Course Spotlight: Short game is how to separate from the field at East Lake
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Written by Keith Stewart @KJStewartpga
ATLANTA – How do you pick one winner from the top 30 players on TOUR? 24 of them are ranked in the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Nineteen in the field have competed in the TOUR Championshipat leasttwice and 25 of them at least once. Seven of the last eight winners are playing (all but Tiger Woods, 2018) and even with the FedExCup Starting Strokes format, only one man can come out on top.
The pre-tournament betting odds reflect the favorites and their opportunity to capture the FedExCup. If you believe most of the field lacks a chance due to Scottie Scheffler’s two-stroke advantage, you probably aren’t alone. However, it is worth noting since the FedExCup Starting Strokes began, a player beginning at 2 under has finished in the top five after Round 4. The best in the world can’t be held back even on a difficult test such as East Lake Golf Club.
Nestled in the Atlanta suburbs, the par-70 host of the season finale stretches over 7,300 yards. With eight par 4s over 440 yards and four par 3s that play over 200 yards, length immediately pops into mind. Rory McIlroy has won here three times and he is the best driver in the game. Yet McIlroy gained three times as many strokes last year with his short game and putting as with his driver. Getting the ball in the fairway is a priority at East Lake. The course is annually in the top 5 for being the most penal from off the fairway.
When you look across the Strokes Gained data for the winners over the last 10 years, shots inside 50 yards both on and off the green make a bigger impact on contending (and ultimately winning). Starting with the putter, East Lake greens allow more makes from over 5 feet than the TOUR average. Players can make putts here, and those who excel on Bermudagrass have an advantage. The all-time strokes gained leader on the East Lake greens in the field is Russell Henley (+8000 with starting strokes, +2200 without via BetMGM).
Henley has competed in the TOUR Championship three times, finishing third and 12th in his previous starts. I walked with Tommy Fleetwood, Matt Fitzpatrick and Tyrell Hatton during a practice round this week. Each played multiple shots on every hole from around the green. When the grass was short, I saw putters, hybrids and wedges. When the rough was long, loft was their friend. From the sand, they spoke about having more sand in the bunkers than last week and adjusting accordingly.
All those options and corresponding results create variety in scoring. The difference between winning and losing will come down to picking the correct short-game shot and executing it. Another Georgia Bulldog who knows all about winning in Atlanta is the current Open Championship winner, Brian Harman (+5000 with starting strokes, +3300 without). Harman is first in the field for bogey avoidance. Harman’s short game and the benefit of Bermudagrass being from Georgia gives him an edge. Enough to cover Scheffler’s six-stroke lead to start? Well, McIlroy began his 2022 TOUR Championship with a triple bogey and played the next 71 holes in 20-under par.
It's easy to select Scheffler, but I would lean on the elite ball-strikers who stand out around the green and on it. Strokes Gained: Short game is the combination of shots around the green and putting. Wyndham Clark (+5000 with strokes, +3300 without) leads the top 30 in this strokes-gained category. A winner earlier this year in neighboring North Carolina, he perfectly complemented his stellar ball-striking with timely scoring.
Over the past five years, the winners here have gained an average of six strokes against the field in Strokes Gained: Short game. In comparison, Off-the-Tee and Approach the Green combined only led to a three-stroke average gain. To contend in Atlanta, ball-striking is a must. These are 30 of the best players in the world.
But if you want to find a winner, look at East Lake a little closer and see how short game options will determine our next FedExCup champion.
Keith Stewart is a five-time award winning PGA Professional who covers the PGA TOUR and LPGA from a betting perspective. Founder of Read The Line, he is also published by Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. Follow Keith Stewart on Twitter.