Sobel’s 2020 American Express Betting Preview: Will Scottie Scheffler Get Off the Mark?
Rob Carr/Getty Images. Pictured: Scottie Scheffler
Over the past few weeks, I’ve referred to the upcoming PGA Tour event on multiple occasions as something to the effect of The Bob Hope Humana Career Builder Desert Classic, which still somehow fails to mention the actual title sponsor of this year’s edition of the tournament.
If you’re scoring at home, this tourney is now called The American Express – no Championship or Classic suffix necessary and not to be confused with the old WGC of the same sponsor.
As if we couldn’t have guessed in a three-course pro-am format, no matter the name, this one remains one of the toughest to handicap on the annual schedule. In the past decade alone, the winner’s list has included studs like Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed, unknowns like Adam Long, long hitters like Jhonattan Vegas, short-knockers like Brian Gay and Mark Wilson, and the peculiarly unpredictable Bill Haas – twice.
Instead, let’s start with what we do know.
This week is going to be a birdie-fest. During that past decade, the lowest winner’s score was an eye-popping 30-under, while the highest was a still impressive 20-under. The forecast calls for some wind in La Quinta, but nothing like the stuff we witnessed during the two-week Hawaii Swing, so expect that trend to continue.
We also know that there will be plenty of Phil Mickelson sightings this week.
Last year’s co-runner-up will shelve his social media stardom – you know, his “phireside” chats and calf raises and bigger bombs off the tee – and take on the role of tournament host this year, following an eclectic list that has previously included Bob Hope, George Lopez, Arnold Palmer, Yogi Berra and Bill Clinton.
There’s a lot going on for Lefty these days – and it’s not all about his tweets.
He’ll turn 50 on Tuesday of U.S. Open week, the same U.S. Open which will be held at Winged Foot GC, site of perhaps his most infamous of a half-dozen runner-up results at the tournament.
Just as it remains to be seen whether that window of opportunity to claim the career grand slam is still cracked open just a bit, it also remains to be seen whether he’ll follow that event by competing in his first 50-and-over circuit tourney the next week, which just happens to be the U.S. Senior Open.
Looking for more golf betting content? Check out The Action Network Golf Podcast’s preview of the 2020 American Express.
All of this might take place while he’s being considered for a pending Ryder or Presidents Cup captaincy, currently just a month removed from failing to be part of a U.S. team for the first time in a quarter-century.
Of course, none of this answers the question you came here asking: Should I back him or fade him this week?
The easy answer is to stay away. He’s a year older, his precipitous fall from the top-50 now has him 79th in the world, he’ll be dealing with various hosting duties throughout the week and – most importantly – his recent record doesn’t justify your financial support. Since winning last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am three weeks after his runner-up in the desert, he’s made 20 starts with no finish better than a T-18 at the Masters.
I was about to add to that list the fact that he also hasn’t played a single competitive round in two-and-a-half months, however that one might be better served amongst the pros, not the cons.
Anyone who moderately pays attention to the game knows that Mickelson often plays his best golf on the West Coast – and while that can be attributed to the fact that, hey, he’s a West Coast guy and feels more comfortable in these surroundings, there’s something to be said for him being able to better prep for these tournaments as opposed to those during the later flow of the schedule.
As he approaches 50, being fresh might be a bigger benefit to Mickelson than being battle-tested, which could help make the case for backing him this week.
Knowing everything on those two sides of the fence probably means we should firmly straddle it instead, going after other players who fit the profile.
Oh, and there’s one other thing we know about this week, if it holds form with this year’s trend: It’s going to get a little nuts at the end. After PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan stated that he wouldn’t mind if every event went to a playoff, he’s gone 2-for-2 on his wish, with a pair of conclusions that endured some crazy circumstances down the stretch.
The first two PGA Tour events of the year have turned into freakin’ Buffalo Wild Wings commercials.
— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelTAN) January 13, 2020
Let’s hope for another crazy finish this week – and let’s hope some of the following players are involved in it.
One player to win the tournament.
Scottie Scheffler (+3700)
I was banging the drum for this rookie throughout the fall part of the schedule and there’s no reason to jump off the bandwagon now.
I’ll admit there are a few things going against him this week, though: I would’ve preferred a player who competed last week and had those juices flowing already, especially since playing under muted winds is going to feel like taking the donut off the bat.
And it might be foolish to take a player who’s never competed in this tourney before, since it’ll be near-impossible to get a firm grasp on all three courses before the opening round.
I do, however, still believe that Scheffler will win a PGA Tour title sooner rather than later, and with a handful of big-name studs playing here, his odds are a bit higher than they might be in a less competitive field.
For those who believe this is too much of a shot in the dark, I present this fact: Just seven starts into his freshman season, Scheffler is already ranked 13 spots higher than Mickelson in the world ranking. He’s made the cut in each of those starts, including three results of seventh or better. The talent is there and he’s ready to take the next step.
Potential selections for one-and-done options.
Nick Taylor (+11000)
Congratulations to Adam Hadwin, as he and wife Jessica just welcomed their first child recently. That said, the two-time runner-up at this event – with top-six finishes in each of the last four years – is potentially the first casualty of many OAD pools, as he seemed like a perfect plug-and-play option for this one. Instead, I’ll go with another Canadian — and new father – in Taylor, who is fresh off a solid week at the Sony Open and should be trending in the right direction.
Andrew Putnam (+5300)
Originally, I was considering Putnam for my pick to win – he’s finished 34th-17th at this event over the last two years – but his ball-striking numbers on Sunday at Waialae were pretty gross, to be frank. I still think he’s a solid play this week, just not with the same confidence that I would’ve had beforehand.
