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Henrik Stenson could and perhaps should have delivered a win for this column last time out in Boston, but as ever we move on and the BMW Championship, which this season is being hosted at Conway Farms Golf Club in the northern suburbs of Chicago, is always an exciting betting heat. Punters this week can't complain with 5 places each-way across a field of the last 70 players standing in the FedEx Cup (FEC) Playoffs. The BMW Championship is traditionally the 3rd leg of the Playoffs where those in attendance fight it out to grab a golden ticket to the prestigious Tour Championship at East Lake. The top 30 will make it through to next week's finale and whilst every player in that final field will have a theoretical chance to secure the overall title and the $10m that it brings, only the top 5 will truly have their destiny in their own hands following the points reset after the conclusion of this week's competition.
70 into 30 doesn't divide easily; it's even trickier when you consider that the top 17 are pretty much guaranteed their place at East Lake having already accumulated sufficient points on their season-long quest. So in reality we have 40 or so players who need to have a real go at winning the BMW Championship to stand a chance of moving on for another week - as always, it should be a fascinating week in the golfing calendar. Qualifying for the Tour Championship is always a massive deal for plenty of players who don't reside in the Official World Golf Ranking Top 50. All qualifiers for East Lake will play across next season's WGC-Cadillac Championship, Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship.
2015 Punters League. Thomas Pieters' victory at the Dutch Open delivered a great victory in last week's Punters League for Richard Baxter. Sean Colgan is still in control of the overall Punters League season lead after Week 36. With a weekly £/€25 free bet prize up for grabs, new entrants are always welcome - so enter your 6 players across the BMW Championship and Italian Open via our 2,700-strong facebook group now!
With 70 players at Plainfield and 5 places each-way, this week offers up a strong betting heat - so here's my BMW Championship preview which walks you through some interesting angles that have shaped my final selections:
Course Guide: Conway Farms Golf Club hosted the BMW Championship for the first time in 2013, won by Zach Johnson. In a rain-affected tournament with a Monday finish, Johnson shot a -6/65 to catch and defeat 54-hole leader Jim Furyk who had shot a magical 59 in Round 2. The Tom Fazio creation was welcomed positively by the PGA Tour elite and since 2013 the course has been renovated under the supervision of Dennis Wise. An additional 49 yards has been added to the course with Conway now stretching to a 7,199 yard, par 71. Visually the course features masses of undulation, uneven fairways, severe bunkering, small green complexes and eye-catching tall fescue rough.
Conway Farms Golf Club, Lake Forest, Illinois: Designer: Tom Fazio 1991 with Dennis Wise 2014 renovation; Course Type: Up-State, Resort; Par: 71; Length: 7,198 yards; Water Hazards: 4; Fairways: Bentgrass; Rough: Kentucky Bluegrass 3.5"; Greens: 5,000 sq.ft average featuring 007 Bentgrass; Stimpmeter: 11ft; Course Scoring Average 2011: 70.81 (-0.19), Difficulty Rank 27 of 43 courses.
Course Overview: Conway Farms Golf Club is a true second shot venue. Fairways are generous and easy to hit, but the real test comes in the form of the small, 5,000 sq.ft. average bentgrass green complexes where Fazio has incorporated severe undulations and defined quadrants. A fair level of wind in 2013 made Conway a tougher test for the longer and wayward in the field and ultimately the tournament was dominated by excellent wedge players who approached accurately, made birdies and scrambled brilliantly. This may change slightly in 2015 with the prevailing south-westerly wind making the course play shorter and making some of the par-5s reachable to the bombers. However those who get consistently closest to pin positions look likeliest to prevail, with medium to strong winds a feature across the opening 54 holes.
