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With the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play in the rear-view mirror, we’ve almost made it to the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. Just a single week separates us from what has to be the most anticipated Masters for years with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and one Tiger Woods all very much in the frame.
The unsponsored Houston Open is now the traditional curtain-raiser for The Masters. Played on a 7,400 yard, Par 72 track in Humble, Texas, the Rees Jones design will never quite be Augusta, but undoubtedly the course has been modelled over recent years to produce some similar challenges to those that the world’s best will face next week. The last Masters invite is also up for grabs for any non-qualified winner this week.
Course Guide: The Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston is a 7,441 yard, Par 72. An original Rees Jones design, the course has gone through a transformation over recent years with key features being minimal rough and fast MiniVerde Bermudagrass overseeded Bentgrass/Poa Trivialis greens which are large at an average 6,950 sq.ft. The green complexes themselves are surrounded by shaved grass areas, designed to capture errant approach shots and send them into collection areas and it’s noticeable that 4 of the past 8 winners here have ranked in the top 5 for scrambling the week they captured the title. That’s no mean feat on a course which continually ranks in the top-3 hardest courses on the PGA Tour for scrambling from the rough.
Champions Course, Golf Club of Houston, Redstone, Texas: Designer: Rees Jones 2005; Course Type: Texas, Resort; Par: 72; Length: 7,441 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 9; TifSport Bermuda with Perennial Rye; Rough: TifSport Bermuda with Perennial Rye 1.5″; Greens: 6,950 sq.ft average MiniVerde Bermuda overseeded with Bentgrass and Poa Trivialis; Tournament Stimp: 12.5-13.0 ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 71.45 (-0.55), Difficulty Rank 34 of 49 courses. 2013: 71.87 (-0.13), Difficulty Rank 25 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.25 (+0.25), Rank 23 of 48 courses. 2015: 70.86 (-1.14), Rank 41 of 52 courses. 2016: 71.89 (-0.11), Rank 23 of 50 courses. 2017: 71.98 (-0.02), Rank 24 of 50 courses.
GC of Houston Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for the Golf Club of Houston course and how they compare to recent courses that we’ve seen on the PGA Tour:
Course Designer Links: For research purposes, other Rees Jones re-designs include:
Course Overview: Rees Jones’ first ever original golf course design (he’s famous for high profile re-designs of Major-hosting classical golf courses) is an interesting test to classify. Yes the course is scoreable with Russell Henley (-20), Jim Herman (-15), J.B. Holmes (-16), Matt Jones (-15), D.A. Points (-16) and Hunter Mahan (-16) winning with fairly low totals. But the organisers attempt to get the Tournament Course to play as firm and fast as possible so there’s certainly bite for those who struggle to hit greens. The course features tight fairways at 325 yards (so the longest players tend to throttle back off the tee), large MiniVerde Bermudagrass overseeded with Bentgrass greens and water hazards in-play on nine of the holes. Scrambling from the rough, or from over 30 yards is tough here and naturally, as we’re in Texas, wind tends to be a feature, although 2018 looks more tranquil than we’ve seen here since 2012. I’m also thinking that the course is likely to have some give in it as there’s been plenty of rain in the immediate build-up to the tournament.
A couple of key angles jump from the course statistics when we talk about the Golf Club of Houston. The large putting surfaces here allow even the short game specialists a good look at plenty of putts – indeed you would hardly call J.B. Holmes and Matt Jones Greens in Regulation specialists. However it’s also very difficult to get the ball close to the pin, so winners here always feature a hotter than standard putter. Also look for those who have a proven record on these quirky green surfaces. Ultimately though, on a course where Going for the Green has ranked in the top 10 most difficult across the past 7 renewals, those with an aggressive streak across the driveable 12th (338 yards) and a tough set of par-5s (even with -20/268 winning in 2017 they still played as the 5th toughest on Tour) tend to prevail.
Winners: 2017: Russell Henley (-20); 2016: Jim Herman (-15); 2015: J.B. Holmes (-16); 2014: Matt Jones (-15); 2013: D.A. Points (-16); 2012: Hunter Mahan (-16); 2011: Phil Mickelson (-20); 2010: Anthony Kim (-12).
