The Buckinghamshire

On a mild and sunny November day I got my first look at The Buckinghamshire, a well regarded complex near Denham and home of the Ladies European Tour. The clubhouse and surroundings were immediately impressive, yet I wasn’t sure what to expect with the course when I noted the venues ranked ahead of it in the county and my concern with the fact that I had no choice but to play from the forward yellow tees. The greens were in excellent nick, though the fairways were understandably soft and mucky due to recent heavy rains.

On the opening tee shot water is in play to the right of the par five 1st’s fairway. If I was a golf course designer, I think I would try to avoid this scenario, but nonetheless it makes for a challenging opening hole and the pick of the par fives for me (see below for my controversial opinion on the par five 18th). The 2nd is a birdie chance of a par four with no major punishment for a missed fairway as long as two bunkers are avoided. The 3rd is a flat but long par three with bunkers right and a hollow to the left of what is quite a big green. The 4th is a tough slight dogleg left par four with threatening fairway bunkers and a downward dip towards a slightly elevated green. The par five 5th is index 14 but I found it the easiest hole on the course, reachable in two and a great birdie chance notwithstanding the deep bunkers at the green. After five holes it struck me how open the course is, as apart from the obvious traps and hazard on the first, offline drives are not necessarily punished for the lower handicap players.

However, the next four holes change the theme and put a premium on hitting fairways off the tee. The par four 6th is straight and sub-400 yards, yet there is trouble all around by way of bunkers, vegetation and an ivy clad wall to the right of a tight green entrance. The following three hole stretch is one of the best you will play, starting with the strategic index 2 par four 7th, which features a fairway guarded by a creek crossing it and two bunkers on the right, then an approach to a green protected by a lake on three sides and tree trouble on the left.  The 8th is the signature hole on the course, a par four that is driveable from the forward tees – mostly carry across the lake with a little bit of bail-out fairway space before the green, but the standard route for most players is around the lake with a tee shot to the right of the fairway and approach over the water. The outward nine concludes with the enclosed par three 9th in front of the clubhouse, its elevated green guarded by three bunkers. Whilst it is a nice hole, it struck me that the river just to the right of the green could have been brought more into play.

The 10th is a long and demanding dogleg right par four with imposing trees on the right side of the fairway to tangle with slightly pushed tee shots and a pond short right of the green, albeit not really in play for better ball-strikers. The narrow and elevated putting surface is tough to hold with a deep bunker hugging the right side. The par five 11th offers some respite, despite the strategic fairway bunkers it is not the longest and is also open enough to allow a chance to recover from any wayward tee-balls or second shots. The 12th and 13th are two strong par fours, both over 450 yards from the tips, the 12th more or less straightaway with a creek a few yards short of the green and a threatening lake to the right of the green. The 13th is a tight sweeping dogleg left with two nasty fairway bunkers on the left side amidst probably the most enclosed wooded setting on the course. On the par three 14th you find yourself at the outer reach of the course alongside the rail track, the primary complications being the slightly elevated green with one bunker in front and a fall-off to the right.

The homeward stretch begins with the dogleg right 15th, which I considered a birdie opportunity despite its index of 9. It is under 400 yards and the corner can be cut to leave a wedge to a large and receptive green. The par three 16th is nicely framed by trees on either side and is played marginally uphill. The 17th is a long and difficult uphill par four, veering around to the left, and requires two solid smacks to find the green in regulation.

And so to my controversial assessment of the par five 18th. I grew up playing on a course that has two huge trees bang smack in the middle of a fairway and a similar size tree middle-left of another green blocking the route to back hole locations. Perhaps I am scarred by this, but either way I am not in favour of trees existing in the middle of fairways. The 18th at The Buckinghamshire is a magnificent long par five with intrusive bunkering  on the fairway and three more bunkers around an undulating green, with a dangerous pond on the left side of it. That all sounds great, but approximately 130 yards from the centre of the green is a huge old tree positioned in the middle of the fairway. Course designer John Jacobs might disagree with me – I would have moved the tree!

Overall the course has a flat and open feel to it for the most part and is not too difficult from the yellow tees. It is obviously a different story from the black tees at 7,100 yards, although big hitters will not always be punished for finding rough off the tees. 7-8-9 is a particularly enjoyable three hole stretch and 12-13 are two very solid par fours.

