(Top tips in capitals)
The hardest year from a gambling perspective of European Tour golf in living memory comes to its conclusion this week with the Volvo Masters. Despite the usual excess prize money on offer, this annual finale is weakened somewhat in stature by the voluntary absence of Order of Merit leader Ernie Els and a number of European stars who have opted for Singapore instead.
Nevertheless, Ernie?s absence makes the OOM race more interesting than it would have been, and leaves us a squeak with our ante-post bets on Padraig Harrington and Henrik Stenson. Stenson must win to have a chance, the same situation as compatriot Niclas Fasth. Harrington?s chance is easier though, needing to finish clear third or better to win, with a virtually identical scenario facing JUSTIN ROSE.
Sergio Garcia starts favourite, unsurprisingly given his outstanding record at Valderrama. Garcia has finished runner-up here three years in a row, and never worse than 7th in seven attempts. With that record he looks certain to be there or thereabouts again, but its very hard to make a case for backing such an infuriating player at single figure odds. He was back to his very worst with the putter at Pula and has looked extremely dodgy in contention over the last two winless years.
The reason for Garcia?s great Valderrama record can be put largely down to the emphasis on hitting greens in regulation around this tough layout. Furthermore, the greens are so treacherous around here that perversely inferior putters can come to the fore as their weakness is of less importance than usual when everyone else is also struggling in that department. In fact, the characteristics of Valderrama are so distinct that its the type of course where the same players tend to thrive every year, whilst the same ones struggle.
For a long while Harrington looked one of those players who would never get the hang of it round here, but in his last six rounds at Valderrama everything has changed. In 2005, he scored better than anyone over the weekend, and then last year a fast-finishing second place was enough to steal the Order of Merit from under Paul Casey?s nose. But while I?ve not given up on Pod retaining that title, I?m not overly excited about 12/1 to win this event for the first time.
Rose looks much better value in my view at 14/1. Without doubt, he has been the best European golfer in 2007, earning just a few hundred Euros less than Harrington despite playing three fewer events and without a single victory. As this course is all about long game, Rose must surely come into this if retaining his extremely consistent form. The last two events have been relative failures, but almost entirely due to a cold putter.
Justin?s good mate IAN POULTER must also have an outstanding chance on a course he knows well and likes. Poulter won here in 2004 and has made the top-10 four years in a row. And like Rose, he must be itching to set the record straight after a winless 2007 that doesn?t reflect the level of his form.
Making up a trio of young English golfers in the staking plan is LUKE DONALD. With his ultra-accurate long game, Donald looks a certain Valderrama winner at some stage, and has made the top-3 in each of the last two years. The only question mark concerns his slight loss of form over the latter half of the season. He looked in fair nick at the Dunhill Links though, a tournament that doesn?t really suit his game, so I?ll take the chance that three weeks break since will have him primed for contention now.
Aside from those three relatively short-priced contenders, I?m having a crack with two outsiders. Firstly ALEX CEJKA has been a model of consistency from tee to green in the US this summer, and could well prosper on a rare European outing. Cejka?s game is tailor-made for Valderrama and the German finished a reasonable 11th here the last time he played the event in 2002.
And at 66/1 I must have a little on RICHARD STERNE in the hope that he can return to the outstanding form he showed during the first half of the season. Prior to an injury in July, nobody had been more consistent in Europe and since returning there have been glimpses even though he?s ultimately let me down a couple of times. With Sterne, we have to overlook a failure on his only Valderrama visit back in 2005, but he?s improved massively since and has the long game credentials to win this at some stage in what will surely be a successful career.