The Valspar Championship was first staged in the autumn of 2000, as an opposite field event. It switched to its now usual March slot ten years ago and it’s grown in stature ever since. Ideally positioned in the calendar between the WGC – Cadillac Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it was starting to attract a decent field but having last week’s event staged in Mexico instead of Florida hasn’t helped with this year’s line-up and it will have the same problem again next year.

Despite the slightly weaker field, we may well get another exciting finish and if it’s anything like the last two renewals, we’re in for a treat. Jordan Spieth edged out Patrick Reed and former winner, Sean O’Hair, in extra time two years ago and Charl Schwartzel got the better of Bill Haas in a playoff 12 months ago.

Venue

Copperhead Course, Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbour, Florida

Course Details

Par 71, 7,340 yards, stroke average in 2016 – 72.62

Designed by Larry Packard, Copperhead was opened in 1974. Prior to the establishment of this event the course was restored in 1999 and it underwent a $4.5m restoration after the 2015 renewal.

The changes were subtle, with greens and tee boxes expanded, creating more pin positions and bringing the re-shaped bunkers closer to the putting surfaces. All the fairways were re-grassed with Celebration Bermuda and the greens re-grassed with Tif Bermuda.

It’s a tough undulating, tree-lined track with many dog-legged fairways. Water is in play on a number of holes and the greens usually run at around 11 on the stimpmeter. They were much slower last year but they had only just been renovated so we should see them back up to speed this time around.

Three of the four par five holes – one, 11 and 14 – were the easiest three holes on the course again last year and the last three holes are tough and known as the Snake Pit

With water right and trees left, there’s no bailout off the tee whatsoever at the par 4 16th. It ranked as the second toughest behind the par three 13th 12 months ago but it usually ranks the toughest and it very often has a say in the outcome of the tournament. The par three 17th is no cakewalk and you need to get your drive away nicely on the tricky 18th, which last year ranked as the sixth hardest hole.

Copperhead is a very tough course – ranked the sixth hardest on the PGA Tour last year and averaged more than a shot and half over par – so it provides a really good test. It’s been the host course for the Valspar Championship since its inception.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Thursday at 19:00 UK time

Last Five Winners

2016 – Charl Schwartzel -7 (playoff)
2015 – Jordan Spieth -10 (playoff)
2014 – John Senden -7
2013 – Kevin Streelman -10
2012 – Luke Donald -13 (playoff)

What Will it Take to Win the Valspar Championship?

This is a really difficult event to weigh up statistically. Driving Distance or Driving Accuracy aren’t stats to get hung-up on. Gary Woodland is the only big hitter to win recently but in truth, a lot of bombers swerve the event, safe in the knowledge that their power has no advantage here.

The average DD ranking of the last five winners is just 39.6 but the DA average isn’t much better at 37.6 and the last two winners, Charl Schwartzel and Jordan Spieth, have won despite ranking just 66th and 51st for fairways found.

Finding the smaller than average greens is key to victory and 11 of the 16 course winners to date have ranked 11th or better for Greens In Regulation and, as is so often the case, you have to putt really well. The last two winners have had a Putting Average ranking of second and Retief Goosen (when winning for the second time here in 2009) is the only winner to date that didn’t rank inside the top-20 for that stat.

An ability to handle windy conditions is usually an essential prerequisite but the forecast doesn’t look too bad at this early stage.

Is There an Angle In?

This isn’t your typical Florida type of test so looking at results at other events in the state won’t necessarily help.

I’m not going to pretend this is an event I like from a punting potential as it’s a tough one to work out statistically and angles in are hard to find but these two courses appear to correlate…

John Huston, K.J Choi, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk have all won both this event and the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club. Lots of players have been placed at both events and some have been placed in one and won the other and multiple Sony winner, Ernie Els, traded at odds-on here in 2012.

Four men have also won this event and the John Deere Classic – two of the last three winners of this one, Spieth and John Senden, Sean O’Hair and Vijay Singh, and it should really be five. Last year’s John Deere Classic winner, Ryan Moore, threw this one away two years ago. And I see that Brett Quigley, who never got to win on the PGA Tour, finished second in both events, so that’s an event to look at too.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

Like Vijay Singh, Mark Calcavecchia, Retief Goosen, and Jim Furyk before them, the last two winners have been major champions and Luke Donald is a former world number one. This is a true test, where patience and guile count for plenty so it’s no surprise to see so many high class winners but the best option could be to look for a decent bank of course form as that stands up well here. In its relatively short history, we’ve seen two men win the event twice and a number of winners have also finished runner-up.

K.J Choi and Goosen are the two that have claimed the prize on multiple occasions and Choi is one of five winners to have also finished second. He finished runner-up behind Jim Furyk in 2010 and Furyk himself subsequently finished second in 2012. O’Hair, Senden (twice) and Singh have all also won the event and finished second.

In-Play Tactics

Schwartzel, who was matched in-running at a high of [90.0], trailed by four after rounds one and two last year and he was a [32.0] shot on Sunday morning, as he trailed by five, but he’s far from the first winner to come from off the pace…

Jordan Spieth was matched at a high of [30.0] after a slow start in 2015 and Reed hit a high of [150.0] after he struggled at the beginning of the week. Spieth sat tied for 38th and five off the lead after round one and Reed trailed by seven in a tie for 80th but as many others have done before them, they were able to make up the lost ground.

Having hit a high of [290.0], Senden was still tied for 35th and fully eight shots back at halfway three years ago. Mark Calcavecchia, the 2007 winner, was ten back after round one and still six back at halfway and although he was tied for the lead after round three, Streelman was eight behind after day one and still seven behind at halfway four years ago.

Luke Donald won a four-man playoff here in 2012 and he and his playoff protagonists had all started slowly. They were five, six, six and eight strokes back after round one and still three, three, four and seven back at halfway, so don’t give up hope if your picks don’t really spark on Thursday or Friday. This is definitely a course where lost ground can be made up over the weekend.

Jim Furyk was three clear through 54 holes before winning in 2010 but he’s the only winner to hold a clear lead in the last ten years and seven of the last nine winners have come from behind. Last year’s third round leader, Ryan Moore, still led by three with just six to play but having been matched at just [1.42] he played the last half a dozen holes in three-over-par and he missed out on the playoff by two strokes. This is clearly not an easy place to get across the line from the front.

Last year’s third round leader, Bill Haas, was matched at [1.26] before getting beat in extra time and 54-hole leader two years ago, Ryan Moore, still led by three with just six to play but having been matched at just [1.42], he played the last half a dozen holes in three-over-par to miss out on the playoff by two strokes. This is clearly not an easy place to get across the line from the front.

Market Leaders

The top two have flip-flopped at the head of the market and I can see why. Sony winner, Justin Thomas, who finished 10th and 18th here in his first two visits, fell from first to fifth on Sunday and he’ll need to pick himself up quickly after that disappointment. He putted brilliantly in Mexico but his tee-to-green game was slightly ragged and I much prefer Henrik Stenson who as deposed Thomas at the head of the market.

The reigning Open champ was forced to withdraw before the off last week with a stomach virus but that could be a blessing in disguise. Last week’s event was quite gruelling and missing it could turn out to be a plus. He comes here on the back of five straight top-ten finishes and in two previous visits here he’s finished fourth and 11th. The last time he withdrew from a tournament was at the US Open last year and that didn’t work out to bad. He won the BMW in Germany in his very next start and the Open two starts later. He’s very much the worthy favourite.

Selections

I fancy Stenson to contend so I’ve had a small saver on him and I’ve also backed one of Dave Tindall’s picks, Jason Dufner, for the reasons he’s already outlined.

My third and final pick is Harris English, who last year went off at around [32.0]. He’s not in terrific form this year (tied 14th in the Farmers Insurance Open the highlight) and he’s been largely disappointing given his early promise (two PGA Tour wins in 2013 and nothing since) but looks worth chancing at 100points bigger. H has some decent course form here with a seventh, 38th and tenth place bookended by two missed cuts in this event and he won the Southern Amateur Championship here back in 2011.

Selections:
Henrik Stenson @11/1 (Sportsbook)
Jason Dufner @ [65.0]
Harris English @ [130.0]

I’ll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play Blog.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

Tournament History

Having first been staged in 1922, the Valero Texas Open is one of the older events on the PGA Tour.

The tournament was staged at La Cantera Golf Club between 1995 and 2009 before switching to its current venue – TPC San Antonio – in 2010.

Venue

TPC San Antonio (Oaks Course), San Antonio, Texas.

Course Details

Par 72, 7,435 yards. Stroke Index in 2016 – 72.21

This tough Greg Norman-designed track opened in January 2010 and fellow Aussie, Adam Scott, won the inaugural staging here just a few months later.

As you’d imagine with a course called the Oaks, the track winds its way through stands of oak trees although fairway widths vary and it’s not especially tight, avoiding the trees is essential. Just ask Kevin Na!

A unique feature of the course is that all downhill holes play into the prevailing wind, while the uphill holes play downwind. TPC San Antonio is yet another track laid to Bermuda grass and the greens, which are overseeded with bentgrass and poa, usually run at around 11 on the stimpmeter.

It’s a tough track and the par five 18th hole isn’t a straightforward birdie opportunity. It’s reachable in two for the big hitters but most have to lay up short of a creek that runs across the fairway in front of the green and the hole averaged 5.01 12 months ago, making it one of just a dozen par fives on the PGA Tour to average an over-par score in 2016.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days.

Last Seven Winners (at TPC San Antonio)

2016 – Charley Hoffman -12
2015 – Jimmy Walker -11
2014 – Steven Bowditch -8
2013 – Martin Laird -14
2012 – Ben Curtis -9
2011 – Brendan Steele -8
2010 – Adam Scott -14

What Will it Take to Win the Valero Texas Open?

There have been seven editions of the event at San Antonio but for analytical purposes, to a large extent, I’m disregarding the 2010 and 2013 renewals. The course was brand new and very damp in 2010, which resulted in easy conditions and low scoring and in 2013 the tournament was played in the week before the US Masters and the course was set up very differently to the way it is ordinarily. Just as they do at the event that usually precedes the Masters, the Shell Houston Open, in 2013 the organisers set the course up here to replicate conditions at Augusta. And again the winning score was much lower than usual.

Although the 2012 winner, Ben Curtis, only ranked 79th for Driving Distance and seventh for Driving Accuracy, the wind blew a hooley that year and power off the tee is starting to look more important of late. The last two winners, Hoffman and Jimmy Walker, both ranked fourth for DD and Hoffman became the fourth course winner to play the long holes better than anyone else so the Par 5 Performance stats might be worth checking out.

