Sobel’s 2021 Wyndham Championship Picks & Preview: Can Zalatoris Overcome Intense Pressure to Win?
Warren Little / Getty Images. Pictured: Will Zalatoris
- The PGA TOUR heads to Sedgefield Country Club for the final tournament before the FedEx Cup playoffs.
- While the field may be void of some of golf's biggest stars, several golfers are under intense pressure to win in order to make the playoffs.
- Jason Sobel gives his favorite picks for the event, below.
Gary Player often credits himself with coining the phrase, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
(Which is strange, because in a book authored by Player himself in 1962, he credits fellow pro Jerry Barber for coming up with it – and other players are said to have repeated it, as well.)
Whatever the origin, there’s certainly something to it.
We’d like to believe that most players who win PGA TOUR events do so because they’ve outplayed the other contenders for 72 holes. We attribute it to ball-striking and putting; we credit things like grit and guile and mental fortitude. We search for reasons to rationalize why that specific player triumphed.
Sometimes, though, it just all comes down to a little luck.
Sunday was yet another great example of how a horseshoe or rabbit’s foot can be the most important 15th club in a player’s bag. Don’t believe me? Just ask the winners themselves.
At the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, the back-nine more closely resembled the member-member D-flight at your club, one of the strangest 90-minute stretches you’ll ever see. One by one, contenders launched hosel rockets into ponds, banged balls off branches that went OB and generally made continuously poor decisions.
When the dust settled, Abraham Ancer was left standing in a playoff with Hideki Matsuyama and Sam Burns. He narrowly avoided a pair of Matsuyama birdie attempts on the first two playoff holes, then made one of his own and watched as Burns missed a shorty on the same line, clinching Ancer’s first career PGA TOUR victory.
When it was over, he offered the best summarization of the day’s events, concluding, “This is surreal. Golf is crazy. I’m happy that I got lucky.”
A few hours later, at the alternate-field Barracuda Championship, Erik Van Rooyen was similarly trying to capture his first title on this circuit. Like Ancer, he’d put himself in position to win – and like Ancer, he needed a little help, too.
On the final hole, EVR pulled his tee shot dead-left, later calling it his worst swing of the week. It was destined to go somewhere bad, perhaps OB, which likely would’ve pushed him back into a playoff in the Modified Stableford scoring format. Instead, the ball hit a tree, kicked some 30-40 yards to the right and landed in the fairway, from which he made birdie to seal a five-point victory.
“When it’s your day, it’s your day,” he explained afterward. “Sometimes you need a little bit of luck on your side to win a tournament.”
I find it ironic that pros have no problem giving thanks to the Golf Gods in these situations, while golf bettors will so often beat their chests and take full credit for such victories. If we learned anything once again this weekend, it’s that like Player has said – even if he didn’t say it first – the harder we work at all this, the luckier we can certainly get.
That includes this coming week, too, as the PGA TOUR contests its 47th of 47 regular season events in the 2020-21 campaign, leading into the FedEx Cup playoffs over the next three weeks. The Wyndham Championship represents not only one last chance for players to keep their playing privileges and squeeze into the playoffs, but also one last chance for us to play some lovable longshots.
Over the past half-decade, winners of this tourney have come from all over the board, ranging from Henrik Stenson as a favorite to defending champion Jim Herman as the sleepiest of sleepers.
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With that in mind, there’s certainly value in chasing a few guys with big numbers who need a victory this week, but let’s not forget the bigger names, either. I’ll start my card with a player who fits both categories – an elite-level talent who can only get into the playoffs with a win.
One player to win the tournament.
Will Zalatoris (+2800)
Just one month ago, it looked like Zalatoris’s special rookie/not-a-rookie season might be coming to a premature end. He took a big swing from the thick heather at Royal St. George’s, causing back pain which forced him to WD the next day. He didn’t compete again until this past week, but perhaps a little time away was just what he needed.
Zalatoris finished T-8 in Memphis, his best result since the same one at the PGA Championship three months ago. At TPC Southwind, he was dead neutral in strokes gained on approach shots in the opening round, then picked up strokes on the field with his irons in each of the ensuing three rounds. That, of course, is a pretty common occurrence for Zalatoris, who has quickly established himself as one of the better second-shot players in the game. What isn’t common is the fact that he gained at least 0.88 strokes putting in three of the four rounds. Like so many of the game’s better ball-strikers that we speak about on a weekly basis, he really only needs to roll the rock just a little above average in order to contend on a given week.
But trending in the right direction with his flatstick is only one reason to like him here. Another is that he’s got some local ties, having played his college golf at Wake Forest, just about 30 minutes away. And then there’s the much bigger reason that despite top-10s in three majors during the current campaign and a world ranking inside the top-30, this will be his final start of the season, because he’s not an official PGA TOUR member. Unless, of course, he wins. That’s the only way for Zalatoris to qualify for his rightful spot in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
As silly as it sounds that he’s on the outside looking in, that should be enough motivation for him to step on the gas pedal and go for broke this week. There’s nothing he can do to harm his status as a rising star, but something he can do about being a disruptor in a system that has left him out, if only because the powers-that-be never envisioned a player getting to this level without official membership.
