crossing with the hand-me-down set your dad gave you when you were 18, chances are you’ll be pumping your drive into the woods with that shiny new $400 driver you took off the rack at Dick’s too.

But for an elite professional golfer, their games are so fine tuned that going from one product to another can be the difference between losing your PGA Tour card to being a consistent threat at the top of the leaderboard.

That’s what makes Bubba Watson’s decision to abandon Titlist golf balls for little known Volvik Golf Company in 2017 so baffling. From a branding standpoint, I get why Bubba could be drawn to a company like Volvik: they’re a big sponsor of the Long Drive Competition (which is basically like watching the 2001 Home Run Derby during the height of the steroid era) and the balls come in a wide variety of flashy colors like green, orange, and pink. Given Bubba’s affinity for the color pink in support of his wife’s bout with breast cancer and his ability to hit the ball far, they were a match made in heaven.

The results: disastrous. Who would have thunk that playing a golf ball designed exclusively for power that lacks touch and distance control would wreck havoc on a golfer who can’t hit a ball straight and relies on incredible shot shaping to succeed on the PGA Tour? Bubba Watson ranked 7th and 40th in Strokes Gained on Approach in 2015 and 2016, respectively, but plummeted all the way to 145th in that metric using Volvik’s in 2017. He was completely befuddled with how the ball would come off the face of his irons. With these struggles, Bubba fell from the Top 10 to outside the Top 100 in the World Golf Rankings in just over a years time.

This year, Bubba ditched the Putt-Putt balls and went back to Pro V1’s, and, what do you know, he won the 2018 Genesis Open for the third time in his career! Admittedly, I am not a Bubba Watson fan, and if you’re reading this you probably already know how big of a toddler and weirdo he can be. But what I forgot (or, rather, what I didn’t appreciate enough) was that when Bubba is on and he’s pulling off mind-bending, physics defying golf shots like these…

…he makes watching golf a lot more fun and leaves your jaw on the floor.

So, like every other blog or podcast this week, I’m obliged to give my take on this question: is Bubba back?!?! For our purposes, though, we need to assess whether Bubba is once again a viable candidate to put down a futures bet to win the Masters, which was discussed in this space last week. In short – yes, he’s probably back. If Bubba is back to being able to hit a massive fade or big hook with his irons on command to give him manageable birdie opportunities, there is absolutely no reason why he can’t add another Green Jacket to his wardrobe.

The problem, though, is that the time to get in on him was when his odds were at 50/1. Some books were pretty slow to pick up his success over the weekend, and I was able to find him at 50/1 at some offshore books as late as Sunday night. But if you waited until Monday morning, by then the books had already adjusted his odds to 25 or even 20/1 to kill any value he had before the tournament.

With the win he’s back in the Top 60 in the world, which means he’ll qualify for both the upcoming WGC events, and I’m guessing he’ll play at Bay Hill in March before he heads to Augusta. There’s a chance some of his heat will cool off and he’ll drop back towards 30 or 35/1 if he has so-so performances at those tournaments. If that happens, then you probably still have a value in your hand, but if you’re looking to jump on now you’ve missed the boat.

(Did I really just pump up Bubba freaking Watson? The guy who refused to participate in a longest drive competition for charity in a practice round because he doesn’t want to “goof around”, but then trounces around as Bubba Claus in crappy rap videos? Time to get back on brand and celebrate my #NeverBubba stance by watching this on an endless loop):

2018 Honda Classic Picks and Preview

The west coast swing is over and the PGA Tour shifts back to an east coast bias with the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens. Opened in the early 80’s, the resort consists of four courses designed by Tom Fazio, with the tournament held at its 7,100 yard Par 70 Champion Course.

