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The first WGC event of the season is upon us already and we return for the second of what's planned to be seven WGC Mexico Championships that will be held here at the Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City over the next few years.
Last year we had pretty much a full contingent of the world's top players in attendance with the exception of a poorly Jason Day, however this year it's clear that a few have chosen to give this week a miss despite the WGC status of the event. Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson are notable omissions from the OWGR top 12 in what's now a 65-man field with no halfway cut.
Over on the European Tour I've also previewed the Tshwane Open - you can read my thoughts on that event here.
Club de Golf Chapultepec. Designer: Willie & Alex Smith, 1921. Course Type: Classical, Altitude; Par: 71; Length: 7,345 yards; Fairways/Rough: Kikuyu; Greens: Poa Annua, 12-13 on the stimpmeter.
Course Overview. The course has a classical, old-style feel to it with its narrow, tree-lined fairways and small greens. Players have commented that it feels very much like a tight Spanish or Italian track in terms of its characteristics, however at over 7,000 feet of elevation the altitude adds another dimension to this week with balls flying anything between 10-20% further depending on the club used. So a 7,330 yardage in reality reads sub-6,500 yards which makes this a course that should reap birdies and eagles for those players who can keep the ball in play from off the tee.
A gentle start to the front-9 greets the players with the driveable par-4 1st hole producing 9 eagles and 112 birdies last year. Aside from the two reachable par-5s on the back 9, the first and second hole - which is another short par-4 that requires a flick with a sand iron after a successful drive - are the easiest holes on the course. Each of the four par-3s played over par last year with the 235 yard 7th hole ranking 2nd overall in terms of difficulty behind the 525 yard par-4 8th.
Aside from the fact that this is a tight, tree-lined track that demands accurate driving (or a lot of luck if you're Phil Mickelson) from off the tee, the biggest challenge 12 months ago was on the greens. Relatively speedy Poa Annua putting surfaces are the order of the day, however whilst they're not bad greens they do contain a lot of movement and an awful lot of short putts were missed last year. Players who have the creativity to use the undulations on the greens to their benefit - almost Augusta-style on occasions - may well have an advantage and those who played last year will certainly have much more of an idea what to expect here this time around.
Tournament Stats. With only last year's results to go on for this track, this week's stats are combined current form/last year performance only.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. WGC Mexico Championship: 2017: Dustin Johnson, 7/1; WGC Cadillac Championship (Doral): 2016: Adam Scott, 12/1; 2015: Dustin Johnson, 22/1; 2014: Patrick Reed, 80/1; 2013: Tiger Woods, 12/1; 2012: Justin Rose, 66/1; 2011: Nick Watney, 20/1; 2010: Ernie Els, 40/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 7 years based on the completed 2017 schedule click here; For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 7 years based on the 2017 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Mexico City is here. A dry event is expected with light to moderate winds at worst in the afternoons and temperatures peaking around the mid-to-high 70s Fahrenheit.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Stats from the top-6 finishers last year gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
The driving distance stats in isolation are almost academic here given the altitude and the fact that driver is seldom used on this course as players seek to find position on the fairways first and foremost. That's easier said than done given the tight, tree-lined layout here in Mexico City, however players who can find the right parts of fairways have the best chance of attacking these multi-tier greens which are the toughest part of the course. Aside from the undulations, the greens themselves contain a lot of subtle movements and compared to the some of the snooker table flat greens that the professionals encounter, these are far more challenging. 3-putts are commonplace as are missed short putts, however players can't get overly aggressive on the putting surfaces given how speedy they are, so patience is key around here.
Of the top 6 detailed above, players compiled their scores in a few different ways. In fairly typical fashion, eventual winner Dustin Johnson bullied the par-5s and was the only person to finish in double figures under par for the 12 looks he had at the long holes over the course of the 4 days. In stark contrast, 54-hole leader Justin Thomas was only 2-under for the par-5s overall, whereas he was -10 for the par 4s - clearly there are different ways to overcome this course.
