WGC-HSBC Champions preview and betting tips from golf expert Ben Coley

We have four selections for the WGC-HSBC Champions
We have four selections for the WGC-HSBC Champions

A pair of big-hitting lefties make up part of Ben Coley's staking plan as he previews the WGC-HSBC Champions in China.

Recommended bets

2pts e.w. Tony Finau at 25/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

1pt e.w. Shane Lowry at 40/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Phil Mickelson at 80/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Bubba Watson at 100/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

As well as being three-quarters of the way to a career grand slam, Rory McIlroy is halfway towards a full set of World Golf Championship titles - and he has an outstanding opportunity to tick off another at this week's WGC-HSBC Champions.

With Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson both playing dress-up back home in the United States, Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas also absent along with Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau, the field for this no-cut event in China is nowhere near as strong as we might have expected it to be.

You can add in-form Gary Woodland, a newly-wed Rickie Fowler and the reliable Webb Simpson to the list of absentees, with just 12 of the world's top 25 in attendance, and that makes this the runt of the litter when it comes to the tournaments which are meant to sit one rung below the four which matter most.

McIlroy, who prior to last year had never finished worse than 11th at Sheshan International, really ought to be contending. He's tuned up following the Zozo Championship, where he was two shots better than the winner over the final three rounds, and the opportunity to eat into Koepka's lead at the top of the world rankings will be one he's desperate to take.

Avoid another sluggish start and McIlroy will be extremely hard to stop at a golf course which plays to his strengths. Sheshan is not overly long on the scorecard, but its make-up is unmistakably one which lends itself to long, quality driving, a fact underlined in each of the last two years and by Rafa Cabrera Bello, who calls it "a course for the bombers."

Our golf expert reflects on the weekend
Our golf expert reflects on the weekend - click the image to read

Yes, Russell Knox plotted his way to an impressive breakthrough here, but that was a strange renewal on a sodden course. All things being equal, look to Xander Schauffele, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson as the Sheshan profile, their ability to capitalise on six notable scoring opportunities and avoid disaster at the brutal ninth setting them up for the week.

At 6/1, McIlroy must be worth a second glance and the same goes for Hideki Matsuyama at twice that price, but with both selected for the PGA Tour Money List I'm fairly content to let them go and win if they must. Matsuyama has done it here before, remember, and I do believe second place on home soil last week may be the penultimate piece of a two-year jigsaw, the final one being winning something again.

Sifting through the rest takes time - there are a heck of a lot of good, long drivers in this field, of course - but the first way to cut them down is to eliminate those who aren't PGA Tour regulars.

That might seem a strange comment, given that this is considered the 'European Tour' World Golf Championship and takes place in China, but to my count there have now been 70 World Golf Championship events and just one has been won by a player without PGA Tour membership - Francesco Molinari back in 2010.

Of course, the market is dominated by global golfers, but in a market where those who've been ticking along nicely on the continent have been afforded maximum respect, it's an easy decision to look past the likes of Erik van Rooyen, Robert MacIntyre, Matthias Schwab and even the newly prolific Bernd Wiesberger.

For the life of me I can't fathom why Schwab, for instance, is given more of a chance to win this than Bubba Watson, so let's get the riskiest wager out of the way first of all and start with the 2014 champion.

Bubba won this on his second visit, having been eighth on his first, and there was undoubtedly a little fortune on his side as he edged Tim Clark in a play-off. Still, his first eight rounds at Sheshan help to demonstrate that, when he's on, this is an excellent playground for the mercurial left-hander to get creative.

Dog-legs both left and right, bunkers to carry, corners to cut, par-fours to drive - this is precisely the sort of layout upon which Watson thrives, and for all his unpredictability, one thing easy to signpost over the course of his career have been courses where he might win, and courses where he almost definitely won't.

Sheshan falls into the former category, and that confirms we must be talking about a golfer way below his best - how else would a 12-time PGA Tour winner, a two-time Masters champion, be put in with some European Tour youngsters who, in the case of both Schwab and MacIntyre, have not won as professionals on top- or second-tier circuits.

On form figures alone, Bubba certainly is way below his best. Last week he finished 51st, he missed the cut prior to that in Las Vegas, there wasn't much to like about 47th in the Greenbrier and he signed off the FedEx Cup Playoffs with a weekend off at The Northern Trust.

And yet, as ever, there's another way to dress it. First of all, we need only expand the search area one more start to find ninth place at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational - the event most similar to this one, only with a stronger, deeper field.

Second, he shot three sub-70 rounds last week, sitting inside the top 25 after the first three rounds, only to fall down the leaderboard on Monday. Perhaps that confirms he's not capable of putting four together; perhaps it's a hint, like the one Brandon Stone dropped in France before somehow finishing second, rather than first, in the Portugal Masters.

Third, this is Bubba Watson. That ninth place in the St Jude was out of nowhere, just like fourth place in Phoenix after he'd finished 31st of 33 players in the Tournament of Champions and then missed the cut in the Sony Open.

