The greatest golfers are made into cartoons over time. Walter Hagen is said to have been a “sloppy” tee-to-green player who showed up to the 1st hole intoxicated, then putted everyone into the dirt over 4 rounds. (That’s just fine for charity tournaments at Pebble Beach, but not exactly how Hagen won a million PGA titles in a row.) Ben Hogan never missed an iron approach by so much as 10 feet. Lee Trevino knocked the ball tumbling along the ground on every shot for 50 years, and 20-year-old Tiger Woods drove the green at 600-yard Par 5s with an old persimmon driver. Heck, I’ve read in Golf Digest that Hogan and Jack Nicklaus hit “100%” left-to-right fades to the flag throughout their entire careers, a crazy over-simplification of The Iceman’s shot-making skills if not Big Jack’s.
PGA Tour golf has punctured the myth of infallible champions vs lowly pretenders. John Daly won his-self a couple a’ them there major championships, hailed as “everyman” victories at the time. 2nd-tier players like Lee Janzen and Corey Pavin won a majority of the major titles in the 1990s, often retiring with exactly 1 world-renowned trophy on the mantle. The teenager named Tiger was realizing, as Nicklaus had before him (Tiger at a younger age) that physical fitness was a key to record-breaking success. Over-hyped celebrities like Greg Norman and Jumbo Ozaki faded away without ever having lived up to their billing. The links were a science, not a beauty pageant, and an era rich in quality players had shown that the sport was tougher than ever. Anyone could beat anyone else on a given weekend. The PGA Tour and the majors proved it, and went on proving it. Proved the hell out of it, in fact, over the next 10 or 15 seasons. Tiger’s reign of terror in the 2000s is curious for how random the other scores often appeared. His level of scoring exposed parity in the rest of the field.
That’s why 2020’s crop of A-list golfers is so refreshing. Not only is each current top-ranked player always dangerous when lurking on a leaderboard, they’re all recognizable, with clear personality traits that show up on the course. Tiger Woods silenced thousands of media critics with a Green Jacket in 2019, perfecting a steady, cautious style with bushels of acquired wisdom. Brooks Koepka is a dispassionate soul from 1 to 18, flicking the white, round ball and waiting for it to come down. His combination of power, versatility, and poise led to a 2nd-consecutive PGA Championship victory in 2019. Rory McIlroy is still cocky and immensely-gifted at age 30 and continues to plow through a major-championship bugaboo. Wee Mac has regained his status of #1 in the world rankings despite having not won a big’un since 2014. Jon Rahm already has 3 top-5 finishes in majors after taking less than 15 cracks at the 4 events.
Meanwhile, we wait around for Dustin Johnson’s putter to get going and for Jason Day to conquer the demons affecting his health. There are handfuls of golfers who could explode like powder kegs in a season, or half of a season. Brooks, Rory, and Rahm are not above playing catch-up with a new king of the mountain if that happens.
But does covering such a colorful links landscape lead to bad habits? Again, there’s the temptation for a handicapper to stuff any PGA pro (or European Tour star) into a neat little box – D.J. the power-hitter with the yips, Woods the living legend with decaying distance, and so on. That can be a mistake. For in the right conditions, “finesse” Jordan Spieth can knock a winning drive straight over a lake, Rory can lose his trademark swagger (for 9 or 18 holes, anyway), and even Tiger can look like a young man on the final fairway. That much was clear on a particular Sunday last April.
As the calendar moves toward another April in the azaleas, what are some lesser-known traits of the top-rated PGA Tour golfers, those with the shortest odds to win the Masters, British Open, and U.S. Open? What kind of unexpected breakdown could blow-up a contender at 1 of the 4 majors, opening the door for another, longer futures bet to prevail and pay off on a double-digit line?
Here’s a glance at the major-championship dates and venues of 2020, along with a few futures-markets to consider right away…if not invest a few units on.
2020 Masters Championship: Same Old Tiger Tale
Tiger does not have the driving distance nor the stamina in his 40s to be shorter than a 15-to-1 bid to win any major. Yet there’s the icon himself at (+1000) or 10-to-1 odds on the Bovada Sportsbook futures board for the 2020 U.S. Masters. It seems like the Las Vegas lines just never get Eldrick Woods quite right, and this time he’s taking too much action to repeat at Augusta.
Nobody on tour played less than Tiger Woods in 2019, as he teed it up in just 14 events total. Following his surprise, epic Masters win, Tiger wasted no time getting on his yacht and heading up to New York for some extra practice at Bethpage Black prior to the PGA Championship. But his game is no longer suited to the long, punishing Tillinghast course, and Woods struggled and missed the cut. He went on to T-21 at the U.S. Open, and missed the cut at the Open Championship to close out the major championship season. That doesn’t sound like a 10-to-1 bet to win the next one.