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 10 of my published predictor are Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Luke List, Henrik Stenson, Keegan Bradley, Ryan Palmer, Russell Henley and J.B. Holmes.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the CareerBuilder Challenge / Abu Dhabi and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour 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: 2017: Henley 40/1; 2016: Herman 400/1; 2015: Holmes 28/1; 2014: Jones 125/1; 2013: Points 250/1; 2012: Mahan 22/1; 2011: Mickelson 18/1; 2010: Kim 25/1. Average: 113/1.Past 4 Renewals Average: 148/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Humble, Texas, is here. It’s been dry in the build-up to the tournament with only 1mm of rain falling in this part of north-east Houston recently, however pre-tournament rain looks a certainty across Wednesday afternoon and into Thursday morning. That will undoubtedly soften the course and help the longer hitters. The forecast also shows only 10-15 mph wind in-play across tournament week, so we should see genuine low scoring this week.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 8 winners of the event since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Let’s take a view from players as to how the course sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Russell Henley: “I feel like the greens, don’t break a ton in most cases, so if I can just hit the ball in the fat side of the hole and not play a lot of break, it has a good chance of going in. I felt that frees me up a little bit, too, knowing it’s not going to break and all I got to do is take it straight back and through. I do love the greens. I feel comfortable with a lot of these shots off the tee. There’s a lot of room. I feel when I miss it, I know it. I don’t make a lot of bogies and roll a couple extra putts in. Yeah, I really love the greens and I just feel like I can hit most of them and I’m pretty confident.“
Jim Herman: “I was able to keep it in the fairway, and that way you can get a good look at some of these pins that were tucked. I was able to put it in the right spot, able to get some good uphill putts, and able to make a few. It’s very tricky. It seemed like every hole just seemed to be into the wind. You play a hole into the wind and turn around and it’s still in the wind. So, lot of guessing out there where Matt and I did a really good job of picking some good clubs to hit and just picking the correct line. Not being too aggressive when we have mid irons or long irons, but when we have a chance to hit wedges, we’re looking to cash in.“
Matt Jones: “We’re used to firm and fast, bump and runs, not a lot of flop shots. So that’s why, I mean, Adam winning Texas, Adam, Colonial, firm and fast is usually what we play here. I’m sure San Antonio blows every day there, 20 to 30. So that place is going to be firm and fast as well. I’d say that would definitely be the most common factor between the two countries, why we play Texas so well. We’re used to playing in the wind, too. Especially in Sydney. We get winds in Queensland as well.“
Jordan Spieth: “This is known as one of the best manicured courses all year. Lot of run-off areas and the grass being mowed into the grain, it’s similar to next week. This is a course where there are big greens, so I have a lot of speed putting. But if you do miss the greens, it’s very difficult to get up and down here. So, it’s going to be a true test. And the way the run-off areas are, there’s not much rough and the grain is mowed into us. The next two weeks are going to be very similar conditions.“
J.B. Holmes: “You know, it’s always well manicured. It’s not a whole lot of rough. That’s different for the Tour. Usually we have quite a bit of rough. But, you know, this course usually gets pretty windy. It’s nice to be able to hit it in a few places and still be able to come out. The greens are in great shape. I just like it. I think this course in general can favour long hitters. It’s pretty long out there, it gets windy, and some of those holes could be difficult. I would say it would favour the long hitters.“
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 8 Houston Open winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave and winning score since 2010.
Pre-Major tournaments always have a slightly strange feel to them and the week prior to The Masters is perennially difficult to read. Most of the field are ignoring Augusta on the basis that they haven’t qualified: Both Russell Henley and Jim Herman fell into this category across the past 2 renewals; 2014 also saw Matt Jones win this with no Augusta qualification weighing on his mind. Extrapolate that to TPC San Antonio in 2013, which due to a quirk in the PGA Tour schedule hosted the pre-Augusta event that year, Martin Laird again grabbed a last minute invite to the first Major of the year and there’s a line of enquiry that suggests we look for non-Augusta qualifiers. After all 4 of the past 5 champions here (including D.A. Points in 2013) weren’t already in the field for the following week’s main event.
However take the period from 2007 through 2012 when the tournament was moved to its week before Augusta place in the schedule and you’ll find that 5 of the 6 champions were elite, top 50 players. Rule nobody out, but one trend is quite defining: no winner here since 2007 had won a strokeplay PGA Tour tournament in the same season prior to winning the Shell Houston Open (Hunter Mahan in 2012 had won the World Matchplay in February prior to winning in Humble).
As ever then, this week for me is all about player desire. Some players will undoubtedly go for the win, whilst others will know their Masters history and will use the week as a great warm-up for the rigours of Augusta National.
The Tournament Course itself is scoreable, but ultimately winners here need to hit a high number of greens in regulation and that’s possible with above average green sizes. Wind-positive players are a must, but for me the golf course rewards aggression as players need to score well on the short par-4 12th and on a set of par-5s which ranked as the 6th most difficult on the PGA Tour last season. Softer conditions are expected this week which should see the winning score move slightly towards the -20/268 level we saw when Mickelson won here in 2011.
My selections are as follows:
Daniel Berger 2pts EW 28/1 with Unibet
Daniel Berger is a horse for the course, similar to Russell Henley here 12 months ago. A player who undoubtedly loves Bermudagrass greens, Berger has been close a number of times already in 2018 and now he arrives at the Golf Club of Houston – a course upon which he thrives. At a tournament that no player has won off the back of a direct top 10 performance since 2007 when the Houston Open was moved to its current pre Augusta spot, strokeplay form of 14(WGC-Mexico)-29(Honda)-MC(Genesis)-11(Waste Management)-14(Sony)-11(Tournament of Champions), encapsulates 4 top-14 finishes from 6 outings and plenty of half-decent positions from which, as yet, he hasn’t really capitalised. Rounds of 68-65-68 placed him in 5th spot after 54 holes at TPC Scottsdale and an opening 67 at PGA National set up Berger to be a factor at the Honda Classic. Even at the WGC-Mexico Championship on his last appearance he was level with eventual victor Phil Mickelson after 36 holes, but he was stuck in neutral on Saturday, meaning that a closing -4/67 on Sunday delivered 14th spot. Interesting he ranked 1st for Driving Accuracy, 2nd for Greens in Regulation and 6th for Strokes Gained Putting on that particular Sunday.
