Golf betting has taken a long, slow U-turn in 2018.
Headed into the Masters at Augusta National this spring, Tiger Woods shot to the top of sportsbook futures boards early and often. Bettors had watched Tiger’s epic charges and 4-round streaks of consistency on the PGA Tour over the first dozen weeks of the season, and didn’t seem to mind that the aging phenom’s odds-to-win were comparable to those of Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy.
It was too soon. Tiger has wanted desperately to win again, anywhere, in any way, in order to get a monkey off his back and reclaim his intimidation factor over the other stars. That led to high-stress shooting at regular Tour stops while players like Patrick Reed were honing their short games for that major in the Magnolias.
Tiger Woods 2.0 appeared to hit a wall in the majors after duffing at Augusta, leading his futures odds to lengthen somewhat. His game was not suited to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, and he missed the cut, causing the lines to jump even higher in promised payoff.
But there just aren’t that many bet-takers. Eldrick looked average at Firestone last week, and his current futures line to win the PGA Championship at Bellerive is (+2800) at Bovada. The favorite, Dustin Johnson, is at an 8-to-1 payoff. In other words, house bookies think D.J is more than 3 times as likely to win as Tiger.
It’s been a year of frustration for the biggest names. Mickelson is no golden oldie, Johnson hasn’t won a major, and neither has Rory, Justin Thomas, or Jordan Spieth. Brooks Koepka is currently 4th in the world but his U.S. Open win didn’t move the needle. Francisco Molinari at least managed to show that his 2nd-place finish at last year’s PGA was no fluke, winning the British Open over a pack of charging favorites.
Is it time for another sleeper to shine in St. Louis?
The PGA Championship: I Promise not to Call it “Forgotten”
Golf punditry is a form of entertainment, and a TV show always needs a plot. The PGA Championship (organized by club professionals, not the PGA Tour) has been called the least of the 4 majors, prompting one cliché “think-piece” after another about the struggles of the old tournament compared to 3 other annual classics.
But the PGA Championship is, after all, still a major. The Players’ Championship and the Tour Championship are not considered majors, not even Arnie and Jack’s tournaments are considered majors.
The PGA might not get the worldwide attention of The Open Championship but it still rocks a terrific field. Its hardcore fans are rewarded with magic every so often.
Handicappers seem to have forgotten that vis-a-vis the persona of Tiger Woods. But overlooking past results in the PGA, a tournament featuring the deepest field and among the toughest course layouts of any major, is only part of why I think the current odds are mistaken.
Remembering Valhalla…and Chicago
One of Tiger’s greatest wins came at the PGA in 2000. Long-shot sleeper Bob May jumped into the lead late in the tournament, and if Woods was going to cap off one of the greatest seasons of golf in history, he had to catch up. Pre-injury Tiger roared on the back 9, overcame an 18th-hole tee shot so wayward that a fan was said to have chucked it out of a ditch, and talked to a birdie putt as it went in during a 3-hole playoff.
It was a unique Sunday at a major even in 2000, but Woods has never made a Sunday charge at a major. He almost always wins from the front, and even led after 54 holes before his “comeback” against May.
The previous year’s PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club also had a memorable finish with Woods emerging the victor. Sergio Garcia made one of the coolest par-saves of all time while sprinting like a deer down the fairway after the ball.
An impromptu stare-down between Woods and Garcia on the 13th hole prompted the media to exclaim that a new blood-rivalry had been born which would dominate the game of golf. Instead, Sergio wouldn’t win a major title until 2017.
It’s not hard to imagine Tiger winning this year’s PGA in some similar dramatic fashion. He almost certainly can’t win it by 5 shots, as he did when claiming his 3rd of 4 PGA Championship titles. Fans on Twitter called him “exhausted” after the 31st-place finish at Firestone, a course which shares some similarity with Bellerive.
But consider the progression of his 2018 season, in contrast to the chances he’s been given in STL. Woods’ grand performance at the British Open may be getting overlooked.
Woods shot a 73 on Thursday at Augusta as a near odds-on favorite. That wasn’t so bad, but a Friday double-bogey on the 5th hole and 2 bogeys to begin Saturday sank his Masters chances.
The missed-cut at Shinnecock was to follow. But there is evidence that Tiger might be getting his mind wrapped around who he is as a veteran golfer.
At the British Open, Woods used the distance of modern long-irons and a clever array of wind-defying shots to keep the ball out of Carnoustie bunkers. As the leaders made the turn on Sunday, it appeared inexorable that Tiger would win. He probably would have at least tied the hot Molinari at 8-under par, if not for a very poor drive and a worse decision next to the 11th green.
The prevailing wisdom in early August is that the 42 year-old is tired.
Tiger Woods looks exhausted after his round today. Post-round interview looks like he was going to pass out. "Shouldn't have worn all black I guess" he tells the golf channel with a smirk. #PGA #BridgestoneInvitational
— VanCity Sportsnut (@vancitysportswx) August 3, 2018
Fans are dismayed that Woods didn’t contend at Firestone, a course at which he has tended to look like a million dollars over the years. But consider his 4th round, a roller-coaster ride in which he managed only 5 pars while shooting a 73. If you listen to post-round interviews, he doesn’t seem like an exhausted man.
