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. 2 eligible players - Henrik Stenson (schedule clash apparently) and Jim Furyk (ongoing wrist injury) - have both opted not to play this week, otherwise all of the World's top 64 (well 66) are in attendance this week fighting for the top prize, so if nothing else we're in for some serious entertainment as the tournament unfolds.
As per the changes applied prior to last year's 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 full draw.
A change in sponsor once again this year as Cadillac hand over the reins to Dell and we also have a change in venue as we move from TPC Harding Park in San Francisco to the Austin Country Club in Austin, Texas. If you put any credence into event history when it comes to Match Play - and this event in particular - then the results from Dove Mountain prior to last year's renewal must be getting ever more tenuous, plus we also have the added complexity of a new spot in the schedule with The Masters a little over a fortnight away. The plot thickens!
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 will host this event for four years following last year's agreement and the club, which dates back to 1899 and is one of the oldest in the state of Texas, will present Pete Dye's 1984 design as the layout on which the players will commence one-on-one battle. The 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 7,073 yard par 71 features 3 lengthy Par 5s of 597, 573 and 570 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 doesn't look like a bomber's paradise by any stretch of the imagination. Pete Dye courses are generally no pushover (think Harbour Town, TPC Louisiana, TPC Sawgrass and Whistling Straits from last year's schedule) 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 this week's event the golf course has undergone a complete restoration to bring it back in line with Dye's original design. Greens have been extended and re-laid with TifEagle Bermuda so once again we'll have some new putting surfaces to deal with which are reportedly very firm, plus the fairways have also been 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 10 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. 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 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here; for a similar summary of PGA Tour results over the past 5 years click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Austin, Texas is here. The tournament should enjoy dry, fine weather with temperatures around 70-75 Fahrenheit for the first 3 days before the slight risk of thunderstorms on Sunday. The complexity for the players will come in the shape of windy conditions of up to 30 km/h for the first 2 days (with gusts potentially up to 50 km/h) before things calm down a little for the remainder of the tournament.
Format. Players are allocated one of 16 groups of 4 players, each containing one of the seeded players and three others as drawn in Monday's live TV show. A round-robin format follows for the first 3 days with each player playing 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. For full details of the format for this event click here.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Digging too deep into past results often throws up nothing more than a red herring or three 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 7 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 and McIlroy was 11/1 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. For a summary of 2015 PGA Tour winners' current/event form prior to winning click here.
In terms of top seeds, only 5 of the 16 made it through to Saturday's round of 16 last year and of those only 2, McIlroy and Furyk, progressed to the quarter finals and beyond where they eventually met in the semi-final and Rory was the narrow victor. The other 2 semi-finalists - and each-way payouts from a betting perspective - were Danny Willett and Gary Woodland who were seeded 48 and 50 respectively.
Bookmaker Offers. All mainstream bookies are 1/4 odds for the first 4 this week, however there are a couple of other deals to consider:
My selections are as follows:
The WGC Match Play is an event that divides opinion and conjures up a variety of options as to how best play it as a betting event. In a recent poll on our facebook group, more than half of responders said that they'd have either 'no bet or minimal bets' on this year's event which kind of sums up the approach of many punters to what's often regarded as a lottery when it comes to picking a winner. Certainly we should expect the unexpected, however I think there are just about enough important factors to come to some kind of logical conclusion here and having considered the draw, the event's history, the conditions and current form my feeling is that Rickie Fowler is the most likely winner.
Backing outsiders is often mooted as the only viable betting strategy at this event, however the recent winning prices don't bear that out. 50/1 (Mahan) is the longest price winner of this event going back as far as 2009 and 11/1 (McIlroy) the shortest last year, so the winner is more likely to come from the top end of the betting on that evidence. That's not to say that outsiders can't make the top 4 - far from it - however I'm talking eventual winner here and for that I want someone classy.
2016 form of 5/1/MC/2/6/8 for Fowler is incredibly consistent for a player who's only a couple more big wins away from truly joining those at the top of the golfing table and anyone who's watched him play this season will wonder how he's only converted one title so far, particularly with a heartbreaking play-off defeat to Hideki Matsuyama in Phoenix where, if anything, his aggressive game was his eventual downfall. For me that disappointment will likely spur the 27 year-old on even more and he's more than a quiet fancy for many at Augusta in a couple of weeks time.
To the here and now though and with a relatively soft group in the shape of Ben An, Scott Piercy and Jason Dufner and the promise of windy conditions over the first couple of days which plays firmly into his hands, making the weekend should hopefully be more straightforward than some other groups. He made the quarterfinals last season despite not having recorded a top-10 finish all year to that point; this year he arrives with his long game in excellent shape - he's ranked top-4 for Ball-Striking in 4 of his last 6 events - and when the putter starts firing in this format of the game he can quickly bring any opponent to his knees, as is evident from a 66.6% win rate in this event.
