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With the HSBC Champions in the record books we head to the penultimate event on the European Tour schedule, the BMW Masters, with next week's DP World Tour Championship providing the conclusion to the 2015 season. 78 players form the field here this week, comprising of 22 of the World's top 60 players, 14 local players and the remainder of places taken by many of the leading contenders in this season's Race to Dubai rankings. Justin Rose heads the field in terms of OWGR and is the bookmaker's favourite at a best-priced 6/1, however with the likes of Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Martin Kaymer and Victor Dubuisson in attendance - as well as the in-form Branden Grace, a rejuvenated Paul Casey and recent(ish) winners Shane Lowry, Danny Willett and Matt Fitzpatrick - I'm not sure Rose will find it all plain sailing this week.
World No.1 Rory McIlroy remains in Race to Dubai pole position as we stay in the Shanghai region for a third consecutive week, however with the Northern Irishman electing to rest ahead of next week it leaves the path clear for some of his closest rivals to make up the necessary ground to give them a fighting chance of winning the overall prize with 1.3m points up for grabs here at Lake Malaren to the winner. There's also a healthy bonus pool available for all who finish inside the top 15 after next week's event, so expect players to be fighting for every shot here in China.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford casts his eye over this week's action at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba - you can read his preview here from teatime on Tuesday 10th November.
Lake Malaren GC, Shanghai, China. Designer: Jack Nicklaus, 2011; Par: 72; Length: 7,594 yards; Fairways: Bermuda/Rye; Rough: Bermuda/Rye; Greens: A1/A4 Bentgrass; Stimp: 11ft; Scoring Average 2014: 71.43. Round 1: 71.50, Round 2: 70.03, Round 3: 70.23, Round 4: 73.97.
Course Overview. BMW Masters host course Lake Malaren GC is a Jack Nicklaus creation that measures just shy of 7,600 yards for its par of 72 and is reportedly playing long - hardly a surprise looking at the card! Fairways were nipped in a little for the 2013 event although they're still pretty generous and the only real defence that the course has to offer these top professionals is when the wind blows. As with other Nicklaus designs, the bunkers here are large and numerous plus the Bermuda rough is tricky around the greens, however excellent condition bentgrass surfaces will reap birdies to those who can find the dancefloor with regularity.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's BMW Masters 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. 2014: Marcel Siem, 80/1; 2013 Gonzalo Fdez Castano, 80/1; 2012 Peter Hanson, 40/1:For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Shanghai is here. More rain is forecast for Shanghai for the first 3 days this week with temperatures a good 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit lower than at Sheshan, peaking around the mid-60s each day. The breeze isn't expected to be a huge factor, however Saturday looks the trickiest at this point in time with wind speeds reaching 20-25 km/h or thereabouts and any significant wind can make this track play much, much trickier as we saw first hand last year on the final day.
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:
In calm conditions this immature course sets up perfectly for the longer hitters who can find form with the putter, however whenever the wind blows this exposed layout can change in an instant as we saw on the Sunday last year when the scoring average went from 70 to virtually 74 overnight. 2013 saw the most challenging conditions for all 4 days which brought the quality ball-strikers to the fore with Gonzalo Fdez-Castano proving victorious courtesy of a typically excellent tee-to-green performance. 2012 and 2014 winners Marcel Siem and Peter Hanson are both longer-than-average drivers of the golf ball and both succeeded largely due to a hot putter, however it was ultimately a chip in from the greenside rough that secured Marcel Siem his play-off victory.
This year we're likely to see fairly calm conditions to start and end the event, however Saturday could prove to be challenging with a stronger breeze and the first 3 days are likely to see rain at times to compound the already soft conditions we saw first hand across town at Sheshan last week. Cooler conditions reinforce the argument for power over accuracy, however players will still need to be finding a lot of greens in regulation to contend here this week.
The putting surfaces here are top-quality Bentgrass of an identical strain to last week, so expect players who performed well on the greens at Sheshan to enjoy the putting demands of this layout. The top end of last season's leaderboard is almost a 'who's who' of Bentgrass-positive players so I'll be sticking close to players who have a track record of performing on this type of surface.
My selections are as follows:
There are cases to be made for a whole host of names at the top of the betting this week, however with miserly prices on offer about many of the more obvious players one contender who sniffs of a little value this week is course record holder Jamie Donaldson. The Pontypridd man, who bases himself over the border in Macclesfield nowadays, shot 62 in his first competitive round here back in 2012 to take the first round lead and repeated the feat 12 months ago in the third round to rubber-stamp his liking for this course. "You know, obviously the course suits my game. I've shot 10‑under before and I've done it today which is great" the Welshman said nonchalantly after last year's Saturday round which gave him a place in the final Sunday group. A final round 75 meant he finished a shot outside the play-off despite having a decent chance on the 72nd hole to join Siem, Levy and Fisher, however he wasn't the only player to suffer in tough conditions where a 30 mph wind meant the course played a full 4 shots tougher than the previous 3 days and he'll no doubt be looking to rectify the situation this time around.
