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In this season of short-priced winners and southern hemisphere domination (to date), we've almost made it to the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. Just a single week separates us from what has to be the most anticipated Masters for years with Day, McIlroy, Scott, Watson and Fowler all having hit their straps already in 2016.
The Shell Houston Open is now the traditional curtain-raiser for The Masters; played on a 7,400 yard, par72 track in Humble, Texas, the Rees Jones design will never quite be Augusta, but undoubtedly the course has been modelled over recent years to throw up similar challenges to those the world's best will face next week.
Before we move onto the Shell Houston 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. 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.
The Golf Club of Houston course is set up to play as firm and fast as the weather will allow. The last Masters invite is also up for grabs for any non-qualified winner this week (marked in yellow in this week's form stats and event stats), so there's plenty to play for.
Course Guide: The Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston is a 7,441 yard, par 72. An original Rees Jones design, the course has gone through a transformation over recent years with key features being minimal rough, fast overseeded Bentgrass/Poa Trivialis greens which are large at an average 6,950 sq.ft. The green complexes themselves are surrounded by shaved grass areas, designed to capture errant approach shots and send them into collection areas and it's noticeable that 3 of the past 6 winners here have ranked in the top 5 for scrambling the week they captured the title. That's no mean feat on a course which continually ranks in the top-3 hardest courses on the PGA Tour for scrambling from the rough.
Champions Course, Golf Club of Houston, Redstone, Texas: Designer: Rees Jones 2005; Course Type: Texas, Resort; Par: 72; Length: 7,441 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 9; TifSport Bermuda with Perennial Rye; Rough: TifSport Bermuda with Perennial Rye 1.5"; Greens: 6,950 sq.ft average Miniverde Bermuda overseeded with Bentgrass and Poa Trivialis (plays like Bentrgrass); Tournament Stimp: 12.5-13.0 ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 71.45 (-0.55), Difficulty Rank 34 of 49 courses. 2013: 71.87 (-0.13), Difficulty Rank 25 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.25 (+0.25), Rank 23 of 48 courses. 2015: 70.86 (-1.14), Rank 41 of 52 courses.
GC of Houston Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for the Golf Club of Houston course and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on the PGA Tour:
Course Overview: Rees Jones' first ever original golf course design (he's famous for high profile re-designs of classical golf courses) is an interesting test to classify. Yes the course is scoreable with J.B. Holmes (-16), Matt Jones (-15), D.A. Points (-16) and Hunter Mahan (-16) winning with fairly low totals. But the tournament organisers attempt to get the Tournament Course to play as firm and fast as possible so there's certainly bite for those who struggle to hit greens. The course features wide fairways, large bentgrass overseeded greens and water hazards in play on eight of the holes. Scrambling here is tough and naturally, as we're in Texas, wind is always a feature, which it will be for the opening 54 holes at least. I'm also thinking that the course is likely to have some give in it as we saw 12 months ago with the potential for more precipitation on Thursday.
A couple of key angles jump from the course statistics when we talk about the Golf Club of Houston. The large putting surfaces here allow even the short game specialists a good look at plenty of putts. Indeed you would hardly call J.B. Holmes and Matt Jones Greens in Regulation specialists. However it's also very difficult to get the ball close to the pin, so natural putters do have an advantage around here. Ultimately though on a course where Going for the Green has ranked in the top-10 most difficult across the past 6 renewals, those with an aggressive streak across the driveable 12th (338 yards) and a tough set of par-5s ultimately prevail.
Winners: 2015: J.B. Holmes (-16); 2014: Matt Jones (-15); 2013: D.A. Points (-16); 2012: Hunter Mahan (-16); 2011: Phil Mickelson (-20); 2010: Anthony Kim (-12).
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 Shell Houston 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 Phil Mickelson (Predictor Number 1), Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Sergio Garcia.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the Career Builder Challenge / Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship 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: Holmes 28/1; 2014: Jones 125/1; 2013: Points 250/1; 2012: Mahan 22/1; 2011: Mickelson 18/1; 2010: Kim 25/1; Average: 78/1. 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 Humble, Texas is here. A tail of two stories with strong breezes across Friday and Saturday which will make this a real test. However Thursday and Sunday will see tranquil conditions where scoring will be very possible. Turf conditions should be yielding, but not quite as soft as 12 months ago.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners of the Shell Houston Open since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
• Driving Distance: 25th, Driving Accuracy: 50th, Greens in Regulation: 16th, Proximity to Hole: 39th, Scrambling: 19th, Putting Average 8th.
