It's easy to overlook these 'second division' PGA Tour tournaments and focus on the main event which, this week, is the Dell World Match Play in Austin. However these alternate events are a massive opportunity for both players and punters alike and we've enjoyed plenty of success in recent seasons on this type of stage. This week's Puerto Rico Open is where the less fortunate have a huge opportunity to grab a PGA Tour victory and, more importantly, full playing privileges until the close of 2017/18. Don't underestimate the importance of that prize! Searching for value always makes sense at the renamed Coco Beach Golf and Country Club (formerly Trump International) be they rookies or experienced PGA Tour professionals.
Paul Williams previews the Dell World Match Play where 64 of the world's top 66 will fight it out for the 2nd WGC title of 2016 - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Before we move onto the Puerto Rico Open, for the 4th successive year we're running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 with an increased £250 free bet prize fund up for grabs. Augusta is only 2 weeks away! The competition is in the form of a one-and-done, so all you need to do is give us a single player for each of the 4 Majors to enter - full details are here.
12 months on from what I considered as one of the weakest PGA Tour fields I'd ever written about, it's interesting to note that this year's field contains some bigger names. Naturally these alternate tournaments don't attract the big names who are playing elsewhere, but 2016 sees the likes of Graham Delaet, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, George Coetzee, Retief Goosen, Tony Finau, Cameron Smith, Dean Burmester and Gregory Bourdy in Rio Grande, all looking to profit for a myriad different scenarios.
Course Guide: The tournament is hosted at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club in Rio Grande. It's a booming Tom Kite designed Par 72 located on an exposed stretch of the island's northern coastline. Wind is a serious factor in the outcome of the tournament and the winning score is pretty much defined by the severity of the breeze from the Mid-Atlantic. Stronger than usual gusting easterly winds and tournament organisers decision not to move forward the tees on a number of the par-5s led to a record high winning total of -7/281 12 months ago.
Coco Beach Golf and Country Club, Rio Grande, Puerto Rico: Designer: Tom Kite 2004 with Kite re-design 2008; Course Type: Coastal; Par: 72; Length: 7,506 yards; Fairways: Salam Paspalum; Rough: Salam Paspalum 2"; Greens: 6,000 sq.ft average Sea Dwarf Paspalum; Tournament Stimp: 10.5ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 72.03 (+0.03), Difficulty Rank 22 of 49 courses. 2013: 70.23 (-1.77), Difficulty Rank 38 of 43 courses. 2014: 70.79 (-1.21), Rank 41 of 48 courses. 2015: 72.57 (+0.57), Rank 13 of 52 courses.
Course Overview: At 7,500 yards, Coco Beach is a stretching Par 72 at sea level. Wind will be key again this week as lighter breezes pretty much signify a birdie fest with -20/268 and -22/266 being the winning scores across 2013 and 2014. However if the wind is stronger as it was in 2011, 2012 and 2015 expect higher scoring. With a slightly softer course, rain forecast during the tournament and pretty much the same wind speed and directions as per last year I think the winning total this term will be slightly lower, whilst the key (as always) will be maximising par-5 opportunities and scoring heavily on a number of short par-4s where the players get wedge in their hands.
Winners: 2015: Alex Cejka (-7); 2014: Chesson Hadley (-21); 2013: Scott Brown (-20); 2012: George McNeill (-16); 2011: Michael Bradley (-16); 2010: Derek Lamely (-19).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Puerto Rico Open predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Graham Delaet (Predictor Number 1), Scott Brown, Johnson Wagner, Boo Weekley and Chris Stroud.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the Sony Open / Joburg Open and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2015: Cejka125/1; 2014: Hadley 50/1; 2013: Brown 50/1; 2012: McNeill 55/1; 2011: Bradley 135/1; 2010: Lamely 110/1: Average: 88/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Rio Grande, Puerto Rico is here. The course has taken more precipitation pre-event than 12 months ago and with the potential threat of rain throughout the 4 days of play, the course should play softer than 12 months ago. Wind levels look a tad easier than last year so we should see scoring levels in the double-digits under par.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners of the Puerto Rico Open since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how the course sets up and what skill sets it favours:
Alex Cejka: "You know, I loved it here. I've been coming here for many years, and I even played well here, but I kind of never, you know, played good enough, because in the past the scores were like 20‑under, you know. So it's a challenging course with the wind. So I always was playing well, but the scores were always so low, and you know, this year it was the same wind, same course, but somehow the scores are not 20‑under, but 7‑under. So it was a little bit tougher. Maybe the wind was maybe a little bit stronger. They didn't move the tees up like what they normally do like on the weekends. Maybe today a couple holes. But you know, it's just we all were playing just good golf, and you know, somebody has to win, and finally it's me."
