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As the golfing year edges towards its close, we head to China for the final World Golf Championship of 2018 ahead of the final three Rolex Series events that will bring the European Tour season to its conclusion. After a brief change in venue in 2012 when this event visited Mission Hills and Ian Poulter was victorious, we're back once again at the more familiar Sheshan track that's hosted the tournament every other year. Bear in mind then when using this week's event history stats that we're on the track that hosted the HSBC Champions event from 2005-2011, as well as 2013-17, in both its pre-WGC and current guise.
Despite its addition to the PGA Tour schedule in 2013, this event is still very much the poor relation when it comes to WGCs. Barring injury and holidays, the other 3 WGC tournaments tend to have pretty much a full attendance from the world's top 50 players, however this event is different with the likes of Thomas, DeChambeau, Fowler, Spieth, Woods and Watson from the World's top 15 missing for starters. Nevertheless, this limited field still features a whole host of household names, plus the cream of the 2018 European Tour crop, so we should expect some excellent golf in what has proven over the years to be a pretty open and unpredictable event.
Steve Bamford has previewed the Sanderson Farms Championship that's also running this week - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Sheshan International GC, Shanghai, China. Designer: Neil Haworth, 2004; Par: 72; Length: 7,261 yards; Fairways: Paspalum/Rye; Rough: Paspalum/Rye with Bermuda overseed; Greens: A1/A4 Bentgrass; Stimp: 11-11.5ft.
Course Overview. The Sheshan International course is a 7,261 yard, Par 72 that features relatively wide but tree-lined fairways and 11.5 stimp bentgrass greens. With 4 par-5s and a driveable par 4 (the 16th hole), this track bears all the hallmarks of a bomber's paradise, however even in the years with softer conditions it has tended to be those players who can churn out strong greens in regulation numbers over the 4 days and have putted well enough who have prevailed. It's fair to say there's been a real mixture of players adorning the top of the leaderboard here in recent years - a play-off between Bubba Watson and Tim Clark in 2014 for instance reinforcing the view that this track suits no particular style of play over another.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's WGC HSBC Champions that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2017: Justin Rose, 20/1; 2016: Hideki Matsuyama, 22/1; 2015: Russell Knox, 150/1; 2014: Bubba Watson, 28/1; 2013: Dustin Johnson, 40/1; 2012: Ian Poulter, 20/1; 2011: Martin Kaymer, 25/1; 2010: Francesco Molinari, 55/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour since 2010 click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Shanghai is here. A showery couple of days to start the event with Friday seeing winds of 20 mph on what may well prove to be the toughest day, before the weather clears for the weekend with dry, sunny and relatively calm conditions. Temperatures will peak around the low 70s Fahrenheit in what will feel very much like northern European conditions.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors. Analysing the final stats of recent winners here at Sheshan gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited here:
Incoming Form: Ian Poulter's win in 2012 was at Mission Hills and I've excluded those stats from the list above accordingly. Of the winners of this event when played at Sheshan, pre-and post-WGC status, all had won an event earlier in the season with the exception of Francesco Molinari who'd finished runner-up twice including a play-off defeat, Russell Knox who gained his first career PGA Tour/European Tour victory here 3 years ago, and Justin Rose who'd finished runner-up 3 times in the season prior to victory. All had decent enough recent form with at least one top-12 finish recorded by each of those players in their previous 5 events, so entering this week with at least some semblance of form has got to be seen as a positive:
Course Form: Sheshan International form prior to winning for those same 8 victors is detailed below. Russell Knox and Dustin Johnson both won here on debut whilst Hideki Matsuyama had a far from stellar record at Sheshan before lapping the field in 2016:
2014 saw somewhat of a turning point for 'Asia's Major' with thicker (wetter) rough, some new tees and additional bunkering coupled with inclement and colder conditions making Sheshan International far more of a challenge than previous years. Straying off of the fairway was more of a penalty and the bermuda overseeded rough around the greens made for challenging scrambling, however with less run on the wet fairways the course also played long. Clearly this led to two vastly differing styles getting into contention with Bubba Watson overcoming Tim Clark in a play-off. 2015 was a little easier though with soft conditions underfoot combined with warmer and calmer weather by comparison which led to a far lower winning score by Russell Knox at 20-under, however Hideki Matsuyama eclipsed that winning score 2 years ago despite some fairly inclement weather and slow and bumpy greens to triumph by 7 shots. Soft conditions last year didn't particularly help the players as the wind picked up throughout the 4 days, leading to Justin Rose's 14-under total being good enough to lift the Old Tom Morris Cup as he picked up the pieces after Dustin Johnson relinquished a 6-shot lead.
