PORTUGAL MASTERS

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With just three weeks to go until the end of the season, ROBERT KARLSSON heads to Portugal with a golden opportunity to effectively wrap up his first Order of Merit title. His main rival Padraig Harrington is only playing the final event at Valderrama from here on, so after landing long overdue titles in vastly different conditions in Germany and Scotland, a third consecutive victory would surely seal the deal and earn Karlsson the richly deserved title of European No.1.
 
For while Harrington has been heroic in the Majors, Karlsson has been the more consistent player in 2008 by far. In the early part of the summer, he was playing as consistently well as anybody in the world while somehow managing not to win. Since returning from a minor injury in August, he has simply been on fire.

Very, very few players ever win three events in a row, and normally I hate backing players in such scenarios. An exception must be made for Karlsson, who finished second here last year when in worse form and was unlucky not to win considering his -23 total. This week’s target golf conditions favour his game far more than the wet and windy Scottish links where he won a fortnight ago, so under the circumstances 9/1 is a fair price.
 
Low scoring looks guaranteed once again at Oceanico Victoria, though they’ll have to go some to top Steve Webster’s -25 total from last year. Interestingly, this venue offered a more significant advantage to long hitters than any other on either side of the Atlantic in 2007. Generous fairways clearly place a greater emphasis on power rather than accuracy, while a hot putter will be the other essential attribute required to keep tabs with the leaders.
 
The greatest threat to Karlsson’s bid looks likely to come from his main rivals. Lee Westwood won’t have given up hope quite yet on the Order of Merit, and must be desperate to complete his season’s CV having done everything besides win a title. He was third last year, and after a week off looks certain to be there or thereabouts yet again. However, Lee’s problem all year has been a failure to hole birdie putts and its imperative that he improves in that area to have a chance in Portugal.
 
I much prefer the claims of ROSS FISHER and MARTIN KAYMER. Fisher threatened for a long while to hit the jackpot for us here last year at 100/1, challenging strongly before a cold putter relegated him to 7th place on Sunday. Quite clearly, he has vastly improved over the last 12 months, particularly his short game. There are much fewer mistakes now, and recent form identifies Fisher as a winner in waiting. His last four finishes are 2nd, 3rd, 7th and 10th, and none of the courses suited as much as this one.
 
Kaymer is also a better player than last year when tying with Fisher for 7th, and at double last week’s odds is worth another chance. While he didn’t play as well in Madrid as at St Andrews previously, his form was fine even without scoring as well as he would have hoped. Kaymer has already won a couple of low-scoring events this year, suggesting this one offers another ideal opportunity.
 
If he wasn’t bidding for back-to-back victories, Charl Schwartzel would have come in for very close inspection. He seems to love this part of the world, never finishing worse than 8th in eight events in Portugal. The talented young South African produced some cracking golf in Madrid, but before taking a chance on consecutive titles we should recall his previously moderate win ratio.
 
Amongst the other market leaders, Graeme McDowell could be worth a look on his course debut as he too seems to perform well in Portugal. Having already won on a target golf course in Korea this year, McDowell makes much more appeal than the likes of Miguel-Angel Jiminez, Soren Hansen, Nick Dougherty or Angel Cabrera. All good players, but all better suited to tougher courses than this.
 
Having selected three of the top-4 in the betting, the rest of our stakes are better invested in a couple of outsiders. Several in the 80/1+ price range took the eye. If he’d ever shown any bottle in pressure situations, I would have backed Robert Rock after his brilliant 64 on Sunday. Likewise, Fredrik Andersson-Hed comes into the argument on the basis of finishing 3rd last year, but never seems to produce his best in contention.
 
I also have concerns about the bottle of ALEXANDER NOREN, who has yet to convince on several Sundays in contention. Nevertheless, the Swede remains a good prospect and likely to break his duck sooner rather than later. When he does, I reckon it will come on a course where birdies are available in abundance. After a decent season that has contained four top-10s and six top-20s, Noren looks a reasonable bet to improve on last year’s encouraging 12th spot.
 
Very similar arguments apply to one of last week’s failed selections, RAFA ECHENIQUE. Despite a below-par effort in Madrid, the Argentinian looks worth another chance at twice last week’s odds. Like Noren, when Echenique breaks through, in my view it will come on a course that favours his attacking, birdie-chasing game. And if his five wins in lower company are anything to go by, Echenique will be able to hold his nerve when a chance arises.
 
Good Luck!
 
ADVISED BETS
 
PORTUGAL MASTERS
 
6pts win ROBERT KARLSSON @ 9/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
3pts ew ROSS FISHER @ 16/1 (GENERAL)
2.5pts ew MARTIN KAYMER @ 20/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew ALEXANDER NOREN @ 66/1 (70/1 BET365, PAGEBET)
0.5pts ew RAFA ECHENIQUE @ 100/1 (PADDY POWER, SKYBET, HILLS)