Winners: 2014: Billy Horschel (-15); 2013: Zach Johnson (-16); 2012: Rory McIlroy (-20); 2011: Justin Rose (-13); 2010: Dustin Johnson (-9).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published BMW Championship predictor is available here. You can build your own tailor-made model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Key players included in the Top 5 of the Predictor include Jason Day (Predictor number 1), Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk and Henrik Stenson.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Greenbrier / Open de France and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2014: Horschel 66/1; 2013: Z Johnson 40/1; 2012: McIlroy 7/1; 2011: Rose 66/1; 2010: D Johnson 33/1; 2009: Woods 2/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Lake Forest is here. Wind will be a feature across the first 54 holes of the tournament, with Thursday in particular looking gnarly with south-westerly winds gusting 40km/h. Winds remain south-westerly on Friday up to 25km/h before reducing on Saturday (15/20 km/h) and becoming a north-westerly which will make the course play more difficult. Conditions across Thursday, Saturday and Sunday are set to be fine, however electrical activity overnight on Thursday and throughout Friday will see soft conditions which will see lower scoring over the weekend.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the top 3 at Conway Farms in 2013 gives us a little insight into the requirements for this test, but remember the course was extremely soft that year:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players in 2013 as to how Conway Farms sets up and what skills the course favours:
Luke Donald: "It doesn't play overly long. It's going to offer up some birdies, a lot of wedges into some of these holes. The greens are reasonably subtle. Some have some decent breaks. It's not a very difficult golf course, but I think when the wind comes out of the east and the north, which it could well do come the tournament days, it's going to play a little tougher."
Zach Johnson: "I think the fairways are pretty easy to hit for the most part, and that's not good for me, and the rough isn't exactly treacherous. Given that, I think the greens are the defence here and you've got to stay below the hole. You've got to hit it in the right quadrant. I expected low numbers coming into the week. But if the wind stays this potent and potentially out of this direction, you know, it's not going to be that easy. But if we had 90‑degree weather and minimum winds, we'd be way under par after four days. It's going to be temperature and wind driven, but yeah, you're going to see low numbers. That's just the way this course sets-up. I think the fairways are pretty generous overall. If we get any rain, it's going to make it even easier because it's going to get a little softer."
Jim Furyk: "I play a Fazio course at home. It reminded me of a very typical Fazio. You know, generous off the fairway I will say, which when it was firm and fast you still had to pay mind, but you should be I think I had a streak of like 32 fairways in a row. You should be able to hit a lot of fairways out here. It's really a second‑shot golf course in that the greens are very severe. I think the one thing that they have that's difficult here is it's difficult on our staff to set this place up in that there's a lot of greens that are very big that don't have four flat hole locations. Overall I thought it was a good golf course. The severity, though, and the difficulty of this golf course is the greens, and if they were rolling at a pace of 10 and kind of soft, someone is going to tear it up because you can get the ball on the fairway and control it, and it makes it difficult to make it real firm and fast."
Nick Watney: "Out of 70 guys, there's kind of...there's a big gap between guys playing really well, like you said, and guys struggling. I think maybe if you're on, it's a course you can go out and get, and if you're off, it's pretty penalizing, I guess. There's no in between, really."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 5 BMW Championship winners:
The BMW Championship, the third leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, has a number of trends that are interesting. In an event where the focus of the media and watching public is as to who will make it to the Tour Championship, recent champions have in the main arrived from FEC standing positions outside of the Top 5. Horschel (20th), Zach Johnson (27th), Justin Rose (34th) and Dustin Johnson (16th) all arrived at the BMW with decent enough immediate form, however it didn't directly translate to a high FEC position. Only a typically 'on-fire' Rory McIlroy in 2012 arrived at an incredibly receptive, long and open layout at Crooked Stick as the FEC Number 1 and continued to dominate.
Every one of the previous BMW winners in the Playoff era have had a top-10 within their past 2 Tour outings and this really highlights the comment made by Nick Watney above back here in 2013. Punters looking for Tom Fazio designs on the PGA Tour need to look at Atunyote GC (Turning Stone 2007-2010) and the Raptor Course at Greyhawk GC (Frys.com Open 2007-2009). Fazio renovations on the Tour include Riviera, Quail Hollow and the Seaside Course (McGladrey Classic).
