The American Express 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Scottie Scheffler and caddie Scott Mcguinness. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, there will be birdies in bunches. Just maybe not as many.

For the first time in decades, the tournament now known as the American Express features only professionals. The pro-am portion was canceled due to COVID-19, leaving a straightforward 72-hole event with a 36-hole cut.

The 156-man field will play three rounds on the PGA West Stadium Course and one on the adjacent Nicklaus Tournament Course, competing for a $6.7 million purse.

CADDIE CONFIDENTIAL: Welcome to the first installment of our “Caddie Confidential” series, with monthly inside-the-ropes perspective on rotating golf topics. First up, we get caddie insights from a season without galleries.

What the change could mean, hopefully means, is the PGA Tour staff will be more creative with hole locations. Without having to worry about amateurs putting a ball off a green into the fairway or rolling down a hill and collapsing in one of Pete Dye’s sand craters, we should see a course setup resembling what players face each week on Tour.

It’s possible that 20 under could be good enough to collect the $1.34 million first-place check in the $6.7 million purse.

In the past, with the holes cut in accessible areas, scrambling was much easier here (64 percent conversion rate) than the average Tour event (57.7 percent). The fairways have never been easy to hit (57.2 percent compared to 62.1 percent on average) and finding them has always been a key ingredient for success. The importance should be magnified this year. The fairway bunkers feature penal lips and attacking tucked flags from the rough is tricky.

Coming down the stretch in what’s likely to be a shootout, the world’s best caddies hope they’re giving yardages from the fairway rather than searching for a sprinkler head in the rough.

Hit the fairway, hit it close and putt ‘em in. Seems so simple, doesn’t it?

Each week of the West Coast swing has its own personality. Nobody’s blood pressure climbs too high in Hawaii and the Coachella Valley provides an ideal setting to set the tone for the season. The weather is great, the practice facilities at PGA West are some of the best in the world. The vibe may be less relaxed this year without the comedians and jetsetters roaming between the ropes but come Sunday night most golfers, regardless of their 72-hole score, will depart the desert feeling better about their game than they might have felt upon arrival.

It’s a strange and glorious place. A great place to spend a winter, one week at a time. As always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

25. Vaughn Taylor​ – Has three top 10s at the American Express and had the groove on approach and on the greens in a T-25 in Hawaii last weekend where he shot four rounds of 68 or better.

24. Patton Kizzire​ – He’s enjoying a bounce back season – 42nd in FedEx Cup with four top 25s and while a T-42 is his best finish here in five starts, every time I turn on the TV, Kizzire is rolling in another birdie putt. He’ll love the perfect greens in the desert.

23. Russell Henley​ – With his impeccable iron game and improving putting, he’s become an auto pick each week. Finished T-11 last week, gaining strokes in every significant Strokes Gained category. A trio of consecutive missed cuts in this event, however, drops him down a bit this week.

22. Charley Hoffman​ – Likes Bermuda greens and favorable scoring conditions and the game looked sharp in a T-14 at Waialae last week. Plenty of good memories for the veteran in the desert, including five top 10s, highlighted by a runner-up in 2015.

21. Zach Johnson​ – Despite a disappointing T-62 at Waialae, we’re still bullish on a strong season from Johnson and what better place to post a good finish. He’s top 15 in the field in SG: Approach, Putting and Short Game over the last 24 rounds and has two top 10s in 10 starts here.

20. Cameron Tringale​ – Has made the cut in 8 of 10 appearances at the American Express and difficult to ignore this combination – 13th in SG: Approach and 53rd SG: Putting over the last 24 rounds on courses where the fairways are difficult to hit. Finished third at RSM in his last start.

19. Chris Kirk​ – Hard to hop off the bandwagon after his gutsy performance to maintain his playing status last week and runner-up finish in Hawaii. Had been building toward a great week and his ballstriking has been solid. The hole might look a little bigger now.

18. Doc Redman​ – Making his first start since the RSM Classic in November, he finished T-29 in his first start here a year ago and has strong numbers in ballstriking and putting over the last 24 rounds. Short game is always an issue (137th in the field over last 24 rounds) but he’s only scratched the surface in his career also.

17. Tony Finau​ – He’s lost a little momentum of late, fading to eighth late at Mayakoba due to errant approach shots and a lackluster T-31 at Kapalua. But he’s still worthy of strong consideration, especially on a course where he finished T-14 a year ago.

