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Love it loathe it from a betting perspective, we're off to Austin, Texas this week for the annual congregation of the World's top golfers at the WGC Dell Match Play Championship. 5 eligible players - Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott - have all opted not to play this week, otherwise all of the World's top 64 are in attendance fighting for the top prize, so if nothing else we're in for some serious entertainment as the tournament unfolds. From a betting perspective, don't forget that this event starts a day earlier than normal on Wednesday.
As per the changes applied since the 2015 event, instead of the previous 4 brackets and a straight knockout tournament, we have 16 pools of 4 players who play each other over the first 3 days before the final 16 are eventually whittled down to 2 to fight it out in Sunday afternoon's final. The 16 pools are seeded from Dustin Johnson to Matt Kuchar if you work down the current OWGR rankings, with the remaining 48 players having been drawn on Monday's live TV show. The final (printable) bracket is available here.
If you put any credence into course/event history when it comes to Match Play - and this event in particular - then the results prior to the 2016 renewal are fairly tenuous as all were played at different venues with TPC Harding Park hosting the 2015 edition after a 6-year stint at Dove Mountain prior to that. Professionals will tell you that Match Play is all about playing the opponent, however the course here has its own characteristics and challenges, particularly when the wind blows around these parts, so it shouldn't be completely disregarded as a factor.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Corales Championship - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Overview. Austin Country club, which dates back to 1899 and is one of the oldest golf clubs in the state of Texas, is in its 3rd year of its 4-year agreement to host this annual Match Play event. The Pete Dye track begins in the hillside before meandering down towards Lake Austin which flanks the back 9 and elevation changes, uneven fairways and pot bunkers will present the players with a significant enough challenge before the Match Play aspect even begins to kick in.
The 7,108 yard, par 71 features 3 lengthy Par 5s of 590, 578 and 565 yards on the 6th, 12th and 16th holes as well as three sub-400 yard par 4s at the 5th, 13th and 18th. Pete Dye courses are generally no pushover (think Harbour Town, TPC Louisiana, TPC Sawgrass and Whistling Straits) and although Match Play format is generally set up for more attacking, risk-reward golf, the layout here provides a lot more than a beautifully scenic backdrop.
In preparation for the 2016 event when the WGC moved here, the golf course underwent a complete restoration to bring it back in line with Dye's original design. Greens were extended and re-laid with TifEagle Bermuda, plus the fairways were also updated to Bermudagrass as well as additional bunkering which was added throughout.
Tournament Stats. We've published some WGC Match Play history stats going back to 1999 to help with your research, plus of course there's current form stats that take in the last 12 global tournaments that attracted OWGR points: Tournament History Stats | Current Form Stats
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2017: Dustin Johnson, 10/1; 2016: Jason Day, 14/1; 2015 Rory McIlroy, 11/1; 2014: Jason Day, 20/1; 2013: Matt Kuchar, 35/1; 2012: Hunter Mahan, 50/1; 2011: Luke Donald, 35/1; 2010: Ian Poulter, 28/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 7 years based on the 2017 schedule click here; for a similar summary of PGA Tour results over the past 7 years click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Austin, Texas is here. A calm and sunny start to the week is expected before the wind begins to pick towards the weekend with 15-20mph expected on Friday. The weekend will be cloudier with the outside chance of a shower. Temperatures will peak each day around the 80 Fahrenheit mark, give or take a little.
Format. Players are allocated one of 16 groups of 4 players, each containing one of the seeded players and three others as drawn on Monday's live TV show. A round-robin format follows for the first 3 days with each player facing the other 3 in their group over Wednesday to Friday and the winner of each group based on the results of those matches, or the winner of a deciding playoff if there's a tie at the top, will advance to the knockout stages. 16 players will become 8, then 4 then 2 following a straight knockout format commencing on Saturday morning and the final pair will battle it out in the final on Sunday alongside the consolation 3rd/4th place play-off.
Incoming Form: The last 2 winners of this event, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, both arrived here in Texas with a win in their last event to their name, so were clearly in great nick. Going back to 2010, each winner had at least one top-10 finish in their last 4 starts, so current form has proven to be a very good pointer in recent times:
Event Form. Dustin Johnson didn't have the best record in this event prior to winning last year, however he had reached the quarter-finals 12 months previously for what was a personal best performance at the time. None of the winners going back to 2010 were making their debut in this event, so some experience looks important when finding the winner:
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Digging too deep into past results often throws up nothing more than a red herring or two when it comes to Match Play and this event in particular. Expect the unexpected and keep stakes low would be my advice, however let's have a go at applying some kind of framework to this week's selections.
