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Love it loathe it from a betting perspective, we're off to Austin, Texas this week for the annual congregation of the World's top golfers at the WGC Dell Match Play Championship. 5 eligible players - Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Adam Hadwin and Rickie Fowler - have all opted not to play this week, otherwise all of the World's top 64 (well 69) are in attendance fighting for the top prize, so if nothing else we're in for some serious entertainment as the tournament unfolds. From a betting perspective, don't forget that this event starts a day earlier than normal on Wednesday.
As per the changes applied since the 2015 event, instead of the previous 4 brackets and a straight knockout tournament, we have 16 pools of 4 players who play each other over the first 3 days before the final 16 are eventually whittled down to 2 to fight it out in Sunday afternoon's final. The 16 pools are seeded with the remaining 48 players having been drawn on Monday's live TV show - click here to see the final bracket.
If you put any credence into course/event history when it comes to Match Play - and this event in particular - then the results prior to last year's renewal are fairly tenuous as all were played at different venues with TPC Harding Park hosting the 2015 edition after a 6-year stint at Dove Mountain prior to that. Professionals will tell you that Match Play is all about playing the opponent, however the course here has its own characteristics and challenges, particularly when the wind blows around these parts, so shouldn't be completely disregarded as a factor.
Over on the regular PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Puerto Rico Open - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Overview. Austin Country club, which dates back to 1899 and is one of the oldest golf clubs in the state of Texas, is in its 2nd year of its 4-year agreement to host this annual Match Play event. The Pete Dye track begins in the hillside before meandering down towards Lake Austin which flanks the back 9 and elevation changes, uneven fairways and pot bunkers will present the players with a significant enough challenge before the Match Play aspect even begins to kick in.
The 7,108 yard, par 71 features 3 lengthy Par 5s of 590, 578 and 565 yards on the 6th, 12th and 16th holes as well as three sub-400 yard par 4s at the 5th, 13th and 18th, however this didn't prove to be a bomber's paradise by any stretch of the imagination last year. Pete Dye courses are generally no pushover (think Harbour Town, TPC Louisiana, TPC Sawgrass and Whistling Straits) and although Match Play format is generally set up for more attacking, risk-reward golf, the layout here will provide a lot more than a beautifully scenic backdrop.
In preparation for last year's event the golf course underwent a complete restoration to bring it back in line with Dye's original design. Greens were extended and re-laid with TifEagle Bermuda, plus the fairways were also updated to Bermudagrass as well as additional bunkering having been added throughout.
Tournament Stats. We've published some WGC Match Play history stats going back to 1999 to help with your research, plus of course there's current form stats that take in the last 12 global tournaments that attracted OWGR points: Tournament History Stats | Current Form Stats
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Jason Day, 14/1; 2015 Rory McIlroy, 11/1; 2014: Jason Day, 20/1; 2013: Matt Kuchar, 35/1; 2012: Hunter Mahan, 50/1; 2011: Luke Donald, 35/1; 2010: Ian Poulter, 28/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the 2016 schedule click here; for a similar summary of PGA Tour results over the past 6 years click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Austin, Texas is here. A real mixed bag this week with a fine and warm start on Wednesday leading to a far windier day on Thursday (25-40 km/h expected) and a significant risk of thunderstorms on Friday. The weekend will be far more settled though, for those who make it that far, with lighter winds on Saturday and warm sunshine and temperatures in the mid-80s Fahrenheit.
Format. Players are allocated one of 16 groups of 4 players, each containing one of the seeded players and three others as drawn on Monday's live TV show. A round-robin format follows for the first 3 days with each player facing the other 3 in their group over Wednesday to Friday and the winner of each group based on the results of those matches, or the winner of a deciding playoff if there's a tie at the top, will advance to the knockout stages. 16 players will become 8, then 4 then 2 following a straight knockout format commencing on Saturday morning and the final pair will battle it out in the final on Sunday alongside the consolation 3rd/4th place play-off. Details of the groups can be found here.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Digging too deep into past results often throws up nothing more than a red herring or two when it comes to Match Play and this event in particular. Expect the unexpected and keep stakes low would be my advice, however let's have a go at applying some kind of framework to this week's selections.