16. Sungjae Im​ – Had high hopes for a Hawaiian top-10 double for Im but his irons and putter went awry, losing strokes in both areas at Waialae, a rare occurrence. His precision and persistence will be rewarded in La Quinta where he’s thrived in his young, blossoming career, finishing T-10 and T-12.

15. Sepp Straka​ – Tied for fourth here last year and ranks seventh in the field in SG: Approach and 48th in SG: Putting over the last 24 rounds. Solid start to 2021 last week with a T-25 at the Sony. Such steady ballstriking has enabled him to make eight of the last nine cuts.

14. Kevin Streelman​ – Going super deep is the model, he’s one of the best in the field when fairways are difficult to hit, scoring is easy and the greens are Bermuda. Leads in SG: Ballstriking and is 12th in SG: Putting in such circumstances. Has a pair of top 10s here as well.

13. Adam Hadwin ​- Missed last season’s tournament for an excellent reason – the birth of his first child – but this little stop has been an annuity for the Canadian, who is searching to regain lost form. From 2016-2019 he was 84-under par with a 59, a pair of runner-ups and no finish worse than sixth.

12. Brooks Koepka​ – The short game and putter have been shaky in his recent events but the ballstriking has rounded into shape, among the top 10 in several key categories in this field. After a mostly forgettable 2020, let’s not forget the four-time major champion.

11. Abraham Ancer​ – Will bounce back from his first missed cut in 10 starts last week. Finished second here last year and T-18 the year before. Long game is in good shape, the greens gave him fits last week and his short game showed early season rust.

10. Cameron Champ​ – Tied for 21st in his lone American Express appearance. Lost 4.4 strokes on the greens in a poor showing at Kapalua but the rest of his game was steady. He has the physical tools to take a step forward this season and I believe he will.

9. Matthew Wolff​ – He’s one of the top 15 golfers in the world. The official rankings say so and anyone with two eyes can see his talent and immense potential. He’s top 10 in this field over the last 24 rounds in SG: Approach and while he didn’t fare well here last year (T-57), doubt he’d be back if he didn’t like the setting.

8. Kevin Na​ – It’s time to recognize Na, one of three players to win each of the last four seasons, joining DeChambeau and Johnson, as an elite pro on certain courses. In thinner air at 7,100 yards distance won’t be an issue this week and his track record here is solid – 12 made cuts in 15 starts and three top 10s.

7. Aaron Wise​ – I felt a Wise resurgence last fall and he delivered in Mayakoba. This should be another favorable week to play him. Overlook his missed cuts the last two years when he was struggling and focus instead on the T-15 in 2018 and the continuation of what will be the best season of his career.

6. Talor Gooch – ​He’s a smooth 40-under par the last two years with a T-4 in 2020. Inside the top 55 in the field in every SG category over the last 24 rounds when fairways are difficult to find, including sixth in putting. Didn’t have his best last week but still gained 2.8 strokes off the tee.

5. Sam Burns ​- Making his first start since a top-10 at Houston and returning to a course that fits his eye, yielding a T-18 two years ago and a T-6 last year. He leads the field in SG: Off-the-Tee and is 30th in SG: Putting over the last 24 rounds.

4. Adam Long​ – Last time out he finished third at Mayakoba. Two years ago at the American Express, he won. After years of grinding, the 33-year-old has settled in on the PGA Tour with seven top 10s in 61 career starts.

3. Patrick Reed​ – In recent months, Reed has reached a new level of consistent golf. The analytics aren’t always impressive but the paychecks are. He’s had five consecutive top 25s in the U.S. and a pair of top 10s on the European Tour since September.

2. Patrick Cantlay​ – Perhaps no player on Tour projects the cool, laid back Southern California vibe better than Cantlay, who finished T-9 in his last AMEX appearance in 2019 and is 10th in the field SG: Tee-to-Green and second SG: Short Game over the last 24 rounds.

1. Scottie Scheffler ​- Held the 54-hole lead and finished third in his AMEX debut last year. If birdies are required the Texas Longhorn is your man. He made 357 of ‘em last year (second on Tour) and is much better than his current ranking of 74th in the FedEx Cup. Seems like a great week for him to improve that standing.

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