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We leave Augusta and the first Major Championship of 2015 behind us with Jordan Spieth dominating the tournament from start to finish. Now up to World Number 2, his battle with Rory McIlroy over future years looks ever more likely to dominate the sport and that's something we should all look forward to. Spieth is clearly an enigma and it will be interesting to see how he moves forward from this week in South Carolina (Spieth is the first Masters Champion to play here since Zach Johnson in 2007) where he is, of course, the undisputed favourite. The relatively short journey down the Carolina coast, the quality of the Harbour Town Golf Links and Royal Bank of Canada's sponsorship (Team RBC) always attracts a decent field in the week after The Masters.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the inaugural Shenzhen International - you can read his thoughts here.
2015 Punters League
Congratulations to Jennifer O'Sullivan Twomey who won last week's Punters League. Her short-priced trio of Spieth, McIlroy and Rose landed her the weekly free bet from Paddy Power. Sean Colgan remains in the overall Punters League lead after 14 weeks. New entrants are always welcome, so enter your 3 players for the RBC Heritage and Shenzhen International on our facebook group now.
Harbour Town Golf Links is a tight and twisting Carolina golf course that features some of the smallest greens each year on the PGA Tour. Excellent putting this week will be an absolute must so here's my RBC Heritage Open preview which walks you through some interesting angles that have shaped my final selections:
Course Guide: Harbour Town Golf Links is no typical coastal course; instead I categorise it as a Carolina track, i.e. sharing features with Quail Hollow, Sedgefield and Pinehurst No.2. It also has extremely close form associations with Copperhead in Palm Harbor, Florida, which plays far more as a Carolina-type course than a typical Florida track. Carolina courses are traditionally tree-lined with narrow sight lines from the tee and Harbour Town is a Pete Dye design that also features tiny dome-shaped Bermuda TifEagle greens overseeded with Poa Trivialis that are incredibly difficult to hit in regulation. Hitting fairways is a prerequisite and it's very much a second shot golf course where ball-striking and creative shot-shaping are required to get close to tricky pin positions. Driving accuracy is paramount as errant tee shots aren't so much punished with severe rough but instead blocked out by trees.
Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head, South Carolina: Designer: Pete Dye with 2000 re-design; Course Type: Carolina, Technical; Par: 71; Length: 7,101 yards; Fairways: Bermudagrass overseeded with Paragon Rye; Rough: Bermudagrass overseeded with Paragon Rye 1.25"; Greens: 3,700 sq.ft average TifEagle Bermudagrass overseeded with Poa Trivialis; Tournament Stimp: 11 ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 72.29 (+1.29), Difficulty Rank 9 of 49 courses. 2013: 72.04 (+1.04), Difficulty Rank 11 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.04 (+1.04), Rank 9 of 48 courses.
Course Overview: Harbour Town Golf Links is a specialised test that appeals to players who thrive on gnarly TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces and who have a short game to cope with the inevitable missed greens. Undoubtedly a shot-makers course, precision from the tee rather than brute power is the key this week to avoid live oaks, pine trees and strategically placed bunkers. Greens which average only 3,700 sq.ft. are typically dome-shaped (a Dye design trait), and that's a critical point this week because even the very best Ball Strikers will miss upwards of 16 greens, so sound scrambling is essential. My view though is that we might see slightly lower scoring in 2015 compared to recent seasons as the course will play softer, with wind hardly a factor compared to the significant gusts we saw across 2013 and 2014. Putting therefore will be even more of a premium on greens where the unwary struggle to convert from within 15 feet.
Winners: 2014: Matt Kuchar (-11); 2013: Graeme McDowell (-9); 2012: Carl Pettersson (-14); 2011: Brandt Snedeker (-12); 2010: Jim Furyk (-13); 2009: Brian Gay (-20); 2008: Boo Weekley (-15); 2007: Boo Weekley (-14).
