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As the golfing season edges towards its close, we head to China for the final World Golf Championship of 2017 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 the 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 2013-16, 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 4 (Spieth, Thomas, McIlroy, Fowler) of the World's top 10 missing for starters. Nevertheless, this limited field still features a whole host of household names, plus the cream of the 2017 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.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Sanderson Farms Championship - 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. 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 for the past 6 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Shanghai is here. The forecast is set fair for the event with lengthy sunny spells expected which will lift temperatures towards the mid-70s Fahrenheit. The breeze will pick up slightly each afternoon, however at 5-10 mph this won't be a concern to this week's elite field with perhaps just a touch more wind possible on Sunday.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors. Analysing the final stats of recent winners here 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 and Russell Knox who gained his first career PGA Tour/European Tour victory here 2 years ago. 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 of those same 7 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 last year:
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 12 months ago despite some fairly inclement weather and slow and bumpy greens to triumph by 7 shots. Wet weather earlier in the month has given way to more settled conditions and dry, warm and largely calm conditions - with just a chance of a bit more wind on Sunday - should lend itself to another low-scoring event.
For me, I'm looking for an aggressive sort who can find birdies on these bentgrass greens. Winners here have generally either been putting excellently in recent times (Matsuyama, Kaymer, Mickelson) or finding a high number of greens in regulation (Knox, Watson, Johnson, Molinari) and then did well enough on both counts on the week to ultimately prevail.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
Despite the high-profile omissions from the top of the OWGR list, this year's WGC HSBC Champions is still an extremely competitive affair and one which is likely to produce a high-class winner come Sunday afternoon. World No.1 Dustin Johnson is the bookmaker's favourite and as a former winner here at Sheshan he's undoubtedly got a decent chance of lifting this title and stretching away from the likes of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas who've made up ground on him recently. Since winning The Northern Trust at the start of the FedEx Cup Playoffs he's seemingly gone off the boil though and despite an outstanding Presidents Cup, where he bagged 4.5 points for his team, whether he can translate that into a winning campaign over 4 days on a scoreable track remains to be seen. Jason Day, Marc Leishman and Jon Rahm all rate shorter than 20/1 this week and all have a chance too if at their best, however of the market leaders I'd favour defending champion Hideki Matsuyama after bouncing back to form on his last start in Malaysia with a sublime ball-striking display to finish 5th.
Despite damp and at times breezy conditions last year, the Japanese sensation romped to 7-shot victory over Daniel Berger and Henrik Stenson whilst carding a mightily impressive 23-under total courtesy of a red-hot putter. Fact is, he'd been putting well for a period of time 12 months ago and he then carried his form forwards from there, winning his next two starts in Japan and at the Hero World Challenge to cement what was at the time a career-best OWGR ranking of 6th. The putter's blown hot and cold since - he recorded 2nd place at the US Open and a win at the last WGC event, the Bridgestone Invitational, when the flat stick was performing well for the 25 year-old - however a return to his favoured bentgrass greens here could well see him back on song in that respect, particularly with his long game in such rude health having led the field for both Driving Accuracy and GIR in Kuala Lumpur.
For some players defending a title clearly adds a level of pressure and media duties that can throw their preparations off track, however Matsuyama's successful Phoenix Open campaign earlier this season suggests to me that he's not overawed by the occasion. With 7 top-10 Major finishes to his name since 2013 and having successfully taken 2 of the last 4 WGC titles on offer, Hideki is clearly a world-class player who's more than capable of keeping hold of this trophy. With signs of a warming putter - 9 birdies in a flawless 63 on his penultimate round in Malaysia for instance - he may well take all the beating here once again this week. RESULT: T50
Of the remaining fancied players near the top of the betting, a case can undoubtedly be made for many. Marc Leishman could have won his 2nd event in 3 starts at the weekend, eventually losing out to the red-hot Justin Thomas in a play-off; Jason Day is putting well and that makes him a danger here; Jon Rahm is a prodigious talent who should enjoy this layout on debut; the ball-striking of Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and Ross Fisher (who has an excellent record here) could see them contend too if they putt well; however for me this week sets up nicely for Brooks Koepka who should feast on the par-5s and driveable par-4 here whilst making more than his fair share of putts over the rest of the course.