Much of this course is about risk/reward and whilst some players took the aggressive line - Thomas made 24 birdies and an eagle, countered by 13 bogeys and a double - others such as Fleetwood, with just 6 bogeys, took a much more defensive strategy. One element that was consistent though was that players in general found the par-3s challenging here and anything around level par over the week on the short holes isn't losing you any ground whatsoever.
Incoming Form. Looking at the same top-6 finishers from last year, all but Ross Fisher had a recent(ish) win on their CV, however even the Englishman had twice finished runner-up in the recent past. DJ had won the Genesis Open on his last start a fortnight before, plus he'd also secured the US Open, Bridgestone Invitational & BMW Championship the previous year and came into the event having been crowned OWGR No.1 courtesy of that win at Riviera on his previous outing:
Coming into this event without having to endure 4 tough days at PGA National may also be of benefit to some players - indeed none of the top 6 played the weekend at the Honda Classic 12 months ago with the top 4 all resting the week before, whereas Pieters and Thomas missed the cut by 2 shots and 1 shot respectively. Given the almost US Open-style demands of PGA National and a switch from Bermuda to Poa Annua putting surfaces, it makes a level of sense that those players in the thick of the action at the Honda could struggle immediately afterwards. Kikuyu fairways and rough is used throughout which isn't that common on the PGA Tour, however we do have recent events at Riviera and Torrey Pines that featured that type of set-up to potentially give us a clue as to how this might play out.
Generally straighter players should in theory be favoured given the penalties for straying off-line, however the altitude shortens the holes so significantly here that taking driver off of the tee is the exception rather than the rule which negates that to certain degree. Despite some very scoreable holes, a winning total last year of -14 suggests that controlled aggression may well be the order of the day and having the ability to attack and defend accordingly is key. A decent track record on Poa Annua and/or Bent/Poa putting surfaces won't be a bad asset for potential contenders to possess, nor will a smattering of form at tracks played at altitude where more adjustment is required to distances.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My final selections are as follows:
A real conundrum this week it has to be said. At the top of the market I don't think anybody would be remotely surprised to see Dustin Johnson defend the title that he just about managed to secure on the final hole 12 months ago, despite having been 4 strokes ahead at the turn. DJ hasn't been anywhere near as convincing though since his 8-shot demolition job at the Tournament of Champions in January and at 13/2 I'll swerve him this week, although the predictor No.1 selection has a great chance if on his game as you'd expect.
Justin Thomas once again showed us what a talent he is last week with victory at the Honda, however whether he can lift himself immediately afterwards remains to be seen and if a similar pattern emerges to last year then perhaps those in the thick of the weekend action at PGA National are best swerved - which also takes out the likes of Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren, despite how well they're clearly playing in general. Jon Rahm can win anywhere when on song and surely it's only a matter of time before Jordan Spieth's putter warms up, however I'm looking further down the list this week and Bubba Watson is the player who interests me most.
Much has been made of Bubba's equipment choices in 2017 that seemed to seriously hamper his game, however with normality resumed it's been interesting to first see his long game stats improve before capturing his 10th title at the Genesis Open on his last start where he very much appeared to be back to his best. With a week off in between that week and this, following an identical path to success to Dustin Johnson who also triumphed at Riviera isn't out of the realms of possibility and it's encouraging to see a backable price about the 39 year-old despite his positive form.