Greens In Regulation wasn’t a key stat last year, with only one player inside the top-12 ranking inside the top-10 for GIR. Texan, Martin Pillar, who finished tied fourth, ranked 10th. Hoffman ranked only 17th for GIR and his victory was down to his prowess on the long holes and his hot putter (he didn’t have a three-putt all week) but in truth, statistical analysis doesn’t help tremendously so I wouldn’t get too hung up on the figures alone – especially give there are a number of other clues to help us find the winner…

Is There an Angle In?

The Lone Star State is notoriously windy and an ability to play well in breezy conditions is usually essential but the best angle in is probably form in Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Mexico in particular.

Form at the Sony Open and the Puerto Rico Open looks worth considering and form at the OHL Classic in Mexico stands up really.

The 2015 winner, Jimmy Walker, has twice won the Sony Open and a number of other players have performed well at both here and Waialae Country Club – home of the Sony. No players have won this event and the Puerto Rico Open but I’ve noted in the past that several players with solid records in Puerto Rico have fared well here and that makes sense. Both venues are wind-affected and both have produced more than their fair share of experienced winners but the best angle in is to look at form at the OHL Classic in Mexico.

Last year’s Texas Open champ, Hoffman, won the OHL Classic in 2015, 2012 OHL winner, John Huh, was runner-up here in the same year and last year’s OHL winner, Pat Perez has very respectable figures at this course reading 22-5-11-20. It’s no surprise that form at the OHL Classic correlates nicely as that event’s played at another wind-affected Greg Norman design course – El Camaleón.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

Whether the wind blows really hard here or not, it’s usually something of a grind and the more experienced pros tend to prosper over the youngsters. The 2011 winner, Brendan Steele, was only 28 when he won but disregarding the 2010 and 2103 editions again, the other four winners, when conditions were typical, were all in their 30s – Curtis was 34, Steven Bowditch 30, Walker 36 and Hoffman 39.

Inaugural winner, Scott and the 2014 champ, Bowditch, like the course designer, Norman, are both Aussies and competitors from Down Under are well worth considering again this time around.

When I first read about the course, back in 2010, it was said to have an Aussie feel about it. The bunkers certainly have that sand belt look about them and Bowditch confirmed the link when said he said the course was like a lot of courses back home.

Scott was well-fancied in 2010, as was Walker in 2015. The Hoff went off at [30.0] last year and he and Walker are the only San Antonio winners to have shown any form before the event. Walker had won the Sony a couple of months earlier and Hoffman had finished 29th at the Masters and 14th at the Heritage in his two previous starts but the other four winners all went off at a triple-figure price so don’t be discouraged if you fancy an out of form outsider and if he’s a Texan then that’s all the better.

Nine of the last 21 Valero Texas Open winners have been Texans and last year, the runner-up, Patrick Reed, was a Texan and so were Ryan Palmer and Martin Piller, who both finished tied for fourth.

In-Play Tactics

This is one of those weeks when keeping a close eye on the weather is a good idea. Thursday morning starters were only favoured to the tune of 1.15 strokes on average last year but we’ve seen some huge draw biases recently and a late tee-time was a big advantage in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

Those drawn late-early on day one two years ago were advantaged to as much as 4.25 strokes over the first two rounds and five years ago late starters on day one played the first two rounds in an average of over three and half strokes more than those drawn late-early. And the same thing happened three years ago but to a lesser degree, with the day one afternoon starters shooting the first two rounds in 1.44 strokes less than the early-late starters.

If we dismiss the rain-softened inaugural event and the quirkily wind-free, Augusta style set-up of four years ago and just look at the other five years, every winner has been right up with the pace.

Walker and Curtis both trailed by four strokes after round one but they were inside the top-six places and four of the five winners were in front at halfway. Hoffman was the exception but he only sat second.

In usual Texan conditions, you need a fast start and shots in hand by halfway. It becomes a real test here as the wind dries out the course. Hoffman fired a 69 in round four last year but Steele, Curtis, Bowditch and Walker all shot final rounds in the 70s but hung on. Don’t go too far down the leaderboard – this is not a place to play catch-up.

As touched on above, the par five finishing hole is tough enough but the finish here isn’t too demanding. The par five 14th was the easiest hole on the course last year, the par four 15th ranked the fourth hardest but holes 16 and 17 ranked 15th and 16th hardest so it’s possible to pick up a few shots coming in.

Market Leaders

World number 17, Matt Kuchar, heads the market after a pair of a fast finishing Sundays at Augusta and Hilton Head. After a back door fourth place in the US Masters, Kuchar fired by far the best round of the day on Sunday at the RBC Heritage to finish tied for 11th.

Without a win in three years and with only reasonable course form figures reading 13-22-4-15-42, and with a propensity to give up a winning chance, he makes no appeal before the off.

Defending champion, Charley Hoffman, had a superb record here even before he won 12 months ago but he makes less appeal than Kuchar after his horrendous collapse at Augusta and his missed cut at Hilton Head last week. He went from challenging for the title to falling outside the top-20 at the US Masters so it was no surprise to see him shoot a lacklustre pair of 73s to miss out on weekend employment last week and he’ll do very well to lift himself to defend here.

Brooks Koepka‘s form fell off a cliff after he won in Japan in November and he missed four of six cuts before he found something at the WGC – Match Play at the end of March and he played really well at Augusta, where he eventually finished 11th.

This is Brooks’ third appearance at the course and his two previous efforts haven’t been impressive. He finished 36th on debut in 2014 but missed the cut last year and he looks too short to me – as he so often does.

Selection

In what’s a very open heat, a case for favouritism could be argued for many but the one I think should head the market is five time PGA Tour winner and Ryder Cupper, Ryan Moore, and I thought he was a cracking price with the Sportsbook at 28/1.

Moore’s form slumped a little after his playoff defeat to Rory McIlroy at the Tour Championship but if his first career top-10 at Augusta last time out is anything to go by, the 34-year-old world number 28 looks ready to go in again.

This is Moore’s second appearance at TPC San Antonio and he did okay on debut – finishing eighth back in 2012. He’s never won in Texas but he lost a playoff at the Byron Nelson Classic to Adam Scott in 2008, so it’s a state he’s played well in before.

Selection:
Ryan Moore @ 28/1 (Sportsbook)

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

The elite European Tour players, including the defending Tshwane Open champ Charl Schwartzel, will be playing in the WGC-Mexico Championship (previewed here) so the field isn’t very strong in Pretoria for the fifth edition of the co-sanctioned Tshwane Open. For the third year in-a-row, the tournament will be staged at Pretoria Country Club.

Venue

Pretoria Country Club, Waterkloof, South Africa

Course Details

Par 70, 6,830 yards
Stroke Index in 2016 – 71.77

After two years at the Ernie Els designed Copperleaf course in Centurion the tournament moved just a few miles north to the Bob Grimsdel designed Pretoria Country Club two years ago. The course opened way back in 1910 and underwent a major redesign by the Gary Player Group in 2004/05.

Described as tight and tree lined, the course has several ponds on the front nine and a river that runs through holes 13 to 17 on the back nine. The Kikuyu fairways are of average width but tight in places and the small, undulating and elevated greens are Bentgrass.

And I’ve only just seen this Tweet from Pep Angles, suggesting the rough looks brutal this week;

In addition to being the host course for this event for the last two years, Pretoria hosted the Vodacom Championship between 2006 and 2010 on the Sunshine Tour and it was also used six times between 2005 and 2011 as part of the Vodacom Origins pro-am series.

Here’s a full list of course winners on the Sunshine Tour;

2005 – Desvonde Botes (Vodacom origins – 54 holes)
2006 – Charl Schwartzel (Vodacom Championship)
2006 – Vaughn Groenewald (Vodacom origins – 54 holes)
2007 – Richard Sterne (Vodacom Championship)
2007 – Hennie Otto (Vodacom origins – 54 holes)
2008 – James Kingston (Vodacom Championship)
2008 – Tyrone Van Aswegen (Vodacom origins – 54 holes)
2009 – Anders Hansen (Vodacom Championship)
2009 – Brandon Pieters (Vodacom origins – 54 holes)
2010 – Hennie Otto (Vodacom Championship)
2011 – Jean Hugo (Vodacom origins – 54 holes)

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky all four days, starting at 8:30 on Thursday morning in the UK.

First Four Winners

2013 – Dawie van der Walt -21
2014 – Ross Fisher -20
2015 – George Coetzee -14
2016 – Charl Schwartzel -16

What Will it Take to Win the Tshwane Open?

Trevor Fisher Jnr, who was tied for the lead with a round to go two years ago, said this of the venue before the off. “It’s a tricky little course. You’ve got to put the ball in play all the time and the fairways bend a little bit. The greens are quite tight and tough.” And that suggests accuracy is essential but the stats don’t really back that up…

Pretoria Country Club is a tight track and the Kikuyu rough’s tricky to play from. Anyone straying too far from the fairways will often find themselves blocked out by trees so Driving Accuracy should, in theory, be a crucial stat but the last two winners here, George Coetzee and Charl Schwartzel, only ranked 39th and 18th for DA and yet they ranked tenth and second for Driving Distance.

Schwartzel didn’t win 12 months ago because of his power alone. His iron play was excellent and he ranked tenth for Scrambling but he didn’t putt brilliantly. Nobody hit more greens throughout the week and he had this to say about his victory afterwards.

“In the first three rounds I gave myself so many chances. If I had the (putting) stroke I had today, it probably would have been my best tournament ever. It’s just frustrating when you don’t putt very well and you don’t convert, and to make the putts when it counts, that’s even more satisfying.”

Schwartzel went on to reach 16-under-par to win easily by eight strokes and in 2015, the winner, Coetzee (-14), and the runner-up, Jacques Blaauw (-13), were the only two to get to double-digits under-par, so it’s a tricky enough venue.

Coetzee ranked ninth for GIR and first for Scrambling so they look like the main stats to concentrate on.

Is There an Angle In?

I know the South Africans dominate the market but its only right that they do. The homeland players do really well tournament after tournament here and experience of this wonderful little course is a real plus so it’s not surprising to see that five of the top-six last year, and four of the first five in 2015, were South Africans.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

This is a tough little course and it’s sorted the wheat from the chaff in the past. Schwartzel was the favourite last year, Coetzee was a well-fancied 20/1 shot in 2015, and the five winners at this venue in the Vodacom Championship, played over four rounds, were all fairly classy.

Schwartzel, Richard Sterne, James Kingston, Anders Hansen and Hennie Otto all established themselves outside of South Africa on the European Tour and the only man to lose in a playoff here, Louis Oosthuizen, isn’t too shabby either.

This is a venue where the cream rises to the top so concentrating on those towards the head of the market may be the way to go again this year. And experienced/well-disciplined players are worthy of close inspection.

