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Wentworth is one of the highlights of the golfing calendar for me and our annual return to the famous Surrey parkland course starts the run-up to the second Major Championship, the US Open, in a little over 3 weeks' time. The winner of this event gets an automatic invitation to Erin Hills if they've not already qualified, however for many this will be as much about taking a share of the generous $7m prize fund that can make a real difference in the Race To Dubai standings as well as a providing a head start in the inaugural Rolex Series which begins this week.
Whilst the event may not be classed as the European Tour's 'flagship event' nowadays with the advent of the Rolex Series and its 8 equal-status events, it has nevertheless attracted a classy field with the likes of Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose here from the OWGR top 10 as well as a plethora of top 50 players including Alex Noren, Tyrrell Hatton, Danny Willett, Branden Grace, Thomas Pieters and many more. Ernie Els will also be here to see first hand how his most recent renovations are received by the players in what promises to be a quality affair on the European Tour after a period of, let's face it, pretty poor events.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Dean & DeLuca Invitational - you can read his preview for that event here.
West Course, Wentworth, Surrey, England. Designer: Harry Colt, 1926 with Els re-design 2009/2016; Course Type: Classical; Par: 72; Length: 7,284 yards; Fairways: Bentgrass, Fescue, Poa Annua; Rough: Rye, Fescue; Greens: Creeping Bentgrass.
Course Overview. A week after Chris Wood's victory here last year, Wentworth began its second major transformation under the guidance of Ernie Els. This time, with the help of European Golf Design, the brief was to return the course back closer to the original vision conceived by Harry Colt but with consideration for how golf has developed in modern times. Whereas the changes implemented by Els and his team back in 2009, with a few subsequent revisions, toughened the track up with a series of relatively severe features, these latest changes appear to have softened the course, particularly on and around the greens. It's fair to say that the 2009 changes came in for a fair amount of criticism leading to an increasing number of players boycotting the event as time went by, however a lot of the very early feedback has been extremely positive from players and commentators alike who've had chance to try out the revamped West Course since it reopened recently.
To the casual observer the course won't look that different. The layout and routing hasn't changed, however in total 29 bunkers have been removed from the track completely and all remaining bunkers have been reconstructed and generally softened to make the course more playable. The most extensive changes though are on the greens which certainly looked more poa annua than bentgrass last year as the 'weed' grass had clearly taken hold. A sub-air system, as per Augusta National, has been installed on all 18 greens and the putting surfaces have been stripped and re-laid with creeping bentgrass. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 12th and 15th greens have been rebuilt to a degree whereas the 8th, 11th, 14th and 16th have been completely overhauled in a bid to make the surfaces more amenable. The entrances to a number of greens have been opened too as part of the changes to encourage more shot-making options and to make them more accessible from the ground, in turn allowing balls to roll onto the greens as was Colt's original concept here.
With all this softening of the golf course's features, it would be fair to assume that scoring will improve in average conditions with far less penalty from the fairway and greenside bunkers plus flatter, better quality greens. The rough though is thicker, consistent and more penal than before both from off the fairway and around the greens and with last week's rainfall after a particularly dry spell in the south of England, I'd expect players to find the rough the biggest challenge this week. The sub-air system will allow the organisers to make the putting surfaces firm and fast which was one of the objectives of the work, so controlling the golf ball from out of the rough - or avoiding it in the first place - may well prove to be this week's biggest challenge.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's BMW PGA Championship 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.
