Hideki Matsuyama the man to watch in Shanghai
GOLF punters will generally have bags under their eyes at this time of the year with most of the action taking place in Asia, and therefore in the middle of the night here, but they could also end up with bags of cash at their disposal coming up to Christmas if they play their cards right.
While the events are in far-flung parts of the world, the winners at the tail-end of the season tend to be from the top drawer, as the big names tour the globe in search of huge cash prizes and bumper appearance fees.
This week’s event, the WGC-HSBC Champions, is much more than an exhibition, however, even if many of the 78 runners have little or no chance.
The line-up is made up of players who have tasted success on the various tours in the last 12 months and many of those are unaccumstomed to turning out in elite events.
And while some stars won’t be teeing it up at Sheshan International in Shanghai in the early hours of tomorrow morning, 18 of the top 25 in the world are in attendance and history suggests the winner will probably come from that bracket.
The field is headed by world number one Dustin Johnson and defending champion Hideki Matsuyama, who between them hold all four World Golf Championship titles.
Johnson is a past winner at Sheshan, in 2013, and when you consider that other former champions include Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, it is clear to see that this course throws up proper champions.
Sheshan also throws up a large amount of birdie chances, with ‘DJ’ holding the 72-hole record of 24-under on his way to success four years ago.
Matsuyama came up one shot shy of that last term, but he did demolish a top-class field by sevens shots with an exhibition of golf that has rarely been equalled.
That victory came in the midst of a sensational run of form from the Japanese superstar, who won four times and came second twice in six starts, and while he understandably tailed off a bit as 2017 progressed, he is still the man to beat this week.
Johnson might argue with that and the bookies have him priced up as the jolly at no bigger than 9/1. Yet there has to be the chance he will come in slightly undercooked having not played since excelling in America’s Presidents Cup romp almost a month ago.
Naturally, there is a great chance he could hit the ground running, such is Johnson’s quality, but the preference in Asian events is to side with a player who has played nearby in the last couple of weeks and thus is adjusted to the conditions and time zones.
Matsuyama has to be the man, especially as plenty of firms are touching double figure odds at 10/1.
The world number four was fifth at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia two weeks ago to suggest he has shaken off the fatigue that hindered him during the FedEx Cup play-offs.
There is no doubt Matsuyama tailed off after a fine summer that saw him win the WGC Bridgestone and finish fifth at the USPGA Championship, but his play in Malaysia sparkled at times and stands him in good stead for his defence here.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that he was second at the CIMB a year ago before his procession in this one and he has to be well placed to successfully defend his title.
The 10/1 is very attractive and should be backed each-way at least as I can’t have him out of the shake-up.
The organisers will be slightly disappointed that leading lights like Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, and last week’s winner in Korea, Justin Thomas, aren’t playing, but there remains plenty of depth below Johnson and Matsuyama, with Jon Rahm and Jason Day playing this one for the first time.
Patrick Reed is also one of the biggest names in the game and he is my second selection at 33/1 with Tommy French, a price that probably underestimates his chances.
The cocky American is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he is a quality performer who embraces the worldwide nature of modern golf and has a proven pedigree in Asia.
There was plenty to like about his play on his way to 11th coming off a break at the CJ Cup in Korea at the weekend, carrying on from a generally impressive spell of play at the end of the summer, highlighted by a second to Thomas at the USPGA.
Reed was seventh here two years ago and was a runner-up in the now-defunct BMW Masters at Lake Malaren, also in Shanghai, a week later so he relishes Chinese conditions, while his exceptional short game makes him a live contender when things turn into a birdie-fest, as they should this week.
At 33/1, Reed is a very good each-way shout at bigger odds than some players who have nothing like as strong a chance this week.
Ross Fisher is slightly shorter odds at 28/1 with 888sport but he does have a very good opportunity to get into the mix at least, as he so often does.
The Englishman has been second to Tyrrell Hatton in each of his last two outings, at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in Scotland and the Italian Open.
Conditions in those events will be very different to what he encounters this week, but his Chinese pedigree lets me overlook his lack of an Asian warm-up this time.
Third in this two years ago and sixth last term, Fisher was also second at Lake Malaren in 2014, so he is right at home in Shanghai, while he is also bang in form.
He hasn’t won in three-and-a-half years which is a negative but he keeps banging at the door and a victory will surely come sooner or later.
It might even be this week but the 28/1 gives a good deal of each-way value anyway for an ultra-consistent player.
Finally, I’ll take a chance with Kiradech Aphibarnrat at 80/1 with Boylesports.
As a native of Thailand, Aphibarnrat has no problem with the muggy Asian conditions, despite his large frame, and he has played well in good events in China before, notably when winning the Shezhen International in 2015.
He also played very well when joint-second alongside Fisher in Italy a fortnight ago and can carry that form in here.
Aphibarnrat has the potential to progress into an elite player and in a field that like himself has plenty of padding, he is a touch on the big side at 80/1.
WGC-HSBC Championship recommended bets
Hideki Matsuyama, 10/1 (General)
Patrick Reed, e/w, 33/1 (Tommy French.com)
Ross Fisher, e/w, 28/1 (888sport); top GB&I, 5/1 (General)
Kiradech Aphibarnrat, e/w, 80/1 (Boylesports)