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VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT

Before I get to this week?s events, a quick word about the Order of Merit. In my initial preview of the Euro Tour season, I advised a small bet on Paul Casey at 16/1 who has done little so far but is by no means out of it yet. Now may be an opportune moment to add to the portfolio, as it has emerged that HENRIK STENSON has quite drastically altered his schedule to focus on Europe.

Stenson finished 4th last year after playing in 17 counting events. His new schedule should mean something in the region of 22 events. Arguably the best up and coming European prospect and widely acknowledged to be a potential Major winner, 7/1 seems a good value bet given the considerable advantage this new schedule affords him over his main rivals. Justin Rose, for instance, won last year from just 12 starts.

His reasoning for the shift is a realisation that his hectic globetrotting schedule between the States, Europe and his home in Dubai was unsustainable. And certainly last year, he went badly off the boil in the summer after holding an early lead in the money list. No doubt all the extra playing and media commitments must have been hard to come to terms with, adding to another sizeable distraction when his first child was born.

Though he?s playing more in Europe this year, Stenson intends to play six fewer events over the whole year. As he?s looked right back to his best over the past month, I expect the extra focus and experience will enable a more sustained attempt to claim the status of top dog on the European Tour.

INDIAN MASTERS

This week sees the start of a new era, with what will surely be the first of many European Tour events held in India. As we?ve seen in China and the Middle East, golf is rapidly spreading eastwards. It is already the second most popular sport in India behind cricket, and as this regional superpower grows economically so will its status as a serious golfing nation. Already, India is represented by a handful of players on the major tours, but in a decade that number will probably be multiplied by ten.

Much credit is due to the sponsors for managing to attract Ernie Els, whose presence in events like this truly establish him as the game?s great global ambassador and go some way to explaining his enduring popularity. However even his most loyal supporters such as myself are in turmoil over his recent disasters. The latest being a very poor back nine, capitulating under Woods? late challenge in Dubai.

However unforgivable his final hole disaster at Leopard Creek might have been, it could at least be written off as a bizarre, single hole incident rather than a wider loss of bottle. After Dubai, it might be time to think again. Take nothing away from Tiger and another incredible comeback, but Ernie threw that tournament away with a number of poor iron shots down the stretch. It could point to a deeper decline in confidence in his own ability to finish the job off.

World No 4 Els is ranked 66 places ahead of his nearest rival, so odds of 7/2 fairly reflect his overall superiority to the rest of this moderate field. Nevertheless, these odds are simply too short to take in current circumstances. In fact, Els? presence at such short odds may have pushed everyone else out to the extent of creating some tremendous each-way value.

Delhi GC has long been established as an Asian Tour venue, so that Tour?s best representatives could enjoy quite a considerable advantage in terms of course experience. And this factor shouldn?t be underestimated around what looks a tactical golf course said to place a huge premium on accuracy.

On the world stage, there?s probably not much to choose between Jeev Milkha Singh, JYOTI RANDHAWA, ARJUN ATWAL and Shiv Kapur. At this Delhi course though, Randhawa is streets ahead. He has won here an incredible four times in Asian Tour events over the last seven years, never finishing worse than 6th. Having shown excellent form amongst much stronger company when 7th in Qatar a fortnight ago, everything points to a cracking each-way bet.

Singh has arguably made the biggest impression in Europe, notably when winning the prestigious Volvo Masters in 2006. Runner-up here in 1998 and never worse than 13th, he should be there or thereabouts once again. However considering he?s always been one of India?s best two players during that period, it must be a slight disappointment to Singh that he?s never won and only once made the top-5 here. He will certainly need to improve on that level of form in this higher grade.

Shiv Kapur will enjoy strong local support, and if he can replicate his first three rounds in Dubai would take somebeating. Again though, I?m prepared to overlook him having inspected a disappointing course record, with 8th in 2005 the only top-20 from four Asian Tour tournaments.

Preference is for another home star who has made an impact overseas across a variety of different tours. ARJUN ATWAL was the first ever Indian winner on the European Tour back in the 2002 Singapore Open, and has reached a play-off on the PGA Tour as well in the past. He also boasts a very consistent record at this Delhi venue, winning once, and only once below 6th in six visits over the past decade. Atwal’s recent form suggest he’s up to winning at this level too, finishing second on the competitive Nationwide Tour in his last event.

Despite the fact that he?s never played Delhi GC, I think the leading Asian Tour player of recent years, THONGCHAI JAIDEE, represents good each-way value in this company. His overall record in Asia over the past decade is superior to anyone else in this field bar Els, and looked in good nick during the recent ?Middle East Swing?. Jaidee hasn?t missed a cut since August, and unsurprisingly reserved his best effort for the last time the Euro hit the Far East when finishing second in Hong Kong.

Of the Europeans, Graeme McDowell starts at the shortest price after a good effort in Dubai, but is overlooked having missed the cut on this course last year. In that same event, former Asian Tour star SIMON DYSON finished just a shot off the lead in 4th place, and once again the Englishman looks to hold Europe?s strongest chance. All four of Dyson?s rounds were 68 or better, suggesting he has the measure of this golf course, so this represents a good chance to step up on recent consistent mid-division efforts.

Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano came in for very serious consideration, as he is one of the few Europeans to consistently produce something approaching his best golf in these Asian tournaments. Reluctantly though, Castano is squeezed out of the staking plan by DARREN CLARKE. Even though he has struggled with the fast greens in his two most recent Middle East events, Darren?s long game has continued to look in good shape. Remember it was only last month Clarke hit what he described as ?one of the best rounds of his life? in South Africa. Any repetition of that sort of golf at this lower level would ensure he was very competitive over the weekend.