Schwartzel’s experience and course management were key attributes last year as he plotted patiently, using irons off tees on the dangerous holes.

In-Play Tactics

If you don’t fancy taking a short price about one of the better players before the off, keep an eye on the market in-play as a fast start is far from essential. Schwartzel trailed by eight strokes after round before going on to win by six and he was far from the first to start slowly and finish well.

Coetzee trailed by four strokes after rounds one and two in 2015 and he was tied for the lead after round three but the runner-up, Blaauw, was tied for 22nd, five adrift, and trading at around [600.0] before the final round and yet he was matched at odds-on in-running! Had Coetzee not kept his calm well, Blaauw would have walked away with the trophy and others have won here from even further back.

The four 72-hole course winners between 2006 and 2009, as well as Oosthuizen, who lost to Sterne in a playoff in 2007, were all at least five back after round one. Schwartzel, trailed by three at halfway and he led by three with a round to go in 2006 but the other three winners, and Oosty, all came from some way back…

The 2007 playoff protagonists, Sterne and Oosthuizen, trailed by seven and four strokes respectively at halfway and they were still six and four back after three rounds. The 2008 winner, James Kingston, was never nearer than four off the lead at any stage before winning by two strokes and Anders Hansen was five adrift after rounds one and two and two back after round three, before he went on to win comfortably by four strokes.

Blaauw’s flying finish, coupled with the Vodacom Championship stats, certainly suggest it’s possible to come from some way back to win here and backing anyone that starts fast on Sunday, from some way back, might be worth a go.

The par five 12th averaged 4.77 on the week last year and was the second easiest hole on the course and the drivable par four 17th also averaged below par but every other hole on the back-nine averaged over-par so given it’s clearly possible to win from off the pace, anyone posting a score is worth chancing given playing the last six holes in level par or better is by no means a given – especially when there’s a title on the line.

Market Leaders

The 2015 winner, George Coetzee, grew up playing Pretoria Country Club, he’s affiliated to the club, and he recently organised a golf day there that raised R450, 000 to safe a local orphanage. He knows the course intimately and he plays it well. He’s also in great form and he’s a very worthy favourite but he’s far from a safe conveyance in-contention. As evidenced as recently as last week in Joburg…

George started the Joburg Open very nicely with a bogey-free six-under-par 66 and he was soon trading at around the 2/1 mark but an inexplicably poor over-par second round followed and once again, his followers were left disappointed. He then dragged himself back to the fringes of contention by playing the first 12 holes of the third and final round in five-under-par and he then gave his backers real hope with three further birdies in-a-row. It looked like he might just post a score to trouble the leaders as he stood on the 16th tee but it all ended in tears again with back-to-back bogeys. It was all so typically George.

Coetzee is the best player in the field, he’s in very good form, and he’s playing at his home course but anyone backing him has to do so with the understanding that he can disappoint in-the-mix at the drop of a hat.

Dean Burmester is another with solid course form – he was third in 2015 and fourth last year – and he arrives in good form but just like George, Burmester has struggled in-the-mix of late. He led the Investec Cup at halfway last March but shot 73-71 on the weekend to fall to third, three weeks ago he blew a three stroke 54-hole lead at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship, and he was poor on Sunday at the Joburg – falling from tied third and just a stroke off the lead with a round to go to finish outside the top-ten. He’s looking for his first win on the European Tour and he looks too short to me.

Thomas Aiken and Jaco Van Zyl can also be catalogued as players that just don’t win enough and neither man is playing well anyway.

Aiken had a decent January but his last three outings have yielded form figures reading 42-MC-38. He hasn’t played here in this tournament but in seven previous visits he’s finished inside the top-ten six times so it’s a venue that suits him.

Van Zyl is hard to fancy. His form has plummeted since he was beaten in a playoff in Qatar in January and his course form is nothing to write home about either. He’s also yet to win on the European Tour.

Selection

As highlighted above, he’s a bit of a fruit loop in-the-mix but at an industry-best price of 12/1 with the Sportsbook, George Coetzee isn’t too short given how incredibly weak the line-up is.

He will almost certainly flap and fumble if he gets in to contention but the chances are, so will anyone else. Home support helped him to steady the ship two years ago and it can lift him to another home win this year.

Selection:
George Coetzee @ 12/1 (Sportsbook)

I’ll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

1140 – March 04, 2017

After holing-out from the fairway on the par four 14th hole in round two yesterday, Rory McIlroy threatened to run away with the WGC-Mexico Championship and he was matched at a low of [1.88] but three missed putts on the last three holes, from just six, four and three feet, have kept the tournament competitive. Here’s the third round leaderboard with prices to back at 11:30.
Rory McIlroy -9 [2.76]

Justin Thomas -7 [9.4]
Phil Mickelson -7 [14.0]
Ross Fisher -7 [40.0]

Dustin Johnson -6 [6.2]
Daniel Berger -6 [28.0]
Andy Sullivan -6 [60.0]

-5 and [36.0] bar
At first glance, Rory’s finish looks horrific but don’t make the mistake of assuming he’s lost his touch on the greens or his confidence with the putter because missing short putts has been the theme this week, as Dustin Johnson highlighted well after his round yesterday…

Everyone’s going to miss short ones on these wiggly greens so the secret is to keep finding them and it’s no surprise to see that Rory ranks number one for Greens In Regulation so far this week, but can he keep it up? He’s surprised me how well he’s played after his injury layoff and he appears to have put his bout of sickness on Wednesday behind him so there’s no reason to suggest he won’t keep moving forward.

McIlroy’s record when leading at halfway was a little bit patchy at one time but he’s won on each of the last three occasions that he’s led at this stage and in big events – the Open, the USPGA and the Dubai Desert Classic. He might just take some stopping.

The Irishman plays with Ross Fisher and Phil Mickelson today and I’m not convinced they’re going to be his biggest challengers over the weekend.

Although he’s been beaten in a WGC event in China, and he currently ranks fourth in GIR and first for Strokes Gained Putting this week, I just can’t see Fisher winning. The Englishman, who learnt his trade growing up at tree-lined Wentworth, is clearly enjoying the venue and I don’t want to do him a disservice but he can get nervy in low-grade European Tour events and I can see him struggling as the pressure intensifies.

Lefty has putted really well so far this week and somewhat bizarrely, he seemed to get a little bit of impetus teaming up with his brother Tim yesterday after his regular caddy, Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay, had to pull out after three holes yesterday, when he became the latest to fall victim to some sort of stomach ailment. He might be back on the bag today and that will be a big plus for Phil because as decent a golfer as Tim is, Phil was left to read all his own putts yesterday and Bones is clearly the best possible wingman for Lefty.

A day or even a weekend of Mickelson left almost entirely to his own devices could be too much of a handicap. Having Bones back would be a significant boost but we simply can’t ignore the glaring fact that he’s now 46-years-old or that he’s trying to win for the first time since 2013.

Justin Thomas, who’s already won three times this season on the PGA Tour, had been putting brilliantly this week but he might need to improve tee-to-green if he’s going to win. He’s reigned in his powerful long game so far (ranks 25th for Driving Distance) but that isn’t helping him find the fairways. Surprisingly, given how tight it is here, none of the front four rank any better than 38th for Driving Accuracy (Fisher) but Thomas ranks 71st for DA! Thomas only ranks 27th for GIR so far too, so his putting really has been saving him over the first two days and he might not be able to sustain that.

Despite him being three adrift, the big danger to Rory is Dustin and had I not backed him before the off, I’d be backing him now at [6.0]. He has missed lots of short putts but so has everyone and he looks in such a good place right now that I fancy he’ll remain patient enough to get his reward for some excellent tee-to-green play. The brand new world number one is right there in Rory’s mirror. He’ll be the one the Irishman fears and rightly so.

With DJ bang there and Jon Rahm and Thomas Pieters still on the fringes of contention (both on -5), I’m not without a chance with my pre-event picks going into the weekend but I have added one more.

Andy Sullivan hasn’t been playing well for a while but his irons are dialled in this week and given he’s shown plenty of tenacity in-the-mix in the past, I thought he was a fair each-way price at 66/1 with the Sportsbook, who are still offering four places.

The third round of the Tshwane Open is up and running and live on Sky Sports. Sweden’s Alexander Bjork holds sway after just five holes of round three and I’ll be back later with a look at that one at the close of play.
12:35 – March 3, 2017

After ten years of being staged at what’s now called Trump Doral, where big hitters were massively advantaged and where the trends were very simple to follow, as a punter, I was disappointed when I heard that this tournament – now known as the WGC-Mexico Championship – was moving to Mexico for the next seven years but now I’ve seen Club de Golf Chapultepec in all its glory, it’s a great move.

It’s going to take a little while to completely get to grips with this tight, tree-lined, altitude-affected gem but it’s going to be worth the effort as it’s a joy to behold and we should see plenty of nice patterns emerging. And maybe we already are? There are only five Americans in the top-13 after day one and on first impressions; it looks like players that have enjoyed the diversity encountered on the European Tour might have a bit of an edge here. And it doesn’t look, at this stage, as if the big hitters are going to get the advantage I felt they might.

I also fancied scoring might be a little better than it was yesterday but, after shooting four-under-par 68s in round one, six players are tied at the top. The half dozen include, for the second week in-a-row, one of Dan Geraghty’s First Round Leader picks, Ross Fisher, who is alongside Ryan Moore, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and one of my pre-event picks, Jon Rahm. And it’s tight below those six too with a further seven players just a stroke back in a tie for seventh, including Rory McIlroy and another of my selections, Thomas Pieters.

Rory did really well yesterday given he was throwing up on the eve of the event and that he still didn’t feel great yesterday but Henrik Stenson backers have already done their dough. The reigning Open Champ also suffered with stomach issues but he had to withdraw from the tournament after just 11 holes.

Despite his bout of illness, Rory heads the market now, ahead of pre-event favourite, Dustin Johnson, who played quite well yesterday until he got to the greens! Everyone is new to the course this week and it was noticeable how many were struggling with their putting but the new world number one, DJ, who’s ordinarily a great putter on Poa annua, managed to miss six putts inside five feet yesterday and he’s still only three off the lead.

I ummed and ahhhed too long to grab a bit of [22.0] about Phil Mickelson but I wasn’t too distraught. I would have liked to have had a small wager on him at that price given his start but he hasn’t won anywhere since 2013 so if he were to fade away from here on in it wouldn’t surprise me, but he certainly seems to be enjoying the challenge so far. I thought his interview below was illuminating and it made me think a bit more about playing at altitude. It’s not just that they can hit it further, it’s the fact that they can get a more lofted club in their hands from further out…


Given how tight it is and that I’m still learning about the course, I’m not going to get any further involved at this stage. My big fancy this week was Louis Oosthuizen but he shot two-over-par yesterday and he looks cooked already but my other three- DJ, Rahm and Pieters – have all started well enough so I’ll just follow them and enjoy educating myself about the course.

