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WGC Bridgestone Invitational Picks and Preview

WGC Bridgestone Invitational Picks and Preview

I’ve been writing for The Sports Gambling Podcast for about nine months now. Every time I put together a tournament preview, I can at least take solace that next year I can lift portions of the old column and not have to re-do a lot of the legwork that I do to prep.

Unfortunately, this will be my first and last tournament preview I write on this website for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone CC in Akron, Ohio.

I’m not exactly crying spilled milk over here that Firestone CC will no longer host the WGC. After all, it’s a punching bag for the hipster golf architecture community against the boring, unimaginative, overbunkered golf course design from people like Robert Trent Jones and Tom Fazio. Here’s a look at the layout from above:

bridgestone course map

 

Not exactly the most thrilling layout, huh? Sixteen of the eighteen holes on the South Course has either a north-south or south-north tee-to-green directional track. It’s only on the 5th and 6th holes where the golfers get to spice things up a bit by trekking to the northeast and then back the opposite way southwest. And every hole is basically the same – hit a narrow 25-30 yard fairway and avoid hitting into a fairway bunker or into the oak trees, then land on a back-to-front sloped green where going long means you’re basically dead.

Still, it’s a disgrace that they’re moving the WGC away from Firestone CC to TPC Southwind in Memphis. At least Firestone CC is well maintained and has a storied history behind it, as it has hosted three PGA Championships. There is nothing special or unique about TPC Southwind, other than the fact it’s idiotic to hold what’s supposed to be a tournament comprised of the best players in the world on a golf course that runs through the Initrode Office Park in 95 degrees, 100% humidity weather in August.

Then again, the WGC probably couldn’t pass up what surely was a sizeable check from FedEx, and LeBron James seems to be the only one putting money into Akron these days.

Back to the golf course itself, the South Course has been lengthened several times over the last few decades to accommodate the advancements in golf technology. It now stretches 7,400 yards, which is a gigantic number for a Par 70. There’s only two Par 5’s on the golf course – one is the benign 526 yard 2nd that’s reachable in two for everyone. The other is the signature 16th that stretches 667 yards, one of the longest Par 5’s in the world, and is guarded by a large green-side pond.

For even the longest hitters, the 16th will be a three-shot hole – but if you can hit the downslope on the fairway approximately 350 yards from the tee box the ball will release down the hill and set up a long iron into the green.

Alternatively, some golfers may go full YOLO and take on the green from well back anyways:

Some gamblers may make the mistake of looking at a narrow golf course like Firestone CC and gravitate their bets towards shorter, more accurate hitters. That would be a mistake. Since 2013, the median ranking in driving distance on the PGA Tour for golfers who finished in the Top 20 at the WGC Bridgestone is 49th. The median ranking in driving accuracy for those same golfers is 80th. While that seems counter-intuitive, longer hitters off the tee have an advantage of hitting a short iron from the rough over a shorter, more accurate hitter that’s hitting a long iron from the fairway.

Sure, a bunter like Zach Johnson has a very good track record at the WGC Bridgestone, but the elite, generational drivers like Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and eight-time champion Tiger Woods are usually the ones holding the trophy at the end of the weekend. While I won’t solely pick bombers this weekend, I will use driving distance as a tie-breaker.

Some other unique stats to keep in mind when choosing golfers this weekend is Scrambling from the Rough. All the greens at Firestone CC are surrounded by a small collar and rough. If a golfer misses a green, chances are it’ll be in the rough. For most pros, getting up and down from the rough is a fairly easy task, however, that also means that golfers who are more adept at it can gain a significant edge on the field.

Lastly, with the best golfers in the world making up the field, almost everyone ranks highly in the relative Strokes Gained ball-striking statistics. Instead, try and lean more heavily on recent performance in those areas (you can find recent tournament stats on websites like datagolf.ca).

Here’s who I like this weekend (with DraftKings values and odds courtesy of mybookie.ag).