George McNeill: "The course and conditions reminds me of home (Florida). I play on a lot of this same grass at home. Plus I like a little bit of heat and humidity and stuff. Doesn't bother me. So that's really about it." And I guess for whatever reason, the golf course suits my eye.."
Scott Brown: "Yeah, the toughest thing about this course is it's all cross‑winds, so you very rarely get any downwind or into the wind shots. It's all quarter in or across. That's what makes it so tough. But it's really just guesswork. It's guessing on how much you think it's going to move it. The wind has been so strong that you can't really play shots that hold up against it. You've just kind of got to let the wind do what it does. It sets my eye pretty well, and I think it's a great golf course. It's got a great mix of holes. It's not our typical TOUR course now where it's so long. It keeps a lot of us in the game a little bit here, and I think that's why you see that."
Chesson Hadley: "I think just the way the holes set up. It fits how far I hit the ball. Like the fairway bunkers are positioned in places where I can hit driver, hit 3‑wood or hybrid or whatever and I'm not really stressing about what club to hit. Like I mean I know exactly what club I'm pulling, you know, walking to the tee. It's not a hard‑‑ and so that's‑‑ that's what I like so much about it is just the easy decisions I feel like this course provides, me at least."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
Winners' Form: Incoming form of winners since 2010 as below:
As we can see, winners here tend to be from the juicy mid-pack and below. When you remember how hard it is to triumph on the PGA Tour it's hardly surprising that the market leaders, who know they are in half-decent nick form-wise, when thrust into the uncomfortable position of favouritism inevitably crack and finish Top 20 or worse. Others though see these second category PGA Tour events as a real opportunity - after all a full 2-year exemption on the Tour and a decent haul of OWGR points is not to be sniffed at.
Winner-wise, southern state based players had dominated this tournament from its introduction back in 2008 until last year when Las Vegas based Alex Cejka threw a spanner in the works. On top of that, winners have either been younger players who have had a solid grounding in the web.com Tour or, in the case of both Alex Cejka and George McNeill, experienced players who knew how to shoot the requisite scores in warmer climes. Cejka won here coming off a winning season on the web.com in 2014. Emiliano Grillo is also worth referencing at this point as undoubtedly he should have won this tournament 12 months ago as a non-member. That's an interesting development with a couple of quality non-members in the field.
Game-wise I'm looking for a player who gets the ball out there 290 yards minimum and who can take advantage of the birdie opportunities that are available on the short par-4s and the par-5s.
My final Puerto Rico Open tips are as follows:
Regulars will know that I hold Patrick Rodgers in high regard and the open layout at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club will undoubtedly play to the 23 year-old's strengths this week. The top notch ball-striker and strong driver of the golf ball found some form at Bay Hill last week on his course debut and played very nicely when paired with Major Champions Zach Johnson (3rd Round - shot 70 compared to Zach's 68) and Adam Scott (Final Round - shot 71 compared to Adam's 69). That shows the undoubted pedigree of the Californian who now resides in Jupiter, Florida and I think he'll go very well this week in Central America type conditions where he seems to thrive.
