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As the golfing season edges towards its close, we head to China for the final World Golf Championship event of 2016 ahead of the 3-event Final Series that will bring the European Tour season to its conclusion. After a brief change in venue in 2012 when the event visited Mission Hills and Ian Poulter was victorious, we're back once again at the more familiar Sheshan track that's hosted the tournament every other year. Bear in mind then when using this week's event history stats that we're on the track that hosted the HSBC Champions event from 2005-2011, as well as 2013-15, in both its pre-and-post WGC guises.
Despite its addition to the PGA Tour schedule in 2013, this event is still very much the poor relation when it comes to World Golf Championship events. Barring injury and holidays, the other 3 WGC tournaments tend to have pretty much a full attendance from the world's top 50 players, however this event is different with 4 (Day, Spieth, Rose and Mickelson) of the World's top 15 missing for starters. Nevertheless, this limited field still features a whole host of household names, plus the cream of the 2016 European Tour crop, so we should expect some excellent golf in what has proven over the years to be a pretty open and unpredictable event.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Sanderson Farms Championship - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Sheshan International GC, Shanghai, China. Designer: Neil Haworth, 2004; Par: 72; Length: 7,261 yards; Fairways: Paspalum/Rye; Rough: Paspalum/Rye with Bermuda overseed; Greens: A1/A4 Bentgrass; Stimp: 11-11.5ft.
Course Overview. The Sheshan International course is a 7,261 yard Par 72 that features relatively wide but tree-lined fairways and 11.5 stimp bentgrass greens. With 4 par-5s and a driveable par 4 (the 16th hole), this track bears all the hallmarks of a bomber's paradise, however even in the years with softer conditions it has tended to be those players who can churn out the best greens in regulation numbers over the 4 days and have putted well enough who have prevailed. That said, the potential for wet weather this week will ensure that the course plays its full length which puts a little more onus on Total Driving (a combination of distance and accuracy) in my opinion, although it's fair to say there's been a real mixture of players adorning the top of the leaderboard here in recent years - a play-off between Bubba Watson and Tim Clark in 2014 for instance reinforcing the view that this track suits no particular style of play over another.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's WGC HSBC Champions that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2015: Russell Knox, 150/1; 2014: Bubba Watson, 28/1; 2013: Dustin Johnson, 40/1; 2012: Ian Poulter, 20/1; 2011: Martin Kaymer, 25/1; 2010: Francesco Molinari, 55/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Shanghai is here. After an incredibly hot and dry summer in the region, the weather has turned of late and 5 inches of rain fell last week and more is forecast before and during the event. Wednesday rain will soften the course ahead of a wet day on Thursday with moderate breezes of up to 20 km/h. It will get gradually drier and cooler as the tournament progresses, however the wind will pick up on Friday and Saturday with gusts in excess of 40 km/h possible at times.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors. Analysing the final stats of recent winners here gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited here:
Ian Poulter's win in 2012 was at Mission Hills and I've excluded those stats from the list above accordingly. Of the winners of this event when played at Sheshan, pre-and post-WGC status, all had won an event earlier in the season with the exception of Francesco Molinari who'd finished runner-up twice including a play-off defeat and Russell Knox who gained his first career PGA Tour/European Tour victory here 12 months ago. All had decent enough recent form with at least one top-12 finish recorded by each of those players in their previous 5 events, so entering this week with at least some semblance of form has got to be seen as a positive.
2014 saw somewhat of a turning point for 'Asia's Major' with thicker (wetter) rough, some new tees and additional bunkering coupled with inclement and colder conditions making Sheshan International far more of a challenge than previous years. Straying off of the fairway was more of a penalty and the bermuda overseeded rough around the greens made for challenging scrambling, however with less run on the wet fairways the course also played long. Clearly this led to two vastly differing styles getting into contention with Bubba Watson overcoming Tim Clark in a play-off. Last year was a little easier though with soft conditions underfoot combined with warmer and calmer weather by comparison which led to a far lower winning score by Russell Knox at 20-under.
