2020 Tour Championship betting preview

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The PGA Tour finishes off its historic 2019-2020 season with the Tour Championship this week, an event that will see just the top-30 players in the current FedEx Cup standings compete. The no-cut event will take place in Atlanta at East Lake Golf Club, a venue that has hosted this event every season since 2004. Prior to 2007 The Tour Championship used to host just the top-30 money winners on Tour however, in 2007, the Tour announced changes to the schedule to showcase a “playoffs” style format that included four events, culminating in a 30-man finale held at East Lake. 

The PGA has changed the FedEx Cup playoff format multiple times now and this year will mark the second year that the winner of this week’s event will, without question, be named as winner of both the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup. The duel title is ensured by the staggered/handicap start the Tour adopted last year, which will see players start this week’s event at different scores according to their position in the standings. 

The event will still be contested as stroke-play but the player in first in the standings, in this case Dustin Johnson, will begin the week at 10-under par with the rest of the field starting anywhere from two to 10-shots behind him. The leaderboard will look like this at the start of the event:

At stake for the 30-qualifiers is a lot of bonus money. The winner this week will win 15-million dollars, but the top-8 players will all take home at least one million dollars this week. Everyone will have the motivation to move up as much as possible and it’s worth noting early that last year we saw a player who started five shots behind the pace, in Rory McIlroy, shoot the best overall four-round score and take home the overall title as well. 

BMW Championship roundup

Jon Rahm defeated Dustin Johnson in an absurd finish that saw both men sink 40+foot putts on the last two holes. Johnson first sunk a long downhill sidewinder on 18 to tie Rahm and force a playoff, while Rahm answered with an even longer downhill effort to post a birdie on the first playoff hole and take the win. 

Rahm heads into this week’s event in second place in the FedEx Cup standings now, just behind Dustin who has now finished first or second in each of his last three starts. The Spaniard now has the same number of wins as DJ on the year with both coming at tougher than usual setups. As good as the finish from last week was between the top-two players in the world, that wasn’t the only entertaining portion of the event as there were lots of drama surrounding who would grab the last few qualifying spots into this week’s event as well. 

Canadian Corey Conners ended his event by three-putting from 5-feet on the 18th green which ended up booting him out of the top-30 and allowed Billy Horschel to move into this event as the 30-seed. On a completely different note, fellow Canadian Mackenzie Hughes ended up sinking a five-footer for par on the last hole which pushed him up to 28th and allowed him to qualify as well. Both Horschel and Hughes will start the week at even par and 10-shots back but should be overjoyed at their results, regardless, considering the extra bonus money and major championship invites that come with a ticket to the top-30 and East Lake.

Tour Championship course details

East Lake Golf Course (Atlanta, Georgia)

  • Par: 70, 7,319 yards
  • Greens: Bermuda
  • Design: Donald Ross 
  • Past champions:
  • 2019 Rory McIlroy (18-under *includes 5-shot bonus)    
  • 2018 Tiger Woods (11-under)
  • 2017 Xander Schauffele (12-under)
  • 2016 Rory McIlroy (12-under)
  • 2015 Jordan Spieth (9-under)

The venue this week is a Donald Ross designed course that has seen numerous renovations and tweaks to it over the last couple of decades. It played somewhat easy prior to 2007, a year when Tiger Woods won here at 23-under par. Changes were made following that event though, changes that toughened up the venue, and since that year no one has posted better than 13-under as a winning score here (Rory McIlroy technically won at 18-under par last year but that included a 5-shot starting bonus as part of the new format). 

The venue plays as a traditional Par 70 with six Par 4’s that will play over 450 yards in length. The length of this venue has led itself to favour longer hitters over the past few seasons with Strokes Gained: Off the Tee becoming a somewhat vital stat here. Four of the last five winners at East lake have now gained +3.1 strokes off the tee, or more, in the week of their win, a mark which represents quite dominant play in that area. 

East Lake might be best categorized as a driver heavy course then as the field here averaged 302-yards per drive off the tee last season, which was 9-yards more than the Tour average for 2019. While distance off the tee certainly should be a factor, strong play throughout the bag will still be needed. Last year, only one player inside the top-11 finishers lost strokes around the greens as the traditionally fast Bermuda putting surfaces here can play havoc with players who are missing greens consistently this week. 

