Action Network senior writer Jason Sobel is back home in his native Long Island covering the PGA Championship at one of his favorite courses in the world, Bethpage Black. It’s where he covered one of his first major championships, the 2002 U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods, and it’s where he shot one of the best rounds of his career (more on that later). But for Sobel, this week is all about Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and the rest of the biggest hitters on tour, who he’s favoring to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.
Sobel sat down with The Big Lead over lunch at Long Island’s most famous public course and broke down Tiger’s odds to win this week, Tiger’s odds to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors, why Koepka’s mindset in majors is stronger than the rest, and what hitting his first hole-in-one meant to him.
Brian Giuffra: Thanks for taking the time to talk Jason. How’s it been making the move from ESPN and Golf Channel to the Action Network and getting into the betting side of things?
Jason Sobel: It’s fun. It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had. I’m doing a lot of the same things that I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, but now it’s built around betting and around fantasy. To me, it’s interesting and it interests the readers as well. If they have five minutes to click on one link, are they going to click on the link that’s a good read or are they going to click on the link that could help them win a lot of money this week? It’s a no-brainer to me. That’s why everyone is falling in line and trying to cover the game the way we are. And it’s just going to get bigger and bigger. I always tell people, even if you’re not gambling and just want to be smarter about what you’re watching on T.V. every week, read our stuff. It’s just smarter. I’m doing more research and looking more into numbers and analytics than I have in the past and it’s making me smarter about what I’m writing and I hope in turn it’s making the readers smarter too.
BG: One of the big things in betting right now is on-screen betting. Do you think that will become a big thing in golf?
JS: Absolutely hope so. It’s the perfect sport for it. Live betting in golf is like a marriage that’s waiting to happen. You can live bet an NBA game and by the time you get your bet in the team that was down four is now up one. Things change so quickly in other sports. In golf, you have 10 minutes between shots. It’s the perfect opportunity for people to sit at home or at a tournament and say, ‘here’s what I’m seeing, here’s what I’m betting, here’s what I want to to take advantage of’. It’s the perfect opportunity, whether it’s a two-screen experience or something else, I think it’s perfect for it.
BG: You wrote about 19 majors being back in play for Tiger. What are the odds that happens?
JS: The actual odds from the book I saw after he won the Masters, and granted it’s directly after he won his 15th and it’s Tiger mania once again, and there were actual odds in the book of 50-to-1. I always say, if you’re trying to get me to bet on something that’s never actually happened before, you have to give me better than 50-to-1 odds. I think it’s since gone up to 100-to-1. Even so, I think it’s gotta be more than that. Look, when he was at 14 majors, he still needed to have the career of Phil Mickelson or of Seve Ballesteros [to break the record]. Now that he has 15, at age 43 on, he still needs to have the career of Rory McIlroy or Ernie Els. And no other player his age has won more than one. So I think he’s up against it.
BG: This week Tiger is back at a course where he has won before at the 2002 U.S. Open. What are you placing his odds of winning this week?
JS: I leave the odds to the handicappers who know what they’re talking about. Look, I don’t know that he should be the favorite in the field, but he’s close to it. I think most books have him at 10-to-1, 11-to-1. I think that’s fair. If I was making odds, I might have him at 12-to-1 or 15-to-1, but I think it’s about right. And the Tiger numbers are always going to be lower, like betting on the Yankees in the World Series. Everyone wants to bet on Tiger. So I understand that. I ranked the entire field one through 156, and I’ve got him No. 5 on my list. So yeah, he’ll be around, he’ll be in contention. I don’t think he’s going to win. I have four guys I like better than him, but at No. 5, I have him better than 151 other guys in the field so I still like him a lot this week.
BG: Who are your favorites coming into this week?
JS: I think, big boy golf course, big ballpark and you’re going to see all the big hitters near the top. I think this is going to be a week where even the big guys can’t hit driver wedge. So the advantage is going to be bigger for guys like Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bubba Watson because if they’re hitting 8 irons into the greens when other guys are hitting 5 and 6 irons, that’s a huge differential. I think that’s a bigger differential than if they’re hitting wedges and the other guys are hitting 8 irons. So, I think it plays into the hands of those big hitters.
Dustin Johnson is at the top of my list. He’s almost flown under the radar this year. He’s accumulated more world-ranking points in 2019 alone than anyone else in golf and yet we’re not really talking about him. We’re talking about Tiger, we’re talking about Koepka, we’re talking about Rory. We’re not really talking about Dustin Johnson. But according to the numbers, he’s been the best player in the world this year and he’s ranked No. 1. For a guy who’s playing the best and ranked No. 1 to come in here under the radar is both strange and appeals to me. He’s played really well on northeast golf courses, he plays well on long golf course, and he plays well on wet golf courses. Put those three things together and I really like him this week.
BG: You talked about Rory in there. He’s also had a great year, but has had some struggles at the Masters and with closing in on Sundays recently. What are your thoughts on him coming into this week?
JS: He’s playing really, well. The course should suit his game. But I’m still just a little hesitant to pick Rory just based on what we’ve seen on Sundays this year. I know he kind of got rid of that narrative at The Players Championship because he was able to finally win. He played so well going into that without winning on Sundays. And those Sunday final rounds are his blip on the radar right now. He was able to come through at The Players. We thought that narrative was done, and then he went to Quail Hollow a couple of weeks ago, he’s two back going into the final round with, really, not too many other world-class players up on top of that leaderboard, and he got boat raced by a couple of guys who have never won before. So, I think that’s not the greatest sign for Rory. I don’t think something is broken. But it might need to be a little fixed. I don’t know if that’s physical, mental, technical, physiological, but something needs to work better for him on Sundays.
BG: It’s interesting because he’s such an introspective person. Do you think the mental aspect, and maybe overthinking it might be playing a role?
