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The First Tee at The WGC HSBC Championship
Congratulations to Justin Thomas, who successfully defended 2015 CIMB Classic win by taking home first place and a cool 1.26 million to go along with it. Thomas joins elite company by winning the CIMB in back to back years, and furthermore, he justified to future Ryder Cup captains that he is a worthy selection. It is hard to criticize Davis Love III for not picking Thomas, as the US won for the first time since 2008, and his final selection Ryan Moore, played fantastic golf and clinched the cup for Team America with a spirited comeback. With that said though, Thomas's win displayed his massive ceiling as one of the talented young faces of future American Ryder Cup teams. He shot a final round 64 (-8) to clear Hideki Matsuyama by three strokes, which matched his first round score of 64 (64-66-71-64). It was even more impressive than the scorecard shows, as Thomas came into the final round trailing Arniban Lahiri by four strokes after he started his Saturday back nine with two bogeys and a double bogey. The fact that Thomas had to come from behind to win made it that much sweeter because Thomas had slept on leads before, but had been unable to close out other tournaments aside from the 2015 CIMB Classic. Now he has experience as both the Hunter and the Hunted, and the confidence that comes along with it. The first win of a PGA Tour player's career is the most enjoyable, but the second one is often the most rewarding because it cements the player's ability and standing amongst his peers. It is also the win that opens the floodgates for players to reach their full potential. We will have to wait and see whether that is the case with Thomas, but all signs point to a long and prosperous career that would come as no surprise to me if it included multiple major championships.
The Sheshan International Golf Club was designed by the globe-trotting design firm of Nelson & Haworth (N&H), who have garnered much of their fame by creating aesthetically stunning layouts all across Asia. The course is a par 72, and will be stretched out to play at just under 7,300 yards for the HSBC Championship this week. It follows a traditional routing, with four par 3's, four par 5's and ten par 4's. Sheshan is built within the city walls of Shanghai, China, but you would never know it standing on the first tee.
N&H designed the Sheshan with the countryside, not the city, in mind. They did a fantastic job of using China's natural landscapes to frame the course, and a perfect example of this are the tree lined fairways, many of which are Gingko trees that have stood in their exact spot for over ten centuries. In keeping with the Zen-like atmosphere, even the water-hazards appear to be relaxed and offer a sort of tranquility as opposed to the anxious feeling one usually finds themselves having standing over a forced carry. Players rave about the course conditions, most notably the soft greens that provide ample opportunity to roll in birdie putts. Many course architects have taken to using undulations to break the greens in quadrants, allowing as many pin placements as possible without appearing artificial. This is not the case at Sheshan, as the undulations in the green complexes seem almost natural, as if they were carved out of the existing landscape. They are not uniform, but that is meant as a compliment. With the green speeds usually among the slowest players will face all year, the humps, bumps and ripples on the surfaces place a premium on ball-striking and distance control.
With this in mind, there are several specific metrics that I will be looking at this week in order to narrow the already small field of a WGC tournament down to a select few. Those metrics are GIR Percentage, Proximity to Hole, SG: Approach, SG: T2G and Birdie or Better Percentage. Weather is expected to be an issue, with rain and thunderstorms finding the course on both Wednesday and Thursday. Using the only previous edition of the HSBC that was played in poor conditions, we can see that Driving Accuracy and SG: Off the Tee are also metrics we want to include in our research. The rain will be accompanied by wind speeds of 10-15mph and gusts that could get up to as high as 25mph, but as with most wind projections (especially gusts) it will be unpredictable on the first two days. This brings tee-time stacking into play, so I would suggest using lineup construction strategy that isolates players into morning and afternoon groupings. There doesn't appear to be a definitive advantage, but if you follow DFS golf closely, you know there is a high likelihood that one of the two tee time groupings will catch the bad side of the draw. As with all WGC events, there is no cut, so the bad side of the draw will not be as penalizing, but keep in mind that small field events with no cuts come down to raw-scoring. This means birdies and eagles are at a premium, even at the expense of making bogeys, so if you are playing in large GPP's, make sure to include some calculated volatility in your lineups…it is the only way to separate yourself from the field.
