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Horse For The Course: PGA DFS - The American Express

Hello again friends and thanks for joining me here at RotoBaller! Young Aussie Cameron Smith emerged victorious at the Sony Open, besting Brendan Steele in a sudden-death playoff. The final round was a true slog, with wet conditions and extremely slow play being the order of the day. That said, it was still a nice win for Smith, a talented young player that we've had an eye on for the last couple of years.

We had some hits and misses from last week's article. Our Horse Webb Simpson was in the mix until the end, missing out on the playoff by one stroke and grabbing a solo third-place finish. The rest of our Ponies proved to be a mixed bag, with Brandt Snedeker and Russell Knox logging solid outings, while Justin Thomas and Kyle Stanley were slamming their trunks.

This week we head back to the continental United States for 2020's first event on the "mainland". Thanks for joining me, let's tee it up!

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The American Express Overview

The Desert Classic. The CareerBuilder Challenge. The Humana Challenge. The Bob Hope...
Yes, this tournament has been known by many names over the years, but the event in the desert has managed to endure and find a new title sponsor in American Express that will hopefully bring some stability to the long-time celebrity pro-am. Phil Mickelson will make his 2020 debut this week and also act as "tournament host". He'll be joined by Adam Long, the journeyman that defeated him on the 72nd hole of this tournament last year. We'll also see some established stars like Rickie Fowler, Francesco Molinari, and Tony Finau teeing it up this week. This event is unique for several reasons, but perhaps the biggest difference for DFS purposes is that the cut will be made after THREE rounds rather than the usual two, after being played on THREE different courses. This allows us to lean towards an aggressive roster-building strategy.

You can also find out who the smart money is on by checking out Spencer Aguiar's PGA DFS: Vegas Report every week.


The Course: TPC Stadium Course at PGA West

Par 72 - 7,113 Yards, Greens: Bermuda
Players will also play rounds on the Nicklaus Tournament and La Quinta Country Club courses. The "main" course for the Desert Classic will be the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West. Players will face the Stadium Course once in the first three rounds and again in the final round if they make the 54-hole cut.

Frustratingly, Shotlink data is not available on the Nicklaus or La Quinta courses, which sort of has us flying blind from a DFS statistical perspective. The TPC is a Pete Dye design and in typical Dye fashion, there is tons of water and sand in play throughout the course.

The Stadium Course traditionally plays much tougher than the other two tracks in the rotation and players will face a difficult closing stretch that includes a 20-feet deep bunker on Hole 16, the infamous "Alcatraz hole" at 17, and a par-4 18th that is lined with water. The three-course rotation makes this a volatile tournament. I'm targeting strong ball strikers who I hope will gain strokes both off the tee and on approach this week. 10 of the last 11 Desert Classic winners have played at least one of the Hawaiian events, so I will lean toward players that have been active in the last two weeks. Also, keep an eye out for the tee time draws, as players that have to play the Stadium Course on day one normally have a much tougher time in this tournament.


The Horse

Charles Howell III (DK - $10,100)

Notable Course History: T34 ('19), T20 ('18), T12 ('17), T11 ('16)

Death, taxes, and Charles Howell III playing well at the start of every calendar year. These are life's great inevitabilities. Don't question it, just accept it and move on. Who knows why CH3 always plays so well at this time of year in Hawaii and California, but it's past the point of coincidence now.

True to form, Howell is coming off yet another solid outing at the Sony Open last week (a T12) and I see no reason why the run won't continue in California. Chucky is kinda like a scoop of vanilla statistically, nothing really pops or stands out, but it's pretty darn good overall. While there are some young and talented players in this week's field that we can definitely consider, we'll also have to weigh how they will handle the pro-am aspect of this event that turns rounds into hours-long slogs or how their games will translate across the three different courses in the rotation. We have no such questions to ponder with Howell (or the other veterans in this week's write-up), as he's repeatedly proven over the years that he can well handle all aspects of this event. As an added bonus in tournaments, I'm not sure how many DFS players will be willing to pull the trigger on CH3 at this big price tag.


The Ponies

Phil Mickelson (DK - $8,700)

Notable Course History: T2 ('19), MC ('18), T21 ('17), T3 ('16), T24 ('15)

Phil’s current form is anybody’s guess, as he hasn’t teed it up since the WGC-HSBC in early November. Mickelson seems more concerned with “hitting bombs” and crushing social media than actually winning golf tournaments at this point in his career - and he’s playing the “host” role at the AmEx this week - but it’s really hard to ignore his elite track record in this event.

‘Lefty’ almost took down this tournament last year, but ultimately fell to Adam Long on the 72nd hole. It was no fluke, as it was his second top-three finish in this event in the last four years and this is a tournament that he won multiple times in his prime. The 49-year-old proved that he still has some juice left by winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last season, which reinforces the idea that if he’s going to be competitive it will be in these more “relaxed” events that are held early in the year before the true grind of the PGA Tour schedule kicks in.


Brian Harman (DK - $8,600)

Notable Course History: MC ('19), T20 ('18), T3 ('17), T11 ('16)

Brian Harman made my Core Four last week (It’s a new article here at RotoBaller, you should check it out!) and he gets the HFTC nod this week. Harman was battling a slump at this time last year, so you will see several missed cuts in his 2019 history, but outside of what feels like an outlier performance in the desert last year, Harmon has been rock solid in this event.

In addition to the strong history in the AmEx, Harman heads to California in superb form. He faded a bit over the weekend at the Sony, but still gained strokes in every major category (outside of Around The Green) for the week. It was no outlier, as he’s averaged 1.9 Strokes Gained T2G over his last five combined tournaments.


Brendan Steele (DK - $7,500)

Notable Course History: T57 ('19), T20 ('18), T6 ('17), T34 ('16), T2 ('15)

Is it Brendan Steele SZN? Ok, that’s pretty gross when you say it out loud, but it’s hard to ignore Steele for a couple of reasons this week, as he’s coming off a huge outing at the Sony Open (though it did end rather badly) and has been remarkably consistent at the American Express over the years. Since 2015, the Californian has made the cut in this event every year - including last year when his game was COMPLETELY out of sorts - highlighted by a T2 in ‘15 and a T6 in ‘17.

Steele appeared primed for a career breakout after back-to-back wins at the Safeway Open in 2016 and 2017, but his game fell off a cliff in the summer of ‘18 and he’s been stuck in a horrible slump since. There had been some signs of life starting to show prior to his performance at the Sony, as Steele had averaged gaining strokes Tee to Green, Off the Tee, and on Approach over his last five combined tournament starts. We know that good play can often lead to more good play in this crazy game called golf and the veteran will be headed to a course where he’s always performed well with a boatload of new-found confidence.

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