Over at the Tshwane Open on the European Tour, which is live on Sky Sports now, I added Justin Hicks and Darren Fichardt late on Wednesday, after the preview had been published and after they’d drifted but they haven’t fared brilliantly and my sole selection at the start of the week, George Coetzee, has already done his very best George Coetzee impression.

He made seven birdies and two double-bogeys around his home course yesterday and he’s already made two bogeys and one birdie at his first three holes today – either side of an hour-long suspension in play. He’s currently eight strokes off the leaders, Alexander Bjork and Scott Jamieson, but it’s a bit too early to give up on him around here. As Joe Dyer’s each-way fancy, Thomas Aiken, showed this morning, when he made ten birdies and a bogey to record a nine-under-par 62, ground can be made up rapidly around Pretoria Country Club if conditions allow.

Given the hiatus in play, I’m going to see how far we get today and I may take another look this evening but my attention is almost entirely on the WGC-Mexico Championship this week and my interest in the Tshwane will wane further if they don’t keep on track.
Tshwane Open Pre-Event Selections:
George Coetzee @ 12/1 (Sportsbook)
Darren Fichardt @ [60.0]
Justin Hicks @ [110.0]

WGC-Mexico Championship Pre-Event Selections:
Dustin Johnson @ [8.4]
John Rahm @ [38.0]
Louis Oosthuizen @ [65.0]
Thomas Pieters @ [90.0]

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

09:30 – February 25, 2017

After an early start in Johannesburg this morning, the second round of the Joburg Open had finally been completed. Yet more rain is forecast throughout the day today so there’s a risk of further delays but with a dry day in prospect tomorrow, a 72-hole tournament is a long odds-on shot now, despite an incredible 91 players making the cut, so here’s the halfway leaderboard with prices to back at 9:20.


Darren Fichardt -11 [12.0]
Paul Waring -11 [17.5]

Dean Burmester -10 [7.0]
Jacques Kruyswijk -10 [18.5]

Haydn Porteous -9 [15.0]
Paul Peterson -9 [29.0]
Pep Angles -9 [40.0]
Anton Karlsson -9 [46.0]
Aaron Rai -9 [60.0]
Stuart Manley -9 [70.0]

Brandon Stone -8 [8.0]
Dylan Frittelli -8 [26.0]

-8 and [50.0] bar
Although six of the last seven winners (and seven of the ten winners in total) have been inside the top-four on the leaderboard and within three of the lead at this stage, we have seen three winners come from some way back. The 2015 winner, Andy Sullivan, trailed by five at this stage, the 2008 champ, Richard Sterne, was six adrift, and the 2009 victor, Anders Hansen, was as many as eight strokes off the lead at halfway so winning from off the pace isn’t impossible and given the strength of the leading pack, I can see another winner from outside the top-four.

The two leaders, Darren Fichardt and Paul Waring, don’t look the safest of conveyances. The South African veteran, Fichardt, hasn’t won on the Sunshine Tour for a few years and its four years since he won the Africa Open on the European Tour. The 41-year-old has had a successful career, with 19 professional wins, but he’s not greatest in-contention and I can see why he’s a double-figure price.

Waring has been a pro for ten years and in 160 starts the closest he’s come to winning was when he lost a playoff on the Challenge Tour in his second pro start. He’s been an ever-present on the European Tour since a successful visit to qualifying school in 2007 but this is just the second time he’s led or co-led at this stage. He was tied for the lead at the Portugal Masters in 2013 and he went into the fourth and final round with a two-stroke lead but shot 71 to finish third. It would be no surprise to see him drift out of contention over the weekend and I’m certainly not confident of him converting but he’s too big at [17.5] and I’ve had a tiny wager on him.

Zimbabwean-born South African, Dean Burmester, is the current favourite but I’m not sure he represents any value. He’s won six times on the Sunshine Tour, but not since 2015, he’s been a bit wobbly in-the-mix of late, and he’s looking for his first win on the European Tour so he looks opposable. He led the Investec Cup at halfway last March but shot 73-71 on the weekend to fall to third and just two weeks ago he blew a three stroke 54-hole lead at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship. Maybe I’m giving that performance too much credence but it’s enough to put me off at the price.

Jacques Kruyswijk was laid low with sickness before the off but that didn’t stop him firing an eight-under-par opening 63 around the West Course in round one. He followed that up with a far less impressive 70 in round two but the recent Lion of Africa Cape Town Open winner can’t be dismissed lightly and he could represent value at around the 20/1 mark.

The stats favour those front four given seven of the ten winners to date have been inside the top-four and for that reason I’ve had a very small play on Waring but other than that, I’m happy to see what round three brings. My sole pre-event pick, Brandon Stone, is within touching distance after a great second round and the defending champ, Haydn Porteous, is certainly close enough too now so it’s a very open looking tournament.

We’ve also reached the halfway stage of the Honda Classic so here’s the halfway leaderboard there with prices to back at 9:20.


Ryan Palmer -9 [8.0]
Wesley Bryan -9 [9.2]

Rickie Fowler -8 [3.9]

Anirban Lahiri -7 [17.0]

Graham DeLaet -6 [24.0]
C.T Pan -6 [36.0]

Martin Kaymer -5 [27.0]

-5 and [25.0] bar
We’ve had ten Honda Classics at PGA National to date and every winner has been inside the top-six at this stage. Ernie Els trailed by five in 2008 but the other nine were all within three so concentrating hard on the leaders here looks the way to go.

Of the two at the very top, I marginally prefer Wesley Bryan. The 26-year-old graduated to the PGA Tour last year after winning three times on the Web.com Tour and he looks a real prospect. Fresh off a great week at the Genesis Open, where he eventually finished fourth, Bryan has hit the ground running and even when he’s found a spot of bother, he’s managed to find a route out – as demonstrated here at the eighth hole yesterday.

A change of putter has given Ryan Palmer a new lease of life and if he can stay in position before the wind blows tomorrow he’ll be a big threat but he’s notoriously hard to get across the line and that’s a big negative. With his wife undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Palmer hasn’t played much over the last six months or so and he could have a more relaxed demeanour on the course after such a life-changing experience but I’m happy to let him go unbacked.

For the second year running, Rickie Fowler has opened up here with two rounds of 66 but he’ll need to fare much better over the weekend if he wants to lift the trophy. He shot 74-71 last year to fall from first to sixth and to go from one clear to beaten by six and that was the ninth time in his career that he’d been beaten when leading or within one of the lead at halfway. The only time he’s converted from such a good position was in the Korea Open on the One Asia Tour back in 2011 so he makes very little appeal at under 3/1 right now. Maybe he’ll represent better value tomorrow if he slips back a bit today before the wind blows tomorrow?

This is a very similar picture to the one in South Africa. The stats suggest we should be concentrating on the leaders at both tournaments but as hard as I’ve looked, I can’t find anyone I want to back at the odds available here. Maybe I’m being too cautious and I was close to chancing Bryan but I’m going to follow my instinct and see what today brings.
11:00 – February 24, 2017

Wet weather in the lead-up to the Joburg Open saturated the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club and so yesterday afternoon’s persistent rain soon caused a suspension in play. The inevitable clean-up operation this morning meant a delayed start so the tournament is way off schedule but with only light rains forecasted today, there’s a possibility they could get back on track.

As detailed in the preview, a bumper field of 210 plays the East and West Courses over rounds one and two before the top-65 and ties play over the weekend on the tougher East Course. It makes sense to wait and see how the land lies after round two but I couldn’t resist a small bet on promising Englishman Aaron Rai, who sat just two strokes off Paul Peterson’s nine-under-par lead, after round one.

The Challenge Tour player has never been in such a lofty position on the European Tour but I was happy to throw a few pounds his way at [60.0] given yesterday’s 65 was constructed on the East Course. There’s always around a two-stroke differential between the two courses so it’ll be interesting to see what he can do on the easier West Course today.

There were no such weather concerns in Florida where this season’s Sanderson Farms Championship winner, Cody Gribble, hit every green in regulation to post a six-under-par 64 at the Honda Classic to sit alongside Dan Geraghty’s 100/1 First Round Leader tip Wesley Bryan at the top of the first round leaderboard. This is the 11th year in-a-row that the PGA National has hosted the event and Gribble is the first player to hit all 18 greens in a regulation.

Looking back over the first ten years at PGA National, a slow start can be overcome but every winner has been inside the top-six at halfway so if your picks have started slowly, they’ll need to put a shift in today. The first course winner, Mark Wilson, trailed by seven strokes after round one ten years ago and last year’s winner, Adam Scott, also lagged by seven but both men sat inside the top-five and within three of the lead after 36 holes.

I don’t want to give the impression that being up with the pace is absolutely imperative as a number of beaten playoff protagonists have come from some way back but concentrating on the leaders, even at this early stage, could be the way to go. No first round leader has gone on to win but of the 10 winners here, eight have been within four of the lead after round one and five have been placed inside the top-four.

Ordinarily, I’d be looking to side with the early starters today. The wind gets up most afternoons in Florida and this exposed track can become a brute but the afternoon starters yesterday averaged 0.22 strokes better than the early starters and the forecast suggest light and consistent winds again today so the draw doesn’t look to be an issue.

Trailing by two, Rickie Fowler is the only player trading at a single-figure price and Martin Kaymer, who trails by just a stroke, will both have their supporters but I’ve backed a couple at much bigger odds that both sit on -4, two off the lead and inside the top-five and ties…

I backed Ben Crane in-running yesterday at [100.0] when he got to the turn in four-under. Just one more birdie followed on the front-nine (his second nine) and he bogeyed the ninth so he’s actually a fraction bigger today and the only other player I’m siding with at this stage is CT Pan.

The 25-year-old Taiwanese player is on the up and I can see him winning on the PGA Tour soon. The former world number one amateur was second three starts ago at the Farmers Insurance Open and he’s too big this morning at [75.0].


Joburg Open Pre-Event Selection:
Brandon Stone @ 14/1 (Sportsbook)

Joburg Open In-Play Picks:
Aaron Rai @ [60.0]
Paul Waring @ [17.5]
Honda Classic Pre-Event Selections:
Zach Johnson @ [48.0]
Jimmy Walker @ 50/1 (Sportsbook)

Honda Classic In-Play Picks:
C.T Pan @ [70.0]
Ben Crane @ [100.0]
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

09:50 – March 25, 2017

We’ve reached the round of 16 at the WGC Match Play Championship and only five of the top-16 seeds, and two of the top-10, have progressed to the knockout phase.