Pick of the holes: Par Three – 9th // Par Fours – 7th & 8th // Par Five – 1st

Photo: 8th hole

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Trevose Golf Club

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Three weeks after returning from a tour of some of the finest links courses of the west of Ireland, I set off from London to Cornwall with my driver loft still set to 8.167 degrees and entered the Westlake Trophy scratch open at the acclaimed links at Trevose Golf Club near Padstow on the north coast of Cornwall. The course is ranked 2nd in Cornwall and 57th in England.

I arrived the afternoon prior and headed to the course to check out the practice facilities. The entire course is laid out below you from the elevated clubhouse but as it was shrouded in sheets of misty October drizzle, or “mizzle” as they call it here, I didn’t really get a chance to appreciate the setting.  What was appreciated was the super little range with its inventive targets and very useful small indoor putting green in the cosy foyer building.

In the dead calm of the next morning Trevose was waiting for me in all its glory. The colossal desert like sandy dune face behind the 2nd green and further beyond the ocean brushing against the iconic sea rocks and jagged cliff faces out by the 4th green were landmark features that strikingly seemed within touching distance of the clubhouse. The conditions remained virtually dead calm all day long, most unusual for any seaside location, with not even a one club breeze applying, in fact not even 2/3 yards of ‘hurt’ at any stage. In many ways a true test of a links layout is the challenge it presents on a calm day such as this and Trevose was demanding underlined by the average CSS of +3 per round reported for the competition.

Playing two rounds in a day in a competitive environment is probably one of the best ways to experience a golf course you have never played, albeit playing off the back tees can sometimes take the fun out of it, depending obviously on your level. For me three of best holes on the course come very early, the 1st, 2nd and 4th, the only section of the course that is set amidst the typical high dunes that were such a prominent feature of my recent west of Ireland links trip. The 1st is a superb downhill par four that meanders its way through dunes punctuated by gaping bunkers and a downhill run to a green that slopes back towards the fairway. The par four 2nd continues the downhill trend with a fairway guarded by four bunkers and a magnificent approach played to a green protected by three more bunkers and overlooked by the huge imposing Sahara-esque sand face behind. Not to discount the 3rd, it is a solid par three played from on high across a valley to a green with trouble on all sides including three nasty pot bunkers, yet with an inviting bowl in the middle of the green that can be quite rewarding. The 4th is the signature hole at Trevose, a dogleg left par five played from a high tee down to an undulating fairway, guarded by bunkers and an approach towards the ocean and “Booby’s Bay” beach. Most available photographs of this scene tend to capture the ocean at its wildest in the background, however the picture with this post shows it at its most benign, yet still impressive.

The 5th and 6th take you to the northern half of the course (where the 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th are also routed), which is little bit less memorable, yet does present some strong holes. The bunkerless 5th is a tough dogleg left par four, the generous fairway offset by the long uphill approach to a stubbornly elevated green. The 6th offers some respite as a shortish par four with a big green. Then the 7th takes you back towards the low-lying section of the course closer to the larger dunes, another difficult par four with a long approach to a well guarded elevated green, one of few holes on the course with a steep upslope before the putting surface. The relatively short par three 8th probably makes it into my top-five holes on the course, played over the valley of a burn to a green with three deep pot bunkers short and left and a steep grassy fall-off to the right. The front nine closes with a par five that offers two routes off the tee either side of three fairway bunkers and another steep rise to the green, this one steeper than most.

The 10th hole is another of my favourites, a par five with a downhill tee shot to an open fairway and a burn and three bunkers to negotiate en route to the green. The 11th is a tough par three that required a wood for me in both rounds from its highly elevated tee to a green also elevated with three bunkers to consider. The 12th is a long uphill par four towards the northern boundary of the course, with two grassy bunkers forcing you to think twice about cutting the corner and another large bunker short and left in the steady incline towards the green. The 13th is the last of the par fives, curving to the left from tee to green, the tee shot played slightly downhill and the second shot down again to an open flat fairway that sets up a tricky approach shot to a green with bunkers short, and with a hazard left and long to take into consideration. The green is in three sections and it is particularly hard to get close to the flag if it is in the back left corner.

