Paul Williams

Paul Williams' WGC HSBC Champions Tips 2019

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A profitable week in Portugal with 125/1 shot Justin Walters finishing in a tie for 2nd place and securing his card in emotional fashion, however as ever it’s a little frustrating to get that close to a 3-figure winning bet that doesn’t convert, with the South African bogeying 2 of the final 3 holes to miss out by a single stroke. Despite all that, it was great to see such gutsy performances from Walters and eventual winner Steven Brown, as the Surrey man continued the fine record that Englishmen have at Vilamoura in recent times.

As the golfing year edges towards its close, we now head to China for the final World Golf Championship of 2019 ahead of the 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 2013-18, 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 only Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Xander Schauffele here from the current top 10. Nevertheless, this limited field still features a number of household names, plus the cream of the 2019 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.

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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 (until last year’s renewal) 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 | Combined Stats.

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

Winners & Prices. 2018, Xander Schauffele, 66/1; 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.

Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Shanghai is here. Dry, sunny and relatively calm conditions are expected throughout. Temperatures will peak around the low 70s Fahrenheit in what should be very pleasant conditions for golf.

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:

  • 2018, Xander Schauffele (-14). 33.3% fairways (77th), 63.0% greens in regulation (20th), 80% scrambling (1st), 1.59 putts per GIR (4th).
  • 2017, Justin Rose (-14). 60.7% fairways (29th), 77.8% greens in regulation (3rd), 50% scrambling (42nd), 1.70 putts per GIR (7th).
  • 2016, Hideki Matsuyama (-23). 55.4 fairways (43rd), 75% greens in regulation (10th), 66.7% scrambling (9th), 1.54 putts per GIR (1st).
  • 2015, Russell Knox (-20). 73.2% fairways (5th), 84.7% greens in regulation (4th), 63.6% scrambling (31st), 1.64 putts per GIR (6th).
  • 2014, Bubba Watson (-11). 66.7% fairways (18th), 66.7% greens in regulation (18th), 61.1% scrambling (17th), 1.69 putts per GIR (18th).
  • 2013, Dustin Johnson (-24). 69.6% fairways (13th), 84.7% greens in regulation (1st), 63.6% scrambling (23rd), 1.52 putts per GIR (1st).
  • 2011, Martin Kaymer (-20). 60.7% fairways (29th), 76.4% greens in regulation (10th), 76.5% scrambling (3rd), 1.62 putts per GIR (4th).
  • 2010, Francesco Molinari (-19). 76.8% fairways (7th), 65.3% greens in regulation (23rd), 84% scrambling (2nd), 1.57 putts per GIR (2nd).
  • 2009, Phil Mickelson (-17). 50% fairways (71st), 70.8% greens in regulation (20th), 85.7% scrambling (1st), 1.67 putts per GIR (15th).

Some differing approaches to winning this event have been evident over the years with either a sublime approach game or magical short game both having proved decisive for those listed above depending on the year, however in all instances the putter has needed to be warm with Bubba Watson’s 18th for putting average the worst anyone has recorded on their way to victory since 2009.

Incoming Form: Ian Poulter’s win in 2012 was at Mission Hills and I’ve excluded those stats from the list below accordingly.

All of the recent winners here at Sheshan had decent enough recent form, with at least one top-12 finish recorded in their previous 5 events, so entering this week with at least some semblance of form has got to be seen as a positive:

  • 2018, Xander Schauffele: 6/MC/21/2/68/35/MC/49/3/7/25/48
  • 2017, Justin Rose: 2/65/12/MC/4/54/63/MC/10/10/2/10
  • 2016, Hideki Matsuyama: MC/MC/42/MC/4/3/MC/15/24/5/1/2
  • 2015, Russell Knox: WD/10/MC/39/MC/MC/20/12/45/MC/38/21
  • 2014, Bubba Watson: 48/3/MC/31/16/MC/37/64/30/29/2/14
  • 2013, Dustin Johnson: 10/55/18/32/2/33/8/MC/27/62/5/12
  • 2011, Martin Kaymer: 31/39/18/4/12/29/MC/2/MC/30/8/23
  • 2010, Francesco Molinari: MC/2/4/MC/8/39/33/3/8/MC/2/35
  • 2009, Phil Mickelson: 5/5/55/59/2/58/73/52/27/30/1/14