Fowler, for me, raises his game for the biggest tournaments in golf and this is one that would be a target for him given its WGC status, OWGR points and above all the fact that he'll have to beat the best to win here this week. Phoenix aside, the world No.5 has become one of the best Sunday players in the game of late, so his quote yesterday for me said it all about his chance this week, "I feel like the difference in match play is that it almost feels like you're always in a last group in contention on Sunday. And that's how you have to treat it. You need to go out and get the job done and take care of business."
Before any of the 64 players here can truly hold aspirations of winning this title they first need to get out of their groups of 4 and that, of course, is easier said than done. The complicating factor for Wednesday and Thursday is the wind which is forecast to blow a regular 25-30 km/h with gusts closer to 50 km/h at times and that may well spell the end for a whole host of players who aren't adept at handling those kind of conditions. In a pressurised situation I wouldn't want to be backing players who are being forced to play shots that they're less comfortable with or proficient at in order to combat the wind and the higher ball flights of a number of the fancied players may become a hindrance if the wind forecast pans out as expected. One player who I'd want onside in such conditions though is Matt Kuchar who's one of the world's most capable players in the breeze and proved once again with his win in Fiji last autumn just what an advantage he holds when the wind is howling.
Now getting wins over the first couple of days doesn't mean Kuchar, or anyone else for that matter, will succeed here this week - indeed it doesn't even mean he'll get through the group if Friday doesn't go to plan - so it's encouraging that the 37 year-old also has such a strong Match Play record to fall back upon. The veteran of 3 Ryder Cups and 3 Presidents Cup is a former winner of this event back in 2013 at Dove Mountain and has an impressive 18-6 record in this WGC. Wins at Harbour Town in 2014 as well as TPC Sawgrass in 2012 single Kuchar out as a positive player of Pete Dye layouts and 3 top-13 finishes from 6 starts in 2016 is typically consistent from a player whose all-round game makes him very hard to beat in this format of the game. He's been driving the ball nicely of late (2nd for accuracy at the Northern Trust Open, 8th on the same count at the Valspar) and ranks 20th so far this season for Strokes Gained Total which is a strong indicator that there's no discernable flaw in his game right now.
Approaching Match Play with a positive mindset is a big part of the equation in my view, so Kuchar's attitude is ideal, "Match play is fun. It's unique, it's different. We play 72‑hole stroke play every week. It's nice to change things up. Certainly makes for a lot of excitement. It's an 18‑hole battle. Certainly I go in with a lot of confidence in my match play ability, but that only takes you so far. You have got to outplay your opponent. You have got to play the golf course the best you can." he said. Justin Rose, who exited at the group stage last year and hasn't made the top-4 here in 10 attempts, Anirban Lahiri (1 attempt, 3rd in his group last year) and Fabian Gomez (debut) are Kuchar's initial opponents with Jason Day providing a potential clash in the quarter finals if they should both make it that far.
Out of the remaining two quarters, I'm going with just one final selection in the shape of last year's Paul Lawrie Match Play winner Kiradech Aphibarnrat. The other quarter looks like a real minefield to me with the in-form (but with a dire record in this) Adam Scott at one end and defending champion Rory McIlroy at the other, so I'm leaving that section alone this year. Of course you could say the same about many of the routes to the semi-finals, however any of the players could give the top seeds a real run for their money and with a windy couple of days thrown into the mix it looks like a real lottery to me that one.
Up against Aphibarnrat we have Dustin Johnson who racked up 5 first round exits from 6 attempts on the old knockout format before failing to get out of the group stages last year, Jimmy Walker who finished plum last in his group 12 months ago from the top seeded position and Robert Streb who makes his debut in this event and has no discernable Match Play form as a professional to either encourage or discourage, however he's hardly been setting the world alight so far in 2016 with a solitary top-20 finish from 7 starts.
Despite losing in the first round in this event in his only start back at Dove Mountain in 2014, the Thai's overall professional Match Play record reads 8 wins and 2 halves from 13 matches and included in that was the aforementioned success in the 64-man Paul Lawrie event last summer where wins over Wade Ormsby, Graeme Strorm, Thomas Aiken, Michael Hoey, Marc Warren and Robert Karlsson meant that the 26 year-old took the inaugural trophy. Having the confidence to attack this format of golf is critical in my view and whilst that list of names isn't a patch on this week's field of course, the manner in which the 3-time European Tour winner closed out the event with a stunning shot on the final hole will set him in great stead in future Match Play scenarios. A potential clash with Jordan Spieth awaits should they both make it as far as the quarter-finals, however to win an event like this you need to beat the best and 125/1 is worth a small play in my opinion.
Last week's 6th place effort at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was the Bangkok man's best result of 2016 courtesy largely of a 1.62 putting effort on the newly laid TifEagle greens and only one player putted better than him on the same surface at Doral and, for me, a confident putter is always a plus point when it comes to this format of the game. The newlywed was struggling with a neck injury at the EurAsia cup but still managed to grab a point in his team's crushing defeat and now that he's fit and healthy once again don't be surprised to see him go well here this week.
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