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 RBC Heritage 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 Jordan Spieth (Predictor number 1), Matt Kuchar (defending champion), Zach Johnson and Kevin Streelman. Streelman is a 50/1 with Predictor number 3 Jason Bohn, available at huge prices up to 200/1.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the Farmers Insurance Open / Malaysian Open weekend 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: Kuchar 18/1; 2013: McDowell 40/1; 2012: Pettersson 55/1; 2011: Snedeker 35/1; 2010: Furyk 14/1; 2009: Brian Gay 80/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Hilton Head is here. Rainfall across this part of the South Carolina course has been higher than usual since the turn of the year. The course was deluged on Saturday with the potential for more rain pre-tournament, so I'm expecting slightly softer conditions than we usually see, with in-tournament rain a real probability on Thursday and a threat on Sunday. Tie that in with light breezes and scoring is likely to get lower than we've seen in recent years.
Nappy Factor: Here's a list of players in this week's field who've recently become fathers. This is an interesting angle that his historically delivered numerous winners. If you know of further players don't hesitate to email us or add new names to the thread on our facebook group: James Hahn 3.3.15 (Won Northern Trust 22.2.2015); Bill Haas 27.2.2015 (Won Humana Challenge 25.1.2015); Robert Streb 3.2.15; D.A. Points 20.1.15.
World Matchplay OWGR Bubble: Here's a list of players by current OWGR who aren't yet certain qualifiers for the World Matchplay in a fortnight. A position in the OWGR Top 64 this Sunday guarantees a spot at Harding Park. Current OWGR in brackets: Ben Martin (64), Daniel Berger (69), Marcel Siem (70), Kevin Streelman (71), Graham Delaet (72), Cameron Tringale (76), Ernie Els (77), Jonas Blixt (78), Russell Knox (79), Sang-moon Bae (81), Brendon de Jonge (85), Robert Streb (89), Justin Thomas (91), James Hahn (92), Brian Harman (94), Morgan Hoffmann (95), Charles Howell III (96), Kevin Stadler (97).
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Harbour Town is undoubtedly a course where patience, experience and guile is rewarded. Played traditionally the week after Augusta (apart from 2011), it won't surprise you that the majority of recent champions played down the road in Georgia at The Masters prior to triumphing here namely Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell, Brandt Snedeker, Jim Furyk and Boo Weekley - who successfully defended. Two exceptions to that trend come in the form of Brian Gay (2009) and Carl Pettersson (2012) - again experienced professionals who both have a great record on tight Par 70s.
Another strong trend is the fact that all winners here going back to 2006 (Aaron Baddeley) had at least a single Top 10 on Bermudagrass greens in the season prior to placing the Harbour Town Plaid Jacket on their shoulders. Course form-wise, Top 4 finishes on the TifEagle Bermudagrass greens at coastal Kapalua seem to be a huge indicator and that link to TifEagle performances should not be overlooked.
Harbour Town shares the exact same green grass mix as Copperhead and, as mentioned before, the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook shares Carolina course overtures in its setup. 5 of the 6 winners from 2009 onwards had all finished in the Top 10 around Copperhead prior to winning here with Graeme McDowell (the exception) never having played at the Valspar Championship. Broadening the TifEagle link out slightly and excellent performances on the pure TifEagle greens featured at PGA National and Doral link in perfectly as well for the RBC Heritage.
Key Bookmaker Offer: Paddy Power have again gone 6 places each-way at the RBC Heritage. Full details here.
Winless since Kapalua 2014, Zach Johnson made a serious breakthrough last week at Augusta, capturing his first Major Top 10 since Oak Hill in August 2013. His 301 yard driving distance average from the tee, despite being irrelevant for this week, grabbed my attention and in a post-tournament interview Zach commented that he was happy with his crisp iron-play and a new driver that's been recently added to the bag. That driver has added length and made him comfortable to hit the ball both ways and naturally Zach is one of the most accurate drivers around. The 11-time PGA Tour winner, who has won 4 tournaments on Bermudagrass greens, has also been tinkering with his short game which finally came alive after 27 holes at Augusta. Up until then Johnson was +4 and heading home, but across the final 45 holes he shot -12 powered by some excellent putting and razor-sharp scrambling. 2nd here in 2012 and has 2 Bermudagrass Top 10s so far this season at Kapalua and Bay Hill.
