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Previewing the 2021 PGA Tour Season

By: Austin Meo


With the conclusion of this week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic at El Camaleón Golf Club in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, the PGA Tour will officially journey into its offseason ahead of the most jam-packed schedule since 1975. A total of 50 sponsored events will be on the PGA Tour’s calendar for 2021 (including the 2020 swing season) – a net increase of one from the previous season. Three majors – the PGA Championship, the US Open, and The Masters – were pushed back, while The Open Championship and golf’s “5th Major”, The Players Championship, were canceled. Additionally, the 2020 Olympics and 2020 Ryder Cup were postponed for a year, shaping 2021 to be the busiest stretch for the sport in modern history.[1]


Schedule

The Tour’s fall “swing season” began in September at the Safeway Open in Napa, California. The US Open at Winged Foot Golf Club, originally scheduled for June 18-21, occurred the following week (the first time a US Open was held in September since 1913). All three events on the traditional Asia Swing saw movement in October – the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges was moved to Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas (home to The Match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson) from Jeju Island, South Korea; Japan’s Zozo Championship moved to Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California; and the WGC-HSBC Champions event was canceled (with the Bermuda Championship taking its place).


The biggest move of the fall was The 2020 Masters, which went from April to November and was preceded by the Houston Open. The first two months of 2021 will look identical to 2020 – January will feature back-to-back Hawaii events before beginning a month-long stretch in California and Arizona. The first multi-tournament week will occur in the last week of February, when the Puerto Rico Open will coincide with the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. The Florida Swing will begin with the Arnold Palmer invitational followed by The Players Championship.


This is where the Tour will see some major movement. The Honda Classic will move to the week after The Players, and The Valspar Championship (April 26-May 2), traditionally played the week after The Players, will now conclude on May 2, between the Zurich Classic of New Orleans (April 19-25) and the Wells Fargo Championship (May 3-9). March through August will see 13 tournaments return for 2021 (including the 2021 Olympic Men’s Golf Competition in Saitama, Japan and the 2021 Ryder Cup in Kohler, Wisconsin).


The following is a list of tournaments returning in 2021:


· The Players Championship | March 11th - 14th

· World Golf Championships - Dell Technologies Match Play | March 24th - 28th

· Valero Texas Open | April 1st - 4th

· Zurich Classic of New Orleans | April 22nd - 25th

· Valspar Championship | April 29th - May 2nd

· Wells Fargo Championship | May 6th - 9th

· AT&T Byron nelson | May 13th - 16th

· RBC Canadian Open | June 10th - 13th

· John Deere Classic | July 8th - 11th

· Barbasol Championship | July 15th - 18th

· The Open Championship | July 15th - 18th

· 2021 Olympics Men’s Golf Competition | July 29th - August 1st

· 2021 Ryder Cup | September 21st - 26th


Ratings

The PGA Tour saw a whirlwind of viewership data come in over the past 6 months. While nearly every league saw ratings decreases, the PGA Tour saw extreme highs and lows come in month over month.[2] Non-major events on CBS saw a year-over-year increase of 17% – topping all sports including the surging WNBA, which saw a 15% increase in their Finals.[3][4] The PGA Championship, won by Collin Morikawa at TPC Harding Park, saw a 3% increase in its final round coverage on August 9.[5]


But as more and more sports returned in the fall, every league saw decreased viewership across platforms in their championship series. The Stanley Cup Final (-61%), NBA Finals (-49%), and MLB World Series (-30%) all suffered, with baseball suffering its lowest average World Series viewership since data collection began in 1973.[6] Golf was not immune. The final round of the US Open had 56% less viewership than 2019, and the 2020 Masters saw a 48% drop in viewership.[7] It seems no sport was able to capitalize with a saturated viewership market in September and October, as even the NFL and FBS Football saw double digit reductions in total viewership.[8][9] For the PGA Tour, going back to their primetime slots from April to August, plus the bonus of having the Olympics and Ryder Cup return, make 2021 a fantastic rebound opportunity.