World number one, Dustin Johnson, has picked up from where he left off in Mexico and he’s playing some quite incredible golf. The 7/1 available about him winning the fast-approaching US Masters with the Sportsbook is now the biggest price available and I’m not convinced it will still be there tomorrow.

DJ takes on his namesake Zach in the round of 16 and it’s very hard to see the veteran stopping the favourite. In fact, it’s hard to see anyone stopping DJ if he continues to play how he has over the first three days but strange things happen in match play and Zach could prove a tough nut to crack if he can do what nobody else has managed to do this week – get ahead in the tie.

I priced up the eight ties last night and I can’t see any significant value anywhere. I made Brooks Koepka, Bubba Watson, Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson slightly firmer favourites to win their ties than the Sportsbook guys did but I’m more than happy to leave the matches alone.

My outright pick, Paul Casey, is still going and he’s a firm favourite to reach the quarterfinals. He meets the 52nd seed, Hideto Tanihara, in today’s round of 16 and if he gets through there he’ll meet either Bubba Watson or Ross Fisher for the right to (in all probability) somehow try and get past D.J in the semis.

Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson are the two to beat in the other half of the draw but I’m in agreement with Paul Krishnamurty about the price about Bill Haas. He’s a best priced 25/1 on the High St and that looks more than fair so I was more than happy to take [30.0]. He plays Kevin Na, who has reached the final 16 for the first time in his career, and I fancy Haas to progress to a winnable quarterfinal against either Phil Mickelson or Marc Leishman. Haas will be running free for the rest of the week as he really shouldn’t be here. He looked dead and buried after taking a penalty drop on the second hole of his sudden death playoff with KT Kim yesterday but played this remarkable shot to extend the match which he eventually won at the sixth.

Thanks to a couple of rain delays, the second round of the Puerto Rico Open hasn’t quite finished yet but it’s a very tight affair, with two strokes separating 16 players at the top of the leaderboard. I’m happy with the progress of yesterday’s in-play pick, D.A Points, who’s one of three men tied at the top and I haven’t completely given up on Boo Weekley, who hit the front after a blistering start to round two.

Weekley dropped back a bit after his great start but on eight-under-par and just three off the lead, he’s not out of it just yet and I’ve also had a very small bet on JJ Henry at [26.0] this morning. He has a habit of winning when dropped in grade and that looked a fair price given he’s one of the six players currently tied for fourth and just a stroke off the lead.

10:55 – March 24, 2017

After two days of competition at the WGC Match Play, we’ve seen three players withdraw and we have a further 21 that can’t now progress, and that includes the well-fancied pre-event favourite, Rory McIlroy.

Gary Woodland (personal reasons) and Francesco Molinari (wrist injury) have joined Jason Day on the side-lines and it’s tainted the competition somewhat with Rory being eliminated regardless of how he fares today against Emilio Grillo, who played so poorly yesterday, one could almost imagine he’d thrown the towel in.

Grillo had lost to Woodland on day one but Soren Kjeldsen and Rory have both now been awarded their matches against the absent American and that may have grated with the unfortunate Argentine who failed to put up any sort of resistance to Kjeldsen on the back nine of their match yesterday. With his tie with Woodland cancelled today, Kjeldsen now has the maximum three points and is the one to progress from the group.

The Grillo – McIlroy tie is one of several dead rubbers now but we’ve got a few cracking ties to enjoy today so for a detailed look at how all the groups are positioned this morning, please see this piece from the PGA Tour website.

Of all of today’s ties, the strongest fancy I have is Rory. Grillo was awful yesterday and I just can’t see how he can get near the world number two today. Rory is as short as 2/5 to win today and I’d have him at around that price too so the 4/6 with the Sportsbook looks like a gift to me.

JB Holmes is already out after his defeat to Daniel Berger on day one and his draw with Si Woo Kim yesterday, so he doesn’t have anything to play for against Phil Mickelson today but he just looks too big to me at 2/1. If Kim happened to avoid defeat to Berger, Lefty would progress regardless of the outcome of his match with Holmes and I can see Phil having one eye on that tie. Holmes improved considerably between day one and two and any further improvement could easily see him trouble Mickelson today.

My only other pre-event pick, other than Rory, Paul Casey, needs to beat Charl Schwartzel today to progress but I’m far from confident and Schwartzel looks the value. Both men have won their opening ties but they’ve done so in varying fashions. The South African, despite not playing brilliantly, powered to victory against Byeong-Hun An 6&5 on Wednesday and he made short shrift of Joost Luiten yesterday, beating the Dutchman comfortably 4&3, whereas Casey really stuttered on the back nine against An yesterday – eventually gaining victory on the 18th green.

I’d love to be confident that yesterday was just a blip, and that may well be the case, but on form so far this week, Schwartzel is the most likely to progress and he’s value to beat my man at anywhere around the 5/4 mark.

Over at the Puerto Rico Open, Trey Mullinax, who got married on Saturday, shot a nine-under-par 63 in round one to take the early lead. Trey will be keen to make it a week to remember so soon after tying the knot and he wouldn’t be the first round one leader to take the title (George McNeil was tied at the top after round one in 2012) but at around three times Trey’s price, the one I like at this very early stage is the man in second – D.A Points.

As an out of form 40-year-old Florida resident, the two time PGA Tour winner, Points, looks like an archetypical Puerto Rico Open winner to me and at [30.0], I thought he was worth throwing a few pounds at.

Please be aware that with poor weather in the forecast, the WGC Match Play starts two hours early today and that the first tie is due off at 12:30 UK and Ireland time.

11:40 – March 23, 2017

There were numerous shocks on day one of the WGC Match Play yesterday. Pre-event favourite, Rory McIlroy, who I backed before the off, was beaten 2&1 by a red-hot Soren Kjeldsen, local hero, Jordan Spieth, went down by 4&2 to Hideto Tanihara and defending champ, Jason Day, withdrew from the event in dramatic and sad circumstances. See below tweet.

With Day withdrawing and Rory and Jordan losing their opening group matches, world number one, Dustin Johnson, who’s looking to win his third tournament in-a-row, is now a firm favourite at [6.4]. McIlroy and Spieth have both drifted considerably and if history is anything to go by, the drifts are understandable and arguably not acute enough.

This is just the third year that the event has used the new group stage format so we only have two years of data to assess but it doesn’t look good for McIlroy and Spieth.

In the 2015 edition, 12 of the 16 players to progress into the round of 16 won all three of their group games but three of the four to progress with just two victories – Branden Grace, J.B Holmes and Tommy Fleetwood – all bounced back after a day one defeat.

It was a completely different story last year though as only six group winners won all three matches and that had a lot to do with the format change. In 2015, players played on after 18 holes to determine a winner whereas last year, as is the case again this time around, ties can be drawn, with a half a point apiece being award to both players.

That changed things considerably as five players – Rory, Matt Kuchar, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Ryan Moore and Brandt Snedeker – all won their groups despite drawing a tie and Byeong-Hun An and Patton Kizzire progressed having drawn two matches.

What is apparent though, is losing just one tie is usually catastrophic. Only four players lost a tie and progressed in 2015 and only three players made it to the round of 16 having lost a tie last year – Dustin Johnson, Chris Kirk and Brooks Koepka. DJ was the only group winner to lose his opening tie last year and ten players failed to progress despite winning two of their three ties.

That doesn’t inspire me to top-up on Rory or get with Spieth. They’re in deep trouble and their fate could already be sealed. They may well both bounce back and win their remaining two ties but they’ll need help from others to progress and it’s odds-on they’re already out, whatever they do now.

I didn’t get involved in the group matches yesterday and I’m not regretting that looking at the results but I’m sorely tempted to back Kjeldsen to beat Emiliano Grillo at odds of around 5/4 today. McIlroy might not have been at his best yesterday but Kjeldsen’s victory was no fluke given his last five approach shots saw him set up birdie putts from ten, nine, four, two and three feet!

The Puerto Rico Open, which I’ve previewed here, has just kicked off and I added two more before the off – Boo Weekley and Ben Crane. I’ll have another look at that event tomorrow after the opening round.

WGC Match Play Pre-Event Selections:
Rory McIlroy @ [8.6]
Paul Casey @ [40.0]

In-Play Pick
Bill Haas @ [30.0]

Puerto Rico Open Pre-Event Selections:
Chris Kirk @ 35/1 (Sportsbook)
Fabian Gomez @ [110.0]
Boo Weekley @ [140.0]
Ben Crane @ [150.0]

In-Play Picks
D.A Points @ [30.0]
JJ Henry @ [26.0]

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

I’m very much looking forward to the new season with my biggest team to date and a new facility in Yellowstone Park Stables to add to the main yard at Kremlin Cottage, with some lovely horses to look forward to.

I’ve outlined my plans for some of those horses I expect to make their mark in pattern races, but as always I hope to uncover lots more stakes-class horses through the year.

I don’t like to set firm targets for the season, and the aim is always simply to do better than the year before, so I’ll be looking to improve on ninth in the trainers’ table, with 75 or more winners, and at least eight Group wins.

Galileo Gold
4-y-o ch c (Al Shaqab Racing)

He started last year fantastically well, and we hope he can do the same again. As he had more and more racing last year, mentally he began to lose his A-game – physically he was still there, but he got more and more wound up and that was reflected in his performances. The thing I’m most excited about is how relaxed he’s been all winter, looking a different horse, and I hope he can translate that to the track. Provided he can apply his new-found calmness in race conditions, I think he’ll be a force to be reckoned with again in the top Group 1 mile races.

There’s absolutely no reason to change to his trip at the moment – he’s a dual Group 1-winning miler and has never run a race which has made me think his chance of winning would have been greater over a longer or shorter trip, but should that change, then we’ll react.

Frankie might get off him after the Lockinge and say “he was so relaxed, he needs a mile-and-a-quarter now”, and that would be something we’d have to discuss, but in truth that’s not my expectation; I expect he’ll either win the Lockinge or be beaten by a better horse on the day rather than be found out by the trip, but horses do change all the time, so we have to keep that in mind.

Wall of Fire
4-y-o b c (Aziz Kheir)

I was delighted with his close second in the Further Flight Stakes at Nottingham on Wednesday, as he showed huge tenacity to fight back when headed, and while it was very frustrating to see him beaten, the only thing he lost was the race, and he showed a versatility he didn’t have last season. Last year, he was ridden with a huge amount of cover, and needed to come through beaten horses, but at Nottingham he showed he’s no longer reliant on those tactics, and had to race with no cover and no pace, which he coped well with. He was also first to commit for home, which wasn’t ideal in retrospect.

We’ll probably stick to a mile six with him, and the Yorkshire Cup next month is a possibility, but the main priority this year is to jump through the necessary hoops to get him qualified for the Melbourne Cup, and it was especially galling to see him beaten the other day as we could have qualified him in one fell swoop. He’s a strong stayer and showed he was comfortable on quicker ground at Nottingham, so is also proving versatile in that regard.

