VERIZON HERITAGE CLASSIC
There?s always an element of anti-climax in the week following a Major championship, especially after the most open, dramatic and exciting Masters in living memory. Thankfully one of my favourite tournaments on the US calendar, the Verizon Heritage Classic, has retained its post-Masters position in the new schedule. Played at Harbour Town Golf Links at Hilton Head Island, this is one of the few times PGA Tour regulars have to come to terms with links conditions. The tiny greens on this short course require accuracy and top class iron play, while wind is usually also a major factor.
The result of such specialised demands is that an even greater emphasis than usual can be placed on course form.All the main contenders have consistent records here, nobody more so than Davis Love. Love has won this event on five occasions, alongside four other top-5 finishes. In previous years he?s been a banker for the staking plan even when that form is factored into the price, but has shown little in 2007 so I?m looking elsewhere. Jim Furyk starts favourite after finishing runner-up two years in a row, and returned to some form at the Masters after an injury scare. Furyk is feared, and a probable contender but overlooked as his win ratio doesn?t really inspire short-priced support.
If it weren?t for a shock missed cut at Augusta, ERNIE ELS would be considerably shorter than 14/1. Inevitably, that missed cut sparked more speculation that the Big Easy is a declining force in the game. No doubt Ernie has slipped a little since the knee injury and has questions to answer, but there?s nothing specifically terrible in his game at the moment and the South African remains a class act. Recent form in South Africa, the Middle East and PGA events at Riviera and Doral has not looked far off his best. Having blotted his copybook at Augusta, Ernie will be utterly determined to correct matters and may benefit from the advantage of being fresher than the rest. As far as Harbour Town is concerned, this legendary linksman is better suited than anybody. Despite holding winning chances on several occasions, Els has never won the Heritage but has finished in the top-10 six times in eight appearances.
Without doubt the worst moment of the Masters came on Saturday night when my outright selection GEOFF OGILVY went from major contender to no-hoper with one shot. His approach to the 15th green presented a chance to get to +2 and a tie for 2nd place, but he found the water and ran up a 9, followed by two more disasters. The result is that Ogilvy?s finishing position of 24th does no service to how well he played at Augusta. In my view he remains one of the main players to follow this year, and is another very well-suited to the demands of Harbour Town. In three of the last four years Ogilvy has been bang in contention here, never having come into the event with anywhere near the form or reputation he holds now.
At rather better odds, Canadian STEPHEN AMES could well be a factor this week. Former Sawgrass winner Ames is a class act on his day, especially when wind is a factor. No surprise then that his last two visits here have yielded finishes of 6th and 7th. Recent form bodes well too, having made the quarter-finals of the World Matchplay and following up with a top-10 at Bay Hill the following week. Sunday?s final-round 72 was his best of the week at Augusta, which has never really been his most suitable course.
Finally, I?m going to include defending champion AARON BADDELEY in the staking plan. Defending a title is never easy with all the extra media pressure, but Baddeley proved he can thrive in such a situation when, incredibly, he won the Australian Open twice in a row as a teenager. We have to forgive a truly shocking final round on Sunday, but I?m putting that down to the fact that he was never likely to be suited by Augusta and may have lost interest. Looking through Baddeley?s stats, it does seem he is either in contention or nowhere to be seen. As this golf course very much plays to his strengths, I?m expecting the young Australian to build up a career portfolio at Harbour Town to rival the likes of Els and Love.
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VOLVO CHINA OPEN
The European Tour returns to Asia for the final two co-sanctioned events of the season over the next fortnight. First up is the Volvo China Open, returning to the Shanghai venue that saw Stephen Dodd land his first Tour win in late 2004. The course is very short by usual standards, with water hazards and very penal rough the course?s main defences. Wind could also play a big part.
While the rollcall of Euro/Asian Tour winners in 2007 is littered with impossible to predict outsiders, two players have consistently looked like winners in waiting only to persistently fail to deliver when in contention.
In the cases of SIMON DYSON and THONGCHAI JAIDEE, such failure to win is out of character and sooner or later one or both will see their luck change. Dyson, in solid form for the last year in Europe, won on this course seven years ago and looks worth a small win only punt at double figures.
Jaidee is slightly preferred overall. Despite failing to win yet this year, the Thai remains the second best Asian golfer on the planet behind Vijay Singh. His form at Doral when a very respectable 23rd amongst the world?s very best is light years ahead of most of this field. And he did, of course, win the Volvo Asia Masters in December against a similar field to this week. Another positive factor is that Jaidee is generally seen to best effect on courses where his tee-to-green game is rewarded.
The European raiders prospered in 2004 suggesting the Asian Tour players, often favoured by the nature of the greens, climate or rough in these co-sanctioned events, enjoy little or no advantage here. So my other three selections in China are all big-priced non-Asians with all the right credentials to contend on this tricky, narrow course. Just as Dodd notched a long-overdue first success on this course, PETER LAWRIE is a player who must surely pop up at a nice price soon. We know he has ?bottle? from previous Challenge Tour victories and good showings when in contention. On both previous visits to Shanghai, the Irishman recorded respectable top-18 finishes without ever threatening to win. But its clear that as an extremely accurate driver and good exponent of windy conditions, everything is in place for a big week after some fair recent efforts both in Asia and Europe.
At the same price of 66/1, given the course conditions its impossible to overlook the claims of PETER O?MALLEY. POM is a certainty to finish very near the top of the driving accuracy and greens in regulation statistics every year, and must always be considered when courses emphasise those statistics. So while he may be making his course debut, it?s a fair assumption to say he?ll like it. The only question mark revolves around his temperament after numerous poor finishes over the years. Usually it?s the short putts that suffer when the pressure is on, so I?ll be holding my breath if he?s in the mix on Sunday.
And finally, I can see young Spaniard GONZALO FERNANDEZ-CASTANO going well at 80/1. The Estoril Open a fortnight ago was Castano?s first tournament for two months, and he played some great stuff from tee to green on the first couple of days before falling away at the weekend. His relevant statistics read very well, with over 70% in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, and will be a major asset. Its also of interest that when Castano played in China three times in 2006, in the two fields of this standard, he won and finished second.
VERIZON HERITAGE CLASSIC
3pts ew ERNIE ELS @ 14/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
3pts ew GEOFF OGILVY @ 16/1 (GENERAL)
1.5pts ew STEPHEN AMES @ 40/1 (BLUESQ, TOTE)
1.5pts ew AARON BADDELEY @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
VOLVO CHINA OPEN
4pts win SIMON DYSON @12/1 (GENERAL)
3pts ew THONGCHAI JAIDEE @ 20/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew PETER LAWRIE @ 66/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew PETER O?MALLEY @ 66/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew GONZALO FERNANDEZ-CASTANO @ 80/1 (GENERAL)
2006/2007 STATS: -27.5pts
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