It’s the final tune-up event ahead of the Masters and the Golf Club of Houston sets up to mimic Augusta National as closely as possible, in order to attract a strong field.
That has been achieved again to an extent this season, with three of the world’s top-10 players; Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler all playing this week. Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar will also be teeing it up, making it six players from the top-20 in the World Rankings.
A lot of players don’t like to win a week before a major, with the thought of using up all their good luck and play effecting their chances of a major win. Mickelson especially though loves to play a week before and generally goes for the win. He won the BellSouth Classic a week before winning the Masters in 2006, as well the Scottish Open the week before winning the Open Championship in 2013, so there will be no holding back from him this week. He also won this event in 2011, but only went on to finish T27 at Augusta.
This is the last chance for those not already qualified to get into the Masters field, with a win here getting you the last spot. We have seen four of the last five winners of this event be players not already in the Masters field and you have to think that the incentive of such an opportunity factors into that trend, alongside the one where some don’t want to win here out of fear.
The Course and what it will take to win
Golf Club of Houston, 7,441 Yards, Par 72, Bermuda Greens (heavily over seeded with Bentgrass and Rye) – Ranked 24/50 in terms of difficulty in 2017
There is just a six yard difference in the length of this course compared to Augusta, and due to the over-seeding of the greens, they play very similar to those of the wonderful Masters venue too, making this ideal preparation for the year’s first major.
They have really gone all out here to make it play like the Masters, including the creation of the run-off areas and the four par-4’s which measure over 450 yards, preparing players for the seven (!!) they will face of that nature at Augusta.
Running at around 13 on the stimpmeter, the greens will be lightning fast as they are at Augusta and it is worth focusing on those who putt well on Bentgrass despite officially being listed as Bermuda, given the way these surfaces are over-seeded and play.
Good Greens in Regulation figures are required here to win, and ranking highly on Par 4 efficiency 450-500 yards will also be highly advantageous.
8 of the last 10 winners of this event have ranked inside the top-11 for Greens in Regulation the week they won, with Anthony Kim (50th in 2010) and Paul Casey (22nd in 2009) the exceptions. Casey and Kim were also the only two players in this span to not finish the week 15-under-par or better, winning with scores of 11-under-par and 12-under-par respectively.
All of the last 10 winners have ranked inside the top-19 for Par 4 Efficiency 450-500 the week they won here, with four of those ranking 1st (including three of the last six winners) and a further two of them ranking inside the top-4, making this a very clear indicator that success on the long par-4’s is a big part of the winning formula.
Unsurprisingly to win this event you need to gain strokes on the field in putting, with 7 of the last 10 winners ranking inside the top-5 and 9 of the 10 ranking inside the top-11 in SG: Putting the week they won. Only Mickelson in 2011 managed to win this event
It is a fairly straight forward formula. Bomb it off the tee, as there is no rough to speak of, land it and stop it on the green, to avoid the run-off areas and make plenty of putts. A low score is required here, the winning score being 15-under-par or better for the past seven renewals, with Russell Henley last year and Mickelson in 2011 reaching 20-under-par. Unless there is any adverse weather this week, there is every chance they reach that level of scoring again.
Justin Rose 11/1
Jordan Spieth 12/1
Rickie Fowler 12/1
Phil Mickelson 14/1
Henrik Stenson 14/1
Russell Henley 33/1 (Bet365, Betfred, UniBet) 1.5pts e/w:
Russell Henley’s price has unsurprisingly shortened since the early prices saw him at 50/1 and more widely available at 40/1, but for me there is still value at 33/1.
Henley is a three-time PGA Tour winner, which is just one less than 12/1 shot, Rickie Fowler, and he has picked up those wins a lot quicker than Fowler.
He first burst onto the scene on the Web.com Tour, where he won three times in 2012 to earn himself a PGA Tour card. It didn’t take him any time at all to acclimatise to his new-found level, winning on his very first start at the Sony Open, in 2013.
Fast forward 5 years and Henley has won twice more, including here 12 months ago. It may have taken him three years to get his third win, after winning in his first two seasons, but Henley has proven he can win, especially on courses that have suited in the past, so there’s every chance he can repeat this year.
After finishing 45th on debut in 2013, Henley clearly figured this course out, posting top-7 finishes in his last four starts, including the win last year. In his last three straight starts here, Henley would have rewarded punters with each-way money at the least, finishing 4th, 5th and 1st.
Henley shot four rounds in the 60’s in both 2015 and 2017 here, so he can clearly go low enough as emphasised by his 20-under-par winning score last season. Two of his three wins have been have come in low scoring events, as he shot 24-under-par to earn his first career title in Hawaii.
Well known for repeat performances, there’s plenty of reason to suspect he will go well here, regardless of current form, but he has some of that under his belt to boot.
He finished T15 at Pebble Beach and T24 at the Honda before opening his week in Mexico with two rounds of 69. An awful weekend, where he shot 75-79 saw him fall to T58 but he showed life again last week.
Henley may have only won one match in his group last week at the Match Play, but he proved difficult to beat, losing his matches to Kyle Stanley and Paul Casey by just one hole, whilst taking care of Matthew Fitzpatrick with a 3&2 victory.
In four starts at Augusta, Henley has finished MC-31-21-11 so not only does he like this course, he’s also trending in the right direction at the course it warms you up for, so it’s clear he likes the way they both setup.
If adverse weather conditions do hit this event this week, that won’t bother Henley one bit, given his exponents in windy conditions (wins in Hawaii and PGA National), so there really doesn’t appear to be many downsides about his chances this week.
All in all he’s shown enough this season, even if not at his very best, to suggest he can perform well at an event he has clearly enjoyed over the last four seasons. He may not appear value to everyone, as he is by no means a consistent performer, but on the right track when already in decent enough form, he shouldn’t be ignored.
Given a large number of those ahead of him in the betting will be using this as a warm up as opposed to going for the win, Henley arguably looks one of, if not the most obvious winner this week.
Thomas Pieters 55/1 (MarathonBet, UniBet) 1pt e/w:
Whilst not in the finest form at the moment, Pieters looks an intriguing prospect on a course that he should be able to take advantage of.
Pieters’ biggest strength is his length off the tee, but he is also a streaky putter and if he can find his touch on the greens, this test should suit.
This is very much a pick based on gut instinct because from a statistical standpoint, Pieters doesn’t look to be playing well enough to contend this week.
In his last stroke-play start, Pieters finished T38 in Mexico, but he got the week off to a much better start than the result suggests, opening with rounds of 69-68, sitting T14 with eventual winner, Phil Mickelson.
Of course he struggled over the weekend, shooting 74-72 to fall 24 places, however his play over the first two days here, after finishing T13 at the Honda Classic suggest he’s playing ok. PGA National is not a course you’d think would suit Pieters so that was a very promising result and whilst he disappointed at the Match Play last week, I think he can re-energise himself here.
A T4 finish on debut at Augusta last year suggests Pieters could well like this test as well, and will be looking for confidence-building week as he returns to Augusta looking to emulate that success from 12 months ago.
Even ahead of his debut at Augusta last year, Pieters’ form was up and down, finishing 2nd at the Genesis Open and 5th in Mexico either side of a MC at the Honda before also missing the weekend at Bay Hill. He also failed to make out of his Match Play group last year, so I am not going to put too much stock in that result.
55/1 looks fair enough about a player with huge potential, who has already proven he can contend in fields much better than this. He is still on the quest for his first PGA Tour win, after winning three times on the European Tour already in his young career and he can get it here.
Total Points Staked this week: 5
Profit/Loss for 2018: -45.4