Home of The Brave
5-y-o ch h (Godolphin)

Home of The Brave has matured again from four to five, and is a much stronger horse. We will most likely start off at Leicester in the race he won last year (Richard III Stakes), and he may then head to the Lockinge or the John of Gaunt Stakes at Haydock depending how he shapes first time.

He’s always quite fresh at this time of year, so it’s good to get a run into him, and while he’s shown fairly conclusively that seven furlongs is his trip, I’d love to try a mile again. The programme for pattern-class seven-furlong horses is rather constrictive, with obvious targets being the Minstrel Stakes at the Curragh, the Hungerford at Newbury and the Lennox at Goodwood. He was first past the post in the Minstrel Stakes in 2015 and runner-up in both the Hungerford and Lennox last year, so we have unfinished business there, and it would be nice to win a Group 2, but the problem is that those races come very close together, so it’s very unlikely that he’d be able to take in all three.

It might seem obvious to aim him at the Group 1 Prix de La Foret at Longchamp in October as his big target, but he’s not a straightforward horse to train, and never gives himself an easy time either at home or in a race. I’m therefore mindful that in each season he’s raced, his form in the first four months of the season has been better than he’s shown in the final couple of months, and that may again be the case. That said, he’s a very admirable horse who I hope will be winning graded races for years to come.

Architecture
4-y-o b f (Lael Stable)

Despite an amazing year in which she finished second in the Oaks and Irish Oaks, it’s extraordinary to think that she’s still only won a maiden. The main priority, therefore, is to win a stakes race with her, and I think it’s best to try to pick the lowest-hanging fruit that we can and start at listed level.

With that in mind, the race which looks the best initial option is the Daisy Warwick Stakes at Goodwood in early May. She’s missed out narrowly in three Group 1 races and I’m hoping she will reap the benefit of running in lesser company. After that, races like the Lancashire Oaks will come within her compass, and if all goes to plan, she can return to Group 1 with her confidence bolstered.

Gifted Master
4-y-o b g (Dr Ali Ridha)

He may have been unplaced on both starts in Dubai, but actually ran a very good race each time. On the first occasion I didn’t think he stayed a mile on turf, at least at that level, and I then worried that he wouldn’t be fast enough on dirt in the Godolphin Mile. Far from not being fast enough, however, he showed blazing speed in blinkers before fading. I’m told he broke the track record for the first four furlongs of the race, and completed the first six furlongs faster than the Al Quoz Sprint on the same card before those exertions told. One thing that race showed us is that he definitely has the speed for sprinting.

He’s already got a very good record over six furlongs, winning the Tattersalls Millions and the Group 3 Pavilion Stakes last spring before stepping up in distance. We’ll leave the blinkers on – he’s very genuine, but the headgear should keep him sharp, and he will start off in the Abernant at Newmarket’s Guineas meeting, and will be getting entries in races like the Diamond Jubilee and July Cup.

I’d very much like to think we can get the opportunity to make a proper sprinter of him this year.

Crimean Tatar
4-y-o b c (Ibrahim Araci)

I was saying to friends last week that if I’m unlucky enough never to train a Derby winner, this might be the one that went by the wayside. He had an injury at two which meant his debut was delayed until July last year, but if he’d won his maiden by seven lengths in April and then taken in a trial, he could have been a short price for Epsom given how last year’s Derby developed. As it was, he did indeed follow his maiden win with victory in a listed race, and is the only horse in the yard still unbeaten after more than one run. He’s by an outstanding stallion in Sea The Stars from an excellent female family, and he has it all – the pedigree, the looks and the race record to suggest that he might just be something very special. Racing is all about dreaming, and that’s what we’re going to do.

He’s very nearly ready, and the plan is to run in the Group 3 John Porter Stakes at Newbury on Saturday week. We will take it one race at a time from there, but he’s won both his starts at a mile-and-a-half, and if he keeps winning at that trip, then there’s no obvious reason to alter that. As I said with Galileo Gold, if he gets beaten and his jockey gets off and says he wants to step back in trip, or go further, then we’ll have to think about that. I’m mindful that his sire won the Guineas and put up his best performance at ten furlongs, so there’s the option of coming back in trip, but then his dam is closely related to Gold Cup runner-up Mizzou, and that suggests we could go up in trip as well.

Essentially, he’s an inexperienced horse and we’re learning about him as much as he is about us, so we need to be fluid, but the ultimate dream is to be running in those big mile-and-a-half races in high summer and autumn. The one thing we will avoid is very fast ground; he won his maiden on ground which was a bit too quick for him, and he was just better than them, but I’d not like to chance him on rattling quick ground.

To Be Wild
4-br-c (Carmichael Jennings)

To Be Wild and Crimean Tatar fall into remarkably similar categories in that they have been hard to train with niggles and injuries, and they have always worked together. There’s never been much between them in their work, and each has won both starts over a mile-and-a-half after a belated return in 2016, and neither would want very fast ground. To Be Wild is rated 5lbs lower than Crimean Tatar, which gives us the opportunity to start in handicaps, so heads to Newcastle on Good Friday for a Class 2 contest which is somewhat bizarrely worth more money than the John Porter, not that I’m going to complain about someone putting on good prize money.

I’d like to keep the pair apart, but if things go to plan for both, then they may have to clash at some point, especially if they get to compete at the highest level, where there just isn’t a choice. To Be Wild is a very likeable colt with a high cruising speed; I’m not sure how far he’ll stay, but he has the potential to be a very exciting horse.

Baydar
4-b-c (Ibrahim Araci)

A half-brother to Aktabantay, who was our first group winner. Aktabantay was a tank of a horse, and Baydar is not quite so robust or as masculine in looks, but I’ve no doubt he’s a black-type performer, who has improved again from three to four, and is pleasing in his work.

The only blots on his record last year came on his return and his final start, both excusable, the first on ground which was far too fast and the last coming after a series of hard races, which were beginning to show on him. At this stage, it would take quite a leap of faith to enter him at the highest level, and I plan to start him in the Group 3 Gordon Richards Stakes at Sandown later this month.

He won over course and distance in a competitive three-year-old handicap last August despite not enjoying much luck in-running. The Wolferton Handicap at Royal Ascot appeals as being an ideal next step, and I look forward to plenty more good days with him.

***

Hugo will be back next week to preview the Craven meeting, but he has also spoken exclusively to betting.betfair about his crop of three-year-olds for the current season.

Good Friday. Let’s hope so anyway because today I start keeping public profit and loss figures for the column.

In truth, it is much-belated, as every tipster should have transparency attached to his punting recommendations.

I would be fairly certain of the fact that this column is healthily in profit since I started it at Aintree 2012, but my punting and tipping MO does lend itself to long losing runs. So brace yourself.

Whereas some, such as the Racing Post’s Richard Birch, tend to consistently play at the top end of the market (and if it works for him and others, then good for them), my method and brief is to try and eke out longer-priced winners.

I have been fortunate enough to find a fair few down the years – and (lucky) winners like Royal Vacation in December (win BSP 54.93) in December pay for a lot of losers – and I always back what I put up, so hopefully we can continue to register a profit after coming out of Aintree with our noses in front courtesy of Chesterfield in the lucky last on Saturday.

I will continue to issue guide prices as to the odds I am looking to play at, but I will take the good with the bad and record all bets as if they were struck at Betfair Starting Price.

It’s the fairest way, as we all know getting on at advertised prices in the wider marketplace occasionally involves a window of mere seconds, rather than minutes, on occasions, if accessible at all.

The P&L will also be kept to level stakes, as I think this is the fairest way, though I will let you know in copy when I really fancy one at the suggested guide price.

Anyway, enough of that guff, and on to the excellent all-weather action from Lingfield and Newcastle on Friday.

I am a bit surprised that the organisers of Lingfield’s All-Weather finals day have put on a rival (and very valuable, too) card at Newcastle – though I am sure they will call it complementary, and perhaps rightly so – but it’s quality action all the way.

A Magic bet for the opener

Not all Lingfield races are on ITV4 but I will deal with each of them in chronological order, and Holiday Magic is the bet at [15.0] or bigger in the opening race at 13:40.

It is easy to forgive him his below-par effort in the Spring Mile last time as he was drawn out of it in 22 – the low numbers dominated and he had no chance at all on the stands’ side – and prior to that he was in rude health.

He had run crackers in defeat at Wolverhampton and Newcastle, as well as winning at Chelmsford, and he also a course-and-distance winner round here, too.

He is versatile as regards run-style, as well as surface, but I expect him to sit handy from three, and he comes from a stable in superb form, with five winners in the last six days going into Thursday’s action. He is probably the bet of the day for me at the prices.

This would be a Reel-y big win in the Marathon

When I first looked at the cards on Wednesday morning I was struggling to see many bets. But, worryingly perhaps, the more I look, the more I find. John Reel at [70.0] and bigger in the Marathon at 14:10 at Lingfield, seems a little too big to me, for all he is only rated 93 these days and has plenty to find on official figures.

He has not been in the best of form since the turn of the year, finished last in a five-runner affair at Wolverhampton on his latest start (though not beaten far), and ran poorly as a 12/1 chance in this race last season. He could well have gone at the game – well, gone in this class of race, anyway.

But he is a course winner who was fourth, beaten under 2 lengths, in the 2015 renewal of this race and I can see John Egan bouncing him out from stall one and looking to dictate his own pace, as other forward-goers are not as well drawn, with Pinzolo in seven and Watersmeet widest of all.

As an eight-year-old he will probably find the likes of Natural Scenery and recent Wolverhampton winner Cohesion too hot to handle at the business end – the latter would have been a second tip in the race but his price of just under 6/1 has come down two points in the last 24 hours – but he looks too big to me and a first-time tongue tie at his age is an interesting angle, too.

Hopefully it isn’t a sign of desperation, and I must stress this would be a minimal-stakes play.

Thoughts on the rest of the Lingfield card

I expect market rivals Muffri’ Ha and Ashadian to dominate in the Fillies’ and Mares’ race at 14:40 – the former, in first-time cheekpieces, (though Haggas’ runners are 0 from 4 in these from 2016) may get the run of the race from the front in stall one, even if this trip is short of her best – so can’t see an angle there.

Roger Varian is 10 from 60 with horses in first-time blinkers since 2011 if you fancy the third favourite Realtra, though.

Annoyingly, Kimberella is now the favourite in the sprint at 15:10 – he was 12/1 this time last week – so that ship has probably sailed. But he is an obvious and major player after winning on his debut for Richard Fahey in a fast time here recently, and I suspect he could take plenty of beating if he gets the breaks in running.

