There?s an element of danger in taking short-term recent form too literally this week as the European Tour heads to Madrid for the Spanish Open. Certain players tend to produce their best in the Far East where they feel comfortable in the conditions, but are less likely to do so in the Southern Europe tournaments in Spain, Portugal and Italy. Just as there are players that rarely hit a leaderboard all winter who suddenly start to come good at this time of year back in conditions that suit.
Two Europeans near the head of the market who seem to prefer Asian to Spanish conditions are Simon Dyson and Nick Dougherty. Both head here on the back of solid, consistent if winless winters but must improve dramatically on their records in Spain, Dyson?s best finish here in the last 5 years is just 27th, discounting 10th in a low-grade Challenge Tour event. Equally, Dougherty has no Spanish top-10s in the same period.
More threatening players vying for favouritism are NICLAS FASTH and Charl Schwartzel. Defending champion Fasth?s claims are obvious given a stellar record in the region and some cracking recent form. 6th place in the elite WGC-CA Championship, Fasth?s penultimate result, would represent a career peak for all but a handful of this field, as would his recent 3rd place behind Stenson and Els in Dubai. My only doubt concerns the difficulty of defending a title, with all the extra media attention and duties that it entails, but Fasth seems a particularly resolute character which seems to bear out in an impressive career win ratio. Having enjoyed a couple of weeks break since his Masters debut, I expect Niclas to come here fresh and well prepared for a bold defence.
Schwartzel is another rising world star who looks bound to deliver in Europe sooner rather than later. Long expected to be a world star, I?m expecting the young South African to make significant strides this year, and it would be easy to make a case for him after a fast-finishing third in Portugal earlier this month. Whether this track quite brings out the best in him is another matter. Penal rough could negate his advantage off the tee so while he is respected, I?ll wait for another week.
Naturally there is a very strong home contingent. Considering the ever-stronger condition of Spanish golf and the fact that Sergio Garcia remains the only home winner in the last decade, it may be that we are overdue. Youngsters Alejandro Canizares and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano have both shown tremendous potential and are worth keeping an eye on, but on what promises to be a tough course the relative experience of MIGUEL-ANGEL
JIMINEZ and JOSE-MANUEL LARA is preferred.
Jiminez has played well enough without winning this year, but back on home turf he has his best chance to date. His efforts in finishing runner-up in Abu Dhabi, and top-10s in Qatar, Hong Kong and China at the weekend are not far off his best, plus this week?s accuracy test could really bring the best out in ?The Mechanic?.
Lara has done little since nailing that elusive first European Tour triumph in Hong Kong last November, but is exactly the type of player to start thriving again now the Tour is back in his favourite part of the world. Lara?s recent record in Spain is superb. In eight starts in the last two years, he?s made every cut, finished in the top-3 on three occasions and the
top-12 on six of them. Furthermore, his solid tee to green game looks perfect for this week?s test.
Despite letting me down twice recently, PAUL MCGINLEY is worth another chance. On both recent two European outings, the Ryder Cup star ruined his chance with a poor opening round, but played reasonably well afterwards. This is in line with his generally solid form in the States, where again he notched up plenty of decent finishes without ever threatening to win. He does, however, remain a big contender in this company and more importantly,
would seem to have the perfect game for the course. Few are more accurate from tee, fewer still as good in the wind. On McGinley?s last four Spanish outings, he?s finished no worse than 18th including three top-10s and a career highlight win in the lucrative season-ending Volvo Masters in 2005.
BYRON NELSON CLASSIC
If the recent history of the Byron Nelson Classic is anything to go by, there?s every chance the run of big-priced winners on the PGA Tour will be continued. Of the last ten winners, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia were obvious, the likes of Robert Damron, John Cook and Ted Purdy less so.
This event is played on a pair of similar par-70 courses, Las Colinas and Cottonwood Valley, both of which are characterised by narrow fairways and big greens. The key requirements are hitting a lot of greens in regulation, and being able to call upon a hot putter, which goes some way to explaining the unlikely winners.
There aren?t that many obvious winners anyway. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson are the star attractions, but both have indifferent course records. Mickelson did win here in 1996, but has finished no better than 14th in the last 5 years. Similarly, Singh has won the event back in 2003 but aside another 3rd place in 2003 has generally only modest course form to his name. The suggestion is that these two need to be at their absolute best to win here, and I can?t say I think either quite are of late. Sergio Garcia is another former winner who would come right into it if his putter were to behave, but must be left alone until it shows signs of doing so.
This looks a good opportunity for LUKE DONALD to land an overdue victory. Given the course demands, emphasising accuracy rather than length, there are few better chances in the year for Donald to land a big prize than this. He seems to be getting closer around these courses, with last year?s 6th place the best from four consecutive top-20s. On the back of an excellent and fairly close-up 10th in the Masters, Luke looks primed for a big run over
the next few weeks, with Wachovia and Sawgrass to follow.
On the basis of his 2007 form, ROBERT ALLENBY must come into the equation. This prolific worldwide winner, a fearsome opponent in head-to-head golf, is well overdue another title in the US. Nobody has been more consistent in 2007 (barring Tiger Woods, obviously). In six out of seven stroke play events up to the end of March, Allenby made the top-9. Bob has some course form to his name as well, finishing 3rd and 8th in 2003 and 2004. And he is
easily forgiven failure at the Masters, as he has never got on with or performed at Augusta.
With plenty of outsiders capable of challenging for the places at least here, my final two selections are speculative attempts at bagging a rare big-priced winner. Ryder Cup player JJ HENRY?s stock seems to have slipped a little lately and an attractive 80/1 is on offer for a tournament where he?s finished in the top-13 in both of the last two years. Henry has been going along steadily, making lots of cuts, hitting lots of greens in regulation and boosting the bank balance considerably in the process. A chance to win again is bound to present itself soon, and we know already he has the temperament to cope with it.
And finally, a player I rank very closely to Henry is 100/1 chance JASON BOHN. He is another consistent Tour player, very solid from tee to green, who every so often gets himself right into contention. Again like Henry, recent weeks have seen the usual consistent mid-division finishes. Back on a course where Bohn finished 8th last year, this week may see the small amount of improvement necessary to get into the thick of the action.
2pts ew NICLAS FASTH @ 16/1 (GENERAL, 18/1 WITH STAN JAMES)
2pts ew MIGUEL-ANGEL JIMINEZ @ 16/1 (GENERAL, 18/1 STAN JAMES)
1.5pts ew PAUL MCGINLEY @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
1.5pts ew JOSE-MANUEL LARA @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
BYRON NELSON CLASSIC
2pts ew LUKE DONALD @ 16/1 (GENERAL, 18/1 BET DIRECT)
2pts ew ROBERT ALLENBY @ 33/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew JJ HENRY @ 80/1 (BET DIRECT, HILLS)
1pt ew JASON BOHN @ 100/1 (BETFRED, STAN JAMES)
2006/2007 STATS: -62pts
2005/2006 STATS: +144pts
ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED
VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1
5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1
3pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN GRAND SLAM IN 2007@ 40/1
10pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN 3 MAJORS IN 2007 @ 8/1
US MONEY LIST W/O TIGER WOODS
2pts ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 20/1