Donaldson was still riding the crest of a wave from his Ryder Cup exploits when he arrived here 12 months ago and with qualification for Darren Clarke's team to take on the Americans at Hazeltine next autumn fully underway, we've already started to see an improvement in form from many of the likely Team Europe candidates and top-13 finishes at both the Alfred Dunhill Links and Turkish Airlines Open since the window opened for accumulating points tells a story. 5th at the European Open immediately prior to that signalled Donaldson's best finish in what's been a largely unconvincing season until recent times, however with his ball-striking much improved of late (twice inside the top-10 on that count in his last 4 starts) and returning to a track where he led the field with a 1.60 putting average 12 months ago, this may well be the week that the 40 year-old gets back to winning ways. Despite having proved that he can score heavily on this track in perfect conditions, a changeable and sometimes cool and wet forecast can only help a player who can also perform in conditions more akin to his Welsh background and having finished inside the top-5 in the eventual Race to Dubai rankings for the past 2 seasons he'll be keen to improve on the 42nd place position he holds at this point in time. RESULT: T68
With Rory McIlroy taking this penultimate week of the European Tour season off, the door is wide open for Danny Willett to build a lead in the Race to Dubai standings ahead of next week's showdown at the Earth Course. With a little over 70,000 points separating the pair, Willett may not get a better chance than this in his career to top the European charts and perhaps that realisation was part of the impetus that saw the Sheffield man shoot a best-of-the-week 62 at Sheshan on Sunday to fly all the way up to 3rd place after an otherwise mixed tournament. 2 double bogeys in the space of 5 holes on Friday looked to have undone the solid foundations he'd set with an opening round of 65, however Sunday's effort - which came courtesy of an exceptional string of iron shots leaving him easy birdie chances - will give him a huge boost as we reach the business end of the season. "It's very special. It's special shooting 62 at home with the lads, it's always nice, but in a World Golf Championships on a Sunday when it means something a bit more, obviously it's that little bit more special" he said after signing his card on Sunday and more of the same at Lake Malaren could put him in a very strong position indeed ahead of next week's finale.
Should Willett succeed in winning the Race to Dubai title courtesy of his efforts this week and next it will be a fair reflection of what's been an outstanding season. Wins at Sun City and Crans, a semi-final appearance at the WGC Match Play, top-20 finishes at Doral and Firestone, top-6 finishes at the Irish Open, Italian Open, Alfred Dunhill Championship and last week's HSBC Champions - plus of course a career-best 6th place finish at the Open Championship - have catapulted the 28 year-old to 22nd in the OWGR and with his combination of an excellent long game and vastly improved short game he's got the potential for plenty more success in the coming years. A 1.67 putting average on the identical bentgrass greens of Sheshan equalled his best 2015 putting performance and if he continues to find greens in regulation at the same ratio as last week (83%) he'll be a significant factor again this week. 3 efforts here have seen steady progression with finishes of 30/27/21, however he's a far better player nowadays and I'd fully expect him to be in the mix this week. RESULT: T28
A trio of aggressive birdie-makers to complete my team this week - with 5 places each-way being paid on the limited field once again this week, it makes sense in my opinion to cover a few bases and any or all of these three have the ability feature this week.
First up, Peter Uihlein should enjoy the layout again this year as he did in 2013 when finishing 5th. The American, who ranked inside the top-10 for Driving Distance on the European Tour in both 2013 and 2014 and averages 302 yards off the tee this season, arrives here off of progressive form of 13th (UBS Hong Kong Open) and 6th (Turkish Airlines Open) and could well keep that trend moving forward this week. Just 102 putts (1.57 average) on the Bentgrass greens at the Montgomerie Maxx was the 26 year-old's best putting performance of the season and 25 birdies was 3rd in the field behind eventual winner Victor Dubuisson and 3rd place Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Uihlein clearly enjoys his visits to this country having recorded finishes of 4th at the Shenzhen International and 8th at the China Open earlier this term to add to his aforementioned top-5 finish on this track 2 years ago. Has a decent chance here this week in my view. RESULT: T28
Last week's tie for 30th at Sheshan halted an impressive run of four consecutive top-6 finishes on all Tours for Kiradech Aphibarnrat, however that was understandable having been in a great position to win in Turkey the week before and I, for one, won't be remotely surprised to see him bounce back here this week. The Thai has had an excellent season that's seen him break into the OWGR top 50 for the first time off the back of 3 worldwide victories and his recent efforts have reinforced that position which, in turn, will open many doors in 2016. With no course form here the 26 year-old may be at a slight disadvantage in terms of experience, however this isn't a tricky layout and with a Driving Distance average in excess of 290 yards and putting at 1.65 or lower in 3 of his last 4 starts, this layout could prove to be right up his alley. 105 birdies in his last 5 starts is an incredible run of scoring and having already secured a victory in China this season (Shenzhen International), another big performance in this part of the world isn't beyond the realms of possibility. RESULT: T31
Regulars will know that I've backed Alexander Levy a few times to no avail in recent times, however flat tracks with Bentgrass greens seem to be the way to go if we're looking for potential Levy successes - his early season 3rd in China was also on Bent (4th for Putting Average that week), as was his other 3rd place finish of the season in Sweden (7th for Putting Average) - so with a week's rest under his belt and a track that suits, I'm happy to take a chance here. Winding back 12 months and the Frenchman was in the form of his life having decimated the field at the weather-impacted Portugal Masters and very nearly following up with victory here 2 starts later. Rounds of 65, 66 and 63 had put the 25 year-old in control and holding a 4-stroke lead heading into the final day before 30 mph winds halted his progress and a Marcel Siem chip-in on the first extra hole eventually broke his resistance. A more placid forecast coupled with a soft course once again sets up fantastically for Levy who was right in the mix in Turkey after opening rounds of 69 and 65 before falling back to finish in a tie for 18th. 18 birdies and an eagles was positive though, as was 80.6% GIR over the course of the 4 days - his best performance with his irons this season - which suggests to me that he's on the cusp of another big performance. RESULT: T28
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