Jason Kokrak (+3600)
For those still filling the blanks in your year-long pools – in one of mine, the first two picks were due before Kapalua and the rest are due this week – Kokrak is a valuable option, because he plays a lot of golf and he tends to play consistent golf, making him a go-to guy on a lot of different weeks. If you’re not holding him for the Valspar Championship or an early playoff event, then this one is a solid play, as he’s finished 18th-8th the past two years.
One player to finish top-five.
Harris English (+1200)
Hey, if his good buddy and pseudo-doppelganger Hudson Swafford can win this one, then English can make some noise here, too.
He owns a couple of top-20s here in the past and was on absolute fire during the fall part of the schedule, posting three top-fives and one other six-place finish. As always in the preview, a pick here also correlates to other categories; I specifically like him as a strong DFS play this week, too.
One player to finish top-10.
Brendan Steele (+700)
Yes, it was a heartbreaking result for Steele last week, as he went into the final hole with a one-stroke lead, then waited … and waited … and waited … and ultimately made a par and lost in a playoff. But a few things to keep in mind: That was his first top-10 finish in exactly 101 weeks, so he’ll take plenty of positives from that and he’d never before played the Sony Open.
This one is much more Steele’s speed, as desert golf has always suited him well. Expect him to be in the right frame of mind to step on the gas pedal and keep some momentum going, rather than hanging his head after the playoff loss.
One player to finish top-20.
Charles Howell III (+175)
Let’s not try to fix what isn’t broken. In last week’s preview, I picked CH3 for a top-20 finish based on the fact that, well, he usually finishes in the top-20. Solid research, huh? I’m going back to him this week for the exact same reason.
OK, so Howell has been top-20 at this tournament in “only” three of the past four years, but that 75% hit rate is a risk I’m willing to take. Sometimes we tend to overthink these things in golf. Let’s not do it here.
DFS Free Bingo Square
A safe plug-and-play option for DFS.
Paul Casey (DK $10,700; FD $11,400)
This might be a curious selection for a guy whose three career starts at this event include a T-58 and two MCs, but Casey has become a much more consistent player over the last couple of years. Since last year’s Masters, he’s only missed the cut at one event – and that was the Italian Open, straight off a win in his previous start.
As a high-ball hitter, I’m never a huge fan of Casey in windy environments, but the lack of much forecasted breeze has me backing him this week, at least in DFS, where his price might not make him a value pick, but should equate to a made cut and plenty of birdie.
A lower-priced option for DFS.
Scott Harrington (DK $6,500; FD $7,200)
I just alluded to it there, but this week – more than most others – is about finding birdie-makers in DFS. With a guaranteed three rounds, there won’t be the separation that usually occurs with a Friday cut, so you’ll need players in your lineup who can make red numbers in bunches.
While Harrington ranks just 80th on the PGA Tour in birdie average this season, he’s accustomed to playing desert golf and these courses should suit him. There’s the same worry as with Scheffler, that he’s never played this event before, but again, it shouldn’t be enough to keep us from going after guys we like.
One player to post the low score Thursday.
Most sportsbooks won’t post FRL odds because the American Express is played on three different courses, but if you find one that offers the bet, this is my guy.
Faithful readers (you’re out there, right?) will recall that I’m bullish on Wise this year, so don’t be surprised to see his name in these previews on a somewhat regular basis. Three years ago, he opened with a 68 en route to a T-34 finish; two years ago, it was a 64 and last year another 68. Of course, there’s one caveat here: I’m writing this preview on Monday morning, before the tee times have been announced.
Last year’s opening-round scoring average was 69.423 at La Quinta, 69.712 at the Nicklaus Tournament course and 70.885 at the PGA West Stadium course, so I’d recommend taking a wait-and-see approach, then going after those playing La Quinta for FRL wagers.
One player who should beat comparable players.
Of all the good young ball-strikers on the PGA Tour, Gooch might get less pub than anyone else. I’ve barely ever heard anyone mention his name, despite the fact that last season he ranked 15th in strokes gained tee to green. This is also where his season took off last year, finishing solo fourth and T-3 at Torrey Pines before getting derailed for a bit by an injury.
He still makes for a nice plus-money top-20 bet or low-owned DFS play, but against most others he’ll be matched up against, Gooch’s best value comes in matchups, as he should beat most others the books put him against.
The Big Fade
One top player to avoid at this tournament.
Bill Haas (+17500)
Two years ago, Haas was injured in a fatal car accident leaving Riviera that killed his host for that week. Understandably, it’s taken some time for him to regain his former level of play – and really, it hasn’t quite happened yet. He posted exactly one top-10 during last calendar year – a T-10 at the John Deere Classic – and has yet to return to the glory that once saw him become a Tour Championship winner.
If he does – or perhaps when – it will be a great story, but for now, if you’re planning to blindly check past results and pencil him in for a pick this week, you might wind up disappointed.
My favorite non-PGA Tour play of the week.
Matthew Fitzpatrick and Thomas Detry, Abu Dhabi Championship (To win and top-five)
Whether I’m being generous with two picks or just indecisive, I really like each of these guys at the star-studded European Tour event. In a field that includes the return of Brooks Koepka, plus Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Cantlay, Shane Lowry, Bryson DeChambeau, Viktor Hovland and a bevy of others, I’m going with a pair of players who have both recent form and course history.
Fitzpatrick (+2000) has finished top-10 in four of his last five starts and was T-3 at this tourney the last time he played two years ago; Detry (+5000) has been fourth-or-better in three of his last five starts and was T-9 at this one two years ago. I like each of these guys for outright and/or top-five bets, as they should continue to roll this week.