Gambling

In June, the PGA Tour announced a policy change that allowed for players to have individual sponsorship agreements with betting operators.[10] In the last few months, several players have already made headlines with their new deals.[11] Jason Kokrak won his first tournament in 10 years at the CJ CUP in Las Vegas this past October – approximately 2 months after inking a deal with BetMGM. [12] At The Masters, Bryson DeChambeau made headlines by partnering with DraftKings, which included wearing their logo on his Payne Stewart-esque “flat” cap.[13] DraftKings had already signed on as the Tour’s official daily fantasy sports (DFS) partner in July of 2019. Fanduel signed on with the PGA Tour as an official betting partner in the fall of 2020, with DraftKings also adding betting to their current deal.[14]


The “core 4” of North American sports – the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL – have similar deals with sportsbooks as well.[15] Golf has seen a significant increase in betting in the last six months as licensing agreements have become increasingly popular. Official numbers are hard to come by, but the Wall Street Journal cited a year-over-year gain that was a “two-to-three-fold increase,” while other sites have cited seven and even ten times increases.[16] As sports viewership evolves in a saturated market, golf’s ability to stay afloat might just be its gambling partnerships and gaming strategic planning, led by PGA Tour SVP of Media and Gaming Norb Gambuzza.


Majors & Predictions

The 2021 season is setting up to be the biggest in PGA Tour history, with all four majors, the fourth ever edition of golf at the Olympic games (previously 1900, 1904 and 2016), and the Ryder Cup between the US and Europe (in which the US is coming off a demoralizing defeat at the 2018 Cup at Le Golf National in Guyancourt, France).


Let’s take a look at each major this year, the opening betting odds, and what stats are important. The odds are based on those posted by Fanduel Sportsbook. Any “plus” numbered bet is how much you would win if you were to wager $100. For example, if Dustin Johnson is +700, then a $100 bet would net $700 (you might see +700 written as 7-1 instead – common is horse racing). Odds change regularly and many sportsbooks now adjust for in-game betting as well, along with a multitude of other bets from cut lines to each-ways, parlays to fairways/greens hit in regulation. All stats used in this article are from the PGA Tour’s database on PGATour.com.


The Masters

Augusta National - Augusta, Georgia, USA

April 8-11, 2021


Dustin Johnson +800

Jon Rahm +1000

Rory McIlroy +1000

Bryson DeChambeau +1100

Justin Thomas +1100

Brooks Koepka +1200

Xander Schauffele +1800

Patrick Cantlay +2200

Webb Simpson +2200

Patrick Reed +2700

Collin Morikawa +2900

Matthew Wolff +3100

Sungjae Im +3100

Tiger Woods +3100

Daniel Berger +3400

Hideki Matsuyama +3400

Tony Finau +3400

Bubba Watson +4100

Jason Day +4100

Viktor Hovland +4100

Adam Scott +4500

Justin Rose +4500

Tommy Fleetwood +4500

Tyrrell Hatton +4500


The quick turnaround means there won’t be much tournament data coming in ahead of the April edition of The Masters. Most of the players will play TPC Sawgrass in March at The Players, and some will also head out to Hawaii in January. It’s unlikely, with the shortened rest period, that the January/February California swing will get as strong a field as they have in the past. For some players, the WGC-Mexico Championship might be their first taste of competition in 2-3 months.


Assessing comparison courses and prior play is difficult at The Masters. Augusta National is made of modified Bermuda grass, is a long par-72 course which is uncommon for Atlantic PGA Tour events, and will have a very different feel in April than it did in November. This year’s tournament was abnormal in a few ways. There was a substantial amount of rain, many players had to play more than 18 holes per day due to daylight restrictions, and most glaringly, there were no fans.


