As the NFL races toward the postseason, the NBA and NHL hit the malaise of the winter months and MLB remains a rite of spring, it’s right around this time each year that I find myself waxing poetic about golf being a 12-month-a-year — OK, 11¹/₂-month-a-year — sport.
For those of you already familiar with my weekly preview columns and accustomed to firing golf bets, welcome back. If you’re new to golf betting and starting to dip a toe into the shallow end, welcome in.
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This week is all about the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which features 39 competitors, culled from the pool of those who have won in the past year and those who reached last season’s Tour Championship.
A few tips before we get to the picks.
PGA Tour Tournament of Champions betting tips
This tournament has largely been the domain of the elite-level players, especially in recent years. Even with Cameron Smith (25/1) and Harris English (30/1) claiming the last two editions of this one, winners have owned average pre-tournament odds of just over 15/1 in the past eight years, according to the archive at golfodds.com.
This makes a fair amount of sense, of course. With a smaller field, prices are always going to be a bit depressed for the top of the board, while there exists a greater disparity between the superstars and those who might’ve qualified after one week of glory last year.
Here’s another which goes hand in hand with that one: No player has won at Kapalua in his tournament debut since Daniel Chopra did it 15 years ago. I’m not suggesting a first-timer can’t play well, nor am I saying that this venue requires a ton of experience. The truth is, five of those last eight champions had only played here once previously.
It does, however, seem like one of those courses where you’ve gotta play a few rounds before you get the hang of it. Either that, or the debutantes become too distracted by the mai-tais and the paddle boarding to play their best golf. It’s enough to keep 13 of the 39 off my card this week, including Matt Fitzpatrick, Cameron Young, Tom Kim, Will Zalatoris and Sahith Theegala.
And then there’s this: We all remember last year’s event, when a long-but-soft track led to a winning total of 34-under, with the top three on the final board combining to shoot a gaudy 99-under. That might’ve been an outlier, but only by a little bit. Of those last eight editions of this one, seven have been won with a score of at least 20-under. I usually see these birdie-fests as an advantage toward the best players, as well. Not to go all analytic nerd on you, but here’s a stat: The best players make the most birdies, which should correlate nicely here.
Sooo … we’re looking for a low-priced superstar with experience on this course who can post birdies in bunches? I’ve got just the guy.
PGA Tour predictions and golf picks
Short odds: Justin Thomas (11/1, BetMGM)
Thomas is a two-time winner of this event, with three other top-fives in seven career starts. If you’re into patterns, he won those first two titles three years apart and this signifies Year 3 since the most recent one.
I get that the PNC Championship is a silly season, parent-child hit-and-giggle, but I walked with Thomas and his father, Mike, for much of the two rounds and can tell you JT was doing a lot more hitting than giggling, seemingly locked in on the task at hand the entire time.
During a week on Maui when plenty of his peers are still shaking off the cobwebs, JT has most recently played some competitive rounds, which could make all the difference this week.
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Long odds: Russell Henley (60/1, Caesars)
I was planning to save all my Henley love for next week’s Sony Open preview, but you’ll have to read it all over again because I love him there and love his pricing here.
For about 18-24 months, I believed Henley was among the unluckiest players on the PGA Tour. Now, I’m not talking about bad bounces and lipped-out putts. What I mean by this is that his performance outclassed his results.
He’s the golf equivalent of a 6-14 pitcher with a 2.74 ERA — or at least he was, until he won at Mayakoba a few months ago. I still think he’s got a little more positive regression coming his way and at this price, I’m willing to bet it could come this week.