My selections are as follows:
Sometimes it's best not to re-invent the wheel so I'm going with 2013 Conway Farms champion Zach Johnson, who again in 2015 will be very well suited when it comes to dissecting the course and scoring heavily. Strong south-westerly winds across the opening 36 holes should help Zach to have plenty of loft in his hands with approaches and we know that when it comes to wedge-play there are few better. At 7th in the FEC standings, he will need a top 4 finish this week to gatecrash the key top 5, something I'm sure the St Andrews winner will be looking to do, especially with short-layout course form that reads 4(Plainfield)-3rd(Deere Run)-6th(TPC River Highlands)-5th(TPC Four Seasons). Johnson also interests this week on the basis that he loves to string multiple wins together in tight timescales. His win here in 2013 sparked further wins at Sherwood and Kapalua on his fourth and fifth outings following his Conway victory. In 2012 after winning at Colonial, Zach went on to win the John Deere Classic at nearby Deere Run in his 4th outing and in 2007 when he captured his first Major at Augusta, Zach went on to win at TPC Sugarloaf 4 outings later. The BMW this week marks Johnson's fifth outing post St Andrews and is undoubtedly a great opportunity. RESULT: T13
At 20th in the FedEx Cup standings Matt Kuchar needs to finish 54th or better to guarantee a spot at his 6th consecutive Tour Championship. That in itself is no reason to back the 37-year-old, but instead highlights what a disappointing season relative to his very high standards the St Simons Island, Georgia resident has had in 2015. Near misses at Waialae and PGA West started the season well before a lull set in that stretched right through to the Scottish Open where he finished 2nd behind Rickie Fowler. Of late though Kuchar has been finding that consistency that he's famous for with 7th at Glen Abbey, 7th at Whistling Straits and 9th at TPC Boston looking great for form backers. He's undoubtedly finishing the season relatively fresh, motivated and importantly his ball-striking is finding the high level which he finds rarely but has featured previously in all of his stroke-play victories since 2010. His lack of success in 2015 is even more appreciable when we cast ourselves back 24 months to Conway Farms. Entering this tournament 3rd in the FEC standings from previous victories at the World Matchplay and Muirfield Village, plus runners-up spots at Colonial and Glen Abbey, Kuchar was set on fighting it out at East Lake. His 24th at Conway was designed to be quiet (he had nothing to play for), but whilst Jim Furyk took all the plaudits for his amazing 59 in Round 2 and Zach won the tournament, Kuchar produced an immaculate -10/61 in Round 3 to highlight that his game-shape is perfect for Conway. RESULT: T41
As the only player who has played in each and every FedEx Cup Playoff event, Hunter Mahan holds a record that he's very proud of. A 2014/15 season to forget placed Mahan behind the eight-ball when it came to keeping the streak going entering TPC Boston as he sat 91st in the FEC standings and with no immediate form to speak of. But Mahan produced a vital 64 (-7) in Round 3 to catapult himself into 3rd place and the Californian held on well in the final round to grab tied 4th and boost his FEC ranking to 52nd going into Conway Farms. His ninth consecutive East Lake appearance is now only a guaranteed top 3 finish away. Now the 'FEC streak' is all well and good, but lets also put Mahan's current position into perspective. At 42nd in the Official Golf Ranking, Mahan is not guaranteed the Top 50 privileges he has been accustomed to since 2007 and as we all know you cannot underestimate the importance of a player keeping his spot at golf's 'top table'. So a strong result this week would put to bed any OWGR issues for 2015 and a spot at East Lake guarantees invites to Doral, Augusta, Oakmont and Royal Troon in 2016. Fact is though that Mahan has the right stuff to win this week in Illinois. A multi-WGC winner and 6-time PGA Tour champion, Mahan won The Barclays 13 months ago after a similar form malaise and, in doing so, earned his 3rd Ryder Cup appearance at Gleneagles from Tom Watson. Last year's victory in New Jersey were in addition to previous victories at TPC River Highlands (Connecticut) and Firestone (Ohio) and it's worth noting that all 6 of Mahan's victories have been on bentgrass or bentgrass mix putting surfaces. 4th here in 2013 simply adds fuel to fire for his inclusion this week. RESULT: T32
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