This week?s European Tour event in Vienna has attracted a reasonable field in spite of its awkward scheduling a week before the US Open. Colin Montgomerie and LEE WESTWOOD are the only players from the world?s top 50, but the deserved favourite is defending champion and local hero Markus Brier.
Brier won his first event on the main tour impressively here last year, and has come on leaps and bounds in the meantime. His last five starts have yielded a win, a play-off defeat as well as fifth and 12th-place finishes. He knows this course immeasurably better than anyone else in the field, and sensibly took last week off to prepare for this defence. Everything points to another strong performance, but with memories of backing Brier at massive odds several times in the not-too-distant past, I just can?t bring myself to back him at a meagre 10/1. After all, defending a title is always that bit tougher than winning the first time around.
Low scoring is expected once again despite the tricky, fast greens. With dry, sunny conditions forecast, there could be similarities with last month?s Andalucia Open. That week, Westwood produced his best golf in a while for a comfortable victory and has a sound chance to do the same here. With 23 worldwide victories to his name, Lee has been one of the most prolific European winners ever, often in much stronger company than this.
Notably, he is ranked second among European Tour players for greens in regulation, which could be particularly emphasised here as players struggle to hole birdie putts.
There?s plenty of other big-name players on show in Austria, though none particularly appeal at the odds. Monty can?t be fancied having been beaten by a long way in 2006. He played well on Sunday, but once again blotted his copybook with a mid-round collapse on Saturday so 14/1 doesn?t really appeal under the circumstances. Miguel Angel-Jiménez put up a markedly improved effort at Wentworth and made the top-10 last year, but has become frequently disappointing in this grade. Richard Green was fourth last year, and this consistent player has obvious claims for another high finish but is a rare winner and not the kind of player to back at 12/1.
The brilliant young German, MARTIN KAYMER, is more interesting at 25/1. Kaymer was outstanding last week in Wales for the first 52 holes before the pressure of clearly leading a European Tour event for the first time got the better of him. Hopefully, he will be better for the experience and suffer no hangover. Whether it’s this week or not, he?ll be winning soon.
Below the leading eight or so there?s a real lack of quality and I?d prefer to back a couple of players at three-figure odds whose general wellbeing can at least be confirmed by closing rounds of 68 last week. At 100/1 JEAN-FRANCOIS LUCQUIN looks worth a small interest back at a venue he where he managed sixth place last year. We have to overlook four consecutive missed cuts, but Lucquin does have three top-10s to his name this year, in
accordance with his inconsistent but capable profile. Encouragingly, he is ranked an impressive seventh for greens in regulation on this year?s efforts.
I?m also going with Australian WADE ORMSBY at a huge price. I?ve long rated Ormsby as a decent player and possible big-priced first-time winner. He?s done nothing much since second in the New Zealand Open at the back end of 2006 but hasn?t always had conditions to suit. I think this course will suit Ormsby, who is generally strong from tee to green and a good putter on fast greens.
STANFORD ST JUDE CLASSIC
This tournament, played at TPC Southwind, has a long history on the PGA Tour. Significant course changes before last year?s event, most crucially transferring the greens from bentgrass to Bermuda grass, had quite a profound impact on its nature, and mean course form prior to 2006 is of limited value.
By looking at last year?s leaderboard we can learn a great deal about the requirements for winning at Southwind nowadays. Jeff Maggert won the event, with JOHN SENDEN, Briny Baird, Zach Johnson and John Cook all in the top 10. All of these players are the kind of steady, accurate, greens in regulation types that peak on positional, short golf courses. Length off the tee is of little or no importance, while accuracy is critical. Maggert particularly enjoyed the fast greens, which aren?t too dissimilar from the types he?s also thrived against the odds on so many times in Major championships. The greens are expected to be every bit as fast and firm, and with the rough expected to be longer than last year, this is a good warm-up for next week?s US Open.
And this is the crucial difference with last year ? the strength of the field. With the US Open a week away and crucial Fedex Cup points up for grabs, a host of top stars are making their debuts on the new-look Southwind. Phil Mickelson will obviously be a massive contender at Oakmont, and starts favourite now despite withdrawing last week with a wrist injury and describing himself as “50-50” to play here. Even if he does play, I expect preparation for next week rather than victory will be tantamount in his mind. I?d be very surprised to see his “A-game” on a course where he missed the cut on his sole previous appearance.
While the emphasis on accuracy should very much suit Vijay Singh, I?m not sure the fast greens will, so he is overlooked at around the same odds as Mickelson. Adam Scott blotted his copybook with a disappointing weekend effort when poised to win the Memorial, and will also probably be unsuited to the fast greens. David Toms has some fabulous course form, winning this event in both 2003 and 2004 and making the top 10 for five consecutive
years. Toms hasn?t looked up to his best in 2007 yet, though. Retief Goosen was again poor last week.
A couple of stars who make slightly more appeal are Geoff Ogilvy and Padraig Harrington, but the best leading contender in my view is SERGIO GARCIA. Sergio has previously been known to produce the goods a week early in his quest for a first Major, and everything points to a high finish here and a strong chance at Oakmont. He is always a major contender on courses where the emphasis is on accuracy from tee to green, as he showed when runner-up to Mickelson at Sawgrass on his penultimate outing. As always, the worry is
the Spaniard?s putting, but there has been a slight improvement recently and he is very much overdue a PGA Tour victory.
The Australian invasion of the PGA Tour continued over the weekend, with four making the top 10. Aside from the emerging strength in depth from that country, another reason for their success in the States over the past couple of years is the number of courses that are beginning to share the firm and fast characteristics of the main courses in Australia. Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy might lead the way in terms of world rankings, but on their own patch neither has ever shown that dominance over their compatriots. On these firm and fast courses, there are certain otherwise limited players who seem to thrive.
The pair of Australians I fancy for this test are both at least three times the price of Scott and Ogilvy, yet both have managed more wins recently in Australasia. Firstly, JOHN SENDEN is ranked number one for greens in regulation on the PGA Tour and looks a great bet across a wide variety of markets for this event. A first-time winner last season, Senden followed up in his native Open and finished second at the PODS Championship a few months ago. And NATHAN GREEN has shown plenty of promise in the States over the past two years, threatening to win on several occasions without quite managing it. Two of Green?s last three efforts have been very respectable ? 16th at Sawgrass and fifth at the Crowne Plaza Invitational.
Finally, with the emphasis on hitting fairways and greens, I?m giving KEN DUKE a chance to return to his tremendous spring form. Duke had four consecutive top-10s in April and May, barely straying off line in the process. A closing round of 69 on Sunday confirms his wellbeing, and his talents could be invaluable at Southwind.
6pts LEE WESTWOOD @ 12/1 (GENERAL)
2pts ew MARTIN KAYMER @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew JEAN-FRANCOIS LUCQUIN @ 100/1 (GENERAL)
0.5pts ew WADE ORMSBY @ 200/1 (GENERAL, 250/1 WITH SKYBET)
ST JUDE CLASSIC
3pts ew SERGIO GARCIA @ 20/1 (GENERAL, 22/1 WITH BETDIRECT)
1pt ew JOHN SENDEN @ 66/1 (GENERAL, 80/1 WITH STAN JAMES)
1pt ew NATHAN GREEN @ 80/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew KEN DUKE @ 80/1 (GENERAL)
2006/2007 STATS: -117pts
2005/2006 STATS: +144pts
ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED
VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1
5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1
3pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN GRAND SLAM IN 2007@ 40/1
10pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN 3 MAJORS IN 2007 @ 8/1
US MONEY LIST W/O TIGER WOODS
2pts ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 20/1