Players 2020 expert picks: Is it actually smart to fade Rory McIlroy?

Stephen Hennessey and Christopher Powers
Golf Digest

You can't predict the winner of the Players Championship, you might say. The skeptics will point to such a high level of variance, with trouble at every turn, and the scatter plot of winners compared to their career skill sets, as reasons why golf gamblers should save their money this week. Nonsense, is our response to that.

Our expert panel is as hot as any collection of betting minds in golf. DraftKings' Pat Mayo has picked the past two winners correctly (Tyrrell Hatton at 55-1 and Sungjae Im at 28-1), which were our eighth and ninth correctly predicted winners this season. That includes weeks like the Greenbrier, where three of our analysts were on Joaquin Niemann, and the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where four of us picked Justin Thomas. Those wins only count once. Collectively, we're up more than $2,000 on outright betting in the 2019-'20 season. Is that any good?

If anyone can predict the most unpredictable tournament in golf, it's this group. Our expert picks this week, just like every week, include a tour caddie offering insight from the range and putting green at TPC Sawgrass; picks from two of the most respected experts in the daily-fantasy community, Pat Mayo of DraftKings and Brandon Gdula of FanDuel; Lee Alldrick of FanShare Sports, which tracks DFS ownership and sentiment; and Columbia University senior lecturer and Ph.D. Lou Riccio, who uses predictive analysis and modeling to forecast winners in golf. Keep reading to see who our experts' picks are this week.

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RELATED: Players 2020 odds: Why this week brings some crazy good betting value

PSA: If you're in New Jersey, check out the new BetMGM app. If you don't have an account, BetMGM has a great offer that you need to take advantage of: Use the code GOLFDIGEST, and use your first wager of $20 or more on a golfer to win the Players Championship, and you'll get $100 in free bets if your golfer makes the cut. It's that simple: download the app, create an account and use the GOLFDIGEST promo code, then place your first wager (of $20 or more) on an outright, pre-tournament wager to win the Players, and you'll get $100 in free bets if your guy makes the cut.

Here's our betting podcast, where we discuss our favorite plays for the 2020 Players:

2020 Players Picks To Win (Odds from BetMGM)

Anonymous Caddie Picker of the Week: Sungjae Im (25-1) — Aside from Rory, Im is the hottest player on tour at the moment. His ball-striking is truly world-class, and his ability to grind rounds out on demanding courses really shows how tough he is. The Florida swing has been good to him, and there's no reason why it shouldn't continue this week. He should definitely contend, and this number has nice value despite being so much lower than what you'd expect from Im. That's the type of golfer he is now.

Pat Mayo, DraftKings/Fantasy National analyst: Patrick Cantlay (28-1) — Even with victories at Memorial and Shriners in his young career, Cantlay is still looking for that next level win. And Sawgrass has been that place for a lot of rising stars the past 15 years—Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler. Cantlay could very logically be next. His ball-striking is among the world’s elite; he enters ranked fifth in the field over his past 24 rounds in strokes gained/approach, has no finish worse than T-17 in any if his past five starts, and maybe the biggest thing, he’s vastly improved his short game. Something once seen as a liability. If his putter cooperates, the 27-year-old gives you really nice value compared to the other elites here.

Brandon Gdula, FanDuel/numberFire editor: Xander Schauffele (28-1) — The Players is a volatile event, and with the loaded field, we can get some lower odds on stars. That’s what we’re getting with Xander. Schauffele has five top-10 finishes in 11 tries at majors; we all know this isn’t a major, but it’s close—and it speaks to Schauffele’s ability to contend in tough, deep fields. Schauffele grades out positively in all four strokes gained stats in 2020, especially in the more predictive ball-striking data.

Dr. Lou Riccio, Columbia University: Dustin Johnson (25-1) — You are not likely to see a 25-1 number on Dustin Johnson anytime soon. My model puts his projected odds in the 18- to 20-1 range. That's still down from his usual 12- to 16-1 to where you'd expect to find him pre-tournament. Sure he hasn't won yet this season, and he played poorly in Mexico. But it would be a surprise to nobody if something clicked on the greens and he hits it well enough to win at Sawgrass.

Stephen Hennessey, Golf Digest dep. managing editor: Bryson DeChambeau (20-1) — As our Joel Beall pointed out in a piece last week, elite driving can be a separator at TPC Sawgrass. Enter Bryson. According to golf DFS guru Rick Gehman, Bryson is on track to having the second-best strokes gained/off-the-tee in the history of his database. As well as Rory's playing, Bryson's driving it even better than Rory. To me, we're getting such a big price break on Bryson compared to Rory, and Bryson has a complete game comparable to Rory. This could be Bryson's breakout, and I'm here to capitalize on it.

