Paul Williams

Paul Williams' Saudi International Tips 2021

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Some good and some bad, particularly with the flat stick when it came to the latter, from 28/1 shot Sergio Garcia last week all added up to a frustrating tie for 6th place and another week where a slither of the each-way action was all that we had to show for a week that had the potential to have been so much better.

On we go then and the final leg of this opening Middle-East swing takes us to the banks of the Red Sea and the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), the largest privately-funded new city in the world. We’ll head back to the region in March for the Qatar Masters, however for now this controversial event concludes our time in the Gulf.

Despite the well-documented political and human rights issues in the country, it’s clear that money talks in golf and the $3.5m prize fund has undoubtedly been eclipsed by the appearance fees that have attracted the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Tony Finau across the Atlantic to join a stellar cast including Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and last week’s winner Paul Casey. This considerable investment has created an excellent field and an intriguing betting market with plenty of long prices driven as a result of these headline names.

Before we go into more detail around my Saudi International tips, we always have new visitors to Golf Betting System as we head towards The Masters. Welcome to you all and let me point you in the direction of our weekly Golf Betting System podcast (published Tuesday) and our hugely popular private group on Facebook – you can Join Here.

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Course Overview. The course at Royal Greens G&CC was opened in 2017 and is the handiwork of Dave Sampson of European Golf Design. A short, coastal par 72 for the members has been tweaked for the European Tour with the par-5s on the 9th and 13th holes being converted to long par-4s to create a 7,010 yard par-70 for this week’s event.

Carved from the Saudi Arabian desert landscape, the course is built around 4 lakes with some holes playing towards and alongside the Red Sea itself. As well as the water, native desert areas and waste areas await the errant as well as ‘wadi’ drainage ditches.

With some dog-leg holes too, the course will demand an element of strategy, however with it being so short its main defence, as is often the case with coastal tracks, is the prevailing wind which will be at its strongest on Thursday according to the latest forecast, gusting over 20mph. The course uses Royal Dynasty Paspalum grass throughout.

saudi international tips

Tournament Stats. We now have 2 years’ worth of data available for this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Combined Current/Event Form.

Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.

Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for KAEC is here. The tournament should enjoy mild (low 80s Fahrenheit) and largely dry conditions throughout the 4 days. Winds will be generally moderate throughout with the breeze peaking at around 10-15mph at times, with the opening day on Thursday potentially seeing gusts in excess of 20mph.

Tournament Trends & Key Factors.

Analysing the final stats of the leading finishers at the two Saudi Internationals gives us a little insight into the requirements for this week’s test:

2020:

  • 2020: 1st: Graeme McDowell (-12). 301.5 yards (47th), 69.6% fairways (9th), 76.4% greens in regulation (12th), 70.6% scrambling (2nd), 1.74 putts per GIR (14th).
  • 2020: 3rd: Gavin Green (-9). 324 yards (9th), 71.4% fairways (4th), 84.7% greens in regulation (1st), 45.5% scrambling (50th), 1.77 putts per GIR (31st).
  • 2020: 3rd: Thomas Pieters (-9). 324.5 yards (7th), 44.6% fairways (66th), 75.0% greens in regulation (17th), 61.1% scrambling (15th), 1.73 putts per GIR (8th).

2019:

  • 2019: 2nd: Haotong Li (-17). 324.9 yards (4th), 58.9% fairways (35th), 61.1% greens in regulation (59th), 78.6% scrambling (3rd), 1.56 putts per GIR (1st).
  • 2019: 3rd: Tom Lewis (-16). 318.6 yards (10th), 51.8% fairways (46th), 77.8% greens in regulation (6th), 75% scrambling (5th), 1.69 putts per GIR (10th).
  • 2019: 4th: Minwoo Lee (-15). 334.5 yards (1st), 51.8% fairways (46th), 72.2% greens in regulation (26th), 70% scrambling (9th), 1.67 putts per GIR (7th).
  • 2019: 5th: Alexander Levy (-14). 314.9 yards (13th), 60.7% fairways (29th), 69.5% greens in regulation (40th), 68.2% scrambling (12th), 1.64 putts per GIR (2nd).

