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It's easy to overlook these 'second division' PGA Tour tournaments and focus on the main event which this week is the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin. However these alternate events are a massive opportunity for both players and punters alike and we've enjoyed plenty of success in recent seasons. This week's Puerto Rico Open is where the less fortunate have a huge opportunity to grab a PGA Tour victory and, more importantly, full playing privileges until the close of 2018/19. Don't underestimate the importance of that prize!
2017 sees the likes of Wesley Bryan (OWGR 73rd), Graham DeLaet (135th), Andrew Johnston (100th), Chris Kirk (90th), Graeme McDowell (82nd), Thorbjorn Olesen (80th), Ian Poulter (199th) and Fabrizio Zanotti (78th) arrive at the Coco Beach Golf and Country Club looking to capitalise like Tony Finau did 12 months ago.
Searching for value always makes sense in Puerto Rico be they rookies or experienced PGA Tour professionals, especially as a sub 50/1 winner up until this point has never captured the title.
Also this week we have the WGC Dell Match Play Championship - Paul Williams previews that event here.
Course Guide: The tournament is hosted at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club in Rio Grande. It's a booming Tom Kite designed Par 72 located on an exposed stretch of the island's northern coastline. Wind plays a serious factor in the outcome of the tournament and the winning score is pretty much defined by the severity of the breeze from the Mid-Atlantic and whether tournament organisers decide to move forward tees on a number of the par-5s. We scored here with Chesson Hadley at in 2014 when he won at -21/269, but the past 2 renewals have seen far higher scores at -7/281 (Cejka) and -12/276 (Finau).
Coco Beach Golf and Country Club, Rio Grande, Puerto Rico: Designer: Tom Kite 2004 with Kite re-design 2008; Course Type: Coastal, Resort - can play more Technical in windy conditions; Par: 72; Length: 7,506 yards; Fairways: Salam Paspalum; Rough: Salam Paspalum 2.5"; Greens: 6,000 sq.ft average Sea Dwarf Paspalum; Tournament Stimp: 11ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 72.03 (+0.03), Difficulty Rank 22 of 49 courses. 2013: 70.23 (-1.77), Difficulty Rank 38 of 43 courses. 2014: 70.79 (-1.21), Rank 41 of 48 courses. 2015: 72.57 (+0.57), Rank 13 of 52 courses. 2016: 71.76 (-0.24), 24 of 50 courses.
Course Overview: At 7,500 yards, Coco Beach is a stretching Par 72 at sea level. As with all Par 72s, scoring well on the 4 looks at par-5s is important, especially on the back 9 here where, if played to their full length, the 15th and 18th play at 600 yards and 630 yards respectively. The key (as always) will be maximising par-5 opportunities and scoring heavily on a number of short par-4s where the players get wedge in their hands. Wind as ever here is the key to scoring and with slightly lighter wind forecast across the week, a winning score of -14/274 to -16/272 should be the target a player needs to look at shooting to be in the mix for victory.
Winners: 2016: Tony Finau (-12); 2015: Alex Cejka (-7); 2014: Chesson Hadley (-21); 2013: Scott Brown (-20); 2012: George McNeill (-16); 2011: Michael Bradley (-16); 2010: Derek Lamely (-19).
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 Puerto Rico Open predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Luke List (No.1), Graham DeLaet, Chris Kirk, Graeme McDowell and Danny Lee.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Sony Open / South African Open and includes PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2016: Fianu 50/1; 2015: Cejka 125/1; 2014: Hadley 50/1; 2013: Brown 50/1; 2012: McNeill 55/1; 2011: Bradley 135/1; 2010: Lamely 110/1. Average: 82/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Rio Grande, Puerto Rico is here. We should be in for lower scoring in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2016 renewals. Slightly lower wind levels are forecast across the 4 days of play plus some rain pre-event and during both Friday and Saturday should see more receptive conditions develop. Naturally a very wet Saturday as forecast with 10-15 mph winds will test those who make the cut and won't be to everybody's liking.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 7 winners of this event since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this technical test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Let's take a view from players as to how the Coco Beach sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Ian Poulter: "I like the windy conditions. It kind of takes me back to hitting some old-school shots and I feel comfortable on the course. The ball was kind of boring through that strong wind, so you're still able to get good distance out there. But I'm happy."
