The PGA Tour starts its California swing this week with the 2019 Desert Classic, or as golf romantics affectionately know it, the old Bob Hope Classic. This tournament has tons of history despite sponsors rotating through the years, with Arnold Palmer winning the event five times, especially the pro-am tournament as a marquee on the PGA Tour schedule.
With that history brings some course experience worth evaluating in building your DFS lineups, making fantasy-golf picks, or for those inclined, putting a few bucks on players to win. Some facts about the Desert Classic to keep in mind: The first three rounds are played at three courses—PGA West's Stadium course, designed by Pete Dye; the Nicklaus Tournament course and La Quinta Country Club. La Quinta C.C. played as the easiest course on tour last year, and the Nicklaus course was second-easiest—so expect birdies to fly. You need players who can go low to be profitable this week.
Our panel of experts—which includes a PGA Tour caddie providing insight from the front lines every week thanks to our partnership with The Caddie Network—plus expert golf handicappers, correctly predicted Matt Kuchar's success last week at the Sony Open. And in the fall wraparound schedule, we predicted three of the six champions. We're excited to keep that momentum with winning picks at the Desert Classic.
2019 Desert Classic Picks To Win (odds from DraftKings sportsbook)
PGA Tour Caddie Guest Picker of the Week: Jon Rahm (7-1) — Yes, Jon Rahm is the defending champ. This tournament puts a premium on par-5 scoring. In 2018, Rahm finished fifth for the season in birdies or better on the par 5s. He’s also ranked 10th in strokes gained off the tee this season, which should see him with plenty of birdie chances this week.
Pat Mayo, DraftKings/Fantasy National analyst: Abraham Ancer (28-1) — Ancer—who won the Australian Open in December—gained nearly six strokes off the tee at last year's Desert Classic—almost a full stroke better than second-place Bryson DeChambeau. How’d Ancer do it? Well, he hit over 80 percent of fairways at the course with the most difficult fairways to hit, and he still managed to remain inside the top 20 of driving distance as well. That’s perfect. Hit it long enough to put every gettable Par 5 into play, yet hit it straight enough to stay out of the desert.
Mayo: Hudson Swafford (40-1) — Since missing the cut at last year’s Players Championship, "the Swafficer" has made 9 out of 10 cuts, with just one finish inside the Top 25 — T12 at the Canadian Open. Until last week. Not out of nowhere, but certainly surprising, Swafford began looking like the guy who heated up at Sony and won this event two years ago. On the heels of a -6 Sunday at Waialae, he gained strokes off the tee and through approach in every round, finishing with an immaculate +8.1 Strokes Gained: Ball Striking, good for sixth in the field.
Brandon Gdula, FanDuel/numberFire editor: Patrick Cantlay (18-1) -- Patrick Cantlay hasn’t played since the Hero World Challenge (fifth-place finish), but he ranks third among the field in strokes gained: approach and off the tee over his past 36 rounds, via FantasyNational.com. With Justin Rose and Jon Rahm’s odds so short, Cantlay’s odds are more enticing.
Dr. Lou Riccio, Columbia University: Joaquin Niemann (66-1) — This is a long-shot disguised as a player who could be poised to break out. My optimization model gives Niemann the best chance to win out of anyone in the field—and that's including favorites Jon Rahm and Justin Rose. The extremely talented 19-year-old had a remarkable 2018. And we're going to be ready to cash in when he splashes in 2019.
Golf Digest editors picks: Aaron Wise (28-1) — We feel the 2018 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year isn't getting enough credit for being one of the elite young talents in golf. Wise ran away with the AT&T Byron Nelson and finished the year strongly with top-20 finishes at three of the four FedEx Cup playoff events. Wise played a couple weeks ago at the Tournament of Champions, so the cobwebs should be off. And Wise played this course in some junior events growing up. He gained 7.6 strokes on the field at last year's Desert Classic, but couldn't capitalize and finished 17th. If his putter lights up, watch out.
(Results on the season: Pat Mayo correctly picked Bryson DeChambeau (12-1, Shriners) and Matt Kuchar (60-1 at the OHL Classic) earlier this season. Brandon Gdula also correctly predicted DeChambeau's win in Las Vegas. Golf Digest editor Christopher Powers correctly picked Kevin Tway (55-1) to start the season at the Safeway Open.)