It's interesting to look at the prices of the last 9 winners of this event: Ogilvy was 25/1 back in 2009, Poulter 28/1 in 2010, Donald 35/1 in 2011, Mahan 50/1 in 2012, Kuchar was 35/1 in 2013, Day was 20/1 in 2014, McIlroy was 11/1 in 2015, Day was 14/1 in 2016 and DJ was 10/1 last year. No massive shocks in that list with Mahan the longest price of the bunch at 50/1; around three-quarters of the field are priced outside of that bracket and with 7 successful matches required to lift the trophy perhaps there's more than just coincidence that one of the more fancied players has succeeded on each of those occasions.
In contrast though, there's still been some value in the each-way places with Bill Haas (90/1) and Hideto Tanihara (300/1) both making the semi-finals 12 months ago and Rafa Cabrera-Bello (125/1) finishing 3rd the year before. The result from Harding Park in 2015 also produced a couple of 3-figure each-way places in the shape of Gary Woodland (125/1) and Danny Willett (150/1), neither of whom had shown much in the way of form before progressing all the way through to Sunday's matches.
From a betting perspective, bookmakers are universally offering 4 places each way, 1/4 odds this week which means that you'll need to get a player through to the semi-finals to secure an each-way payout - in effect they need to win their group plus two knockout rounds before you can guarantee a return. When backing multiple players it's also worth looking at how the bracket unfolds first as your fancied players may well meet before they reach the semi-finals, which means that one of your bets will definitely be a loser.
The course here on paper would seem to suit more accurate types with the danger that lurks from off the cut-and-prepared, however power has seen the likes of Jason Day, Louis Oosthuzien, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm contest the two finals that have been played here. An aggressive style and a liking for Bermudagrass greens is a good starter for this week, however ultimately to progress to Sunday a player's going to need to handle the mental side of Match Play golf first and foremost.
My final selections are as follows:
With your bracket to hand, let's work around the four quarters in an anti-clockwise direction, starting with the section containing Dustin Johnson in the top-left. Both the world number 1 himself and 8th seed Jason Day will fancy their chances of progressing to the quarter-finals where a clash of these two former WGC Match Play champions could make fantastic viewing. DJ needs to dispatch Kevin Kisner, Adam Hadwin and Bernd Wiesberger before progressing to play the winner of Matt Kuchar, Ross Fisher, Yuta Ikeda and Zach Johnson - there shouldn't be too much there to worry the defending champion with a clash of the Johnsons quite possible in the round of 16. Jason Day, provided he can stay fit and healthy of course, may well prove too strong on the greens for former runner-up Louis Oosthuizen, Jason Dufner and James Hahn before meeting the winner of Fleetwood, Berger, Chappell or Poulter. Again, I don't see too much troubling the 2014 and 2016 champion in that list unless Poults can rekindle some of that Match Play magic which we know he's capable of. For me though, this quarter is one to leave alone from a betting perspective as either DJ or Day could win the quarter-final and the prices on offer aren't anywhere near generous enough to back them both knowing that one or other has to lose - assuming of course that they do indeed get that far!
On to the second quarter then which is headed by Hideki Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth as the top-seeded players. Matsuyama's recent wrist injury is still a cause for concern and that may leave the way clear for one of his group to progress in his place - Cameron Smith would be my tentative choice over Patrick Cantlay and Yusaku Miyazato given his superior putting ability. Tyrrell Hatton may well be the opponent for that group's winner if he can overcome Charley Hoffman, Brendan Steele and Alex Levy, however each of those players is capable of progressing in what looks a tricky foursome to pick apart.
I'd expect the eventual semi-finalist to come from the bottom half of the quarter though and to that end I'm backing Patrick Reed to be the player to prevail. Opponents Haotong Li and Charl Schwartzel have both been off the boil of late - the Chinese star has finished outside of the top-50 on each of his starts since winning in Dubai and the former Masters Champion hasn't managed a top-10 globally since June of last year - which leaves Jordan Spieth as Reed's biggest challenge. Of course Spieth is well capable of finding the putting form that saw him rise to the top of the world rankings back in 2015-2016, however the process changes he's been making with the flat stick are yet to bed in fully and that leaves the door open for an aggressive player like Patrick Reed to take full advantage.
With a WGC title already in his collection (Doral 2014) and having been Team USA's top points scorer in each of the last two Ryder Cups, the 27 year-old Texan has the game to win this event at some point in his career - and perhaps as soon as this week. 2nd at the Valspar Championship and 7th last week at Bay Hill where he led the field for putting average are very strong form pointers for Reed and with confidence flowing through his game once again he can approach this week in a positive frame of mind. Should he make it through the group stages then the winner of Alex Noren, Tony Finau, Thomas Pieters and Kevin Na awaits, however I can't see any of those names striking fear into his heart if he's just dispatched Jordan Spieth from the competition. RESULT: Round Of 16
Continuing our anti-clockwise rotation through the quarters we come to the section headed by last week's winner and new Masters favourite Rory McIlroy. Last week's putting performance from the Northern Irishman was quite simply phenomenal - 100 putts on the week for a player of his class is going to get the job done pretty much every week and if he continues that form into this week then he'll be incredibly difficult to oppose in any of his matches. Quite rightly he's the favourite for this week and is being steadily backed at anything from 8/1 or lower. As impressive as that victory at Bay Hill was, it's worth remembering that it marked Rory's first silverware won since the back end of 2016 and it might prove just a little more difficult than in the past for him to jump straight back in the saddle for another 5 gruelling days of Match Play golf. That's not to say he can't win this - far from it as a group containing Brian Harman, Jhonnattan Vegas and Peter Uihlein isn't overly strong by any means and a quarter-final against the winner of Marc Leishman, Branden Grace, Bubba Watson and Julian Suri doesn't appear on paper to be too difficult. However, to progress Rory needs to perform each and every day and although I doubt he'll have to reproduce the putting heroics of last week to win each match, he certainly can't afford for the putter to go cold and with him you never quite know.