Mythmaker was only nailed on the line by Lancelot Du Lac here last time and he could be the pace angle from stall one – and therefore a fair price at 11/1 – but I will leave the race alone now Kimberella’s price has ebbed away. He wrote, sulking.

I’ll be mightily miffed if Steel Train wins this at a massive price after backing him in the Lincoln but I can’t see it at these weights in the mile 15:40 and unbeaten favourite Ennaadd looks solid enough from stall two.

But at around [2.74] he is clearly no giveaway and I would rather back that old monkey Sovereign Debt each-way at 6/1 or bigger myself, though I do think this is a race with plenty of depth and perhaps more so than the betting would have you believe.

I would rather back Second Thought at a similar price in the 16:10, than Ennaadd, but the question mark with him is whether he will have the pace to cope back to 6f after his 7f win here last time.

The answer is probably yes – he has a real change of gear but he will make you suffer if you back him, as he will be played late – but, again, I wouldn’t put you off if you wanted to play this race by backing the likes of Tomily win and place instead. The race has a decent each-way shape to it.

Get Lucky with this Cambridgeshire winner

Convey is another obvious favourite in the Classic at 16:40 after his win here in February, his first start since being gelded, but I will take a small-stakes interest in Third Time Lucky at [14.0].

He has 10lb to find to Convey on official figures and was pretty disappointing from a good draw in the Lincoln last time, albeit off a hefty mark of 106.

But I think the step up to 1m2f for the first time could suit this Cambridgeshire winner, and he has good course form over a mile here, too. Hopefully the first-time hood could also help bring about the needed improvement (Fahey is eight from 43 with an initial hood since 2012, resulting in a healthy profit for backers) and, all in all, I think he is worth chancing.

Cases can be made for Battalion (it is game on if he starts adequately from stall one) and Elbereth at the prices, but just the one interest for me.

Cheekpieces will suit this Visage

There are also three good races on ITV4 at Newcastle, starting with a 7f handicap at 14:55.

Mon Beau Visage interests me at [11.0] or bigger here. He wouldn’t have as sexy a profile as some – indeed some may prefer his stablemate Short Work, making his debut for the yard after leaving Ralph Beckett – but he looks pretty solid to me.

He is a course-and-distance winner who has also just been touched off in a photo from just four starts here, and he comes here a fresh horse having been put away for the winter after suffering plenty of trouble in running at Chelmsford in November, for which he was generously dropped 2lb.

He can be too keen for his own good but the cheekpieces are back on here, as they were for his course win in October, and he is only 2lb higher. He will do for me.

Back Star to shine at huge odds

The 1m4f handicap at 15:25 is packed full of class, as you would expect for an 85k contest. Finding a bet is a touch harder though – I certainly wouldn’t argue with To Be Wild being favourite – and I’ll let the race pass.

The 100k conditions race at 15:55 is another step up and sees some potential Classic horses, for home as well as abroad, lock horns.

The predictable horses head the market and I was going to leave the race alone before I saw Masham Star was the complete rag. Back him at [34.0] or bigger in the win, and [7.0] plus, in the place market.

Now, he has no pretensions to winning in Group 1 company but he has been given a break since being kept very busy in sunnier climes over the winter, and I think this race will have been targeted as his “Classic” given the money on offer, whereas connections of others may have left a little to work on given more prestigious prizes down the line.

Actually, the race hasn’t always been the plan, as his trainer was apparently looking to run the horse in a valuable 0-100 handicap at Musselburgh on Saturday and he runs here instead (he is rated 101, so not eligible in that class of race), but at least he is reported in “great shape and ready to go”.

And while Masham Star is by far the most exposed in this field, he is the only one with track experience – he won off a mark of 95 over course and distance in November – and he is actually the third highest-rated in here behind South Seas and Syphax on official figures and has posted some decent speed figures. He is a decent each-way play at the prices.

Recommended Bets
Back Holiday Magic at [15.0] in 13:40 at Lingfield
Back John Reel at [70.0] or bigger in 14:10 at Lingfield
Back Mon Beau Visage at [11.0] in 14:55 at Newcastle
Back Masham Star at [34.0] win and [7.0] place in 15:55 at Newcastle
Back Third Time Lucky at [14.0] in the 16:40 at Lingfield

Champion Bumper – Wednesday 17:30

In recent seasons, I have traditionally been sucked into backing one of the John Ferguson horses. The defeat of New Year’s Eve back in 2012 when trading at [1.38] was a bit of a kick in the teeth. At least he fared better than Purple Bay and El Namoose who also took my money. Despite that, the lack of Bloomfields horses these days is part of the game I miss.

That said, the Champion Bumper is a race I absolutely love, although I understand why it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea in terms of betting. The market is not easy to read on the Exchange, but the Wednesday showpiece for the young horses is NRNB on the Sportsbook.

The Willie Mullins-trained Carter McKay heads the market at 3/1, and he has already beaten a couple of the horses in the top eight of the betting. His claims are pretty obvious – but then so is the price.

Carter McKay was given a bit of a race by Bakmaj on his winning debut at Leopardstown, but he looked fantastic when landing a hot bumper at Naas (over 19f), and oozed class that day. Only four ran in the latest victory, but he tanked through the soft ground. He is unbeaten in two starts and comes from a yard that have enjoyed great success in this Cheltenham bumper – with eight winners.

Mullins has five horses that are available to back from 3/1 to 20/1 – and it’s a contest he has thrown his weight behind in the past couple of seasons. He saddled seven in last year’s renewal, whilst he had five in the 2015 race. He totals 23 runners in the past six editions.

A far more interesting candidate however is Ballyward – who hammered a Leopardstown field back in December by 16 lengths. That demolition job during the Lexus meeting came in a traditionally strong bumper. Mullins took it in 2011 with Ballycasey, whilst No More Heroes won in the 2013 version.

Ballyward runs in the Graham and Andrea Wylie colours, and clearly looks a galloper after a stretching away from a field in such impressive fashion. I liked the way he coped with the tempo increasing over the far side, and once he was shaken up, he never stopped.

The Wylies won the Champion Bumper with Briar Hill in 2013, who simply took off under Ruby Walsh to cause a bit of a surprise at a Betfair SP of 34.0. Ballyward’s price is 27.0 on the Exchange and 9/1 NRNB on the Sportsbook.

Irish trainers completely dominate the market, with Jessie Harrington, Mags Mullins, Joseph O’Brien, Alan Fleming and Gordon Elliott all with contenders. Betfair Ambassador Elliott’s well bred mare Fayonagh was very impressive when scoring by 20 lengths in a Listed affair, but I wonder if she’ll be better suited to Aintree. She is 16/1 NRNB.

There’s a complete flyer here in David Pipe’s Delirant at 16/1. This 4yo won a Grade 1 AQPS contest in France by four-and-a-half lengths, and beat into second a subsequent scorer at Grade 2 level across the channel. Pipe won this in 2015 with Moon Racer, and Delirant has been purchased by JP McManus from French trainer Etienne Leenders.

You can view his race below (racing in the pale blue and mauve silks) – and he certainly wasn’t stopping at the end.

National Hunt Chase – Tuesday 16:50

I outlined my liking for A Genie In Abottle for this race during my Cheltenham ante-post Ryanair preview. He was [12.0] then, and is now the 5/1 favourite on the Sportsbook – and I am in no hurry to ditch the horse I absolutely adore.

His market rivals include Edwulf at 6/1, and Alpha Des Obeaux at 10/1, and both are prominent in the RSA market too, but this four miler looks the perfect set-up for A Genie In Abottle. His trainer Noel Meade offered an upbeat bulletin recently for this contest and also Disko for the RSA. He told At The Races: “Everything is good, and I couldn’t be happier with both of them. They are both in great shape.”

And while I don’t hold too much in racecourse gallops and quotes, Jamie Codd schooled him at Leopardstown on Sunday, and he’s a good man to have on your side for this race. He won on Cause Of Causes in the 2015 renewal – and he has five festival winners. He liked him after the gallop, although previous jockey Nina Carberry loves him apparently.

A Genie In Abottle has enjoyed a decent season. He jumped well over an inadequate trip against former Albert Bartlett winner Martello Tower in December, and followed that up with a superb display when winning over 3m at Fairyhouse – where he scored by five-and-a-half lengths over Blazer, and had the Willie Mullins-trained Mall Dini back in third. The latter holds entries in two Festival handicaps.

His attitude was spot-on for that Fairyhouse victory; on a couple of occasions he had to go again and find, and he did. That ‘will to win’ was evident last time at Naas when he was narrowly beaten by Tony Martin’s Anibale Fly. He was off the bridle for a long way, but he never wilted under pressure.

Meade described him as a potential Grade 1 novice chaser in his younger days, and he is a dour out-and-out stayer that should love the Cheltenham finish. He jumps well too. The only nagging doubt is that he could be a better horse with soft conditions.

Another who looks tailor-made for the trip is Paul Nicholls’ Arpege D’Alene, and he is 12/1 NRNB. The Champion trainer has mentioned him as a possible Scottish National type, and he looks as if he is crying out for this stamina-laden distance.

He’s a slightly quirky animal who might be a touch lazy. His jumping let him down at Ascot behind Bigbadjohn (who is 10/1 for this), only for him to consent to run on late. He has jumped well at Cheltenham in the past though (in particular the novice race earlier in the season), and is another who will relish the four miles.

Foxhunters’ Chase – Friday 16;10

The remarkable On The Fringe will be bidding for his third successive Foxhunter Challenge Cup, and he achieved the stunning feat in 2016 of the Cheltenham-Aintree-Punchestown treble for the second year in a row.

The 12yo is a flawless jumper who travels with so much style. But with such a classy horse I wasn’t expecting a wild price though, and he is 6/4 on the Sportsbook.

For layers of Enda Bolger’s great chaser, he is around [2.80] on the pink side for Exchange punters. If you are taking him on, the one factor you have is that he wasn’t quite as breathtaking when winning at Punchestown last April, and whilst his longevity is admirable, can he come back for the third time and win? I’m probably clutching at straws with that, but with short prices, you look for small margins.

His comeback run was perfectly fine at Leopardstown (his only start of this season), and he always needs that to blow away the cobwebs. Win or lose, he’s been a tremendous horse for Bolger and his owner JP McManus.

I am happy to take a punt with a couple of double-figure prices here. Last term’s fifth Pacha Du Polder at 16/1 NRNB makes a bit of appeal. He gave Victoria Pendleton a beautiful spin around the track last year, showing what a gentleman and safe jumper he really is. Watching him leap with his assured manner fence-after-fence was a joy to watch.

