Scheffler ready to regain top spot in Houston


3pts win Scottie Scheffler @ 11/2
1pt each-way Taylor Montgomery @ 25/1
1pt each-way Joel Dahmen @ 33/1
1pt each-way Tony Finau @ 18/1
0.5pts each-way Russell Henley @ 20/1

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Just when we were wondering when the real Scottie Scheffler was going to stand up, a nine-under-par 62 in Mexico on Sunday reminded us what a class act he is and why he’s the most likely winner of this week’s Houston Open.

The rash of birdies came too late for the laid-back American to justify his position at the head of the Mayakoba market but a T3 finish behind runaway 50/1 winner Russell Henley was a timely boost after failing to win a point at the Presidents Cup and playing indifferently in his first tournament back.

A return to the Scotty Cameron putter with which the Masters champion won four times between February and April played a key part in the low round of the day and now it’s all systems go to regain the world No. 1 spot from Rory McIlroy.

Now back in his adopted state of Texas and facing a very humdrum field, it’s hard to see who is going to stop him, especially as he has good form at Memorial Park, joint-second to Jason Kokrak last year.

Kokrak is one of the many defectors to rebel tour LIV as are five of the top seven from the 2020 tournament so no wonder this year’s third Houston Open at this tough municipal course is short of big names to challenge the favourite.

Don’t confuse “municipal” with “easy”. After a 2019 revamp by Tom Doak with input from Brooks Koepka, long-established Memorial Park, at a 7432-yard par 70, is a stronger test than posher private clubs in the vicinity.

There won’t be any 23-under score like last week. The two winning totals since taking over from Houston’s Country Club as tournament host were only ten and 13 under, so there is plenty of grafting to be done.

Hideki Matsuyama, Tony Finau and Sam Burns are the three biggest names outside Scheffler but the Japanese star has not posted a top-five finish since the US Open in June. On the credit side, he was runner-up to Carlos Ortiz on this week’s course two years ago but I’m not sure Matsuyama’s game is as good right now.

This is Finau’s first individual event since finishing ninth at the Tour Championship at the end of August. He did pick up three points out of four at the Presidents Cup and created quite a stir in July by winning back to back in Detroit and Greensboro. Even with a bit of rust in his game, Finau has a big shout.

As we haven’t seen much of Burns at the business end for some while (only one top-ten since June), recent form suggests exciting new kid on the block Taylor Montgomery is more worthy of an interest. A share of tenth on Sunday was yet further proof that this rookie is well above average. It was the 6ft 3in Las Vegas powerhouse’s third top-ten in five outings which now read 3-9-15-13-10. A breakthrough cannot be far away.

In contrast, journeyman Joel Dahmen has been around the block a few times but he too has his game in great early order. Finishing in a logjam for third place in Mexico as a follow-up to 13th at Sanderson Farms and 16th at ZOZO encourages an investment and Joel has positive vibes for Memorial Park where he placed T5 last year.

Montgomery isn’t the only raw talent on display. Davis Riley, Sahith Theegala, SH Kim, Taylor Pendrith and Will Gordon (T3 in Mayakoba) all have performances that recommend them and if Scheffler fails to fire, they won’t be frightened to step up.

Nor should man-of-the-moment Henley be overlooked. Starting the last day six clear, his Mayakoba victory was pretty stress free and he could go back to back, as Finau did in July. Henley took seventh place in Houston last year after a down-the-field effort at Mayakoba and is arriving with a more positive mindset this time.

Weatherwise it’s going to be a very changeable four days, starting in the low 80s and after two warm, fine days cooling down dramatically to 60F and less after a Saturday shower.


2pts each-way Branden Grace @ 28/1
2pts each-way Robert MacIntyre @ 18/1
1.5pts each-way Thomas Detry @ 12/1
1pt each-way Tommy Fleetwood @ 10/1
0.5pts each-way Haotong Li @ 100/1

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It’s a long haul from the first Nedbank Challenge in 1981 when there was a field of only five – but what a five they were, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Seve Ballesteros — to this week’s more mundane, but still highly lucrative, affair at Sun City.

