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Welcome to the 2017/2018 PGA Tour season! Despite its establishment as recently as 2013, the wraparound season format still takes some getting used to. Just 2 weeks after crowning Justin Thomas as the 2016/17 FedEx Cup Champion, the 2017/18 PGA Tour kicks-off in California at the Safeway Open. Ahead of us are 49 tournaments, 2 more than last season, with new overseas events in South Korea and the Dominican Republic. We will also see a new venue at Trinity Forest Golf Club which replaces TPC Four Seasons for the AT&T Byron Nelson. There are returns to Shinnecock Hills (U.S. Open), Carnoustie (Open Championship), Bellerive Country Club (PGA Championship), Ridgewood Country Club (The Northern Trust) and Aronimink Golf Club (BMW Championship). The National (June) and the Barbasol Championship (July) tournaments are still to confirm their host courses.
The Safeway Open at the classical Silverado Country Club attracts a number of quality players year in, year out. The 2017 renewal sees Tony Finau, Bill Haas, Zach Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Ryan Moore, Ollie Schniederjans and Webb Simpson amongst a 144-man field who are all looking to start the new season with a win.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship - 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 had 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: 7,166 yards; Water Hazards: 2; Fairways: Bentgrass with Poa Annua, Kentucky Bluegrass and Rye; Rough: Kentucky Bluegrass and Rye, 3"; Greens: 6,200 sq.ft average featuring Bentgrass with Poa Annua; Stimpmeter: 11.5ft; Course Scoring Average 2014: 71.70 (-0.30), Difficulty Rank 24 of 52 courses, 2015: 71.11 (-0.89), Difficulty Rank 33 of 50 courses. 2016: 70.83 (-1.17), Difficulty Rank 36 of 50 courses.
Silverado Fairway Widths (yards):
Below are the fairway widths for Silverado and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on Tour:
Course Designer Links: For research purposes, other Robert Trent Jones Jnr designs include:
Course Overview: The North Course is a classical, tree-lined track that's set up to be scoreable at the Safeway Open. It's not overly long at just over 7,150 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 (6th most difficult on Tour) in 2015, but the penalty is not massive despite 3" rough. Green complexes and surrounding rough are the main defence with some fairly severe undulations, but with winning totals at -15/273 (twice) and -18/270 12 months ago, this course is more than attackable - especially when green conditions are receptive.
This event has traditionally always favoured free-scoring players who can putt beautifully and confidently on greens that have Poa Annua within their structure. As we know Poa Annua is not every player's cup of tea. Prior to last term, a winners' list with Molder, Blixt, Walker and Bae clearly indicated that strong putters, and those with an excellent scrambling game from the rough, had an advantage in Northern California. But in the past 2 renewals ball-strikers in the shape of Brendan Steele and Emiliano Grillo have won here at Silverado. Steele has always had a penchant for putting on the west coast though having grown up in California.
Set-up wise, the North Course at Silverado is a classical-style golf course - indeed Johnny Miller has a long-term goal of landing a U.S. Open or PGA Championship here. Fairly tight, tree-lined fairways can block approach shots and pin positions can be tucked into areas where accessibility is difficult. To add to the difficulty in 2017, 7 green complexes now feature closely mown run-off areas which will grab wayward approaches. These now feature across the 15th to 18th holes just to add a new variant. The greens themselves, especially on the front side, are described as severely sloping by many, which in turn has placed Silverado in the top-half of difficulty on Tour when it comes to proximity to the pin since its arrival on the schedule. Another insightful statistic is that the course only ranked 14th (2014), 21st (2015) and 5th (2016) for Going for the Green. With 5 holes (the 5th, 8th, 9th, 16th and 18th) where Going for the Green becomes a factor, look for players who can be successfully aggressive with their approach shots.
Winners: 2016: Brendan Steele (-18); 2015: Emiliano Grillo (-15); 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 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 Tony Finau, Phil Mickelson, Jamie Lovemark, Kevin Na, and Brendan Steele.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Canadian Open / Porsche Open and includes PGA Tour, European Tour and web.com Playoff events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2016: Steele 50/1; 2015: Grillo 50/1; 2014: Bae 150/1; 2013: Walker 30/1; 2012: Blixt 28/1; 2011: Molder 40/1; 2010: Mediate 150/1; Average: 71/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Napa, California is here. Weather will be relatively calm 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 up to 29 degrees Celsius. As the temperature rises in the afternoon an accompanying breeze will develop which will be a factor at around 10mph. Chance of rain is minimal, so expect firmer and faster conditions on the fairways and greens than we saw here 12 months ago.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of Silverado winners Brendan Steele, Emiliano Grillo and Sang-moon Bae gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how Silverado has played in recent years and what specific skills it requires:
Brendan Steele: "The difficulty on this course is definitely on the greens. You have to be careful where you leave it. They're quick and got a lot of slope. A few have tons of slope. Nos. 3, 4, 8, these holes, like if you get on the wrong side you've got no chance. As the week goes on it's going to firm up. If you're out of position it's going to be almost impossible to hold the greens, as it was last year. I think even though there are some shorter holes that they're really good strategically because they have areas where you can't be always. So you know, okay, if I'm going to lay up here I need to lay up left so I can come in this way or you have the tree in your way or there is a bunker on the other side. If you're hitting good shots you can score well, and if you're not hitting good shots it'll penalized you a little bit."