The Favorites:

  • Dustin Johnson – 7.5/1, $11,700
  • Rory McIlroy – 11/1, $11,300
  • Tiger Woods – 14/1, $10,800
  • Justin Rose – 14/1, $10,700
  • Jordan Spieth – 16/1, $10,400
  • Rickie Fowler – 20/1, $10,000
  • Jason Day – 20/1, $9,800
  • Jon Rahm – 25/1, $9,600
  • Francesco Molinari – 28/1, $9,400
  • Brooks Koepka – 28/1, $8,900
  • Henrik Stenson – 28/1, $9,000
  • Tommy Fleetwood – 30/1, $9,200
  • Justin Thomas – 30/1, $8,800

All of these guys are capable of winning the WGC Bridgestone, and I do think the winner ultimately will come from this group. Most of these guys check all the boxes – strong drivers of the golf ball, good ball strikers from the fairways and good scramblers. I wouldn’t fault anyone from building a DraftKings lineup around any of them, however for a reference on who’s playing the best, here’s a table of Strokes Gained Tee-To-Green since May 1st to help break some ties:

Despite a field consisting of the Top 50 golfers in the world, Dustin Johnson is a ridiculously low +750 to win the WGC Bridgestone. While I almost never prescribe betting on anyone less than 10/1 to win a golf tournament, I would not be shocked to see DJ win two events in a row and is all that anyone is talking about early next week at Bellerive.

After a disappointing Open Championship, DJ bomb and gouged Glen Abbey on his way to recording his 19th career PGA Tour victory. He was magnificent in every ball-striking statistical category last weekend – 3.56 Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green, 1.89 Strokes Gained Off-the-Tee, and 1.45 Strokes Gained – Approach. If the driver and irons remain hot, there’s no reason why he can’t win again in Akron and become the huge favorite at the PGA Championship next week.

Following his Top 10 at Carnoustie, not only were the Tiger Woods fanboys jacked up about his performance but also because he was able to qualify for the WGC Bridgestone, a tournament that he’s won eight times in his career. It’s by far the golf course he’s had the most success at. His results timeline there is ridiculous:

Between his strong play of late and his course history, there is a lot of buzz of Tiger finally getting over the hump and notching his first victory since 2013.

Fading Tiger badly burned me at the Open Championship, but I’m once again not buying it. Firestone CC is a very driver heavy course and while he was great off the tee at Carnoustie, it was mostly on the back of his stinger iron. We’ve seen him falter when having to rely on the driver, and I have a gnawing feeling we could see a mediocre round or two to knock him out of contention. He’s going to be a very popular play in DraftKings, but I won’t be using him there. I also will look to fade him in matchups. You can get Dustin Johnson -180 or Rory McIlroy -130 against Tiger in a matchup play, who are two guys I really like this week.

Besides Tiger, the two golfers with the most buzz right now are Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood. Molinari has been blistering hot over the last two months, culminated by winning the Claret Jug at Carnoustie for his third win and fifth Top 2 finish in his last six tournaments. As for Fleetwood, it’s no longer sneaky to brag to your co-worker at the water cooler about how you love this long-haired Englishmen. Everyone knows who Tommy Lad is from his fantastic performances at all three majors this year. Both of these guys will be heavily owned in DraftKings this weekend, but given their hot play of late, I don’t mind using them as long as you round out your lineup with a few other contrarian plays.

As far as traditional betting goes, while their futures prices are tasty I don’t see Molinari or Fleetwood winning this week. However, because both are long, straight hitters with their driver and are world-class ball-strikers with their irons, they should be towards the top of the leaderboard and are worth a look at +240 each to finish in the Top 10.