Miller won the original by beating Seve at the ninth extra hole for the $500,000 first prize, half the entire prize fund and a huge sum in those days, but in the following years Nedbank kept raising the bar to even giddier heights and increasing the size of the invited field.

The three Nedbanks from 2000 to 2002 carried a $2m jackpot with local hero Ernie Els helping himself to two of those at the famed Gary Player Country Club. The stars came out to play in those days when it was more like a glorified exhibition and much looked forward to as a TV spectacle.

Now it’s a 66-runner competition as part of the DP World Tour. The money is still handsome with $6m in the kitty and just over $1m to the winner and the course, the longest on tour at 7834 yards par 72, just as challenging. It sounds enormous but doesn’t play to its length in the rarefied air and many’s the short hitter who came, saw and conquered, Corey Pavin, Jim Furyk, Bernhard Langer and David Frost to name but four.

Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood is no bomber either and he heads the market despite not having won this year. With Covid scuppering the last two intended Nedbanks in 2020 and 2021, the floppy-haired Southport star has had two extra years to admire the trophy, finally he gets the opportunity to take it back home again.

Recent improved form, fourth to McIlroy at the CJ Cup after filling the same position at The Open and Scottish Open, gives him every chance of doing just that but 10/1 is plenty short enough.

At three times the odds, preference is for Branden Grace, one of the LIV renegades and therefore the last golfer the DP World Tour wants to win. The Nedbank roll of honour is littered with South African winners with Grace the latest one in 2017.

In the two preceding years he finished third and fourth and although last year’s 39th was disappointing, Branden has since won on the LIV circuit on that tour’s US debut in Portland after finishing third in the London leg in St Albans.

He was heading for a big finish in the last individual tournament in Jeddah after shooting a 65 in round one.

Unfortunately he had to withdraw with an acute muscle strain after playing just a couple of holes in his second round. Grace was able to play in the LIV team finale in Miami albeit well strapped up so we must assume he is fit enough to do himself justice.

No question marks about Thomas Detry apart from the mental side of the Belgian who has a swing to die for and an excess of talent but has yet to convert those attributes into victory.

This is his 141st European start as a pro, often in contention but still infuriatingly knocking at the door. Surely someone will let him in soon and now, after a series of confidence-boosting results on the PGA Tour, four top-15s from five starts, most notably second place in Bermuda, looks the right time.

This is a course he can handle (third and seventh in the last two Nedbanks) and there can be no excuses if his game doesn’t show up.

It’s impossible to ignore Jordan Smith after his remarkable 30-under-par Portugal Masters annihilation of the Victoria course or the consistency of Ryan Fox whose overdue second victory of the year came at the Alfred Dunhill Links. The busy New Zealander is coming up fast on the rails in the Race To Dubai. Only McIlroy stands above him so he is not short of incentive.

That Portuguese victory ended a long losing run dating back five and a half years for Smith and with that millstone no longer round his neck, it would come as no surprise if the Englishman with one of the best swings on tour won again quickly.

Bob MacIntyre’s eighth place on Sun City debut in his rookie year 2019 reads well and he’s another who posted a long-overdue second win, this time on the Ryder Cup course at the Italian Open.

His 133 for the last 36 holes at Sun City was miles better than anyone else – even five lower than winner Fleetwood – but after a poor start he was too far back to get to the leaders. Backers of the aggressive Scot will be hoping he takes less time getting his act together on his second visit.

If you’re looking for a three-figure longshot, Chinese No. 1 Haotong Li fits the bill admirably. Although wildly inconsistent, when Li’s good, he’s very good. He shoots birdies galore, is a winner this year in Munich, and has good course vibes having finished fourth to Grace in 2017 and fifth to Lee Westwood the following year.

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