The closing stretch begins with two short par fours, the 14th the shorter of the two and really only requiring a 240-250 yard tee-ball short of the four cross bunkers, which leaves just a wedge approach to relatively straight-forward green. Whilst the 15th doglegs slightly to the left, a tee shot bailed out right will still leave a short-iron slightly uphill to a green that slopes from right to left, the back left pin position being the most dangerous given the slope off the left edge of the green. The 16th, like the 11th, is a 200+ yard par three that will frequently demand a well struck wood off the back tee to a green that has two grassy mounds in front of it, the main complication other than the sheer length of the hole.

The 17th is another of the top holes on the course, a demanding par four with a narrow fairway that must be found off the tee in order to ensure the good lie you need to be able to take on the green with your approach, as the burn (that also features on the 10th fairway) protects the front of the green and will gobble up anything half a club short. The 18th is a tough finisher, uphill all the way requiring two solid smacks off the back sticks to make the green, which has bunkers short on either side and O.B. long and left. The appeal of this hole is somewhat undermined by the road that crosses the fairway around 80 yards short of the green on which vehicles have right of way and tend to avail of this right without looking around to check if a golf ball is about to crack a windscreen.

Pick of the holes: Par three – 8th // Par fours – 2nd & 17th // Par five – 4th

Happy Chappell At Valero

23 April 2017
PGA Tour

Kevin Chappell won the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio on Sunday, fending off the challenge of Brooks Koepka with an 8-foot birdie putt on the par five 18th hole to win by a solitary stroke. Koepka had steamed forward from the pack with a final day -7 round of 65 that included a birdie on the 18th, but it would leave him painfully just short of the final winning total of -12. Koepka, seeking his second PGA Tour win, played the 18th hole with impressive careful strategic nous in the circumstances, choosing to lay up and rely on his wedge game to ensure birdie, but Chappell, himself seeking his first victory in his 180th start, stood up to the pressure playing the 18th in very similar fashion with the only clearly evident difference being a slightly longer birdie putt. Chappell took his chance and the wild celebration left in no doubt what the win meant to the 30 year old Californian.

On a course that proves a tough test year in year out, with scoring on Saturday in particular quite high due to the windy conditions, Chappell negotiated it aggressively yet assuredly and the overall quality of his final round of 68 should not be undervalued in the midst of Koepka’s 65. Fresh from a top ten in his first ever Masters appearance a couple of weeks ago, perhaps Chappell entered the week inspired by the experience, helped also by a return to a TPC San Antonio course on which he has previously performed very well, including a solo second place finish in 2011 and T4 in 2016. The springboard effect may lead to further success for Chappell in the near future, although that summation seems to apply to almost every single winner nowadays and they cannot all win. (I am still backing Sergio Garcia for the Grand Slam nonetheless.)

Scrambler Pick – Zurich Classic of New Orleans: Next up, the Tour returns to NOLA, but this time experimenting with a new team format similar to that of the World Cup of Golf – teams of two in strokeplay with foursomes applying for the first and third rounds and fourball (best ball) for the second and fourth rounds. There are some tasty looking teams on offer, not least Jason Day & Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose & Henrik Stenson, Jordan Spieth & Ryan Palmer, Branden Grace & Louis Oosthuizen, Patrick Cantlay & Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger & Thomas Pieters and Bud Cauley & Justin Thomas. Of the above listed players, just Jason Day, Daniel Berger, Ryan Palmer and Justin Rose have recorded finishes of note at TPC of Lousiana, with Rose the only former winner, but that’s no reason to discount teams that include Fowler, Spieth, Stenson, Peiters, Thomas and Finau. The favourites are largely from the above list, but there are some interesting teams further down the field. Three I would highlight are the following:

Byeong Hun An & Seung-Yul Noh – This Korean duo looks menacing. Noh was the winner here in 2014 and An was runner up here last year. Neither is quite setting the world alight recently, but this could be where it all changes.

Alex Cejka & Soren Kjeldson – Say no more than that Kjeldson’s last win came at the World Cup of Golf at the end of 2016. I am sure he can take Cejka with him on a journey to the top five at least.