Strokes Gained: Off the Tee and Strokes Gained: Tee to Green are important stats when assessing players ahead of The Masters. They often highlight the “bombers” and “ball strikers,” which tend to out compete the shorter/scrambler hitters that might succeed on other types of courses. While Dustin Johnson ran away with the tournament on the weekend, some other players made headlines as well. Cameron Smith became the first player to shoot four rounds in the 60s at Augusta, and five players shot under par all four rounds. Rory McIlroy, who is still chasing the career grand slam, shot 66-67-69 after an opening round 75 on Thursday.


Who are some players to look at for the 2021 Masters? The odds at the top make most of the players untouchable. Thomas, McIlroy, Rahm and DeChambeau will stay at the top for years to come. Each has issues he needs to work on – Thomas’ driving consistency, McIlroy’s short game, Rahm’s decision-making, and DeChambeau’s control of his ball. On the other side, a lot of older players are running out of time to get a green jacket – Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson and Tony Finau come to mind.


There’s a new group of kids on the scene as well. Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff have taken the Tour by storm over the past 12 months. Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele are two guys with better odds (Koepka has better odds on DK) that have considerable upside. Koepka has the major win equity, and Schauffele has one of the most complete skill sets on Tour (though he struggles to finish strong, as evidenced by his eight career runner-up finishes). Down the board, Sungjae Im is another player that is new to fans, but his play on Bermuda grass during this year’s Florida swing makes him a sneaky pick at 33 to 1.


Another one to watch is Joaquín Niemann, a 22-year-old sensation from Chile who unfortunately didn’t get to compete at this year’s event after a positive COVID-19 test. The 43rd best player in the world according to the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), Niemann is 12th in SG: OTT in 2020-21 and is eighth in driving distance. Although he’s young, he has a great deal of experience, playing in over 80 tournaments before the age of 23. Expect him to become more well-known this season along with the rest of the growing U-24 group.


PGA Championship

Kiawah Island (Ocean Course) - Kiawah Island, South Carolina, USA

May 20-23, 2021


Dustin Johnson +850

Rory McIlroy +1000

Jon Rahm +1200

Brooks Koepka +1600

Bryson DeChambeau +1600

Justin Thomas +1600

Xander Schauffele +2000

Collin Morikawa +2700

Hideki Matsuyama +2700

Daniel Berger +3300

Louis Oosthuizen +3300

Patrick Cantlay +3300

Tiger Woods +3300

Tommy Fleetwood +3300

Webb Simpson +3300

Adam Scott +4100

Jason Day +4100

Justin Rose +4100

Patrick Reed +4100

Rickie Fowler +4100

Tony Finau +4100

Matthew Wolff +4200


Kiawah Island is an iconic course that surprisingly has only come into the fold over the past three decades. The famous 1991 Ryder Cup – nicknamed “The War by the Shore” – was contested here and came down to the final singles’ match on Sunday between Germany’s Bernhard Langer and America’s Hale Irwin. Kiawah most recently hosted the 2012 PGA Championship, where Rory McIlroy won by eight strokes – the largest winning margin in the history of the event dating back to 1916. The craziest feature about Kiawah is the setup of the course. In 2012, it was the longest major to date at 7,668 yards. But NC/SC/GA courses, typically on Bermuda grass, are notoriously short. Just look at The RSM Classic, RBC Heritage, and Wyndham Championship (the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hallow is the exception).


There is one golfer that comes to mind for his type of course – Webb Simpson. Webb led the PGA Tour in scoring average in 2019-20. He was fourth in SG: Total, despite finishing outside the top-100 in driving distance. His course history backs up his game too. Last season he came in second at The RSM Classic, won the RBC Heritage after the restart, and finished tied for third at the Wyndham Championship. In the swing season, he finished tied for 17th or better in his first four events, including a top-10 finish at The Masters.


The 2012 PGA Championship also saw wind gusts exceeding 30 miles per hour. Playing in the wind is something most players on tour today aren’t used to, aside from occasional trips to Europe to prep for international team events and The Open Championship. It’s no surprise, thus, that the 2012 leaderboard was filled with Europeans like David Lynn, Carl Pettersson, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Jamie Donaldson and Peter Hanson. European Tour players are naturally more used to windy/rainy conditions, which is why for this year’s PGA Championship, I would look into players like Tyrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick for value. American players who like these types of courses include Harris English, Kevin Kisner, Daniel Berger, and Brendan Todd.