Emiliano Grillo: "The course asks you to be aggressive a little bit, but you have to be very smart out there. If you play smart you can score well. Out here you got to play well off the tee. You got to play from the fairway. If not, you can get some bogeys out there. I think the main key is staying patient and hitting some solid shots."
Justin Rose: "Yeah, this is a golf course where you have to drive it well. If you do drive it well around here, you set up a lot of birdie chances. The par-5s are all within range and then there are a lot of par-4s where you have wedges into the green. That's why you see guys going low. Also a tricky course. Has its subtleties. You got to put the ball in play. There are some doglegs. Pretty narrow off the tee. It's kind of the course if you play well you can go low. It's going to find out our if you're not on your game."
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."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2011:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave (where applicable) and winning score since 2010. For full first round leader stats click here.
For the record, here's the breakdown of pure Poa Annua and Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
The renamed Safeway Open - previously 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 6 renewals. All of these players arrived in California having seen recent competitive action and had a CV that contained strong immediate finishes. Steele, Bae, Molder, Blixt and Walker also had previous main Tour top-10 finishes 'out-west' to their names. Grillo, on the other hand, was quite simply playing exceptional golf after winning the web.com Tour Championship on his previous outing. This tournament in recent times has undoubtedly promoted maiden Tour winners - Molder, Blixt and Walker at CordeValle; Grillo became yet another in 2015 at Silverado at 50/1. Sang-moon Bae had won at TPC Four Seasons in 2013 prior to winning here in 2014 and last year's victor Brandon Steele had only tasted PGA Tour victory once, a distant 4 years prior to lifting the trophy here.
Spreading things slightly broader and taking the first tournament after the Tour Championship into account across the last 7 seasons - naturally this includes the 'Fall Series' from 2010-2013 - 6 of those 7 tournaments have been won by players ranked in the top 90 in the Official Golf World Rankings. Only Bae won with a triple digit OWGR at 195.
My selections are as follows:
Jamie Lovemark seems the sort who could go very well this week in his home state of California. Lovemark has always been a talented player, going back to his college days at the University of Southern California where he was a two time All-American champion. He represented the USA in the 2007 Walker Cup and in the same year received the coveted Haskins Award, which has been won by the likes of Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and in relatively recent times Patrick Cantlay and Justin Thomas. On the PGA Tour Lovemark unveiled himself in the Fry's.com Open played at Greyhawk in Arizona back in 2009, where he and Rickie Fowler made it to a play-off, eventually being pipped to the title by Troy Matteson. From there Lovemark's career has been chequered to say the least with strong web.com Tour campaigns being surrounded by poor PGA Tour seasons, but since his last promotion to the full Tour for the 2015/16 season Jamie has established himself with 9 top-10 finishes in 2 seasons.
Progress has undoubtedly been made in 2017 with the year garnering 4th at Waialae, plus a 10th at Muirfield Village and 3rd at Old White TPC - both tracks I classify as tree-lined classical in nature. His comfort level at the top level can also been seen by his last 3 appearances at the Major Championships seeing him finish 27th at Erin Hills (he was 5th after 36 holes), 22nd at Royal Birkdale (10th after 36 holes) and 33rd at the PGA Championship. At 81st in the OWGR, a first PGA Tour win must be high on Lovemark's priority list and on his last appearance at the BMW Championship he fired an opening round -7/64 highlighting that his game is in great nick. Not surprisingly for the Santo Fe-born 29 year-old, he's always performed well on the west coast across both the web.com and PGA Tours and I can see him being in the mix this week at Silverado where he has produced rounds of -7/65 and -6/66 across improving finishes of 48th (2015) and 20th (2016).
Lucas Glover is another I like the look of this week after his excellent play in Chicago last time out. 12th at the BMW Championship was no mean feat and came with an excellent 3rd Round -6/65. Positive Strokes Gained Putting and Putts per GIR performances are something to take note of with Glover and undoubtedly his results last season were the best we've seen from the South Carolinian for a long while. Indeed after three and a half years without a top-7 finish, Lucas finished 5th at the CC of Jackson, 3rd at TPC Summerlin, 7th at Bay Hill and 6th at TPC Sawgrass in season 2016/17 - definite progress and the 37 year-old is now within the top 100 in the OWGR once again. A ball-striking machine, the 2009 U.S. Open champion and 3-time PGA Tour winner has made a habit of using these low-key autumn events as a leg-up across the past 2 years and I like PGA Tour season-long statistics which rank him highly for both Going for the Green and Going for the Green Birdie or Better conversion. 17th here in 2015, Glover is undoubtedly playing much better golf these days.
