We visit Scotland for the final time in 2016 this week as we take in the annual pro-am jaunt that is the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. The biggest regular season European-based prize fund outside of the BMW PGA Championship always manages to attract some top names, however the event is equally about the celebrity amateurs who play alongside their golfing heroes at and around the home of golf for 4 days.
11 of the World's top 50 are in attendance plus a pretty solid undercard from the European Tour and a number of PGA Tour players including Chris Stroud, Sean O'Hair, Troy Merritt and Zac Blair, however all 168 entrants will be looking to take the biggest possible share of the $5m pot that's on offer this week - for many of the Europeans this is very close to the make-or-break point of the season where cards can be retained, flights to Dubai booked and world ranking gained with decent OWGR points up for grabs this week.
The event is played over 3 courses for the first 3 days - Kingsbarns, Carnoustie and St Andrews - then the final round is contested around the Old Course with slightly trickier pin positions after 3 days of pretty generous placements to help the amateurs. Temperament is an important factor in this quirky event where rounds can take over 6 hours to complete with some of the amateurs barely able to claim 'hacker' status. Long waits of half an hour or longer are common on some tees as play grinds to a halt, so those with the personality to enjoy the occasion whilst retaining focus when it's eventually their time to play a shot are at an advantage - short fuses don't tend to work in this format.
Course Overview. The Old Course at St Andrews needs little introduction as the 'home of golf' is steeped in golfing tradition dating back to the very roots of the sport some 600 years ago. The 17th Road Hole with its notorious bunker and the closing 18th, which features the Swilcan Bridge and the Valley of Sin, are the most famous closing holes on the planet and this rolling links is recognisable worldwide to those with just the most basic of golfing knowledge.
The 7,305 yard, par 72 has a peculiar setup of 14 par 4s and just a pair each of par 3s & par 5s and features 7 double greens with huge, fescue/bentgrass putting surfaces. The other two tracks used for a day each in this event are Carnoustie and Kingsbarns with Carnoustie tending to play the toughest of all 3 courses, however much depends on the strength of the breeze as we saw first hand at the 2010 Open Championship when a windy Friday decimated many scorecards at St Andrews - including that of Rory McIlroy who shot 80 that day to ultimately scupper his chances of what would have been his first Claret jug.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2015: Thorbjorn Olesen, 200/1; 2014: Oliver Wilson, 500/1; 2013: David Howell, 125/1; 2012: Branden Grace, 50/1; 2011: Michael Hoey, 250/1; 2010: Martin Kaymer, 16/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for St Andrews is here. High pressure is dominating the UK's weather this week which promises a settled, calm and largely sunny tournament with temperatures only reaching the mid 50s Fahrenheit after even chillier early mornings. Winds will be at their strongest on Thursday at around 25-30 km/h before slowly dropping away as the tournament progresses.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the last 6 winners of this event gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited to this test:
With the exception of Carnoustie, fairways are wide and greens large and easy to hit so much of this event comes down to how players perform on and around the greens. Converting birdie chances is critical if players are going to compile a contending score and minimising bogeys from off of the green is also vital in an event where 20-under or lower is typically the target to be in with a sniff on Sunday afternoon.
As well as the event's nuances that are more obvious in that a slow, pro-am event on 3 different links tracks isn't likely to suit everyone, there are also some other important points to consider:
With easy pin positions and scoreable par 4s and 5s - particularly at Kingsbarns and St Andrews - this event, for me, is about birdie-making first and foremost. Typically 1-in-3 holes needs to result in a birdie this week and scoring on the par 4s is usually where the wheat is separated from the chaff: put simply, if you're not making a lot of red numbers then you stand little chance of lifting the trophy on Sunday.
