Picks for the PGA Championship: The FRACAS Favorites and Value Plays at Southern Hills | The Analyst
Picks for the PGA Championship: The FRACAS Favorites and Value Plays at Southern Hills

Picks for the PGA Championship: The FRACAS Favorites and Value Plays at Southern Hills

PGA Championship Quick Hits

  • FRACAS Favorites: Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy
  • Value Plays: Daniel Berger, Brian Harman, Billy Horschel
  • Course Note: The first, second, 16th and 18th holes are projected to play the hardest at almost a stroke and a half over par combined.

All in all, it’s a perfect course for a major. All facets of the game will be tested, and some wind in the forecast could make it even more challenging.

The PGA Championship heads to Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma this weekend. Southern Hills last hosted the PGA in 2007, but has since seen a massive redesign in 2019 to prep it for modern golf games.

Bunkers have been moved down the fairway to accommodate longer driving distances, tees have been moved back, and surrounds for the greens have become more dynamic with undulating runoffs replacing the historical preference for sand bunkers. The runoffs, in particular, are a feature we’re likely to see more and more in modern course designs.

Sticky fringe with slopes back on to the green that reward hitting the green in any fashion are replaced with faster fringe that slopes off the green. These slopes require players to hit specific areas of the green to hold the green altogether.

Since the redesign, the only tournament we can gain any insight from is the 2021 Senior PGA Championship. Alex Cejka won at 8-under par, but only seven players finished the tournament under par. The course was played at 6,968 yards which is understandably shorter than the 7,556 it will be played at this week. Through our hole clustering algorithm, we can take planned yardages and match them with hole performances from the senior players to get a set of course projections.

  • Projection 1: It’s going to be difficult. We estimate scores will average a little higher than three strokes over par. The first, second, 16th and 18th holes are projected to play the hardest at almost a stroke and a half over par combined. It’ll be a brutal five-hole stretch for players starting on the 10th tee.
  • Projection 2: Scores are going to be all over the place. A typical course will have a standard deviation of about 4.0 strokes off of the average score, per round. That means 68% of players will score average or within 4.0 strokes of average in each round. This week, that number rises to 4.5 strokes. It’s a similar variance to Augusta National, which has seen a number of runaway victors in the last few years. While it increases the likelihood of a player winning by several strokes, as Cejka did last year, it also increases the likelihood of big swings in one direction or the other. A golfer could make up strokes in a hurry, or fade from the top of leaderboard in just a couple of holes.

As a par 70, par 4 scoring will be vital this week. Almost every hole has an above average variance of scores and birdies will be hard to come by. Stringing together a couple of pars will pick you up a stroke on the field, and sprinkling in a birdie will pick you up a couple. Greens will be tough to hit, and golfers who have immaculate short games should be able to avoid the big numbers.

Let’s take a closer look at the variance for each hole. Below, the holes with the most variance are darker than the ones with less variance. So the darker holes are essentially the ones on which players have the greatest opportunities to distance themselves from the field – or lose plenty of ground in a hurry.

PGA Championship variance

The FRACAS Picks

Though he’s not our overall No. 1 in FRACAS at the moment, Jon Rahm is our favorite to win. Rahm, who is sitting just behind Justin Thomas in the current FRACAS rankings, gains the advantage this week by way of course fit and variance on holes.

Rahm is a low variance golfer, something that holds him back in a lot of PGA birdie-fests. He can shoot four 67s without a single bogey and lose to a couple of golfers who make 35 birdies and eight bogeys for the week. At a course like Southern Hills, the low variance is exactly what you want – provided you’re also a good golfer.

Rahm is unlikely to card the sixes and sevens that will take a number of the world’s best golfers out of contention. His putting game has been a concern of late. He’s lost strokes with it in four of his last five measured rounds, but he gained 3.5 strokes in his most recent tournament, so he may have rectified the issue.

Justin Thomas is second in our projections. He’s currently our top player, per FRACAS, but Rahm profiles just a bit better at Southern Hills. Thomas hasn’t won since last year at the Players, but he hasn’t finished any worse than 35th in 2022 and has seven top 10s in 10 tournaments. It feels frustrating for one of the world’s top golfers to be without a win in 14 months, but his performances have still been top level.

Rory McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay are third and fourth. McIlroy is among the most variable golfers at the top of the projections and is our favorite golfer to watch this week. There’s a good chance he’ll be cruising along before carding a seven and following it up with more improbable birdies. Cantlay profiles most similarly to Rahm with his hole scoring and variance. The key for Cantlay will be the par 3s, where he has historically struggled with the long and difficult ones.

Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsuyama are all in the next tier of projections. Hovland is most similar to McIlroy in his skill-set projections. Morikawa and Matsuyama are among the best course-fit golfers in the top 20. Both do their best work when the course plays long and difficult, and Southern Hills fits that style.

