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It all comes down to this as the top 30 players on the PGA Tour are set to begin the season finale at East Lake Golf Club. A weird week not only from a player's perspective, but also from a betting perspective, two first-round leader markets are presented to us.
In what could be attacked from a couple of angles, we will choose to go with the handicapped version as I believe the staggered leaderboard could provide some value. As someone who religiously looks to the bottom of the odds board in the first-round, the odds that exclude the handicaps do not provide the numbers I am looking for despite the 30-man field.
What this means is that our player pool of possible selections is effectively cut in half. As such, I will be targeting those players who are starting at 4-under, six-strokes behind Patrick Cantlay, and hope the leaders either stall or fall back to the pack.
While some may see this as outlandish, I believe those players at the top of the leaderboard are susceptible to slow starts. We begin with Cantlay who has had a rough go of it at East Lake in his career. You just have to look back to 2019 when he arrived as the No. 2 seed and started at 8-under before finishing in a tie for 21st. For whatever reason, he’s never been able to get comfortable on this Donald Ross design, especially on the greens, so a poor first-round is something I expect to see.
That leaves us with Tony Finau who starts at 8-under and will be making his fifth appearance in the TOUR Championship. Of his 16 rounds at East Lake, he has failed to break par in seven of them, never really lighting it up, so I am not too afraid of his prospects. Like Cantlay, he’s also been enjoying a strong stretch of putting throughout the postseason, so it feels as if hitting a speed bump on the greens could be in store.
If those two stay put at their current numbers, Bryson DeChambeau would be next in line at 7-under. Mentally, it’s hard to grasp where he is after an emotional, draining playoff loss to Cantlay at the BMW Championship. Not only that, but in his first appearance here last season as the new and improved Bryson, he struggled, carding a 72-hole total of 1-over.
At 6-under, our fears begin to settle in as the world No. 1 occupies the fourth position on the leaderboard. Having shared the first-round lead at The Northern Trust and the BMW Championship, Rahm is the man our selections will need to skirt by.
At PointsBet Sportsbook, he is listed as the favorite to lead after the first-round without the handicaps at +900. Yet the bookmakers believe he has a stronger chance to be leading the chase for the FedEx Cup after Thursday, possessing odds of +650 to overtake Cantlay for the top spot.
Odds to Lead After the First-Round; Excluding Handicaps (Odds Via PointsBet):
+900: Jon Rahm
+1100: Bryson DeChambeau
+1200: Patrick Cantlay
+1800: Collin Morikawa
+2000: Brooks Koepka
Odds to Lead After the First-Round; Including Handicaps (Odds Via PointsBet):
-125: Patrick Cantlay
+350: Tony Finau
+550: Bryson DeChambeau
+650: Jon Rahm
+2500: Cameron Smith
To Lead After the First-Round; Including Handicaps (Odds Via PointsBet):
Justin Thomas (+4000):
In order to track down the likes of Cantlay and company, we need players such as Thomas who has shown the ability to go low in the past. Having shot 59 in his career and a carding weekend total of 132 at the Players Championship this year, the 2017 FedEx Cup Champion checks many of the boxes we are looking for.
Shooting par or better in 85 percent of his rounds at East Lake, Thomas has garnered a scoring average of 68.25 in his five appearances in Atlanta. With no finish worse than seventh in this time, I believe the world No. 6 will be able to close the gap come Thursday.
As he has been striking the ball beautifully as of late with performances of +3.2, +7.9, and +6.3 Strokes Gained: Ball-Striking in his last three outings. With that part of the bag in tune, we look for Thomas to have a similar putting performance to that from Liberty National, where he gained 2.5 strokes putting that Thursday.
Abraham Ancer (+6000):
I truthfully was off Ancer this week for whatever reason, but through our Edge Driver Tool and my colleague Will Gray singing his praises, I figured some exposure would be nice. Especially since Ancer appears to have found a new level of confidence since his win at TPC Southwind, another tight golf course with Bermuda grass throughout that requires accuracy off-the-tee.
East Lake is similar in that sense and is one of those courses where the Mexican’s best can stack up with his counterparts. Hoping for the Donald Ross design to dry out come Thursday, Ancer has been public about having more fondness for firm and fast golf courses, opposed to those with soft and wet conditions.
In the first two playoff events, players were presented the latter, and despite not fitting his eye, Ancer was still able to capture a top-10 finish at Caves Valley. He now comes to Atlanta where he opened up with a round of 6-under 64 last year. With a hot putter in hand, I believe a similar round could be in store and may be enough to grab a piece of the first-round lead.
Harris English (+6600):
English feels as if he is the forgotten man this week at East Lake. While he hasn’t enjoyed the most prosperous postseason with finishes of T-31 and T-26, his summer form cannot be overlooked. The former Georgia Bulldog is likely disappointed to only have two wins this season as it easily could have been four if not for late collapses at the Palmetto Championship and the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
In what will be the third TOUR Championship appearance of his career, and second in as many years, I believe a bounce back week is in store for English. Shooting par or better in all four rounds last year, English comes to Atlanta this season all the more motivated. On the proverbial Team USA Ryder Cup bubble, a strong showing at East Lake could be enough to force Captain Steve Stricker’s hand.
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Sam Burns (+6600):
Who knows how Burns will take to East Lake as the Louisiana native will be making his first TOUR Championship appearance. On paper, the par-70 should fit his game like a glove as he won his lone PGA Tour title on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, another course requiring strong off-the-tee play due to its penal, Bermuda grass rough.
Having led or co-led after 12 rounds this season, I have yet to enjoy a strong day of golf from Burns. With this being the last chance for glory, I figure he is worth a stab starting at 4-under as he has been terrific tee-to-green this summer in the United States.
Gaining strokes in that area of the bag in four consecutive starts, he now gets back on his native, Bermuda grass. With single-round performances of +5.3, +1.8, +1.9, +3.3, and +2.8 SG: Putting in his last two tournaments on Bermuda, he has shown time and time again he does his best work on this putting surface and is worthy of first-round consideration.
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