The First Tee – The American Express

Adam Daly
By Adam Daly January 13, 2020 20:17

The First Tee – The American Express

This Week

This week is the American Express – formerly the Desert Classic and CareerBuilder Challenge – which takes place on a three-course rotation and features a three-day cut as opposed to a regular event, thanks to the first 54-holes being played as a pro-am. Expect lots of slow play even with golfers spread out over the three courses, as the amateurs tend to make for very long rounds.

ShotTracker data is only available at the TPC Stadium course, but on the positive side that’s the course that gets played twice (once over the first three days plus the final round). Previously there was a cut rule where if more than 78 golfers made it, it got cut to top-60 and ties, but there’s currently no clarity on whether that applies anymore now that it’s top-65 with no MDF; check twitter for clarification when we get it. For course history, don’t go beyond five years as the rotation prior to that didn’t include two of the three courses.


The three courses this week are TPC Stadium, Nicklaus Tournament Course, and La Quinta C.C. and it’s important to know who tees off where for those playing Showdown/weekend slates, and if weather will be a factor; check closer to lock on weather, as that can change at a moment’s notice and building lineups this early with weather in mind is a waste of time. All three courses have Bermuda greens overseeded with poa, and the Stadium and Nicklaus courses have Bermuda fairways while La Quinta has ryegrass.

TPC Stadium

The hardest of the three courses, Stadium is listed at 7113 yards as a par-72, but it has all the usual Pete Dye (R.I.P.) features: narrow fairways with a ton of bunkers and water coming into play, but it’s also short and relatively easy (last year played at -1.762 to par). Hitting the fairway isn’t necessarily a big component to success here, as the rough is thin enough – remember that this course is set up for pro-ams – that the difference in proximity between shots from the rough and shots from the fairway is negligible.

Three of the four par-5s play at or below 560 yards and are holes that must be scored on, and only one of the ten par-4s plays outside 450 yards which should emphasize just how short the course actually is. The average distance off the tee is incredibly short (between 272-278 over the past four years) as players club down, but they don’t really have to pull driver as their second shots will usually be in the 125-150 yard range.

The greens are listed at 5,665 sq. ft. and are slow and very straight-forward; any greens in regulation (~67% over the past few years) should be birdies or pars, as three-putts are very rare at this course.

Nicklaus Tournament Course

The Nicklaus Tournament Course (PGA West) is officially 7159 yards and a par-72, has larger, easier-to-hit fairways and sees 70+% of greens hit in regulation. It’s such an easy course in terms of getting from tee to green, but the differentiating factors here will be putting and making birdies on the easy par-3s; over the past four years, the par-3s have a birdie or better percentage of 16.5% (which is incredibly easy) so not taking advantage will hurt.

La Quinta C.C.

The easiest course on tour last year with a scoring average of -3.282 – Nickalus came in one spot ahead at -2.942 – it’s best to target players here in ideal weather conditions if there are some bad weather days, because this course is easy to tear apart. The four par-5s here are very short, none longer than 547 yards, and at a full distance of just 7060 yards as a par-72, golfers can hit irons off the tee into the narrow fairways and still easily play a wedge in to the greens.

The only real caveat here is that the greens have more of a poa feel here than the other two courses even though all three have some poa in them, so playing it after playing either NT or SC can be a struggle to adjust to.

Comparable courses/events:

There’s really no good comparable in terms of course given there are three courses, and two of the courses are major outliers in terms of how easy they play / how short they are, but looking at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is a good idea given that event is set up for pro-am conditions that takes place over three courses. It’s a good idea to find players who can handle the long rounds/playing with losers (no offense to the celebrities!), as that’s very atypical.

Beyond that, the RSM Classic is another idea as the Plantation course is a very short, very easy par-72 with Bermuda greens. Any Pete Dye design is also a consideration (Sawgrass, Harbour Town, etc.) as he designed both the Stadium course and La Quinta.


The Strokes Gained stats to focus on in order (not including Tee to Green):

  • Approach
  • Putting
  • Off-the-Tee
  • Around the Green

Counting stats to focus on in order:

  • Birdie or Better %
  • Par-5 Scoring
  • Putting Inside 10’ / Birdie or Better Conversion (Putting) Percentage; this is basically a putting competition.
  • Proximity to the Hole, 125-150 Yards
  • Par-3 Scoring

Top-Tier Golfers

Phil Mickelson ($8700): This is the first year the Mickelson is the official host of the tournament which could mean less time prepping, more time hob-nobbing, but that’s nothing new for Phil, and he’s had great success here in the past: two wins, a second- and third-place finish, and finishing top-25 in 10 of the 16 times he’s played the course, with only three missed cuts. The bottom has started to fall out for Lefty overall, as he missed a whopping nine cuts last year, but he still finished a T2 here and a win at Pebble Beach, so his game hasn’t fully left him yet.

