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Despite having backed Justin Rose pre-event, it was nevertheless great to see Sergio Garcia take the spoils at Augusta on Sunday. A tormented man for much of his career, his inner belief was there for all to see when Justin Rose opened the door by not converting for birdie on the par-5 13th whilst the Spaniard salvaged an unlikely par to gain the momentum. From there his aggressive play deserved the title and we had to settle for a full 25/1 place on Rose who played some top-notch golf in defeat.
Plenty of the Masters field have taken the relatively short journey down to the South Carolina coast for this week's RBC Heritage at the stunning Harbour Town Golf Links. Royal Bank of Canada's sponsorship (RBC) attracts a decent field in the week after The Masters and we should be in for another interesting renewal on a tight course where strategic thinking is key.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Trophee Hassan II - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Guide: Harbour Town Golf Links is no typical coastal course, instead I categorise it as a Carolina track - i.e. sharing features with Quail Hollow, Sedgefield and Pinehurst No.2. It also has extremely close form associations with Copperhead at Innisbrook Resort in Florida, which plays far more as a Carolina-type course than a typical Florida track. Carolina courses are traditionally tree-lined with narrow sight lines from the tee and Harbour Town is a Pete Dye design that also features tiny dome-shaped Bermuda TifEagle greens (putting surfaces were re-laid for the 2016 renewal) that are incredibly difficult to hit in regulation. Hitting fairways is an advantage to minimise approach shots being blocked by trees, and it's very much a golf course where ball-striking and creative shot-shaping are required to get close to tricky pin positions.
Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head, South Carolina: Designer: Pete Dye with 2000 re-design; Course Type: Carolina, Technical; Par: 71; Length: 7,099 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 10; Fairways: Bermudagrass overseeded with Paragon Rye; Rough: Bermudagrass overseeded with Paragon Rye 1.25"; Greens: 3,700 sq.ft average TifEagle Bermudagrass; Tournament Stimp: 11 ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 72.29 (+1.29), Difficulty Rank 9 of 49 courses. 2013: 72.04 (+1.04), Difficulty Rank 11 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.04 (+1.04), Rank 9 of 48 courses. 2015: 70.49 (-0.51) Rank 26 of 52 courses. 2016: 72.29 (+1.29), Rank 8 of 50 courses.
Harbour Town Golf Links Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for the Harbour Town course and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on the PGA Tour:
Course Overview: Harbour Town Golf Links is a specialised test that appeals to players who thrive on gnarly TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces and who have a short game to cope with the inevitable missed greens. Undoubtedly a shot-makers course, precision from the tee rather than brute power is the key this week to avoid live oaks, pine trees and strategically placed bunkers. Greens which average only 3,700 sq.ft. are typically dome-shaped (a Dye design trait) and that's a critical point this week because even the very best ball strikers will miss 16+ greens over the week, so sound scrambling is essential. Harbour Town Golf Links pretty much plays as tough as the wind conditions dictate - benign conditions in the past though have seen plotters reach scores of -18/266 to -20/264.
With fresh TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces laid for 2016, which were particularly firm, it'll be interesting to see how they've settled 12 months down the line. Primarily though the same skills-sets are key: power hitters who have little regard for strategy are at a distinct disadvantage and Greens in Regulation numbers here are always in the top 10 toughest on the PGA Tour, even when the wind doesn't blow as per 2015. That's hardly surprising as the Dye design features green complexes which are the smallest on Tour.
At a test where hitting 70% greens in regulation is a tough task, the ability to scramble across the greens missed is absolutely essential - those who struggle to get up and down simply haemorrhage too many bogeys. The new TifEagle Bermudagrass greens were also tricky for putts from 10 feet and in 12 months ago, but naturally windy conditions didn't help either. Avoid players who struggle with short putts.
The course though rewards all-round ability. Look for those who can take advantage of scoreable conditions across both the par-4s and the par-5s. Players have plenty of opportunities around Harbour Town with wedge in hand and it's very noticeable across 2015 when Jim Furyk won this tournament in benign conditions that the top 3 finishers all-ranked in the top 10 for Greens in Regulation, the top 11 for Proximity to Hole, and the top 13 for scrambling.
Winners: 2016: Branden Grace (-8); 2015: Jim Furyk (-18); 2014: Matt Kuchar (-11); 2013: Graeme McDowell (-9); 2012: Carl Pettersson (-14); 2011: Brandt Snedeker (-12); 2010: Jim Furyk (-13); 2009: Brian Gay (-20); 2008: Boo Weekley (-15); 2007: Boo Weekley (-14).