Christopher Powers, Golf Digest assistant editor: Bryson DeChambeau (20-1) — There are marginally better numbers on Bryson elsewhere, but this one will still do. DeChambeau has obviously been red hot (three straight top 5s), and he usually capitalizes on a hot streak with a victory. If there’s any course that can stop a good run in its tracks, it’s Sawgrass, but the way he’s driving it and putting it he can win anywhere right now.

Lee Alldrick, FanShare Sports golf expert: Webb Simpson (28-1) — Simpson ranks 10th in our course-suitability ranking due to his excellent putting on Bermuda greens and past performances on similar courses. The World No. 7 has three top-three finishes in his past five events as well as a previous win here at the Players.

Results from this season: We have correctly predicted nine of the first 21 winners to start the season. DraftKings expert Pat Mayo has nailed the past winners, with Tyrrell Hatton (55-1) last week and Sungjae Im’s Honda win at 28-1. Along with FanDuel’s Brandon Gdula four outright victories, netting +116 units this season alone on his outright bets (the equivalent of being up $1,160 on $10 bets) and FanShare Sports’ Lee Alldrick, who has three winning predictions this season, Golf Digest's betting panel continues to be the hottest golf betting panel in the industry, up more than $2,000 on outright betting tickets of $10 per unit this season. Check out everyone’s records in the betting card above.

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Sleepers/Dark Horses That Could Win, Players 2020 (odds from BetMGM)

Caddie: Matthew Fitzpatrick (50-1) — I'm surprised these odds are this high. He closed out last week with possibly the best round of the tournament, and he stated that he enjoys tougher setups. This could be Fitz's week.

Mayo: Paul Casey (66-1) — After consecutive top 25s at the Players, the Brit was THE trendy pick to emerge victorious a year ago. That didn't work too well, so naturally, everyone jumped off the bandwagon, and he returned the next week and won at Copperhead. In 2020, he heads to Sawgrass with some middling results, but all are entire short game related. The ball-striking has been off the charts this year. Not literally. It’s actually quite easy to measure these things on a chart. He’s gained more than +5.5 strokes gained/approach in each of his past two events and Casey averaged a specular +2.3 strokes gained/off-the-tee in those starts.

Gdula: Abraham Ancer (80-1) — Ancer debuted at TPC Sawgrass last year with a 12th-place showing, gaining strokes in all four areas of the game. That includes 7.4 strokes from ball-striking alone. He has played the weekend at all five events in 2020 and has the balanced game to contend.

Riccio: Marc Leishman (45-1) — It's crazy how oddsmakers aren't adjusting to Marc Leishman's strong 2020. He's having one of the best seasons out of anyone on tour. He won at Torrey, thanks in large part to a hot putter, but also because of some hot iron play. He has gained an average of 4.4 strokes on the field on his approach shots since January, which is a staggeringly good number. Leishman has control of his golf ball right now, which gives him a great chance to win this week.

Hennessey, Golf Digest: Patrick Reed (40-1) — This is right on the border of being a dark horse, so excuse us for not going lower. But Patrick Reed at 40-1 is undoubtedly a sleeper pick.

Powers, Golf Digest: Erik Van Rooyen (150-1) — As insane as this number seems to be for EVR, it does make a little sense given he’s missed two of three cuts and this is his first start at The Players. But in the one cut he did make at the WGC-Mexico he almost won, which continued a trend of the South African showing up for big events. Van Rooyen now has a 17th at the 2018 Open Championship, an eighth at the 2019 PGA, a 20th at the 2019 Open Championship and the third in Mexico City. Big-game hunter. The Players is a big game. I expect EVR to show up on the weekend.

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Sam Burns (200-1) — Burns ranks first in our course-suitability ranking this week, in large part due to his excellent putting on Bermuda greens. Burns ranks 10th in the field this week in strokes gained/putting on firm, Bermuda greens. Burns also ranks 11th for Opportunities Gained over the past two months. It’s no surprise then to see that he has made five of his past six cuts, including a sixth-place finish.

PSA: If you're in New Jersey, check out the new BetMGM app. If you don't have an account, BetMGM has a great offer that you need to take advantage of: Use the code GOLFDIGEST, and use your first wager of $20 or more on a golfer to win the Players Championship, and you'll get $100 in free bets if your golfer makes the cut. It's that simple: download the app, create an account and use the GOLFDIGEST promo code, then place your first wager (of $20 or more) on an outright, pre-tournament wager to win the Players, and you'll get $100 in free bets if your guy makes the cut.