Last season, Mickelson’s statistics were atrocious, as he lost strokes in every category except SG: Around the Green. A large part of that is his utter failure off the tee, as he barely managed to hit half the fairways (50.77%), because his play was very good when he did hit the fairway: T37 in proximity to the hole, and -28 to par; he really excelled in the 125-150-yard range. Mickelson will be able to leave driver – and even woods – in his bag if he really wants given the distance of the course, which means he should be much less wild off the tee here.

Even in a bad statistical year, Mickelson still made birdie or better on 20.53% of par-4s (4th) and 22.04% of holes in general (67th), which was mostly down to making a ton of birdie putts given the positions he put himself in. He may see low ownership this week because of how #washed he looked last year.

Kevin Kisner ($9900): A week after a good showing in Hawaii (T4) even with some horrendous putting, Kisner should be able to produce this week as well even if his course history doesn’t show it – he has only one top-25 in seven attempts, but on the plus side has only missed two cuts of those seven. He also has good recent form although in no-cut events, as he finished T14 at the ToC and T7 at the Hero.

Kisner struggled outside of the greens last year, but was still an above-average player on approach (52nd in SG: APP) and off the tee (74th in SG: OTT). He’s a shorter player which is fine for here, and he can position his ball well off the tee, which means he should be hitting greens this week. If Kisner can hit greens, he can hit putts, because he was 20th in SG: Putting last year and was the 10th-best in three-putt avoidance. He did miss a decent number of birdie putts, but that was more due to a failure with his irons than anything; with the short approach shots here, he should be in much better birdie positions.

Honourable mentions: Ryan Moore ($8300), Sungjae Im ($11,000)

Value Golfer (below $8000)

Scott Piercy ($7400): Although using Scott Piercy in what can amount to a putting contest isn’t always the smartest decision, Piercy was better than expected in that category last season, sitting 63rd in SG: Putting and converting an above-average rate of BoB putts (31.15%). In his 14 measured rounds this season, it hasn’t worked out nearly as well as he’s lost 0.633 strokes/round on the greens, but that’s a fairly small sample and he putt well last week.

The reason to use Piercy this week is because of how strong he is at getting to the green – ninth last year with 70.09% GIR – and his strong scoring rates, especially relative to his price point. This is an event where golfers are guaranteed three rounds of golf so a missed cut isn’t as punitive as regular tour events, and scores are so high that birdie-makers are a must; last year, Piercy fit that to a tee as he was T35 in overall BoB% (23.00%) and was strong on the par-3s and par-4s. His average approach distance when making birdie was short relative to average, at 175.6, which is longer than most approach shots will be this week but still a good sign.

Piercy’s made five of eight cuts here –two top-25s, including his T6 in 2018 – and is coming off a T45 last week at the Sony. He’s had success in the awful pro-am format before, finishing T10 at the AT&T last year and T20 the year prior.


Austin Cook ($7100): In 2018, Cook was a hot performer who ranked 41st in SG: Putting (crushing Bermuda) who got the green well enough to have some very fine finishes: T14 here, T6 at the St. Jude, T5 at the Greenbriar, and T11 at the comparable RSM Classic. 2019 saw a caddie change and two more top-10s (Valspar, Barbasol), but his putting regressed to 118th place where he actually lost strokes.

He’s yet to play in 2020, but his most recent event (the RSM Classic) saw a T61 where he putt well, so maybe he put his woes behind him.

Outside of putting and history, Cook is an interesting play this week because he’s deadly accurate off the fairway – not a huge factor, but it never hurts – and his best approach dispersion is the 125-150-yard range. Like Piercy, he makes a lot of birdies (22.66%, 46th last year) and is aces on the par-3s; he converts a great 32.58% of BoB putts which obviously helps his numbers.

Honourable mentions: Talor Gooch ($7100), Ryan Armour ($7000)

You can follow me on Twitter @adalyfrey and good luck this week!

Adam Daly
By Adam Daly January 13, 2020 20:17

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