US Open

Torrey Pines (South Course) - San Diego, California, USA

June 17-20, 2021


Dustin Johnson +850

Jon Rahm +1100

Bryson DeChambeau +1200

Brooks Koepka +1400

Justin Thomas +1400

Rory McIlroy +1400

Xander Schauffele +1400

Collin Morikawa +2200

Hideki Matsuyama +2700

Patrick Cantlay +2700

Webb Simpson +2900

Daniel Berger +3300

Tiger Woods +3300

Tommy Fleetwood +3300

Viktor Hovland +3300

Jason Day +4100

Justin Rose +4100

Patrick Reed +4100

Tony Finau +4100

Matthew Wolff +4500


Another long course, the Torrey Pines Golf Course (South) should be a bomber’s paradise – less wind, long par-5’s, and more ways to cut corners for longer hitters. Initially, there should be decent crossover from this year’s PGA Championship, the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, and of course, Torrey Pines’ annual PGA Tour stop, the Farmers Insurance Open. Torrey Pines is synonymous with one golfer and one golfer only – Tiger Woods. In 2008, Tiger won a 19-hole Monday playoff against Rocco Mediate on a torn ACL and stress fracture in his leg. Surprisingly, it was Tiger’s last major for nearly 11 years until he clinched the 2019 Masters last April. Now though, the course is designed less for an older Tiger and more for a young up-and-comer.


Collin Morikawa sets up well for any US Open. He hits the ball long and straight, often avoiding the rough that tends to be the courses’ greatest defense. His putting will need to improve in 2021, but the fact that he already has one major under his belt is a great sign. Jon Rahm is another young player to watch. He has yet to win a major but has loved playing at Torrey Pines in the last few years with finishes of second, T5 and T29. Rahm ranks fifth on tour in total driving, which equally weights distance and accuracy (Scottie Scheffler ranks first). Bubba Watson, who likes playing in California and has two green jackets, could also be a long hitter with upside and high win equity.


The Open Championship

Royal St George’s - Sandwich, Kent, ENG

July 15-18, 2021


Dustin Johnson +850

Rory McIlroy +1100

Jon Rahm +1200

Brooks Koepka +1600

Bryson DeChambeau +1600

Justin Thomas +2000

Xander Schauffele +2700

Hideki Matsuyama +2900

Tommy Fleetwood +2900

Adam Scott +3300

Collin Morikawa +3300

Patrick Cantlay +3300

Shane Lowry +3300

Tiger Woods +3300

Louis Oosthuizen +3700

Jason Day +4100

Justin Rose +4100

Patrick Reed +4100

Rickie Fowler +4100

Tyrrell Hatton +4100

Webb Simpson +4100


Fans will wait the longest for 2021’s final major, which hasn’t been held since July of 2019. Royal St. George’s has hosted 14 previous Open Championships, most recently in 2011 when Darren Clarke hoisted the Claret Jug. Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, two players known for their runner-up finishes in majors, finished three shots back. Other high-finishing notables from 2011 that should be in this year’s field include Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Webb Simpson and Rory McIlroy.


The Open Championship is often hardest major to predict. Course conditions are highly dependent on precipitation and wind, and course knowledge is often limited due to multiple-course rotation. Tony Finau and Tommy Fleetwood are two players primed to notch their first majors of their careers. In 2019 at Portrush, Fleetwood and Finau finished second and third, respectively. The year before, they both finished in the top-15 and in 2017, each finished T-27. Recently, the Open Championship has been a major where first time winners have made it to the top. Shane Lowry (2019), Francesco Molinari (2018), and Henrik Stenson (2016) all claimed their first majors at the Open Championship. Tyrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick could also be Europeans to watch out for.