He wasn’t beaten too far last year, and he is only a 10yo, so there is hope he can still improve from 12 months ago. His comeback run was a neat win at Bangor in unfavoured soft conditions – yet he still beat Colin Tizzard’s Grand Vision easily under Bryony Frost – and Grand Vision is a fairly useful performer.

If there’s good ground, that will strengthen his claims, and with his fencing ability, he is sure to get round safely which makes him an attractive each-way bet.

I also would throw in Declan Queally’s Minella For Value. I don’t know too much about Irish Point-To-Point form I admit, but he recently beat First Lieutenant between the flags, and I am familiar with him! After all, he was a one-time 160-rated chaser.

Minella For Value has always been a splendidly efficient jumper who loves good ground (although he does win in soft). He was a decent handicapper in his time for John Butler, and has been prolific in Ireland recently. He’s another at 16/1 I would be happy to back, purely because he is such a brilliant jumper.

Mares’ Hurdle – Tuesday 16:10

Willie Mullins’ Limini produced a ‘bolt-from-the-blue’ sort of performance last time when beating Apple’s Jade at Punchestown – so much so that Limini is now a major contender for an open-looking Champion Hurdle on the Exchange. She trades at [10.0] at the time of writing for that, but also 5/4 for the Mares’ Hurdle NRNB.

Her victory over Apple’s Jade in the Quevega race last time seemed to take everyone by surprise, and even her trainer described it as extraordinary. Mullins however isn’t short of a mare for this race judging by the market principals on the Sportsbook, but it might be Apple’s Jade versus Mullins here – which could provide some story if successful.

Apple’s Jade is not a wildly exciting selection in terms of an out-of-the-park price, but I find it tough to make a case for anything at big odds. After all, her form last year was making her a potential Champion Hurdle candidate, and at 5/2, I am more than happy with that. But Mullins does have a stranglehold on the leading players.

She finished second in the Triumph, and duly hammered her conqueror at Cheltenham (Ivanovich Gorbatov) by 41 lengths at Aintree in the Grade 1 Juvenile. She’s beaten some cracking horses already in her career, and the possibility of good ground will increase her chances.

If Limini goes for the Champion, then Apple’s Jade has form to within two lengths of a top-level hurdles’ race contender, where as these Grade 1s for mares are not particularly strong. Vroum Vroum Mag is 6/4 for this, yet Apple’s Jade beat her easily in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace. Her trainer Gordon Elliott gave a positive view of her chances when speaking to Betfair in this Festival preview.

Recommended Bets

Back Ballyward @ 9/1 NRNB on Betfair Sportsbook for the Champion Bumper
Back A Genie In Abottle @ 5/1 NRNB Betfair Sportsbook for the 4m National Hunt Chase
Back Pacha Du Polder each-way @ 16/1 NRNB Betfair Sportsbook in the Foxhunters’ Chase
Back Minella For Value each-way @ 16/1 NRNB Betfair Sportsbook in the Foxhunters’ Chase
Back Apple’s Jade @ 5/2 NRNB Betfair Sportsbook in the Mares’ Hurdle

***

For all the latest Cheltenham betting tips and previews, check out our dedicated Festival category

Player fatigue from Davis Cup worth considering

This weekend’s Davis Cup matches meant that there was a rest from ATP Tour action in the past seven days, although this period certainly wasn’t a rest for several players, with the likes of Richard Gasquet (flying from Japan) and Dan Evans (Canada) having an extremely arduous playing and travelling schedule over the past few days.

After Davis Cup weeks, bettors should always be aware of player’s national team commitments, as my research indicated a huge general drop-off in level for players following a compressed period of playing and travelling in two continents.

On this basis, the Frenchman, Gasquet, can easily be swerved in Montpellier – despite him winning three of the previous four events here in the south of France – and his status as third favourite at 9/2 with the Sportsbook is a little surprising given his lack of aptitude for tough spots throughout his career as well.

Medium-Fast Conditions and Top-Player Friendly Venue in Montpellier

This tournament – which has medium-fast conditions, with mean service hold numbers and aces per game a little above the ATP Indoor Hard mean – has generally has seen success for the bigger name players, with a top five seed taking the title every year since its inception in 2010, although there have been some smaller names making the final – the unseeded Paul-Henri Mathieu achieved this feat last year.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga leads the field from a hold/break perspective, holding serve 89.9% on hard or indoor hard courts in the last 12 months, and breaking opponents 22.1% (combined 112.0%) and Gasquet’s countryman also leads the betting at a current 7/2, with Marin Cilic (combined 108.0%) in second place in both the hold/break stats and the market. Alexander Zverev joins Gasquet, Tsonga and Cilic as players priced sub 10/1 in the market.

Given the historical success but lack of value surrounding the better players in the field, my preferred route here would be to look for an underdog to back at large prices pre-tournament with the Sportsbook, whilst retaining the option of laying them at a lower price (either outright or in the match odds markets) during the event on the Exchange.

Long-shot Mischa can take advantage of a weak draw

After his run to the final in Chennai in week one of this season, I wrote that Daniil Medvedev would never be priced up as big as 50/1 to win a 250 event, but the Russian is at that level with most bookmakers this week. However, this is likely to be due to his retirement against Novak Djokovic in the Davis Cup on Friday, after he took the first set from the world number two. I like Medvedev a lot, but there are better spots than this week.

The older, but less illustrious Zverev brother, Mischa Zverev, is my choice. He opens against a jet-lagged Evans, before a second round match against either Ilya Marchenko or the young French wild-card, Quentin Halys, who is usually found on the lower Challenger Tour. Furthermore, a likely fatigued Gasquet would be Mischa’s likely quarter-final opponent, and there is a lot of upside to taking a position on the 28/1 about the German this week.

I’d definitely consider laying Zverev on the Exchange should he get to the latter stages, as we’ll be guaranteeing ourselves a profit given we’ll be holding a big-price win ticket.

Sofia slower than Montpellier

ATP Sofia was a new event on the calendar last season, and the data from last year shows that conditions are a touch slower than medium, with fewer service games held than the Indoor Hard ATP mean in 2016, as well as there being 0.06 aces per game less too.

The Spaniard, Roberto Bautista-Agut, took the title, and he returns this year, and leads the field from a combined hold/break perspective (108.7%) and it would be foolhardy for anyone to rule him out given his propensity to perform well in these indoor 250 events. He’s available at 6/1 with the Sportsbook or [7.2] with the Exchange at the time of writing.

Bautista-Agut receives a bye in the opening round, along with the other top seeds David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem, and this trio also complete the top four players statistically as well.

Having said this, I’ve made the point several times recently that Dimitrov has significantly over-performed on break points in 2017 so far, and mean reversion is likely for the Bulgarian, and I’d expect him to offer very little value in the coming week, or the short-term.

Open tournament offers little value

Despite the top four players statistically receiving byes, Sofia looks to be quite an open tournament with just 5.2% combined hold/break percentage separating the top player, Bautista-Agut with the fifth and sixth, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Gilles Muller, respectively.

The big-serving Muller would be worth considering in an indoor 250 generally, although I’m surprised he didn’t choose to take advantage of the quicker conditions in Montpellier. Muller’s tournament selection again raises the question of whether players actually make scheduling decisions with maximum expected value.

Kohlschreiber received a virtual bye in the first round – he opens against the bizarrely awarded Turkish wild-card, Cem Ilkel – before a very winnable second round match against either Robin Haase or another wild card, Dimitar Kuzmanov, who is not even really at the Challenger Tour level (although did take a set from Ricardas Berankis last year). A quarter-final against the over-rated Dimitrov looks likely, although I’d probably prefer bigger than the [20.0] about the ageing German given that he is also in Bautista-Agut’s half of the draw.

All things considered from an outright perspective, I feel that there are better tournaments to get involved with than Sofia.

Understanding effects of altitude vital in Quito

This week’s final event sees the start of the clay season, which is a part of the calendar that I particularly enjoy. However, most of the South American clay events are played in extremely different, much slower, conditions to those in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, which offers extreme assistance for serve-orientated players at around 3,000 metres above sea level.

The effect of this altitude is profound when considering the historical data in Quito – in the two years that the tournament has been running, main draw matches at the venue have seen 81.3% of service games held – 4.9% above the ATP clay court mean in the last 12 months. Furthermore, my assertion was rubber-stamped with there being 0.53 aces per game, significantly higher than the 0.37 aces per game across all main draw clay matches in the last 12 months.

Estrella unbeaten in Ecuador

Victor Estrella historically looks the man to beat this week, with the Dominican clearly revelling in conditions, amassing an incredible 10-0 record in Quito having won both events here so far. It is indicative of the effect of these conditions that Estrella has managed this, given that he is an extremely mediocre player generally, and if he is to claim a hat-trick, will need to reverse the form which has seen him lose seven of his last nine ATP main draw matches.

However, despite his general mediocrity, Estrella – in large part due to his exploits here last year – leads the field from a clay court hold/break perspective, and must be respected in the coming week, although a second-round clash with Ivo Karlovic, is certainly not what the ‘doctor’ ordered.

Bellucci another who thrives at altitude

Thomaz Bellucci is another player who has a magnificent altitude record and the Brazilian – who receives an opening round bye – is currently available at 9/1 to go one better than last year, where he was beaten by Estrella in a tight match.

Other threats come from Janko Tipsarevic, the former top ten player who is fighting his way back up the rankings following a long-term injury, the talented but inconsistent, and injury prone, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Santiago Giraldo.

In my opinion, there is little chance that Tipsarevic has travelled to South America without wishing to give his best efforts, and as a serve-orientated player, he should benefit from conditions too. If it wasn’t for a second round match with Bellucci, whom I am relatively keen to keep onside, he would definitely be a player worth considering for our outright shortlist.

Monteiro a solid long-shot choice

Another player I am keen to keep onside in the next few months on clay is Thiago Monteiro. The 22 year old has just broken into the top 100 on the back of some impressive results on his favoured surface in Challengers in 2016 – he made three finals – and given the natural age related improvement, can go well in the near future. Monteiro is also somewhat serve-orientated, and this dynamic will be of assistance in the coming week.

Monteiro starts the event with two very winnable opening matches – he takes on the wild-card, Giovanni Lapentti, in the first round, before facing either Rogerio Dutra Da Silva or a qualifier. Albert Ramos is a likely quarter-final opponent, and Monteiro should prefer taking on the Spaniard, Ramos, despite Ramos’ strong ‘traditional’ clay court stats, than several other seeded players who should enjoy conditions in Ivo Karlovic or Bellucci. As a long-shot, there are many worse than the Brazilian if you can get an offer matched at around [24.0] on the Exchange.

Recommended Bets

Back Mischa Zverev to win ATP Montpellier at 28/1
Back to Lay Thiago Monteiro to win ATP Quito at [24.0] on the Exchange