Alex Cejka: "You know, I loved it here. I've been coming here for many years, and I even played well here, but I kind of never, you know, played good enough, because in the past the scores were like 20‑under, you know. So it's a challenging course with the wind. So I always was playing well, but the scores were always so low, and you know, this year it was the same wind, same course, but somehow the scores are not 20‑under, but 7‑under. So it was a little bit tougher. Maybe the wind was maybe a little bit stronger. They didn't move the tees up like what they normally do like on the weekends. Maybe today a couple holes. But you know, it's just we all were playing just good golf, and you know, somebody has to win, and finally it's me."
Chesson Hadley: "I think just the way the holes set up. It fits how far I hit the ball. Like the fairway bunkers are positioned in places where I can hit driver, hit 3‑wood or hybrid or whatever and I'm not really stressing about what club to hit. Like I mean I know exactly what club I'm pulling, you know, walking to the tee. That's what I like so much about it is just the easy decisions I feel like this course provides, me at least."
Scott Brown: "Yeah, the toughest thing about this course is it's all cross‑winds, so you very rarely get any downwind or into the wind shots. It's all quarter in or across. That's what makes it so tough. But it's really just guesswork. It's guessing on how much you think it's going to move it. The wind has been so strong that you can't really play shots that hold up against it. You've just kind of got to let the wind do what it does. It suits my eye pretty well, and I think it's a great golf course. It's got a great mix of holes. It's not our typical Tour course now where it's so long. It keeps a lot of us in the game a little bit here, and I think that's why you see that."
George McNeill: "The course and conditions reminds me of home (Florida). I play on a lot of this same grass at home. Plus I like a little bit of heat and humidity and stuff. Doesn't bother me. So that's really about it, and I guess for whatever reason, the golf course suits my eye."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
As we can see, winners here tend to be from the juicy mid-pack and below. When you remember how hard it is to triumph on the PGA Tour, it's hardly surprising that the market leaders, who know they are in half-decent nick form-wise, when thrust into the uncomfortable position of favouritism inevitably crack and finish top 20 or worse. Others though see these second tier PGA Tour events as a real opportunity - after all a full 2-year exemption on the Tour, a trip to the Tournament of Champions and a decent haul of OWGR points is not to be sniffed at.
Winner-wise, southern state based players had dominated this tournament from its introduction back in 2008, until recently when Las Vegas-based Alex Cejka and Salt Lake City-based Tony Finau threw a spanner in the works. Winners have either been younger players who've had a solid grounding in the web.com Tour or, in the case of both Alex Cejka and George McNeill, experienced players who knew how to shoot low scores in warmer climes. Cejka won here coming off a winning season on the web.com in 2014. Scott Brown was a web.com player coming off some great early season form in Central America. Emiliano Grillo is also worth referencing at this point as undoubtedly he should have won this tournament 24 months ago as a non-member - that's an interesting point with a couple of quality non-members in the field.
Game-wise, I'm looking for a player who gets the ball out there 290 yards minimum and who can take advantage of the birdie opportunities that are available on the short par-4s and the par-5s.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below:
My selections are as follows:
Luke List is definitely the sort of player who wins the Puerto Rico Open. Powerful (2nd in Driving Distance), a great second-shot player (38th in Strokes Gained Approach to the Green), who can score heavily (9th Birdie Average, 19th Scoring Average). Yes we would all like 50/1 about him this week, but I simply can't discount his chances. List hasn't missed a cut on Bermudagrass greens in 2017 - 17th at Bay Hill, 27th at Copperhead, 41st at PGA West and 13th at Waialae - his run in the Autumn also included results that correlate nicely with winners here, namely 2nd in the Sanderson Farms, 15th at TPC Summerlin and 7th at El Camaleon. That 2nd place in Jackson, Mississippi illustrates the fact that List has always been the sort to thrive in warm climes - 10th Colombia, 2nd Panama, 6th Mexico, 4th TPC Cartagena (Paspalum) - and his ability to take advantage of birdie opportunities is clear for all to see. 4th in Total Eagles, 8th in Birdie or Better Conversion, 2nd in par-5 Birdie or Better Conversion and 43rd in Going for the Green Birdie or Better skill stats makes it crystal clear that he's got the right game for Coco Beach. 15th here on debut last year, slightly lower scoring this term can only enhance and has a big chance this week.
With receptive conditions more than likely as the tournament reaches its latter stages I like the look of Danny Lee who looks half-decent value in this field. The Texas-domiciled New Zealander seems to be on the upturn and his performance last week at Bay Hill was his second top-22 finish in a row. Always a free scorer, it was noticeable at the API that Lee was in the top 7 for Bogey Avoidance and his final round -5/67 was the best in the field. It featured 5 Birdies, 14 of 18 greens hit, +3.5 strokes gained tee-to-green and +2.5 strokes gained putting. A very strong performance on a difficult day at Bay Hill and I think that Danny, who has always been a momentum player, can take that performance forward to Coco Beach this week.