JS: He’s among the most interesting golfers in the world if not the most interesting in that he’s spoken on multiple occasions about not caring about golf. And about letting it go. And I don’t necessarily disagree that that’s a good strategy. I think there’s something to that. Sean Foley, the instructor, told me once that he tells all of his players it has to mean everything and it has to mean nothing at all. Meaning you have to really want it, but if you sit there and think about how bad you want it all the time, you’ll never go and get it. I think Brooks Koepka has mastered the ability to really want to go and win majors and yet kind of just brush it off like it’s just another week. I think Rory is trying to talk himself into that and isn’t quite as far into the process as he thinks it is.
BG: It’s interesting about Brooks because he finished second in the Masters, he’s the defending PGA Champion, he’s won two of the last four majors. Where do you rank him coming into this week?
I asked him that question and he said part of it is scheduling and he always likes to play the week before. But if playing the week before was the key to winning major championships, everyone would do it. So that’s not really it. But he talked about being more low key, not stressed out, not anxious about it. He’s really good at compartmentalizing the game and seeing the big picture. He’ll say, ‘I’d like to win this week, but it’s not a big deal’ where other guys are like, ‘I only have four chances a year and one of them is gone already because the Masters is over, now I only have three chances, I better do it this week,’ and I think they almost psych themselves out a bit. But Brooks has the perfect temperament for it and it’s been working out for him.
BG: Who are some of your dark horses?
JS: Big hitters. Following the same theme as to why I’m picking some of those elite players, because those elite guys are all big bombers, I think second- and third-tier players who are also big bombers can also play well. I’ve got Thomas Pieters really high on my list. I’ve got Keith Mitchell, Scott Piercy, Jhonattan Vegas, Jason Kokrak, Gary Woodland. These guys are all Top 10 in terms of driving statistics on the PGA Tour and I think that’s going to be a major factor here this week. I just don’t know a guy who hits it 280 and plods his way around, I just don’t see a guy like that on this golf course in this weather being able to succeed.
BG: So a guy like Jordan Spieth, who’s been struggling with his drive, you don’t see him being able to win and complete the career grand slam?
JS: Something’s broken there, and I don’t know what it is. Much like I was saying about Rory in the final rounds, I don’t know whether it’s physical, mental, technical, or physiological, but something is going on right now for Spieth that’s keeping him from being better. I don’t think it’s going to be a very long-term thing. The people who are writing off Spieth, and I see it all the time on social media, I mention Jordan’s name and people say he’s done, he was a flash in the pan. There are no three-time major champion flash in the pans. It doesn’t happen that way. He will be one of the world’s best once again. I don’t know if it’s going to be next month or next year, but when he’ll get to that point. But right now something is wrong. I don’t know what it is or how he fixes it. But Jordan is kind of the opposite of Brooks Koepka. Where Brooks can kind of brush it off, Jordan puts so much internal pressure on himself to play well, not just every tournament, not just every round, but every shot. It feels like there’s so much stress around Jordan. I get the sense, and I haven’t talked to Jordan in a while about this, and I don’t know what’s going on with him, maybe there’s something he’s not talking about, maybe there’s a secret to it, but I just feel like there’s so much swirling in his head when he’s standing over the golf ball right now that it’s impossible for him to succeed.
BG: What do you think about the PGA Championship’s move back to May?
JS: Loved everything about the new schedule when it was announced, and there could not be a more perfect storm for the PGA of America and the PGA Championship than Tiger Woods winning the Masters, and instead of waiting two months for the next major championship, one month later they’re still building on the momentum of Tiger’s win, you have almost all of the best players in the world here, you’re in the biggest media market in the world, it could not have worked out better for them. Then, looking down the road, you’ve got the U.S. Open next month, the Open Championship one month later, so you have them all in a row, all lined up. And then at the end of the season, you have the FedExCup Playoffs and it gets out of the way before the football season starts. Tim Finchem, when he announced the FedExCup Playoffs back in 2006, said golf has to end before football starts. Everyone said that was a great plan, and then they finished the FedExCup Playoffs in Week 3 or 4 of the NFL season. Now finally golf is going to end before the football season starts and that’s massive for the game, massive for the tour.
BG: I saw on your Twitter you’re back on at your childhood home sleeping in your childhood room. What’s it like coming back home and covering majors like this and the U.S. Open at Shinnecock last year?
JS: It’s fun. I moved away a long time ago and I haven’t lived here in a long time, but my folks are still here most of my family is still here so it’s always fun to come back home. I didn’t play much golf growing up, but when I come back I try to play golf at Bethpage. I feel like Bethpage is the home club for all the public golfers out on Long Island. You feel like you’re a part owner of this place if you’re a tax-paying citizen. I love this place. I played probably one of my best rounds of golf ever here at Bethpage. I’ve got a special place in my heart for it and it’s one of the first tournaments I ever covered, back in 02, when I was working over on the TV side for ESPN. Being here and around my people, it’s just a fun place. And it’s good to be home. I get some home cooking this week.
BG: What did you shoot last year at Bethpage? Was it on the Black Course?
JS: It was on the Black Course. I was 7 over through six and played the last 12 at even par.
BG: That’s an impressive run. And the course gets tougher with all the hills, especially from 14 on.
JS: I finished par, par, birdie, par. Birdied 17, knocked it on to about 15 feet and made the putt. It was the best I’ve ever played.
BG: And you had your first hole-in-one recently too. Was it good to get that monkey off the back?
JS: Yeah. Very much. I play a lot of golf. I play at least 3-4 days a week when I’m back home in Orlando. I’ve come close so many times. I just wanted to do it. Now, if I never make another one for the rest of my life, I’m good. Now I can die in peace.
BG: [Laughs] Well, that’s good news.