For me, I'm looking for an aggressive sort who can find birdies on these bentgrass greens, or a strong tee-to-green exponent who has a very strong week with the putter. Winners here have generally either been putting excellently in recent times (Matsuyama, Kaymer, Mickelson) or finding a high number of greens in regulation (Rose, Knox, Watson, Johnson, Molinari) and then did well enough on both counts on the week to ultimately prevail.
With rain forecast for the first two days before a calm, sunny weekend, I suspect we'll see the bulk of the scoring achieved over the final two days and ultimately a winning score that's closer to the 20-under totals than the 14-under that Justin Rose won with 12 months ago. The Bermuda over-seeded rough is tricky to navigate, so those players who are hitting the driver well are advantaged here, however making a low-enough score over the weekend will likely be the deciding factor in my view, so players who are scoring well at present should be favoured.
My selections are as follows:
Jon Rahm 2.5pts EW 25/1 with £40 welcome bonus* for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (5 places, 1/4 odds)
Some events are relatively straightforward to decide on the type of player that fits the bill, whereas others are a minefield and this, for me, falls firmly into the latter category. With winners ranging from the likes of Justin Rose to Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson to Russell Knox, trying to match a type of player to this course is nigh-on impossible. Changing conditions this week with a wet start, turning windy, then becoming dry and calm doesn't help much either, and when you couple that with the fact that some players have won here on debut, some with a poor record and others with a sparkling course history, picking the bones out of previous results here might also produce a red herring or two.
So where do we start? In the main, the winners here have been Major-class players who have been either finding a lot of greens or putting very well in their most recent outings and everything's ultimately aligned here to produce the silverware, plus each had recorded a top-12 finish or better in their last 5 starts. However, it's fair to say that you make a case for most of the players in the top dozen of the betting on that basis, so our shortlist isn't particularly short using the criteria thus far!
Perhaps the odds of recent winners gives us more of a clue as 5 of the last 8 winners have started in the 20/1 to 28/1 bracket; the short-priced favourites haven't converted here of late and after a long and hard season perhaps some of the elite are starting to run out of steam as we head towards November. Of those that fit the bill for me, Tommy Fleetwood just misses out despite having taken a much-needed week off after heading straight back to the course after his Le Golf National heroics; his 'Moliwood' partner Francesco was also tempting, although he again appeared to be running on empty at Walton Heath and perhaps a more prolonged break is in order.
Weighing it all up, I'm backing just one player near the top of the market and that's Jon Rahm. I could be pedantic and say that his 11th place finish at East Lake fails the 'top 10 test' in his last 2 outings achieved by 7 of the last 8 winners here, however the Spaniard sat 4th heading into the final day on a test that I still think is too alien to his aggressive style to really suit. Regardless, in between times Rahm took the formidable scalp of Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup singles to undoubtedly inject a huge shot of confidence into his game and if we read between the lines of his last 2 recorded PGA Tour efforts, it's clear that he's striking the ball well (5th for GIR at East Lake) and putting well (3rd and 4th for Putting Average on his last 2 starts).
36th here on debut 12 months ago isn't a major concern as he'd flown directly from Valderrama to compete here; this year he's understandably rested after his exploits in France which will leave him far fresher. Clearly he enjoys this part of the year - he went on to win in Dubai on his subsequent start to this last year - and a calmer forecast over the weekend should encourage aggressive players like Rahm to make the requisite birdies providing they can stay in touch over the first 2 days. Soft conditions should help in that respect, and with his power the 23 year-old can cut a number of corners here to set up decent scoring opportunities.
Matt Fitzpatrick 1.5pts EW 70/1 with £40 welcome bonus* for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (5 places, 1/4 odds)
As we saw last week with short-priced chances Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka getting over the line, building a team that's too top-heavy could prove to be a mistake as if one of the top players does win then we're looking at an each-way payout at best to help salvage the week. The likes of Dustin Johnson who'll be keen to get his OWGR No.1 status back, Justin Rose who's defending, new number 1 Brooks Koepka who arrives here fresh from his win in Korea and an improving Rory McIlroy could undoubtedly prove victorious here, however for me I'll take my chances a little further down the list on a trio who'll be more akin to the European-style conditions here this week.
