WGC Mexico Championship preview and tips: Danny Willett overpriced

Danny Willett gets the headline vote in Mexico this week
Danny Willett gets the headline vote in Mexico this week

Ben Coley previews the WGC-Mexico Championship, where Danny Willett can find comfort on a European-style golf course.

Recommended bets

1pt e.w. Danny Willett at 200/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

1pt e.w. Alex Noren at 100/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

1pt e.w. Shubhankar Sharma to lead after round one at 100/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)

1pt e.w. Aaron Rai to lead after round one at 100/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)

1pt e.w. Lucas Bjerregaard to lead after round one at 100/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)

World Golf Championships tend to go to an elite player and moving this event from Florida to Mexico has not changed that fact, with Dustin Johnson triumphing in the inaugural WGC-Mexico before Phil Mickelson beat Justin Thomas in a thrilling 2018 edition.

Yet we've had a 200/1 runner-up in Tommy Fleetwood, at the time only starting along that road to the Ryder Cup, and the likes of Brian Harman, Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Rafa Cabrera Bello firmly in the mix last year. A shot here or there and things might have been very different.

Certainly, there's been a more eclectic feel to the first WGC of the season versus some of its contemporaries and while to some extent that's a product of the qualification criteria, it also speaks to the fact that Club de Golf Chapultepec, on the outskirts of Mexico City, neither looks nor perhaps plays like any other layout on the PGA Tour circuit.

For starters, it's at altitude - almost 8,000 feet above sea level - and it's also tight and tree-lined, with small, sloping greens guarded by bunkers which look more municipal than multi-millionaire. There's just nothing quite like it on the premiere tour in world golf; the small greens of the no-less-unique Harbour Town are at sea level, and trips to the mountains of Colorado are rare, while the Reno-Tahoe Open is for B-listers only.

There is, however, something a little bit like it on the European Tour, namely Crans-sur-Sierre, home of the longstanding European Masters, and that remains an interesting line of inquiry for those looking for the sort of angle which might prize open the door of a house guarded by the Dustin Johnsons of this world.

The seventh hole at Crans
Crans-sur-Sierre could offer some clues for this week's event

Back in 2017, when all of us were speculating, I put up Fleetwood on the grounds that this course might give the overseas raiders some kind of advantage. On his way to second, briefly threatening to take Johnson to a play-off, Fleetwood referenced the "European feel" of the layout and of the eventual top 22, 11 were European and one more, Fabrizio Zanotti, has long been a European Tour player - one with form at Crans, too.

Last year threw up something similar, that is a top-class play-off but enough just behind them to cultivate that curiosity. Aphibarnrat's presence in the top-five and Tyrrell Hatton's share of third further underlined that while yes, DJ or JT or Rory or Tiger or Bryson or Rahm will probably win, they might not collectively dominate. There is room for something a little different.

The other regular European Tour event played at altitude is the Joburg Open, and if you're yet to be convinced that any of this matters, rewind to this time last year. Shubhankar Sharma had won the Joburg Open and in Malaysia to emerge as a bright young thing and he led here, both after 36 and 54 holes, before registering a more-than-respectable ninth.

That Joburg link was hinted at, albeit quietly, in 2017, when Andy Sullivan shot a best-of-the-day 65 in the second round. Oh and then there's Hatton to make the bow: he was second in the Joburg Open once, and has since been third in Switzerland no fewer than three times.

The idea that a European Tour player might pop up at some stage, and the potential for either Johannesburg or Crans Montana to offer up a significant clue, leads me to headline bet Danny Willett.

Danny Willett
Danny Willett

Now, I must confess that I was a little sceptical when reading that Willett, like Rory McIlroy, has opted to play a heavily US-based schedule this year. To me it felt a little soon (i.e. immediately) after his back-to-form DP World Tour Championship success at the end of last year, one sealed in the manner of a major champion.

So many European Tour players up sticks at the first opportunity and struggle, and while Willett of course has already conquered America, it's possible that another season playing predominantly back home might have helped cement this renaissance. And to some extent, I reserve judgement on that.

Still, there's no denying that he's performed solidly so far, following a rusty missed cut with 25th in the Farmers Insurance Open and 33rd last week at Riviera. These are big events on big golf courses and he was conceding course experience in both, yet he did most things well with his approach play particularly strong.

If a 'European' golf course does indeed prove a leveller, suddenly Willett becomes interesting and going back to that Crans link, it was a dominant victory there in 2015 which took him one step closer to the following April's major breakthrough at Augusta National.

In the months prior to the Masters, he contended for this very event during its Doral swansong, and in fact looked like he might win it before a bogey at the last ultimately forced him to settle for third. Having also been placed in the WGC-Match Play a year earlier, he's got more than a green jacket to show that he's capable in elite company.

All that is missing, then, is some course form, and if he had something like a top-15 to his name I expect he'd be half the price - somewhere up with Lee Westwood, he of otherwise similar credentials. Yet reading anything into Willett's solo 69th in 2017 ignores the fact that his game was in disarray at the time, and would remain so until those green shoots of recovery started to emerge almost two years later.

Of course that leaves us guessing when it comes to whether Willett can play here, but with Hatton, Fleetwood and Fisher all having gone close, all sharing similarities with the selection beyond the country of their birth, there's enough to speculate - certainly at the odds on offer. He looks way overpriced to me.

