We are just t-minus seven days from the first major of the golfing year – The Masters. This annual club-fest attracts a lot of interest from the betting floor, and wonder: only two of the last eight winners have been priced at 10/1 or under. Finding a winner amongst such a quality field is the hard part, however….
But first we must focus on this week’s PGA Tour event: the Houston Open, sponsored by Shell. This has been a fantastic proving ground for players with hopes of Masters success over the years, with the Golf Club of Houston course bearing an uncanny bunch of similarities to Augusta. Let’s keep a very close eye on proceedings this week heading into the biggie in seven days time.
Ones to Watch
We’ve got five of the world’s top ten and 12 of the best 25 according to the OWG rankings, so it’s safe to say we’ve got a quality field to pick the bones from here. Mind you, the last four main tour events have been won by Adam Scott and Jason Day, and neither of the Aussies are competing this week.
All of the last five winners of this event – J.B. Holmes, Matt Jones, D.A. Points, Hunter Mahan and Phil Mickelson – are in the field, as are a gamut of former major winners from across the globe, and the out-of-form but always dangerous Jordan Spieth. We’re facing an uphill task to find the next champion then.
Someone else who has a battle on their hands is Holmes, who defeated Spieth and Johnson Wagner here in a play-off in 2015. He also finished runner-up in 2009, so this is an event he clearly loves, but unfortunately history is not on his side: only two of the last 15 winners of this event have successfully defended their title.
What to Look For in a Winner
As mentioned, this Houston track plays eerily similar to Augusta, so a track record of success in The Masters would be a helpful ‘in’, and with 7,400+ yards to play with it is the bigger hitters that tend to go well here.
The fairways have been widened in recent years, and many of the more hazardous obstacles removed or their impact lessened, and so we’re happy to be a bit more forgiving in terms of approach play. That said, each of the last five winners here has ranked inside the top ten for Greens in Regulation, so it’s obvious that staying in control is a necessity.
Low scoring is imperative too – the last five winning scores in Houston have been -16, -15, -16, -16 and -20 – so we’re looking for a couple of selections that stand out for their birdie-making prowess.
Dustin Johnson (15/1)
When you back DJ, there’s always that worry that you will have your hopes raised before your heart gets broken. He is a serial choker, and yet he’s someone capable of playing exquisite golf on his day. We have selected him here because of his suitability for the course and because four of the five best players in the world aren’t here.
We saw at the weekend at the WGC Matchplay event that Johnson is striking the ball nicely at the moment, and with four top 10 finishes in seven starts this season we are naturally tempted.
DJ has a top five finish on this track to his name (4th in 2013) and that is encouraging, but it’s his statistical breakdown this term that makes him one of our headline picks: He’s one of the biggest drivers (5th on tour for Driving Distance), the most accurate (42nd for GIR) and the lowest scoring player (1st for Birdie Average) on the tour, and such numbers are impossible to ignore.
Phil Mickelson (20/1)
Golf punters love a ‘horses for courses’ selection, and few come better prepared at Houston than Phil Mickelson.
Five consecutive top 20 finishes are enough to prick up the ears, a win here in 2011 piques our interest and the fact that he holds both the 18 hole and tournament record for the lowest score on the track suggests that old Leftie has got Houston locked down.
Even sweeter, there’s form in the bag too. A string of 11-2-37-5 is dreamy – especially at this time of year when competition tends to be fierce – and a decent shift at the Matchplay (he won two of his three games) continues the theme.
With such a fine history in this event the stats become almost irrelevant, but as we know Mickelson is one of the biggest boomers on tour with an impressive short game and a penchant for low scoring (he ranks ninth on tour for Birdie Average).
Keegan Bradley (80/1)
It’s been a poor season by Bradley’s standards, but a return at Houston of 4-10-43-5 is simply unmissable for an 80/1 shot.
He’s only made 40% of cuts this term, so discretion is advised, and while a 36th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last time out is hardly inspiring, do note the quality of player that missed the cut there; some big names went down at Bay Hill.
With decent base stats – 37th for Driving Distance, 30th for GIR – let’s give this Houston specialist a try.