Stats for both renewals are patchy with Dustin Johnson missing from both years, as were the performance numbers for Phil Mickelson last year.

Scoring was tougher last year and that was reflected most clearly in the putting stats with on average around a tenth being added to putts per GIR.

Longer hitters had the best of it in 2019, however Graeme McDowell’s win last year would suggest that the bombers won’t get it their own way every year here.

In truth there’s a real mix of performances from the stats listed above, plus we can infer enough from Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson’s games in general to suggest that no particular playing style is favoured here.

Par 3/4/5 Split:

  • 2020: Graeme McDowell: Par 3: +1; Par 4: -9; Par 5: -4
  • 2019: Dustin Johnson: Par 3: -3; Par 4: -10; Par 5: -6

With only 2 par-5s on the course, the bulk of the scoring both years came from the par-4s. That said, Dustin Johnson’s runner-up finish last year included a 9-under total for the 8 looks at par-5s, however he was certainly the exception rather than the rule.

Incoming Form: From the 2 years’ worth of results, there’s some fairly strong indicators that a good recent outing is positive. With the exception of Phil Mickelson who finished in a tie for 3rd last year, all other players finishing in the top 5 spots had recorded at least one top-10 finish in their previous 6 starts, so that’s 9 out of 10 players:

2020:

  • 2020: 1st: Graeme McDowell: MC/MC/57/MC/57/MC/15/16/WD/23/23/4/MC
  • 2020: 2nd: Dustin Johnson: 2/28/2/20/35/MC/51/20/24/57/30/7
  • 2020: 3rd: Gavin Green: 40/72/MC/MC/48/50/21/2/35/15/21/27
  • 2020: 3rd: Thomas Pieters: 12/20/10/37/68/26/17/30/6/13/30/37
  • 2020: 3rd: Phil Mickelson: MC/MC/MC/57/71/48/MC/61/31/28/MC/MC

2019:

  • 2019: 1st: Dustin Johnson: MC/1/3/27/11/7/24/3/30/7/4/16
  • 2019: 2nd: Haotong Li: WD/MC/24/27/5/9/11/2/5/30/MC/12
  • 2019: 3rd: Tom Lewis: 6/65/1/3/1/10/5/14/67/7/9/48
  • 2019: 4th: Minwoo Lee: 6/19/MC/6/32/MC/5/15/63/MC/37/MC
  • 2019: 5th: Alexander Levy: MC/56/20/MC/32/42/28/10/WD/34/67/MC

In terms of course form, McDowell was making his debut last year so that doesn’t help us out. Dustin Johnson though was the defending champion, Gavin Green had finished 11th the year before and Thomas Pieters 22nd so a previous encouraging outing around these parts shouldn’t be ignored.

My Final Saudi International Tips Are As Follows:

Viktor Hovland 3pts EW 16/1 (8EW, 1/5) with Betfair

I’ve been looking at Ryder Cup as something that I want to play in for a really long time, and it’s certainly, I would say, the pinnacle of a golfing career, being on a Ryder Cup team. I saw Padraig on Tuesday. He said congrats, so that was great, and hopefully I can just keep playing well and kind of make more of my mark that maybe I have a chance to be on the team.”

The words of Viktor Hovland after securing what was his first PGA Tour victory in Puerto Rico last February, before the world got turned on its head. The equation nearly 12 months on hasn’t changed a great deal, nor has the ambition from the now 23 year-old.

In the intervening period, the Norwegian star has added a second PGA Tour title to his name, this time at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in December, yet if he’s going to qualify by rights for Harrington’s team then he’ll need to step on the gas, sitting as he does in 13th place in terms of qualification now that the scoring has been flicked back on from the New Year.

At 12th in the OWGR, you could argue that he should make the team by rights, however as we know it’s results that count and his focus will undoubtedly be high. A tie for 2nd last week at Torrey Pines tells us where his game is right now and he flies directly to Saudi Arabia from California in good form to compliment his perennial good spirits, despite missing out from a good position last week before Patrick Reed pulled clear.