At the head of the market, Thomas, Johnson and McIlroy feature in that order and it's probably correct. Thomas contended here in 2017, a disappointing final round costing him badly, and looked like he'd won the title on his return when holing out for eagle at the 72nd hole only for an inspired Mickelson to beat him in a play-off.

Sunday night's disappointment does raise a concern, and he took a little while to recover from a couple of similar setbacks in the past, but losing to a friend and one-time mentor probably makes defeat at the Riv easier to swallow. Clearly, this is a good chance to bounce back quickly.

There's little I can say against the chances of Johnson or McIlroy, with the latter close to an overdue win and the former having been seventh here when defending. They're probably a little too close in the betting, with Johnson far more prolific, but I'm not particularly minded to back either of them this time.

In fact I just don't like the event when it comes to unearthing that world-class winner we ought to expect. The two I really considered were Xander Schauffele, an eye-catching debutant last year and winner of the most recent WGC, and Hideki Matsuyama, who continues to edge back to form. I'm just not sure this place is perfect for him.

There's not quite enough juice in Fleetwood's price as he doesn't appear to be quite at his best, so my final selection in the outright market is Alex Noren at 100/1.

Noren is a two-time winner in Crans and played well here last year, closing with a round of 66 for 14th place despite struggling on the greens for much of the week.

He was in excellent form at the time, it must be said, and his form so far in 2019 has been moderate. However, that's why he's 100/1 and he doesn't look to be that far from the player who ended last year with back-to-back top-10 finishes having secured another high-profile victory during summer.

Alex Noren - winner at the course
Alex Noren pictured on Ryder Cup duty

As with all those Europeans on the winning Ryder Cup team, there's bound to be a renewed belief that these American stars can be beaten and if Noren can warm up the putter a little he can further underline that the course is one which his game is suited to.

Another small factor in favour of the Swede is the fact that his near-miss on the PGA Tour came on the west coast, where he coped well with bumpy poa annua greens - the like of which we'll see here at Chapultepec.

It's too early to conclude for sure, but California kings Johnson and Mickelson are the two Mexico winners so far and it's in that spirit that Brandt Snedeker would've been included but for the fact he withdrew from the event.

Snedeker was seventh here two years ago and repeats at his favourite courses, which was enough for me. Alas, he's evidently unfit or deems it an opportunity he can afford to pass up, so we'll move on to the first-round leader market where Shubhankar Sharma is worth sticking with.

The Indian made headlines here last year, opening with a round of 65 to sit second only to an inspired Louis Oosthuizen, then taking over the lead at halfway and moving two clear with a round to go.

As we all scrambled to explain it, Sharma's winning form at altitude in Joburg and on a tight track in Malaysia looked to make sense and he's popped up since with big efforts back in Kuala Lumpur at the CIMB Classic, and in Hong Kong when sixth.

Sharma went home to India last week and finished runner-up in a minor event and a top-30 in the Dubai Desert Classic offers further encouragement that his game might not be far away, so at 80/1 and upwards let's hope history repeats.

Twitter followers may have noted that I've mentioned Aaron Rai a couple of times with this event in mind - more fool me, as the early 250/1 in the outright market has been taken.

Then again, it's asking far too much of this promising youngster to go and win a WGC a couple of months after his European Tour breakthrough, and the best we can perhaps hope for is a performance similar to that of Sharma, who sat second after round one and led at halfway.

Unfortunately, no bookmaker offers low round of the tournament - quite why, I'm not sure - so we'll pin our hopes to the first-round leader market, one he topped in Hong Kong and Qatar during his first full year on the European Tour.

The logic for Rai taking to the course is that, like Sharma, he's demonstrated a fondness for a tight, tree-lined layout, and a clear aptitude for playing at altitude.

Both were in evidence when he won at Muthaiga in Nairobi on the Challenge Tour, with the former underlined once more with that victory at Fanling late last year, one in which he held off the high-class and extremely tough Matt Fitzpatrick.

Rai has also been seventh and 19th in Joburg and while this is new territory, he has an old head on new shoulders and the sort of game which can produce an extremely low number at this course. He hits fairways and greens for fun and perhaps he'll do so on Thursday.

Alongside those two, it's worth taking a chance on the more powerful Lucas Bjerregaard.

This young Dane managed to crack the world's top 50 without showing what he can do in a truly elite field, thanks to victories in 2017 and 2018; the job now is to kick on and become a force at world level having just fallen down to 51st.

Lucas Bjerregaard celebrates winning the Dunhill Links at St Andrews
Lucas Bjerregaard celebrates winning the Dunhill Links at St Andrews

Given the way he strikes the ball there's every chance he can do that and a run at this WGC would be a nice place to start on the back of what's been some solid golf on the European Tour to begin 2019.

Bjerregaard was runner-up to Fitzpatrick in Crans last year having been ninth there in 2017, and he's fifth in both greens hit and birdie average on the European Tour over the last 12 months.

Among a host of fast starts, he led the way at the tree-lined Wentworth in a good field and at three-figure prices, I don't mind speculating that he can produce something similar here in an event where a confident selection is hard to find.

Posted at 1930 GMT on 18/02/19.

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