In terms of incoming form, the winners here since 2010 have been very mixed as is reflected by odds ranging from 16/1 to 500/1 and four of the six winners in that period have been 125/1 or longer pre-event. Martin Kaymer (16/1) in 2010 completed a personal hat-trick of wins here having captured the US PGA Championship and KLM Open in his two previous events, however he was the only really 'obvious' winner given current form trends. Michael Hoey (250/1) hadn't finished inside the top 30 in his previous 10 starts, David Howell (125/1) had recorded a solitary top-10 in the previous 6 months, Oliver Wilson (500/1) had failed to make the top-30 in his previous 15 events, most of which were on the Challenge Tour and Thorbjorn Olesen (200/1) had missed 10 of his previous 14 cuts after his return from a wrist injury. 2012 winner Branden Grace (50/1) had shown poor recent form on the European Tour before winning here, although he did arrive fresh off the back of a low-key victory the previous week on the Sunshine Tour. A very mixed bag indeed.
Near the top of the market is Thomas Pieters who was the shining star of Team Europe at last week's Ryder Cup and who surprised many by finishing as the top overall points scorer at Hazeltine. Rafa Cabrera Bello also impressed whilst fortunes were less kind for the likes of Martin Kaymer, Danny Willett, Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick who all play here this week.
It's interesting to note how Ryder Cup players have fared in this event when played the week afterwards, recent results as follows:
The British Masters was played immediately after the 2008 Ryder Cup (Valhalla) with Lee Westwood losing out in a play-off; Luke Donald finished 6th in the WGC Amex in 2006 which was played the week after the K Club. The overriding message I'm getting from these results is that we shouldn't dismiss the returning Ryder Cup players out of hand simply because we think they'll be deflated or tired.
Bookmaker Offers. A few bookmakers have extended their each-way terms this week at the Dunhill Links:
My selections are as follows:
There's no shortage of viable prospects at the top of the betting with the course-proven South African duo of Oosthuizen and Grace topping most lists at around 16/1, closely followed by Europe's star of the Ryder Cup Thomas Pieters. Seemingly fully fit nowadays, I'm always a little nervous of backing Oosthuizen given he's never that far away from a recurrence of an old injury and there's not enough fat built into his price for me to feel comfortable backing him here. Grace has been out of action since the BMW Championship nearly 4 weeks ago and he's the type of player who I prefer to back when he's warmed up competitively; Pieters on the other hand could feel the effects of 5 matches in 3 days in Minnesota although it has to be said that he's at the very top of his game right now and history suggests that returning Ryder Cuppers can contend.
Then there are more with a decent shout: Wiesberger is in great form and has some decent Dunhill Links results to his name; Kaymer and Willett could easily bounce back from disappointing Ryder Cup campaigns to contend here and Rafa Cabrera-Bello may well translate his work at Hazeltine into a new-found fortitude at the business end of regular strokeplay events. The one player though who I think could trump all of those listed is the in-form Swede Alexander Noren who ticks just about every box for me.
Twice a winner in his last 6 starts, the 34 year-old's form surely would have made Darren Clarke's wildcard picks a lot tougher had Europe's captain had the same flexibility as Davis Love III in terms of timings; having watched last week's defeat from afar I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Noren come here and outplay the rest of the field including all of those who were at Hazeltine. A 263 total when winning at Crans on his penultimate start was an excellent effort on that short, fiddly track and 21 birdies on that layout proves, if proof were ever needed, that he's playing well enough to compile the kind of score that could compete here given the more open layout and bigger greens.