(Golden?) Bear in mind that for Woods to still be competing at a PGA Tour level and chasing Nicklaus’ records (surpassing all Tour pros past and present in tournament wins soon) is a miracle of perseverance. He’s got a chance to win more majors. We’re just handicapping the real chances against Sin City’s numbers, and there’s a lot of sentimentality involved in that 10-to-1 Tiger line.
In the meantime Justin Thomas is at (+1200) to win the upcoming Masters, and you might want to strike while the iron game is hot, because Thomas may not be 12-to-1 much longer. With a win at the Sentry Tournament of Champions to begin 2020, the 26-year-old Kentuckian has shaken the rust from a wrist injury he sustained at Augusta that forced him to miss 2 months’ worth of action. His 2019 form returned after a T-11 at the British Open. Thomas then picked up a win at the BMW Championship during the FedEx Cup playoffs, and notched another victory at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges. Thomas has claimed only 1 major title to-date, but #2 could come sooner than later.
There will always be power hitters on the leaderboard at Augusta National. For all the talk about the Jones-MacKenzie course being a “2nd-shot layout,” the 2nd shots are easier if you can, in the words of Bing Crosby (or maybe Groucho Marx), “play placement golf – place it 300 yards from the tee.” Dustin Johnson (+1200) can “place” the ball 350 or 400 yards from various tees at Magnolia Lane, and when his putter and short game holds up on the waxy greens, he’s a threat on the weekend. I’m not feeling the 12-to-1, though – you might as well go with Koepka (+800) or a long-hitting underdog on the betting board like Rickie Fowler (+2000) or Adam Scott (+4000) to prevail in April.
PGA Championship 2020: The Brooks Line, Not Brookline
Call it the Brooks Line. It’s (apparently) the new standard for a dominant golfer’s futures odds-to-win a given major championship, and if you guessed 8-to-1, you’re right on the money. Koepka is at (+800) on Bovada for 3 noteworthy markets – the Masters, PGA Championship, and U.S. Open. For some reason gamblers are not as convinced that Koepka will win the British Open (he’s at (+1000) for the Open Championship) at Royal St. George’s in 2020.
Perhaps the line is too standard, and in some instances, too long. Koepka’s worst finish at a 2019 major was a T-4 at the Open Championship. He came up just short of Gary Woodland at the U.S. Open for a solo 2nd place, and finished T-2 at the Masters.
Only Tiger played less overall events than Brooks, and we will probably see more (or less) of the same in 2020. He is still rehabbing the knee injury sustained at CJ Open which forced him to withdraw from President’s Cup competition. In a weird way, what Brooks Koepka is doing today is more remarkable than what Nicklaus did in 1970. That was the year Jack decided to focus on mental and physical fitness, play in more tournaments overall, and trust that his game would peak on the 4 weekends that he was hoping for. Koepka almost adopts the Hagen decree that practice makes golf games stale. He shows up at a few hand-picked tournaments, stares down the field and wonders who’s going to finish in 2nd place. Koepka’s recent major-championship record is more like that of a Nick Faldo, a Phil Mickelson, even a Tiger Woods at age 30, and they all garnered shorter than 8-to-1 futures odds to win majors on occasion.
There’s only 1 wild card in that handicap – the Professional Golfers of America have chosen a rather short layout on which to contest the 2020 PGA Championship. The Players’ Club at Harding Park is a municipal course in San Francisco, though oddly-branded since “TPC” has been associated with so many exclusive-y clubs and annual PGA Tour stops. Its length of under 7200 total yards, combined with a par of 72, is a curiosity given the supreme power of today’s players and equipment.
Harding Park’s Par 5s will be drive-and-flick golf for Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, and Rory McIlroy, with exception of the 600+ yard 4th hole. I can’t imagine any reason for lots of fairway wood or 3-iron approaches to any of the greens unless it’s a blustery day, or unless the field is feeling cautious.
Manageable length doesn’t make a course easy. Gary Player honed his short game at Harding Park, a course full of booby-traps and swindles for even the plus-player. Distances from tee to green will be stretched as much as possible for the PGA Championship in May.
However, it takes a special kind of long hitter to flourish there. Tiger Woods crushed a President’s Cup appearance at the California layout, and Fred Couples made his way around the muni much like he did at Augusta. McIlroy has scored well at Harding Park in recent years.