For me, I'm happy to take last year's losing finalist Jon Rahm in this quarter given how impressive he was here in Texas 12 months ago. We know what a talent the 23 year-old Spaniard is and the whole world will be undoubtedly looking forward to his Ryder Cup debut in France later this year, however before he gets to that point he can rubber-stamp his liking for the Match Play format here this week. Speaking last year he underlined his fit for this format, "I feel as a Spaniard, I love match play, and we all do, and normally we're good at it. But I think it sets up perfect for me. I feel like all of us Spaniards really play good at match play because of our aggressive mindset. It kind of relates to you a little bit that if you miss it, it's only going to be 1-down or at the end of the day you're only going to have a chance to hit a good shot and reapply the pressure on your opponent. I think that's why that mindset really works well."
Aside from the opening holes in the final last year where he quickly found himself 5 down versus Dustin Johnson, the rest of the week was pretty immaculate from Rahm and he took to the risk/reward nature of the course like a duck to water. Even after that disastrous start on Sunday afternoon, he soon started rattling off the birdies on the back 9 against the World No.1 to eventually take the tie to the final hole. Impressive stuff and he'll have learnt an awful lot from that experience to take into this week and of course when representing Team Europe in September.
Since winning the DP World Tour Championship (1.63 putts per GIR on the Bermuda greens) and capturing his second PGA Tour title at the Careerbuilder Challenge in January, Jon has been a little quiet results-wise, however included in those events were opportunities for him to reach the OWGR summit which proved to play on his mind just a little too much at times. No such distraction this week given that he's currently a little too far adrift of Dustin Johnson, instead he can focus 100% on the task at hand having rested since producing a top-20 finish on his last start in Mexico. Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Chez Reavie and Keegan Bradley await in the group stages with the Thai likely to present the biggest obstacle to progression, however Rahm is a truly world-class player who can bully players in this format and should he make it through to a head-to-head with Rory in the quarter-finals then my money would be on the Spaniard to progress. RESULT: Group Stage
Justin Thomas's odds have been dropping ever since the draw was confirmed on Monday night's live show and it's easy to see why as Francesco Molinari, Patton Kizzire and Luke List should, on paper, present little resistance to his progression through to the knockout stage. Match Play isn't as simple as that though and the same could have been said last year with Kevin Na, Chris Wood and Matt Fitzpatrick presenting the opposition - Thomas finished joint bottom of the group, despite being 6th seed, to prove that nothing is certain in this format of the game. The other complicating factor is that there's a possibility that the 24 year-old could rise to OWGR number 1 this week if all the stars align and he wins and DJ finished 4th or worse. Now that could be a motivator of course, or it could prey on his mind - in a format where mental strength is of paramount importance, having an additional burden may just be too much for him this week. We shall see of course, however I'm happy to take a chance on Shubhankar Sharma in the final quarter instead at a far, far longer price.
The Indian star sneaks into the field as 62nd seed courtesy of the withdrawals detailed at the top of the preamble and he could take advantage of this with another bold WGC performance having surprised many at the WGC Mexico Championship with his prominent performance 3 weeks ago. Despite leading in Mexico going into the final day, a Sunday 74 pushed him down into 9th position for what was ultimately a disappointing finish, however the silver lining was his invitation to play at Augusta in a fortnight's time. Make no mistake, this lad isn't a flash in the pan as the 21 year-old has all the attributes to become a truly world-class golfer and with a reasonably light group he can progress in the competition despite being the lowest-ranked player of his immediate opponents. Sergio Garcia heads the group, however how focussed he can be having spent the last few days working out which way round a nappy goes remains to be seen and if Sharma's putter is as hot as it was on his last start in India (1.49 putts per GIR) then he can cause opponents Xander Schauffele and Dylan Frittelli - who are both also making their tournament debuts - some serious problems. Should he progress through to the quarter-finals then a date with Justin Thomas is quite possible, however anything can happen over 18 holes and given the differential between the two in terms of odds I'm happy to take that chance. RESULT: Group Stage
Watch these tips on YouTube with Steve Bamford: Golf Betting System YouTube Channel
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