Strong approach play is definitely a plus here too, but it’s hard to categorize East Lake as a strictly second-shot venue as only one of the past five winners gained more than +3 strokes on approaches for the week of his win (Rory McIlroy in 2019). East Lake is very much a course that should test players throughout the bag, although solid play off the tee and around the greens seem like they’ll be about as important as any area of play this week. 

Jul 7, 2019; Blaine, MN, USA; Collin Morikawa reacts to nearly missing a birdie putt at the 17th hole during the final round of the 3M Championship golf tournament at TPC Twin Cities. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

2020 Tour Championship betting discussion and picks

While top players like Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm carry significant advantages into this week due to the starting handicap, it’s worth noting that last year Rory McIlroy won this event by four strokes going away, all despite starting the event in fifth place, at 5-under par. 2017 Tour Championship winner Xander Schauffele also made a big comeback as he started the event at just four-under-par but ended up in solo second place for the week. While the format is unusual and somewhat controversial, the challenging venue and the amount of money at stake should lead to lots of leaderboard shifts during the week.

Last year Rory won both of the outright markets by posting the best score overall to par for the week (without strokes) and winning the actual event, which included the starting handicaps (with strokes). He went off as the second-favorite in the “without strokes” department and was the fourth favorite in the “with strokes” market–despite starting the week five strokes behind number one seed Justin Thomas. If you’re betting the “with strokes” market, it’s still not advised you go too far down the board, especially given how well the top-two seeds are playing this year. However, for the “without strokes” market all players can be considered, which makes this event pretty interesting for betting purposes. 

Betting favorites to win the 2020 Tour Championship (with strokes market)

  1. Dustin Johnson (starts at 10-under par) +175 or better

Dustin is playing superb golf right now, although it’s worth noting that the change in putting surface to Bermuda could hamper his momentum a bit as he’s typically been a much stronger putter on Bent/Poa throughout his career. His around the green game regressed a bit last week too and it’s worth noting that he’s only gained more than one-stroke around the greens at East Lake once in his last five visits. 

  1. Jon Rahm (starts at 8-under par) +275 or better

Rahm’s never finished inside the top-5 at East Lake, although this year will mark just his fourth appearance at the event. The Spaniard has been in beast-mode off the tee of late, gaining over +3 strokes in that area in four of his last five starts and has also been fantastic around the greens at some tough venues like Muirfield Village in 2020. The odds aren’t that appealing but I do like his chances of besting DJ again this week. 

  1. Justin Thomas (starts at 7-under par) +540 or better

Thomas has looked a little out of sync since his win at WGC Memphis. He did win the FedEx Cup in 2017 but only finished 2nd in the actual tournament that year–losing out to Xander Schauffele. His lack of sharpness bled into his short game last week where he lost strokes around the greens for the first time in nine starts. He’s way too short in odds for me to take a shot on a quick rebound this week. 

  1. Webb Simpson (starts at 6-under par) +1100 or better

Webb might be the most interesting and polarizing player in the top-5 this week. He took last week off to rest which could either be a blessing or a curse given how much of a factor momentum is in these playoffs. His lack of distance off the tee here is somewhat of a concern–he ranks just 108th in driving distance–but he has finished inside the top-5 here at East Lake in 2018 and 2013. He’s the best value for me in the outright “with strokes” market out of the entire top-5.

  1. Collin Morikawa (starts at 5-under par) +2000 or better

Morikawa’s play has fallen off a bit since his career defining win at the PGA Championship just a month ago. The three-time winner did show some life late in the tournament last week, grinding his way back to a T20 finish. His betting price is interesting but given that this is his first time visiting East Lake, a notoriously tricky venue where experience often plays a factor, I’d be fine leaving him out in favour of someone a little further down the list.

Favorite bets (each-ways and outrights)

Tour Championship winner 

Daniel Berger +2600 or better (each-way) 

Berger started the year at 131st in the OWGR but his play in 2020 has seen him move all the way up to 13th. The American has now recorded six top-5 finishes–including a win at Colonial–in his last nine starts and can put the icing on the cake of his colossal season with a win this week. While money is certainly a motivation, it’s also worth noting that he’s still not yet eligible for the Masters in November (due to earlier qualifying criteria which excluded him at the time), but could really put the pressure on the Augusta brass for a special invite if he won here. 

