Normally I?m full of confidence going into these co-sanctioned European/Asian Tour events because of the lack of strength in depth, but this week looks trickier than usual. There?s a trio of Ryder Cup stars in David Howell, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood on show but all have questions to answer, as do several of the other market leaders. Furthermore, while the usual Masters course will be used for two of the rounds, the other two will be played at the Classic course where we have no previous form to assess.
Howell looked set to break into the game?s elite a year ago but problems with a neck injury seem to have curtailed that progress. It wouldn?t surprise me in the least if he bounces back with a win in Europe soon, but I?d need more evidence than he has offered recently before backing him. Clarke, a class act but never a regular winner or reliable finisher, is a player I rarely back and has done nothing to suggest a return to form is imminent following his well-documented personal problems. Westwood is the most interesting of the three, having finished fifth here in 2005 and having never finished below eighth in Singapore. We must, however, forgive a poor recent effort in Malaysia and a long winless spell. No player owes me more than Westwood, a prolific winner and gutsy competitor who I?ve always liked but who has rarely delivered when my money has been down, and I can?t really justify backing him at fairly skinny odds this time.
Europe?s best chance may lie with NICK DOUGHERTY, winner and second here in the past two years. In fact, as he has commented, he really should have defended the title last year but for a poor final round and a clutch of missed putts. After some return to form in recent months, he sounds in confident mood and looks worthy of inclusion at 25/1, considering the doubts surrounding all the other market leaders.
My other three selections are all at least 50/1. Firstly JYOTI RANDHAWA?s price seems an over-reaction to some recent missed cuts. Randhawa is normally a formidable figure on the Asian Tour and racked up a series of high finishes at the tail-end of 2006. And let’s not forget a world-class effort in Dubai last month when he came in seventh behind Stenson, Woods, Els and co. The case for backing the Indian star is further strengthened by two top-seven finishes here in the past three years.
The Dubai Desert Classic also saw superb efforts from ROSS FISHER and PROM MEESAWAT. Fisher is a star in the making, one of the best British prospects in my view. He?ll be winning before long and this looks a great opportunity back on a course where he finished third on his debut last year. As for Meesawat, the promising Thai was in cracking form recently and looked a likely imminent winner on the Asian Tour. Like Randhawa, there may have been an over-reaction to a couple of disappointing efforts. He is more than capable of bouncing right back to form.
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Though the Copperhead Resort course has been a regular fixture on the PGA Tour, with new sponsors and a very different schedule this has the feel of a new tournament. Previously, the course was used for the Chrysler Championship in usually benign autumn conditions, with the tough greens being the course?s main defence. But as we saw last week, Florida in the spring is a very different animal, with the rough much longer and more punishing. This combination of penal rough and tricky greens suggests this tournament may have a US Open type feel about it, with anyway waywardness seriously punished and an even greater premium than usual being placed on accuracy from tee to green.
As far as I?m concerned, the tougher the course the easier for betting and the less chance of a massive upset. So despite recent shock winners like Mark Wilson, Paul Goydos and Charley Hoffman on the PGA Tour, I?m very enthusiastic about this event and am for once going in with six selections. I?m having to break a self-imposed ban on backing SERGIO GARCIA because if this does resemble a US Open then 25/1 is absolutely enormous. As I?ve said so many times in recent years, if Garcia could putt he?d be a serious challenger to Tiger Woods, such is the quality of his long game.
Unfortunately the word atrocious is not out of order when discussing the Spaniard?s form with the flat stick. This tournament may, though, be a good opportunity to test a long-held theory about poor putters. I believe the trickier the greens, the better chance a poor putter holds. My reasoning is that any weakness in this area is at its worst when most of the field are holing birdie putts on easy greens. When everyone is struggling to hole them, it reduces differentials in scoring and places greater emphasis on good approach play. Time and again this theory is borne out, on courses such as Valderrama and Crans-sur-Sierre. Its no surprise that Sergio holds such an outstanding record on those courses.
Using the same theory, VIJAY SINGH has to be included in the staking plan, at least as a saver. Vijay won on this course in 2004 and finished runner-up the previous year, so clearly his long-term putting problems weren?t too much of a factor then. With the rough much more penal, the supremacy of his tee-to-green game must surely result in another very high finish. And while there is a school of thought that the Fijian is slowly going into decline, it’s only two months since he obliterated a field of previous winners at the Mercedes Championship.
Two other players perfectly suited to US Open-style conditions are STEVE STRICKER and BART BRYANT. Stricker?s price is in freefall after making the frame again at the weekend, but he has proven time and again how much he likes playing in such conditions. Indeed it was at the US Open last summer that he announced his re-emergence as a top player following years in the wilderness as he battled injury. Steve was only beaten by a shot on Sunday, having been right in the hunt all week and looks bound to be there or thereabouts again. As for Bryant, there are few more accurate players in the game and any course that emphasises such qualities is right up his street. Bart?s last three stroke play events have produced solid finishes of 18th, 4th and 7th. Furthermore, we know from the last couple of years that he has the temperament to win when presented with a chance, as he proved beyond question when beating Tiger in what was effectively a head-to-head situation at the lucrative 2005 Tour Championship.
Having nearly landed that elusive three-figure winner with Villegas at the weekend, I?m having another crack with a pair of outsiders, both of whom are previous PGA Tour winners. TED PURDY is generally seen to best effect on the tougher courses and is in solid if unspectacular form. Purdy has made his last eight cuts and has three top-10 finishes from his last 14 starts. This week?s test should suit him much better than usual and the fact he finished 13th here last year, when it wasn?t as tough, bodes well. And finally, HEATH SLOCUM is another consistent, accurate player who shouldn?t be too far away this time. Five of Slocum?s last seven starts have resulted in top-20 finishes including 11th place here last autumn.
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1.5pts ew NICK DOUGHERTY @ 25/1 (GENERAL, 28/1 STAN JAMES)
1pt ew JYOTI RANDHAWA @ 50/1 (BETFRED, LADBROKES, EXPEKT)
1pt ew ROSS FISHER @ 50/1 (GENERAL, 66/1 EXPEKT, BET & GAME)
1pt ew PROM MEESAWAT @ 80/1 (SKYBET, SPORTING ODDS)
5pts win VIJAY SINGH @ 11/1 (GENERAL)
3pts ew SERGIO GARCIA @ 25/1 (SKYBET, STAN JAMES)
1.5pts ew STEVE STRICKER @ 33/1 (GENERAL)
1.5pts ew BART BRYANT @ 50/1 (BETFRED, EXPEKT, VCBET)
1pt ew TED PURDY @ 100/1 (LADBROKES, SPORTING ODDS,. HILLS)
1pt ew HEATH SLOCUM @ 100/1 (GENERAL)
2006/2007 STATS: +28pts
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