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DUNHILL LINKS CHAMPIONSHIP

With the Fedex Cup and all the prestigious US events completed, the main focus now shifts back to Europe for the rest of the 2007/2008 season. Just five events remain to determine this year’s European money list, with the first a very lucrative affair. As high-class a field as any seen in Europe outside the Open assembles in Scotland for the eighth running of the Dunhill Links Championship.

Unusually for a pro-am, this event has repeatedly produced predictable leaderboards, with a smaller number of outsiders than usual making the frame. Unsurprisingly given the three courses used – St Andrews, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie – those with proven ability on links courses have enjoyed a big advantage. All seven previous winners were either British or Irish.

The one saving grace for the rest is that, unlike the Open Championship, these venues are not set up at their toughest so as not to embarrass the amateurs. When conditions have been calm, low scoring conditions have prevailed. However the weather forecast for the weekend in Scotland is not great, with wind and rain likely to further accentuate the difference between the best and the rest.

Given the likely conditions, 12/1 about joint-favourites ERNIE ELS and Padraig Harrington looks pretty reasonable. Its certainly no surprise that the best two Open players of recent times hold the most consistent records in this links event. Its one of life’s great unsolved mysteries how Els hasn’t won this yet. Ernie’s been runner-up on three occasions, each time slightly unfortunate to run into a hot opponent.

Similarly to his incredibly consistent Open record, the best links player over the last fifteen years has made the top-7 on six of his eight appearances. And though his overall 2008 form doesn’t inspire confidence, his last three starts in the Fedex Cup play-offs suggest the corner may have been turned. Considering that Ernie’s links advantage enabled him to finish 7th in this year’s Open when in much worse form, its hard to see him missing the places now.

Harrington’s event history is equally impressive, with two Dunhill titles and three other top-10s, but recent form has to be a concern. Since winning the PGA he’s been poor, and Pod has admitted to being jaded. I doubt he’ll play again before the season-ending Volvo Masters, so this week’s performance will be critical in determining the Order of Merit race.

At present Harrington holds a 228,000 Euro lead, but with a E545,000 first prize here and another huge sum to play for at Valderrama, anyone of the current top-6 could very plausibly still win. Lee Westwood is the closest challenger, and he is another former Dunhill winner. Clearly he’s playing well enough to win again, but can’t inspire a confident bet after so many final-day failures this season. In any case, even taking the 2003 win here into account, I’ve never been wholly convinced Westwood is at his best on a links.

Of the other Order of Merit contenders, its hard to fancy Miguel-Angel Jiminez given his previous failure to better 15th here. Robert Karlsson, HENRIK STENSON and GRAEME MCDOWELL all look much more likely to threaten Harrington’s lead this week. Karlsson has been outstanding all year, never more so than when winning his last strokeplay event in Germany. He also emerged from the Ryder Cup with great credit, and is only reluctantly edged out of the staking plan.

Very marginal preference is for his compatriot Stenson, who hasn’t played a bad tournament since July and is overdue a win. Its striking that Stenson built up a decent record in this links event earlier in the century despite looking out of his depth in all his early Opens. Prior to 2007, the year he really emerged as a world-class player, he’d made three top-8s in this event. It may be a significant sign that Stenson appeared to have improved considerably as a links golfer when finishing 3rd in this year’s Open at brutal, bad-weather Birkdale.

In contrast, McDowell’s record in this event is surprisingly bleak for someone raised playing Royal Portrush. He did finish runner-up in 2004, but otherwise has struggled to get it going, perhaps due to the different atmosphere of pro-ams. Nevertheless, after his best season to date by miles, he must be worth a crack at 33/1. McDowell certainly should be full of confidence after an outstanding Ryder Cup debut.

Michael Campbell is another with impeccable links credentials, having twice made the frame in Opens at St Andrews. On current form he would have to make any shortlist, but is overlooked because of a career-long inability to perform well in pro-ams. The same argument applies to Retief Goosen, who isn’t in top form anyway.

Paul Casey came in for close consideration having made the top-10 in both the last two years and vastly improving his Open record at Birkdale. And Justin Rose could also be a big factor if transferring his improved Ryder Cup form into strokeplay. Rather like Karlsson, both only just missed out on selection.

Don’t rule out Rory Mcllroy either, who stunned us with 3rd place last year in one of his first professional starts. With tough conditions expected though, 50/1 is short enough about a novice, and I’d much prefer to take the same odds about his vastly more experienced compatriot DARREN CLARKE. There are few better links exponents than Clarke, who has twice made the top-10 in this event and finished 7th and 15th in St Andrews Opens. Twice a winner already in 2008, Clarke hasn’t come in to this ideal event with better prospects for at least five years.

Finally, should the expected bad weather materialise, 80/1 about PAUL LAWRIE could quickly look enormous. Forget his unfair ‘worst Open winner ever’ tag, Lawrie is genuinely world-class in wind and rain. Its been five long years since he last won on the European Tour, as usual in bad weather at Celtic Manor, and he also won the inaugural Dunhill Links in very wet and windy conditions. 4th place in much calmer conditions last year further emphasise those links credentials, and his last couple of starts have been solid enough to warrant support now.

Good Luck!

ADVISED BETS

DUNHILL LINKS CHAMPIONSHIP

4pts ew ERNIE ELS @ 12/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)

2.5pts ew HENRIK STENSON @ 22/1 (GENERAL)

1.5pts ew GRAEME MCDOWELL @ 35/1 (PADDY POWER, SKYBET)

1pt ew DARREN CLARKE @ 50/1 (GENERAL)

1pt ew PAUL LAWRIE @ 80/1 (GENERAL, 100/1 PAGEBET)