Luke Donald & Jamie Lovemark – a subtle combination of recent good form and a half decent record on this course for both. I like the chances.

At 35/1, you must go with the Koreans!

Hala Sergio! #SergioSlam2017

The Masters
9 April 2017

Sergio Garcia won the 81st Masters.

Sergio Garcia won The Masters.

Sergio Garcia is a major champion.

Yes indeed it is all true. Last week I told you that it might happen. There was no rocket science behind it, just a refusal to accept that his day would not come. If you kept the faith and stuck with him then well done to you.

You can find lots of stats that might help explain the reasons why Sergio won: his driving; his irons and GIR return; his proximity to the pin; his scrambling; his strokes gained; his putting; but you’ve heard it all already and for me it was simply a case of dominating certain holes in a manner in which he had not quite done in recent years. For example, last week I told you he had struggled badly on the 1st hole in 2016, playing it in +4 for the week. This year he played it in -2, including that superb birdie on Sunday that set the early tone. For 2015 and 2016 combined he played a total of nine holes in over par, whereas this year only the 4th, 7th, 10th and 11th holes stifled him, and at that, at no more than +1 over the four days for each. Damage limitation, and ceteris paribus (e.g. continuing to make a mockery of no. 15, continuing to make solid pars on 12 and 16), it was a formula that would prove successful.

I also told you last week that Sergio needed to sort out his front nine numbers in particular. He had been nine shots worse on the front side in 2015/2016 than on the back nine. This year, he obliterated the front nine, playing it in -6 for the week, which was even better than the -3 he recorded on the back. He was at least three shots better than the 2015/2016 averages on the 1st, 5th and 6th holes. The way he managed to scramble a bogey on the 10th and a par on the 13th on Sunday underlined the execution of a damage limitation regime that helped to reduce the negative impact of any mistakes. The 13th the ultimate turning point, somehow salvaging a par from an unplayable in the woods.

But the stats are the stats. This was a win made possible only by the years of near misses. Justin Rose summed it up best himself. If you want to win majors you’ve got to be ready to lose them. If you are good enough to be in the position to win them you will get into the position again and again and there will be pressure. You will need to learn to cope with it. When the chance comes, it gets intense. Sergio had that intense look in his eye. The conviction with which he smoked his first tee shot on Sunday. And again on the 2nd. Again on the 3rd. And when things temporarily went south early on the back nine only for a reprise on the 13th green, the tee shots on 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 were all flawlessly fierce and fueled by a Spanish adrenaline ignited by the returning whiff of victory and a steely determination to not let it slip this time. The approach on 14 was the most predictable outcome in the history of golf. You just knew he would not fail to find that slope. I told you last week that he loves the 14th.

Then, the approach on 15. This deserves an entire book. Probably one of the top five greatest golf shots in Masters history. Maybe the best. The look in his eyes as he leered up and down at ball and pin will live long in the memory. And the putt. The PUTT. Tell yourself Sergio isn’t a great putter. He putted into the hole an eagle putt on 15 on Masters Sunday having almost thrown it away. This on top of other vital putts for birdie and par made earlier on. TELL YOURSELF SERGIO CANNOT PUTT. It is not true and maybe it never was. Maybe it was just something we convinced ourselves.

The standard of golf down the stretch will be remembered forever. The 16th hole, where Rose answered Sergio and clawed back a shot by making his birdie with that Olympian spirit. He did not really deserve to lose. Two Ryder Cup warriors this time battling against one another. The 18th was drama in the extreme. Convinced that Rose would not miss, I feared that this would be the defeat of all defeats for Sergio and force him into early retirement. But no, a chance to WIN. A slippery downhiller, but still a chance to win. Shades of Carnoustie’s 18th green in 2007. And when the putt strayed out on the right side, the bastard ghosts of Carnoustie you feared had crossed the pond to Georgia and Sergio would be broken again.