Instead, he sounded like a guy who has made up his mind to prepare for that next major win…instead of worrying about getting hot on the PGA Tour.
“I was just trying to be as aggressive as possible and fire at everything,” Tiger told a blogger at his website. “It was either going to be a 62 or 63 or something in the mid-70s. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Later, Woods said he was going to be “getting after it” at Bellerive starting the next day. In other words, long hours of practice.
Arnold Palmer used to hit wild, screaming shots over the green in preliminary rounds of golf, causing beat reporters to write “Poor Arn.” But Arnie was just preparing to play out of rough before the real competition got going. By the same token, I’m not putting as much stock in Tiger’s bogeys at the Bridgestone Invitational as a lot of people seem to be.
But Tiger is not the only big name with a chance to out-play expectations in the Gateway City. Let’s peek at the odds for several other contenders…and how their games stack up on a long, hilly hazard of a course like Bellerive Country Club.
2018 PGA Championship: Favorites and Sleepers
Dustin Johnson’s game is made for turning lengthy and arduous hills into pitch-and-putt walks in the park. He’ll be able to attack with distance off the tee and high floating wedge shots at some of Bellerive’s longest Par 4s, some of which will span over 500 yards from tee to green as has become the new normal at major tournaments.
The Cheetah tied for 3rd at Firestone, and is the World #1 despite not winning a major since the 2016 U.S. Open. His odds-to-win are shorter than 10/1 at almost every sportsbook, but underdogs (if guys at 3rd or 4th-shortest odds out of hundreds of players can be called “underdogs”) are getting a little more action at high-profile betting sites.
Can Jordan Spieth complete a career Grand Slam this weekend? He only needs a PGA Championship to complete at least a long-term quartet of triumphs at the biggest events. His odds at (+2000) seem to indicate a strange shortage of wagers considering that he was the 54-hole leader at Carnoustie.
But Spieth’s game may not be suited to Bellerive. Winds and hard turf at the British Open negated the distance advantage of his playing partners, but the grass will be catchier and the slopes severe at the long parkland course in St. Louis. Contrary to what some PGA Tour aficionados have said about Jordan, he would not be “Ben Hogan” if it weren’t for such deep fields in the modern majors. He’s not 1/5th as consistent as Hogan was. But Spieth’s laser-accurate shot-making is enough to win the PGA Championship someday…if he stays patient enough.
Rory McIlory and Justin Thomas are seen as D.J.’s 2 most dangerous adversaries, with (+1200) and (+1400) lines respectively. Rory has the power, striking ability and confident putting to hurt a course like Bellerive with birdie streaks. He finished 2nd at the British Open, and 5th at the Masters Championship. Thomas is a recent FedEx Cup winner who just won at Bridgestone by 4 strokes. Oh, and he won last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow by 2.
Either of the above pair is a better bet than Koepka, Justin Rose, Jason Day, or Rickie Fowler, each hovering around 20-to-1 odds. Koepka is boosted thanks to a major win that will soon be a memory, the course does not suit Rose’s style ideally, and Fowler and Day have struggled to put it together when it counts this season.
Sleepers Awake…or Lose to Tiger Woods
There are many names further down on the board who could conceivably play a terrific 4 rounds of golf, but who could survive late on Sunday against Johnson, Rory, Tiger and others after getting into position to win, as Molinari did when claiming an unlikely Claret Jug?
Look for the powerful, classic high-ball hitters. Patrick Reed is a potential value pick at (+3500) – he knows how to stop uphill shots on slick, severe greens. Bubba Watson’s length has him holding at 50-to-1, but my crystal ball sees many big fat Missouri oak trees in his immediate future.
The principle of “imagine the tournament played X number of times” doesn’t work so well for a name like Phil Mickelson at (+10000). As much as we’d love to see Phil win, the fact that he could win at least 1 in 100 tournaments at Bellerive at this stage of his career is not much consolation for the gambler looking to finish-off the majors calendar with a bang. The slim chances of a 48 year-old winning the bet outweigh the 100/1 payoff, even though the bet would tend to pay off once every 40 or 50 tries.
PGA Prediction: Tiger, Rory or Justin all the way
28-to-1 payoff on a double-digit major champion who showed last month what he can still do at a biggie? That’s not bad.
But there’s no question Woods is an emotional golfer who is plagued by demons, including his health. There’s always a chance he will fail spectacularly and miss the cut or blow up on a Saturday back 9. However, remember that in futures betting for tournament-winner there is no penalty for your guy finishing 60th instead of 2nd. It’s only a bet on leader after 72 holes, and Tiger has at least a 1-in-12 chance of pulling it off in St. Louis.
For those looking at a safer pick, it’s hard to imagine Rory or Justin Thomas not having a chance on the weekend.