Two guys without a lot of buzz that I like this week from a futures perspective are Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. Both golfers left a bad taste in bettors mouths after their dueling 2nd round collapses at Carnoustie led both to miss the weekend. But I think a more traditional parklands golf course where elite drivers will have an edge on the field fits right up their alley. Plus, both of their play over the last few months hasn’t been as lackluster as what the public thinks of them right now. While neither has a strong course history at Firestone CC, I expect that to change with a good finish and a chance to win on Sunday. Their raw talent and ability alone are worth laying 25/1 and 30/1 on each.

Other Contenders:

  • Patrick Cantlay – 40/1, $8,200
  • Tony Finau – 50/1, $8,000
  • Xander Schauffele – 50/1, $7,900

Patrick Cantlay used to be one of the more popular options in DraftKings early in the year, but his popularity has cooled off a bit. At the U.S. Open he was only ~10% owned in contests, and at the Open Championship, he was only ~6%. I expect his ownership to be up this week because he’s had some very solid performances of late, but I’m not shying away from him. Patrick Cantlay is a little bit of a poor man’s Rickie Fowler – he’s not elite at any one skill, but he’s pretty good at it all (well…except putting).

Using him in DraftKings isn’t the only place I like putting money on him though. You can get Patrick Cantlay -130 over Bryson DeChambeau this weekend. Statistically, in my analysis they’re about even. Both of them are towards the top of my list of guys between 40-70/1. However, DeChambeau just had a complete meltdown over in Europe, playing the last 4 hole at +5 to blow a late lead at the Porsche European Open. I’m not talking about just a bad stretch of holes – he literally had a mental break. This hiccup is also on the heels of a temper tantrum on the driving range before his opening round of the Open Championship:

Bryson’s making Bubba Watson look like Tim Tebow. He has an unorthodox swing, and if it’s a bit off we’re going to see some really ugly shots out of him. We saw him struggle badly in 2017 as he was working out some kinks, so maybe we’re on the precipice of another prolonged slump. I love putting action on a solid and steady guy against someone who appears to be in the weeds.

Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele are two golfers who seem to play their best against tougher competition. In the highest profile events this season (majors, WGC’s and the Players Championship), Tony Finau has an average finish of 20th, while Xander Schauffele has an average finish of 15th. Both are them are also excellent drivers of the golf ball and each is coming in on a very good form. While they will be popular on DraftKings this weekend, their price point is perfect to add to a lineup if you want to splurge on more expensive guys like Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy or Justin Rose.

Longshots:

  • Kevin Na – 100/1, $7,200
  • Gary Woodland – 125/1, $7,100

Kevin Na isn’t a huge bomber but he’s been very good at courses that reward good ball striking like Firestone CC will. Over his last five events, Na has averaged 1.15 Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green, including over a stroke gained on the field in his approach shots. Along with being one of the best scramblers out of the rough in the field, he also has three consecutive Top 30 finishes at the WGC Bridgestone. With good ball-striking on his side this time around, I think he can land closer to the Top 10.

Gary Woodland’s results haven’t matched his ball-striking statistics. Over his last six events, Woodland’s averaged over a stroke gained tee-to-green, including 0.85 strokes gained off-the-tee during that time. But all that’s netted him is a high finish of T22 with two missed cuts. What’s bogged him down is his putting, which is a normal area of weakness for him. However, with fast green speeds at Firestone, it’ll help mask his deficiencies in that area a bit when the tougher surfaces shrink the gap between poor putters and good putters. If he carries over the fantastic ball-striking he showed last weekend at the RBC Canadian Open, he should post a solid finish.

WGC Bridgestone DraftKings Lineup #1

  • Jon Rahm – $9,600
  • Tommy Fleetwood – $9,200
  • Paul Casey – $8,600
  • Patrick Cantlay – $8,200
  • Ian Poulter – $7,300
  • Gary Woodland – $7,100

WGC Bridgestone DraftKings Lineup #2

  • Rory McIlroy – $11,300
  • Patrick Reed – $8,300
  • Zach Johnson – $8,100
  • Tony Finau – $8,000
  • Kevin Na – $7,200
  • Emiliano Grillo – $7,100

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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