Before last week?s Masters event, I wrote that such was the lack of strength in depth on the ANZ Tour, I found it hard to consider more than 16 of last week?s competitors as contenders. With no intention of trying to sound wise after the event, (we were lucky that Baddeley won in the end), the top four and six of the first seven at Huntingdale were made up from this group of 16.
All the same arguments should theoretically apply for this week?s New Zealand Open. The course, The Hills GC in Queenstown, is once again expected to be real ball-strikers’ test with controlled long-game accuracy essential on an exposed layout with firm, fast fairways. Anyone struggling with their long game will suffer the penalties. The big difference with last week though is that the field is now so weak that its hard even to identify a similarly strong team of favourites to dominate affairs. Only four are in the world?s top-200 players, with 119th placed Daniel Chopra the standout favourite.
Having produced his best effort to date on this continent at the weekend, adding to a recent breakthrough PGA Tour victory, Chopra is a blindingly obvious favourite. However, you won?t get rich backing players outside the top-100 in single figures, no matter what the opposition. So while Chopra is respected he can?t possibly be backed at these odds.
Of the other three players at less than 33/1, Michael Campbell is impossible to fancy after Friday?s round of 84. Cambo would win this with ease at his best, but this notoriously erratic player seems to be currently in one of those grim spells that have dogged an otherwise fine career.
A stronger challenge is expected from Aussies Peter O?Malley and Marcus Fraser. O?Malley was 4th at Huntingdale and should be ideally suited to the accuracy demands of the course. The trouble with POM though, is a long-held reputation for being unreliable under pressure. A return of just three wins from nearly two decades on the European Tour is moderate considering his consistent good stats and high ranking. Its very hard to see O?Malley out of the top-10 but he doesn?t interest me at shortish odds to win the event.
Fraser was runner-up in this last year, and is in good form with three top-10s from his last four starts. That kind of form would make him a certainty for a place, but again odds of less than 20/1 are hard to get excited about considering Fraser has gone four years without a win.
With the top-4 ruled out then on value grounds, the key is to consider anyone else who has shown any sort of decent form lately. At Euro Tour level such form is pretty thin on the ground though ALEXANDER NOREN does make some appeal. After a promising amateur career, Noren moved easily through the Challenge Tour ranks and enjoyed a fine first season on the main tour. He hasn?t won yet, but starts the new season as one of the most likely first-time winners having challenged on a number of occasions in 2007. Three top-10s in Europe since the summer is about as good as anyone else in this field bar Chopra, so 33/1 could present some each-way value.
If he can continue his recent good tee-to-green play then SCOTT STRANGE will surely go close. Three of Strange?s last five starts, all in incomparably stronger fields, have produced top-15 finishes and he wasn?t too far away in 8th at this event last year. Five times a winner on lower tours, this could be Strange?s breakthrough week on the European Tour.
The likes of Craig Parry and Peter Senior have always been worthy of respect at this level and will probably make the top-20 again. However, its hard to escape the conclusion that they owe their position in the top-dozen here to feats of yesteryear rather than anything shown in 2007. Cases could also be made for Michael Sim, who has the odd snippet of form in the States, and Damien McGrane, for whom similar comments apply in Europe.
Most of the remainder though are either in serious decline – Jarrod Moseley, Gareth Paddison for instance – or plying their trade at lower levels. As there is very little high class Nationwide Tour form on show, its not stretching things to classify this as basically a strong Challenge Tour event. Indeed, many of the top-20 in the betting are regulars on the Challenge Tour.
For that reason it may pay to side with a couple of players who?ve thrived recently on that lower Tour, JAMIE DONALDSON and PETER WHITEFORD. Donaldson has flattered to deceive before at the higher level, but has enjoyed a consistent 2007 making the top-4 on seven of his last thirteen Challenge Tour starts. We have to forgive a poor missed cut at Huntingdale but he fared well the previous week in better company at Fanling, shooting under 70 on each the first three days.
As for Whiteford, he earned a Euro Tour card with a pair of wins in Holland and Germany towards the end of the season. The Scot is clearly in better form than most of his opponents here, and should have no worries coping with conditions should the wind get up as expected.
Finally, I also think SIMON WAKEFIELD is somewhat overpriced at 66/1. Though never the most consistent, Wakefield tends to thrive when the emphasis is on long game skills. He was tied with Strange in 8th last year on a similar type of course, and would surely win this if he could return to the level of form showed when runner-up at Gleneagles this summer.