Rory’s odds ((+1000) to win in San Francisco) may be held longer by his long major-title drought. But it’s weird with McIlroy – unlike guys who always win unless it’s a major, he’s already got enough world-renowned hardware on the mantle for everyone to agree he can do it again. The question is, when and where?
Despite turning-in disappointing cards for a player of his caliber, McIlroy did enough when it counted in terms of winning Player of the Year. Rory did win 4 events total in 2019 with wins at the PLAYERS and the RBC Canadian to boast of, and started the 2020 FedEx Cup race right where he left off with a victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions in November. Last season, his fate was symbolized by a quadruple-bogey at the opening hole of the British Open, followed by 35 holes of excellent golf and a missed-cut by a single stroke.
I’m liking Spieth at (+1600) given that his lack of pure power won’t be a huge factor at the PGA. Please don’t send any grief about WagerBop’s whiffing on Spieth at last year’s British Open.
United States Open: No Flying Low at Winged Foot
There are those in the USGA who believe level par should be the winning score at a given U.S. Open. Such conditions, in which only the victor in the tournament is able to put up a fair fight against the course architect, are actually not that hard to produce. PGA Tour courses generally come with a lot of 175+ yard Par 3s and 450+ yard Par 4s. But a drive in the rough in either instance produces a mild chip shot or a short iron from a cushy lie. The USGA prefers to ante-up with gnarly, twisted rough of 5 inches or more, making bunkers a refuge and not letting golfers spin the ball on the next shot after making an error. The result is a lot more bogeys, double bogeys, and “snowmen,” keeping the 72-hole score where the United States Golf Association wants it.
However, fine-tuning a course to where its shot-values are as spot-on as Augusta’s or Merion’s is the harder chore. USGA officials should not want to artificially manufacture a U.S. Open score of level par no matter what the field is like. Their task is to make sure an amazing player who makes all the right choices can go low while everyone else can’t, like Tiger at the 2000 U.S. Open played at Pebble Beach. Pebble would have had a reputation as a stubborn monster coming into the new century…except for a certain Galactic #1 golfer in his best form.
It’s hard to know the difference, though, and even a joint-effort “embarrassment” to the USGA (such as 2 players threatening -10 at some point during the 4 rounds) can result in further growing of rough and rolling of greens even when the scoring was more to the credit of shot-makers than a testament to the weakness of the layout.
When 2020 U.S. Open host Winged Foot gave up a -7 score to Fuzzy Zoeller in 1984, the USGA observed that Fuzzy had beaten Greg Norman in an 18-hole playoff, underscoring the skill in Zoeller’s game and the fact that the victor had had 5 rounds to shoot 7 strokes under par. But any hope that the ruling body would leave things the way they were at Winged Foot was gone the moment Davis Love III finished at -11 to win the 1997 PGA Championship at the New York venue. Not only had another slug-and-find-it PGA Tour golfer won a major, he’d done it playing PGA Tour-style golf.
Subsequently, the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot was brutal for players and fans alike, at least until the drama of Sunday. Tiger Woods had faded into the fescue with news of Earl Woods’ passing, and Geoff Ogilvy managed to beat what was left of the field with a +5 score after Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie, and others burned on the deceptive 18th (and 72nd) hole. Once again the USGA had out-thought itself trying to produce a kingly champion. No disrespect to Ogilvy, but a worldwide star like Mickelson or Montgomerie might have won the event if more of their best shots had been rewarded with birdies. There has to be a happy medium between Love’s -11 and Ogilvy’s +5.
Without any plans to push the par-70 layout beyond 7500 yards, the USGA will probably work to make the greens and the hole locations as difficult to putt as possible in 2020. Success with the flatstick is the 1 thing that modern gear can’t automatically provide the player, and mental fatigue could set in if marshals decide on difficult flag positions on Thursday or Friday.
It will be a tournament for calm, steady men, and no player has been more consistent than Jon Rahm ((+2000) odds-to-win U.S. Open) over the past year. The still-developing Spaniard opened the 2019 with top-10 finishes in 7 of his first 10 events, including a T-9 at the Masters. Rahm did endure a short funk and missed back-to-back missed cuts, including the PGA Championship at Bethpage, but bounced back with a T-3 finish at the 2019 U.S Open. His fine showing at Royal Portrush portended 2 late-season wins in Europe.
I find it hard to believe Rahm’s line is as long as 20-to-1 to prevail at the next USGA torture-test in June. He’s not the best putter on Tour by any stretch, ranking far down the ladder in overall putts-per-round and birdie swishes. But his lag putting is fantastic, meaning that Winged Foot’s sparing Par 5s could be as simple as 2 ordinary shots and 2 routine putts for a 4 for a player with Rahm’s power. There won’t be a lot of 8-foot birdie chances going around – Winged Foot won’t host a putting contest but a lagging contest and an occasional contest-of-nerves as leaders stand over dangerous downhill taps. That’s good news for players in their 20s, who can rely on steady nerves most of all.
