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Johnnie Walker Championship

Its the final week of Ryder Cup qualification, with much to resolve before Nick Faldo names his team on Sunday night. The main protagonists fighting it out for an automatic spot are Soren Hansen, Oliver Wilson and Martin Kaymer but its also a nice surprise to see Justin Rose turn down the lucrative Fedex Cup opportunities in order to ensure a place in the team.

Gleneagles also offers a final chance for the likes of Colin Montgomerie and Paul McGinley to impress Faldo enough to get a wild-card. The smart money says that Paul Casey and last week’s winner Darren Clarke have them in the bag, but nothing is certain. This extra incentive to play has produced by far the strongest line-up in the eight years of this tournament. Perhaps then, we’ll see a change in the trend at Gleneagles for producing shock winners. Three of the last four were over 100/1.

Despite the stats, the nature of the test at Gleneagles means its not too hard to draw strong conclusions. Long-hitters tend to prosper on this course, with its generous fairways and five par-5s. In keeping with the last fortnight, an ability to play in the wind is essential as the course is very exposed. These requirements help to narrow the shortlist, and a further clue is that those with an early tee-time on day one have previously enjoyed an advantage.

With this last point in mind, four of my five selections are early-starters. Firstly, LEE WESTWOOD thoroughly deserves favouritism at 10/1. Lee could be forgiven for feeling a little jealous at Padraig Harrington’s ever-rising total of Majors and commanding lead in the Order of Merit. For while Westwood trails his Ryder Cup team-mate by over 500,000 Euros, he has been far more consistent over the last year. He really has done everything but win in 2008, losing by a shot in a US Open and a WGC event, not to mention a spate of other top-5 finishes. Well overdue a change of luck, I expect Westwood to make mincemeat of these par-5s and its hard to see him out of the frame.

Westwood’s old mate Darren Clarke probably did enough in Holland to ensure their successful Ryder Cup pairing gets another outing. He certainly produced his best show in several years at Kennemer, but it would be asking an awful lot to expect an instant repeat.

Alternatively, his compatriot GRAEME MCDOWELL comes here fresh from from a break since making the top-15 in the USPGA, and must hold strong claims of a third 2008 title. Excluding a poor week in the WGC-Bridgestone, McDowell’s last two non-Major appearances produced a 3rd place finish and the most illustrious win of his career to date at Loch Lomond. McDowell rates highly in all the important statistical areas and we know he likes Gleneagles too, having finished runner-up there back in 2004.

Of the principals in the Ryder Cup race, Justin Rose deserves to be taken seriously having taken the European option, and would appear to be ideally suited by this set-up. However, he’s still plenty short enough below 20/1 considering a generally poor year plus the fact he never got in a blow against the leaders in Holland. Another plausible winner is Soren Hansen, whose fine course record is well-factored into his price. Whatever the form claims, I can’t back such a rare winner at less than 25/1, especially under this week’s added pressure.

It seems likely that the final spot will be between Oliver Wilson and Martin Kaymer. The latter would have been backed if in his best form, but didn’t exactly exude confidence in Sunday’s post-round interview. It may just be that this added pressure is just too much too soon for the German, though from a European perspective I must say I’d rather have Kaymer than Wilson in the side.

It wouldn’t shock me to see Colin Montgomerie re-enter the conversation with a good show on a course where he‘s made the top-10 in three of four visits. Its hard to make any sort of case on the formbook though, with 2nd in France one of only two top-20s this year. McGinley is a more likely winner after two very good weeks on windy golf courses, but is consequently a much shorter price against a stronger field.

Others to consider include another Scot with plenty of previous course form, Alastair Forsyth, who played so well at the recent USPGA. Non-winners David Lynn and Soren Kjeldsen both look likely to maintain their excellent records, if equally likely to yet again fluff their lines when it matters.

A glance through the previous winners shows that inexperience is no great handicap at Gleneagles. Paul Casey and Adam Scott both won here very early in their careers, and there are several with similar profiles worth considering this week. Besides Kaymer, Oliver Fisher made the top-10 last year and has improved bundles in the meantime. He’ll be winning before long, but this time preference is for his namesake ROSS FISHER.

Fisher went well for the first three rounds of his Gleneagles debut in 2006, and looks ideally suited to the course’s demands, especially the par-5s. He’s yet to develop the consistency that would make him a world-class player, but we’ve already seen that on his day, he can live with the very best. Its only seven weeks since he obliterated a class field in the European Open, and a 69/66 finish at Kennemer was a strong pointer that Ross could about to peak again.

Even though the bet ended up a loser, I was delighted with the run MICHAEL CAMPBELL gave us for our money in Holland, and reckon he’s a man to follow in the remaining weeks of the season. 8th place was his best finish in ages, and confirmed the marked improvement shown in the two recent Majors. Campbell ranked 1st for greens in regulation at Kennemer, and if the putter catches fire then the former US Open champ could easily re-emerge as a world-class player.

Finally, FRANCESCO MOLINARI could be worth chancing now he’s secured an early tee-time. He’s vastly improved since finishing 9th here in 2005, and confirmed his liking for the set up when making the top-10 last year. I’m happy to overlook a missed cut at the weekend, as previously he’d looked very solid with four top-15s from six starts.

Good Luck!