Look, nobody will cry for Zalatoris if he’s forced to take a few weeks off before restarting the 2021-22 season next month as a full-time member, but he’ll still have plenty of support rallying him to the impending playoffs. With so much else in his favor this week, there’s no better time to bag his first career victory.
Potential selections for one-and-done options.
Chris Kirk (+8000)
Ever since a T-2 finish at the Sony Open in the first full-field event of the year, I’ve thought that Kirk was going to win before the calendar turned over – and, well, technically we’ve still got a few months, even if this is the last event of the current regular season. This could be a good spot for him to do it, though. Even though Kirk has never finished in the top-10 at this event, topping out with a T-11 three years ago, his career scoring average of 68.50 suggests that he could certainly put four solid rounds together to at least contend this week.
Talor Gooch (+5500)
If we’re sticking with the Ancer/EVR theme of talented players who could use a little Sunday luck to propel ‘em into the winner’s circle, then Gooch could fit the storyline. A very impressive iron player, he’s missed just one cut in his last 13 starts, dating back six months, and has four top-20 finishes during that time. He wouldn’t be on top of anyone’s list of best players to have never won, but he shouldn’t be too far down that list, either. After MCing the first two times he played this one, Gooch opened with a pair of 65s last year before stalling a bit on the weekend and posting a T-25 finish. Expect him to improve upon that this week.
Aaron Wise (+13000)
So, you like to gamble, huh? Well, if you like your ceilings high and your floors low, Wise offers plenty of potential volatility this week and every other week, too. In 14 starts this year, he owns four finishes of 17th-or-better – and at some tougher tourneys, including the Honda Classic (T-13), Wells Fargo Championship (T-9), PGA Championship (T-17) and Memorial Tournament (T-9). That’s the good news. The bad news is that in his other 10 starts, he owns nothing better than a share of 44th place. I still think he owns a tremendous amount of talent and is going to be a very good PGA TOUR player. That high upside is a strong sign – and while he might not help you as much in a season-long league, there’s definitely some potential for an OAD.
Chez Reavie (+10000)/Ryan Moore (+10000)/ Luke List (+11000)/Keith Mitchell (+15000)/ Tom Lewis (+25000)
Not gonna lie, guys. I got done with this entire preview, then realized there were a bunch of dudes I really liked who I couldn’t quite squeeze into a specific category. Well, here they are. This feels like the “others receiving votes” postscript on a college football top-25 poll, but the truth is, you could probably do a lot worse than listing these guys as 5/6ths of a DFS roster. I think each one has a chance to do some damage.
One player to finish top-five.
Patton Kizzire (+1400 for top-five)
I’ve been on Kizzire a lot this summer, including at the 3M Open, where I picked him to win. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.) One of the things that I’ve learned over the years – and many seasoned bettors know – is that being “burned” by a specific player often means you simply picked him on a bad week. Too often, neophyte bettors will swear off a guy who’s done them wrong, but remember: There was a reason you liked him in the first place. It wasn’t that long ago when I was espousing Kizzire’s assets, namely the fact that he starts strong, finishes strong, owns solid ball-striking numbers and his all-around ranking is near-elite, meaning he does everything well. It didn’t work out when I pushed in all my Kizzire chips, but I don’t mind buying back in for more, knowing that the same reasons I liked him last month are still viable reasons to like him this week, too.
One player to finish top-10.
Russell Henley (+250 for top-10)
If I’d asked you 11 months ago to name the Georgia Bulldog who would win twice this season, ascend to top-10 in the world ranking and make a run at the U.S. Ryder Cup team, there’s a good chance you would’ve listed Henley before Harris English. Really – again, there’s that luck thing – Henley isn’t too far from mirroring the type of breakthrough campaign that English has enjoyed. He owns three top-fives and eight top-25s in the current season, including three results of 19th-or-better in his last four starts. This should be another good spot for him to show off his ball-striking skills, coming off a 63-65 weekend here last year that led to a T-9. And file this one away, too: If you’re looking for a player to enjoy an English-like resurgence next season, Henley just might be the guy.
One player to finish top-20.
Ryan Armour (+400 for top-20)
Prior to the Barracuda, Armour was coming off finishes of 5th and 6th in his previous two starts. While he MC’d this past week, a second-round 66 showed that he’s not far from that prior form. At just over 7,100 yards, Sedgefield isn’t the type of course players can overpower, which should suit Armour perfectly, as he’s one of the shorter yet more accurate players around. All of which helps to explain four straight top-25 results at this event, including a pair of top-10s.
One player to finish top-30.
Easily a starter on this season’s All-Underrated Team, the Canadian is probably one of the better players whom you’ve never seen hit a shot on your TV screen, unless you happened to catch a few of his shots down the stretch during the final round of the Barracuda. He’s made the cut in eight of his last nine starts and might not be knocking on the door for titles, but has posted some very solid results during that time, including a solo sixth this past weekend. As a guy who has one last opportunity to step on the gas pedal in an effort to keep his playing privileges and make the playoffs, I like his chance to make something happen on a course where he opened with a 62 last year. To be honest, I think top-30 is extremely conservative; I don’t mind playing him up to top-10.