Rodgers has always been in the golf spotlight since he equalled the number of wins achieved by Tiger Woods when studying at Stanford University. A Ben Hogan Award winner, 2-time Walker Cup team member and former World Amateur Number 1, Patrick captured his first professional title in only his second web.com Tour appearance in Columbia and has already finished 2nd at Quail Hollow, 3rd at Montreux and 6th at Silverado on the main Tour. In addition to that win in Colombia, Patrick has correlating course form at Scarlet Course, Ohio University GC (8th 2015), TPC Summerlin (13th 2015) and El Camaleon (10th 2015). His aggressive, par-breaking game should suit at Coco Beach this week and he's undoubtedly shown that he likes playing on tropical golf courses.
George Coetzee is an interesting non-PGA Tour member in this week's field and his participation fascinates me in this current phase of Australian and South African domination. At 77th in the OWGR he missed out on his fifth straight World Match Play this week by a few spots, mainly due to the ankle injury he suffered whilst surfing in Bali last September. Freak accidents happen (just ask Rory McIlroy) and it was a real shame for Coetzee who the previous month had finished in the top-10 at a Major Championship for the first time at Whistling Straits. So, with a free spot in his schedule this year, you can see the logic in Coetzee attending the Puerto Rico Open with a 2-year PGA Tour exemption and plenty of OWGR points up for grabs.
This wide open coastal track, where low scoring should be very possible this year, should suit Coetzee who is in a rich vein of form after having landed 4 titles in the past 25 months across Sunshine Tour and co-sanctioned European Tour events. You can't say that about many in this field. Coetzee can clearly cope with wind (see results in Qatar, Doral and the Dunhill Links amongst others) and his win last year at Heritage GC in Mauritius was in the tropical heat of the Indian Ocean and on Paspalum greens. For me George will see this week as a real opportunity and this exceptional putter jumps from my rolling 10-week stats where he also sits 3rd in the field for Greens in Regulation.
As Alex Cejka proved 12 months ago, sometimes a player needs to embrace the web.com Tour to re-build momentum in a career that has stalled on the main Tour. Early 2016 has seen 5-time PGA Tour winner Jonathan Byrd starting to gain confidence and that makes him a dangerous proposition on a course where 3 appearances have yielded 13th (09), 12th (14) and 16th (15) when entering the tournament after dismal west coast swing campaigns. Byrd in 2016 has embraced the 'dreaded drop' to the web.com for the first time in his career with 5th at the Panama Golf Club and 3rd last week at Le Triomphe Country Club which now sees the 38 year-old sitting in the top-10 of the web.com money list. That early web.com form reminds me very much of Scott Brown back in 2014 who had placed in both Panama and Colombia before taking the title here at 50/1. Byrd has always performed at his best on resort-style courses and wins at Callaway Gardens Resort (2002), En-Joie (04) Deere Run (2007), TPC Summerlin (2010) and Kapalua (2011) have come with winning scores of -27/261, -20/268, -18/266, -21/263 and -24/268 respectively. Jonathan has made these alternate events work to his advantage in the past as he's finished 2nd (2013) and 3rd (2014) at Montreux.
I will close with Derek Fathauer who certainly didn't disgrace himself in far better company at Bay Hill last week in what was certainly his highest-profile contending performance on the PGA Tour to date. Yes, the 30 year-old eventually cracked with a triple at the par-4 11th, but his $123,480 pay cheque for an eventual 12th place finish plus a haul of 62 Fed Ex Cup points sees Fathauer sit 62nd in the season-long standings. Bay Hill was a summary of Fathauer to a tee: the Floridian has always saved his best performances for Central America and Florida on the web.com Tour and his best performances after one-and-a-half seasons on the main Tour have been at TPC Sawgrass (17th), El Camaleon (4th) and last week at Bay Hill. 3rd (2014) and 9th (2012) at Panama GC, 8th (2014) at Bogota CC and 1st (2014) and 9th (2015 - earned him his 2016 Tour card) on the Dye Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass are amazingly strong course form links. He's also the sort who strings back-to-back performances together on the right courses and his web.com Tour Championship win at TPC Sawgrass back in 2014 came the week after he collapsed whilst in control of the Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational where Justin Thomas bagged his first professional win.
Our predictions for the 2017 Puerto Rico Open will be published here on the Tuesday before the event.
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