Patrick Reed is a TifEagle Bermudagrass-positive putter who logically makes real sense for Harbour Town. Yes his record here is unimpressive so far, but 4 Bermudagrass wins since August 2013 - the first of which was on the Carolina Par 70 set-up at Sedgefield (Champion Bermuda), followed by PGA West (TifDwarf Bermuda Poa Trivialis), Doral (TifEagle Bermuda) and Kapalua (TifEagle Bermuda) - highlight that the 25 year-old Texan is a real talent. I was impressed with his 22nd at Augusta last week and Reed sits 5th in Bogey Avoidance, 2nd in Scrambling, 8th in Par 4 Performance and 23rd in Strokes Gained Putting on the PGA Tour in 14/15. His 2012 missed cut here on debut interests me as he hit 29 fairways (69%) and was 3rd in Greens in Regulation across the whole tournament field, but putted at a lowly 1.95 Putts per GIR. If he performs as well from tee-to-green this week I'm expecting another serious contending performance from a guy whose win at Kapalua in January has been followed by 7th at PGA National (TifEagle Bermuda) and a play-off defeat to you know who at Copperhead (TifEagle Poa Trivialis).
I backed Russell Henley here 12 months ago and naturally he missed the cut. However nothing ventured, nothing gained and it's clear to me that Henley is now a more rounded player whose consistency levels have improved massively. You may remember that Russell Henley finished 2nd at TPC Boston in September (links well to both Kuchar and Snedeker) and so far in 2014/15 the 26 year-old, who lives just down the coast in Charlestown, has finished 4th at Sea Island (TifDwarf Bermuda), 3rd at Kapalua (TifEagle Bermuda) and 4th 2 weeks ago at the GC of Houston. 21st last week after ending Round 1 in tied 4th was Henley's best Major result since his incredible 16th at Pebble Beach at the U.S. Open as an amateur back in 2010. His driving, approach play and putting is working well right now and his scrambling across the last 2 weeks has been far improved. Remember Henley has 2 PGA Tour wins to his name already at Waialae (2013 - TifDwarf Bermuda) and PGA National (2014 - TifEagle Bermuda) and it's already clear that thrives on the coast. 6th here on debut in 2013.
Experienced professionals litter the Champions Roll of Honour here and we're looking for players who thrive on tighter set-ups, love Bermudagrass greens and who enter the tournament putting well after a recent contending performance. Well Sean O'Hair ticks all of those boxes and he has a 7th place to his credit here at Harbour Town back in 2007. O'Hair, like Reed, was part of the play-off at Copperhead last month where Jordan Spieth captured his first win of 2015 and we were on board on O'Hair's last Bermudagrass green outing at Bay Hill where he contended for 54 holes. O'Hair has won at both Copperhead (2008) and Quail Hollow (2009) so he has a proven liking for Carolina set-ups plus a pair of 4th place finishes at Kapalua (2009/10) is also very worthy of note. He's experienced enough to throttle back on the driving this week and has been playing some exceptionally tight golf in 2014/15.
Jason Bohn has never excelled out west, instead he's always played well either 'up-state' or across south-east states which all makes sense when you realise he grew up in Pennsylvania, attended the University of Alabama and is now based in Georgia. Bohn loves free-scoring tournaments, has won PGA Tour titles on both Bentgrass and Bermudagrass greens and absolutely thrives in Carolina in particular. I wouldn't have mentioned him at Harbour Town this week if the tournament was being played in tough weather conditions, but soft course conditions and minimal breezes will play into Bohn's hands this week. Indeed Jason finished 6th here back in 2008, the year when Boo Weekley shot -15 across the opening 54 holes to defeat Aaron Baddeley and Anthony Kim. Bohn went out in the second last group that Sunday at -10. All of this is academic until you realise that statistically he's good enough game-wise right now to feature in 3rd position in this week's Predictor Model and that his Carolina course record reads: Sedgefield: 3rd (2005), 2nd (2006), 2nd (2009); Quail Hollow: 3rd (2008),4th (2014).
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