Course Form: Sheshan International form prior to winning for those same 9 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, and Xander Schauffele had hardly set the world alight when finishing 46th on debut the year before:

  • 2018, Xander Schauffele: 46
  • 2017, Justin Rose: 7/5/48
  • 2016, Hideki Matsuyama: WD/41/WD
  • 2015, Russell Knox: Debut
  • 2014, Bubba Watson: 8
  • 2013, Dustin Johnson: Debut
  • 2011, Martin Kaymer: 20/6/30
  • 2010, Francesco Molinari: 9/10
  • 2009, Phil Mickelson: 1/8

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 3 years ago despite some fairly inclement weather and slow and bumpy greens to triumph by 7 shots.

Soft conditions in 2017 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. Wet and breezy conditions to start last year also kept a lid on scoring as -14 was good enough to take the title for the second consecutive year, this time for Xander Schauffele.

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 (Schauffele, 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.

My selections are as follows:

Hideki Matsuyama 4pts Win 12/1 with bet365

Rory McIlroy heads the betting here this week at a general 6/1, however recent sluggish starts at the BMW PGA Championship (76), Dunhill Links (70) and Zozo Championship (72) have left him playing catch-up each time and, at the price on offer, punters can’t afford for the Northern Irishman to be leaving himself a mountain to climb again this week. 5 top-6 finishes here at Sheshan from 7 starts would suggest that Rory will be in the mix again this week, however at twice the price I prefer to take a chance win-only on a resurgent Hideki Matsuyama.

For a player of Matsuyama’s quality, no win on any Tour for 2 years is hard to fathom, however a loss of form – that’s been loosely put down to changes to his diet and a loss of weight, caddie changes and becoming a father for the first time – is perhaps about to end given what we’ve seen of late, and it’s clear from the little that we glean from him in English-speaking interviews that he feels far happier about his game right now than he has done for quite some time.

3rd at the CJ Cup where he scythed through the field on Sunday with a flying round of 65 was the first indication that his stock was in the ascendancy and last week’s homecoming was only scuppered by a masterclass from Tiger Woods. To be fair to the 27 year-old, he didn’t wilt under the pressure of chasing home the former World No.1 and his irons looked as strong in Japan as they did the week before in South Korea which bodes well for his game as he warms up for the Presidents Cup in a few weeks time.

What really excites though is that despite missing a few good opportunities on the greens last week, he still led the field for putting average and in general when the putter starts to behave for Matsuyama then the results quickly follow. We’d seen a similar upturn with the flat stick immediately prior to his last victory at the WGC Bridgestone, and before that we saw another purple patch on the greens at the end of 2016 that saw him win 4 events globally in the space of 5 starts, with only Justin Thomas at the CIMB Classic preventing it from being 5/5 during that stretch.

In the middle of that spell was a glorious 7-stroke victory here at Sheshan, and with his game on the ascendancy perhaps he’ll treat us to another demonstration of how to take this course apart here this week. Result: T11

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Bernd Wiesberger 1.5pts EW 30/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Paddy Power

2 Rolex Series wins in top-class European Tour fields have followed Bernd Wiesberger’s low-key Made In Denmark victory back in May and while his stock is high I’m happy to side with the Austrian as he looks to top an incredible season by taking the Race To Dubai title.

All 7 of the 34 year-old’s European Tour wins have come with winning scores ranging from -13 to -22, which puts him in exactly the right kind of space occupied by successful campaigns here over the past few years, and with his Shenzhen International win in 2017 we have evidence of success here in China when he held off Tommy Fleetwood in a play-off.

A Strong tee-to-green game punctuated by high GIR performances has typically been the way that Bernd has got himself in winning positions over the years, however what’s noticeable is that his putting performances have stepped up a level in 2019 and that makes him a dangerous proposition on this track where putting has proven pivotal over the past few years. 1st for putts per GIR when victorious in Denmark earlier this year was the first hint that he’d found something with the flat stick and he’s continued that theme in his subsequent victories to suggest that he can contend here this week.