The Stockholm-born star, who's based in Monte Carlo nowadays, has an excellent record in Scotland generally - his last 2 visits have produced a win at the Scottish Open and a runner-up finish at the Paul Lawrie Match Play - and you can add to that a 3rd place finish at the Scottish Open in 2012 as well as an identical result here later that same year. 19th at the Open Championship in 2008 and 9th in 2012 suggests he's more than comfortable on a links layout and we know he can handle any wind from his runaway victory at the Nordea Masters in 2011. RESULT: T11
In terms of event history, it's clear that some players get on with this event more than others and Tommy Fleetwood is certainly one of those. 5th on debut in 2011, 5th again in 2013, 2nd in 2014 and 13th last year single out the 25 year-old as a player to shortlist each time this event comes around and it's interesting to note that he's in far better nick this year than last when he still managed to sign off with a pair of 67s to finish the event on a high. My concern with Tommy tends to be his putting - when he's at his best his tee-to-green game is right up there with some of the category leaders on the European Tour, however it's often the flat stick that lets him down - so it's interesting to note that his recent form of 10/7/13 has been driven by an improving putting performance coupled with typically excellent GIR rankings of 4th, 1st and 3rd. Given that level of GIR again this week, if he can continue in the same vein here and produce a 1.7 putts per GIR week or thereabouts then he could well be fighting it out for the trophy on Sunday. 51 birdies in his last 11 competitive rounds is a good return for Tommy and more of the same is required here. RESULT: T15
Another player with a positive record here is Robert Karlsson with his 3rd place finish in 2005 and victory in 2008 and there have been strong signs of late that he's not done with his playing career just yet. The giant Swede has suffered from an eye injury as well as the yips in recent times, however a seemingly out-of-the-blue defeat to Kiradech Aphibarnat in last year's Paul Lawrie Match Play final signalled something of a turning point and he's recorded top-20 finishes at Woburn as well as in Sweden, the Czech Republic and Denmark as he's fought back to a level where he can compete with those at the top of the European Tour. His last 2 appearances have been the real eye-opener though - he played his way into the penultimate group for the final day in Italy then flirted with a 59 in Germany before getting himself into an identical position going into the final round at the weather-shortened event, ultimately finishing 3rd. He said on his facebook page how the Italian experience had paved the way for a stronger mental approach in Germany and with his game in a decent place as well as returning to the scene of one of his biggest triumphs, I can see the 47 year-old going well again here this week. RESULT: T53
Given the prevalence of long-priced winners here over the years, backing a few lively outsiders would seem to be a sensible ploy this week. Just missing out on my final team were Padraig Harrington who loves this place, Matthew Southgate who finished 12th at The Open Championship earlier this season and led the field for putting in Germany last time out and Florian Fritsch who has a couple of recent top-7 finishes to his name and had a live chance to win this last year going into the final day.
If birdies are going to be the key component here this week - and recent evidence from this event would suggest that is likely to be the case - then David Horsey is well worth following here in Scotland. The soggy layout in Germany didn't really appeal to the Stockport man after a couple of top-5 finishes in Holland and Italy where the putter was on fire - 1.63 and 1.55 putts per GIR respectively - and the massive 50 birdies he made over those two events puts him in a league of his own here this week in terms of making red numbers. 20th here in 2013 and 9th last year shows solid progression and with his recent form he could well make a mockery of the price quoted and feature here. The 31 year-old is a four-time winner on the European Tour including his 2011 win at the Trophee Hassan II which was played as a pro-am for the first two rounds and he should find this week far more to his liking than Germany a fortnight ago. RESULT: T11
Like a number of his peers, once the weather delays became intolerable in Germany Marc Warren departed the scene before finishing his requisite two rounds and a DQ appears against his name. Does that make him any less likely to perform this week, having recorded a promising top-20 finish in Italy with his largest birdie haul in tournament play for 18 months? I think not. Instead I'm far more interested in his excellent record in Scotland and a few results including that effort in Italy and 11th in the Czech Republic which suggest that the Glasgow man's assertion that his game has been far better than his results have show isn't too far wide of the mark. Throw on top of that the fact that he generally lifts his game when he plays in his homeland - a win at the 2007 Johnnie Walker, multiple top-5 finishes at the Scottish Open and 7 from his last 8 cuts made here at the Dunhill Links including 5th in 2011 are testament to that - and I'm happy to take the long price on offer here. RESULT: 5th
Finally I'm taking a punt on Chris Paisley who finished 12th here in 2013 on the one and only time he's played. As an amateur Paisley was part of the winning St Andrews Trophy team at Kingsbarns in 2008 and in his relatively short professional career to date he's shown more form in Scotland with a top-10 finish at the Scottish Challenge and 13th at this year's Scottish Open to add to the aforementioned effort here 3 years ago. What interests me most though is that Paisley really can putt - he's inside the top-11 on Tour for both putts per GIR and putts per round - and with the easy pin positions here he's the type of player who can string an awful lot of red numbers together each day. 3rd on his penultimate start in Italy was another good effort which secured his card for 2017, however at 71st in the Race To Dubai he can start looking forward to a place at the season's finale in Dubai if he can dig out another big week here this week. RESULT: MC
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