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Punters Guide, who will post his PGA tour picks on Tuesday or Wednesday every week of the US season.
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With Bubba Watson’s impressive Masters win still fresh in the minds of golf fans, the PGA tour heads to the South Carolina
coast for this week’s RBC Heritage. The host course, as ever, is the Pete Dye designed Harbour Town Golf Links, a course that
provides a very different challenge to Augusta National.
Looking at recent winners, there’s no magic formula here (like there would appear to be at Augusta), but my primary focus is on players who rank highly in scrambling. Graeme McDowell led the field in scrambling on his way to victory here 12 months ago, and with other names such as Snedeker, Furyk and Gay on the roll of honour here, this is clearly a very important asset at Harbour Town. Indeed, with some of the smallest greens on the PGA tour, even the best ball-strikers will struggle to hit more than 70% GIR, and only Webb Simpson broke through that barrier last time around.
Aside from scrambling, Harbour Town clearly sets up well for shot-makers with doglegs aplenty and not particularly generous fairways. Also worth considering is the fact that it can get pretty breezy here (as it did last year), so players who are able to manage their games well in the wind are at an immediate advantage.
Growing up in Texas, Jordan Spieth shouldn’t have too much trouble if the wind does get up this week, and I think the 20-year-old fully justifies his position at the top of the market. There’s a temptation to steer clear of a player who comes off the back of being in contention for a major championship, but Louis Oosthuizen followed his Masters playoff loss with a win in Malaysia seven days later, and I see no reason why Spieth can’t follow suit as his game is clearly in great nick and he tends to hold his form very well historically. Spieth finished in a tie for 9th on his Harbour Town debut 12 months ago, off the back of much patchier form, and he currently ranks just outside the top-30 in tour in Scrambling.
With just one win in 11 seasons on the PGA tour, Kevin Na might not have the sort of win ratio that gets pulses racing, but he’s very much a horses-for-courses type of player who really suits certain tracks, so when they come around, he can be very dangerous. The 30-year-old has been in great form over the last couple of months, finishing inside the top-20 in five of his last six tournament starts, and it’s encouraging that his best finish of the year (a tie for 2nd at the Valspar Championship) came in very windy conditions. Na puts a big tick in the Scrambling box too, currently ranking 2nd on tour in this attribute, and with top-10 finishes in each of his last two visits to Harbour Town, he looks a strong bet this week.
I’ve been keeping a very close eye on Chris Stroud this season as I see him as a player just waiting to break through with his maiden victory. Like Kevin Na, not all tracks play into Stroud’s hands, however. He may not be long off the tee, but he’s extremely accurate and an excellent scrambler, in other words – exactly what you need to be at Harbour Town. Strangely, Stroud missed the cut in each of his first three RBC Heritage appearances, but something clicked 12 months ago, and he finished in a tie for 6th, whilst being the only player in the field to shoot under-par in all four rounds. As already mentioned, Stroud has a very tidy short game, and his rank of 4th in Scrambling, coupled with his solid ball-striking, makes him a good each-way proposition here.
If one was to merely study performance stats, Chris Kirk would be unlikely to make many shortlists this week, currently ranking 120th in GIR and 80th in Scrambling. However, the types of courses where he plays his best golf defy these stats. This season, he won the McGladrey Classic on another short, wind-exposed course in the shape of Sea Island and finished runner-up in the Sony Open on another course fitting exactly that description (Waialae CC). His course form at Harbour Town doesn’t leap off the page, but there was some promise in his tie for 30th last year, and confidence should be higher than ever after a top-20 finish in his Masters debut last week.
One course debutant I very much expect to suit the Harbour Town layout is Russell Knox. The Scotsman has played some excellent golf in 2014, including a runner-up finish at the Honda Classic last month in a strong field, and he seems to be adept in windy conditions which bodes well for this week. In terms of performance stats, Knox ranks 28th in GIR and 15th in Scrambling, and I’m further encouraged by his good finish on another Pete Dye design at the web.com Tour Championship at the end of last year.
This year’s Masters tournament has finally arrived, and the cream of the crop of the golfing world, minus a certain Tiger
Woods, heads to Augusta National for the first major of the year. From a betting perspective, the Masters is the one tournament
that stacks up incredibly well for the use of trends. The tournament field is the smallest of all the major championships
(and smaller than most standard PGA & European Tour events too), and immediately you can strike out a good number of the
players on the basis of them not fitting the key trends.
Let’s use three key trends to narrow down this week’s field from the 97 players making the trip to Augusta.
