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Handicapping the PGA Championship

Trying to pick the winner of a single golf tournament in advance is hardly scientific. It's a bit like trying to pick which major leaguer will have a four-game hitting streak in a given week. You can play the odds and select the league's batting average leader; but a great many players, all professional hitters, will come to the plate, any one of whom might get hot during that week.

Even so, the sensible gambler will evaluate a number of factors before making a selection. In the baseball example, he might check to see who's playing three games in a hitter's park against a banged-up pitching staff. He'll look at the hitters' (and the pitchers') home/away splits. He'll see who's on a hot streak. He might dig for some inside information on who's been working with a new hitting instructor and sprucing up his swing. It won't produce a guaranteed winner, but it will definitely improve his odds of making a correct pick.

You can do the same thing in golf, with the same results – no guarantees, but your odds will improve. Here are a number of factors that might help you to make a selection in your office pool this year.

The length factor – You like long courses? How does 7,674 yards grab you? By weekend players' standards, every pro is a long knocker, but some of these holes will test the shorter hitters in the field. Holes 11-13 illustrate the problem: a 606-yard par 5, a 518-yard par 4, and a 248-yard par 3. Number 11 isn't even the longest par 5 on the course; Number 3 is 633 yards, and Number 15 tops out at 642. This is the longest course in major-championship history, breaking the record set in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Who it favors: The Tour's longer drivers will shrug off the extra distance, and will regard the 572-yard par-5 7th as a birdie hole, with a chance for eagle. Bubba Watson, J. B. Holmes, and Nick Watney are among the pros who average more than 300 yards off the tee. On the other end, Brian Gay, Mark Brooks, Paul Goydos, and Ryuji Imada will have a tough time making some of these greens in regulation, and will have to scramble for par on several holes; birdie will be pretty much out of the question.

The scrambling factor – Okay; if the course is all that long, what about the guys who excel at getting up and down for par? Short game management is at a premium with longer courses, since plenty of players will have to find a way to the hole other than fairway-green-two-putts.
Who it favors: Steve Stricker, Ian Poulter, and Matt Kuchar lead the Tour in making par or better when they miss the greens, while Brian Gay and Jim Furyk are so close that the difference isn't statistically significant. On the other end, Sergio Garcia is in the bottom 25 in conversions, while familiar names like Vijay Singh and Adam Scott aren't much better.

The pressure factor – If you were to ask a marginal pro what would be the highest-pressure winning putt he could face, he'd probably rank the PGA alongside the other majors at #3, because winning one of these events brings a five-year exemption from qualifying for all PGA Tour events. For the game's elite, it's a major, and therefore important in its own right; but for a marginal pro, it can be a career-saver. (In case you're interested, #2 is the playoff for the last survivor of Q-School, since that makes the difference between playing the PGA Tour and the Nationwide Tour for the upcoming year. #1, by a wide margin, is the Ryder Cup.)
Who it favors: This one's simple. Guys who have played in relatively few majors should be avoided; those who have been in the pressure cooker before, and are at the top of their games, get an uptick. Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els, and Vijay Singh are among those who have shown on multiple occasions that they can handle the heat. Got a major-championship rookie in mind? Have fun following him, but don't expect him to collect the hardware on Sunday.

The chalk factor – Let's hearken back to the wisdom of Damon Runyan, who famously observed, "The battle goes not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift, but that's the way you bet." Smart March Madness poolies always, always check the first-round betting line in Vegas before filling out their brackets; it helps them to decide which 10th seeds are worth backing against those #7's. You'll never get rich betting on odds-on favorites, but it's sort of like buying blue-chip stocks; they are more likely than the long shots to pay off in any given event.
Who it favors: The guys out in the desert predictably like Tiger Woods, and have assigned some pretty short odds – 3 to 2 at this writing. Next are Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington at 20 to 1, with Lee Westwood coming in at 28 to 1. The foursome of Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Retief Goosen, and Sergio Garcia will get you 33 to 1. The winners of this year's first three majors will bring you some solid action; Stewart Cink is at 40 to 1, while Angel Cabrera is 50 to 1 and Lucas Glover is up to 80 to 1. (If you have to pick one of those three to pick up a second major, go with Cink.) If you're averse to letting professional bookies decide who you'll back, you can go with the World Golf Rankings; the first five names on that list are Woods, Mickelson, Paul Casey (but watch for the status of his rib injury), Kenny Perry, and Stricker.

The dark horse factor – What fun is to say that you picked the odds-on favorite to win something, when everybody else at the water cooler says, "Yeah, so did I"? Part of the magic of playing fantasy sports is recognizing the guy who will come out of nowhere to make some magic on the field, court, or course.
Who it favors: Looking at those same Vegas odds, here are some names that you might find intriguing from deep down the list: Henrik Stenson, 40-1; Zach Johnson, 50-1; Adam Scott, 80-1; Boo Weekley and Miguel Angel Jimenez, 100-1; Stuart Appleby, 125-1.

The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately factor – We suspect that Byron Nelson's string of 11 consecutive tournaments won is as safe as are Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and UCLA's 88 W's in a row, so just going with the guy who won last week usually won't cut it. But there's something to be said for at least checking out the hot hand. (Of course, taking the most recent hot hand would lead you straight to the winner of the last two PGA Tour events, Tiger Woods, which is not exactly a bad bet.) Players seldom go from the golf doldrums straight to a major title, so you'll want to keep an eye on the guys who have been playing well in recent weeks.
Who it favors: By this criterion, there simply is no arguing with Woods, who has won a mind-boggling 22 out of his last 38 official Tour events. Since returning from knee surgery, he has won five times in 12 tournaments; that's the most wins on Tour this year, despite his late start. But Tiger isn't the only player who's played well this season. For example, Kenny Perry, Geoff Ogilvy, and Steve Stricker have each won twice. Perry has experienced a renaissance in his late 40's, despite the fact that his most visible experience this year was losing the Masters in a playoff. Ogilvy was the best player on the Tour early in the season, collecting two titles by March 1, but those are his only Top-Five finishes this year. Stricker has entered 17 events and has made the cut 15 times; more to the point, he has finished in the Top 25 on 13 occasions, so when he makes it to the weekend, he usually plays well. Among this trio, he stands the best chance of hugging the Wanamaker Trophy on August 16.

The just-showing up factor – One last point: Before you go throwing out names, be sure the guy you're backing is in the field. Not every name player is entered.
Who it doesn't favor: Tom Watson was a great story at Turnberry, but at least as of the date on which this essay was prepared, he wasn't expected to tee it up at Hazeltine. Same for Rocco Mediate, Chris DiMarco, James Nitties, Ricky Barnes, Jose Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman, Richard S. Johnson, Matt Bettencourt, Todd Hamilton, Fred Funk, and Mark Calcavecchia. Interestingly enough, John Dalyis in the field, so if you want to take a flyer on the state of his game, be our guest.