The first World Golf Championship of 2018 sees the PGA Tour pitch up in Mexico for the second straight year, as the Club de Golf Chapultepec resumes hosting duties. With the Blue Monster at Doral seemingly out of favour due to some ownership issues involving a well known, tweeting world leader, the Tour took the decision to move the event to a course in the land of the Aztecs, a move that was presumably completely unrelated and in no way meant to rile the golfer-in-chief.
The course at Chapultepec reads 7345 yards on the scorecard but, in reality, plays more like 6500 yards as the course is situated at altitude. Whilst that might make the track sound a push over given the strength of modern players and the advances in equipment technology, last year’s renewal proved that it is anything but, with players and caddies really having to plot their way round, considering increased carries, different trajectories and the benefits of going for it in risk/reward situations.
Indeed, having started his week driving the ball through the green and out of bounds on the par 4 1st hole – with a 3 wood (!) – eventual champion Dustin Johnson hit driver just a handful of times and was still able to finish 14 under par, including an aggregate 10 under on the par 5s.
With just one year of course form and stats to go on, it’s hard to draw too solid a conclusion on the best path to success but it is worth noting last year’s leaderboard was populated with some of the games best ball strikers – with Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Ross Fisher, Thomas Pieters and Justin Thomas rounding out the places behind DJ. Given the restricted nature of the field – just 65 players tee it up this week – it is perhaps unsurprising that the leaderboard had an elite feel last year, but there is no denying that players’ comments after last year’s event support the fact that distance control and the ability to get the ball in play off the tee is vital here.
Rory McIlroy, who skips the event this year (alongside Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Henrik Stenson), stated “if you can leave your approach shots below the hole, you’ll have much better chance at holing putts and making birdies“.
So yeah, distance control and the greens this week are going to be very important”, whilst Rickie Fowler said “the big thing here is getting the ball in play. I think that’s kind of the strategy going forward, just trying to make it as simple as possible because there are a few trees and it’s pretty dense.” Given these comments, and the proliferation of outstanding ball strikers contending last year, I’ll be looking at players ranking highly on the Strokes Gained: Approach and Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee stats this week.
Another angle to explore is the fact that Chapultepec features the very marmite Poa Annua greens. As with the events on the West Coast swing, players tend to either flourish or struggle on this particular strand of grass that tends to be more bumpy and varies in pace dependent on the amount of sunlight it’s seen over the course of a day. As such, it pays to take notice of the Poa Annua specialists stats published on futureoffantasy.com, as you can effectively discount some players who have struggled on the surface down the years (perhaps a reason Rory and Hideki are swerving the event this week).
Winners of WGC tournaments have tended to be elite, with the average price of winners of the eight WGCs contested in the past two seasons being just 11.5/1 (with the longest priced winner at 22/1). As such, it probably doesn’t pay to look too far down the list this week, especially as it is relatively easy to make a case for many at the top of the market.
Dustin Johnson arrives to defend his title this week and has obvious claims as the betting favourite, especially as he leads the Tour in strokes gained on Poa greens since 2014 and in strokes gained off the tee this season. However, he flopped when defending his Genesis Open title two weeks ago and there was just enough doubt in that performance to swerve him at a price which leaves little wiggle room.
Justin Thomas is next up and arrives fresh off the back of his 7th victory in 31 starts. Truth be known, I was kicking myself on Sunday night as his claims were there for all to see and having referenced the Honda Classic playing like a US Open, I should have put two and two together and backed the guy that tied the record for the lowest round at a major at last year’s US Open. Thomas’ victory was achieved off the back of a dominant statistical week, leading the way in driving distance, sand saves, scrambling, strokes gained approach and strokes gained tee to green and it’s hard to see him out of the frame at a course where he finished 5th last season.
A marginally shorter price than last week, he does have a much stronger field to navigate but he also has fewer players as competition and he’s shown he’s not cowed by anyone when winning the USPGA last summer, and the Tournament of Champions to kick off his 2017.
He followed that ToC win with a back-to-back win at the Sony Open so we know he holds his form and he’s strong on Poa Annua, ranking 5th in strokes gained on those greens over the past three years. It may be a case of slamming the door on an empty stable but I think there is enough in the price to support Thomas to repeat the trick again this week.
Others priced at 24.0 or less include Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood and Rickie Fowler. Rahm was third here on his WGC debut last year and could well have contended but for two late three putts in the closing four holes. He’s since reached number two in the world and ranks second in both strokes gained off the tee this season and on Poa Greens in the past three seasons, but his recent Sunday struggles mean he’s without a top 10 since winning the Career Builder Challenge.
Whilst a couple of weeks rest should have done him good, I’m content to pass at 13.0. Jordan Spieth is in a similar quandry, having just the sole top 10 finish in 2018, though that was last time out at Riviera where he appeared to find something with his putter on the Poa Annua greens as the week went on. However, just one under par round here last year, albeit a course record 63 on the Saturday, put me off getting involved at the price.
Tommy Fleetwood went off 200/1 for this event last year en route to his runner up finish and whilst that price was undoubtedly a rick for a player who has gone on to become the Race to Dubai champion, he hasn’t yet demonstrated his ability to handle Poa Annua greens (losing -0.886 strokes putting at Riviera) enough for me to want to get stuck in at a 90% reduced price. Rickie Fowler is another who struggles on Poa greens, surprisingly for a California native, losing a massive -1.3 strokes on Poa against his total strokes gained, the most be any Tour player.
That alone would be enough for me to leave him alone but the fact that he missed the cut last week at an event which he has made his own over the years means I am even less inclined to back him and he probably rates a fair lay at the prices.
Having said that elite players win WGCs and made a case for only backing those under 22/1, there is one player further down the field that I want to side with again this week, Tony Finau. The powerful 28 year old has recorded five top seven finishes in his past 10 starts, two of which came on Poa Annua tracks – 6th at Torrey Pines and more recently when runner up at Riviera.
That Riviera performance saw him rank 9th in stokes gained off the tee, 2nd in strokes gained approach, 5th in scrambling and 3rd in greens in regulation and if he produces similar again this week he should be bang in the mix. Although debuting at the course, the Utah man could well take the next step towards the elite level this week and I believe he should outrun his current odds.
- Justin Thomas, 4 points @ 10.0 (lay back 4 points @ 2.25)
- Tony Finau, 1 point @ 51.0 (lay back 4 points @ 7.5)