The European Tour takes centre stage for the next fortnight, with next week?s Open Championship at Carnoustie paramount in everyone?s mind. Before that, we have the small matter of a £3 million prize fund and thoroughly world-class field at the picturesque setting of Loch Lomond.
The Scottish Open has a strong history of producing world-class winners and leaderboards. In the eleven runnings of the event, the only three winners who weren?t prominent in the betting were Eduardo Romero, Thomas Levet and Johan Edfors, with only the last-named really qualifying as a shock result.
Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have three Scottish Opens between them, but the South African pair arrive here with questions to answer. Goosen, normally so consistent, has played well below his best on his last six starts. He could easily bounce back but is best watched under the current circumstances.
Ernie must be desperate for a win, if only to silence any doubts that he is a declining force in the game. Els? recent form has been in and out rather than poor and improvement is expected after a short rest at home. I expect Ernie will contend, but still have to query whether he is the rightful favourite in a field of this quality, given a run of two years without a win outside South Africa.
Phil Mickelson is also in Scotland for what has become his usual Open prep. But given his poor showing on return from injury last week, plus failure to contend in this event in four attempts Lefty is very much one to oppose. Sergio Garcia does have some form at Loch Lomond including second place in 1999, coincidentally also a week before the Carnoustie Open. The problem with Sergio, as ever, is putting. Scoring is certain to be low this week so nobody can afford to be left behind on the greens.
So rather than the elite stars, my main selections are a pair of Englishmen just below that level. Despite disappointing on many occasions in the final round lately, LUKE DONALD is persevered with as an each-way selection. He is perfectly suited to the demands of Loch Lomond – in eight rounds Donald?s worst is a two-under par 70, which has produced second- and fifth-placed finishes. We have to forgive a really poor finish to throw away the Byron Nelson Classic in April and a missed cut in the US Open, but Luke remains a world-class player and is surely overdue a win.
On the other hand, IAN POULTER has shown himself to be one of gutsiest competitors around when he gets a sniff of victory. Seven European Tour victories, many in the middle of generally average seasons, is a reasonable return and he too is probably overdue. His best form in the States this year also came at the Byron Nelson when one place behind Donald in third, and recent efforts have arguably been better than finishing positions suggest. Again, Poulter loves Loch Lomond, making the top-15 in each of the last four
years and never shooting above 70.
The best value price of the week has to be last year?s runner-up CHARL SCHWARTZEL. Schwartzel has improved considerably in the meantime, making further steps along a career that will surely produce Major victories in time. He looked the man to beat in the European events he was contesting in the early summer, before trying his hand in the States. Thirtieth place last time out at the US Open was a decent achievement, and hopefully the short break since will have him fresh and ready to challenge for a second 2007 victory.
Former US Open champion TOM LEHMAN is also worth a small punt at 50/1. Lehman has shown in recent weeks that he is no back number on the PGA Tour with three top-six finishes in his last six starts. This improvement on recent years may well be a consequence of being liberated to concentrate on his own golf since standing down as Ryder Cup captain. At his peak, Lehman loved Loch Lomond, winning in 1997 and finishing no worse than 14th in six consecutive attempts up to 2004. Even since then, when struggling, he?s not finished worse than 30th so obviously appreciates the demands of this course.
In stark contrast to next week?s Open, Loch Lomond presents the type of target-golf test that Americans are used to. Of the handful of US raiders that usually come over to Scotland a week early, Lehman is the only to have consistently fared well but don?t under-estimate BOO WEEKLEY on his course debut. Sunday?s 12th place was Boo?s best effort since winning the Verizon Heritage Classic in April, the highlight of an excellent first year on the PGA Tour. This emerging player is bound to be motivated for an event of this stature, unlike some other well-known Americans who have in the past seemed to treat this event as a light warm-up before the Open.
JOHN DEERE CLASSIC
This is about as wide open as a golf tournament could be. The favourite in a moderate field is 20/1, which is no wonder given previous results of the John Deere Classic. Five of last seven runnings have produced first-time winners, and of the last nine winners only Vijay Singh could be described as even remotely obvious. Scoring will be low, but bunkers, trees and water hazards still present a threat and make driving accuracy the most important statistic to examine.
With such a reputation for unlikely winners, I?m only backing one of the market principals this week. Rejuvenated Kenny Perry made the shortlist, but I marginally prefer the chances of one of the most consistently straight drivers in the world, TIM CLARK. Former Scottish Open winner Clark swerves one of his favourite big-money events of the year to play here in the search for crucial Fedex Cup points. He?s played well enough on his last two starts
with 17th in US Open and 12th previously. Despite being a multiple winner across the world, a Clark victory would at least be consistent with this tournament?s reputation for producing first-time PGA Tour winners.
All of my other four selections are at least 50/1. HEATH SLOCUM always seems to contend on courses where driving accuracy is at a premium. In the last two runnings of this, Slocum has finished 13th and 3rd last year. I?m happy to ignore two recent missed cuts as he was playing well enough in June. A weaker field than usual and a very suitable course could be the right ingredients to give Slocum a third PGA Tour win.
Its been nine long years since BILLY MAYFAIR last won a tournament, but he?s shown his best form for a while over the past 18 months and has been driving the ball particularly straight lately. Three of his past seven starts have produced top-15 finishes, always in stronger fields than this. Mayfair has plenty of form at this venue too, the best of which was last year?s 7th place.
Another player with very impressive recent driving accuracy stats is JEFF QUINNEY, who took the eye with a pair of closing 69s at Congressional over the weekend. That was Quinney?s best effort since an outstanding 6th at Sawgrass, and also showed some excellent form at the start of the season including a win that should have been at the FBR Open. Prices as big as 80/1 represent big each-way value in my view.
Former Ryder Cup player CHRIS RILEY has also bounced back to somewhere near his best form in recent weeks, making the top-20 at Congressional to follow on from a morale boosting win on the Nationwide Tour in June. Riley?s case is considerably strengthened by an outstanding record at this venue, making the top five three years out of four between 2000 and 2003.
3pts ew LUKE DONALD @ 16/1 (GENERAL)
3pts ew IAN POULTER @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
2pts ew CHARL SCHWARTZEL @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew TOM LEHMAN @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew BOO WEEKLEY @ 66/1 (GENERAL, 80/1 WITH LADBROKES)
JOHN DEERE CLASSIC
2pts ew TIM CLARK @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew HEATH SLOCUM @ 50/1 (STAN JAMES, TOTE)
1pt ew BILLY MAYFAIR @ 66/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew JEFF QUINNEY @ 66/1 (GENERAL, 80/1 WITH LADBROKES)
1pt ew CHRIS RILEY @ 80/1 (BETFRED, BLUESQ, SPORTING ODDS)
2006/2007 STATS: -254.5pts
2005/2006 STATS: +144pts
ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED
VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1
5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1
US MONEY LIST W/O TIGER WOODS
2pts ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 20/1