But no. It was Sergio’s driving that wore Justin down more than anything. The 18th hole set up perfectly for Sergio’s power cut. He fired it out there yet again in the playoff as if it was on tap, and when Rose let his tee shot slide into the trees it was effectively done. Sergio firing into the 18th green with a wedge as he had done in regulation. 100% committed to every swing. The putt did not have to drop but it was fitting that it did. A celebration notable in its pure elation rather than raw emotion. The Augusta crowd almost as jubilant as Sergio and his family. I found this telling. He did not seem to emit the sense of relief, or “finally”, that you might have expected. It was just pure joyous celebration.

Above all it was Sergio’s refusal to accept defeat that pulled him through. No fear of failure anymore. No acceptance of just trying one’s best and see if it is good enough anymore. No “played well but the other guy just played better” anymore. No. No. NO. This was flat out REFUSAL.

As is often said when someone breaks a hoodoo, the floodgates may well open up and Sergio could become a multiple major winner before too long. Not only do I agree, I’ve got my money on “SergioSlam 2017”.

Vamos!

Can Sergio Garcia Win The Masters?

The Masters Preview
1 April 2017

Of course he can.

But let’s look at it in a bit more detail.

Here is a snapshot of Sergio’s record in major championships:sergio

The above is summarised as follows, with his Masters record highlighted in bold:

73 appearances (18 / 17 / 20 / 18 )
54 Cuts Made (13 / 15 / 16 / 11 )
22 Top Tens (3 / 5 / 10 / 4 )
12 Top Fives (1 / 3 / 5 / 3 )
4 Seconds (0 / 0 / 2 / 2 )
18 Missed Cuts (5 / 2 / 4 / 7 )
1 DQ (2007 USPGA)

The overall picture equates to 74% of cuts made, a 30% top ten finish rate, a 16% top five finish rate and a 5% return of second place finishes.

For The Masters, the record breaks down as eighteen appearances, with five missed cuts (28%) and three top ten finishes (17%), just one of which was a top five finish (T4 in 2004).

Of the four majors his record of making cuts at Augusta is third best (72% return), behind The Open Championship (80%) and the US Open (88%), with the PGA Championship trailing behind at 61% if you include 2007 (he made the cut but was disqualified after the third round for signing an incorrect scorecard).

In terms of top ten finishes, his record at Augusta of three from eighteen (17%) is the worst of the four majors, behind totals of four at the USPGA (22%), five at the US Open (29%) and an impressive ten at The Open Championship (50%). That’s right, Sergio has finished in the top ten of exactly half of Open Championships he has played in, but he has done so in a mere sixth of his Masters appearances.

Top five finishes do not read any better, again with the Masters lagging behind the rest, his sole top five finish coming in 2004, representing a 6% return (USPGA 17%, US Open 18%, The Open 25%). That’s right, in one of every four Open Championships contested Sergio has finished in the top five, but he has only done this once at Augusta.

The stats don’t tell the whole story. Even the overall stat of just four second place finishes out of 73 majors slightly belies the assumption of many that Sergio has come close and blown it on  multiple occasions. Perhaps you could say he has done this four times (at a rate of 5%) if you base it on second place finishes. Or perhaps you could say he has done it twelve times (at a rate of 16%) if you base it on top five finishes. It seems that Sergio has struggled less at the other majors than at Augusta, but does this mean he has no chance to win it? Well, measuring it solely on leaderboard positions is not necessarily the best way. For example, at the 2010 US Open Dustin Johnson was infamously leading the tournament by three shots going into the final round and finished tied for 8th. Rory McIlroy was infamously leading the 2011 Masters on the 10th tee on Sunday but ended up finishing tied 15th. Conversely, top five finishes do not always translate as having been in contention to win. The best example of this in recent times may be Erik Comption’s second place at the 2014 US Open, finishing eight shots behind runaway winner Kaymer. However you analyse it, what has frustrated Sergio fans as much as the near misses has been his failure to stay in contention and give himself more chances to win.

