Sentry Tournament of Champions: Preview and Picks
The dispatches had to go on hold for a bit as I pulled my life together after a surprise losing streak from the Seahawks and a surprise winning streak from the Panthers torpedoed some potential future bets and my mental health. However, that’s all changing because I am fired up for golf and this dispatch is entirely focused on the Sentry Tournament of Champions (ToC). We’re back to talking some golf which is something I haven’t done since my inaugural column.
The golf season has been ongoing for a few months now, but they have primarily been limited to journeymen and younger players trying to get a head start on earning FedEx Cup points, but this week is when the big boys of the Tour start to show up. For those of us who have been watching golf for a long time, this used to traditionally start the season before the PGA Tour began its wrap-around schedule.
This course and tournament have started the calendar year since 1999, so longtime golf fans will be familiar with the layout and there are a lot of stats to pull from to determine what type of player traditionally does well here.
Since 1999, the Sentry Tournament of Champions has been played in Maui, more specifically at the Plantation Course in the Kapalua Resort. Unusually, the Plantation Course is a par 73 measuring about 7,515 yards. It is unique because it features five par 5s, meaning that players will be looking to be on the attack trying to go low as those are traditionally holes where players are looking to make birdies (and maybe an eagle or two).
The wind is always a complicating factor when you’re talking about playing in Hawaii in January, but the complications typically caused by the wind tend to be canceled out by the fact that this course has very wide fairways and large greens.
The course has a reputation for yielding low scores as evidenced by Cam Smith’s win last year in which he shot -34 over 72 holes which set the all-time PGA record for a 72-hole score in relation to par. Pars are no good here and guys know that they’ll probably need to be -25 or better at the end of the week to even have a chance at winning.
This is a no-cut event and only players who won last season (or finished in the top-30 of the FedEx Cup standings) are invited to play for guaranteed money this week. That means the field is usually strong. Sometimes international players are gearing up for a tournament in Dubai or elsewhere, but typically you can expect most of the top players in the world to be showing up here. The exception is the contingent of winners who have since decided to LIV it up on the LIV Tour. They’re still banned from participating in PGA sanctioned events, so Cam Smith won’t be defending and a handful of others will be on the sidelines as well.
That means there are 39 players turning up for this event which makes it very small by traditional Tour standards.
Towards the top of the odds board, we see a lot of familiar faces with the likes of Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, and Justin Thomas hovering near the top. I can’t really fault anyone for liking most of those guys. The reality is that almost all of them are good fits. The only one I couldn’t get behind is Jon Rahm who is clocking in at +650 on Draft Kings which just feels too short considering that all the other top players listed in that group are +900 or better.
Now that we have the nuts and bolts laid out, it’s probably time for me to talk about my own personal betting philosophy. There are a lot of ways to bet on golf.
Some people like to bet on matchups. Sportsbooks often most 1 v. 1 matchups that will either be for the entire tournament or just for one round. They usually try and match up players of relatively equal ability for 72-hole matchups (think: Jon Rahm v. Justin Thomas), and as they do individual single-round matchups on the weekend, it will typically be two guys playing in the same grouping for the day.
There are place markets where you can bet on players to finish in the top 5, top 10, or top 20 at reduced, but probably safer odds.
And finally, we get to the king of bets: the outright winner. Typically, this is where my focus is. There is nothing more fun than sweating a player for four days hoping they can snag a win. It doesn’t happen often, but it also doesn’t need to if you throw in some smart long-odds bets and structure them correctly.
There is a myriad of other bets on some sports books to make/miss the cut (not applicable this week), top-30, first-round leader, etc. But those bets are sometimes trickier to find, so most of my analysis will be on the outright market.
There is a number of ways t bet outright. Some people just bet the same amount on each player they bet. For example, you take three players Player A is 6/1, Player B is 20/1, and Player C is your buddy’s old college roommate who you had a beer with a few times and he’s 175/1. In this example, you bet one unit on each across the board and you will get returns of six units, 20 units, or 175 units. It makes the long shots feel really good, but sometimes it’s hard to sustain if you’re betting guys with wild variable odds. Player A winning in that example gives you enough to keep betting for another couple of weeks, and Player C winning has you eyeballing early retirement.
Others, like myself, tend to structure them so that the payouts are relatively equal. For instance, if I have a payout that I’m targeting like 20 units, for example, and I want to bet Player A who is 40/1, then I’ll bet a .5 unit (.5 x 40 = 20).
To further that, it’s never any fun to just bet on one person in such a crowded field, so in order to put some restrictions on things, I like to keep track of how many units I wager. Generally, I’m looking to bet somewhere around 10% of the targeted payout (in this example, 20 units), so two units for the tournament. So, if I’m betting on Player A at 40/1 for a .5 unit, I still have 1.5 units to spread around however I’d like. That could mean that I’m taking Player B at 20 for 1 unit, then maybe throwing .25 at Player C and Player D who both happen to be 80/1. Players A, B, C, and D combine to make my total bet 2 units and any of them winning would yield 20 units using this method. Essentially what you’re banking on with this system is that you can fish a needle out of the haystack once every 2.5 months.