1. AGE: Jack Nicklaus is the oldest ever Masters winner at the age of 46, so let’s strike out everyone over this age. This removes the following 14 players:
Miguel Angel Jimenez
Jose Maria Olazabal
2. DEBUTANTS: The last debutant to win The Masters was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. There are undoubtedly some strong debutants teeing it up at Augusta this year, some of whom may well go on to pick up a Green Jacket during their careers, but I believe the course needs to be ‘learned’ so let’s eliminate these 23 names:
Brendon de Jonge
3. SUB-70 ROUND: Although not quite as strong as the two trends above, 20 of the last 21 Masters champions had shot at least one round of 69 or better in a previous visit to Augusta. This trend would strike out the following 13 players:
Applying these three trends leaves us just less than half the field – 47 players. We obviously need to narrow the field down a little further, so let’s remove those weren’t qualified for this year’s WGC World Matchplay event. Since the Matchplay event has been in existence (since 1999), all of the Masters winners had either played or were eligible to play (some eligible players choose to sit it out, such as Mickelson in 2010). This removes the following 10 players:
We are then left with a final shortlist of 37 players. Let’s assess their chances one by one:
Thomas Bjorn: to his credit, he coped very well on lightning fast greens in the Handa World Cup at the end of last year, but hasn’t really found his best form so far in 2014.
Keegan Bradley: many punters, including myself, had high hopes for Bradley in last week’s Shell Houston Open. He opened with an excellent 6-under-par, but played poorly for the remainder of the event. Hard to get excited about his chances on this basis.
Jason Day: were it not for his recent thumb injury, Day would be a must-bet here. He does claim to be fully fit, but hasn’t played a competitive round since his World Matchplay victory.
Luke Donald: not without his chances, but his all-round game is in markedly worse shape than his best Masters effort – a tie for 4th in 2011.
Jason Dufner: has a solid enough record at Augusta, but one can’t help but be put off by his dreadful putting stats in 2014 – heading to some of the trickiest greens in world golf.
Ernie Els: has come close to winning the Green Jacket in years gone by, but his GIR stats this term are worrying for the veteran
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano: a solid tie for 20th last year, but this came shortly after an excellent tie for 3rd at Bay Hill just a few weeks before. This year he’s without a top-20 on the PGA tour.
Rickie Fowler: could be dangerous after a good showing in Houston last week. Prone to the odd bad round (last year’s Masters being a good example) which I fear could cost him.
Jim Furyk: as the years go by, it gets harder and harder for a short hitter like Furyk to excel here, especially where conditions aren’t firm and fast.
Sergio Garcia: definitely a dangerous player. Led after the first round last year, and played some great golf in Houston last week. Possibly not enough belief in his own ability to win a major?
Branden Grace: in pretty poor form in the build up to this year’s event, although the same could be said last year when he finished 18th on his debut.
Peter Hanson: recent form is nowhere near what it was in the early part of 2012, ahead of his good showing here.
Dustin Johnson: a fit, in-form Dustin Johnson is a man to fear at Augusta but last week’s first-round horror show and subsequent withdrawal is a massive concern.
Zach Johnson: won here in impressive style in 2007, but firm & fast conditions played into his hands. The same isn’t expected this year.
Matt Kuchar: has a very solid record at Augusta and clearly playing excellent golf at the moment after last week’s showing. Genuine question-marks about his recent final round performances when in contention.
Marc Leishman: could take inspiration from a series of recent Australian winners on the PGA tour. 4th place finish last year is impressive too but recent form a slight concern.
David Lynn: solid enough debut last year, but comes to Augusta in poor form having missed his last three cuts.
Hunter Mahan: not easily ruled out, but hip injury concerns lately and a mediocre showing in Houston last week.
Hideki Matsuyama: another player with recent injury concerns. An excellent record in last year’s majors, however.
Graeme McDowell: I love a player with his short game around here, but it feels like Augusta needs to be a tad shorter (or conditions much firmer) for McDowell to really thrive.
Rory McIlory: no surprise to see him at the head of the betting, and by all account should have won here in 2011. A good final round in Houston last week will give him confidence, but I think the value lies elsewhere.
Phil Mickelson: the first of my selections. The price might not leap off the page, but his three Green Jackets speak for themselves. Shrugged off recent injury concerns with a tie for 12th in Houston last week.
Francesco Molinari: putting seems to have improved lately which bodes well for this week, but Molinari is another player who is at his best when hitting more wedge shots than mid/long irons as he’ll have to at Augusta.
Ryan Moore: one of the outsiders I fancy this week at a decent price. Moore was low amateur here in 2005, and has always played solidly here since. His GIR stats are better than ever, and he’s beginning to get used to winning on the PGA tour.
Thorbjorn Olesen: strong debut here last year, but after a good stint on the European Tour’s middle east swing, his form in the US over the last couple of months has left a little to be desired.
Louis Oosthuizen: another player who has had injury problems lately, and I was prepared to give him a chance in Houston last week on a course he loves, but he missed the cut, and therefore looks opposable here.
Ian Poulter: says he’s swinging it well at the moment, and has a solid record at Augusta, but a missed cut last week doesn’t inspire confidence.
Justin Rose: it feels like Rose might be in the midst of a lull following a career-defining year last year. Just one top-10 this year.
Charl Schwartzel: previous winner here, so can’t be easily ignored, but GIR stats this term are not as strong as I’d like.
Adam Scott: defending any tournament, nevermind The Masters is a huge task. Clearly has the skill to do so, but I’m happy to avoid at the price.