Although almost the polar opposite in terms of style to Jon Rahm, Matt Fitzpatrick has his merits here as finishes of 7th, 16th and 9th from his 3 starts have shown. GIR ranks of 8th and 1st from his first two attempts at playing Sheshan was followed by 3rd for Driving Accuracy 12 months accompanied by some looser iron-play, however there have been signs of late that his overall long game is close back to its best, none more so than when he won at Crans Sur Sierre last month with a field-leading Driving Accuracy performance coupled with 2nd for GIR. When he plays like that it only takes a positive week with the putter for him to contend and 5 European Tour wins altogether now suggests that this can happen with reasonable regularity.
4 of the 24 year-old's wins have come on bentgrass-based putting surfaces which bodes well for this week and his other success, the DP World Tour Championship in 2016, came in a very strong European Tour field to suggest he's not afraid to mix it with the elite. Form in and around China has been excellent for Matt with top-23 finishes from each of his 8 career attempts in this neck of the woods, with 3rd at the Hong Kong Open in 2015 rating as his best effort to date. Having missed out on a Ryder Cup spot this time, I wouldn't be remotely surprised to see the Sheffield lad remind everyone once again what a classy player he is before too long, and with his long game in decent shape it could be as early as this week.
Although he's yet to show his class on the world stage, I suspect it's only a matter of time before Lucas Bjerregaard starts finding his feet at the Majors and WGCs and this week's task in a watered-down elite field in European-feeling conditions could well be the starting point for him. At 53rd in the OWGR following a sparkling run of form of late, this will be the Dane's WGC debut - but as we saw with Russell Knox here in 2015, that's not necessarily an insurmountable position and I fancy that Lucas will outperform his odds this week.
Bjerregaard's rise up the world rankings has been fuelled by 6-event form that reads 9/6/2/20/1/9 with that victory coming at the Alfred Dunhill Links and, with the top-50 tantalisingly close, I suspect he'll be fully focussed for the next 4 weeks so that he can ensure that he's getting access to the biggest and best events of 2019. When the 27 year-old plays well it typically coincides with a strong week with his approach shots and naturally his GIR over those aforementioned 6 events has been exceptional in the main, however he's also found some form with the putter and that could prove critical this week. 1st for putts per GIR at the Dunhill Links and 10th on the same count a week later at Walton Heath are impressive for a player like Lucas who tends to rely on a long and strong tee-to-green game and these bentgrass greens will be right up his alley this week - indeed he also topped putting average earlier this year on the new bentgrass greens at Wentworth.
Par-4 and Par-5 scoring has been strong over the recent purple patch of form that the 2-time European Tour winner has found of late, however the final piece of the jigsaw with Lucas may well be his form in the region: he's missed just one cut in China and Hong Kong over the course of his career, racking up 5 top-6 finishes from 11 starts in total - the most recent of which was at this year's China Open where his 27 birdies over 4 days led the field by a fair distance. Underestimate this emerging talent at your peril.
Another player making his WGC debut is Matt Wallace and for me he's another one who shouldn't be ignored, despite this being an obvious step up in class. Much has been discussed about the Hillingdon man's 10 victories at all levels from 74 professional starts, with the focus clearly on the fact that they've been in relatively small events, however what those victories do point to is the ability to get over a winning line that many professional golfers struggle with and that's a huge plus in my view. 19th at the US PGA Championship in August was also something of a breakthrough for a player who'd previously missed the cut at his three stabs at a Major, and that will give him the confidence - if he needs any more that is - that he can compete at a higher level, plus this field is nowhere near as competitive in my view.
Like his European Tour colleague Lucas Bjerregaard, Wallace's stellar season now sees him on the brink of a top-50 position in the OWGR and at 62nd currently he's also got a huge chance to book himself a ticket to Augusta and beyond over the next 4 weeks. Season wins at the Indian Open, BMW International Open and Made In Denmark backed up the promise that he showed when winning the Open de Portugal last year to leapfrog the Challenge Tour; with over €1.5m banked from his exploits this year to date, he's in a great place personally and professionally as he seeks to unlock access to the next stage of his career.
Since his most recent win in Denmark, a form line of 51/44/28/16 at European Tour level doesn't excite massively, however within that there have been sparks of life and he's led after day 1 on both of his previous two starts at the Dunhill Links and British Masters. Aside from his 3 wins this season, the only other top-10 finish for Matt came at the China Open where he was up with the pace from the outset and co-led going into the final day before Alexander Bjork pulled clear. Save for a 4-over performance on the par-5 4th hole that week over the four days, he'd have had a further victory to his name by now - and in terms of this event one in China to boot - so if he can find a good week with his irons here then I wouldn't be remotely surprised to see him in the mix, despite the jump in class. Having lost good friend Ricki Neil-Jones and his grandmother in the space of the last few days, I expect Matt will want to win something for them very soon.
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