A contending performance is undoubtedly just around the corner and apart from TPC Southwind, you get the feeling that Berger would prefer to be nowhere else this week. Daniel is one of those types who plays well on certain courses and 30th here on debut in 2015, 5th here in 2016 and 5th here again last year paints a picture of vivid colours. On a course where longer ball-strikers thrive, Berger can access scoring opportunities well around the open Houston format and a player who consistently ranks in the top 40 on the PGA Tour for Going for the Green can take advantage of the driveable par-4 12th and also a set of difficult par-5s. 2nd for Greens in Regulation here last year, Berger also ranked 12th for Putting Average across both of his last 2 visits. I also love his 2nd place finish at Conway Farms in 2015, which ties in very nicely with Houston winners Hunter Mahan, Matt Jones and J.B. Holmes.
Luke List 1.5pts EW 33/1 with Boylesports
Following in the same vein, Luke List tops my current list of those most likely to win their first PGA Tour title and this is the perfect course and tournament for the Californian to break his duck. Whilst a number of the elite golfers in this field will undoubtedly be thinking of the manicured perfection of Augusta National post recent practice rounds, Luke will be 100% focussed this week on delivering yet another top-notch performance. 27th here in 2016 and 3rd here 12 months ago, List is one of those rarities on the PGA Tour – a player who is Bermudagrass positive and that shows when looking at his putting performance here last term. A player more renowned for his blistering drives, aggressive approach nature (3rd for Going for the Green this season) and his towering ball-striking, Luke ranked 10th here for Strokes Gained Putting 12 months ago, and let’s not forget he was 9th for Strokes Gained Putting at the Honda Classic where he pushed Justin Thomas to a playoff at the close of February. So List is in rude health right now and we know just looking at previous winners here that a previous top-5 performance is a huge advantage. A 67 and 68 at Bay Hill helped to deliver a 7th spot on his last stroke play appearance and with a repaired putter and no sinus issues which he suffered with in Austin last week, I can see List being a huge factor this week.
Russell Henley 1.5pts EW 33/1 with Unibet
2017 saw two defending champions win titles on the PGA Tour. 27-MC-36-65 and MC-MC-MC-MC-MC was the inbound form of Daniel Berger and Jhonattan Vegas who won the FedEx St Jude Classic and the RBC Canadian Open at 28/1 and 125/1 respectively. At 40/1 I could make a case for Rafa Cabrera-Bello but 3 European titles in 9 years doesn’t set the pulse racing. Keegan Bradley loves the test here from tee-to-green, but I am struggling to see him gaining over a stroke on the field putting which is the minimum prerequisite to take the title. So I have come back to defending championRussell Henley who has no peers around this course. I won’t bore you with his form around here as it’s common knowledge, but I think 33/1 about him going back-to-back is a decent enough price. 20th and 7th after 36 holes at the recent WGC-Mexico Championship and Honda Classic show that Henley is playing decent golf, as does 15th in his last outing on the west coast at Pebble Beach. It would shock nobody to see Russell in contention again, so he’s a must for the team this week.
Jamie Lovemark 1pt EW 66/1 with Coral
Another I like the chance of is Jamie Lovemark. Long as you like from the tee and aggressive when he needs to be, Lovemark has always been recognised as a high class player who until this point hasn’t won on the PGA Tour. Lovemark is a +300 yard driver who hits the ball straight for the best part – that’s a huge commodity around the GC of Houston where finding fairways over 300 yards carry is a distinct advantage. He’s also a bomber with the ability to scramble, that much is clear across recent form of 26-(Riviera)-7(PGA National)-16(Copperhead)-41(Bay Hill) where he hasn’t been out of the top 12 for scrambling. The thing with Lovemark is that recent high scoring tests are not really his strength. Instead, give Jamie a soft golf course and an objective to shoot low scores and he’s far more in his element. 4th (2015) and 7th (2016) at Waialae came with scores of -14/266 and -18/262. 6th (2015) at PGA West came at -20/268, whilst 6th (2016) at Sea Island came at 14-under par. The closest he ever came to a win was on the MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens of TPC Louisiana in 2016 when -15/273 was good enough for 2nd in a 54-hole shoot-out. Those with decent memories will remember him having a very makeable 2-putt for the title on the 18th green, which he missed, forcing him into a playoff with Brian Stuard and Byeong-Hun An which the former won. He’s clearly Bermuda positive, but 10th at Muirfield Village and 3rd at Old White TPC both last year again correlate nicely with Russell Henley. Jamie must have learnt from plenty of back-nine contending performances and his putter was hot at PGA National 4 weeks ago where he was 5th for Strokes Gained Putting.
Watch these tips on YouTube with Steve Bamford: Golf Betting System YouTube Channel
Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 17:05BST 26.3.18 but naturally subject to fluctuation.
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