Steve looks back on last week's golf where we witnessed a successful defence in Malaysia by Justin Thomas and a short game clinic by three-time major winner, Padraig Harrington, in Portugal. Read his in-depth assessment here...
“Sullivan played superbly in Portugal but averaged over 30 putts per round and that most certainly cost him the title. He ranked seventh for Driving Distance, second for Driving Accuracy and having hit more than 90% of the greens in regulation, he ranked number one for GIR but he was the only player in the top-20 to average more than 30 putts per round.”
Justin Thomas successfully defended the CIMB Classic in Malaysia despite a desperate third round wobble that looked to have ended his challenge. Having led by two strokes at halfway, Thomas made the turn on just level par for the round and he then dropped four strokes over the next three holes. A par at 13 restored his equilibrium and he then birdied the last five holes but he still began round four tied for second place and four adrift of Anirban Lahiri.
Lahiri lost his lead early on in spectacular fashion on Sunday - recording a nine at the par five third hole - and Thomas cruised to a three-stroke victory with an eight-under-par 64. Ryan Moore also won the CIMB Classic in 2013 and 2014 and we very nearly witnessed another successful title defence in Portugal, where Andy Sullivan, who traded at a low of 1.9520/21, came within a stroke of a back-to-back wins at Victoria Clube de Golfe but an ice-cold putter and a brilliant scrambling performance by Padraig Harrington resulted in defeat for the star of Nuneaton.
Padraig, who was matched at a high of 130.0129/1 before the off, scrambled brilliantly all week long (96%!) and he made a brilliant up-and down at the eighth hole to keep his momentum going on Sunday before finishing the tournament with three more fabulous recovery shots from the green side rough on 16, 17 and 18. It was the three-time major winner's 15th European Tour victory but his first in eight years.
Given I went to the Portugal Masters, I barely got involved at the CIMB Classic but I still managed to have my worst week in many a month.
I didn't play the Portugal Masters well, laying out far more than I usually do before the off and I put far too much faith in Thomas Pieters, who I've read was suffering with a cold. I did at least resist piling into Sullivan at halfway but I backed him, and a multitude of rank outsiders sitting four and five back, before the final round and I finished up losing heavily enough.
It's not a week to stew about losses though - I went into the week knowing full well that I wasn't trading the tournament in my usual fashion and that a poor outcome was a distinct possibility.
What Have We Learned This Week?
Course form is king at the CIMB Classic. Thomas winning back-to-back titles immediately after Moore had achieved the feat demonstrates that clearly but had Lahiri converted his clear advantage, we'd had still have had a back-to-back course winner as the Indian had won the final edition of the Malaysian Open at what's now called PC Kuala Lumpur.
Sullivan played superbly in Portugal but averaged over 30 putts per round and that most certainly cost him the title. He ranked seventh for Driving Distance, second for Driving Accuracy and having hit more than 90% of the greens in regulation, he ranked number one for GIR but he was the only player in the top-20 to average more than 30 putts per round.
In stark contrast, Harrington, who hit less than 70% of greens in regulation, averaged only 25 putts per round and he was the fifth winner in six years to rank first or second for Scrambling.
96%scrambling this week.25 chances to get up down around the greens,took 51 shots.2 chip ins and a holed bunker shot pic.twitter.com/VvnGI6LD8i? Padraig Harrington (@padraig_h) October 23, 2016
Padraig was the tenth winner of the Portugal Masters and he was the ninth to win at odds of 55.054/1 or bigger so this is now a very well established event for outsiders, but why?
I think the start to the two nines has a big bearing. Everyone in the line-up knows this is a ridiculously easy birdie-fest and anyone that doesn't get off to a fast start is immediately up against it. Padraig was six-under-par through just eight holes this year and after losing his way a bit thereafter on day one (playing the last ten holes in one-over-par) he again started fast on Friday - birdying the first three holes again - as he'd done on Thursday.
Even seemingly out of form players can get off to a flier on such an easy course and if any of the fancied runners haven't played their first nine in at least four-under-par it's easy to see them getting frustrated or trying to push too hard.
It stands to reason that the simplicity of the track is also the reason why third round leaders have such a woeful record. Holding the lead with a round to go is always more stressful than beginning the final round off the pace and it's very often the case that they're already caught or even trailing by the time they tee-off.
For those that bet on the golf and that have always wondered how the bookmakers are always in the know - there were several people with younger legs and sharper eyes than mine following the market leaders and relaying back their progress after every shot immediately. Watching the coverage on TV, punters are always going to be behind the bookies but at this event, they're likely to be far more aware of the situation than the players.
I flitted between the Sullivan and Harrington groups on the back nine on Sunday as the event came to a finish and it was easy to know who'd done what by listening to the cheers but with only a handful of manually updated leaderboards dotted around the course, it was impossible to know what was happening most of the time if you didn't look at the leaderboard on your phone.
It's very rare that I look back at a tournament and I'm still stumped as to why the winner has prevailed and in hindsight, there were definitely pointers to Pod. The Irish were plentiful both at the course and in the resort of Vilamoura itself and Harrington, quite rightly, gave them a special mention after he'd won. Knowledgeable and immaculately behaved they were a joy to be with and I suspect they gave Shane Lowry a huge lift when he won here four years ago too.
Prior to the tournament I highlighted how well two events correlated with this one - the Qatar Masters and the Dubai Desert Classic - and that's been franked to a degree again. Harrington hasn't played in either tournament in more than a dozen years but his form figures in Qatar read 17-24-11 and he finished runner-up in Dubai in 2001.
Harrington also changed his irons before the off this week and although his GIR stats didn't point to a great week with his approach shots, the change clearly gave him some impetus.
We can expect a much better field for the 2017 edition of the Portugal Masters as its being moved forward to September next year. It'll be a bit warmer and we should get less rain and with the Final Series still a month away, those vying for a place in the top-60 will be more likely to attend. With the HSBC-Champions in China starting on Thursday, followed immediately by the three Final Series events, most of the higher ranked players decided to rest up and prepare ahead of a tough month's golf. That won't be the case next year.
I'll be back later today with my HSBC-Champions preview and I'll try my best to get the Sanderson Farms Championship one out today too.
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