Most golf pundits aren’t taking the transition from Riviera to PGA National all that well:

They have a point. The Champion course at PGA National is windmill and clowns mouth short of being quite similar to the miniature golf course you’d take your kids to. It’s too tricked out. Often when the pros complain about a course setup I seldom give any sympathy, but between all the water hazards, the windy conditions, the deep rough, super tucked (ridiculous?) pin placements and the narrow fairways, it’s not a lot of fun for either the pros playing or the viewers watching.

But like the golf sadists that run amok at the USGA, PGA National seems to take great pride in its difficulty, most notably with the stretch of grueling holes from the 15th through 17th known as The Bear Trap. The Bear Trap consists of a long Par 4 sandwiched between a pair of Par 3’s and named for the infamous Jack Nicklaus, who helped redesign the course in 1990. Players will be hitting approaches over large water hazards into the prevailing easterly winds, and if a player escapes this stretch at even par they should count their blessings. With cameras swarming all over The Bear Trap and microphones placed close to the water hazards, all failures will be seen and heard.

Scores here average about 1.5 shots over par, and with the winds expected to be howling this weekend I’d be very surprised if the winning score is double digits under par. With narrow fairways and the positioning of hazards and doglegs, you’ll see most guys take iron or fairway metal off the tee more than they normally would. That should level the playing field and yield some pretty wonky leaderboards. That means you might have to swing for the fences as you look at the betting odds or your DraftKings lineup. But if you gravitate towards golfers with solid iron games to keep the ball in play and have a history of success on bermuda golf courses and windy conditions, you should fare well.

Here’s who I like this weekend (with win odds and DraftKings values):

The Favorites:

  • Rickie Fowler: 8/1, $11,700
  • Justin Thomas: 9/1, $11,300
  • Rory McIlroy: 10/1, $11,500
  • Sergio Garcia: 14.5/1, $10,500

The two names that stick out if you’re looking to build around a stud in your DraftKings lineup are Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia. Each have strong histories on bermuda golf courses and windy conditions, and each have a strong command on their irons to avoid trouble lurking around PGA National. Each also has past success navigating the tricky course as Rickie’s won this event in 2017, and Sergio finished runner up to Adam Scott in this event in 2016. While this is Sergio’s first event on U.S. soil this year and we don’t have a lot of data on the state of his game stateside, he played well overseas and with the relatively flat greens at PGA National his shortcomings with the putter should be muted. I like these two over Justin Thomas, who hasn’t fared as well in windy conditions and could see his high ball flight get pushed to a watery grave a few times at The Bear Trap.

Even though Rory McIlroy is well known for his strong history at the Honda Classic, I’m not feeling his game of late. My gauge on when to get on the Rory Train hinges on how well he’s striking his irons, particularly his wedges. While Rory struck his irons much better in the final round, overall he carried over his struggles from Pebble Beach into the Genesis and ranked 56th in the field in Strokes Gained on Approach. And though the sample size is still small, on approaches 125-150 yards this year Rory has an average proximity of 22’9″, which would only be 73rd on tour. When he’s on, he’s putting his wedges within 15 feet at a high frequency, but until he starts improving that metric I’ll be shying away from him on my betting cards or DraftKings lineups.

With huge numbers on the scorecard out there, there’s a better chance we’ll see a longshot win this week than a favorite. I’d rather put down win odds at guys 30/1 or below than devote capital on any of the favorites. Instead, try laying some capital on a few of these guys:

Other Contenders:

  • Daniel Berger: 40/1, $8,800
  • Ollie Schniederjans: 55/1, $8,400

Here’s a pair of guys who left sour tastes in their backers mouths last week, as each missed the cut despite being fairly popular plays on DraftKings. But both these guys have a good history on bermuda grasses and should fare better this week with a bit less ownership.

Daniel Berger lost in a playoff in this event in 2015 during his rookie year and both of his victories on the PGA Tour came on bermuda grass, as he’s the two time defending champion at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He also played well on bermuda at TPC Scottsdale three weeks ago, so look for him to bounce back for a better finish this week.