It's interesting to look at the prices of the last 8 winners of this event: Ogilvy was 25/1 back in 2009, Poulter 28/1 in 2010, Donald 35/1 in 2011, Mahan 50/1 in 2012, Kuchar was 35/1 in 2013, Day was 20/1 in 2014, McIlroy was 11/1 in 2015 and Day was 14/1 last year. No massive shocks in that list with Mahan the longest price of the bunch at 50/1; more than two-thirds of the field are priced outside of that bracket and with 7 successive victories required to lift the trophy perhaps there's more than just coincidence that one of the more fancied players has succeeded on each of those occasions. Going back as far as Ogilvy once again, every winner had recorded at least one top-10 finish in their previous 4 events, so some tangible incoming form seems important.
From a betting perspective, bookmakers are universally offering 4 places each way, 1/4 odds this week which means that you'll need to get a player through to the semi-finals to secure an each-way payout - in effect they need to win their group plus two knockout rounds before you can guarantee a return. When backing multiple players it's worth looking at how the bracket unfolds first as your fancied players may well meet before they reach the semi-finals.
My final WGC Dell Match Play tips are as follows:
The way I generally like to play this event is to work through the bracket and pick a player from each of the 4 quarters who I think has what it takes to make it through to the semi-finals or beyond. The first quarter is headlined by No.1 seed Dustin Johnson in what is a far from straightforward group of 4 Major winners with Jimmy Walker, Martin Kaymer and Webb Simpson completing the quartet. The winner of that group will then play either former WGC Match Play champion Matt Kuchar, the in-form GIR machine Tommy Fleetwood, former Open Champion Zach Johnson or Brendan Steele who's 10/10 for paid weekends and already has a victory in this wraparound season to his name. Whilst DJ is the favourite to progress from those 8 players, I can certainly see scope for an upset along the way with Tommy Fleetwood in particular an interesting prospect having finished 5th in this event on debut 2 years ago.
The other side of that quarter looks far less competitive though and I'd fancy Match Play animal Patrick Reed to progress to take on the winner of the top half of the draw with a place in the semi-finals and an each-way payout at least the prize should he prevail. In terms of the group, Brooks Koepka who's been struggling with the driver of late, Kevin Kisner who may well find it difficult to lift himself after letting a golden opportunity to win slip through his fingers last week at Bay Hill and Jason Dufner, who's failed to make it out of the group stages for the past 2 seasons, await Reed. From there a last-16 tie with either Alex Noren, Francesco Molinari, Bernd Wiesberger or Thongchai Jaidee isn't going to cause Patrick a sleepless night on Friday and I'd fancy him to be in with a chance of making the semis over the weekend.
We know from the past 2 Ryder Cups that Reed is a formidable opponent in this format of the game, top-scoring with 3.5 points in defeat at Gleneagles before repeating the same score but this time in victory at Hazeltine in September - and who can forget his incredible singles match against Rory McIlroy that he eventually won 1-up on the 18th with both players going at it hammer and tongs.
Reed relishes this format of the game, "It's one of those formats I absolutely love. You can go out and be like, all right, you have 18-holes to go prove yourself and take down your opponent. It's a lot easier taking down one guy than it is 150-something guys in the field. It's one of those things you have a knack for and it's kind of fun," he said after winning his first match here last year against Daniel Berger. The Texas native went on to win all 3 of his group matches before running into Dustin Johnson in the last 16 and although a similar path potentially awaits again this year, with the additional confidence (as if he needs it!) of having stared down Rory last Autumn, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him progress to the latter stages this week whilst brushing all other contenders aside.
Working in a clockwise fashion takes us to the second bracket and, of the 4 sections, this is one I think that the top seed, in this case Rory McIlroy, will dominate. Personally, I'm not keen on taking such short prices each way so will cover Rory to win the event overall for completeness, however given the relative strength of the opposition in his quarter he looks like one of the more likely players to progress to the weekend at least and, from there, anything is possible as we know.
After a sluggish start with the putter last week at Bay Hill, he gradually started to work through the gears and ultimately could have equalled eventual winner Marc Leishman's total had his putt on the 72nd hole have dropped. So that's 7th (WGC Mexico) and 4th place finishes since returning back to golf after nursing his rib injury sustained in South Africa in January and with Augusta looming and a couple of wins required to regain his OWGR No.1 spot from Dustin Johnson, I suspect the 2015 winner will be massively motivated to perform this week. Jason Day may have beaten him at the semi-final stage here 12 months ago, however should the pair meet again this time around at the same point in the competition, I'd expect Rory to exact his revenge and make it to the final.