The course should set up beautifully for Berger too as he’s showcased a powerful off-the-tee game of late, one that mirrors two of the last three winners here in Rory MIlroy and Xander Schauffele. He’s now gained +2.3 strokes or more in that area in each of his last three starts and hasn’t lost strokes off the tee now in 12 straight starts. Ranked fifth in Par 4 scoring in 2020, he’s also always been one to excel on tougher Par 70 venues throughout his career, collecting wins at TPC SouthWind and Colonial, while also nearly gaining a win at the tough PGA National in his rookie season. Berger will start the event six back, and with little pressure, and should also be motivated by the fact that two players starting at or near his spot last season were able to overtake the leaders. If he can get off to a quick start, a “McIlroy-like” comeback is certainly possible and his odds seem big enough to chance him in the “with strokes” championship market. 

Tour Championship winner (W/O starting strokes)

Brendon Todd +5500 or better (each-way)

Todd has played solid golf all summer, popping up on leaderboards at the WGC Memphis (54-hole leader), PGA Championship (18-hole co-leader) and even last week, when only a bogey on the last caused him to fall from a top-5 finishing position. While he certainly doesn’t have the power off the tee the top players in this field do, his around the green game and putting have propelled him to some pretty lofty heights this season, as he grabbed two wins previously in the Fall swing, and starts the event this week in 11th-place in the FedEx Cup standings. 

Todd’s ranked 21st in Par 4 scoring on the season and has posted his best results since the restart at tough Par 70-layouts similar to the one he’ll see this week at East Lake. Considering he started the 2019 Fall swing ranked just 522nd in the OWGR, and is now up to 39th, he’s already posted one of the most successful comeback seasons in the sport and should be swinging quite a bit more freely this week given all that he’s accomplished. I like the odds enough here for an each-way bet in this more wide-open market where the FedEx Cup handicap won’t be counted. 

Cameron Smith +10000 or better (each-way)

Smith posted a win early in the year at the Sony Open but still suffered through a horrible stretch of golf, mid-year, which saw him post nothing better than a T58 finish through his first five starts back after the restart. He’s really turned his game around in the playoffs though, landing T18 and T20 finishes in the first two playoff events, while also gaining strokes on his Approaches in three straight starts. Smith’s got the kind of all-around game that could really excel at East Lake over time too–a venue where he finished T20 in 2018. The fact he gained +4.1 strokes around the green last week could be a good sign his world-class short game is sharp enough to put up a solid four rounds at this tricky venue. 

Smith snuck into this week’s event as the number 26-seed but his confidence should really be buoyed by how well he’s grinded of late under pressure just to get himself into this position. For such a talented player, who has already produced two top-fives in majors during his young career, his price here looks too big for just a 30-man field and very worth taking advantage of. 

First round leader

Webb Simpson +1200 or better

As mentioned above, Webb took last week off and will start this event as the fourth-seed, four shots off the 10-under lead. The advantage he’ll have over top seeds like Rahm and DJ could be evident early on though as those two battled hard at a tough venue for four rounds last week and could be slow to get going on a completely different, yet no less difficult venue. 

Webb will need to come out firing from the start too to have any chance at the lucrative top prize this week and we saw plenty of the mid-tier seeds in the six to four under range do just in this format in 2019. Number five seeded Rory McIlroy shot a 66 in round one here last year while six seeded Xander Schauffele shot 63. Both men surpassed last year’s number one seed Justin Thomas by the end of the day as he slumped to an even par 70. When it comes down to it, I’d much rather bet Webb to post a hot round one than win the entire event at this price, as the distance disadvantage he suffers off the tee will likely end up being a bigger factor as the week goes on. 

Matchups (72-holes)

Cameron Smith -110 over Mackenzie Hughes

  • I mentioned Smith’s improving form above, and he also carries a significant experience advantage over Hughes who is playing East Lake for the first time and has never finished higher than T58 in a major
  • Smith is simply the better player here and has shown increasing form over his last three starts. Hughes has been solid himself since the restart but at even money taking Smith at a course where he carries an experience advantage seems like correct move. 

Billy Horschel -110 over Viktor Hovland

  • This will be Horschel’s fourth time playing East Lake in the Tour Championship and the American has finished 1st (2014) and 2nd (2018) in two of his previous three starts here.
  • Hovland hasn’t looked like the dominant ball-striker we saw come out of the restart for about five events now and will be seeing East Lake for the first time in competition.
  • Horschel’s also just a couple events removed from a runner-up finish and showed better ball-striking last week. He’s the play here for me at even money again. 
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