For the final four events of the 2008 season, the European Tour decamps to Spain and Portugal. First up, we have a new event in the form of the Madrid Masters, though it doesnt seem like one as its being played at the same venue used several times for the old Madrid Open. Club de Campo has a history of producing high-class leaderboards including winners of the quality of Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington.
None of the six Madrid Open winners this century were Spanish, a surprising statistic given the host countrys increasing strength in numbers and quality. This must represent their best opportunity to date, with two from the top six market leaders in a field which looks markedly weaker than those previous Club de Campo events.
Naturally Miguel-Angel Jimenez will start as the main home hope, and he has a golden opportunity to make up ground in the Order of Merit race while all the other contenders take a week off. To do so, he will need to improve on an indifferent course record. In seven visits to Club de Campo, he only made the top-10 once back in 2000.
A combination of those course stats and a poor weekend showing mean Jiminez doesnt start as favourite. That spot is awarded to MARTIN KAYMER after the German so nearly landed his third title of the year at St Andrews on Sunday. After struggling for a few weeks during his vain pursuit of a Ryder Cup place, this rising star looked right back to his best in Scotland, showing a links prowess way beyond his years.
If the course plays as it used to, these conditions are actually far more suitable for Kaymer. Low scoring looks likely to be the order of the day, with long hitters enjoying an advantage. Angel Cabrera scores highly in this last category, and would be a strong contender on the basis of a series of top-20s in the recent top-class US events. I just wonder whether hell hole enough putts to keep up with the scoring; a weakness that may explain the fact he never finished higher than 10th in four previous visits.
Alternatively, the test looks ideal for CHARL SCHWARTZEL, who has looked to be returning to form over the past couple of events. 5th place at The Belfry was an excellent effort in less than ideal conditions, and 13th in the Dunhill Links tells a similar story. Both events were much stronger than this, and a repetition of those high-class long-game performances should ensure another weekend right in the thick of it.
Amongst the home contingent, though Jiminez is respected, better value may lie with GONZALO FERNANDEZ-CASTANO. Even though Castano is a quarter of the price that we got for his win at The Belfry, the plunge is justified as he has so much in his favour now. Not only is Castano playing in his home city, but his company promotes the event. He knows the course well, and scores very favourably in all the key stats. So long as he doesnt get too distracted by off-course commitments, everything points to a big run.
Jose-Manuel Lara always warrants the utmost respect playing in his home country, but looks short enough at 33/1 given poor efforts over the last fortnight. Similarly while Raphael Jacquelin takes the eye having won impressively in the last Club de Campo event three years ago, odds of 22/1 are way too short for such a rare winner.
Again the likes of Bradley Dredge, Antony Wall and David Lynn all came in for momentary consideration, only to be overlooked because they so rarely capitalise when in contention. Dredge, for instance, has some course form including 5th back in 2002 and has hinted at a return to form in recent weeks. However, when were talking about taking 33/1, its hard to ignore a dire return of just two Euro Tour victories from several years and numerous opportunities. I wont mention Wall or Lynns win ratios because theyre even worse.
Argentinian Ricardo Gonzalez has won here before, and could go well again after a series of fair mid-division efforts on courses that didnt play to his strengths. For betting purposes though, I prefer his younger compatriot RAFA ECHENIQUE. Several judges were on Rafa last week after hed registered an impressive run of three top-20 finishes. As it turned out, the bad weather in Scotland wasnt to his favour, but this weeks test looks much more suitable. Echenique ranks 3rd in the birdie average stats this season, so when he breaks through the chances are it will come on a course like this.
Finally, Im having a speculative each-way punt on the highly promising PAUL WARING. The former English Amateur champion has enjoyed a fine first season with seven top-20 finishes, and could improve on that in this relatively weak field. In particular, his extra distance off the tee should be a major asset this week.
5pts win MARTIN KAYMER @ 10/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
2.5pts ew CHARL SCHWARTZEL @ 20/1 (GENERAL)
2pts ew GONZALO FERNANDEZ-CASTANO @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew RAFA ECHENIQUE @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
0.5pts ew PAUL WARING @ 150/1 (STAN JAMES, CORAL, CENTREBET)