One player to finish top-40.
Brian Stuard (+160 for top-40)
Prior to an MC at the Barracuda, Stuard had finished 6th-15th-8th in his previous three starts. I’ve often said that Stuard is among the least sexy plays out there, but really, I don’t mean that as a knock on him. He ranks 201st in driving distance and second in driving accuracy, making him a plodder of Jim Furyk proportions. There are plenty of venues throughout the year where the 38-year-old doesn’t stand much of a chance, but this isn’t one of ‘em. With only two par-5s, Sedgefield doesn’t automatically give the big hitters an edge, like so many others with double that number. Stuard hasn’t owned much success here in the past, with only two top-40s in nine starts, but his recent form suggests this is a better play this time around.
DFS Free Bingo Square
A safe plug-and-play option for DFS.
This is one of my favorite annual recommendations: Anytime a player names one of his kids after a title sponsor, you play him at that tournament – no questions asked. Well, I’ll admit that I wasn’t heeding my own advice and had actually planned to stay neutral on Webb this week based on current form, but then he went and posted a final-round 64 in Memphis and sucked me back in. He’s played this event a dozen previous times and owns a victory 10 years ago, five top-fives, eight top-10s and 10 top-25s, including finishes of 3rd-2nd-3rd-2nd the past four years. I don’t love him at this one as much as I usually do, but if you’re willing to chew some chalk here and get a little contrarian with your other roster components, playing Simpson completely epitomizes the idea of a free Bingo square.
A lower-priced option for DFS.
If you are indeed going with Simpson or 1-2 of the other big names this week, you’ll need to find a few bargains, too. I’m admittedly pretty terrible at guessing ownership percentages – especially early in the week – and presume a greater amount of sharp DFSers will be on Smalley than we might believe, but there’s good reason for it. Not only has he made the cut in all three PGA TOUR starts this season and owns a pair of top-five finishes in his last four starts on the Forme Tour, the Duke University product currently resides in Greensboro, which means he’ll have plenty of support and home-cooking this week.
One player to post the low score Thursday.
Harold Varner III (+7000 for FRL)
If this one sounds familiar, that’s because I listed Varner as my favorite FRL play in last year’s Wyndham betting guide and he came through for us, posting an opening 62 to share the overnight lead with two others. Whether this is official or not, whether it’s public knowledge or not, I’m not sure, but I do know that HV3 has spent some time in Las Vegas recently, working with a certain world-class instructor. Others have seen near-immediate results from similar interactions, so it stands to reason that a tweak here or a tip there could help elevate Varner’s game. He finished T-15 at the Barracuda, but a trip back to his home state has meant good things in the past. I could easily see him contending this weekend.
One player who should beat comparable players.
Hank Lebioda (+7000)
On the SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio show that I host with Michael Collins, I often say that I can understand how/why some people don’t want/like to bet on golf. Whether the risk isn’t worth the reward or the sweat doesn’t equate to enjoyment, I realize there are golf fans out there who simply want to enjoy the sport without having to agonize over their potential wins and losses. That said, I similarly always explain that even if you’re not betting, examining the tourneys and players from a betting perspective can make you smarter about what you’re watching on a weekly basis. Case in point: Our guy Lebioda. If you’re just a fan, you might recall that Lebioda showed up on your TV screen a few times over the past month and remember that he’d played well. If you’re a bettor, though, you absolutely have stored away in the compartment of your memory bank that is supposed to be used for much more important things, the fact that Lebioda finished top-10 in three consecutive starts and was contending in a fourth straight at the 3M Open before a weekend WD to see his father, who had fallen ill. That was the last time he played, meaning his heater still hasn’t cooled off.
The Big Fade
One top player to avoid at this tournament.
Adam Scott (+4000)
I tweeted this after the odds were released Monday morning: “Imagine trying to explain some of these numbers to somebody who just teleported from last year. Robert Macintyre shorter than Tommy Fleetwood; Talor Gooch shorter than Bubba Watson; Mito Pereira shorter than Justin Rose. None of ’em are wrong, just crazy how quickly it changes.”
Perhaps the epitome of quickly changing odds is Scott; to be honest, I thought he’d be closer to Rose’s 70/1 number than nearly half of that, even against an inferior field. He hasn’t played this event since 2015, when he opened at 20/1 and finished T-63.
That might sound like an ugly result, but in three starts here, that’s his best one. This is obviously a last-ditch attempt by Scott, who is now ranked 43rd in the world and 121st in the FedEx standings, to salvage a strange 17-start season that has included just one top-10 (a share of 10th at the Farmers Insurance Open) and one MC, with his other 15 results all falling between 13th and 54th.
For one of the game’s classy guys, who owns one of the classier swings, you’d like to believe Scott will return to some elite-level status at some point, but I don’t see this week as anything other than just more of the same.