Brandt Snedeker: I really like Snedeker’s chances this week. Had injury problems recently, but seems fully recovered and a top-10 finish last time out at Bay Hill is very encouraging, especially considering he ranked 2nd in Putting Average on very fast greens. Excellent record at Augusta.
Henrik Stenson: fits the bill on paper, but I can’t help but be put off by his showing last week in Houston on a course where he has a great record.
Nick Watney: yet another player with recent injury problems, although he claims ‘something clicked’ with his putting at Doral before his withdrawal. Recent birth of his daughter could be a good or bad thing. Has a good record at Augusta.
Bubba Watson: the 2012 champion is in great nick this year and has a win and two runner-ups to his name. His putting has improved hugely from last season too. Last year’s mediocre showing at Augusta is forgivable given his status as defending champion.
Boo Weekley: no top-20s to his name since the HSBC Champions event back in November, and not the most trust-worthy with the flatstick.
Lee Westwood: you’d feel that Westwood is almost certain to finish inside the top-20 or so, but I’d question whether his game is quite sharp enough to really be in the heat of contention come Sunday.
Gary Woodland: Woodland is another outsider I really like this week. Bags of distance off the tee and a solid debut here in 2011. Forced to withdraw in 2012 after a good showing in the first two rounds. His short range putting has shown immense improvement.
The year’s first major is fast-approaching with The Masters just one week away, and several of the world’s elite are using
this week’s Shell Houston Open to tune up their games ahead of the trip to Augusta. Now named the Golf Club of Houston (formerly
Redstone Golf Club), the 7,441 yard Tournament Course remains the host for the eighth consecutive year, and is once again
set up to provide a similar test to Augusta.
It would easy to fall into the trap of thinking that those players who are qualified for next week’s major are opposable as they will be focused on next week rather than the task in hand, but statistics fly in the face of this with each of the four winners from 2009-2012 (Casey, Kim, Mahan and Mickelson) winning here whilst already qualified for The Masters.
Ah, but what about last year’s winner, D. A. Points? You may ask. Well…last year, the PGA tour messed with the tournament schedule and this event swapped places with the Valero Texas Open, meaning that it was the penultimate event before the year’s first major which I believe is significant in how things panned out 12 months ago.
Also worth considering is a possible link between good performances here and the similar length Par-72 Quail Hollow (host of the Wells Fargo Championship). Two of the last three Shell Houston Open winners (Mickelson and Points, in 2011 and 2013 respectively) had finished runner-up in their last visits to Quail Hollow before winning here, Anthony Kim is a winner at both venues and Mahan has a solid record at Quail Hollow too.
I’m prepared to give Keegan Bradley the benefit of the doubt despite his record at Quail Hollow on the basis of his excellent performance last time out coupled with his very strong course form here. Bradley has finished 10th and 4th in his last two visits to this week’s Tournament Course, he has plenty of distance off the tee (which historically stands you in good stead here) and showed a vast improvement in his putting last time out at Bay Hill, ranking 8th in the field on his way to a runner-up finish. He’s the obvious choice towards the top of the market with question-marks over others around him in the betting.
Louis Oosthuizen is a slightly risky selection this week with question-marks over his fitness. However, ahead of his last tournament start at the Valspar Championship, his manager, Chubby Chandler tweet that his back was “good” and that he has been “practising hard for the first time in 18 months”. On that occasion, the South African succumbed to a missed cut, but the Copperhead Course isn’t exactly the ideal track to recapture your game post-injury, and the conditions were especially tough this year. What we do know is that Oosthuizen is something of a course expert here with his tournament form reading 16-3-10, so he’s worth the risk this week.
Ticking both of the key trends this week as a player who is qualified for the Masters with top-5 finishes on each of his last two visits to Quail Hollow, Lee Westwood makes a rare appearance in my staking plan this week. The 40-year-old may not have been firing on all cylinders so far in 2014, but historically he seems to play well the week before major championships with both of his PGA tour wins coming the week before a big one (his first coming the week before the Masters in 1998). Furthermore, Westwood has an exemplary record at the Tournament Course, finishing 11th or better in three of his last five appearances and no worse than 30th in each of the last five years.
Not many players on the PGA tour can boast one victory per season, and Jonas Blixt looks consistently underrated despite winning in each of his two seasons amongst the world’s elite. Blixt has an excellent short game, which should stand him in good stead on the Tournament Course, and despite missing the cut on his last visit, he did finish inside the top-30 on his debut, when the tournament held its traditional slot one week before The Masters. Blixt has already punched his ticket to Augusta, and there were enough promising signs in his penultimate start at Trump National Doral to give him a shot this week.
I’m making an exception for my rank outsider this week, Stuart Appleby, as he hasn’t qualified for next week’s Masters. However, the Australian has clear claims to steal a spot at the eleventh hour as a player who won by a six-stroke margin in the first year this event took place on the Tournament Course. The nine-time PGA tour winner may not be quite the force he was eight years ago, but there have been real signs of a return to form lately with top-10 finishes at both the Humana Challenge and the Honda Classic.