Aggressive play fuelled by a strong Total Driving performance is the most likely route to success this week on what should be a generally low-scoring affair and when Koepka's game is on song he's exceptional in that respect. The 27 year-old's US Open victory in June came courtesy of a sublime tee-to-green performance - he topped both the Total Driving an Ball-Striking charts that week - and whilst he's not hit quite the same level since, there's certainly enough positivity about a form line that reads 18/12/6 over the final 3 Playoff events to suggest that his game is in decent shape. 2 points scored at his Presidents Cup debut isn't too disappointing, especially as he was paired with an out-of-sorts Daniel Berger on the first day's Foursomes, and with his putter seemingly in decent shape and a return to bentgrass greens here in China, I can see him seriously contending for this title.
Koepka's only other PGA Tour win was in Phoenix, which has subsequently been won twice by Hideki Matsuyama, and this week's defending champion also finished runner-up to him at Erin Hills. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not - Phoenix is a track that suits aggressive play and the overseeded greens there play very much as bentgrass - however I suspect that we'll see a vast improvement from Brooks here on his debut effort of 40th 12 months ago - after which he went on to finish 2nd at the Shriners Open on the PGA Tour before winning in Japan a fortnight later. RESULT: T2nd
With 2 decent punts on a couple of the short-priced players, I'll finish with a couple of longshots. First up Alex Levy who has an incredible record in China and is showing signs that he's getting over his play-off miss in Germany that cost him (and us) another win on the European Tour. The 27 year-old's Volvo China Open win earlier this year was his second success at that event and further local form of 2nd at the 2014 BMW Masters, 3rd again at the 2015 China Open plus a couple more top-8 finishes at the Shenzhen International all point to a player who's more than comfortable in this part of the world. The Frenchman's swashbuckling style is a joy to watch and his aggressive play is suited to this course at Sheshan, particularly when his Total Driving is on point - good news then that he ranked 5th for Total Driving at the Italian Open on his last start, a course that was always likely to be too tight for his style of game, which can only bode well for his chances as we approach the business end of the European Tour season. 7th prior to that at the Dunhill Links is also positive and a big performance here would go some way to exorcising the demons from his missed 3-foot putt to win the European Open a few weeks ago. Alex finished 14th here on debut in 2014 where he led the field for GIR and could well be a dark horse this week. RESULT: T31
Finally I'll take a punt on the massive prospect that is England's Jordan Smith. The Wiltshire lad was there to pick up the pieces in Germany when Alex Levy spurned his chance of success and that breakthrough victory is surely the first of many European Tour (or better) titles that will come his way over the next few years. Long and accurate off the tee is a huge asset to have in modern-day golf - the 24 year-old has ranked inside the top-2 for Total Driving on 5 of his last 9 starts - and when he starts finding greens and making putts he's a real danger. 9th at the US PGA Championship on his Major debut in August was mightily impressive and if that's a sign of things to come then there's no reason to think that he can't compete at WGC level on a course that plays to his strengths. Quite understandably his form dipped after that effort at Quail Hollow which had followed his maiden victory, however 21st on his last outing in Italy saw him back to his Total Driving best and interestingly he recorded his best putting average since hitting the European Tour at 1.65 putts per GIR. A far better player than a 200/1 shot here in my view, despite the quality of field that he's up against. RESULT: T58
First Round Leader Market
At a best-priced 80/1 in the outright market, Kiradech Aphibarnrat holds limited appeal against this quality of field. Fact is though, the Thai star is playing some cracking golf at present and has got off to a fast start a few times recently which makes the same 80/1 on offer about him being first round leader a far more attractive proposition. Having missed the cut after throwing away the KLM Open when carrying our money last month, he's bounced back to record three consecutive top-20 finishes and has produced 5 rounds of 66 or better during that spell. An opening 64 was good enough for a tie for the lead after day 1 of his last start in Italy and a closing 65, which propelled him into 2nd place overall, was bettered by just a handful of players on the day. He's been steadily progressing here at Sheshan after 4 attempts and opening rounds of 69 on each of his last 2 starts here shows some hope. Whilst he's scoring well this could be an opportunity to record another personal best around these parts, one which is hopefully fuelled by a blistering first round. RESULT: Tied 2nd After Round 1
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