Sleepers/Dark Horses That Could Win (odds from DraftKings sportsbook)
PGA Tour Caddie: Hudson Swafford (40-1). Nice week last week at the Sony Open, which was his first top-10, believe it or not, since a T-10 two seasons ago in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He’s back to using a TaylorMade driver. These odds have continued to go down in the past day or so on the recent champion here in the desert (2017). But they're still nice at 40-1. Not bad.
Mayo: Joaquin Niemann (66-1)
Gdula: Joaquin Niemann (66-1). His elite ball-striking keeps him bankable at pretty long odds. His putter doesn’t always run hot, but he finished top-10 five times in 18 events in 2018.
Riccio: Sungjae Im (50-1). Sungjae led the Web.com Tour last year in most birdies for the year (397), so you know he can go low. And that's what translates to success at the Desert Classic. Im has gained strokes in every category over the past 10 rounds, according to FantasyNational.com. And in my optimization model, he's fourth most-likely to win. Worth taking a flier on in case he gets a hot putter.
Golf Digest editors: Daniel Berger (66-1). We were tempted to go with Corey Conners—the Canadian who Monday qualified last week at the Sony Open, then cashed in with a T-5 finish—but at the same odds, you can find Presidents Cupper Daniel Berger. The talented American struggled with wrist injuries for the latter part of 2018. But he's back to competing, and even if he's 80-to-90 percent, these are incredible odds for someone who will be way lower priced later in the season. Berger can make birdies with the best on tour—and we want to cash in if he puts it together this week.
Players to Fade This Week (who will disappoint)
PGA Tour Caddie: Justin Rose (7-1) has new equipment in play for the first time this week, and he added the Desert Classic late to his schedule. It’s going to take at least 20 under this week. Though Justin has been putting better, it’s still a weakness of his.
Mayo: Adam Hadwin (20-1) Hadwin has to start the week on the Stadium course, where winds are expected to be at their strongest on Thursdays and Saturdays. That makes my countryman a full fade for me.
Gdula: Adam Hadwin (20-1) — Hadwin is a course horse but he ranks 104th in strokes gained: approach over the past 36 rounds and has been largely carried by his putting of late. At these high-priced odds, I'm passing.
Riccio: Zach Johnson (45-1) I agree with the others on Hadwin—he's too expensive in DFS to back. And Johnson falls into the same category for me. He missed the cut painfully last week, so I'd pivot to other players who set up well at his price point.
Editors: Chez Reavie (30-1) — This is an overreaction to his stellar play at last week's Sony Open and recent form. But in nine appearances in the desert, Chez has only one top-10. So though he's familiar at these courses, he doesn't necessarily make a bunch of birdies here, which doesn't make him valuable in DFS or betting-wise this week. Sure, he could finish in the top-15—but we don't see him making enough birdies to win or finish top 5.
PGA Tour Caddie: Aaron Wise (-115) vs. Abraham Ancer. Take Aaron Wise. He played several junior tournaments on these courses and already has eight tournament rounds here and finished T17 last year.
Mayo: Andrew Putnam (-110) over Adam Hadwin
Gdula: Bronson Burgoon (-110) over Brian Stuard— Stuard finished eighth last week but did so by ranking fifth in strokes gained: putting. Burgoon’s the better ball-striker, which should separate these two this week.
Riccio: J.J. Spaun (-130) over Richy Werenski — My model gives Spaun the 15th best chance to win the Desert Classic, whereas Werenski rates out at 85th in my model. That's a huge difference that doesn't justify this low of odds—it should be -160 or so. Spaun played well here last year and found his game in the fall.
Golf Digest editors picks: Brendan Steele (-140) over Danny Willett — Though Willett has recovered his form, evidenced by his win at the DP World Tour Championship to end the European Tour season, this is more of a tournament setup play. Steele appears to have the ideal draw based on which course he's playing each day. He'll play the Stadium course on the day with the easiest conditions (Friday), whereas Willett will play it Saturday on a more windy day. Steele also owns a T-2, T-6 and T-20 in three of his past four starts at the Desert Classic, whereas this is Willett's first appearance.
(Matchup results last week: Mayo: 1 for 1 (Charles Howell III over Cam Smith); GD Editors: 1 for 1 (Marc Leishman over Paul Casey); PGA Tour Caddie: 1 for 1 (Z. Johnson over Bubba); Riccio: 1 for 1 (Sungjae Im over Patrick Rodgers); Gdula: (pushed Ryder vs. Burns )
(Matchup results for the year: Riccio: 2 for 2; PGA Tour Caddie: 2 for 2; Mayo: 1 for 1; GD Editors: 1 for 2; Gdula: pushed)
Top 10 (odds from DraftKings Sportsbook)
PGA Tour Caddie: Adam Hadwin (+250). He’s got three-straight top-10 finishes in the Desert Classic, two of which were top 5s. One of those was a runner-up finish in 2017… when he shot a 59 in the third round. Despite what some fantasy experts are saying this week, I like the Canadian to vault to the top of the leaderboard in a familiar spot.
