After the first three Fedex Cup play-off events, the PGA Tour takes a one-week break before the Fall Series. So there’s just the one top-class tournament this week in Germany, where a hig-class field battle it out for the Mercedes Benz Championship.
Inevitably, many of the big stars are resting up in preparation for next week’s Ryder Cup, but four of the Europeans have opted to play one more event before travelling to the States. And the field in Germany is further boosted by rare European appearances from PGA Tour stars Retief Goosen, Stuart Appleby and Fred Couples.
Previously host to the Linde German Masters for several years before the creation of this event in 2007, Gut Larchenhof has tended to produce top-class leaderboards. Four of the last nine course winners have also won a Major and besides those, nobody would question the world-class credentials of Garcia, Montgomerie and Choi. Even last year?s weaker than usual champion, Soren Hansen, was in the middle of a golden streak and has since made the Ryder Cup side.
This flat, exposed course used to be known for low scoring, but its been gradually toughened up. The rough has grown penal, and the greens are firm and fast. If the wind gets up, conditions can get very tough. Analysis of recent Gut Larchenhof results suggests hitting greens in regulation and high-class scrambling around these fast greens are pre-requisites for success.
Three of the six main protagonists for the Order of Merit line up in Cologne, no doubt heartened by front-runner Padraig Harrington’s complaints of fatigue and poor form in the States. Miguel-Angel Jiminez starts joint-favourite and has a solid chance on a course where he’s previously finished runner-up. He?s easily opposed though, at only slightly bigger odds than when failing to beat a vastly inferior field in Switzerland last week.
If there were no fitness doubts about Robert Karlsson, he would definitely have made the staking plan. However, its only a couple of weeks since alarm was raised about his Ryder Cup chances because of a neck injury. Its encouraging to see him here, but he clearly hasn?t had the ideal preparation and may just be trying to get “tournament ready” ahead of the big one.
If anyone’s going to make headway into Harrington’s Order of Merit lead this week, my money’s on GRAEME MCDOWELL. On the balance of his 2008 form, McDowell deserves forgiveness for missing the cut last time out. Assuming he’s back to his best, Gut Larchenhof looks an ideal opportunity for his third title of the year, after lucrative victories in Korea and the Scottish Open. Clearly he?s a much better player than when 3rd here back in 2004, or indeed when 11th last year.
Besides that trio, the other Ryder Cupper in the field is defending champion Soren Hansen. While Hansen has rock-solid form credentials, its never easy to retain a title. As well as trying to focus fully ahead of next week’s Ryder Cup debut, Hansen will have more media work than usual to distract his attention. In any case, 20/1 is just too short for a rare winner who so rarely stands up under the ultimate pressure.
According to the odds, Retief Goosen is the man to beat. He’s always respected in Europe, and has won on the course before, but its now over 18 months since the twice former US Open champion won a title. There were definite signs over the summer that the Goose was on the way back, before two missed cuts in the Fedex Cup play-offs rather punctured any momentum. At the odds, I can afford to look elsewhere.
Similarly, while it would be no surprise to Stuart Appleby gain some overdue reward for a consistent season, his price is plenty short enough for a course debutant. I much prefer the chances of an in-form player who knows Gut Larchenhof inside out, PAUL MCGINLEY. He?s been coming here since the 1990s, and has five top-20s including two top-10s from his last eight visits. All of McGinley’s recent efforts tick the right statistical boxes – rock solid from tee to green, and exemplary around the greens.
With fast greens, Gut Larchenhof should also play to the strengths of JEEV MILKHA SINGH, who has made huge strides since making the top-20 last year. A winner in Austria and Japan already, without a couple of dramatic last-hole swings against him, Jeev could have had four titles this year. Equally impressive were a solid Masters debut, followed by a career best in the Majors when finishing 9th in the PGA.
Two years ago, DAVID HOWELL would have been challenging for favouritism in an event of this stature. Back then, he was a key member of Europe?s Ryder Cup side and challenging for the Order of Merit. A series of back and neck injuries curtailed his progress soon afterwards, but Howell at last seems over the worst of it, making the top-10 in the Open and finishing 3rd on his last start at Gleneagles. A significant comeback win looks a distinct possibility on a course where he finished top-8 in 2003 snd 2005.
Darren Clarke is another with very solid claims, provided he?s not too dejected at his surprise Ryder Cup rejection. And I?ll be kicking myself if Michael Campbell wins after backing him three weeks on the spin. Having won on this course eight years ago, he?s no forlorn hope at 33/1. However, while I?m convinced Campbell?s long game is close to its best again, he?ll need to improve on last week?s sloppy scrambling around these fast greens.
Instead, the final place in the staking plan goes to an outsider, JOHN BICKERTON. He hasn’t played since finishing a shot behind Campbell in Holland, again when carrying our money at a big price. In the meanwhile Campbell has shortened to a quarter of that week’s odds while Bickerton remains the same. He looked likely to finish higher than 12th for most of the week in what was his fourth top-25 in six outings, including a couple of top-7s. Rock solid from tee to green, consistent and reliable around the greens, Bickerton has the perfect profile for a big-priced each-way punt on this course.
2pts ew GRAEME MCDOWELL @ 25/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
1.5pts ew PAUL MCGINLEY @ 33/1 (GENERAL)
1.5pts ew JEEV-MILKHA SINGH @ 35/1 (BETFRED. TOTE, VCBET)
1.5pts ew DAVID HOWELL @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew JOHN BICKERTON @ 100/1 (GENERAL)
LONG-TERM ALREADY ADVISED
2008 VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
10pts HENRIK STENSON @ 7/1
4pts PAUL CASEY @ 14/1
USPGA TOUR MONEY LIST
BETTING WITHOUT TIGER WOODS
2pts ew KJ CHOI @ 33/1
1pt ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 80/1
2007/2008 STATS: +573pts