Garcia has missed more cuts at the USPGA than at The Masters but in terms of challenging on Sunday Augusta seems to be where Sergio has turned in the weakest results of the four majors over the years. To make the tie for fourth in 2004, his only top five, he was never in contention. He shot 66 on Sunday to shoot up the leaderboard from way back, but still finished six shots behind Mickelson. Some of the other results are worth noting, however. In 2002 he entered the final day four shots off the lead, but shot 75 to end up eight back of Tiger. After 36 holes in 2012 he was one shot off the lead, but he faded over the weekend with rounds of 75 and 71 for a T12 finish. A year later in 2013 he shot the joint low round 66 on Thursday, but dropped down the leaderboard with a 76 on Friday. Still not out of it, he needed a sub-70 round on Saturday, but a 73 left him with too much to do. He clawed his way back into the top ten with a 70 on Sunday but was never in contention.  Last year, 2016, Sergio was three shots off the lead going into the weekend, but shot a miserable 81 on Saturday. He has returned plenty of low rounds at Augusta, so I would not accept the view that his failure to contend down the stretch on Sundays is due to an issue with course suitability. Sergio has the game to score around Augusta, of that there is no doubt, it is just a question of whether he can sustain it over all four rounds and score a bit better on certain holes.

The popular assumption is that putting is a key issue. I am not so sure and will duly investigate. His average scores for the last two years do throw up some interesting general facts (note that Augusta played harder in 2016 than in 2015 so the two year average gives a nice spread):

  • Combined gross score +3. Final scores: 2015 (T17) -5; 2016 (T34) +8.
  • He has scored far worse on the front nine than on the back nine: +6 over the two years on the front, -3 on the back.
  • He has played five holes at +2 or worse over the two years (1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 18th).
  • He was +4 for the week on the 1st hole in 2016, his worst hole in 2015 or 2016.
  • He has played the par fives in -9, yet level par on the 13th.
  • He has played four holes under par over the period (2nd, 8th, 14th, 15th).
  • He parred the par three 12th all four days in 2016. His score around Amen Corner over the two years is +2.

The above suggests that if Sergio can brush up on the par threes and par fours (the 1st hole especially) and improve his return on the 13th and 18th holes, then he has a much better chance of challenging, albeit this is a simplistic assessment. My interim opinion remains that Sergio is slowly working out Augusta. I believe that The Masters 2017 is his best chance yet to win a major, purely because it is the next chance. He has been in that Butler Cabin before, in 1999 as the Low Amateur, and he will be there again!

Dustin Puts The Other 63 In The Dustbin

26 March 2017
PGA Tour / European Tour

Dustin Johnson won the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club on Sunday, defeating a resilient and resurgent Jon Rahm 1 up on the 18th hole in the final, having seen off the challenge of Japan’s Hideto Tanihara earlier in the semi-final. The final match looked all but done with Johnson 5 up after eight holes without having had to produce anything near his best golf to that point. Rahm won the next two holes in succession, but when DJ won the 12th hole to get back to 4 up you felt that Rahm would end up in the garbage can along with the other 62 contenders and DJ would become the first player to win all four WGC titles (Tiger never won the HSBC Champions). Rahm had other ideas though and wins on the 13th, 15th and a dramatic twenty foot putt drained on the 16th meant that DJ’s lead was just 1 up with two holes remaining. The tricky pin position and swirling wind on the short 17th led to steady pars by both, but the 18th was birdieable and I favoured Rahm to claw back the deficit at the death and take it to extra holes. However, when he narrowly misjudged his chip from behind the 18th green, just failing to get his ball to release down the slope towards the pin, his chance for birdie was greatly reduced and in the end a par was not enough. DJ has been performing impeccably since Riviera, notching up WGC wins now seemingly with relative ease, although, as usual his outward demeanour belies the hunger deep inside and the undeniable work ethic on and off the course behind the scenes.  DJ has very much cemented his position at the top of the OWGR with this win, while Rahm now moves up to 14th.

Bill Haas defeated Tanihara to win the third place prize, Bill’s best ever finish in a WGC event, whilst quarter final places for Phil Mickelson, Soren Kjeldsen, Ross Fisher and Alexander Noren all represent very strong returns for the week. There were a few notable group stage casualties including Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. Match play golf also failed to extract the best out of Ryder Cup aficionados Patrick Reed and Thomas Pieters, whilst Sergio Garcia and Shane Lowry suffered from being drawn in the group of death along with eventual finalist Rahm. Perhaps if the prize for losing all three group matches was not $49,500 just for turning up then we might have seen some different outcomes. Dustin himself (1), Noren (8) and Mickelson (14) were among just five of the top sixteen seeds to reach the knockout stages and the only three of which to make it as far as the quarters. This includes defending champion Jason Day, who very sadly has had to take time out from the game to support his mother who is undergoing surgery. The Scrambler wishes the Day family the very best with this. Day’s press conference was admirable in its bravery and also its honesty – “she’s the reason I am here” – we sometimes forget the importance of what has made the player in the background.

