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Barely a fortnight on from East Lake, this week sees the start of the 2015/16 PGA Tour season. The old 'Fall Series' was re-packaged in 2013 with the intention to strengthen tournament fields, build TV ratings and allow for the season-ending Fed Ex PlayOffs to take centre stage earlier in the summer. With this week's visit to the Napa Valley in North California, followed by tournaments in Nevada, Malaysia, Mississippi, China, Mexico and Georgia, we are in for plenty of action before 2015 is through.
Whether tournament fields have been strengthened since the re-shaping of the Tour season is open to debate, but the Frys.com Open this week welcomes Major Champions Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson and Charl Schwartzel with open arms. All four play this week solely on the basis that they had to seek a release from the PGA Tour to play the 2012 Turkish Airlines World Golf Final where Justin Rose pocketed $1.5 million for defeating Lee Westwood ($1 million) in the Final of their stroke-play head-to-head final. They have waited the maximum 3 years to make their mandatory appearance at the Frys.com Open - the other members of the "Turkey Eight" - Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood - have already attended across 2013/14. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem should be commended for sticking to his principles so it will be interesting to see how World No.3 McIlroy and World No.7 Rose go this week at a tournament which I doubt will motivate them massively.
This will be the second visit to the North Course at Silverado Country Club, a course that was praised for its classical, old-style feel 12 months ago. Silverado is no pushover, with relatively tough sets of four Par 3s and Par 5s keeping the scoring honest. Over on the European Tour the Portugal Masters is a regular early Autumn event where Martin Kaymer, Bernd Wiesberger and the ever consistent Soren Kjeldsen headline. Paul Williams has cast his eye over the tournament and you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Guide: Silverado Country Club was purchased in 2010 by a small group of individuals including Johnny Miller who soon set about updating both the North and South courses. Set in the rich wine growing country of the Napa Valley, the North Course had played host to the PGA Tour from 1968 to 1976 and also the Champions Tour from 1977 to 1980. Miller's goal has always been to attract the PGA Tour back to the North Course with a view to potentially landing the U.S. Open or PGA Championship in the future. So 2011 saw Miller re-design both courses with the 1966 Trent Jones Jnr tournament course receiving a renovation that added 250 yards and saw a host of holes re-routed.
North Course, Silverado Country Club, Napa, California: Designer: Trent Jones Jnr, 1966 with a Miller redesign, 2011; Course Type: Classical; Par: 72; Length: 7,203 yards; Water Hazards: 2; Fairways: Bentgrass with Poa Annua, Kentucky Bluegrass and Rye; Rough: Kentucky Bluegrass and Rye, 3.5"; Greens: 6,200 sq.ft average featuring Bentgrass with Poa Annua; Stimpmeter: 10.5ft; Course Scoring Average 2014: 71.70 (-0.30), Difficulty Rank 24 of 52 courses.
Course Overview: The North Course is a classical, tree-lined track that's set up to be scoreable at the Frys.com. It's not overly long at just over 7,200 yards, however the Par 72 features plenty of dog-legs with Napa Valley Oaks and Redwoods strategically placed to block approach shots. Miller re-routed a number of holes, lengthened the course and re-worked the bunkering with the goal of creating an 'Augusta-type' feel. Fairways are on the tight side and were difficult to hit in 2014, but the penalty is not massive despite 3.5" rough. Green complexes and surrounding rough are the main defence with some fairly severe undulations giving players with an excellent short game an advantage. Greens feature Bent/Poa Annua grass and played fast on the Sunday 12 months ago when they weren't watered by the ground staff.
As the 24th (of 52) most difficult course on the 2014/15 schedule, the North Course at Silverado was no resort-style pushover. Relatively fast conditions made for a decent enough test 12 months ago and with no foreseeable change in 2015 this classical test stands up to inspection. Par 3 Scoring Average was in the top 10 most difficult on Tour and the set of Par 5s were in the top 20 most difficult last season with greens difficult to hit in 2 shots. Undulating putting surfaces combined with tough scrambling from the rough made the track relatively challenging and the Poa Annua in the greens made putting from inside of 7 feet some of the most difficult on Tour last season.