It was interesting listening to Phil Mickelson in interview last year here where he talked at length about the nuances of altitude golf and how it can favour 'feel golfers' such as himself and with Bubba cut from a similar cloth in that respect, I can see him enjoying this week after finishing 38th on debut 12 months ago when at a very low ebb. Classical courses carry no concerns for Watson who's twice mastered Augusta National - and who's to say he won't contend again this year - and those tracks featuring Kikuyu on the fairways and rough and Poa Annua on the greens are clearly no issue, as was once again demonstrated at the Genesis on his last start. Twice in the past Watson's seriously contended at this event's predecessor at Doral after winning at Riviera - finishing 2nd in both 2014 and 2016 - and he's worth chancing at the price on offer this week in my view. RESULT: T9
Based on his 6th at Torrey Pines and runner-up finish behind Bubba Watson at Riviera, Tony Finau is another player who can clearly play the Kikuyu/Poa Annua combination effectively and whilst he's playing as well as he is, he's got a live chance here. Length may be the Utah bomber's main asset, however when he's playing well he can regularly find greens in their requisite number - for the past 6 months or so that's been a feature of his play that's seen him produce 5 top-7 finishes in 10 starts overall. 16th at the Shriners Open before Christmas might not leap from the page, however the 28 year-old topped all tee-to-green categories that week and he's seemingly continued that form into the new year in loftier company - indeed he ranked 3rd for GIR on his last start at Riviera to suggest his game's right where he wants it to be. 78.3% scrambling on his last start, which ranked 5th in the field, is also interesting given what we saw here last year and although this is his course debut, I can see him hitting the ground running this week. RESULT: T27
Although he doesn't possess the length of Bubba Watson or Tony Finau, Matthew Fitzpatrick more than makes up for that with his tee-to-green game and there's an awful lot to like about his chances this week. Having taken a break following his missed cut in Dubai - which followed a run of 10 consecutive top-20 finishes - the 23 year-old will be ready to go this week having focused on some of the more technical aspects of his game over the past few weeks. We know that Matt can handle a tree-lined test - his breakthrough European Tour victory came at Woburn which is of a comparable style to Chapultepec - and with a victory at the altitude of the Swiss Alps at the Omega European Masters under his belt, he also has some seemingly transferable form for this week's test. Most notably though is that the Sheffield lad was putting very nicely prior to his break - 1.60 putts per GIR in Abu Dhabi and a similar number in Dubai despite missing the weekend - and if his long game is back to the kind of form we saw here last year when he ranked 1st for Driving Accuracy and 5th for GIR then we have a potentially potent combination. Without the trials and tribulations of having played at PGA National, I can see him improving on last year's 16th place finish which came immediately after travelling from Florida having played all 4 days this time last year. RESULT: T30
A couple of longer-priced European Tour players to complete the team this week. Both Tommy Fleetwood and Ross Fisher featured here last year at 3-figure prices and two that have caught my eye are Joost Luiten and Paul Dunne. The Dutchman arrives here fresh off of a 6th European Tour victory on his last start in Oman and could well be underestimated in the market given how well he's striking the ball at present - 78.6% and 82.1% of fairways found over his last two starts is very encouraging for this week's test. Couple that with the fact that his putter was on fire when he converted in Oman then we could have a potent combination if he can maintain that form into this week. Putting surfaces containing Poa Annua are of little concern for the 32 year-old who rates best of all the Europeans in attendance on my analysis when it comes to greens containing that strain of grass and he's worth chancing at the price on offer with the hope that he can improve on his 25th place finish here last year where he topped both the Driving Accuracy and GIR categories over the 4 days. RESULT: T37
Finally I'm taking a punt on Irishman Paul Dunne who's available at a huge price courtesy of a couple of missed cuts on his last two starts in Dubai and at Pebble Beach. We saw last year that the immediate indifferent form of Fleetwood and Fisher saw them underrated in the market and Dunne is no different in my view, particularly as we know what a devastating putter he can be. The Greystones golfer turned professional after leading the Open Championship as an amateur in 2015 and an early start on the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines saw him finish in an impressive 13th place before he settled down on the European Tour. Having lost out in a play-off at the classical layout used for the Trophee Hassan II in Morocco last year, the talented 25 year-old made amends on another tree-lined track at Close House for the British Masters in the autumn. Twice Dunne has topped Open Championship qualifying on another classical track at Woburn to add more fuel to the fire this week and, if you can overlook his latest two results, then he has a better chance of contending here than his price on offer suggests in my view. RESULT: T55
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