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2021 PGA Championship bettors’ roundtable: Favorites, sleepers and 5 key questions entering Kiawah Island

Rory McIlroy at 2021 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
With his long game, Rory McIlroy looks like a good bet – even at 10-1 odds – to win another Wanamaker Trophy this week at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.

Rory McIlroy might be good bet to repeat at Kiawah, but Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau draw mixed reviews for Ocean Course

The PGA of America returns to Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course this week for its 103rd PGA Championship. Nine years ago, when the PGA visited Pete Dye’s course on the sand dunes of the South Carolina coast, Rory McIlroy ran away with the Wanamaker Trophy. McIlroy will be back and figure prominently among the favorites.

Morning Read teams with RotoWire to answer some of the key questions entering the second men’s major championship of the season.

In this roundtable discussion, RotoWire’s Len Hochberg and Greg Vara joined Morning Read contributors Mike Purkey and Gary Van Sickle plus Dan Wooters of Morning Read owner Buffalo Groupe. Here are their answers to five questions to help get you prepared for the PGA:

The PGA Championship returns to Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, where Rory McIlroy won the 2012 PGA in an eight-shot runaway. He won his most recent start last week at the Wells Fargo Championship, leading the betting public to bump him to the favorite ahead of the PGA. If you’re a golf bettor or a fantasy gamer, is McIlroy a mandatory part of your ticket this week?

Len Hochberg, RotoWire: Mandatory is too strong of a word for me. But with the course so long – just a wedge shy of 8,000 yards – there aren't many guys who truly will be in the mix. McIlroy surely is one of them. Just as with Jordan Spieth becoming Jordan Spieth again right before the Masters and finishing third at Augusta, Rory McIlroy picked the perfect time to become Rory McIlroy again.

Mike Purkey, Morning Read: Absolutely. Why wouldn’t you bet on McIlroy, even at the favorite’s odds of 10-1? Everything outlined in the question above makes the case perfectly.

Gary Van Sickle, Morning Read: Ignore him at your own peril. Sometimes you've got to play defense in fantasy golf, and this is one of those times. He changed his swing, went from a draw ball flight to a fade and is excited about having something new to work on. That just intensifies his focus. This could be the week you have to ride the favorite.

Greg Vara, RotoWire: He's certainly in the conversation, but winning a regular PGA Tour event is not the same as a major. Yes, he has won multiple majors, but he also has been in contention several times since his most recent major title seven years ago and he's failed to come through every time. I'm taking a wait-and-see approach with McIlroy at the majors.

Dan Wooters, Buffalo Groupe: It depends upon how you deploy him. There is certainly no value left in taking him straight up, but if you are putting a fantasy team or player pool together, he has to be strongly considered. He seems to have turned a corner and is now back at another course that he enjoys. However, I would be wary of a small victory hangover and whether or not he’s fully back in major-winning form.

Jordan Spieth at 2021 Masters
Jordan Spieth wields a wicked putter, but does he have the long game to tame a beast such as Kiawah Island's Ocean Course?

With McIlroy’s return to form, Jordan Spieth suddenly isn’t quite so popular, despite his own bounce-back season. If Spieth were to win the PGA, he would become only the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. How do you like his chances?

Hochberg: Completing the career Grand Slam anywhere would be career-defining, of course. But to do it at this track, where his lack of distance surely is a handicap, would be one for the ages, maybe his greatest major win. You'd think his iron/short game would have to be near perfect for him to win here. He's surely capable.

Purkey: Everything Spieth has been doing since before the Masters is leading to this week. His form is building, and he is putting the pieces together one at a time to reach a peak in all facets of his game when he arrives at Kiawah Island.

Van Sickle: The Grand Slam possibility is a burden that makes it slightly more difficult for Spieth to win. He knows it's hanging over his head, and he knows it's something he gets a shot at only once per year. For Spieth, it's all about the timing of where his inevitable bad tee shots happen. The Ocean Course is roomy in spots, but his bad tee ball could be a triple bogey in other spots. His wedge play and his putter always make him a threat. He would be among my top five picks to win.