RELATED: Players 2020 tee times, viewer's guide

Players to Fade This Week (who will disappoint)

Caddie: Brooks Koepka (40-1) — I'm still not sold on him being tournament-ready. Out on the range this week, he doesn't look like he's figured it all out yet. I don't doubt that he'll be back soon, I'm just not sure he's back where he needs to be to compete.

Mayo: Rory McIlroy (7-1) — It’s not the player, it’s Rory’s price. At a course where variance runs high, the favorite just isn’t likely to win. It’s not to say he won’t play well; he likely will, but a third-place finish doesn’t cash the ticket. Plus, no one’s ever won back-to-back at Sawgrass.

Gdula: Rory McIlroy (7-1) — This is definitely scary, as McIlroy is the most likely golfer to win this event in my win simulations, but that doesn’t meant there’s a ton of value on betting him. He was +550 last week on FanDuel Sportsbook, and his win odds, per my model, fell from around 14 percent to 9 percent this week. I love Rory plenty, but for the asking price, he’s just not someone I want to bet. I’d rather start my card with either of Jon Rahm (+1300) or Justin Thomas (+1400), but so far, I’m even farther down the card in the high-variance event that is the Players.

Riccio: Rory McIlroy (7-1) — My modeling favors Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas over Rory among the three biggest favorites this week. Right now, I trust their putting more than I do Rory's.

Hennessey, Golf Digest: Hideki Matsuyama (28-1) — Lee Allrick breaks down Hideki's putting struggles on Bermuda perfectly. I'd also add that the guy hasn't won since the end of 2017, and he's had attempts in way lesser events. I don't like his chances to break through in one of the strongest events of the year.

Powers, Golf Digest: Rory McIlroy (7-1) — Rory will be a popular fade pick this week, I’m sure. There are too many good players and too much volatility at Sawgrass to back him at such a low number, even though he’s earned it. Plus, nobody’s ever gone back-to-back in the event.

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Hideki Matsuyama (28-1) — Matsuyama will be up against it this week once again in lieu of the fast, Bermuda greens he’ll be facing. In the field this week he ranks seventh worst for strokes gained/putting on Bermuda greens.

RELATED: Players 2020: Fantasy pool and DFS advice from our leading expert panel

2020 Players: Matchups

Caddie: Patrick Cantlay (-110) over Hideki Matsuyama (William Hill) — Cantlay drives it as well as anyone in the world, and he stands out on tougher setups due to his ability to be so consistent throughout his rounds. Hideki hasn't been his usual self this year.

Mayo: Henrik Stenson (+105) over Sergio Garcia (Bet365) — In a battle of former winners, Stenson actually flashed some form at API a week ago with his irons, that beings me the confidence he can figure out his driving situation. Sergio always makes the cut at Sawgrass but hasn’t finished inside the Top 20 since losing the playoff to Rickie Fowler in 2015. And, the last time we saw him in Mexico, he lost over six strokes on approach.

Gdula: Bryson DeChambeau (-104) over Sungjae Im (FanDuel) — Matchups are tight this week, and for as much as I love Sungjae Im, he has found the high-end of his outcome range two straight weeks. Im has slightly negative around-the-green numbers, and that’s going to matter at TPC Sawgrass. DeChambeau is really maximizing his ball-striking now and has better around-the-green data. I’ll use that and better course history as my tiebreaker.

Riccio: Patrick Reed (-112) over Brooks Koepka (BetMGM) — Koepka seems to be searching, and Reed is playing as good as anyone. This is one where I'd ignore the longer-term sample size, which I'm always reluctant to do, and capitalize on the oddsmakers having to hedge on a Koepka return to form. We haven't seen that being close to true.

_Hennessey, Golf Digest: Sungjae Im (-125) over Hideki Matsuyama (BetMGM) — I've had luck in the matchup category in the past couple months (humble brag), and believe when I say I'm very, very confident in this Sungjae over Hideki bet. Sungjae has it all figured out, and Hideki has been rather quiet, particularly on the greens. You need a hot putter to contend at Sawgrass, and Hideki is one of the worst in the field on Bermuda grass, as Lee Alldrick has pointed out. Give me two units on this one.

Powers, Golf Digest: Matt Kuchar (+115) over Sungjae Im (DraftKings) — Betting against Sungaje Im right not could be one of the dumber things I’ve ever done, or one of the sharpest. At plus money, I love Kuchar, the veteran and former winner, in this spot. Sungjae can’t finish top 3 every week, can he?