Martin Laird is upwardly mobile in 2017 and we know that he has very similar game characteristics to the past 2 winners here, namely Emiliano Grillo and Brendan Steele. Last season saw the Charlotte-based Scotsman finish 8th here, 9th at PGA West, 7th at TPC Scottsdale and 8th at Riviera, highlighting that the Colorado State University graduate has always been comfortable on the west coast. His first of 3 PGA Tour victories came at TPC Summerlin in 2009 and results across other west coast venues such as Kapalua, Torrey Pines, Dove Mountain and Montreux have been strong. Of late though we've also seen Martin right in contention across both Glen Abbey (2016, 2nd) and at TPC Potomac in July where he finished 3rd behind Kyle Stanley at a test where ball-striking eventually prevailed.
A domestic PGA Tour form line which reads 3(Quicken)-WD-20(Northern Trust)-40(Dell Technologies)-44(BMW) is under the radar enough this week to get a backable price about Laird, but there are definite signs that his game is close as he arrives at Silverado where he's finished 3rd (2014), 64th and 8th (2016). At Sedgefield he shot a 1st Round -4/66 before having to withdraw because of a family issue. Glen Oaks saw him rank 6th for All-Round and his last outing at Conway Farms saw him again rank 5th in All-Round where he fired a closing round bogey-free -5/66. Martin is the sort who can hit the ball high and long, which will be useful this week, and he ranked 13th for Driving Distance, 1st for Driving Accuracy, 1st for Ball Striking and 12th for Greens in Regulation in Chicago.
Peter Uihlein 1pt EW 50/1 with (5 places, 1/4 odds)
Peter Uihlein has undoubtedly come of age with his web.com heroics grabbing the recent headlines. A winner at the classical Ohio State Golf Club in the opening week of the web.com Playoffs, Uihlein thrived on a course which has produced notable champions in recent times including Justin Thomas, Andrew Loupe and Grayson Murray. Thomas and Loupe have gone on to have differing careers on the PGA Tour, but both have also played very well at Silverado where aggressive play is rewarded. For me Uihlein also has the attributes to play well this week on his course debut, especially as his confidence must be high. 7th at the South African Open, 5th at the Dubai Desert Classic, 5th at the Puerto Rico Open and 2nd at the Open de France were the pre-cursor to Uihlein's web.com performance and have seen the 28 year-old not only burst onto the PGA Tour but also into the OWGR top 75.
Silverado's tree-lined nature should suit and if Peter hits the requisite amount of greens then he can contend here. His putter was red-hot across both the Bentgrass greens in Ohio and the Poa Annua greens in Boise on his follow-up outing where he shot an opening round -9/62. Interestingly both his European Tour win in Madeira in 2013 and his Nationwide Children's win came with scores in the mid-teens, which is exactly where I see the winning total this week, and Bent Poa Annua mix greens hold no fear as his Madeira win and a runner-up finish at Celtic Manor have been on similar greens. Yes it's a logical jump to suggest that Uihlein wins this week, but excellent results across the Dubai Desert Classic, Perth International. Puerto Rico Open, Volvo China Open and BMW Masters mirror 2015 Silverado victor Emiliano Grillo who just so happened to be coming off a stellar web.com Playoff campaign and was ranked just inside the top 75 in the OWGR when winning here 2 years ago.
Grayson Murray 1pt EW 75/1 with (5 places, 1/4 odds)
I'll finish this week with Grayson Murray who might not win any Twitter popularity contest, but has undoubtedly been playing some excellent stuff of late. Murray is another Ohio State Golf Club winner - he won there last year - who after an excellent web.com 2016 season has gone onto have an excellent first season on the PGA Tour. 8th at the CC of Jackson and 12th in California at PGA West was a relatively slow start for a much-hyped rookie, but better play across late May and June saw Grayson warm to the task. A first PGA Tour win at the Barbasol Championship in late July saw Murray grab a 2-year PGA Tour exemption and highlighted a talent who that week was 8th for Driving Accuracy, 3rd for Greens in Regulation, 4th for Strokes Gained Tee to Green and was 9th for Putts per GIR on his way to shooting -21/263. Since July though Murray has used the Barbasol as a platform to get himself noticed in higher echelons of golf. 22nd at the PGA Championship was his first Major as a professional and it's worth remembering that a 1st Round 68 was good enough for 3rd place, which he backed up with a 69 in the 3rd Round, seeing him in 6th spot after 54 holes. 68-67-68 on his debut at TPC Boston saw Murray again in the very heat of the battle come Sunday, mixing it with Thomas, Spieth, Leishman and Rahm, before a final round collapse to 25th. Undoubtedly he's not the finished article, but at an event this week which is low-key and with a game where he's hitting plenty of greens and putting superbly, I could see the power-hitting World Number 93 in the mix in California.
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