Winners: 2014: Sang-Moon Bae (-15); 2013: Jimmy Walker (-17); 2012: Jonas Blixt (-16); 2011: Bryce Molder (-17); 2010: Rocco Mediate (-15).
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 Frys.com Open predictor is available here. You can build your own tailor-made model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Key players in the Top 5 of the Predictor are Brooks Koepka (Predictor number 1), Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas. Of the new Tour graduates look out for Michael Kim (250/1), Jamie Lovemark (150/1), Dawie Van Der Walt (250/1) and Steve Marino (250/1) who all break the top 15.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the WGC Bridgestone Invitational / Barracuda Championship and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. 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: Bae 150/1; 2013: Walker 30/1; 2012: Blixt 28/1; 2011: Molder 40/1; 2010: Mediate 125/1. 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 Napa is here. Weather will be relatively calm and crisp throughout the tournament's 4 days. Expect fresh starts for the morning starters, but conditions are set fair with clear skies, sunshine and mid-afternoon temperatures reaching around 26 degrees Celsius. As the temperature rises in the afternoon an accompanying breeze will develop which will be a factor at around 15km/h to 25 km/h. There's a 45% chance of rain / thunder from Noon on Saturday across the afternoon, but expect firm and fast conditions on the fairways with greens as fast as the Tour officials decide they want.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of winner Sang-moon Bae and runner-up Steven Bowditch here 12 months ago gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
So let's take a view from players as to how Silverado sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Sang-moon Bae: "Honestly, I really like this course because it's like a classic - always classic courses you need really good iron shots for second, really narrow, small greens, a lot of undulation. I think the greens were pretty soft this week, but the fairways were a little firm, but rough is not easy. So I drove it pretty good, but iron shot was really, really good, and that's why I made a lot of birdies this week."
Andres Gonzales: "It's not overly long. It's not real overpowering, but there are a lot of sections of the green where if you're not in the right spot, you're going to have a tough up-and-down or a tough two-putt, so you want to be below the hole on a lot of them. You have to be in the right position on fairways. You can be in the fairway and not have a clear shot, so you have to be on the right half of the fairway, or if you do miss a fairway be on the proper side. I don't think that you're going to have anybody overpowering it. With some of the doglegs, trying to play into position and take some clubs out of your hands on certain holes."
Tim Clark: "It's a great golf course. I mean, it's going to reward good play and if you struggle you're going to see that in the scores, too. Tough driving course. For me I feel like there's some really narrow holes out there. I just think overall it's a great golf course. I'm finding it kind of narrow, so I can only imagine what the other guys are feeling. I missed fairways today, but you're still able to chase the ball up, and I got it around the greens when I had to do that. Unfortunately I didn't manage to birdie a par 5, but they're tough. I don't think they're that reachable for the guys. Really it is about positioning your ball out here, which is going to suit me."
Lee Westwood: "It's a tricky golf course. There's four par 5s, not really any of them are gimmies. There's some tricky par 4s out there with severe slopes and undulations on the greens. The greens are fast. They can tuck flags away. And the par 3s are really strong. There's a couple of really good mid‑iron par 3s out there and then the second is like a rescue for me. It's 245 yards long. There's not much let-up out there on the course."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 4 Frys.com Open winners:
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The Frys.com produces some interesting trends. Although the tournament has had various schedule slots across the 'Fall Series' before becoming the now PGA Tour curtain-raiser, all winners have been at 150/1 or less across the past 4 renewals. All of these players arrived in California having seen recent competitive action and had a CV that contained strong finishes out west. Previous host course CordeValle undoubtedly promoted maiden Tour winners (Molder, Blixt and Walker) with single Tour title holder Bae capturing the title 12 months ago here at Silverado.