Vara: I like his chances. He was able to handle the pressure of winning a regular PGA Tour event and he contended at the Masters last month as well. The next step seems inevitable, but just like McIlroy, he'll have to get over that hump to truly be free of the doubters.

Wooters: I like his chances a lot. He played well again in Texas last week, and it seems as if he hasn’t really had a bad week on the job so far in 2021. The Ocean Course is long, so that does not favor his chances, but if he gets that putter rolling, watch out.

Kiawah was created to stage the 1991 Ryder Cup, and that event, which came to be known as the “War by the Shore,” ranks among golf's all-time classic Ryder Cups. The 2012 PGA also was memorable, though it didn’t produce a tight finish. The oceanside, links-style course is carved into dunes, windswept and dramatic. Is it the best course in the PGA Championship’s “rotation”? If not, what is?

Hochberg: I love this course and am looking forward to it. To me, it seems so un-PGA-like. PGA Championship courses bring to mind sheer length as the primary defense with not as much character as a lot of tracks have, and in the stifling heat somewhere in the dead of summer (see: Hills, Southern. 2022, yawn).

Purkey: Baltusrol, Bethpage Black or Quail Hollow could each make a strong case as the PGA Championship’s best course of recent years. The Ocean Course depends heavily on the wind as a defense. The other three mentioned are great every day under any conditions.

Van Sickle: The Ocean Course is a disaster, one of Pete Dye's least playable designs. He built a course with forced carries (bunkers, water) into most of the greens at a course that's next to the ocean and is usually windy. So there's no playing under the wind and hitting run-up shots, as a real links course allows. When I covered the 2007 Senior PGA at the Ocean Course, the seniors got their butts kicked and universally ripped the course. I'd take Valhalla over the Ocean Course, and I am not a fan of that one, either. Best PGA "rotation" course? Oak Hill.

Vara: Can I say Hazeltine, because it's practically in my back yard? No? Yeah, that's not a good enough reason. I'd probably go just east of here and choose a relative newcomer to the bunch in Whistling Straits.

Wooters: I think the real question is, does the PGA of America have a proper “rotation”? The USGA announced a formal one, but it seems as if the PGA is still in limbo on what it wants to be, even with scheduling so many in advance. The PGA should be the daring major and go to places such as Bandon Dunes or Streamsong, but that’s another discussion. Out of the recent locations, I believe the best PGA Championship site is Whistling Straits. Another Dye design on the water, but it combines a links look with a ball-striker’s haven. It also has offered great theater in each of the three recent PGA Championships it has hosted, which is one of the reasons it has been awarded this year’s Ryder Cup.

Cameron Smith at 2021 WGC Workday Championship at The Concession
Looking for a good long-shot bet this week at the PGA Championship? Australia’s Cameron Smith might be your man.

Who is the golfer, at 40-1 odds or greater, who could win the PGA, and why?

Hochberg: In looking at Joaquin Niemann's numbers – one of the top-10 longest drivers, not terribly wayward off the tee, 17th in greens in regulation, top-50 in scrambling and 30th in putting – he surely hasn't been scoring as well as those stats would indicate he should. At a course where length could eliminate 80-90 percent of the field, things could align nicely for Niemann, a 60-1 pick, this week.

Purkey: Scottie Schleffler, at 60-1, has been on the verge of doing something big for a while. He has four top-10s in his past nine starts and was T-4 in last year’s PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park.

Van Sickle: Australia's Cameron Smith is 40-1, and he's on a nice run in his past 13 tournaments. That includes a T-2 and a T-10 at Augusta, a pair of fourths, at Riviera and Sherwood, plus his victory with countryman Marc Leishman in the Zurich Classic, a team event. Smith is something of a Down Under version of Spieth; his short game is remarkable. Smith can contend just about anywhere. He almost makes me want to grow a mullet. Nah ….