Recent wet weather and the threat of more significant rain both immediately before the event and during the 4 days will make for another soft event, however a stiff breeze on Friday and Saturday will likely make this play closer to 2014 conditions than last year in my view. A soft course will encourage the longer hitters of course, however thick and wet rough will penalise the errant so once again I see this favouring no particular style. Wet, windy and cooler conditions may well swing the pendulum slightly in the favour of the Europeans or those with a track record of performing in less than perfect conditions.
Bookmaker Offers: Paddy Power and Stan James have both extended their EW terms this week, going 6 places each-way at 1/5 odds:
My selections are as follows:
Whilst Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson dominate this event in terms of the betting, given the fact that the final leaderboard here hasn't been particularly kind to the favourites in recent years, I'm happy to look a little further afield and the name that keeps cropping up is Paul Casey. Last week's 21st place finish at Kuala Lumpur may well have halted an impressive run of form reading 2/2/4/3, however partaking in that event will have served its purpose in terms of getting the jet lag out of his system and to be fair it was hardly a disastrous effort having opened with a 65 and ranked 3rd for all-round performance despite only finishing 21st. A birdie-fest isn't the Englishman's strongest suit though and with tougher conditions expected this week in China, I can see him getting bang into contention here once again.
Always an excellent ball-striker who can give the ball a healthy smack off the tee, the reason that Paul's been contending in such lofty company over the past few months has been a marked improvement with his putter. Four consecutive events prior to Malaysia with a putting average of 1.71 or better is an eye-opener for a player of Casey's type and if he continues to strike the ball as well as he's been doing, as well as putt like that, then the door will likely open sooner rather than later. A WGC is very much within Paul's reach in my view - he's finished inside the top-10 on eight occasions at the strokeplay WGCs over the years and was twice a runner-up at the WGC Match Play - and with his game in such a strong place right now, perhaps this week presents his best opportunity yet in that respect.
A wet and breezy Sheshan puts question marks over the two favourites and many of those less adept at handling the conditions, whereas Casey positively thrives when presented with the type of weather he grew up playing in. Although living in Scottsdale nowadays, that hasn't stopped the 39 year-old from returning to Europe and winning the 2013 Irish Open in wet and windy conditions at Carton House and then again with a decent breeze blowing at the KLM Open a year later.
Aside from his withdrawal from this event in 2009, the World No.13 has only once finished outside the top 20 in 8 attempts here at Sheshan and 5 of those efforts have resulted in a top-10 finish or better during that time. His wider form in China is impressive too with wins at the TCL Classic and China Open over the years as well as a strong record at the BMW Masters in recent times. One of these weeks everything will fall Paul Casey's way on a Sunday and, with a lot of factors pointing in his direction this week, I'm happy to wager it will be this week.
Despite suffering a torrid time at the Ryder Cup, losing his first three matches before edging past Matt Kuchar on the 18th in the singles when the overall tie had already been well and truly put to bed, it was encouraging to see Martin Kaymer bounce back at the Dunhill Links the week after and keep up his steady flow of impressive strokeplay results. 6th place at the 'Home of Golf' featured a ball-striking effort bettered by just one player and, like Casey, he's another who will relish a more challenging event here this week. The German's ball flight is perfect for breezy conditions as we've seen many a time over the years when presented with a similar challenge and as a previous winner on this track, I'm sure the 31 year-old will see this a great opportunity to convert his steady play of late - which has featured 7 top-7 finishes in his last 12 starts - into a long overdue victory.
