MERCEDES BENZ CHAMPIONSHIP
While most media attention will be focussed on the Fedex Cup finale in Georgia, the European Tour offers a tournament which should at least be its match for entertainment even if it can?t match the prize money. Aided by the failure of the Major champions Retief Goosen and Angel Cabrera to qualify for the latter stages of the play-offs, the Mercedes-Benz Championship will be contested by a stronger field than we?ve been used to lately this side of the Atlantic.
Gut Larchenhof is the venue, back on the schedule after a year?s break. Usually a birdie-fest, this flat course was at least toughened up in 2004 and can now present a tough challenge in windy conditions. The weather forecast looks fine though, so those avoiding the penal rough will again be presented with the opportunity to score very low. The best players do tend to dominate here, with every winner since 1994 being either a Ryder or Presidents Cup player.
Goosen vies for favouritism with Lee Westwood and IAN POULTER, owing that status more to reputation than anything achieved this summer. Goosen hasn?t made a single top-20 since April, showing little sign of the level of form he would require to defend this title. Westwood is feared greatly as his long game looked superb once again over the weekend. He may get left behind though if this becomes a putting contest, a factor that may explain a moderate course record by his standards. US Open champion Cabrera has done little significant since that breakthrough, nor on several previous visits to the course.
Poulter is always to be respected when in his best form, as he has proved on numerous occasions that there are few fiercer competitors on the final day. He has looked an imminent winner for months, consistently performing well at the highest level. Four of his last eight events have produced top-10 finishes, including two of the ultra-competitive play-off events. In both of those, Poulter ranked in the top-8 in the crucial greens in regulation
stats, which will serve him very well here.
Fellow Englishman NICK DOUGHERTY has shown great liking for Gut Larchenhof in the past, finishing 2nd, 6th and 3rd here in the past four years. At times recently, particularly in Scandinavia last month, he has looked to be on the verge on paying back his long-term supporters. Certainly Dougherty has great potential even if he does have massive final-day temperament question marks hanging over his head. So while I?m generally loathe to back
him at prices that more than take into account his reputation, I feel this could be the week he lands a long overdue win.
With 12th and 3rd place finishes to his name at Gut Larchenhof in the past, I must give another chance to the much improved NICLAS FASTH. Fasth?s performance at Crans last week was too bad to be true, with a shocking opening nine holes immediately putting paid to his hopes. After the summer he?s had, I think Fasth can be forgiven one poor effort, and the consequence may well have been to push his price out to a more attractive level. Certainly if this had been played a week ago, the Swede would have not been
Since winning his second BMW Championship at Wentworth in May, ANDERS HANSEN has been playing the most consistent golf of his career. Prior to the first play-off events, he?d enjoyed three consecutive good weeks in the States, including a Majors career-best at Southern Hills. Like Poulter, Hansen is hitting plenty of greens in regulation at the moment and looks bound to go well on a course where he previously made the frame back in 2003.
The home nation is best represented by Bernhard Langer, who bids for his sixth win in this event. He?s certainly no forlorn hope after a cracking summer, but better value may lie with his younger compatriot MARTIN KAYMER at 80/1. Despite a couple of bad weeks, I?ll keep making the case for this outstanding prospect whenever course conditions suit. If he can reach the long game heights of his performance in second at last month?s Scandinavian
Masters then a win here would be well within sight.
As the Fedex Cup reaches its climax, the sponsors could still get the perfect, dramatic final day finish. By winning at Cog Hill, Tiger Woods has probably done enough to ensure victory, but Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker could yet have a say. The situation is as follows – if Woods or Stricker wins here, they win the Fedex Cup irrespective of anyone else?s
performance. Alternatively if Mickelson wins, Woods would have to finish lone second to deny his great rival. Rory Sabbatini and KJ Choi still retain remote mathematical prospects.
If Lefty can replicate his superb driving performance from a fortnight ago in Boston he has every chance. Unlike Woods, who has never won at East Lake, Mickelson won the Tour Championship on this course seven years ago. It can?t be said that Woods is unsuited to East Lake though, as he has finished runner-up three times from five attempts. Furthermore, he looked unstoppable on Sunday night. Woods will probably win again, but doesn’t stand out as value at pre-tournament odds of 6/4.
So for my money, with Woods in the field there?s no value in backing Mickelson. The most sense lies as usual in betting without the favourite. In a field of only 30, there should be some value knocking around – especially considering the serial failures on this course from a number of players. For example, Ernie Els has never finished higher than 10th, Sergio Garcia no better than 15th. Course specialist Vijay Singh is struggling terribly at present.
I can?t say I?m particularly excited about the price, but nevertheless defending champion ADAM SCOTT must enter the staking plan at 9/1. He looked ideally suited by East Lake last year, leading pretty much all the way to win comfortably. His last seven rounds on the course have now been under par. While many players are struggling to remain competitive at the end of this long stretch of important summer tournaments, Scott seems to be coming
into his best form. Sunday?s 4th place was his best since June, obtained with some very impressive tee to green stats.
Greens in regulation has always been the key on this tough par-70, though the putting surfaces could act as a leveller. They were in such bad condition that players were unable to practice on them beforehand. The emphasis on long-game excellence must bring JUSTIN ROSE into the argument, after yet another top-class placed effort at the weekend. With only two bad weeks since February he looks certain for another high finish in such a small field.
Similarly, its hard to see consistent SCOTT VERPLANK being too far away at the weekend. Verplank is always there or thereabouts when accuracy from tee to green is at a premium, which explains his three top-7 finishes from four East Lake events. He?s never arrived at the Tour Championship on the back of such a consistent year, with one victory and six top-10s since the end of April.
Finally, I?m going for CAMILO VILLEGAS on what will surely be the first of many trips to the Tour Championship for the Colombian. If he can overcome the inexperience then East Lake should be to his liking. Villegas sneaked into the final-30 on Sunday, due reward for a strong finish to the season, and certainly comes here in better form than most.
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3pts ew IAN POULTER @ 16/1 (GENERAL)
2pts ew NICK DOUGHERTY @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
2pts ew NICLAS FASTH @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
1.5pts ew ANDERS HANSEN @ 33/1 (GENERAL, 35/1 STAN JAMES)
1pt ew MARTIN KAYMER @ 80/1 (GENERAL)
BETTING W/O TIGER WOODS
5pts win ADAM SCOTT @ 9/1 (GENERAL)
2.5pts ew JUSTIN ROSE @ 16/1 (GENERAL)
1.5pts ew SCOTT VERPLANK @ 28/1 (BET365, CORAL, EXPEKT)
1.5pts ew CAMILO VILLEGAS @ 35/1 (STAN JAMES, 40/1 EXPEKT)
2006/2007 STATS: -76pts
2005/2006 STATS: +144pts
ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED
VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1
5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1
2pts PAUL CASEY @ 80/1
MERCEDES BENZ CHAMPIONSHIP