Vara: I see one guy at 40-1 who probably won't be there for long in Cameron Smith. The Aussie always has had a ton of potential, and though he flashed early, he couldn't find any consistency. Now he's showing consistent play at a high level, and he's contending at majors. He'll get one in the next few years, so why not this week?

Wooters: Abraham Ancer has not won yet on the PGA Tour, but he is worth a look. He plays well in majors – six made cuts in eight starts, with two top-20s – and has been on a tear again recently with two straight top-five finishes, at the Valspar and Wells Fargo. Look for Ancer to be in the mix on the weekend.

Bryson DeChambeau at 2021 Masters
Bryson DeChambeau produces mixed betting signals among Morning Read’s panel heading into the 103rd PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.

Who is a top pick, at 20-1 odds or less, to avoid?

Hochberg: 20-1? That's just seven guys – Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas. I guess the easy/safe answer is Johnson, who has been out of sorts of late and now has announced knee “discomfort.” But let's make the official answer Rahm, which is dangerous because this track suits him perfectly. The thing is, he still hasn't won a major and, though he has come close, he's never really come that close. Really, what is the signature career win for the No. 3 golfer in the world?

Purkey: Bryson DeChambeau, at 14-1, should have a hands-off sign on his back. He took a month off after his dismal T-46 at the Masters and had a back-door top-10 at the Wells Fargo. But he was visibly frustrated by his performance at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

Van Sickle: I'm not sure what's up with Dustin Johnson, who withdrew from last week's AT&T Byron Nelson because of a knee problem. He missed the cut at the Masters, which was shocking, and his last appearance resulted in a 48th at Heritage. He's the opposite of being on a roll.

Vara: It's always scary to fade someone who can blow away the field if he's on, but I don't like what I've seen from Dustin Johnson this season. He isn't showing that extra gear that he used to run away with the Masters last year, and he's pulling out of events left and right. The entire season has felt off-kilter.

Wooters: Unless it’s an obscure setup, such as what we saw at Winged Foot, I still need to see more from Bryson DeChambeau to believe his unorthodox ways work consistently. He’s certainly played well in most tournaments since that U.S. Open win and is the No. 4-ranked player in the world, but two of his worst starts have come at both recent Masters tournaments. If DeChambeau can prove it at another major, I will be onboard, but I have to see it first.

There can be only winner, so who is your pick, and why?

Hochberg: At the all-time longest course, let's take the all-time longest driver. But Bryson DeChambeau is so much more than the 2021 Long Drive Champion (or whatever they call it). His putting is also elite, and that's a pretty darn good combination when you want to win golf tournaments. Sure, he has the propensity to shoot himself in the foot – Augusta will play as a par-67, blah, blah, blah – but he hasn't made similar boasts about what he can do at the Ocean Course. At least not yet.

Purkey: Rory McIlroy. See Question 1. Plus, the fact that the Ocean Course will have significant number of spectators, many of them following McIlroy, which will give him a big lift.

Van Sickle: The Ocean Course is a long-hitter’s course. That immediately shortens my potential winner's list to Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm. I think history repeats itself on Kiawah Island, including PGA-induced traffic jams, and McIlroy gets his fifth major title. Of course, I could be flush with Irish fervor after polishing off a large bowl of Lucky Charms, so...

Vara: I've got it narrowed down to Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth, but I'm going with DeChambeau. He went through a mini-rough patch about a month ago, but he looks to be back to his old self. He's got a major under his belt now, so we know he can perform under pressure as well. Oh, and is it 7,800 yards this week?

Wooters: I believe in Viktor Hovland this week. He’s a bit outside of the main favorites, but he’s been so consistent this season. Since winning the Mayakoba Golf Classic in December, he has had five top-five finishes, including two straight at the Valspar and Wells Fargo events coming into the PGA. If his time isn’t this week, it’s certainly coming soon.

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