So let's take a view from players as to how the course sets up, playing in Texas and what skill-sets it favours:
Matt Jones: "We're used to firm and fast, bump and runs, not a lot of flop shots. So that's why, I mean, Adam winning Texas, Adam, Colonial, firm and fast is usually what we play here. I'm sure San Antonio blows every day there, 20 to 30. So that place is going to be firm and fast as well. I'd say that would definitely be the most common factor between the two countries, why we play Texas so well. We're used to playing in the wind, too. Especially in Sydney. We get winds in Queensland as well."
Jordan Spieth: "This is known as one of the best manicured courses all year. Lot of run-off areas and the grass being mowed into the grain, it's similar to next week. This is a course where there are big greens, so I have a lot of speed putting. But if you do miss the greens, it's very difficult to get up and down here. So, it's going to be a true test. And the way the run-off areas are, there's not much rough and the grain is mowed into us. The next two weeks are going to be very similar conditions."
J.B. Holmes: "You know, it's always well manicured. It's not a whole lot of rough. That's different for the Tour. Usually we have quite a bit of rough. But, you know, this course usually gets pretty windy. It's nice to be able to hit it in a few places and still be able to come out. The greens are in great shape. I just like it. I think this course in general can favour long hitters. It's pretty long out there, it gets windy, and some of those holes could be difficult. I would say it would favour the long hitters."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010 as below:
Pre-Major tournaments always have a slightly strange feel to them and the week prior to The Masters is difficult to read. Most of the field are ignoring Augusta on the basis they haven't qualified and this was the exact scenario that saw Matt Jones win here in 2014. Extrapolate that to TPC San Antonio in 2013, which due to a quirk in the PGA Tour schedule hosted the pre-Augusta event that year, where Martin Laird again grabbed a last minute invite to the first Major and there's a line of enquiry that suggests we look for non-Augusta qualifiers. However 5 of the last 6 champions here when the tournament has been played the week before Augusta have been elite, top 50 players.
As ever then, this week for me is all about player desire. Some players will undoubtedly go for the win, whilst others will know their Masters history and will use the week as a great warm-up for the rigours of Augusta National. Towards the top of the betting market I have no doubt that the likes of Henrik Stenson, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia will make a 100% effort to grab their first victories of 2016. What new metric the preceding WGC Dell Match Play adds will be interesting - Louis is playing some outstanding golf - but can he play it for 3 weeks straight if he chooses to really go for the win this week?
So I'm going with a team that includes 2 Augusta qualifiers and 3 non-qualifiers. The Tournament Course itself is scoreable, but ultimately winners here need to hit a high number of greens in regulation and that's possible with above average green sizes. Wind-positive players are a must, but for me the golf course rewards aggressive play as players need to score well on the short Par 4 12th and on 3 of the par 5s which are reachable.
Bookmaker Offers. A number of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week plus there's a couple of other offers out there:
My selections are as follows:
If there was ever an elite player in need of a win it's Phil Mickelson and I can see him finally capturing his first title since The Open Championship in 2013 this week on the Tournament Course where he's finished 17th, 12th, 16th, 4th and 1st in his last 5 visits. A course which favours those who have a proven track record on the West Coast swing and which rewards aggression is a marriage made in heaven for Lefty who, for me, is undoubtedly playing his best golf for many years. He played well enough last week winning 2 matches prior to being steamrollered by Patrick Reed at The Dell Match Play and it's apparent now that Phil always needs an outing to get back up to speed.
5th at Doral, 2nd at Pebble, 11th at TPC Scottsdale and 3rd at PGA West so far this season has seen Mickelson jump 14 spots in the OWGR - all that's missing is the win which we all know was his for the taking at Pebble Beach when we were on board at 22/1. Phil openly states that he needs to have been in contention in the build-up to The Masters (and a Major full stop) to be competitive and we all know that he won at Castle Stuart in 2013 prior to winning The Open Championship at Muirfield. Naturally he won here in 2011 and he also won the Bell South Classic in 2006 before driving to Augusta and capturing his 2nd Green Jacket. Mickelson in the past 3 seasons has also finished 2nd, 11th and 3rd at TPC Southwind prior to the US Open.