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 RBC Heritage 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 Russell Henley (No.1), Matt Kuchar, Lucas Glover, Kevin Kisner and Jason Dufner.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Phoenix Open / Dubai Desert Classic Championship and includes 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: 2016: Grace 40/1; 2015: Jim Furyk 25/1; 2014: Kuchar 18/1; 2013: McDowell 40/1; 2012: Pettersson 55/1; 2011: Snedeker 35/1; 2010: Furyk 14/1. Average: 32/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is here. The island has received plenty of rain in the build-up, so expect lush conditions. The last rain there was on Thursday and with no more precipitation forecast, ground conditions should be nigh-on perfect. Scoring ultimately is dictated by wind levels here and we're likely to see very tranquil conditions this year, with only Saturday looking like anything more than a light breeze.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 7 winners of this event 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 Harbour Town sets up and what specific skills it requires:
Branden Grace: "I like this place. It's completely different. It's short and fiddly. Obviously the winds do defend here. And there's a couple of shots that I've got up my sleeve, that I like hitting, that I grew up hitting and I think it goes well with this place. It's one of those golf courses that suits my eye. I grew up playing in the wind and I grew up playing fiddly courses like this. I would think this is a bit more of a ball-striker's golf course. It doesn't matter if you miss a couple of fairways, a couple of greens, you can get your way around it. I just like coming back to this place. I have spoken to Ernie in the past about this event. And he thought it's one that's really going to suit my eye. It reminds me a little bit of Fancourt Links back home, because it's linksy. You really have to see your thoughts. You have to hit a couple of different shots, not shots that you hit often."
Matt Kuchar: "It's so unique, uniquely different, with the tree lined fairways, with the ability to basically recall and remember every hole. Every hole stands out. Even though you have a lot of holes that have similar characteristics of just tight on the left side, tight on the right side with trees, they have slight doglegs that make it exciting to play, make it exciting to try to truly play chess around this golf course, and positioning your tee shot in the right spot in the fairway. If it's not, you get to play all sorts of fun recovery shots. If you're off line, it's not that your ball is necessarily in a hazard and you're playing a drop. You find it and have a recovery shot, and you have a play. All the greens are made so that you do have a play. They're basically on the same level as the fairway. They're not perched up with bunkers everywhere, where you're just trying to leave yourself a bunker shot. You can actually run them all up on the greens. They're small greens. If you're on the green, you have a shot at birdie. It's a great layout, a great design, a memorable golf course. And I don't think it necessarily rewards a typical type of player. It's not a short hitter that always wins. You take Davis Love, who's won here more than anybody, and he, in his prime, would have been longer than the longest guy we've got today. He could hit it further than anybody. So you have guys like Davis, that can overpower courses, that play well here. And then you've got guys like myself, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, as kind of not your power players, that can also play well here."
Graeme McDowell: "You just have to stay really patient. You have to position the ball well at times. You have to be really aware of the wind on this golf course. It's tough to pick them out on the back nine today. There's some really tough shots on this golf course. And you've just got to pick your targets and flight the ball as well as you can. Some good memories and some good visuals for me on this golf course, and it was nice to plug back into some of those and make a few birdies."
Jason Day: "It's an amazing golf course. It really is. It's one of the pretty much old school golf courses we get to play on the PGA Tour. Most courses become more modern, where they're getting really long. And they're getting difficult by length. This course shows that you don't really need length to make a golf course difficult. For me, personally, there's a lot of irons, long irons off the tees and a lot of 4 woods. I don't believe, obviously with weather, how the weather goes this week will depend on if I'm going to pull the driver out a lot. But just thinking about it, there's only maybe four or five drivers out there. Most of them are pretty much 4 woods and long irons. So it's difficult. You've got to shape your shots both ways. And the greens are so small, you have to be really sharp with your irons to hit the greens."
Jim Furyk: "I think it's all about working the golf ball. There's a lot of strategy involved. But you have to be able to control the golf ball. You have to hit high shots, low shots, curve it right to left, left to right. If you don't have control of the golf ball you're going to struggle at this golf course. You're not going to skank it around for very long, and eventually you're going to be in trouble. It's about hitting fairways, but a lot of times it's about hitting the proper side of the fairway, and that may depend on day to day, with the pin placements. Nine is a good example and 11 is a good example. If you don't hit the right side of the fairway, you have to carve a shot around trees and hit it low or hit it high or hit it around branches. It's actually a very fun golf course to play."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
For research purposes, other Pete Dye designs include:
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
Harbour Town is undoubtedly a course where patience, experience and guile is rewarded. Played traditionally the week after Augusta (apart from 2011 when TPC San Antonio was played the week in between), it won't surprise you that the majority of recent champions played down the road in Georgia at The Masters prior to triumphing here, namely Branden Grace, Jim Furyk (twice), Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell, Brandt Snedeker (he'd also finished 4th the week before at TPC San Antonio) and Boo Weekley who successfully defended. Two exceptions to that trend come in the form of Brian Gay (2009) and Carl Pettersson (2012) - again experienced professionals who both have a good record on tight Par 70s.
Another strong trend is the fact that all winners here going back to 2006 (Aaron Baddeley) had at least a single top 12 on Bermudagrass greens in the season prior to placing the Harbour Town Plaid Jacket on their shoulders. Course form-wise, top 5 finishes on the TifEagle Bermudagrass greens at coastal Kapalua seem to be a huge indicator and that link to TifEagle Bermudagrass performances shouldn't be overlooked be that on the PGA Tour or the European Tour.