Aside from his win here in 2011, Kaymer has also finished inside the top-9 on four further occasions and clearly enjoys the track having racked up rounds as low as 62 and 63 over the years here. What really stands out to me though is that Martin gets on magnificently with the greens here at Sheshan having finished inside the top-5 for putting on three of his last four attempts in Shanghai. For a player who's capable of striking the ball so well - as he was once again on his last outing in Scotland - that's potentially a pivotal factor in this quality of field. At 48th in the World the German will be keen to produce a decent haul of OWGR points this week and with conditions far more like 2014 expected this week - where a double bogey 7 on the final hole meant he finished 6th whereas a birdie on the par 5 would have put him in the play-off - I can see a big effort coming from Kaymer this week.
I had a long look at Bubba Watson this week and although I suspect that the enigmatic American will perform far better than the 45/1 quoted about him suggests this week, I prefer to go with the massively in-form Alexander Noren given the conditions the players are likely to face. 3 wins in his last 9 starts has seen the Swede catapult up to 18th in the OWGR and 4th in the Race To Dubai and with this and the Final Series events still to come, the 34 year-old could progress further still before the season's finished.
I was surprised to see Alex play in Portugal last week - fellow recent winner Alex Levy pulled out to give himself more preparation time for this - however a throttled-down 37th may well be all the rest that he needs ahead of this week and despite his lower finish than many would have anticipated, he still hit a massive 84.7% of greens in regulation on the Algarve to suggest that he's lost none of his form ahead of this week. Noren's been putting exceptionally when in contention of late and the bentgrass greens here at Sheshan will provide the perfect surface for his attempt at a first WGC title, however it's the promise of breezy even windy weather which excites most about his chances this week given how adept he is in those conditions. 3 attempts at this title have produced a best of 19th back in 2009, however the 7-time European Tour winner is at the very top of his game right now and a massive personal best isn't out of the equation here in my view.
I did struggle to find any American players who I fancied to go well enough to back this week, however the exception to that was Kevin Kisner who finished 2nd here 12 months ago when arriving in a similar indifferent vein of form. Despite not having missed a cut since before the US Open back in June, Kisner has been consistent without really having troubled the scorers on a Sunday with just one top-10 finish to his name in that time, however it was around this time last year that the 32 year-old really sprang back to life having led at the halfway point here, eventually finishing 2 strokes behind Russell Knox, before capturing his first PGA Tour title a fortnight later at the RSM Classic. The South Carolina man is the type of player I can see contending for and potentially winning a variety of events on a variety of styles of track and putting surfaces given his career performances to date and a WGC or better isn't out of his reach in my view now that he's gained a lofty enough world ranking to get himself access to these types of event. Kisner drove the ball fantastically around this track last year with only one player in the field hitting more fairways, plus he led the field for scrambling around the greens - with progressive GIR ranks of 40/26/22/19/5 over his past 5 outings I suspect he's approaching another peak of form as we head towards the anniversary of his breakthrough win 12 months ago.
Finally I'm saving a small stake for the talented youngster Matthew Fitzpatrick who seems overpriced to me despite a lack of immediate form. 7th here last year on debut, Fitzpatrick has proven already in his short career that he shouldn't be excluded simply because recent results appear less than perfect - his win at the Nordea Masters earlier this year is a case in point having arrived with immediate form figures of MC/MC/MC/47 before capturing his second European Tour title. This is a step up in class, granted, however last year's effort saw the 22 year-old finish on the same mark as Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed and a shot ahead of Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson - that's hardly rings alarm bells to me! 7th at Augusta and 4th at the Earth Course last year also highlights to me a player who's comfortable rubbing shoulders with the best players in world golf and, for me, it's only a matter of time before he progresses beyond European Tour winner status. Leaderboards here have seen a real mix of powerful players and more measured, accurate types and the Sheffield man will clearly attack this event using the latter option, however that's no bad thing whatsoever as he'll maximise his birdie chances on these slick bentgrass greens. Despite finish 49th at The Grove on his last start, it's worth remembering that he was defending a European Tour title for the first time in his career and encouragingly he looked back to his best from off the tee hitting over 80% of fairways and ranking 2nd for accuracy on the week.
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