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The Tour Championship: East Lake Insights and Best Bets

For the final time in the 2023 season, 30 of the PGA’s best will tee it up, all vying for the coveted $18 Million. The Tour Championship is certainly a unique event, as it’s the only golf tournament that handicaps players before they begin on Thursday. As was the case last season, Scottie Scheffler will tee off with a score of -10, as he finished with the most FedEx points this season. Viktor Hovland, coming off of an incredible 61 to steal the BMW Championship from Scheffler, will start 2 strokes back at -8. Rory McIlroy is next at -7, followed by Jon Rahm at -6, and then Lucas Glover at -5. The remaining 25 golfers are put into groups of 5 as the scores progressively get closer to even par, where the likes of Jordan Spieth and Tyrrell Hatton will begin 10 strokes behind Scottie Scheffler.

The structure of this tournament is questioned quite a bit by the golf community, although I really do enjoy the idea. With so much money and the honor of being Tour Champion on the line, I’d much rather see the golfers that have succeeded throughout the year have an advantage. In my opinion, prior to the addition of starting strokes, the Tour Championship was much closer to The Players rather than a true season-ending tournament. The current structure allows for the PGA to confidently crown 2023’s champion, rather than just a golfer that got hot one week and won a prestigious tournament.

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Many fans dislike the starting positions because it virtually eliminates half the field. This is a fair thought, as I could not imagine any golfer gaining 10 strokes on Scottie Scheffler, 8 on Viktor Hovland, 7 on Rory, and so on. However, last season truly showed everyone is in contention. Rory McIlroy edged out both Sungjae Im and Scottie Scheffler to win the 2022 crown after starting the tournament at -4. While -4 isn’t starting at even par, it only took Rory 2 holes to fall back to that mark. After starting the Tour Championship with a triple bogey and bogey to follow, Rory McIlroy finished his final 70 holes 21 strokes under par. Sure, it would take an unbelievable week for golfers at -2 and lower to win this thing, but I can assure you, it’s doable.

Let’s dive into East Lake, and a few golfers I expect to make a push for the Tour Championship.

The Course: East Lake Golf Club

Atlanta has been home to the Tour Championship for almost 20 years. East Lake has provided golf fans with fascinating and thrilling finishes to many seasons, and I expect fireworks this weekend as well. At 7,350+ yards, East Lake is a fairly long course for it being a par 70. While distance will certainly help golfers this week, it is once again more important to be accurate.

East Lake has the narrowest fairways on Tour, as it is the only active course that on average has fairways less than 25 yards wide. And when golfers miss these small fairways, they will certainly be penalized for it. On an annual basis, only Muirfield Village holds a higher missed fairway penalty.

A few data points come to mind when picking golfers to back at East Lake. Driving accuracy is obviously an important point, although Good Drive percentage is what I have my eyes on. This takes into account both driving accuracy and greens in regulation. For a drive to count as a “good drive”, it either has to land in the fairway, or the golfer must hit the green or fringe in regulation from the rough. While you certainly don’t want to be playing from the rough at East Lake, being able to still hit the green from it will be very beneficial. Approach is important as always, with East Lake having greens that are below Tour average by a decent margin. I anticipate scoring to be a bit lower than last season’s rendition, so I will be looking at Scrambling and Bogey Avoidance as well.

With all this in mind, 3 golfers caught my eye that I believe deserve a look when placing wagers.

Best Bets for The Tour Championship

Xander Schauffele (+3000)

No one comes remotely close to Xander Schauffele when it comes to success at East Lake. If you remove the starting strokes, he gets even better. In 6 tournaments here, he hasn’t finished worse than 7th. He won the tournament in 2017 and beat the entire field by 3 strokes in 2020, only to fall short to Dustin Johnson’s seven-stroke head start. In his 24 rounds at East Lake, Xander has never finished over par.

So, why has Xander found so much success here? Well for starters, he has been a Top 10 golfer in the world for the past 5 or 6 years. He’s top 5 on Tour in both approach play and putting, the 2 most important facets of the game. In fact, he hasn’t lost strokes to the field in putting or approach since his WD at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That’s 19 consecutive tournaments where Xander was better than average in both categories. Tiger Woods never came close to achieving this, not even in his prime.

Starting at -3 will require a near-perfect week to stage a comeback, but this is definitely a place Xander can do it. At the time of this article being published, DraftKings does not have a “without starting strokes” option. If you see anything above 10/1 on Xander, I would jump on that immediately.

Lucas Glover (+4000)

Am I late to jump on the Glover train? Absolutely.

Do I think there’s still time to cash in with him? Absolutely.

After picking up back-to-back wins, Lucas Glover finds him 5th in FedEx points, good enough for a -5 start at East Lake. The 43-year-old has made the putter change of a lifetime, putting himself in prime position to not only have a chance at winning the Tour Championship but also at snagging a last-second spot on the Ryder Cup team. He recently stated how important the Ryder Cup is to him, and how badly he wants it. The extra motivation is just the icing on top to an unbelievable stat profile.

Lucas Glover is undeniably a top 5 ball-striker in the world. He ranks 1st in his field in Good Drive percentage and 3rd in Driving Accuracy. His 10th in the field in Strokes Gained: Approach is very misleading, as he ranks 1st on Tour in Proximity to the hole. On average, out of every single golfer on Tour, Lucas Glover puts the ball closest to the hole. He also ranks highly in both Scrambling and Bogey Avoidance. His year-long putting stats are well below average, but after gaining strokes in 4 of his last 7 tournaments, Glover’s game has obviously taken a turn.

I would not be shocked to see Lucas Glover with the lead heading into the weekend. He’s certainly within striking range of the 4 in front of him, and with how he’s played lately, I would be dumbfounded if he didn’t contend. At 40/1, DraftKings has given 4 golfers that are starting the tournament behind Glover a better chance at winning. This certainly feels like good value for a guy playing some of his best golf 20 years into his career.

Corey Conners (Top 5 +1200)

In the 4 Tour Championships that have had starting strokes, all 4 have seen a golfer start at -2 or lower and work their way up to a Top 5 finish. This season’s climber will be Corey Conners.

Conners has arguably one of the worst course histories in the field. His three finishes of 26th, T22, and T26 in fields of 30 are underwhelming, to say the least. However, in all three of those tournaments, Corey Conners was a top 5 ball-striker. Conners’ problem has been him hemorrhaging strokes either around or on the greens of East Lake. This has historically been a problem in his game overall, as he ranks inside the Top 15 on Tour in both Off the Tee and Approach, and is in the triple digits for Around the Green and Putting.

While history will not agree with this notion, I am expecting a much more confident short-game display from Conners this week. He has gained strokes in the short game in 5 consecutive events. In his 6 years on Tour, this is the first time Corey Conners can say that. He doesn’t need to gain a bunch of strokes putting or chipping, he just can’t destroy his chances like he has in the past. To have such good ball-striking numbers at East Lake and to finish so far back really speaks to his struggles.

If I’m picking anyone at -2 or lower to stage a comeback, I feel more confident picking Corey Conners than anyone else. He knows exactly how to hit the ball around East Lake to give him ample birdie opportunities. And with the best short-game form of his career, he should be able to roll enough of those birdies in to have a chance at a Top 5 finish.

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