New for this week we've also published a combined current form/tournament form stats page which you can find here.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Chris Wood, 66/1; 2015: Byeong-Hun An, 100/1; 2014: Rory McIlroy, 14/1; 2013: Matteo Manassero, 66/1; 2012: Luke Donald, 8/1; 2011: Luke Donald, 15/2; 2010: Simon Khan, 200/1. 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 the area is here. After a wet few days last week - which provided the area with the first significant rainfall for a number of weeks - the forecast is set fair with calm to moderate winds, sunny conditions and temperatures creeping towards the mid 70s Fahrenheit.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the last 7 winners here since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Hit two thirds of fairways, three quarters of greens and scramble and putt in the top dozen or so and you'll be there or thereabouts is pretty much how recent winners since the original Els re-design have got the job done. Even when weather conditions have led to higher or lower scores, it's still tended to be players who've done sufficiently well in all aspects of their game who've prevailed here. Traditionally this has been a strong all-round test and contenders can't be lacking in any particular area of their game this week if they want to succeed.
Par 5 & Par 3 scoring: In recent times, the key to scoring sufficiently well to contend on the West Course has been in mastering the par 5s. Even with tougher conditions last year, the top 6 finishers were a combined 40-under par on the par 5s compared to +8 on the par 4s. Similarly in 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012 the top 5 were 49, 58, 41 and 40-under for the par 5s respectively.
Also worth noting is that every player finishing in the top 5 or better in that time, excluding Thomas Aiken last year and Rory McIlroy in 2014, played the par 3s at level par of better for the week - indeed Chris Wood was -4 for the par 3s on the week compared to -2 for the par 4s combined; similarly Ben An was -6 for the par 3s and -3 for all of the par 4s combined. So in effect this is a case of play the par 3s well, score heavily on the par 5s and hang on around the remainder of the course's tough par 4s.
Incoming Form: The three short-priced winners (McIlroy and Donald twice) entered the event off the back of some strong form and at least 2 consecutive top 10s immediately prior to victory here. Donald backers should note that both of his wins followed excellent early season performances which, in both instances, produced some silverware in the lead up to his success over the West Course. Manassero's form was less obvious with a couple of top 20s in his previous 4 outings, whereas Simon Khan's win came from completely off the page as a late sponsor's invitation. 2015 winner Byeong-Hun An arrived with immediate form of 8/15 and had a further two top-10 finishes to his name for the year to date. Last year's winner Chris Wood had finished 54th in Ireland the week before winning here which was his first event for over a month. 8th at the Dubai Desert Classic had been the Bristolian's best effort of the year to date.
Course Form: Given his recent form, the 100/1 about Ben An in 2015 was best explained by the fact that it was his Wentworth debut and, at the time, he was still a European Tour maiden. Until then, and including Chris Wood last year, recent winners here had produced a top-10 or better over the West Course in either its previous or current guise, suggesting that positive experience of this part of Surrey in some shape or form was pretty critical.
Wentworth hadn't been Rory McIlroy's favourite stomping ground prior to victory in 2014, however he had nevertheless produced a top-5 on his second attempt in 2009; Matteo Manassero had finished 7th two years prior to victory which followed his 17th place finish on debut; Luke Donald had finished 3rd in 2008 and 2nd in 2010 prior to his back-to-back wins in 2011 and 2012; even 'surprise' 2010 winner Simon Khan had previously finished 2nd at Wentworth 4 years previously, so his ability to play the course shouldn't have been a total shock - which he again proved in 2013 when making the play-off. Form prior to winning since 2010 as follows:
Precisely how the revamped West Course will play this week remains to be seen, however the latest changes to Wentworth's layout should only help scoring. Some of the bunkering following the 2009 re-modelling was so penal it detracted from the course and the old poa-infested greens brought a mass of criticism from even the most ardent supporters of the event. Softened, shallower bunkers allowing more routes into greens and slick but perfect bentgrass putting surfaces should encourage lower totals and provide more excitement for the tens of thousands of spectators that this high-quality tournament attracts each year.