With just 2 renewals of this event in the books, Hovland will on a far more level playing field than he is on some other events, for instance the DP World Tour Championship where he finished 3rd on course debut immediately after hopping on a flight from his victorious effort in Mexico. “I’ve done a good job resetting myself. It’s a new tournament, new week. You have to show up and give it your best stuff,” was how he articulated his mindset to the travel challenges that week, and that approach has got to set him in good stead again here this week.

With precious little European tour form to review, we need to delve deeper into his PGA Tour efforts to gauge his chances here this week, however we need to look no further than those two aforementioned victories to build a pretty solid case.

Coco Beach Golf & Country Club, which hosts the Puerto Rico Open, is a coastal track featuring Paspalum grass from tee to green and is a resort course first and foremost despite being a little more stretching than this week’s venue from off the tee; likewise, El Camaleon Golf Club, which hosts the Mayakoba Golf Classic, is also a coastal track laid with Paspalum grass throughout and this time is far more compatible in terms of length at 6,987 yards. If we needed any more pointers to suggest there’s a link there, Graeme McDowell won on the latter track in 2015.

Many of this week’s attendees have undoubtedly chosen to play this event having had their palms greased with appearance fees. Whether that’s the case with Viktor is immaterial in my view, as I suspect he’s primarily here to secure a first win on the European Tour and further improve his chances of making the Ryder Cup team. RESULT: T6

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Kevin Na 1.5pts EW 66/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfred

You can undoubtedly make a strong case for the market leaders with OWGR No.1 Dustin Johnson having a stellar record of 1/2 from his two starts here at Royal Greens and having won The Masters on his penultimate start; Bryson DeChambeau finishing 6th here on debut 2 years ago; and Tyrrell Hatton perhaps the most in-form of all the elite players over the past few months, however I’m more than happy to skip those players and place my trust in Kevin Na who’s so often overlooked by the bookmakers.

It’s easy to post-rationalise a result after the event, however Na’s win at the Sony Open a fortnight ago – his 5th overall on the PGA Tour – came on a short track that suited his game far more than his lowly finish the week before at Kapalua, an effort which put me and many other punters off the scent I’m sure. Another trophy coming so hot on the heels of that success may seem unlikely, however with 3 wins in a little under 2 years, the American has got a taste for victory nowadays and that makes him a dangerous proposition whenever he tees it up on a compatible course.

Naturally this being a ‘compatible course’ is a leap of faith to a degree – indeed the 37 year-old hasn’t played a regular European Tour event since missing the cut at the Scottish Open in 2012 and is therefore making his debut here this week – however there’s enough evidence to infer that he’ll enjoy this track.

Waialae, the scene of his most recent success, is a coastal track of comparable length to this week’s task and, although it’s constructed from different grasses, a distant 5th in 2009 at El Camaleon and finishes of 2nd and 3rd in 2014 and 2015 respectively at TPC Kuala Lumpur suggest that the Paspalum base here won’t be an issue this week.

In the past 2 winners here, Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell, we also have a clear link to Pebble Beach which is further bolstered by the appearance of Phil Mickelson on last year’s leaderboard, despite some poor incoming form. 5th at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 2012 and 4th 2 years later for Na correlates well then and again we’re talking about a short, coastal track that correlates well with this week’s task.

At 22nd in the World Rankings and the 9th highest ranked player in this week’s field, Na deserves a little more respect in the market in my view and I’ll happily take the price on offer. RESULT: T21

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Alexander Levy 1pt EW 125/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Unibet

I’ve put up Alex Levy so many times now that it’s sometimes difficult to put a new spin on justifying why he’s made my final team.

Admittedly his swashbuckling style is a joy to watch, as is his amiable character – evidenced none more so than following his ace in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago which had everything bar the hugs and high-fives that he so desperately craved – however there’s more to his inclusion here than him featuring in my short list of personal favourites.

With back issues and subsequent recuperation hampering his 2019 campaign, the 20 weeks off that the Frenchman was forced to take due to Covid lockdown appears to have done him the world of good. He’s now swinging as well and as freely as he has done in years, and that makes him a danger on a course where he finished 5th on debut 2 years ago.