Emiliano Grillo, Gary Woodland and Soren Kjeldsen await Rory in the group stages before a potential match with Grace, Snedeker, McGirt or Sullivan. Nothing scary there from Rory's perspective and a potential quarter-final against the likes of Tyrrell Hatton, Rafa Cabrera-Bello or potentially Sergio Garcia or Jon Rahm doesn't put me off siding with the Northern Irishman here this week.
The third quarter presents a decent opportunity for Justin Thomas to continue has incredibly rapid rise up the golfing ladder. 3 wins already in this 2016/17 season has catapulted the 23 year-old up to 7th in the OWGR and leaves him right on the shoulder of new leader Hideki Matsuyama as the FedEx Cup takes shape. Perhaps last year's 0-3 record here and a missed cut at the Valspar Championship has given the bookmakers enough reason to lengthen his price for this week, however for me, given the group he's got (Fitzpatrick, Na, Wood) and the potential to meet Willett, Knox, Haas or KT Kim in the last 16, I think that's a price worth taking on. Should he prevail to the last 8 then a potential match with defending champion Jason Day looms, however on the evidence of this season as a whole I wouldn't be remotely shocked to see the young American prevail. 35/1 puts him at longer odds than Tyrrell Hatton, who would likely have to beat Rory McIlroy to reach the paying stages, as well as longer than both Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm who are in the same group and also sit in the same quarter as Rory. For me there's far more scope here by backing JT.
Last year's Dell Match Play was a write-off for Justin as I've mentioned with defeats to Dubuisson, Donaldson and his pal Spieth, however 12 months on and the Kentucky man is a far stronger prospect, a top seed this time around and with a far softer group. Matt Fitzpatrick may struggle to pick himself up after drifting from an excellent position last week at Bay Hill, Kevin Na has missed his last 2 cuts and Chris Wood has only played once in the past 7 weeks, so seeing Thomas progress from this group seems distinctly possible in the first instance. Match Play experience of the Palmer Cup (part of the winning team in both 2012 & 2013) as well as the Walker Cup (winners in 2013) is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to positive results outside of strokeplay from the earlier part of his career in golf and more positives for his CV in this format of the game could well be coming this week.
The final quarter looks particularly tricky to decipher and as such I'm going for my longest priced selection in the shape of Thomas Pieters. In the top half of this section we have Jordan Spieth and Ryan Moore (who I was quite keen on before last night's live draw show) in the same group and I'd fancy one of those to progress with Yuta Ikeda and Hideto Tanihara missing out; the winner will face either Paul Casey, who has a excellent Match Play record, Charl Schwartzel, Ben An or Joost Luiten - take your pick from those 4!
The bottom half doesn't look a great deal easier to decipher, however a group containing Jhonattan Vegas (debutant), Scott Piercy (best finish of 32nd in 7 starts in 2017) and Bubba Watson who's similarly out of form to Piercy offers Thomas Pieters an excellent chance to progress after finishing with a record of 1-1-1 on debut 12 months ago. Since that point the Belgian has captured his 3rd European Tour event (2016 Made In Denmark) and impressed a global audience at the Ryder Cup by finishing overall combined top points scorer with 4 out of 5 points, rounded off with a 3&2 victory over JB Holmes in the singles. 2nd at the Genesis Open and 5th at the WGC Mexico Championship are extremely positive efforts, even if they have been flanked with a pair of missed cuts, however this is one talented man and a WGC isn't beyond him by any stretch of the imagination, nor is a Major I suspect as his career develops.
The winner of the group containing Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen (who again I suspect could go well having had a Match Play warm-up of sorts at the Perth Super 6), Ross Fisher and Jim Furyk awaits Pieters should he prevail from the first round of matches and from there he may well square up against Jordan Spieth, however there's rarely an easy match in this event and I'd rather be on Pieters in this quarter of the draw given the prices on offer.
Watch these tips on YouTube with Steve Bamford: Golf Betting System YouTube Channel