This classical, tree-lined track is at its most challenging when the wind blows - even a 10-15 mph breeze can play havoc with club selection as it whistles around the treetops - however a relatively placid forecast adds weight to the argument that we'll see plenty of birdies here this week. The main defence of the course is likely to be the thick and lush rough which will have had a few days to absorb last week's rain to make it a fair challenge for players who miss fairways and greens. For me, this event screams Italian Open style setup - courses over there are typically tight, tree-lined affairs that offer excellent scoring opportunities to those who can keep their ball in play from tee to green. Course history here shouldn't be disregarded though as we're still playing the same holes on the same course as before and some positive experience of Wentworth in its various guises can't hurt in my opinion.
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All things considered, my selections are as follows:
The withdrawal of Rory McIlroy following his MRI scan on Friday has dampened this year's BMW PGA Championship a little and, if anything, we needed the world number 2 to help lengthen some of the prices that were likely to be on offer here this week. With Rory out of the picture, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson are battling for favouritism around the 12/1 mark and both of these Major winners clearly have the class to take this title, however there are enough doubts in my mind to bypass the pair.
Rose hasn't been quite himself since his play-off defeat to Sergio Garcia at Augusta - the Zurich Classic I can disregard given its format, however 65th at TPC Sawgrass in similarly firm conditions hardly sets the pulse racing even if it isn't the Englishman's favourite track. Readers of my column will recall that I've backed Justin a number of times here at Wentworth over the years to no avail and for me he's a watching brief for the time being until he's got Augusta fully out of his system. Stenson on the other hand simply hasn't been hitting his irons well enough of late to warrant inclusion at such a short price - 62.5%, 61.1%, 66.7%, 50% and 65.3% GIR in his last 5 recorded starts simply isn't Henrik at anything like his best and although he could undoubtedly turn that around, I can't take that chance given his price.
One player who has been striking his irons well of late though is Alexander Noren and the Swede warrants backing here this week even though his price isn't exactly a bargain. Then again, at 14th in the World and with 5 wins in the last 2 years, I wouldn't expect him to be overlooked by the bookies with his game in decent shape and with a couple of top 10s to his name here over the years. After a quarter-final appearance at the WGC Match Play and a disappointing missed cut at The Masters, the 34 year-old has been in with a shout of Stateside victory on both of his last 2 starts having gone out in the final Sunday group alongside Patrick Reed at the Wells Fargo Championship before putting himself in another strong position at TPC Sawgrass on his last start before eventually finishing 10th. Sunday rounds of 77 and 73 respectively means his form line reads 31/10 rather than anything significantly more impressive, however for me he's very close to another victory and a return to the more familiar and comfortable European Tour level may well be the final piece of the jigsaw.
6th for GIR at Eagle Point and 1st on the same count at TPC Sawgrass - despite those disappointing final rounds - tells us that his ironplay is in great shape and 3rd for scrambling at The Players Championship is also eye-catching given that this week is likely to be a challenge when players do miss the putting surface. 8-under for the par 5s at Sawgrass was amongst the best on show and he'll need a similarly strong performance here this week on similarly firm greens to get himself into a contending position come Sunday. The 8-time European Tour winner's best efforts here - in 2008 (6th) and 2015 (8th) - have both come after slow starts of 75 and 72 respectively; opening rounds of 67 and 68 over his last 2 events is encouraging then and if he can get away to a good start on Thursday then I'd expect him to be right in the mix on Sunday. RESULT: Winner
One player who's looked like a Wentworth winner-in-waiting over the past few years is Francesco Molinari and event form of 7/9/7/5 between 2012-15 suggests to me that he'll add this title to his CV at some point in his career. A tight, tree-lined affair is always going to play to the Italian's strengths and with thick rough awaiting those who stray from the fairways this week, Molinari is better equipped than most to keep his ball in play which, in turn, will allow him far more control into these firm greens. Last week's deluge will make Wentworth look greener than ever to start this week's event, however warm, sunny conditions will only make the course firm up and put the emphasis very much on finding fairways and greens for players with aspirations of compiling a contending score.