I never back Sergio Garcia without a serious amount of thought for obvious reasons, but the aggressive Spanish World Number 15 is in a great place mentally right now and that traditionally transfers itself into strong performances. For me, Garcia will be seeing the Shell Houston Open as a decent opportunity with plenty of the big names elsewhere and others in attendance already driving down Magnolia Lane mentally. Augusta has never been the happiest of hunting grounds for Garcia, so I think he'll be using this week to try and gather as many OWGR points as possible with Ryder Cup Team Europe qualification very much in his thoughts. That makes him an attractive each-way price on a course where he finished 3rd in 2014 and there's no doubt that Garcia's tee-to-green game is excellent right now as he ranks 5th in my rolling 10-week Greens in Regulation tracker.
Back in 2014, Sergio arrived in Houston in a similar vein where he was hitting greens for fun and then very much found the Tournament Course greens to his liking as he finished 2nd in Strokes Gained Putting only to eventual winner Matt Jones. Some frailties emerged at PGA National when he bogeyed 2 of the final 3 holes to finish 2nd to Adam Scott, but Garcia ticks every correlating course form box and he currently ranks 2nd for Going for the Green in the 2015/16 PGA Tour stats - no mean feat considering his schedule.
Kevin Chappell is an obvious choice this week on a course where he's enjoyed success in the recent past. The 29 year-old has always been a talented player who's come to the fore on a number of the United States toughest classical courses. 6th at Pebble Beach (2009), 3rd at Congressional (2011 US Open), 2nd at Muirfield Village (2013), 11th Quail Hollow (2014), 13th at Valhalla (2014 PGA Championship) and 2nd last time out at Bay Hill highlight an undoubted talent who unbelievably has still to grab his maiden PGA Tour victory.
As we know, players mature at different speeds (for every Jordan Spieth there is a Jason Dufner or Jimmy Walker) and what's for sure is that Chappell is gradually becoming more comfortable when in contention. Runner-up finishes at both Sea Island and Bay Hill this season prove that he's developing the fortitude required to win and that makes him a must-back this week in Texas where he's already garnered 2nd at TPC San Antonio (2011), 10th at Colonial (2014) and a 6th here in 2013.
2014 Masters runner-up Jonas Blixt is, as we know, an extraordinary putter who, like Chappell, has a fantastic record when it comes to United States classical golf courses. As short as 80/1 with some bookmakers, Blixt has played really well in 2016 to date notching 27th at Bay Hill and 22nd at Copperhead in his last 2 appearances on Bermudagrass greens he's never been able to fathom (amazing as he lives in Florida) since arriving on the main Tour back in 2012. Prior to that, 3rd at Pebble Beach and 6th in the carnage at Torrey Pines were results that sit far more favourably in terms of both his putting abilities and correlating results for this tournament. In his rookie season Blixt raised eyebrows when he finished 9th at Quail Hollow, 10th at Colonial (Texas) and 3rd at TPC Four Seasons (Texas) all on bentgrass putting surfaces and he then went on to win that season at CordeValle (classical Bent Poa mix 2012), before winning again at Old White TPC (classical Bentgrass) and finishing 4th at the Oak Hill hosted PGA Championship in 2013. A non-qualifier for Augusta who is long enough and might surprise if he can find 70%+ of greens.
A cracking price for Freddie Jacobson who started to hit greens last week in Puerto Rico which naturally makes the excellent putter a danger this week in Houston. Jacobson's return to high level action has been one of the heart-warming stories of recent times on the PGA Tour. His 7 year-old son Max's struggle and eventual triumph over a heart defect saw Freddie take an enforced sabbatical last summer. But a cracking 5th place at Sea Island in November saw the amiable Swede earn his full playing rights for the whole of 2015/16 meeting the requirements of his major medical/family crisis exemption. Since the turn of the year, Jacobson has finished 4th at both Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, taking the Florida-based Swede back into the OWGR Top 100. Freddie has always enjoyed his biggest successes on resort scoring tests and both his Texas and classical golf course record is top notch. Linkable result form across Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, TPC Scottsdale, PGA National, Quail Hollow and Congressional is plentiful.
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