After some fairly innocuous efforts following the restart of professional golf, the Scottish Championship was the first real spark we saw in El Toro’s game, eventually finishing in a tie for 16th courtesy of a closing round of 66. 7th at the Cyprus Showdown followed a couple of starts later where his long game really shone, ranking 2nd for Driving Accuracy and 1st for GIR of those who made it through to the weekend. 6th at Leopard Creek was another fairly obvious sign that he was playing some nice golf and crucially that was on a tough setup that doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths.

Since the start of 2018, the 30 year-old has finished 7th in Abu Dhabi, 4th at the Dubai Desert Classic, 4th in Oman and 5th here in Saudi to more than hint that he’s comfortable in this part of the world and having shown some good signs of form in Abu Dhabi (25th) and last week in Dubai (9th), I’m happy to take a punt on further progression this week, despite a tougher field to beat. RESULT: MC

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Kurt Kitayama 1pt EW 150/1 (8EW, 1/5) with Betfair

The return to competitive action following last year’s lockdown wasn’t kind to Kurt Kitayama, however there are enough signs of a turnaround in the early part of 2021 to take a chance on the American on a course that should suit better than the solitary missed cut that he achieved here on debut 2 years ago suggests.

To be fair to Kurt, that effort here came in a spell where he’d lost his form following his maiden European Tour victory on the coastal track at Mauritius a couple of months beforehand, however progressive form of 35th in Abu Dhabi and 20th last week – where he started brightly both times to sit 7th and 2nd after day 1 respectively – encourages some support.

That Mauritius success was backed up in March 2019 at the Oman Open, another coastal track laid with Paspalum grass throughout, and although the similarities between his two wins could prove to be a red herring as we look back over his career in years to come, without the benefit of a crystal ball there’s enough to suggest to me that this week’s layout should fall right into his wheelhouse when playing well. RESULT: T12

Driving accuracy has been the 28 year-old’s main issue of late and surely what prevented him from progressing further in those 2 outings over the past fortnight, however it’s clear from the stats of Thomas Pieters last year, and what we can infer from Phil Mickelson’s tie for 3rd 12 months ago, that missing fairways is something that can be overcome here. Despite finding the short grass a little over 1/3 of the time last week on the Majlis course, Kitayama still ranked 10th for GIR and that, in the bigger scheme of things, may be more important on a putting surface that he’s proven to be very comfortable on.

3rd at the 2019 Italian Open and 2nd at the Turkish Airlines Open a month later were both at Rolex Series level, which tells us that he’s not overly intimidated by his more elevated peers in terms of the world ranking, and save for Tyrell Hatton’s heroics in the play-off on that latter tournament, he’d already have a third European Tour title to his name.

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Kiradech Aphibarnrat 0.5pt EW 350/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Unibet

Finally, I’m taking a chance on Paspalum specialist Kiradech Aphibarnrat who showed a brief glimpse of form last week in Dubai before fading away over the weekend.

Classical tests should suit the burly Thai more than modern golf courses in my view, as should coastal tracks and those with an element of wind in play. In that respect, last week’s venue in Dubai suits better than Abu Dhabi the week before, and this week’s layout should suit better still, despite this being his course debut.

I’ve mentioned a few times on the podcast that Aphibarnrat is a player who I always shortlist on the Tour’s rare visits to Paspalum-based tracks, and that’s for good reason. His breakthrough European Tour win came on the Paspalum greens of Kuala Lumpur in 2013 and he showed further liking for the surface 2 years later at Genzon Golf Club when he secured the Shenzhen International on course debut. A further pair of top-3 finishes in Kuala Lumpur over the years reinforces the point and when he finds confidence with the putter he can be one of the best in the business on the greens.

The 31 year-old’s price this week is based predominantly on a form line of WD/MC/60, however prior to that we saw an 11th place finish at the PGA Tour’s Bermuda Championship to suggest that his form isn’t as bad as it would seem, and for a fleeting few minutes last week he got into the top 5 in Dubai before dropping from contention. A leap of faith is required here, granted, however the reward for getting this one right is too big for me to ignore. RESULT: T41

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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 15:15GMT 1.2.21 but naturally subject to fluctuation.