2021 Hero World Challenge Odds, Picks, Preview: Target Justin Thomas & 3 Others at Tiger’s Tournament
Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images. Pictured: Justin Thomas.
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Let’s start with a little history lesson before we dive into a few plays for this week’s elite-field Hero World Challenge.
Back in 2008, it was decreed by the powers-that-be who decree over such matters that this Silly Season money-grab would offer Official World Golf Ranking points to its competitors for the following year and beyond. If the total purse was a literal rich-get-richer proposal, then the ability to squirrel away some OWGR points presented a nice little perk.
Why? Well, there are always some stories behind the story, but essentially it was this simple: Tiger Woods is the longtime host of this event and Team Tiger asked those aforementioned powers-that-be to make it an OWGR-sanctioned event, so they did.
Maybe it’s an example of Tiger’s gravitational pull; maybe it made sense for all involved parties. This might not be a clincher for any top player, but the more benefits there were, the more superstars would commit, which seems like a win-win for everyone other than those who didn’t get into the field.
Almost immediately, though, this idea transformed from nice little perk to one with major repercussions.
In that first year, an unheralded Northern Irishman named Graeme McDowell entered the week outside the top-50 on the OWGR. He finished runner-up, which propelled him inside that magic number, meaning he’d be exempt into the following year’s major championships. Six months later, he won the U.S. Open.
Other reverberations have been less impactful, but still noteworthy. In 2011, Woods himself was ranked outside the top-50 and while he was never on the verge of missing majors, a win elevated him to 21st and was the first step toward reclaiming the No. 1 spot. Just two years ago, Henrik Stenson was nearing similar danger, only to win and spark a career resurgence (albeit temporarily, in retrospect).
This year’s edition of the HWC has been expanded from 18 to 20 players and while the OWGR number wasn’t yet available at the time of this writing, don’t be surprised if it eclipses that of several PGA TOUR events from this past year, a fact which remains perennially controversial.
OK, trust me: I’m getting to those plays, just a little more history first.
Back this week after a one-year cancelation over pandemic concerns, this tourney offers an opportunity to back a talented player at a price normally reserved for full fields. Patrick Reed was listed between +2000 and +4000 in his last three full-field starts; he can be found at +3000 for this one. Harris English is posted at +3500 similarly being +3000 to +4000 in his last three starts.
The only problem with that strategy? Traditionally, “longshots” at this event don’t pan out.
Since this event moved to Albany in 2015, only Stenson has opened the week on the bottom half of the board (according to golfodds.com).
At first blush, there wouldn’t appear to be much connective tissue to serve as a common denominator between these winners, all at differing stages of their careers and hardly similar types of players.
I suppose we could explain it away as they’re all world-class ball-strikers who can get hot with the flatstick for four days, but really, that describes every player in these fields.
If there is a trend here, it’s that each was trending in the right direction when he won, posting results offering varying degrees of optimism beforehand. Bubba had six top-fives in his previous dozen starts. Hideki won three of his prior four. Rickie was runner-up in two of his past three starts. Rahm owned four consecutive top-25 results. And Henrik was top-20 in eight of his previous 11.
Granted, we won’t find many guys in this superstar-laden field who aren’t in some semblance of strong form – this is what good players do; they play well – but I’m keeping a close eye on those who have come close recently and own a healthy dose of motivation in what amounts to their last real start of the calendar year.
Justin Thomas (+900)
I’ll bypass tourney co-favorite Collin Morikawa (alongside Rory McIlroy) with clenched teeth, knowing he’s fully capable of repeating his recent in Dubai success, in favor of a player who fits the profile of both trending in the right direction and motivated for a victory.
Granted, it feels like we’ve been saying this about JT for the past six months, but it rings especially true lately, with three finishes of fourth-or-better in his past five starts. There aren’t many who could claim The Players Championship and still call it a disappointing year, however that’s the case for Thomas.
Previous results of 5th-12th-11th at this event don’t exactly scream optimism, though we’ve got to believe the Bahamas is more of a business trip for him than many others – and identifying the line between the two is essential in finding success this week.
Sam Burns (+1400)
There are some definitive parallels between Rahm’s position three years ago, when he won this event, and that of Burns right now. No, I’m not suggesting the latter is ready to ascend to No. 1 in the world, but each had two PGA TOUR wins at the time of this event (Rahm had several others overseas, of course), each owned similar odds and each has the unsinkable quality of some of the game’s greats.
In fact, the most impressive aspect of Burns’ rapid rise might be the fact that he’s stepped on the gas pedal in these situations. Even the likes of Morikawa has endured a brief down period after each early-career success, so there’s no shame in that, but Burns followed his first victory with a runner-up in his next start and has followed his second with results of 14th-5th-7th in his last three appearances. Like Thomas, it’s difficult to see him treating this one like some vacation.
Scottie Scheffler (+1600)
Nobody in this elite field “needs” a win to validate his status, but if we had to pick one player who perhaps “needs” it more than anyone else, undoubtedly Scheffler would be that player.
Still without a PGA TOUR title, winning this one would offer the type of asterisk that will be affixed to his name until he claims a more official victory, but we can guarantee beating a field of this magnitude wouldn’t mean any less to him.
Prior to a T-57 at the RSM Classic, results of T-2 and solo fourth prove that he’s not only trending in the right direction, but he’s intent on retaining his form, even during the months which matter less than others. Again, that’s an important distinction this week.
Justin Rose (+2500)
Again, since the move to Albany, there’s only been one player who’s won this event from the bottom half of the odds board, but if we’re looking for one player to repeat the success of Stenson, then his old Ryder Cup partner could be the man to do it. After failing to make the FedEx Cup playoffs this past season, Rose appeared similarly middling in his first two starts of this campaign, before posting a T-12 at the RSM.
While I hardly think a final-round 65 at Sea Island when he was already too far back is reason alone to believe he can vanquish a field this deep, there’s at least a small modicum of hope which might not have been glimmering previously. Throw in finishes of 5th-3rd-5th in his last three Hero starts at a place he calls home and Rose is easily my favorite play of those who enter the week at 20-1 or longer.