This article is part of our Golf Picks series.
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2023 TOUR Championship: Welcome to Atlanta
The TOUR Championship can get confusing so I will just get right to it. The top 70 started in Memphis two weeks ago. They have been playing to make the top 30 and gain a ticket to Atlanta. When you get to East Lake Golf Club, the points go away, and to avoid fan confusion, the PGA TOUR implements a completely new scoring system. Simply put, the best players get a lead before the tournament starts. The No. 1 player -- Scottie Scheffler -- starts at 10-under-par and the strokes work their back through the top 25 of 30 players.
For RTL, we will be predicting the winner without strokes. Please pay attention when making your bets. The straight 72-hole tournament without the staggered start is also referred to as the shadow leaderboard. One of the main reasons I don't bet on the "stroked" leaderboard is to avoid confusion for my readers. Let's keep it simple this week and just get win No. 11.
Another reason for this strategy is the odds. Look at the "stroked" betting board. The odds are much lower given the advantage. The average gross winning score over the past decade is 12-under-par. If you start more than a couple strokes behind the leaders, you essentially don't have a chance to win. East Lake Golf Club is a stern test. Can a player go full-Viktor and take it deep one day? They can, but why not take the same player without the staggered start and with higher odds.
I'm down in Atlanta, and it is hot! Read The Line is on-site covering the top 30 from 2023. The forecast calls for temperatures in high 90s, heavy humidity and very little breeze. If you are coming out, please drink lots of water. Memphis was brutal too and we don't want to lose any fans of RTL. Little to no rain is coming and the course is in great condition. Last year it was very soft. We will see some roll this week and that's good news for the par 70 layout measuring 7,346 yards.
Eight of the twelve par-4s extend over 440 yards and the par 3s effectively all play over 200 yards. With only two reachable par-5s on the scorecard, if you want to separate yourself par-4 scoring is the best plan of attack. Considering the purse is $75 million dollars and the winner will walk away with $18 million, strokes or no strokes you have the player's attention. Twenty-four of the top 30 in the OWGR are in the top 30 FedExCup players. Those who have made it here will get invitations to all four majors next year and a two-year exemption on TOUR.
For a player like Adam Schenk that's a huge deal. Most of the top 30 have won and gained that two-year ticket. All four majors, designated events, and two more years is a great reward. Did I mention last place gets $500,000? Please enjoy the golf at East Lake this week. Other than the Ryder Cup, we will not see most of these guys again until January. Even Rome will be a challenge considering the start times will be six hours ahead. This is the "Super Bowl." So, tune in, enjoy, and let's go win one more!
2023 TOUR Championship: East Lake Evaluation
One more friendly reminder, this content covers the "without strokes" division in Atlanta. For three weeks you have heard me opine over par-70 golf courses. Well after this narrative, the PGA TOUR will not return for two weeks. Let's get to work and win back-to-back.
The TOUR Championship has been contested at East Lake Golf Club every year since 2004. A paradise of challenging par 4s, Bobby Jones' spirit is represented in the ball striking needed to succeed around this course. Seventy-four bunkers and six holes where water comes into play all make the best take notice. Bermudagrass covers the above average size green surfaces (5,619 sq/ft) and Zoysiagrass fairways launch the ball on approach. ELGC is one of the most penal courses on TOUR from off the fairway. The players average just below 55 percent of fairways hit while the TOUR average is 62 percent for the rest of the schedule. Accuracy off the tee is just as important as Memphis and Chicago.
Power presents a distinct advantage up and down these hills. The average drive length is nine yards longer than the TOUR average. That tells us the top 30 on TOUR are long and they hit plenty of drivers here. Several holes have elevation changes and there are plenty of uneven lies. Another reason why the T2G skill is so important, the east -west routing also tends to give players a bunch of cross wind shots (Fourteen of the 18 holes run east to west or west to east). Long iron approach play is consistently tested. Nearly 40 percent of the iron shots are played from over 200+ yards. Before we give Scottie or Viktor the trophy, short game and putting have determined more winners than the iron game.
You can make putts at ELGC. All putts over five feet have an average make percentage higher than the PGA TOUR average. If you are a good bermudagrass putter, there's an edge at East Lake. It is summer in the south and that grainy bermudagrass on the green surfaces can drive you silly if you aren't used to seeing it. Over the past decade, the average winning score (without any strokes) is 12 under par. Birdie-or-better percentage is just as important as bogey avoidance. Thirteen holes have a birdie rate over 15 percent and seven holes carry a bogey rate over that same measure (15 percent).
Besides par-4 scoring, I also looked at each competitor's ability to gain on the field by hitting fairways and greens. T2G stats are not easy to come by at the TOUR Championship. In the last five years, less than six strokes have been gained by the winner on average over the field. You can separate with the putter, but the overall ball striking needs to be hot. If you miss a fairway, don't miss buy much. Hit as many GIR as possible. There are eight par-4s over 440 yards. Like TPC Southwind and Olympia Fields, these par-70 scorecards require great proximity to the hole.
Hovland's Sunday charge was led by aggressive play off the tee and excellent iron shots. The same recipe holds true for one more week. Familiarity with the course and Georgia golf does play roll for my outrights. A Canadian won the Canadian Open, Keegan won in New England, and I have every indication to believe a "Georgia" guy will take home the straight stroke play event. Nine holes at ELGC play to a scoring average under par and nine play to an average over. That succinctly sums up the skill set. Balance is the key to going low and just playing your best. My outrights won't get distracted by the "strokes" leaderboard. They will grind to the end and make every effort to win the real tournament.
2023 TOUR Championship Picks and Odds
Viktor Hovland (+1000)
Multiple wins happen more than half the time in the playoffs. Hovland plays with an aggressive mindset and is showing exceptional form. He will continue to fire at hole locations and convert birdie opportunities. The happy-go-lucky Hovland is a trained killer on the inside. He's ranked top-10 in par-4 scoring, BoB percentage, short game, putting and driving. His only disadvantage this week is starting two strokes back. That doesn't matter on the shadow leaderboard. The hottest player in golf wins again.
Russell Henley (+2500)
One of three Georgia Bulldogs in the field, Henley is on a heater. The brilliant ball striker has three straight top-8 finishes and launched himself into the Ryder Cup conversation. Accuracy is the cornerstone of Henley's game. Success at Sedgefield CC is a great comp course and attending Georgia you know he can putt on bermudagrass. He has a top-10 short game in the field and is top-5 ranked in T2G, on approach and par-4 scoring. With all the attention on the regular leaderboard, this shadow tournament is one event he can quietly close on Sunday.
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