Sheshan form of 17/35/9 shows progress around this track and he led the field for greens hit on his last attempt back in 2017 to suggest that he’s comfortable with the way that this layout sets up. A WGC title would be another step forward in the career of Bernd Wiesberger and with the real pressure for Race To Dubai success likely to come as we hit the final knockings of the European Tour season in the weeks to come, perhaps he can steal a march on the main protagonists this week. Result: T49

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Tyrrell Hatton 1.5pts EW 40/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Betfred

Slightly further down the betting I’m also backing Tyrrell Hatton who’s trending nicely at present. 12 consecutive rounds of par or better has seen the 28 year-old produce form figures of 15th (Dunhill Links), 18th (Italian Open) and 6th (CJ Cup) and some real momentum as he enters the closing stages of the season, critical for a player who thrives on positive vibes as much as he wallows on negatives vibes when things aren’t going his way.

After a week’s break having missed out on the Zozo Championship field, the Bucks man should be highly motivated given his precarious OWGR ranking of 49th, however after recording his best career GIR performance on his last start in South Korea at 90.3%, it should only take a small spark with the putter for him to be contending here this week and given that he’s ranked 6th and 8th for putting here at Sheshan on his last 2 visits, who’s to say that the ball won’t find the cup with more regularity this week. 2 bogeys over 4 days at the CJ Cup also equalled his career best – the last time he did that was at the 2017 Alfred Dunhill Links and he went on to win the week after in Italy, making it 3 European Tour wins from 3 in the month of October.

Whilst course form of 54/23/11/22 is solid if not spectacular, the fact that his game is peaking as opposed to having peaked could spell a big personal best here in China and with 5 career Major top-10s, including most recently 6th at Royal Portrush, as well as a couple more WGC strokeplay top-10 finishes to his name, he’s becoming increasingly comfortable playing at the upper levels of world golf.

In total, Hatton missed 31 birdie or better putts inside 20 feet at the CJ Cup, yet finished just 7 shots behind the massively impressive Justin Thomas. At his best, Tyrrell is an excellent putter from that range and if the flat stick complies this week then I think he could go very close indeed. Result: T14

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Xinjun Zhang 1pt EW 150/1 (5EW, 1/4) with Unibet

Finally I’ll have a more speculative punt on China’s own Xinjun Zhang. Until this year, the Guangdon man’s only victories had come in his homeland with success at the 2012 China Tour Final, 2014 Beijing Open and twice at the Chongqing Open in 2015 and 2018; however it’s clear that those wins were merely setting the foundations for the next chapter of his career.

Korn Ferry victories at the Dormie Network Classic and Lincoln Land Championship meant that the 32 year-old led the regular season points list on the US second tier Tour last season to gain promotion back to the top level after a largely unsuccessful debut campaign in 2018. As if to prove how far he’s progressed over the past 2 years, he’s already recorded his 3 highest OWGR-reaping career finishes since the 19/20 wraparound season started, with 7th at the Safeway Open, 16th at the Shriners and 4th at the Houston Open already to his name thus far.

Of course, stepping up from Korn Ferry success to PGA Tour semi-contention to winning a WGC might be something of a stretch, however with his previous exploits in China has come more exposure to this event and Sheshan track than his hitherto World Ranking would otherwise suggest. From 5 attempts here in total, twice he’s sat in 8th position heading into the final day and whilst those chances both evaporated on the Sunday, he’s clearly a far more accomplished and experienced player nowadays.

A 3rd round 64 here on debut back in 2011 is a better 18 holes around this track than the vast majority of this field can boast and he arrives here this week with all aspects of his game having shown sparks of form of late, having ranked 4th for Driving Accuracy and 8th for GIR at the Shriners, then 4th for putting on his last start in Houston when he finished 4th overall. In a weaker than usual renewal of this WGC, seeing Zhang sneak an each-way place wouldn’t surprise me at all. Result: T38

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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 16:40GMT 28.10.19 but naturally subject to fluctuation.