Accuracy rankings of 5th (Augusta), 5th (Harbour Town), 9th (Eagle Point) and 2nd (TPC Sawgrass) tells us everything we need to know about how well the 34 year-old is driving the ball at present and whilst he's certainly not immune to the odd lapse on the greens, these pure putting surfaces should help him convert a fair few birdies this week. Twice an Italian Open winner including most recently last autumn, a more free-scoring Wentworth is actually more likely to suit Francesco who's won 3 of his 4 European Tour titles with totals of between -19 to -23. 6th at The Players Championship on his last start is impressive enough form in this field and with older brother Edoardo recently getting back to winning ways, Francesco will be keen I'm sure to get himself back into the winner's enclosure as soon as possible. RESULT: 2nd
Backing two of the top 4 in the betting doesn't leave me a massive amount of room for manoevre, however one player I can't ignore is Tommy Fleetwood who reacts on British soil and has been in exquisite form with his irons for the best part of a year now. From tee-to-green you'd be hard-pressed to find a more impressive performer than the Merseyside man having ranked 1st for Ball Striking in 5 of his last 12 appearances worldwide including when he won earlier this year in Abu Dhabi with a massive 90.3% of greens found in regulation. He repeated that same figure again at the Shenzhen International on his penultimate start and, like Molinari, he should appreciate the newly laid greens which may well help him make the most of the plethora of birdie chances that he gives himself virtually each and every time he tees the ball up. 7th in Italy last autumn where - you guessed it - he topped the GIR charts is interesting form, as is 6th here in 2015 where a Saturday 65 had given him an outside chance of catching a rampant Ben An, however it wasn't to be that week. A couple of years further on though and with another victory under his belt and with his long game in such rude health, I wouldn't be remotely surprised to see Tommy right in the mix here this week. RESULT: MC
Of the outsiders who caught my eye, both Nacho Elvira and Soomin Lee have tangible form on tracks that I'd class as relevant to this week, however neither have made a weekend here at Wentworth and that does put me off more than a little. Soren Kjeldsen may well find the changes to Wentworth to his liking having struggled with the original 2009 updates, however he's no bargain given that his current form has been a bit patchy. All things considered, I've plumped for Pablo Larrazabal who I've backed a few times recently and who I think is on the cusp of another win.
Last week's success for Alvaro Quiros in Sicily is likely to act as another shot in the arm for the amiable Spaniard who's now doubly enthused after having watched compatriot Sergio Garcia grab his maiden Major championship last month. As I've said before with Pablo, he's the type of player who wears his heart on his sleeve and he's clearly made up for both of his countrymen who grabbed critical wins in the context of their careers in recent weeks. Larrazabal himself would dearly love to add his name to the recent winners' list and with progressive form of 13/11/3 before taking a couple of weeks off ahead of this week's main event, he's clearly in the right space form-wise to have a good crack at this title. In his fortnight in China he played what he described as some of the best golf of his career and although he couldn't convert on the Sunday in Beijing, he's nevertheless striking the ball very nicely indeed at present (81.9%, 75% GIR last 2 starts) and he also scrambled very well on his last start, ranking 8th in the field on that count.
The Barcelona man has 4 impressive European Tour victories to his name so far in his career and adding a BMW PGA Championship title to his CV isn't beyond the realms of possibility. A 2008 victory at the Open de France over Colin Montgomerie is impressive enough, however a play-off defeat of Sergio Garcia in Germany in 2011, a 2014 victory over Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson in Abu Dhabi, plus a 2015 success over Henrik Stenson at the BMW International Open rubber-stamp his credentials as a player capable of winning big European Tour titles. With more than enough positive history on classical, tree-lined courses on the circuit and at his best on bentgrass greens, I think his record here at Wentworth is quietly impressive with 12th in 2013, 7th in 2014 and 12th again last year being his best efforts. With all of his wins coming in the -14 to -17 range, I suspect the 'softening' of the course will play right into his hands and he could be about as close to a value play as we get this week. RESULT: T24
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