Daniel Berger, Cameron Smith and Scottie Scheffler round out the top 10. It’s a surprising range as it features the two golfers who performed best at the last major as well as Berger, who is another excellent course fit. The downside to both Smith and Scheffler this week is the lack of scoring options. Both play best at courses like Augusta where the long difficult holes are complimented by manageable par 5s and short par 4s.

The issue with Southern Hills is there really isn’t a place to score. Of course, both players have shown their ability to chip in and make long putts for four straight rounds at the Masters. So they could get hot with the putter and run away with it, but we don’t particularly like the course for either golfer.

The FRACAS Value Plays

Our model doesn’t love a ton of outright win picks at the top of the board this week. The PGA takes top 70 and ties through the cut, so the chances of more top players making the weekend is higher than at other full-field tournaments. We do like a few longer-odds golfers as dart throws and a number of tournament finish props.

The previously mentioned Daniel Berger isn’t the longest off the tee, but he finds a ton of fairways and has a number of shot shapes in the bag to combat the bevy of doglegs at Southern Hills. His putter is consistently a concern, but his around-the-green game is historically excellent and he has shown the ability to “pop” with his putter, gaining 5.0 or more strokes with the putter seven different times since the start of 2020. Before a disappointing weekend at Augusta, Berger had back-to-back top-10 finishes in majors, so performance at the highest stage is not in question. His consensus odds sit around 50-1, but our model fancies his chances at 36-1. If you’re not feeling like backing a player in search of his first major, the model also likes his top-five odds at 19-2. Our modeled value of 7-1 provides excellent value.

Further down the board is Billy Horschel, who was one of our value plays at the Masters and a third-round 79 was his demise while playing with similarly animated Tyrell Hatton. This week, Horschel trails only Patrick Reed in course fit among our top-40 players, gaining 0.33 strokes per round by course layout alone. He has quite a bit of variance to his game, but at consensus odds of 78-1, we like a high ceiling. His performances when things are long and difficult have been particularly good, and trails only Rahm, Cantlay and Reed in projected scoring on the longest and hardest of par 4s. Our model has Horschel at 52-1 to win, but we really like his top-five and top-10 odds. We have those finishes projected at 10-1 and 5-1, respectively, while the consensus is at 14-1 and 13-2. Good value on both plays.

We have three additional golfers who look good in the placement markets alone. The first of which is left-hander Brian Harman, who is another long/difficult specialist – largely due to his putting. The 10-foot par putts that he’ll consistently see on this course are comfortable for him. He’s a low-variance golfer like Rahm and, oddly enough, has a similar performance profile. It’s an unlikely comparison and we can’t say we ever thought we’d be calling Harman a lite version of Jon Rahm, but here we are. The only big difference, other than overall skill, is easy par-5 scoring and Southern Hills doesn’t offer any of that. We like all the placement options for Harman. His top-five/10/20 odds are 22-1, 9-1 and 4-1, respectively, and we have those chances closer to 15-1, 7-1 and 15-4. If we have to pick one, we like his top-10 value the best.

Strokes gained by hole type

Our second value play is Korean phenom Joohyung Kim, who has six career OWGR-sanctioned wins. He moved primarily to the Asian Tour in 2022 where he has a win, two seconds and two other top-five finishes. Oh and he’s only 19 years old. He has yet to find the same success outside of East Asia, but he finished inside the top 20 at the Byron Nelson last week after finishing 66-67 on the weekend. He’s shown advanced game for his age, with strong performances on long/difficult par 4s. While a win is almost certainly out of the question, FRACAS’ 66th-ranked player should have a good showing and could finish impressively high. Our model fancies his top-five/10 odds at 25-1 and 11-1, but those can found at 40-1 and 14-1 in the consensus market.

Our final value play is perhaps the exact opposite of Kim. Ian Poulter is getting up there in age and has an uncertain future, but he’s an excellent fit for this course. His par-5 scoring is easily the worst part of his game, but par is an acceptable score on the low-variance par 5s at Southern Hills. His modeled odds are almost identical to Kim, with placement chances at 25-1, 11-1, and 4-1 (top 20), but his market is even juicier. His consensus placement odds of 35-1, 16-1 and 6-1 all offer tremendous value.

OK, we have one more. Thailand’s Sadom Kaewkanjana gets an invite after a highly impressive showing the last two years. Since the start of 2021, Kaewkanjana has four wins, four second place finishes and four other top-10 finishes in just 18 starts while splitting time between the All Thailand Golf Tour and the Asian Tour. Up to 148th in our worldwide FRACAS leaderboard, the 23-year-old Kaewkanjana has the tools to compete this week. Following the trend of almost all our other picks, he’s had his best performances when things play difficult. This week, we do like the 25-1 number being offered for a top-10 finish. Our model has his chances at about 20-1, so it isn’t the highest value play, but we’re hoping he makes the weekend and gets some coverage.

Design by Matt Sisneros.

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