Harbour Town shares the exact same green grass mix as Copperhead and, as mentioned before, the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook shares Carolina course overtures in its setup. 6 of the 8 winners from 2009 onwards had all finished in the top 10 around Copperhead prior to winning here. Broadening the TifEagle link out slightly, excellent performances on the pure TifEagle greens featured at Kapalua, PGA National, Doral and Bay Hill (from 2016 onwards) link in perfectly as well.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
Kevin Kisner is undoubtedly moving towards a second PGA Tour title and a course like Harbour Town Golf Links is perfect for him. Always impressive on Bermudagrass of any variety, he won his first PGA Tour title on TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens at Sea Island 17 months ago. That win followed 3 breakout performances, the first of which was here at Harbour Town where he finished 2nd to Jim Furyk after losing in a play-off; his score that week on a receptive course with no real wind was -18/266. From there he went on to another Pete Dye design at TPC Sawgrass and surprised the wider golfing public by going toe-to-toe with Sergio Garcia, Bill Haas and Rickie Fowler. Again beaten in a play-off, this time by Fowler, Kisner showed that he could mix it with the very best on Bermudagrass greens. 5th at Colonial, 8th at Muirfield Village and 12th at the Chambers Bay hosted U.S. Open followed, before ending 2015 on a real high with 2nd at Sheshan (WGC) and that aforementioned Sea Island win.
2017 has seen Kisner finish 4th at Waialae (on TifDwarf Bermudagrass) which featured a 3rd Round -10/60, 10th at Pebble Beach, 11th at Club de Golf Chapultepec and a super 2nd at Bay Hill (TifEagle Bermudagrass) where he had an excellent chance to win going down the stretch. 13th in Proximity to the Hole and 39th in Scoring Average are strong numbers for this week's test and lower scoring will suit this seaside specialist perfectly. RESULT: T11
Jason Dufner is another player I'm monitoring closely and his game is really interesting at the moment. An undoubted lover of shorter golf courses, 3 of his 4 PGA Tour victories have been on sub-7,200 yard set-ups and Dufner also loves Pete Dye designs. 7th (2010) and 3rd (2011) preceded his first ever PGA Tour win at Dye-designed TPC Louisiana (MiniVerde Bermudagrass) in 2012. 5th at the Whistling Straits hosted PGA Championship in 2010, 6th at TPC Sawgrass in 2011 and a win last year at the CareerBuilder Challenge, which was hosted at the TPC Stadium course at PGA West (TifDwarf Bermudagrass), all highlight a player who clearly understands how to be successful on Dye courses. A treble of strong U.S. Open finishes at Olympic Club (4th 2012), Merion (4th 2013) and Oakmont (8th 2016) also correlates well with previous winners of this tournament, all of whom have performed well at the United States Open Championship. In addition, top 10 finishes at Kapalua (5th 2014), PGA National (9th 2009), Doral (9th 2014) and Copperhead (10th 2012) show a player who can perform on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens.
So why Dufner at Harbour Town? 7 cuts made from 8 appearances and a 14th here in 2011 isn't spectacular, but Dufner is trending really well presently. Always amongst the leaders for Greens in Regulation here, Jason has perennially struggled with the putter, but 2017 sees Dufner having a renaissance with the flat stick where he ranks 39th in Strokes Gained Putting and currently sits atop my rolling 10-week Putting Average tracker. That's dangerous for a guy who still finds greens with regularity and recent results that read 33(Masters), 12(Houston), 11(Copperhead), 23(Mexico) and 14(PGA National) is the kind of form where Dufner strikes from. RESULT: T11
We talk about motivation and inspiration on these pages most weeks. Trying to get into the psyche of a player is never easy, but I cannot see how Francesco Molinari will not take heart from Sergio Garcia's victory at Augusta last week. Close in terms of their Latin temperament, fellow Ryder Cup associations and some would say underachievement up until this point, the London-based Italian is undoubtedly taking the PGA Tour more seriously in season 2016/17. 24th in the FedEx Cup standings has been driven by 4th at TPC Summerlin, 12th at PGA West, 14th at Torrey Pines, 14th at PGA National and 7th last time out on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens at Bay Hill. Visiting courses for the second or third time is undoubtedly helping Francesco who is playing some lovely stuff right now and there's no doubt that he loves short tree-lined courses where accuracy is paramount.
One look at his record at TPC Sawgrass (Dye design, 3 top-9 finishes since 2010) and Muirfield Village (3rd in 2015) in the United States allied to Wentworth, Le Golf National and Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club on the European Tour, highlights a player who I think will like Harbour Town over time. Molinari is also very comfortable on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens as can be seen by his finishes in Abu Dhabi, Doral, Bay Hill and the Earth Course. 58th in Bogey Avoidance, 13th in Scoring Average and 35th in par-4 Performance are season-long skill category statistics that I like in this relatively low-grade affair and Molinari hit lots of greens here 12 months ago when entering with a stone cold putter. The same cannot be said in 2017 with Molinari 22nd in Greens in Regulation and 5th in Putting Average 10-week rolling trackers. RESULT: T22
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