As for Ollie Schniederjans, he’s a bit of a tough pill to swallow. As someone I’ve backed a few times this year, I’ve noticed he’s put up some big numbers on Par 3’s that’s torpedoed his chances, so we could see him implode at the 15th and 17th if he’s not on his A game. But throughout his career he’s gained almost a stroke per round on bermuda grass versus other types, and like Berger he recently played very well on the bermuda at TPC Scottsdale. Despite some clunkers he ranks 21st on tour in Strokes Gained Approach, and he’s scored well when asked to hit higher lofted irons into greens this year. Given the shorter track, that’s a shot that will be asked plenty out of him this week.

Honorable Mention: Gary Woodland (30/1, $9,700), Rafael Cabrera Bello (40/1, $8,100), Jason Dufner (50/1, $8,600)

  • Ryan Palmer: 70/1, $7,300
  • Byeong Hun An: 75/1, $7,400
  • Jhonattan Vegas: 100/1, $7,400

Looking a little deeper, here’s a trio of guys with a strong history on bermuda courses that can be sneaky options for longshot win bets and cheap fillers in your DraftKings lineups.

Ryan Palmer came into the 2018 season on a medical exemption after failing to finish within the Top 125 of the FedEx standings. But thanks to a 2nd place finish at the Farmers Insurance Open in January he was able to regain his full time status on the PGA Tour. So far in 2018 he’s hit the ball superbly, ranking 20th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 10th in Relative to Par Scoring between 125-150 yards, which will be a frequent distance on approaches with some shorter holes this week. I like him to post another solid performance at PGA National this weekend.

Admittedly, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Byeong Hun An. He always seems to rank highly in the ball striking categories but often times isn’t able to back that up with consistent Top 30 finishes. But looking through his career on the PGA Tour his peaks have been at bermuda courses, with notable Top 10 finishes at places like TPC Scottsdale, TPC Louisiana, Eagle Point and TPC Four Seasons. While I’m not crazy about his 75/1 odds to win the tournament or his related Top 10 or 20 odds, his ownership in DraftKings should be pretty low given some of the other chalkier names around his value. He’s a bit of a close my eyes special for me this week, as he’ll either be a hero or make me want to slit my wrists as he rolls up to the In-N-Out at The Bear Trap and orders up a few Double-Double’s.

Like Berger and Schniederjans, Jhonattan Vegas put up a huge dud at the Genesis last week. But there were some positives to take out of his short time in Los Angeles. Vegas was fairly solid from tee to green in his two rounds at Riviera last week, including gaining a whopping 4 Shots Tee to Green and 1.5 Shots on Approaches in Round 2. Unfortunately for Jhonny, it was his atrocious -2.73 Shots Lost Putting per Round that sunk his weekend.  Thankfully he moves off poa annua and onto bermuda greens this week, which is a surface he admittedly feels more comfortable on. Vegas has notable solid finishes at bermuda tournaments such as the CareerBuilder, The Zurich and just last year at the Honda Classic where he finished T4. Given his poor play last week, his ownership should be fairly low and give you a cheap contrarian play in your DraftKings lineup this week.

Honorably Mention: Louis Oosthuizen (65/1, $7,900), Chesson Hadley (65/1, $7,700), Lucas Glover (75/1, $7,200), Bud Cauley (95/1, $7,800)

  • Stewart Cink: 250/1, $6,700
  • Talor Gooch: 300/1, $7,000

Like I mentioned earlier, given how difficult this course sets up we may see some long shots populate the Top 10 when it’s all said and done. Here’s two deep sleepers I like for Top 20 and super cheap options in your DraftKings lineup.