How Do We Evaluate Golfers?
Most of the advanced analytics for golf are provided by the PGA Tour using Shotlink date which tracks every shot a player hits and generates numbers for how they stack up relative to other players in the field. Datagolf.com and the PGA Tour website both have this number in pretty readable formats. These stats are often “strokes gained” data points that measure how this person performs compared to other players. For example, Rory McIlroy is an animal off the tee and is leading in Strokes Gained: Off-the-tee with a number of +1.495 through four rounds tracked this year. That means he gains roughly 1.5 strokes per round off the tee more than the average PGA Tour pro, and over the course of four rounds, he’s gaining a nearly six-stroke advantage off the tee compared to the average PGA Tour pro. On a course where good drivers tend to do well, Rory would be high on the list of contenders in this example. But not all courses are created equally, and that’s the fun part when we’re trying to break these tournaments down. Some favor players with good shorts games, other courses tend to be more approachable for guys who are precise in their approach game, and others favor good drivers of the ball.
Ideally, you’re looking at information that is slightly narrower in scope. A full year’s worth of data might be less predictive than, say, 10 weeks’ worth of data. It’s hard to see when someone can’t control their driver if you’re looking at a full year’s worth of stats sometimes because they may be inflated from a period when a player was driving the ball very well. But if the last five tournaments were a mess for a player off the tee, there’s a good chance he’s still not finding the fairway very often in the tournament coming up.
I’m staring hard at a handful of those metrics I just described above for this tournament and have whittled it down to a few relevant ones to explain how I’ve arrived at my picks.
We know this is a long course with wide open fairways, and large greens, and the Bermuda grass on the greens tends to be a little bit of a slower surface than players are typically accustomed to.
We also know there are five par 5s on this course, and that birdies tend to rule here because players are typically going very low here barring an absurd amount of wind and rain.
The most important stats, near as I can tell for this tournament are thus: Stokes Gained: Approach (SG: App), Strokes Gained: Off-the-tee (SG:OTT), and Strokes Gained: Par 5s (SG: Par 5). We’re also staring hard at proximity numbers for players from 100-125 yards out and looking for guys who tend to putt well on Bermuda putting surfaces (particularly slow ones).
The stats tend to be more reliable as the season goes on, but because we’re so early in the season, I’m looking back to more historical numbers simply because most guys haven’t played a ton yet this season. In a couple of months, this season’s data will be more reliable (and hopefully more predictive of winners!).
Sungjae Im (18/1) is the darling of golf nerds around the world because the dude just nails a lot of the stats we love. He’s a Twitter darling this week in golf betting because his profile just seems tailor-made for this event. He didn’t win last year, so he gets in by virtue of making the Tour Championship (top-30 in FedEx Cup) last year, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t play some damn good golf last season. He was 8th in SG: OTT, 45th in SG: App, and 3rd in Par 5 performance last season. If you fiddle with the numbers and trim it down to just over the last 24 rounds played, he’s first in SG: OTT and Par 5 performance. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s finished 8th and 5th in his only two previous appearances here. So you’re telling me he has all the things to be successful on this course, and plays well here? Yeah, that’s an auto-bet at 18/1. If you want to be more conservative, I’d encourage taking a long look at his top-10 odds of +130.
Now we slide down the board a little and take a look at Sam Burns (22/1). He’s won four times on Tour and is somehow dramatically further down the odds boards than many of the elite players in this field. This is a mistake. The guys above him hovering around 10/1 are not that much better than him, he just lacks the household name status of JT and Rahm. The man has some game. He ranked in the top 20 in SG: App last season and top 10 in SG: Putting last season. His Achilles heel has been driving accuracy, but that’s neutralized at a wide-open course like the Plantation Course. He flights the ball well in the wind and Bermuda is his strongest putting surface. He’s going on the card.
The last guy I’m going to talk at length about is Tom Hoge (70/1). He was 7th in Par 5 performance, and 11th in SG: App last season. When we start to drift into these odds, the matches aren’t going to be perfect, but I’m taking a stab here and hoping our man Hoge can find a hot putter for us this week and get in the hunt.
Here are a couple of random thoughts on the Sentry Tournament of Champions tournament this week.
J.T Poston is -125 to finish in the top 20 this week. The man is an absolute killer on the greens and typically performs even better over this surface. The iron game came around last year. I think an elite putter on gigantic greens (3-putts are always a concern for weaker putters) can probably finish in the top half of the field here if you’re looking for a lower adrenaline play.
Finally, I’m skeptical of Viktor Hovland, now and always, for as long as he sucks at chipping. The dude is so good at everything except that one thing. And that one thing lands him exactly dead last in Strokes Gained: Around the green. Until he can be something other than the absolute worst player on Tour every time he misses the green, I have a hard time betting on him. I’ve done it in the past and watching him skull, flub and shank shots around the green is something that is just unhealthy for my mentals. I will take care of my mental health here and not bet on him.