Fantasy sports is big business - more than $5 billion annually according to industry analysts. Chances are you're still reeling from what could have been in your most recent fantasy football campaign, or you're gearing up for fantasy baseball or, at the very least, an NCAA basketball pool or two.
Golf has been a source for growth in the fantasy sports business. Just download the DraftKings or FanDuel apps on your smartphone and you'll have the opportunity to play in dozens of "tournaments" each week. The standard format is to pick a roster of players, staying within a certain budget.
Naturally, bigger-name players cost more, so you have to balance your team with premium and lesser-known golfers in order to make some money. On DraftKings alone, you can find a handful of freerolls, or you could risk up to $10,600 in a three-player contest. Or you could opt into the "PGA $1 Million 5th Major Classic," a $10 entry contest with a cap of more than 117,000 total entries. That contest's winner will bag $250,000.
Other outlets offer more stripped-down contests. Golf Channel has recently started its "Pick'Em" format, run through the free NBC Sports Predictor app. Entry is free and contestants are given a list of binary choices - will player A or B have a better finish in the event? - and the most accurate prognosticators can win prizes.
No matter the depth of your involvement in fantasy golf, there is one major, often-overlooked factor you should consider when making your selections:
Golf course architecture.
We've all heard the term "horses for courses," but did you know that certain golfers have come to be known as "Pete Dye course specialists"? Dye is one of the most influential, not to mention polarizing, architects of all time, and whether you're one of the top-ranked golfers in the world or a rank amateur, you know that when you tee it up on a Dye course, you'll be getting a bit of a different challenge.
This week's host, The TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course is the second of five Pete Dye courses on the 2018-19 PGA Tour schedule, and is considered one of his masterpieces along with late wife and long-time design partner, Alice.
DraftKings Fantasy Golf Expert Reid Fowler pays close attention to architecture when assessing players ahead of a PGA Tour event, especially one at a Dye course. "One thing has proven to be paramount to those who’ve had success: Ball Striking.," he says. "If the golfers are not precise with their ball striking coming into a course like Harbour Town or TPC Sawgrass, then they’ll be in for a long day trying to salvage strokes around the green. If we break down ball-striking further, Pete Dye courses will always be about the approach shot."
But it's not just rote skill that leads to success at Dye courses, Fowler says. The variety of the holes and shots that confront players force them to adapt a bit more often from hole to hole and shot to shot than they normally might because, as Fowler says, "every hole design and subsequent shot is different and requires every shot in the bag. TPC Sawgrass, for instance, will have par 4s over 450 yards following par 4s measuring under 400 yards, difficult par 3s prior to gettable par 5s and a dogleg right coming after a dogleg left to ensure the golfers don’t get used to the course."
GolfChannel.com Staff Writer Will Gray, who helps administer Golf Channel's Pick 'Em game, sees Sawgrass as an intricate examination, especially of ball-striking. "If you take on the risk off the tee, the approach is appreciably easier," he says. "Players are allowed to pick where they want to press it this week, but they’ll have to make that decision at some point on nearly every hole."
2017 FedEx Cup Champion Justin Thomas' comments about TPC Sawgrass reflect this analysis:
You have to be in total control of your ball. You have to be working it one way off the tee, working it another way into the green, have your distances down to where you’re putting from the right spots. You can’t short-side yourself. You have to be good around the greens and around the par-5s in two. It really is a total package golf course.
Thomas is right. Dye courses are full of decisions and tense moments. Birdies and eagles constantly seem within reach if the player can pull off a brilliant shot. But a marginal miss can require an even more brilliant follow-up if a player wants to save a par. Shaping the ball both ways is particularly important on Pete Dye "switchback holes," where one shot shape is preferred off the tee but the opposite is best when approaching the green. The opening hole at TPC Sawgrass calls for a left-to-right tee ball and a right-to-left approach.
But does understanding the Dye design style augur success?
The "fantasy golfanac" on the site Future of Fantasy, like many fantasy golf advice sources, relies on the Tour's Strokes Gained statistics to build cases for and against certain players. If you want to go on pure performance at Pete Dye courses since 2014 (with a minimum of 30 rounds played), the leader is Jason Day, with an average total Strokes Gained of 2.913 per round. Day's wins at the 2016 Players Championship, 2016 WGC-Dell Match Play and the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits help give him that top spot. His withdrawal from last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational with back issues makes him an iffy pick this week, though.
Other top-25 Dye course performers include big names like Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Brooks Koepka, as well as some not-quite-top-tier figures like Branden Grace, Emiliano Grillo and Chris Kirk. Last week's winner, Francesco Molinari, is also on the list.
But absolute performance is just part of the formula, Future of Fantasy also has a ranking of "specialists" who tend to out-perform expectations on Dye's tactical, cerebral tests. Top players on this list include 2017 Players Champion Si-Woo Kim, Ian Poulter and Anirban Lahiri. Another notable name: Vijay Singh, who at 56 years of age contended at the Honda Clasic two weeks ago and whose "Strokes Gained: Pete Dye" average exceeds his normal Strokes Gained average by more than three shots per tournament. He might be an inexpensive part of a successful DraftKings or FanDuel lineup this week.
Just as important as identifying Pete Dye "specialists" is identifying players who tend to underperform on Dye courses. Of Future of Fantasy's "Top 25 Pete Dye Anti-Specialists," #1 is a shocker: Rickie Fowler, who, despite winning the Players Championship in 2015, owns a 1.162 Strokes Gained: Pete Dye average against a 2.525 Strokes Gained: Total average. Fowler tends to be plagued by round-derailing big numbers, and Pete Dye courses tend to have more double- and triple-bogeys lurking than other courses. Other surprising Dye course underperformers include Tony Finau, Gary Woodland and, despite his astute analysis of Sawgrass, Justin Thomas.
That Thomas seems to understand Dye courses well, despite playing below his standards, reflects both the inscrutability of courses like TPC Sawgrass and the inherent risk and, to many, excitement of wagering on sports like golf. You can prepare better than anyone else, but the real drama - the tightrope walk separating success from failure - still lies in the execution.