It's well worth remembering that the 26 year-old was in the 2015 Presidents Cup International squad after winning the Greenbrier Classic, finishing 3rd at the John Deere Classic, 4th at Robert Trent Jones GC, 6th at Firestone and 2nd at the season-ending Tour Championship. Even last year Lee finished 4th at TPC Scottsdale, 9th at Quail Hollow and 3rd on the Moray Firth coastline at Castle Stuart. 2nd here in 2014 when he shot -19/269, Lee likes Paspalum green surfaces and thrives in tropical climes as 3rd at El Camaleon in 2014 indicates perfectly.
J.J. Spaun has impressed in his rookie season. 49th last week on his Bay Hill debut and 21st at PGA National was a decent haul across his first ever Florida swing, but many will remember the 26 year-old San Diego State University graduate for his eye-catching performances 'out west' where he landed 9th on his old home course at Torrey Pines and a brilliant 4th at TPC Scottsdale. Results such as those at 2 of the PGA Tour's premier tournaments highlight a player who's well ahead of many in this field and Spaun is undoubtedly on a fast track as he's already ranked 118th in the OWGR. Statistically J.J. sits 21st in Total Eagles, 72nd in Birdie or Better Conversion, 95th in par-5 Birdie or Better Conversion and 30th in Going for the Green Birdie or Better season-to-date skill categories. That's a great mix for Coco Beach where players need to be aggressive and score well across the shorter par-4s and set of 4 par-5s.
I also like Spaun this week as he's already shown that he can perform well in humid conditions. His web.com win last year came at the News Sentinel Open, which is played at Fox Den CC in Knoxville, Tennessee: he shot -26/258 in temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius which is no mean feat. On his promotion to the PGA Tour this autumn, Spaun acclimatised slowly to the higher level, but his best result by far came at El Camaleon where he finished 28th and he showed his liking for Paspalum greens by topping the Putts per GIR category that week.
There's a massive difference of opinion over Harold Varner III this week with Paddy Power and Betfair pricing him as short as 35/1. The very early 80/1 in the market has rightfully been snapped up, but with the price history of this event 66/1 with HV3 is not a bad place to be this week. A European Tour winner back in December at the Australian PGA Championship, played on Bermudagrass greens at RACV Royal Pines Resort on the Gold Coast, Varner has had a slow start to 2017, but that changed at Bay Hill where the Jacksonville Beach, Florida resident contended for 54 holes - he was 8th after Round 1 and 11th after Round 3 - before understandably going backwards in the final round when paired with Paul Casey who shot 78 to Varner's 77. That final round aside, Harold only leaked 5 bogeys over the opening 54 holes and that's a green light for me as he has the power-bomber game to really compete on his debut at Coco Beach (I really wanted him to play here last year). 24th in Total Eagles, 15th for par-5 Birdies or Better and 8th for Going for the Green Birdie or Better skill categories last season is a great match for Puerto Rico and it's worth mentioning that Harold was 5th at El Camaleon last season, as well as 12th in Colombia and 2nd in Panama in his 2015 web.com promotion season. With rain a distinct possibility, Harold also thrives on receptive golf courses.
I'll finish with Jonas Blixt who's at an attractive price this week. 36th in Total Eagles, 50th in Birdie or Better Conversion, 72nd in par-4 and 81st in par-5 Birdie or Better Conversion are statistics I really like for Coco Beach and it's worth remembering that Blixt has contended at the highest level across The Masters (2nd 2014) and PGA Championship 4th (2013) in the past. There have been signs this year of better times ahead - 5th at Torrey Pines after 54 holes, 11th after shooting 64 in Round 2 at TPC Scottsdale - and Blixt has certainly re-invigorated his top notch putting in recent appearances. His CV stacks up well when it comes to correlating course form - 1st CordeValle (2012), 3rd TPC Summerlin (2012), 1st Old White TPC (2013) - and he's picked up some strong finishes very recently at coastal classics Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach where he finished 6th and 3rd only last year. He also takes these alternate events seriously as he was in the final group on Sunday at Montreux as recently as 2015.
Our Puerto Rico Open Tips for 2018 will be published on this page on the Tuesday before the event.
Watch these tips on YouTube with Steve Bamford: Golf Betting System YouTube Channel