Kevin Na stole the show in Honolulu on Sunday, chasing down Brendan Steele and outpacing the rest of the chasers for his fourth win in as many seasons. He will travel back stateside with the rest of the TOUR for this week’s The American Express in La Quinta, Calif.
As is tradition, PGA West will host the main tournament rounds, but for the first time in history there will be no pro-am aspect to this event. That change will cause a domino effect across the other aspects to drop the number of courses used from three to two, and from a 54-hole cut to a more standard 36-hole cut.
The dropping of the pro-am format will be the start of a bit of a trend this year as the TOUR adjusts to the current environment of playing tournaments during the pandemic. It appears also to have made The American Express more attractive to the top-end players since it will feature one of the better fields in recent history, even with Jon Rahm’s withdrawal on Monday.
We will still see nine of the top twenty-seven in the world tee it up to start the West Coast swing, including the calendar debuts of Brooks Koepka, Matthew Wolff and Paul Casey.
PGA West features two courses on site, with the Stadium Course being the main featured course where players that make the weekend will play their final two rounds in addition to one on Thursday or Friday. The Nicklaus Course will host one of the first two rounds for the players and is traditionally provides a little easier scoring opportunity. The La Quinta Course will not be played in this year’s tournament.
I won’t focus much on the Nicklaus Course as it only plays a part in 18 of the players’ hopeful 72 holes, but it is worth noting that it could be a stack opportunity for DraftKings Showdown during the opening two rounds. The course itself will play 7,181-yard par 72 with a traditional four par 5s and four par 3s. Similar to the Stadium Course, it does have Bermuda grass from tee to green, allowing for some fairly consistent grass conditions for the players in all rounds.
Shotlink has only ever been featured at this event on the Stadium Course, so we have little to rely on for the Nicklaus, but it is clear that players must take advantage of the par 5s in order to keep pace with the rest of the field.
The Stadium Course will be the star of the show, more so than in prior years, and it will be fun to see the field with an extra 18 holes on it this year.
As mentioned, it is Bermuda grass throughout, which is what the players saw at both tournaments in Hawaii and should create some level of consistency for those that have already knocked the rust off. In total, it’ll be set as a 7,147-yard par 72, which is short by TOUR standards.
The other data on the course setup isn’t available right now on Monday night as I write this, but it will be interesting to see if it is set to more of a TOUR standard this week. Typically, with amateurs playing, the pins will be easier and the greens would be slower, so this will be the first chance for them to really get the course playing to its full potential for the entire tournament.
It will be the four par 3s and four par 5s that are likely to tell the story this week for players looking to get through the cut and for the eventual champion. The three easiest holes on the course are made up of par 5s and half of the six hardest holes are par 3s.
The 195-yard, par-3 13th hole checks in as the toughest hole on the course each year. It plays more than a quarter stroke over par, yielding birdie just 11% of the time and bogey or worse more than 28% of the time. Players will have a shot that will require them carrying over the water that protects the front and left of the narrow putting surface. There is also little space to miss right, with mounds and bunkering protecting those that bail out. This will be one where three rounds at even par will be gaining strokes on the field.
It’s a very similar story for the par-3 6th, which has the added difficulty of length at 223 yards. The green provides a much larger landing area if players can cover the water, but it does bring in some putting difficulty where three putts will be prevalent.
Rounding out the par 3s are two short iron length tee shots, just 170 and 165 yards respectively, but the latter is to the signature island green at the 17th hole. This is one where you either hit the green or you don’t, and the small nature of the putting surface makes it a hole with a high birdie percentage with many double bogeys or worse.
As I noted, the players will make their hay on the par 5s and a couple of short par 4s. The eighth and 16th are both right at 560 yards in length, making them reachable in two shots by the entire field with good drives. They each yield more than a 40% birdie rate and an eagle more than 2% of the time. The other two par 5s are equally accessible, but they yield birdies at a lower clip around 30% and give up a higher rate of bogeys. It will be imperative for players to take advantage of all four of these holes in order to keep pace scoring this week.
The Stadium Course’s par 4s play from 350 to 475 yards in length, and the key factor throughout these holes and the entire course is hitting fairways. Length is an advantage, as always, but it is more important to play from the short grass as much as possible. Many of the most successful players at this track, as you’ll see below, are shorter hitters that keep the ball in the fairway and out of trouble.
There are many fairway bunkers and water hazards (“penalty areas”) that provide the main protection at PGA West, and those can build up strokes in bunches. Additionally, the dormant Bermuda grass rough can be a bit unpredictable, which will lead to many pulling less than driver off the tee to emphasize their efforts to hit the fairway.
The story of course history at The American Express starts and ends with Adam Hadwin who has top-six finishes in each of his last four trips to this event, including two seconds. He really laps the field from that standpoint, but it will be interesting to see his ownership in DFS as his form couldn’t be much worse coming into this week. He’s missed three straight cuts, creating a classic recent form vs. course history debate leading into Round 1.
Defending Champion Andrew Landry wasn’t just a one hit wonder at this tournament last year. He had a second-place finish in 2018 and a 28th in ’19. He extended the run of longshots that have been successful at the courses around PGA West and will look to shake a rough start from Hawaii off this week.
If you are looking for a punt play in DFS this week, you could do worse than Sean O’Hair. He hasn’t missed the cut at this tournament in any of his last four trips, and achieved top-nine finishes in two of those tournaments. It wasn’t a pretty fall swing for O’Hair, but he will look to come into form at a course he has some good results.
One of the more consistent players at PGA West has been Brian Harman. He does have a missed cut in one of his last five years, but each time he has made it to Sunday he hasn’t finished worse than 21st and did have a third-place finish in 2017. He was a popular play at the Sony Open, but struggled to move up over the weekend, ultimately finishing 56th.
Pictured above: Adam Hadwin
Credit: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images