The Frys.com events have always favoured free scoring players who can putt beautifully and confidently on greens that have poa annua within their structure. As we know this is not every player's cup of tea, so a winners list with Molder, Blixt, Walker and Bae clearly indicates that strong putters, and those with an excellent scrambling game from the rough, have an advantage in Northern California. Set-up wise, the North Course at Silverado is no resort-style golf course. That's to be expected as Johnny Miller has a long-term goal of landing a U.S. Open or PGA Championship. Fairly tight, tree-lined fairways can block approach shots and pin positions can be tucked into areas where accessibility is difficult. The greens themselves, especially on the front side (which played over par 12 months ago), were described as severely sloping by many, which in turn placed Silverado in the top-half of difficulty on Tour when it comes to proximity to the pin. Fast running fairways and 4 holes (5th, 8th, 9th and the 17th) where Going for the Green becomes a factor, undoubtedly help aggressive, above average Tour hitters. My selections are as follows:
Brooks Koepka loves the Frys.com Open as it holds a special place in his early career development. Back in 2013 he arrived at CordeValle as a European Tour starlet with no status on the PGA Tour and promptly contended for victory: 67-64-67 powered Koepka to the top of the leaderboard with both 36 and 54 hole leads and although ultimately he couldn't convert the most unlikely of wins, 3 appearances later he collected the Turkish Airlines Open to take his first top-level success where he held off the likes of Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson. 24 months on he arrives at Silverado at an event he summed up last year by stating "It's great. It's nice to come back. Obviously it's at a different course, but you know, this event is special to me. It's one I look to come back to in the next few years."
Despite being at his highest Official Golf Rank of 12, Koepka has been true to his word and has chosen to start his PGA Tour campaign again at Silverado where he had another chance to win 12 months ago. The Predictor Number 1 selection is clearly a great fit for the course where his aggressive tendencies marry up well with his excellent short game on and around the greens. But after his win at TPC Scottsdale in February, where he defeated Bubba Watson and Hideki Matsuyama, if he gets in position to win over the weekend I can see him converting even if McIlroy and Rose are still in the mix, as is the measure of how far his game has come along in recent times. RESULT: T41
My European Tour colleague Paul Williams stayed patient with Matthew Fitzpatrick over the past few weeks and that patience was rewarded when the 21 year-old won his maiden main Tour title on the Marquess Course at Woburn last week at 35/1. So I'm sticking to my guns and adding the undoubted talent that is Justin Thomas to my staking plan this week. Within the Predictor Top 5, Thomas is blessed with the kind of weaponary that suits Silverado. Long off the tee, Thomas finished the 2015 season 6th in Birdie or Better Conversion, 2nd in Par 5 Scoring Average, 13th in Going for the Green and 26th in Scrambling from the Rough PGA Tour skill categories.
Yes his temperament still isn't 100% in the heat of battle on Sunday, but he's learning and that will come in time. It could be as early as this week where a definite step down in field depth and a small tournament feel should relax the 22 year-old Kentuckian. 6th in Greens in Regulation in his last appearance at Conway Farms powered his highest profile contention to date. Silverado will suit a player who already has west coast top 10s at Torrey Pines, Waialae and PGA West (he shot 69 in Round 1 here 12 months ago) and I think that a few weeks to rest and contemplate Daniel Berger's crowning as Rookie of the Year will motivate Thomas to bigger and better finishes in the immediate future. RESULT: T3
I'll close with Matt Jones who I think has made definitive strides in 2015. The Australian won his first PGA Tour event at the GC of Houston in 2014 and then - almost inevitably for a guy who had waited 7 seasons for the breakthrough - dined out for the rest of the season. But 2015 saw the 35 year-old Scottsdale resident kick on with 3 Top-5 finishes at Bay Hill, TPC Southwind and TPC Boston meaning he missed out on his first Tour Championship and President's Cup by the smallest of margins. However the positives far outweigh the negatives for Jones who stunned the golfing world by leading after 36 holes at the PGA Championship (he finished 21st) and played really well at the Deutsche Bank where he hung around to finish 4th. Big tournaments, with big pressure, with Jones looking to compete against the very best.
Taking Silverado into account, Matt, for a short-game expert, has been playing well from tee-to-green of late and that holds him in good stead this week especially as he finished the 2015 season 15th in Birdie or Better Conversion, 15th in Par 5 Scoring Average, 23rd in Going for the Green, 12th in Scrambling from the Rough and 20th in Strokes Gained Putting PGA Tour skill categories. Jones has a number of excellent west coast finishes going back to his web.com Tour (2004-2007) days and on the main Tour he's finished 5th at Torrey Pines (2009), 8th at PGA West (2010), 7th and 10th at Pebble Beach (2010 & 2015) plus has linkable form at both Old White TPC and TPC Deere Run. RESULT: MC
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