US Masters Preview: with Augusta only a week away, read Steve Bamford's pre-event pointers for the Masters here.
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 Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm all having hit their straps already in 2017.
The Shell Houston Open is now the traditional curtain-raiser for The Masters: played on a 7,400 yard, Par 72 track in Humble, Texas, the Rees Jones design will never quite be Augusta, but undoubtedly the course has been modelled over recent years to produce similar challenges to those that the world's best will face next week and 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.
While we're on the subject of The Masters, we've started compiling our stats ahead of next week, plus our pre-event preview has also been published which might help point you in the right direction if you're having an early punt: Preview | Stats By Year | Recent Majors Stats
For the 5th successive year we're running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 who've put a total of £250 in bonuses up for grabs to the winners. 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.
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 and 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 4 of the past 7 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. 2016: 71.89 (-0.11), Rank 23 of 50 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 Jim Herman (-15), 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 tight fairways at 300+ yards (so players tend to throttle back off the tee), large bentgrass overseeded greens and water hazards in play on nine of the holes. Scrambling here is tough and naturally, as we're in Texas, wind tends to be a feature, although 2017 looks more tranquil than we've seen here since 2012. I'm also thinking that the course is likely to have some give in it as there's been plenty of rain in the immediate build-up to the tournament with more extremely likely.
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 winners here always feature a hot putter. Also look for those who have a proven record on these quirky green surfaces. Ultimately though, on a course where Going for the Green has ranked in the top-10 most difficult across the past 7 renewals, those with an aggressive streak across the driveable 12th (338 yards) and a tough set of par-5s tend to prevail.
Winners: 2016: Jim Herman (-15); 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 Jordan Spieth (No.1), Charley Hoffman, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Billy Horschel.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the CareerBuilder Challenge / Abu Dhabi 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: Herman 400/1; 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: 124/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Redstone, Texas is here. The forecast is interesting and a little concerning with thunderstorms forecast for a long period of Sunday. After plenty of rain pre-event, the course is likely to be quite receptive and if more forecast rain hits on Wednesday, look for those who like soft conditions. Wind is always a feature in Texas, but scoring should be lower this year as strong winds are only forecast for Saturday.
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 the course sets up, playing in Texas and what skill-sets it favours:
Jim Herman: "I was able to keep it in the fairway, and that way you can get a good look at some of these pins that were tucked. I was able to put it in the right spot, able to get some good uphill putts, and able to make a few. It's very tricky. It seemed like every hole just seemed to be into the wind. You play a hole into the wind and turn around and it's still in the wind. So, lot of guessing out there where Matt and I did a really good job of picking some good clubs to hit and just picking the correct line. Not being too aggressive when we have mid irons or long irons, but when we have a chance to hit wedges, we're looking to cash in."
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 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
Course Designer Links: For research purposes, other Rees Jones re-designs include:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
Pre-Major tournaments always have a slightly strange feel to them and the week prior to The Masters is perennially difficult to read. Most of the field are ignoring Augusta on the basis that they haven't qualified: Jim Herman fell into this category last year when he pretty much came from nowhere to win his maiden PGA Tour title at 400/1; 2014 also saw Matt Jones win this with no Augusta qualification weighing on his mind. 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, Martin Laird again grabbed a last minute invite to the first Major of the year and there's a line of enquiry that suggests we look for non-Augusta qualifiers. After all 4 of the past 5 champions here (including D.A. Points in 2013) weren't already in the field for the following week's main event.
However take the period from 2007 through 2012 when the tournament was moved to its week before Augusta place in the schedule and you'll find that 5 of the 6 champions were elite, top 50 players. Rule nobody out, but one trend is quite defining: no winner here since 2007 had won a strokeplay PGA Tour tournament in the same season prior to winning the Shell Houston Open (Hunter Mahan in 2012 had won the World Matchplay 6 weeks prior to winning in Humble).
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.
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 aggression as players need to score well on the short par-4 12th and on 3 of the par-5s which are reachable. Softer conditions are expected this week which should see the winning score move slightly towards the -20/268 level we saw when Mickelson won here in 2011.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
If any player in the top bracket has the will and determination to succeed this week then it's Jon Rahm and for me he's always 100% committed to the cause, every event he tees it up at, so I don't see his mind wondering towards Augusta this week. His consistency has been amazing since he hit the PGA Tour scene, but it's worth remembering that 'Rahmbo' spent 60 weeks as World Amateur Number 1 and just a look at his amateur history shows multiple back-to-back wins and a level of top 10 result consistency which indicated that the man from Barrika, Spain was likely to be special.
