Thankfully at Golf Digest, we listen well. Three of the sharpest data scientists in golf, Brandon Gdula of numberFire/FanDuel; Rick Gehman of RickRunGood.com; and Pat Mayo of Mayo Media Network, DraftKings and Fade the Noise, contribute their picks every week to our Golf Digest weekly experts’ picks column. Routinely, they will point us to players who are undervalued—based on their betting odds and fantasy salary prices.
There are key metrics that serve as early indicators for when tour pros appear on the verge of a breakout season. So we asked these experts to dig through those numbers to give us their predictions for players who are likely to routinely deliver on their odds and fantasy prices for 2021—and help put more money in your pockets. Here are the players they like for this year.
From Brandon Gdula, FanDuel/numberFire managing editor: This one’s not that bold, but Wolff is one of just six golfers over the final 100 rounds on the PGA Tour last season who ranked in the 75th percentile or better in strokes gained/off the tee, approach and putting, plus driving distance and birdie-or-better rate, according to data from FantasyNational.com. He’s in great company as the others are Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay.
Out of those players listed, Wolff’s odds have the best value—you can find Wolff to win the PGA Championship at 50-1 odds. That’s some great early-season value on a top-tier all-around golfer whose performance is grounded in elite data.
From Pat Mayo, Mayo Media Network, DraftKings and Fade the Noise analyst: Based on the amount of times he contended in 2020, it’s rather shocking Scheffler didn’t break through and win. But victories aren’t always the only barometer of success. While Scheffler was routinely priced up in the betting markets against weaker fields, the 24-year-old actually did his best work among the elites. Of his four top-five finishes in 2020, one of them was at a major and two others were in the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Scheffler finished the year ranked fifth in strokes gained/off the tee and 13th in SG/tee-to-green. Normally, great drivers have a glaring weakness somewhere tee to green that limits their upside, but Scheffler has been above average greenside (68th SG/around the green) and remained 81st in SG/approach despite an underwhelming swing season. When your one-elite skill (driving) is one of the most valuable a golfer can possess, it’s really only a matter of time before enough putts fall to stand in the winner’s circle. In 34 starts since the beginning of the 2018-’19 season, Scheffler has lost strokes off the tee to the field only one time. He’s among a handful of players on tour who could say that.
From Rick Gehman, data scientist and RickRunGood.com founder: In DFS formats, making money is all about finding “value.” That’s the amount of fantasy points returned per dollar spent. For Ancer, he proved to be one of the most valuable golfers of 2020. On average, Ancer cost $8,279 on DraftKings and returned an average of 62.79 DraftKings points per start. That value ratio was third-best on tour, behind only Joel Dahmen and Ryan Palmer of all golfers with at least 20 starts. Ancer continues to show up in big events, and there’s no reason to think that will end in 2021.
From Gdula: Henley has been the best iron player on the PGA Tour over the past 50 rounds, via FantasyNational.com. It’s wild to think about this, but if you put Henley’s statistical profile next to Justin Thomas’, they look very similar, aside from JT’s elite off-the-tee game. I don’t bring this up to dub Henley the next JT but rather to magnify how good Henley has been over a large sample. His five top-10 finishes since July aren’t fluky: They stem from top-tier iron play and overall tee-to-green performance. He can keep putting up strong finishes and chip away until he nets a win (most likely a week with Bermuda greens).
From Mayo: Three top-10s (including at the Masters) over his final four starts in 2020 showcases what eventually could be for the Canadian if he could make a few more seven-foot putts in 2021. It’s actually incredible how Conners stacks up in the ball-striking department against the world’s elite. For 2020, he ranked eighth in strokes gained/off the tee, one spot behind Bubba Watson and one spot ahead of Xander Schauffele. And the irons were just as good, finishing eight among all tour players. Both stats combine to form the cumulative strokes gained/ball-striking, putting Conners third on tour.
The issue comes on and around the green for Conners. He was in the bottom 10-percentile in strokes gained/putting and was 237th of 280 players in SG/around the greens. Somewhere along the line, you need to be able to save a par or two to win an event. Fortunately, putting tends to have massive swings to the positive and negative each week, so if Conners can continue to strike the ball as well as he did in 2020, it’s just going to take an average putting performance or two to find his second tour win.
From Gehman: Redman has all the makings of a breakout candidate. Redman is proving to be one of the more talented ball-strikers on tour, finishing 11th in strokes gained/approach for the 2020 season—and he has already improved his putting, lifting him to two top-four finishes in six starts in the new season. With a few solid finishes early in 2021, he would improve his World Ranking enough to earn exemptions in World Golf Championship events, making him viable in both fantasy and One & Done formats all year long.
From Gdula: Munoz is one of the most balanced golfers in the world. He’s among only 10 players to rank in the 75th percentile or better in all three tee-to-green stats over his past 100 rounds and at least the 50th percentile in putting. The others are a list of studs: Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger, Tyrrell Hatton and Tony Finau. Yes, that’s an arbitrary cutoff, but the point is that Munoz can get himself in contention through any facet of the game and make cuts when one part of his game isn’t clicking. A lack of red flags in any area has helped get him six top-20 finishes since August. Munoz is also 14th on tour over the past 100 rounds in Opportunities Gained, a FantasyNational stat that indicates birdie chances. There’s a reason he can be in play for a first-round leader, for FanDuel value, top-10s and even outrights, particularly on Bermuda courses.
From Mayo: Can Bubba fix his broken putter? That’s all that’s standing in the way of him and another multi-win season. Seriously. Before the COVID-19 hiatus, there were only a handful of players better tee to green than Bubba. Their names? Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Russell Henley, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama and Xander Schauffele. He was as good as Bryson, Rahm and Rory with the driver and experienced one of his best iron runs of his career. The putter, however, was just abysmal. Watson lost strokes putting in 11 of his final 14 events. While never great with the flat stick, that was his worse run since 2009. It’s quite strange, too, considering he’d gained in seven of eight starts previous to the awful run. That at least gives me hope for a few outlier weeks on the putting surfaces. Plus, Bubba has his “Bubba Tracks,” (Riviera, Austin Country Club, TPC River Highlands and Augusta National) where he’ll always be live at a decent price a few times a year, regardless of form.
Harold Varner III (particularly for first-round leader bets)
From Gehman: As golf wagering becomes more mature, you will be presented with many different options—and the first-round leader market is incredibly fun but also have more strategy involved than you might think. Obviously one round is a tiny sample size, so it’s best to embrace variance and find golfers who tend to get off to hot starts. Varner was a first-round leader twice in 2020, joining Collin Morikawa, Russell Knox and Sebastian Munoz as the only golfers to accomplish that feat more than once last year. Over the past two years, Varner trails only Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy in the number of times his name has been on top of the leader board after 18 holes. He’s cashed this bet in 6.25 percent of his starts since January 2019—and while that is a small percentage of the time, you’ll reap the benefits (usually with odds of 50-1 or greater) when it happens again.
From Gdula: This might be a name unfamiliar to some casual fans. NeSmith’s more of a daily fantasy target on FanDuel than someone who is knocking at the door for a victory, but all of the underlying data is there to believe in a strong season. NeSmith has 98 rounds on the PGA Tour, via FantasyNational, and in those, he’s gained strokes tee to green in 50.7 percent of them, as well 62.7 percent of his rounds from approach play, the most important stat of them all. In his 50 most recent rounds, he’s gained strokes in 72 percent of them with his irons and 76 percent from his ball-striking. The putter is roughly average, but that’s a lot different than terrible. Ball-strikers who can putt at even a field-average baseline can have value week in and week out.