Tour Confidential: An $18 million Viktory, fan gambling, U.S. Ryder Cup picks
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, our team discusses Viktor Hovland’s runaway Tour Championship win, the new FedEx Cup Playoffs, gambling at PGA Tour events and the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
1. Viktor Hovland blew away the competition at the Tour Championship, finishing at 27 under to win the FedEx Cup title by five and claim the $18 million top prize. This, mind you, also follows his final-round 61 and win at the BMW Championship a week ago. So, what in the world has gotten into Viktor Hovland?
Ryan Barath, senior editor, equipment (@rdsbarath): For Viktor, I think it simply comes down to learning how to become a professional golfer. Now I realize that doesn’t make a ton of sense, but for context, he mentioned recently that what has helped his short game even more than improving his technique was improving his misses. Rather than be hyper-aggressive and shortside himself he’s picking smarter targets, placing himself in better spots around the green and going back farther off the tee. At the highest level, those misses add up, and reducing those small mistakes has made a huge difference. On top of that he’s gained driver distance from speed training and along the way improved his bank balance too.
James Colgan, news and features editor (@jamescolgan26): I don’t think anything has gotten into Viktor Hovland. As best I can tell, one of the best younger players on the planet just won the biggest event of his young life. It’ll be only a matter of time until we’re asking the same thing at the end of a major championship. He seriously is just THAT good.
Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): For Viktor, it’s usually been about his short game. He’s always been an excellent ball-striker, but the rest has held him back, and he hasn’t been shy to admit that. Last week he was 22nd in SG: around the greens and 2nd in SG: putting. At East Lake, he was 20th and 1st. But what’s really apparent the past couple of weeks is his confidence, and those close calls are now turning into wins. He said it well himself on Sunday night: “Before it felt like, Man, I have to not give up any shots to shoot a good round of golf. However, now that’s not true anymore. I can hit one bad and I can get up and down and move on and birdie the next three and then suddenly we’re right there.”
2. Now that the first year of the (slightly) new-look FedEx Cup Playoffs is in the books — with 70 making the first stop, 50 at the next and 30 at the Tour Championship — what did you think? Do you like this format better than 125 making the playoffs? What would you change?
Barath: I think this year has been a big improvement from a drama perspective, and really created a need for top players to play more often, especially in less popular events. If I had it my way I’d tighten it up even more to just the top fifty and cut 10 players after each of the first two events leading up to the Tour Championship. I want to see the top 50 really go at it and I think having the playoffs start at 50 would make later season events matter even more for those on the bubble.
Colgan: Seventy, 125, who cares? Sure, it improves the quality of the product marginally, but it doesn’t change the fact that the FedEx Cup is by far the least compelling “postseason” in pro sports.
Berhow: I didn’t notice too much of a difference from this year to last, which might be to say it’s really easy to forget they went from 125 to 70. I’m going to wait until I see how the new fall series shakes out before I make any big conclusions here, although for starters I wish we could have things stay the same for just a bit longer. The constant change — although some of it is forced via LIV, etc. — is exhausting to keep up with. Even for media members!
3. After Max Homa had a putt interrupted by a fan who was gambling on the action at the BMW Championship, other pros weighed in on the topic last week at East Lake. (“It happens more often than you think,” said Jon Rahm.) The PGA Tour has made major efforts over the past couple of years to incorporate the fast-growing sports-betting industry into the action, but do you see this being a long-term problem? And, more importantly, is there a way to fix it?
Barath: I think long term that this could become a HUGE issue for the PGA Tour as gambling becomes much more mainstream. Rather than be a reactionary sport, there is a lot of time for players to stand over shots and a lot of people around to create chaos. I think the only way to fix it would be a ZERO tolerance policy and massive fines for those who don’t abide by the spectator policy. I hope we never get to the point where, under the rules, a golfer has to or gets to re-hit a shot because of a massive disturbance caused by a spectator.
Colgan: Maybe this is a touch fatalistic of me, but I really believe we’ll one day look back at the proliferation of sports gambling the way we now do with cigarettes. The suggestion that professional sports can somehow avoid running afoul of the risks of gambling while simultaneously embracing sportsbooks as a significant piece of their business is ridiculous. That’s not just pro golf — but across all of pro sports. Distractions during the course of play are only the beginning of it.
Berhow: There’s no great way to accomplish both. Sports gambling is here to stay, and there will always be an over-served idiot who screams at players and actually thinks the other fans around them will be entertained by their childishness. If there was an obvious answer we’d have it by now. Golf, where silence is needed during crucial moments, is in a tough spot and an obvious outlier among the major sports. But it starts by being better spectators and permanently banning the ones who aren’t.
4. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson will finalize his team with six captain’s picks on Tuesday, meaning the Tour Championship was a handful of players’ final audition. Keegan Bradley finished 11th in the standings yet still was often talked about as a player who might be left off. So is Sam Burns, who won the WGC-Match Play this season and finished 12th in the standings. Both finished T9 in Atlanta this week. How much stock will Johnson put in Tour Championship performances?
Barath: Overall, the Tour Championship is likely only going to play a very small factor in Johnson’s picks, and it’s going to come down to stats and recent form.
Keegan has proven to be a strong matchplay golfer, and I think his play this season and finish at East Lake warrants a pick for the Ryder Cup team.
Colgan: I think there’s some stock to be placed in recent form, but the biggest advantage will come when ZJ is comparing these two to, say, Justin Thomas, who spent this weekend watching alone from home. When the margins are so thin, these are the sorts of things that can help make up a captain’s mind.
Berhow: Even though Keegan didn’t play as well on Sunday his 54 holes before that obviously helped his chances. If either of them would have finished 20th or worse in a field of 30, it would have made it easy for ZJ. Now? Not so much.
5. Let’s keep this simple: Who should be the six picks come Tuesday? And who will be the last man out?
Barath: Picks: Brooks Koepka, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Jordan Spieth, Cam Young.
My last man out is going to sound a little far-fetched but it has to be Russell Henley. The man is consistent as you get (without winning that often) and on a tight golf course when you need to hit fairways and greens — especially in alternate-shot he would be my pick.
Colgan: Koepka, Spieth, Bradley, Morikawa, Fowler and … Denny McCarthy. Yeah – I know that last one is a bit of a dark horse, but the U.S. has needed a player of his putting and recovery skills on European soil for 20 years. Give Denny a shot to prove he belongs!
Berhow: Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Cameron Young, Collin Morikawa, Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler, which means Fowler (who finished 13th in the standings), would leapfrog Burns, who was 12th. That puts Burns as the odd man out, but I don’t think there’s a chance Fowler is left off and I think Keegan really helped himself at the Tour Championship. You could argue Cam Young didn’t even make it to East Lake, but finishing 9th in the standings like he did, I think that was enough already. (As for JT, well, see below.)
6. Two popular American players sit outside of the top 12: Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas. If you can only take one, whom are you selecting?
Barath: I’m taking Rickie. Other players all like him, and unlike JT, his putting stats are good.
Colgan: Fowler and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Ultimately, JT is the better player, but Rickie has played the better golf over the last 12 months. A pick for JT would be a character pick all the way, and I tend to lean in the direction of those who have earned it with their play.
Berhow: Fowler. I had more confidence that Thomas would be on this team a couple of weeks ago, but this is not a great time of year to be absent. While JT has been out of sight and out of mind, others have made their case and, in my mind, should be rewarded. Thomas has been great in these events, but his play this summer has not been.