Mayo: Rory Sabbatini (+1200) I like Sabbatini to finish in the top-20 at +550 maybe even more. He's a birdie machine—expect to see his name on the leaderboard.
Gdula: Scott Piercy (+550) — Piercy has played the Tournament of Champions (19th) and the Sony Open (33rd) to show that the rust is knocked off. He finished fourth in approach last week but lost strokes putting. He was sixth at the Desert Classic last year, too.
Riccio: Sungjae Im (+550) The birdie machine finished T-17 last week at the Sony, so his game is on.
Golf Digest editors picks: Patrick Cantlay (+275) — Seems like really good odds for one of the tournament favorites. We expect him to be a factor in the desert, where he practices in the offseason. Even if he doesn't win, a top-10 finish seems very likely, so take these juicy odds.
(Top-10 results last week: Mayo: 1 for 1 (Matt Kuchar, +380) ; Gdula: 1 for 1 (Matt Kuchar, +380); GD Editors: 1 for 1 (Charles Howell III, +250); Riccio: 0 for 1; PGA Tour Caddie: 0 for 1)
(Top-10 results for the year: Mayo: 1 for 1; PGA Tour Caddie: 1 for 2; GD Editors: 1 for 2; Gdula: 1 for 3; Riccio: 1 for 2
Mayo: My DraftKings lineups will revolve around this core this week:
Jon Rahm ($11,600); Abraham Ancer ($9,300); Hudson Swafford ($8,300); Rory Sabbatini ($7,000)
Riccio: Jon Rahm ($11,600); _Phil Mickelson ($9,500)__; Joaquin Niemann ($7,600); Anders Albertson ($7,200); Sam Ryder ($7,100); Seth Reeves($6,400)
Golf Digest editors: Yes, Jon Rahm is expensive at $11,600. But he's worth paying up $600 more than for Justin Rose—the World No. 1 player. Rahm loves playing in Palm Springs—he is a member at Bighorn Golf Club not too far away, and his win last year at the Desert Classic will have his confidence really high this week. We would not be surprised if he repeats. We think a profitable lineup starts with Rahm this week, and continues with a player pool.
Jon Rahm ($11,600)
Luke List ($9,000)
Hudson Swafford ($8,300)
Joaquin Niemann ($7,600)
Rory Sabbatini ($7,000)
Adam Svensson ($6,500)
Gdula: Anchoring your lineups with Justin Rose ($12,100), Jon Rahm ($11,900), and Patrick Cantlay ($11,300) is a solid start this week, and value options exist to help round out your teams on FanDuel: Sungjae Im ($8,800), Corey Conners ($8,700), Dylan Frittelli ($8,600), and Hudson Swafford ($8,200).
Riccio: Based on my optimization model this week, here's who I like on FanDuel. Sam Ryder's price is amazingly low for his value, and it's worth paying for Phil Mickelson at this price—he is capable of making a dozen birdies in any given round:
Rahm, Jon ($11,900)
Mickelson, Phil ($10,600)
Niemann, Joaquin ($10,400)
Im, Sungjae ($8,800)
Ryder, Sam ($8,800)
Albertson, Anders ($8,400)
About our experts
Our anonymous PGA Tour caddie—a different one each week—gives us their expert picks based on what they're seeing on the practice range and putting green, in partnership with The Caddie Network.
Dr. Lou Riccio, a PhD senior lecturer, teaches rational decision making at Columbia's Graduate School of Business and has served on the USGA's handicap research team for three decades. His predictive analysis and modeling helps him make expert picks for our column.
Pat Mayo is known as one of the pre-eminent experts in daily-fantasy sports and golf handicapping specifically. Mayo is a 14-time fantasy sports-writers association finalist, and he's on the board of governors at www.fantasynational.com. Here’s a link to watch his complete DraftKings preview of the Desert Classic.
Brandon Gdula is a senior editor and analyst for NumberFire, a FanDuel daily-fantasy analysis company. He also co-hosts the DFS Heat Check podcast.