At various points throughout the week, the explosive driving of both Rahm and DJ was highlighted, but on Sunday afternoon in particular this was underlined as they drove a combined 850+ yards on the par five 12th hole, leaving nothing but wedge approaches for both. This was slightly sensationalized in the coverage given that the hole plays significantly downhill and there is a path to help the ball along the way, however, the stats are no less jaw-dropping and it is the accuracy of the driving that is so impressive. Rahm also drove the 13th green over water into the wind and drove his tee shot on the 18th through the green, both similarly huge and accurate hits under pressure playing against the world number one. He may not have won, but Rahm’s stock is rapidly rising, almost as fast as his blood temperature whenever he makes a mistake, but perhaps not quite as fast as that of Tyrell Hatton.

Scrambler Pick – Shell Houston Open: This week the Tour returns to Houston on a course that has staged the event since 2006. Past winners in the field include JB Holmes, Jim Herman, Matt Jones, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Johnson Wagner and Adam Scott, however the former winner that jumps out at me most of all was also the winner of the alternate event last week in Puerto Rico, D.A. Points. At 150/1, not putting a few quid on him each way would be absolute insanity. Yes, the field also includes Spieth (has finished second here), Kuchar (likewise), Stenson (second here twice), Rahm, Rose, Rickie, Swafford and Walker, but some of these guys might have Augusta on their minds, whereas D.A. Points will just be playing on cloud nine, on a track on which he has won before, fresh off his first victory since he last won….right here. Yes, my previous pick for an each way windfall (Schneiderjans at the Valspar: MC) was pathetic, but this week looks almost too good to be true. On Point!

The Hand of DJ Too Good In Mexico City

5 March 2017
PGA Tour / European Tour

Dustin Johnson won the WGC Mexico Championship at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City by just one shot over England’s Tommy Fleetwood, with Ross Fisher and Jon Rahm finishing a shot further back in a tie for fourth. In a city that has not hosted an elite sporting event of such global magnitude since the 1986 World Cup, when the Hand of God was a decisive factor, it was the gifted and legitimate hands of world number one DJ that were the difference, leaving neither a sense of regret concerning unfortunate refereeing oversights nor any need for divine intervention. Despite contenders Mickelson, McIlroy, Thomas, Fisher and Pieters all jostling for position to become the main threats to DJ on Sunday, it turned out that the young Spaniard Jon Rahm was the main challenger on the back nine, even edging into a one stroke lead after a birdie on the 15th hole took him to -5 for the day and -14 overall, however a prompt Johnson response on the 15th to get to -14 and a bogey-bogey run on the 16th and 17th by Rahm ended the Spaniard’s challenge, yet simultaneously, Tommy Fleetwood emerged from the pack at the death as his back nine 32 culminated in a 39-foot birdie putt drained on the 18th green to pile some last minute pressure on DJ, who was grappling along behind to par the last three holes. Par the last three holes he did, playing to a conservative yardage on the dangerous par three 17th and recovering brilliantly from a pulled tee shot on the par four 18th, in fact the 120-yard fairway bunker shot from an awkward stance on the 18th was rightly highlighted as the decisive tournament winning shot, reminiscent of Steve Stricker at Deere Run in 2011.

The main pretenders to DJ’s world number one throne and other in-form candidates, namely Rory, Jordan, Rickie, the Justins, Sergio, Hideki and Adam, all ultimately failed to keep pace with DJ this week. Justin Thomas came closest, but his back nine club-throwing show put him out of touch of the lead and he could not recover in time. The leaderboard was loaded over the weekend, however in the very closing stages it was Rahm, Fisher, Pieters and Fleetwood who came to the fore. In truth it is rare in golf that even three or four of the top ten players in the OWGR end up challenging for a tournament victory with three holes remaining, but it is nonetheless disappointing that McIlrory and JT, for example, could not hang in there until the end. The absence of Day and Stenson was also a non-recurring anomaly you would hope. Much like Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood took this big stage as a chance to back up recent winning performances and mix it on a higher level and both gave excellent accounts of themselves. For Fisher, Hatton and Pieters, their top-ten performances also back up recent form and will give them confidence for the months ahead.