Asked what his plans were after his defeat to Dustin Johnson in the World Match Play Final, he responded, "I'm playing Houston. Unfortunately for me today was the worst day I've played golf all week. Knowing that had I played good, I might have had a chance to win. Things like that. Just stay positive. And knowing from now on, anytime I step on that tee I'm confident enough that I can win a tournament."
2nd in par-4 Birdie or Better Conversion, 12th in Proximity from 150/175 yards and 10th in Going for the Green season-long skill categories are excellent numbers for the GC of Houston. Clearly hungry for more wins and with correlating course form across Torrey Pines (1st), Pebble Beach (5th), Congressional (3rd) and TPC Scottsdale (5th), the 22 year old's ability to learn courses amazingly quickly could come in very handy this week. His current form reminds me of Jordan Spieth in 2015 (who made the play-off) and I can see the Rahm charge continuing all the way to Magnolia Lane. RESULT: T10
The first name that jumped off the entry list for me was Charley Hoffman who I think will go well again in his beloved Texas. With a Masters Invite safely in his back pocket, the World Number 52 will be looking forward to Augusta next week, but with his current form and his obvious liking for the GC of Houston he must be a contender for what would be his 5th career PGA Tour victory this week. 6th here in 2008, 20th in 2013 and 11th in 2015 are solid enough finishes and Hoffman has also led here after Round 1 across 2014 and again 12 months ago. 4th at Riviera and 2nd last time out at Bay Hill were excellent performances across a couple of the best classical golf courses in the United States, so Charley's game is definitely in great shape right now.
If you're looking for a proven Texas performer, Charley's CV also contains excellent Lone Star results at TPC San Antonio (1st 2016, 2nd 2011, 3rd 2013), La Cantera (8th 2006, 9th 2009), Colonial (10th 2015) and TPC Four Seasons (2nd 2015, 7th 2008, 8th 2006 & 2013). Hoffman is scoring well across both par-4s and par-5s right now and any assistance from softer conditions will undoubtedly play to his strengths. RESULT: T23
I don't think we'll be getting 80/1 about Bryson Dechambeau for too much longer and after pulverising the Par 72s at Puerto Rico last week, I think a confident DeChambeau will love the test at the GC of Houston where plenty of course debutants have contended and even won in the past. A deep thinker, since returning to a standard putting stroke Bryson has finished 27th at Copperhead - he was 8th after 36 holes - and a fist-pumping 2nd in Puerto Rico last week where he made 23 Birdies (top 6 for scoring) and only 5 Bogeys. The par-5s yielded -11 for DeChambeau who was extremely aggressive with his 2nd shot approaches and undoubtedly his reversal back to his old putting stroke is bringing rewards. 21st at Augusta on debut 51 weeks ago must motivate for this week and remember he finished 4th at Harbour Town and 15th at the U.S. Open last term before winning the DAP Championship on the web.com Tour to gain instant promotion onto the main Tour. RESULT: T44
I'll also have a dabble with a couple of longer shots at a tournament where we know crazy winners can and do happen:
Texan Ryan Palmer loves a home game and despite a very poor period of play he ranks 7th in this week's Published Predictor Model. Palmer, who co-led at PGA National after 36 holes last time out, loves to play in his home state: top 5s and top 10s abound for Ryan across TPC San Antonio, TPC Four Seasons and his home course of Colonial. Statistically Palmer sits 9th in Going for the Green and 48th in Proximity from 150 to 175 yards, which are 2 key statistics for the GC of Houston. 7th here in 2014, wind and a soft course are the kind of conditions where Ryan truly comes to the fore. RESULT: MC
Bud Cauley has always been an aggressive sort whose tee-to-green game can be very effective. He performs better at low-scoring tests and his record here reads 8th in 2012 (on debut) and 16th in 2013. He has a strong enough record in Texas with 18th at TPC San Antonio, 14th and 21st at Colonial and a strong 4th at TPC Four Seasons last May. 4 pay cheques in the past 5 tournaments - including 27th at PGA National - has been a consistent haul and again he excelled himself on a resort course back in January when finishing 3rd at the CareerBuilder Challenge hosted at PGA West. A talented player who seems to get along with the course this week and who has 9 top-5 finishes to his name on the PGA Tour - this price seems attractive to me. RESULT: MC
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