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Bryson DeChambeau (-120) over Hideki Matsuyama (Unibet) — DeChambeau is playing excellent golf tee to green at the minute, as is Matsuyama, however, DeChambeau historically gains 0.7 shots per round on Matsuyama on these greens. That’s a big advantage over four rounds.

Matchup results last week: Aldrick: 1 for 1 (Tyrrell Hatton (-112) to beat Matthew Fitzpatrick); Hennessey: 1 for 1 (Three-way matchup, Rory (-134) over Molinari and Rose); Everyone else: 0 for 1.

Matchup results this season (assuming each matchup is a one-unit wager): Hennessey: 7 for 9 (up 6.15 units); Alldrick, FanShare Sports: 13 wins, 5 losses, 1 push (up 6.13 units); Riccio: 10 wins, 8 losses, 2 pushes (up 1.58 units); Tour Caddie: 8 wins, 7 losses, 1 push (up 0.92 units); Powers: 4 wins, 4 losses, 1 push (up 0.44 units); Mayo: 9 for 19 (down 0.63 units); Gdula: 6 for 16 and two pushes (down 3 units).

RELATED: Players 2020: Why this week brings some crazy good betting value

Top 10 (odds from FanDuel Sportsbook)

Caddie: Collin Morikawa (+430) — Talk about an impressive player whose caddie hit the jackpot. Not one missed cut since turning pro ... he's been an ATM machine ala Matt Kuchar. This guy is the epitome of consistency. He does not have a weakness, and he's always hanging around the top of the leaderboard.

Mayo: Brandt Snedeker (+1000) — It hasn’t been indicative of wins at the Players, but there is a corollary between the other short Bermuda grass designs on tour. And Snedeker is the king of those courses; he’s won at Harbour Town, East Lake and Sedgefield (twice). Essentially, any time a course devalues a driver, Snedeker becomes a much more appealing option. Now, this isn’t to say he can just spray everywhere from the tee box and have a shot, but he doesn’t need to actively gain a bunch of strokes, either. His irons have been quality in 2020, falling into the negatives juts once in five starts, and we know his short game is going to be world-class. He’s gained more than 3.6 strokes/putting in six of his past 11 starts. Yes, putting is quite random week-to-week, but Snedeker has shown a pattern of gaining in big chunks if he’s rolling it well that week.

Gdula: Joel Dahmen (+1000) — Dahmen has consecutive top-five finishes, and that’s not something I’m transplanting onto this week’s event, but he is a good ball-striker with long-term stats worth buying. Dahmen finished 12th here last year and has had an up-and-down putter, which is needed to reach top-10 status again.

Riccio: Dustin Johnson (+310) — I'm doubling down on DJ. 3-to-1 on your money is pretty good, and though we haven't seen him win recently, DJ has still been competing. These odds are rather enticing.

Hennessey, Golf Digest: Webb Simpson (+230) — There's nothing sexy about this pick. But I'd contend that it's sharp, and it'll pay the bills. Webb Simpson is even more of an elite player than when he won here in 2018. Now, he's one of the most complete players in the world. He's ranked second in strokes gained/putting in this field over his past 50 rounds, per FantasyNational.com. Seventh in strokes gained/approach. There's not a hole in a game; he's in total control, at a venue that will test the control of your game. Take this to the bank.

Powers, Golf Digest: Tony Finau (+470) — Finau has struggled since his near miss at the WMPO, finishing 51st at Riviera and missing the cut at Bay Hill. But he gained over five strokes on his approaches at Arnie’s place, so his irons are dialed in, a plus at the Players. If he can improve on and around the greens then top 10 Tony has a good chance of picking up the 36th top 10 of his PGA Tour career.

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Daniel Berger (+400) — Berger already has a previous top-10 finish to his name here at TPC Sawgrass. Not only this, he also comes in off of the back of three top-10 finishes in a row. It’s not surprising then to see that he ranks seventh for strokes gained/tee-to-green over the past two months. We have Berger ranked 27th in our course-suitability ranking, in large part due to his excellent putting on Bermuda greens.

Top 10 results last week: Hennessey: 1 for 1 (Tyrrell Hatton +500); Alldrick: 1 for 1 (Marc Leishman (+380); Riccio: 1 for 1 (Bryson DeChambeau (+195). Everyone else: 0 for 1.