The Honda Classic has seen its share of elder statesman winners such as Padraig Harrington in 2015, Mark Wilson in 2007 and Todd Hamilton in 2004. Because the course favors shot placement over distance, a saavy veteran who’s able to avoid trouble can emerge at the top of the leaderboard. Stewart Cink certainly fits the bill as a grinder who could make a run this weekend. While his ball striking isn’t quite as good as it was last year, he’s still ranking 38th in Strokes Gained on Approach and 12th in Par 4 Scoring Average. On a Par 70 course with numerous hazards waiting to gobble up errant shots, his ability to avoid putting up big numbers on the scorecard could make a huge difference by the end of the tournament.

Talor Gooch hasn’t shined as bright as some of his fellow PGA Tour rookies like Brandon Harkins or Austin Cook have. However, I like targeting guys who are coming off tournaments with solid ball striking but hurt themselves on the greens, and that’s what happened to Gooch at the Genesis. Gooch was 8th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green at Riviera last week and led the field in Strokes Gained on Approach. But thanks to losing half a shot per round on the greens he was relatively anonymous all weekend. Despite that, he was able to grind out a Top 20 finish, and if he can keep up his good ball striking numbers he should once again post a solid finish at a place where the greens won’t play quite as tough.

Honorable Mention: J.J. Spaun (190/1, $6,900), Tom Hoge (250/1, $7,000), Aaron Wise (250/1, $7,200)

BUT WHAT ABOUT TIGER?!?!?!

What, did you think I could go this whole article without mentioning the Big Cat?

Here’s the good news for anyone who wants to drink Tiger’s Kool-Aid this weekend: his odds and value on DraftKings have come down (as have his ownership percentages) from the unrealistic levels he was at a few weeks ago. And Tiger does have the best scoring average at PGA National since 2010 (granted, he hasn’t teed it up there since 2014 and a Final Round 62 in 2012 certainly drags down the average).

But PGA National is not a place someone goes to cure their swing ails, and Tiger is a bit of a hot mess right now. Coming into Torrey Pines he claimed that he’d eliminated a miss left, yet we’ve seen the Big Cat double cross several drives into the left rough in his first two tournaments of the year. Not only that, he’s struggling with his approaches and seeing a two way miss there. When his short game faltered in Round 2, so too did his scores.

In his postround presser Tiger admitted that his irons are a problem and that he’ll focus on that area this week. And because the fairways are narrow he’ll (hopefully) leave his troublesome driver in the bag in favor of a long iron or 3 Wood. But with gusty conditions in the forecast, if he’s still struggling with his approaches then he might be packing his bags on Friday afternoon once again.

I shutter to think of Tiger carding square after square from the 15th hole through the 18th as he deposits a few Bridgestones into the drink. So if your book offers any Tiger Woods props this week, I like over 70.5 First Round Score at -130 for Tiger, particularly because the winds are coming directly from the east on Thursday at 15-20 MPH. In those conditions, that’s where the course bears its fangs the most.

Hopefully Tiger can come back in a few weeks at Bay Hill without as much course rust, but for this week it’s best to avoid once again.

Honda Classic DraftKings Lineup #1:

  • Sergio Garcia: $10,500
  • Tommy Fleetwood: $9,400
  • Daniel Berger: $8,800
  • Ryan Palmer: $7,300
  • Lucas Glover: $7,200
  • Stewart Cink: $6,700

Honda Classic DraftKings Lineup #2:

  • Gary Woodland: $9,700
  • Jason Dufner: $8,600
  • Webb Simpson: $8,300
  • Rafael Cabrera Bello: $8,100
  • Louis Oosthuizen: $7,900
  • Byeong Hun An: $7,400

Honda Classic DraftKings Lineup #3:

  • Rickie Fowler: $11,700
  • Ollie Schniederjans: $8,400
  • Bud Cauley: 7,800
  • Chesson Hadley: $7,700
  • Jhonattan Vegas: $7,400
  • Talor Gooch: $7,000

Golf analyst for SportsGamblingPodcast.com, providing insight on news and betting tips for the PGA Tour, as well as commentary and banter on the World of Sports. Follow him on Twitter @SteveSchirmer

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