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2019 Desert Classic Picks & Preview

2019 Desert Classic Picks & Preview

 

This week the PGA Tour moves back to the lower 48 and begins the West Coast swing of the schedule with the Desert Classic in Palm Desert, California.

If you don’t recognize the name of the tournament, for years it was known as the Bob Hope Classic, a Celebrity Pro-Am that began in 1960 and hosted by legendary entertainer and golf junkie Bob Hope (in case his name slapped on the tournament wasn’t a dead giveaway). The primary sponsor of the tournament was Chrysler, who attached their name to it until 2008.

You may recall that in 2008 the auto industry was in a little bit of trouble financially, mainly due to large banks offering bloated mortgages to people who had no business purchasing a home, then betting on their expected fiscal demise that ultimately melted down the world markets and took down the auto industry with it. After this, Chrysler made a few mandated Chapter 11 bankruptcy cutbacks to its spending and left this once storied tournament without a sponsor.

Since then, the tournament has struggled to attract solid sponsors. Humana came in for a few years as the flagship sponsor of the tournament before they pulled out in 2015. CareerBuilder then took its place before it too bowed out. Even Bill and Hillary Clinton got in on the action by tying their foundation to the event, but they too are no longer are affiliated with the tournament (though @FreedomPatriot1029324 swears there’s still a Comet Ping Pong Pizza shop operating underneath the 7th green at PGA West).

Now in its 60th anniversary, the Desert Classic is sponsor-less and left with an uncertain future. This tournament survived the initial schedule shakeup, but the PGA Tour will assess its viability as a regular tour stop. And with a weak field, low television ratings and sponsorship money drying up, this very well might be the last gasp of the old Bob Hope Classic.

If I molded my writing schedule like a professional golfer picks and chooses the events he plays, this would definitely be an off week for me to grind on the range, take a vacation with the family or go film a few commercials for State Farm. But there are no off weeks for gambling, and unless you’re a PGA Tour junkie you’ll need to tap into your degenerate soul to keep yourself invested in one of the more mundane events on the schedule.

Here’s all you’ll need to know to prepare yourself for some bets this weekend:

The Field

The weak field at the Desert Classic is primarily attributed to its place on the schedule. This event is sandwiched between the Hawaii swing and the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Any big names who played out in Hawaii or are looking to make their season debut next week are likely taking this week off. This event is also opposite the restart of the European Tour season at one of their flagship events, the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, which has attracted most of the top European players along with Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson.

As far as this week’s field in Palm Desert, the biggest draws to the event is fan favorite Phil Mickelson, world #1 golfer Justin Rose, and defending champion Jon Rahm. Mickelson is a native of the Southwest and usually kicks off his year at this event. The inclusion of Rahm and Rose is a bit puzzling given that they are, arguably, the best European players on the planet right now and won’t be appearing in one of the European Tour’s biggest events of the year.

Other notable names include Patrick Cantlay, Kevin Kisner, Charles Howell III, and 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett, who is basing his schedule in the United States in 2019 after rediscovering his game and health. Willett is looking to build on his fantastic win at the DP World Championship in November, which hopefully will get his career back on track.

The Course

Because of the Celebrity Pro-Am format, this event is played across three golf courses in the Palm Desert area to accommodate all the golfers. These courses are the neighboring TPC Stadium Course and Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West, and La Quinta Country Club just to the northwest. All golfers will compete at these three golf courses for the first three rounds before the field is cut to the Top 70 and ties, and the final round will take place at the Stadium Course.

The TPC Stadium Course at PGA West was first designed in 1986 by legendary architect Pete Dye and was built as the “sequel” to the infamous TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vidra Beach, Florida. The course played host to the Bob Hope Classic in 1987, but the pros complained that it was way too hard. Ultimately, the PGA Tour is run by the players, and the Stadium Course was removed from the tournament rotation after just one year.

After a couple redesigns, the tournament came back to the Stadium Course in 2016 and is the hardest of the three golf courses that are played at the Desert Classic. Last year the average score was 71.18, over a stroke and a half harder than the Nicklaus Tournament course and two shots harder than La Quinta.

When scouting the layout of the Stadium Course, you can see Pete Dye’s fingerprints all over a golf course that borrows several template holes from TPC Sawgrass. Here are a few holes at the Stadium Course that are very much inspired by that of its sister course on the East Coast:

5th Hole – TPC Sawgrass vs. 9th Hole – TPC Stadium Course

Both holes make use of elongated bunkers off the right side of the fairway, with a water hazard eagerly awaiting to gobble up extremely offline tee shots. The green complexes are angled at about 2:00 off the fairway and feature large bunkers short right and bunkers long left. The 9th at the Stadium Course also adds a large bunker back right just for good measure and to up the degree of difficulty.