About the author:

Prior to coming to Villanova Law, Meo served as the Chief Operations Officer of The Wrightway Sports Network, LLC. He was credentialed with the National Football League (Pro Football Writers of America Member) and the PGA Tour. In 2018-19, he covered a handful of PGA Tour events live, including the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, the 2018 Northern Trust Open at Ridgewood Country Club, and the 2019 Northern Trust Open at Liberty National.



References:

[1] PGA TOUR announces full schedule for 2020-21 season. (2020, September 01). Retrieved from https://www.pgatour.com/news/2020/09/02/pga-tour-announces-full-schedule-for-2020-21-season.html


[2] Schmitt, T. (2020, August 08). Golf on TV is booming - ESPN, CBS, Golf Channel boasting about recent ratings. Retrieved from https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2020/08/08/golf-on-tv-ratings-espn-cbs-pga-tour/


[3] Ratings - CBS Sports Delivers Its Best Viewership Average and Highest-Rated PGA Tour Season in Five Years. (2020, August 25). Retrieved from http://www.thefutoncritic.com/ratings/2020/08/25/cbs-sports-delivers-its-best-viewership-average-and-highest-rated-pga-tour-season-in-five-years-734412/20200825cbs02/


[4] Nemchock, E. (2020, October 09). WNBA's successful regular-season ratings carry over to postseason with 15 percent increase in Finals. Retrieved from https://www.swishappeal.com/wnba/21507979/wnba-finals-2020-viewership-ratings-up-cathy-engelbert-espn


[5] Rigdon, J. (2020, November 17). Final round Masters ratings way down, but for understandable reasons. Retrieved from https://awfulannouncing.com/golf/final-round-masters-ratings-way-down-but-for-understandable-reasons.html


[6] Jackson, J. (2020, November 27). Sports viewership shows how much our priorities have shifted in pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article247418280.html


[7] Rigdon, supra.


[8] Beall, J. (2020, November 17). The Masters, on trend with other major sports, sees record TV ratings plunge. Retrieved from https://www.golfdigest.com/story/the-masters-2020-tv-ratings


[9] Barnett, Z. (2020, October 20). A look at the college football TV ratings so far this season. Retrieved from https://footballscoop.com/news/a-look-at-the-college-football-tv-ratings-so-far-this-season/


[10] Maese, R. (2020, November 09). Golf bet big on legalized sports gambling. It's paying off. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/11/09/pga-tour-golf-legal-sports-betting/


[11] Johnson, M. (2020, November 10). Golf Gambling Grows as PGA Tour Embraces Extra Revenue. Retrieved from https://www.gamblingnews.com/news/golf-gambling-grows-as-pga-tour-embraces-extra-revenue/


[12] Shedloski, D. (2020, October 19). Jason Kokrak ends a decade of wondering and wandering with his first PGA Tour title. Retrieved from https://www.golfdigest.com/story/jason-kokrak-wins-cj-cup-puts-an-end-to-a-decade-of-hard-knocks-grabs-first-pga-tour-title


[13] DraftKings To Make Debut at 2020 Masters with Bryson DeChambeau in Exclusive Multi-Year Deal. (2020, November 02). Retrieved from https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/11/02/2118721/0/en/DraftKings-To-Make-Debut-at-2020-Masters-with-Bryson-DeChambeau-in-Exclusive-Multi-Year-Deal.html


[14] DraftKings named 'Official Daily Fantasy Game' of the PGA TOUR. (2019, September 25). Retrieved from https://www.pgatour.com/company/2019/07/23/draftkings-named-pga-tour-official-daily-fantasy-game.html


[15] US Sports Betting And Casino Team Deal Tracker. (2020, December 9). Retrieved fromhttps://www.legalsportsreport.com/sports-betting-deals/


[16] Broughton, K. (2020, November 19). DraftKings CFO Revisits Financial Models as Virus Upends Sports Calendar. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/draftkings-cfo-revisits-financial-models-as-virus-upends-sports-calendar-11605819687

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