Is too much of the U.S. Open betting handle going to Tiger at (+1400)? Maybe in principle, sure, but this is the 1 major tournament all year I’m convinced won’t turn into a birdie and eagle spree for the contenders, and Woods is hoping to be able to eke-out another major win at below -10. Still, scientific futures gamblers would point out that Gary Woodland, the defending U.S. Open champion and a younger, healthier athlete than Tiger Woods, is at 50-to-1 odds on the same board at Bovada.
British Open: Mind Over Matter on the Windy Links
D.J.’s (+1200) odds-to-win the Open Championship in July present the biggest gut-check for speculators who think 2020 is the big hitter’s time to shine. Royal St. George is a tricky links if there ever was such a thing (there was) with its incisive hills and mounds and occasional maelstrom. Impatient putters of the golf ball, who don’t allow the orb to do what the green wants it to, will not score well. Neither will those who can’t “accept bogey,” as Curtis Strange used to counsel. Some of the bunkers in Sandwich are not meant to be played out of forwards, only sideways or backwards.
Johnson’s woes in the mental game have been as public as his recent injury problems. He was in good shape on Sunday’s back 9 at Bethpage in 2019 when adrenaline caused him to air-mail the 16th and 17th greens. The Cheetah’s form would regress along with his ranking among top pros. We don’t know for sure exactly how long Johnson played with a knee injury, but the decision to have post-season surgery in September could well mean the knee bothered him for quite a while.
Shane Lowry won the British Open at long odds last year, which will prompt bettors to look hard at the bargain-basement of the board in 2020. Sergio Garcia is at (+5000) or 50-to-1 to win the Open Championship at Royal St. George, and you can imagine a crafty veteran like Sergio pin-balling it around the intricate course and staying on-pace with unlikely putts.
Why not a 1-unit investment on 40-to-1 Jason Day? Royal St. Georges has a few more minor elevation changes than some links, but it’s still not a devilish setting for Day’s vertigo to flare up. Maybe the Bovada gamblers are out-thinking themselves, waiting for Day’s line and similar markets to grow even higher in risk/reward value if the Aussie is overshadowed by marquee names in the spring.
But I’m thinking the best futures bet for the Open Championship might fall in-between the (+5000) long-shot markets and the Brooks-Rory-D.J triumvirate atop the gambling board.
The longest and proudest ball-strikers will flourish if skies are sunny above Royal St. George’s. If the weekend is windy, the Claret Jug could go to a humble player who accepts the conditions instead of complaining about them. Justin Rose (+1800) has fallen to 9th-ranked status with a winless streak approaching a calendar year. Rose did manage a 3rd-place finish at Pebble Beach, but appeared to be in full adjustment-mode with a whole new brand of gear. Remember Phil Mickelson’s various gear-criticism flaps? Probably not, because it didn’t take long to quiet the critics. Rose could settle into a new swing path in 2020 and surprise at the tournament that made him famous.
Want a higher-payoff market and/or a golfer who’s riding a little higher in confidence? You can’t do better than Patrick Cantlay at 28-to-1 odds for the British Open. Cantlay has worked his way up to #6 in the world rankings as a top 10-finish machine, but was only able to capture victory once last season with a big win at the Memorial. He came close at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
Cantlay played Augusta and Bethpage fairly well in 2019, finishing T-9 at the Masters and T-3 at the PGA Championship. He never finished worse than a few strokes over par at a major, and was instrumental in a comeback win for the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup, defeating a red-hot Joaquin Niemann in final-round singles competition. Skeptics would point to Cantlay’s meager results in major championships – and T-41st in last season’s Open Championship – as the reasons for the 27-year old’s 28-to-1 odds to win in July. But he finished 12th at Carnoustie in 2018, and has a small sample-size of majors on his resume to begin with, making the cuts of 11 out of 12 Grand Slam events.
Finally, the layout at Royal St. George’s demands high shots and spinning approaches as often as it calls for run-ups to the flag, even in heavy wind. There are many greens onto which rolling the ball with your 2nd shot is a dangerous gamble, unless Royal & Ancient groundskeepers are generous in setting the pin positions. PGA Tour skill sets (such as Cantlay’s) will be valuable at the 2020 British Open, rightfully annoying any old-school Scottish fans in the gallery.
The Claret Jug winner – likely to have stopped a dozen Sunday shots on a dime – won’t mind the rabble at all.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.