10th Hole – TPC Sawgrass vs. 12th Hole – TPC Stadium Course

The 12th at the Stadium Course is a smaller version of the 10th at TPC Sawgrass but possesses similar features. Both have Dye’s trademark elongated bunkers hugging the left side of the fairway. Though a shot way left at Sawgrass is most certainly a lost ball into the woods, a wayward drive left on 12 isn’t completely dead but could still give a player tree trouble (or make them hit off a homeowner’s Jacuzzi for their second). The 10th at TPC Sawgrass has a horseshoe-shaped bunker that doesn’t come into play at all for a professional, so it appears Pete Dye relocated it to wrap itself around the left side of the 12th green at the Stadium Course to give them something to worry about.

17th Hole – TPC Sawgrass vs. 17th Hole – TPC Stadium Course

The most blatant rip off at the Stadium Course is the 17th, a Par 3 featuring an island green and an almost photocopy of one of the most famous holes in golf – the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. For the most part, I’m fine with Pete Dye trying to create TPC Sawgrass – West, but this hole is symbolic of my biggest issue with the Stadium Course (besides the ridiculous canyon bunker off the 16th green). The Stadium Course is more Disneyland to TPC Sawgrass’s Disney World. The RC Cola to Sawgrass’s Classic Coke. Sure you can see the penmanship of a TPC Sawgrass at this golf course, but it rings a tad soulless, has a peculiar aftertaste and makes you yearn for the real thing.

It also doesn’t help that the golf course looks AWFUL with large swaths to dormant, brown Bermuda rough painted all over the television screen. Bermuda grass takes a while to recover from cooler winter temperatures, and while the over-seeded rye fairways and greens give the telecast a little bit of color, the still-dormant Bermuda rough makes the telecast look especially bland. It’s visually lackluster after spending the last two weeks in Hawaii watching surfers and whales crash through the vibrantly blue Pacific Ocean, and it brings down the enjoyment of the viewing experience overall.

Yuck.

Moving on to the other golf courses on the docket, the Nicklaus Tournament Course also was included in the tournament rotation in 2016, but plays much easier than its PGA West counterpart:

The Nicklaus Tournament Course looks like any golf course in Florida or the Southwest that weaves its way through communities primarily occupied by retirees. Not a lot of creativity or strategy is required on this type of track that’s meant to serve as an enjoyable, laid back round of golf for the baby-boomers. Most trouble off the tee is very easily avoidable by the pros thanks to generously wide fairways and their ability to hit over most fairway hazards. The average score here at last year’s tournament was about 69.5.

Lastly, La Quinta Country Club is the oldest venue of the Desert Classic, playing host to the event for the 46th time and is the easiest of the three courses of the weekend:

While the sight lines from the tee are tighter than they are at PGA West, this golf course has almost no defenses for anyone on the PGA Tour. Most fairway bunkers can easily be carried off the tee, and save for a water hazard off the 16th and 18th it takes some serious effort to shoot over par at La Quinta. The average score at La Quinta last year was approximately 68.5.

Strategies

Before 2016, golfers of all walks of life could find success at this tournament. But with the addition of the Stadium Course and the Nicklaus Tournament Course, this event has favored long hitters off the tee and those who historically rank highly in Strokes Gained – Off The Tee. Last year we saw Jon Rahm overpower the golf course and take the win in a playoff over another strong player off the tee in Andrew Landry. And with heavy rains soaking Palm Desert this week, look for the Stadium Course to play longer than the scorecard yardage indicates, and for the golfers to completely overwhelm soft conditions at Nicklaus Tournament Course and La Quinta for very low scores.

It’s also important for anyone who participates in a weekly pool where you pick a golfer for each of the four rounds to make sure to avoid someone playing at the Stadium Course over the first three rounds. Try and pick golfers playing at La Quinta each of the three days to take advantage of the easiest scoring conditions of the tournament.

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

The Favorites:

  • Jon Rahm – 6.5/1, $11,600
  • Justin Rose – 9/1, $11,000
  • Patrick Cantlay – 16/1, $10,600

There’s not a whole lot to discuss with the three prohibitive favorites at the Desert Classic. As mentioned before, Jon Rahm is the defending champion and has the firepower and the game to go back to back. He’s also on form-off the heels of a 1.76 Strokes Gained Tee-To-Green performance at Kapalua. With the highest price-tag in DraftKings, he’s my least favorite of the trio to build a lineup around. Given the overall weakness of the field, though, you can make up for it with some cheap flyers on the back end.

Justin Rose has traded places with Brooks Koepka throughout the fall for the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, and he comes into this event still riding hot from a fantastic 2018 season. The one area of concern is that he has new clubs in the bag starting this week. After years of using TaylorMade equipment, Rose has put pricey Japanese brand Honma into the bag. Honma is most known for the outrageously priced Beres S-05 driver, a gold embellished driver famously gifted to Donald Trump by Japanese president Shinzo Abe and goes for the cool retail price of $3,755. As far as professional player endorsements go, Justin Rose is by far the biggest name to put the clubs in his arsenal. You may want to see how he fares with them first before placing any bets on him, but if you want to continue to ride his hot play in a DraftKings lineup, be my guest.