- 1.)Rory McIlroy: Even if this was an event with a cut, is there is anyone else on the planet right now playing as well as Rory McIlroy? Perhaps McIlroy's Ryder Cup partner Thomas Pieters, or his arch-nemesis Patrick “The Patriot" Reed, but we will have to lead with McIlroy in the rankings because he is the definition of upside in a short field. His win at the Tour Championship was vintage Rory, and it brought back memories of the sixth gear that we had seen him use so many times in the past to make everyone else look mortal in his presence. He was ridiculous at the Ryder Cup, with respect to both his shot-making and his wild celebrations, but it was fun to see him care so much and it certainly inspired confidence in him moving forward. While McIlroy has yet to win his five attempts at the HSBC, he has finished no worse than 11th. If he gets hot with the putter, which I would bet on with the slower greens, his ball-striking is at a level where he could win by five shots over the field.
- 2.)Dustin Johnson: DJ is a stud when it comes to small-field events, especially those that place a premium on raw-scoring. He has the right skillset, even more-so if the tournament becomes a sludge-fest. DJ had a big 2016 season, capturing his first major championship while totaling three wins on the year. He also had a 2nd place finish, 15 top 10's, and 19 top 25's in only 22 events played. He missed one cut the entire year, and generally speaking, was in contention every week he was playing. His course history is impressive, having won the 2013 HSBC Championship while finishing 5th last year. DJ has spoken on how the course fits his eye, but the most important part was how he said the greens were very easy for him to putt on. If the weather gets bad, it could come down to he and Rory, but also keep in mind that he has the length to survive to survive the bad side of the draw, a luxury not many players in the field have this week.
- 3.)Alexander Noren: Noren is one of my favorite pure PP$ plays this week, but his value is not all he has going for him. He has become something of a world-beater over his last ten events, having won three times on the European Tour. They were not small events either. Noren shot -14 to win the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, -16 to win the Omega European Masters and -17 to win the British Masters. During that ten tournament run, he also finished 2nd in the Aberdeen Asset Management Match Play event hosted by Paul Lawrie, 11th at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, and just before that finished 8th in the Open De France. Throw in a 6th place finish at the Spanish Open, 9th at the Volvo China Open and 12th at the Nordea Masters and Noren was looking at one of the better European Tour seasons we've seen since Henrik Stenson was busy winning both the Fed Ex Cup and the Race to Dubai. Noren is in the prime of his career at age 34, and has a very steady game that travels well, evidenced by the fact that he has only missed three cuts in his last 38 events. Noren had climbed his way up to #55 in the world in 2009, but had a precipitous fall down to #653 to start the 2014 season. Much like his fellow Swede, Henrik Stenson, Noren was beaten down but never quit and the rest is history. After capturing four victories in two years, to go along with a pair of 2nd place finishes, Noren has moved all the up way up to #18 in the world, with an impressive eight wins during his career. All that is left for Noren to do this year is put up a win at a worldwide event like the WGC and move inside the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings. There is no question he has the talent to do so, and now he has the self-confidence and belief in himself to match that talent. Watch out for Noren, he is my pick to be the PP$ difference maker in large GPP's this week.
- 4.)Adam Scott: Scott is coming off an impressive 2016 season where he won twice, finished runner-up twice, had nine top 10's in 20 events, and made every cut. Scott played like he did in his hey-day when he was mashing the ball of the tee and throwing darts at every pin. Scott is never going to be one of the best putters on Tour, but he doesn't need to be. Scott got used to the feel of a traditional putter (he anchored the putter while in the previous prime of his career) in 2016, and the results followed accordingly. Sheshan is the type of course that can be picked apart with ball-striking prowess, especially if the conditions become even softer than usual. His course history is good but not great (three top 25's in four tries), but I am looking past that in favor of Scott having a big edge when the conditions get bad. Scott is coming off a T-10th at the CIMB classic and is already acclimated to the time-zone this week, a factor that is often overlooked when players are on a short week with a Wednesday start time.
- 5.)Patrick Reed: I figured I'd give Rory the top spot, because the last time he and Reed were next to each other, he was staring up at a million American Flags flying in unison so aptly described as “VICTORY" (Johnny Drama voice). Excuse my Ryder Cup pride, I promise this is the last time…for two years. Reed is not the world-beater in small-field stroke play events that he is in team-based match play, but his confidence is on swoll right now, and his game typically follows his mental makeup. He has the ball-striking, putting and accuracy off the tee to succeed at Sheshan, the only question is whether the elements put him at a disadvantage against the bigger hitters. If he finds the right side of the draw he is dangerous, but if he's on the wrong side, I have some concerns as to whether he can keep up. Ownership percentage is very tough to predict in the WGC events once you get past the top tier, so it makes sense to spread out your exposure with respect to players who have proven they are capable of winning in top tier events. Reed is on the cusp of that list, but I am hoping that keeps his ownership percentage down while still providing the upside needed to hit value.