Go back to last year, and his Riviera win came after a start-of-year sequence which read MC-40-35. He'd go on to win the Match Play after finishing 66th in the Arnold Palmer, and win the Travelers after a run of 57-44-MC since the Masters.

Bubba's second Masters win came after a withdrawal, he's won at Riviera and at the Travelers and at Torrey Pines after missed cuts, and if this 40-year-old does go and win again it may well be a similar bolt from the blue.

Perhaps this time his game just isn't close enough, but it's those three good rounds in Japan last week which give me sufficient encouragement to take a chance. We're talking about the world number 37, and all those around him in the rankings are a fair bit higher up the betting, despite this being a Bubba Watson Golf Course.

He might be out of this by the time you wake up on Thursday morning, but a couple more of those sub-70s and suddenly we'll all remember that he's far more likely to win this than each and every other player available at three-figure prices.

I put up Phil Mickelson in the CJ Cup last time and thought he played very nicely in the main, justifying to some degree his selection at 80/1.

He's the same price here and as a two-time Sheshan winner, who has also been eighth, 14th and 15th at the course and only once has failed to make an impression, I can't leave him out despite the obvious risks.

You might think that having both these crackpot geniuses in the staking plan is nihilistic and you may well be right, but Mickelson finished 15th here on his last start when hitting the ball off the planet and I've been taken with his increased control of late. Certainly, he looked much more comfortable off the tee in Las Vegas, and another solid driving display in the CJ Cup backs up that theory.

He did win earlier this year, don't forget, and you can be sure that seeing Tiger Woods land his 82nd PGA Tour title will have spurred him on a little. Mickelson was right to admit in Korea that he doesn't merit a Presidents Cup pick, but that doesn't mean he'll have totally given up on the idea of forcing Woods into an uncomfortable spot.

Mickelson's decision not to play in the Zozo Championship also saw him drop out of the world's top 50 and he seems desperate to get moving back in the right direction, when other 49-year-olds would be preparing for the Champions Tour. He might well be done winning but I'm not quite sure, and while there are trouble spots here it's a course he's dealt with perfectly well so far.

Again, this is a value-based selection based on small signs of encouragement. I fully accept the idea that Mickelson can't be considered a likely winner, but on the back of his best display since the Masters there's enough upside to take a chance.

Back to the more sensible world and I again prefer the classier players to those who've been catching the eye in lesser company. Take Tyrrell Hatton as an example: one top-five finish in 18 months, that at the Dunhill Links where he was a twice defending champion, and he's 40/1 because he hit a lot of greens in the Italian Open.

That's churlishly worded, but I stand by the fact that the market appears to have, for once, underestimated the better and more decorated players. How otherwise can Shane Lowry be the same price, and in fact bigger in a place?

Lowry has won twice this year, famously in the Open Championship, and three top-20 finishes over the course of his last four starts represents very decent form. Had he been a shot or so better we'd be talking three top-10s and around a course where his driving is a massive asset, he looks set to go well.

The Irishman has a World Golf Championship in the locker already, and his two-shot improvement from day to day last week marked him down as a potential contender at a course where he has been prominent from an early stage on three previous occasions.

Shane Lowry speaks to the media at Wentworth
Shane Lowry speaks to the media at Wentworth

Granted, he's yet to go through with it for 72 holes but he now returns a major champion, and having been third for ball-striking here last year that increased status and attached confidence can take him much deeper into the tournament as he looks to close in on Wiesberger and Rahm at the top of the Race To Dubai standings.

While Rahm's motivation must be question - he's not here, after all - Lowry has been talking about the Race To Dubai from the moment he lifted the Claret Jug, and he's set himself up perfectly for the final few events of a memorable campaign.

Ian Poulter did well to finish 13th after a sluggish start last week and many of the reasons for backing him in Japan also apply here, but for all he hits a lot of greens at Sheshan, it can be a bit of a slog for a player who is far from the longest.

Runner-up here in 2013, Poulter can of course make up for that weakness as he's done so often in the past, but I'm finishing off this back-to-front staking plan with Tony Finau at 25/1.

Finau's strike-rate immediately encourages caution, but this event is so much weaker than the world rankings make it look and he's fancied to go very close to gaining deserved compensation.

Last year, the American led after 36, 54 and even 72 holes, ultimately losing a play-off to Schauffele, and that followed an excellent 11th place on debut as he took the course immediately.

Having redemption on the mind might make enough of a difference for this superstar to finally add to a lone and low-key PGA Tour success in Puerto Rico, and it's also going to be important to keep on producing results if he's to earn a Presidents Cup debut.

Last week in Japan was disappointing, but it came after a break and on a course which demanded a lot of dramatic shaping of the ball, which wouldn't be his preference. Here at Sheshan, he can instead cut some corners and take advantage of the scoring holes just as he did last year, when the only man in the field to reach double-digits for the par-fives.

Finau won't be for everyone at the price - in fact this entire staking plan smacks of 'thanks, but I'll pick my own' - but having turned 30 last month and with last year's heartbreak to spur him on, I expect a big week.

Posted at 2025 GMT on 28/10/19

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