Patrick Cantlay is an intriguing candidate to place a futures bet on to win the tournament at 16/1. Cantlay has a ton of talent and is banging on the door to capture his 2nd win on the PGA Tour after several close calls during 2018. Cantlay only has two ShotLink measured events under his belt so far in the 2018-2019 season, but he averaged 1.75 Strokes Gained Tee-To-Green and 0.89 Strokes Gained Off-The-Tee at the Safeway Open and the Shriners Classic. He also finished T7 at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai and T5 at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, which were not ShotLink events but evidence that he’s firing on all cylinders heading into 2019. He’s an excellent choice to pick to win the event outright.

While all three favorites have great arguments to build a DraftKings lineup around or stake claim to win the trophy, the most interesting decisions for betting are down the card this week.

Other Contenders:

  • Abraham Ancer – 35/1, $9,300
  • Luke List – 45/1, $9,000
  • Sungjae Im – 50/1, $8,100

Abraham Ancer has been one of the hottest young golfers on the PGA Tour over the last 6 months. Starting at the Quicken Loans National he’s had six Top 10’s worldwide, including a win at the Australian Open and climbed all the way from 203rd to 57th in the world golf rankings. While he wasn’t much of a factor last week, his ball-striking statistics (particularly off the tee) continue to be very impressive. Last week he posted 1.43 Strokes Gained Tee-To-Green and 1.41 Strokes Gained Off-the-Tee, and if he brings that and a hot putter to Palm Desert a strong finish is in order.

Luke List is long overdue to score his first career victory on the PGA Tour and the Desert Classic sets up nicely for him to do just that. List notched two Top 5’s in the fall, and as one of the best drivers on the PGA Tour, he could fare very well this weekend. He’ll have been much better with the flat-stick if he wants to win, but some of his best putting performances have come at venues with Bermuda and over-seeded surfaces like he’ll face at all courses this weekend. He’s worth a flyer at 45/1 to win the tournament, and I like him matched up against Scott Piercy head to head at -125.

Last week in my Sony Open preview I spotlighted an alternative rookie to Cameron Champ, and unfortunately, I backed the wrong one. Sungjae I’m was the wiser choice to go with last week and serves as another good option this week. He is probably overvalued at 50/1 to score his first PGA Tour win, but he certainly can post a strong finish inside the Top 10 thanks to his tremendous performance off the tee in his rookie season. He’s matched up head to head with Kevin Kisner this week at -120, who has struggled to keep up the momentum since his good performances at the Open Championship and PGA Championship. I like Sungjae on that side of the prop this week.

Others To Consider: Aaron Wise – 35/1, $9,400, Chez Reavie – 38/1, $9,200, Joaquin Niemann – 55/1, $7,600, Harold Varner III – 70/1, $7,400, Corey Conners – 70/1, $7,500

Sleepers:

  • Sam Burns – 170/1, $6,900
  • Cameron Davis – 200/1, $6,800

Sam Burns’ ball-striking stats look good, but he hasn’t been able to find much consistency to make him a weekly contender. When he’s good, he’s near the top of the leaderboard like his T3 finish at the Sanderson Farms while posting 3.33 Strokes Gained Tee-To-Green. When he’s off like he was the following week at the Shriners, he’s losing just as many strokes Tee-to-Green and missing the cut by a mile. A good driver and putter on Bermuda greens, call it a hunch that we see the good side of Sam Burns at the Desert Classic.

I’m giving Cameron Davis a stay of execution before he lands on my “do-not-use” list for the foreseeable future. In hindsight, picking him at the Sony Open last week was a poor choice as he’s still too young and raw to handle a strategic golf course like Waialae. I like his odds better this week as his natural talent can take over at a golf course that won’t throw too many curve balls at him. As long as he avoids big misses at the Stadium Course, he could enjoy a nice bounce back after a missed cut last week.

Desert Classic DraftKings Lineup #1

  • Patrick Cantlay – $10,600
  • Luke List – $9,000
  • Beau Hossler – $8,000
  • Brendan Steele – $7,600
  • Joaquin Niemann – $7,600
  • Cameron Davis – $6,800

Desert Classic DraftKings Lineup #2

  • Justin Rose – $11,000
  • Abraham Ancer – $9,300
  • Sungjae Im – $8,100
  • Harold Varner III – $7,400
  • Jason Kokrak – $7,100
  • Sam Burns – $6,900

Desert Classic DraftKings Lineup #3

  • Aaron Wise – $9,400
  • Chez Reavie – $9,200
  • C.T. Pan – $8,400
  • Peter Uihlein – $7,700
  • Corey Conners – $7,500
  • Dylan Frittelli – $7,500

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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