The irony of the WGC Championship event having been relocated from Trump Doral to Mexico and staged just weeks after the new US President’s inauguration was highlighted in the prelude to the event, but such was the resounding success of the tournament that all non-golf narratives were long forgotten as early as Thursday morning. The course withstood the test of the best players in the world seeking to rip it to shreds, with its narrow lines, undulations and taxing greens with a variety of opportunity and challenge presented by pin placements. Given the altitude, of which we were constantly reminded in coverage to the point of distraction, the course in effect played much shorter than 7,000 yards, but it left many of the big hitters scratching their heads. True, the winner was a bomber, but you don’t get to world number one unless you can do everything very well and Dustin’s short game and putting (apart from day one) were good enough. The event was hugely enjoyable, with large crowds delighted to have the top players in the world on their doorstep and cameos such as football announcers commentating on hole-outs, not least for Justin Thomas’s ace, enhancing the spectacle. If crowds are chanting at a non-Ryder Cup event, then that is a clear sign of success and it would seem to go deeper than a mass gathering of drunken louts packed into a bowl in the desert at Phoenix. Even the beeps from the traffic jams heard alongside the 1st green were entertaining.

Most commentators when asked about Mickelson this week would probably say the same thing – good old Phil, spraying the ball all over the course but still able to make unlikely pars and birdies, negotiating gaps that nobody else could even imagine and holing out from all over the place to finish T7. Yes, it is the magic of Phil, but there was a side to him on show that I previously would have overlooked but this week was just plain annoying. That three hole stretch on Saturday, when twenty minutes or more in total were spent looking for balls, consulting with officials and almost inventing new rules, was infuriating to watch. Professionals should always use the rules to their advantage when it is reasonable, but rules officials bowing to the word of Phil and his refusal to accept penalty, distracting playing partners to the detriment of their own rounds in the process, was not enjoyable viewing, even if he was technically breaking no rules and showing his experience. Other incidents compounded the assessment. The playing of a shot to greenside with the group ahead still on the green and the “so-what-I-am-Phil” attitude. On the 18th green on Sunday, as the local crowd who were quite obviously vehemently behind the efforts of Jon Rahm and wished to give him a prolonged ovation after he holed out, caddie Bones holding an obnoxious hand in the air to say “quiet please Phil is is here”. Too bad Bones and too bad Phil, wait your turn and let Mexico support its man for another few seconds. I also had a slight concern with the caddie situation on Friday. As was pointed out continuously in coverage, Phil’s brother Tim Mickelson is Jon Rahm’s manager. When Bones had to retire early on Friday, Tim stepped in as replacement caddie to Phil. In most other sports there are rules preventing such conflict of competitive interest. How could Tim Mickelson conceivably influence the contest such that it would benefit Jon Rahm you might be asking? Theoretically it is a a far-fetched likelihood, but it is not inconceivable even in accidental terms. On Sunday Rahm and Mickelson were grouped together. Would it have been okay then? Maybe so. This entire passage could sound like I am questioning the honour of the Mickelsons. I am not at all, but what I am questioning is small print within the code of competition.

Scrambler Pick – The Valspar Championship: This section is in danger of becoming more and more pointless as the weeks roll by and at this stage I would not expect anyone to back my tips for an each way return. Louis Oosthuizen, in hindsight probably weary from a crazy schedule of air miles in recent weeks, never got going and returned a sluggish T48 in a field of 76 players. I am not looking to call the winner necessarily, but I am looking for some value from a little bit deeper in the field every week. This week the Tour returns to Florida and the horribly named “Snake Pit” of Innisbrook’s Copperhead course. I am putting my house on Ollie Schneiderjans at 80/1. I will not bother explaining why, other than pointing to three top-tens so far this season, including at Torrey Pines and Riviera. Go Ollie!