The march to East Lake carries on, as the Top 70 players in the FedEx Cup Standings head to Chicago. It’s time for the BMW Championship Golf Preview at Olympia Fields Country Club.
Here’s everything to know about the tournament before placing a single wager on it.
This is the second leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and the field was trimmed to the Top 70 after last week’s Northern Trust. Notable players who did not make the cut to play this week include Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter, Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, and Shane Lowry.
For the full field list, click here.
The Golf Course
One of Chicago’s oldest clubs, Olympia Fields Country Club was founded in 1915, with four golf courses on site designed by two time Open Championship winner Willie Park, Jr. While Park, Jr. is not the most renowned or mainstream golf architect, but he’s responsible for over 170 golf courses across the British Isles, Canada and the United States. His other notable golf courses include Kilspindie and Gullane in Scotland, and the New Haven Country Club in Connecticut.
The club faced financial difficulties in World War II, and was forced to sell half its land for residential development. It then turned Course No. 4 into the North Course, which will host this week’s BMW Championship.
There has been very little changes to the golf course since the North Course was constructed (other than a lengthening to just under 7,300 yards). Right off the bat, you can see a lot of classical Scottish design traits in the layout. Both the front nine and the back nine have in-to-out characteristics, both stretching to the farthest points of the property before winding back to the clubhouse. In addition, fairways are pinched in around the landing zones by bunkers to challenge players off the tee, however those who take on the bunkers can be rewarded with a better angle into certain pin positions. Overall, the fairways generally are about 30 yards wide and flanked by ankle deep rough and rows of trees. And while there is a creek that meanders its way around the property, the only hole where it’s truly in play is down the right side of the 17th fairway.
There’s also a decent amount of elevation changes on the property, either with elevated tee boxes or uphill approach shots into greens, as you can see in this flyover of the golf course:
While the golf course has hosted four men’s major championships, this is the first time the golf course has hosted a professional men’s event since 2003. It did host the 2015 U.S. Amateur (won by Bryson DeChambeau) and a few senior and women’s events, but the results from these tournaments don’t really help gamblers at all this week.
After 2003, the greens were in very rough shape, and in 2006 the golf course underwent some reconditioning. The bentgrass putting surfaces for the North Course were revitalized, as well as an improvement of existing bunkers and the addition of new fairway bunkers. While the playing conditions itself are much improved, if I had one complaint about the golf course is that the greens are kind of boring. This is probably a product of the greens slowly shrinking over the years as the rough lines slowly creep towards the center. This is a flaw at a lot of classic parklands golf courses in the United States, as over time the shrinking of greens limits the options of interesting and challenging pin positions. The greens could probably use either another restoration or a full renovation to add a little more undulation to them, but currently most of the endeavors to improve the property are to the South Course.
As mentioned earlier, this is the first professional men’s event played at Olympia Fields since the 2003 U.S. Open. The lack of both recent and voluminous course history will be a big challenge for handicappers to figure out what types of golfers the North Course should favor.
One thing I think would be a mistake for gamblers this week is to look at the leaderboard from the 2003 U.S. Open and draw conclusions from that. Jim Furyk was the winner of the tournament, and he’s considered a short and accurate player. In addition, someone might look at the golf course, see the narrow fairways and all the trees on the property and think driving accuracy is something that is vitally important week.
That’s a flawed way of thinking for a few reasons. First, professional golf has come a long ways since 2003. That year, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was 285 yards. In 2020, it’s over 10 yards longer. In addition, advancements in both golf ball and driver technology makes it tremendously easy for almost everyone to hit it far and relatively straight off the tee, even if the ball lands in the rough just off the fairway.
Another reason why this is flawed thinking is where the fairway bunkers are located on the golf course. Most of the fairway bunkers can be carried by a drive over 290 yards. This will pose a problem for shorter hitters who not only can’t carry them but see their landing zones shrunk in with the pinched fairways. Most of the longer hitters should be able to take these out of play, and even if their ball lands in the rough they should be able to gouge the ball out with a wedge. While the rough may have been penal for the 2003 U.S. Open, the golf course set up shouldn’t be as difficult for the BMW Championship. The PGA Tour wants to promote birdies so there’s more movement up and down the FedEx Cup standings, so the rough shouldn’t be too difficult to get out of.
If anything, I see a lot of Medinah in this golf course, which happened to host the BMW Championship on the north side of Chicago last year. Looking at that leaderboard, some of the best and longer ball strikers tee-to-green dominated the event, with driving accuracy taking a backseat. Medinah has a lot of similar features as Olympia Fields – narrow fairways, tree-lined, fairway bunkers that can be carried by most longer hitters, and small circular greens. And we saw over and over guys bomb driver off the tee with no regard of where it went, as they knew they could hack out of the rough onto the green. And with relatively easy pin positions all week to promote scoring, birdies were aplenty.
Overall, I’m not going to try and over complicate things in terms of the attributes I’m looking for. Like most tournaments, I’m going to place a heavy emphasis on both recent and long term trends of ball striking, with an edge given to longer hitters on the PGA Tour. In addition, while I won’t put a significant emphasis on scrambling, the greens at Olympia Fields are fairly small and anyone with good scrambling skills will have a slight edge this week. Lastly, the greens are bentgrass, so anyone who cares deeply about performance on certain grass types should keep that in mind.