Top-10 results for the year (assuming a one-unit wager): Alldrick/FanShare: 5 for 19 (up 8.5 units); Mayo: 3 for 18 (up 3.5 units); Gdula 3 for 19 (down 0.8 units); Hennessey: 1 for 8 (down 2 units); Powers: 1 for 8 (down 5.35 units); Riccio: 2 for 19 (down 12.6 units); Tour Caddie: 0 for 17 (down 17 units)

PSA: If you're in New Jersey, check out the new BetMGM app. If you don't have an account, BetMGM has a great offer that you need to take advantage of: Use the code GOLFDIGEST, and use your first wager of $20 or more on a golfer to win the Players Championship, and you'll get $100 in free bets if your golfer makes the cut. It's that simple: download the app, create an account and use the GOLFDIGEST promo code, then place your first wager (of $20 or more) on an outright, pre-tournament wager to win the Players, and you'll get $100 in free bets if your guy makes the cut.

RELATED: Players 2020 DFS picks and expert predictions: The reasons to love Dustin Johnson this week

Outrageous, Degenerate Bets of the Week

Of course, these are 0-for for our past three weeks doing them. But we just need to hit one of these, and we'll be able to retire. Maybe.

Powers: So Dustin Johnson is 28-1 this week. That is absurd, as pointed out above. That's based off his play at Mexico, where he’d been dominant the last few years, but he did just finish 10th at Riviera and seventh at Sentry. It’s not like he’s in a slump by any means. I don’t have a straight bet on him, but to avoid getting daggered by a DJ win at this number, I’ll parlay him with the Big East Tournament winner to try and hit the jackpot.

As a New Jerseyean, I’m not allowed to bet Seton Hall (you can't bet on a New Jersey college team or game with them), one of my favorite college basketball teams, which is good because I sweat out Pirates games enough without any money on them. Obviously I’d like them to win, but they are going to have two tough games (if they beat Marquette) with Villanova on deck.

Let’s go with Providence at +600. Ed Cooley’s Friars are the hottest team in the conference, and he’s been known to lead them on incredible runs at MSG. If they get past Butler, I like their chances against Creighton and if they win that they’re in the final game.

DJ to win Players, Providence to win the Big East Tournament odds: +20200 ($10 bet wins $2,030).

RELATED: 2020 Players Championship: 15 prop bets we’d love to see for the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass

Hennessey: I'll stick with the March Madness theme as well since we're gearing up for the NCAA Tournament. We're going to get a little wild.

Rickie Fowler had a solid tournament at the Arnold Palmer -- just take away his 9 on a par 5 (his highest score ever recorded in his PGA Tour career), and he would've been near the top of the lead.

We know Rickie likes Sawgrass, and we know he can go super low. So let's take his attractive odds to be first-round leader at the Players (45-1), and parlay that with a team I really like in the American Athletic Conference (Wichita State). The Shockers are 4-1 ... and they're going to have a ton of motivation to go out and win their conference tournament. They likely need to do so to get in the NCAA Tournament.

So Rickie as a first-round leader (45-1) with Wichita State to win the AAC. That would be +22900 ($10 bet to win $2,290). Maybe not retirement money, but almost a month's rent around these parts. We like it.

About our experts

Dr. Lou Riccio, a PhD senior lecturer, teaches rational decision making at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and has served on the USGA's handicap research team for four decades. His predictive analysis and modeling helps him make expert picks for our column.

Pat Mayo is an award-winning video host and producer of long and short-form content, and the host of The Pat Mayo Experience daily talk show. (Subscribe for video or audio). Mayo (@ThePME) won the 2020 Fantasy Sports Writing Association Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year and Golf Writer of the Year awards, along with the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Best Sports Betting Analyst award, and was finalist for four FSWA Awards in 2020 (Best Podcast, Best Video, Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year). His 21 FSWA nominations lead all writers this decade and are third-most all-time. Mayo is on the board of governors at www.fantasynational.com.

Brandon Gdula, a senior editor and analyst for NumberFire, a FanDuel daily-fantasy analysis company, recently won the 2018 fantasy sports-writers association Golf Writer of the Year (congrats, Brandon!). Gdula also co-hosts the DFS Heat Check podcast.

Lee Alldrick of FanShare Sports started out writing an article highlighting the best bargain plays for fantasy golf under his twitter handle @DKGolfBargains. His success at this prompted FanShare Sports to enlist him as a guest writer, which evolved into him writing the weekly Under The Radar article. As a U.K.-based expert, Alldrick’s insight into European Tour regulars and low priced, low owned plays has provided an invaluable edge for readers when it comes to DFS GPPs.

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