The Alstom Open de France is our next stop on the European Tour, taking us to the outskirts of Paris and the top quality Albatross course at Le Golf National which will host the 2018 Ryder Cup. This is the 12th consecutive year we'll have played this tournament at Le Golf National, the 21st time in total, so there's plenty of course data to review thankfully. In addition there's a decent quality field attracted by the highest prize fund in continental Europe with the likes of top 10 OWGR players Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell headlining the event. As an added incentive to this week's players, the 5 Open Championship spots awarded to the top non-exempt players inside the Race To Dubai top 20 will be confirmed on Sunday night, so this could be a huge motivator to some of this week's contenders. You can get a full list of already qualified players here: Open Qualified. After this cut-off point only victory at Castle Stuart next week would secure a late, late entry to Muirfield.
Le Golf National is always set up strongly for this event and there's danger on many holes if you miss fairways with water lurking at the start and end of the round. The 7,331 yard, par 71 stadium course was designed to test the very best golfers with a premium on accurate driving and, in particular, approaches to the difficult, undulating greens. Missing greens isn't an option here as scrambling is tough, so attacking from the fairway has to be the only real strategy and finding the right parts of greens with any consistency is only really possible from the short stuff. The last 2 renewals have seen wet conditions which effectively lengthened the course whilst making the fairways a little easier to hold, however recent drier weather in France (albeit light rain is forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday) will see a return to somewhat firmer and faster conditions experienced in 2010 when Miguel Angel Jimenez was victorious at 11-under. Some of the holes are pretty brutal in terms of length - the 17th and 18th play amongst the most difficult on the week - however I'd still favour accuracy and sound course management over driving distance on this track.
Recent years have seen scores ranging from -7 to -15 winning this event, however typically somewhere in the -11 region is enough come Sunday evening in average conditions. Trend-wise there's nothing of real note about the winners in recent years: Marcel Siem was in decent nick with 4 top-10s to his name in 2012 prior to victory, whereas Tomas Levet hadn't recorded a top 10 all season prior to his emotional (and for him painful!) victory the year before; Jimenez had missed 3 cuts in his last 5 attempts before his triumph here in 2010; Kaymer was coming into form in 2009 when he won, however he'd missed the cut the week before; Larrazabel was a shock outsider who came through qualifying in 2008; Storm had managed a couple of top 10s in his last 10 starts in 2007; Bickerton had missed 4 of 5 cuts in 2006 and Remesy's successful defence in 2005 came off the back of a very poor season. All in all a very mixed bag.
A change of tack this year as the Open de France hasn't been my happiest of hunting grounds over the past few seasons, so this time around I'm going to back 3 of the top 5 in this week's final predictor output plus a few lively longshots to complete a 10-point stake. Those at the top of the betting might look like attractive propositions on paper, however one glance at the recent winners here suggest that the victor comes from further down the list: 2005 Remesy (66/1); 2006 Bickerton (175/1); 2007 Storm (100/1); 2008 Larrazabal (200/1); 2009 Kaymer (30/1); 2010 Jimenez (80/1); 2011 Levet (140/1); 2012 Siem (70/1). If this trend is to continue then Kaymer, Donald and Kuchar can be ignored for starters...
My selections are as follows:
Pablo has hinted in recent weeks that a win is just around the corner and this could well be the 4 days where everything aligns for the 72-hole course record holder. Last week's comedy moment featured the Spaniard virtually in the foetal position behind his umbrella screaming at the official to suspend play because it was raining - if there's one thing the 30 year-old can't stand it's rain! No such issues this week though and with calm, dry playing conditions and positive memories of his breakthrough victory here 5 years ago, I can see Larrazabal converting what is current a good season into an excellent one. At 26th in the Race To Dubai, Pablo needs to make a big move this week if he's got any lingering hopes of playing at Muirfield in a fortnight, however with a strong prize fund the carrot is certainly being dangled in front of his nose at Le Golf National.
Fact is, the Barcelona resident has been playing some of his best golf from tee-to-green in 2013 with just a stone-cold putter holding back his performances, particularly on a Sunday. At nigh on 73% of greens hit in regulation so far this season, he has the right blend of control and accuracy with his approaches to succeed at Le Golf National, however it's his putter that is now warming up that's of most interest. 9th for putts per GIR (1.66) on the bentgrass greens in Stockholm has a huge leap forward for Pablo, two missed cuts on bent/poa mix then followed before his 4th place finish last week in Ireland, again on a pure bentgrass surface where he finished inside the top 20 for putting. The bent/meadow grass mix here is much more to his liking - he topped the flat stick stats in 2008 here en route to victory - and another excellent week on the greens is very much a possibility on a track that he described on twitter as the 'best golf course on tour'. RESULT: MC
Another player with more than adequate course credentials is the evergreen Miguel Angel Jimenez who has recovered exceptionally well from his broken leg over the winter. I for one thought he might struggle to regain his late 2012 form following his skiing accident, however it's to his credit that he's come back strongly with a 4th place finish at Wentworth and top 20s in Sweden and Austria. A week off following his tie for 26th in Germany a fortnight ago was a good move - he'd been noticeably flagging towards the end of events - so will arrive here fresh and no doubt regaining strength and stamina with every passing day. If the 49 year-old is going to extend his record of being the oldest winner on the European Tour it will be on a track such as this that demands a cool head and excellent course management. With 12 of his 19 European Tour victories coming in the -9 to -15 bracket, this week will be perfect for him and warm, dry tournament weather can only help him on the lengthier holes this week, as it did in 2010 when he secured his first and only French Open championship. RESULT: T58
How long Joost Luiten's purple patch of form will continue is the biggest question this week as he'll surely be in the mix once again this week if he maintains his ball-striking excellence of the past few weeks. Luiten's performances at Le Golf National have been far from impressive in the past with a best finish of 42nd in 2010 from his 3 attempts, however he's riding the crest of a wave at present and could well turn that course form around here as he seeks Open Championship qualification through his Race to Dubai position. He's playing at the very peak of his game at present and, on paper, there's no reason why this Paris track shouldn't suit his excellent tee-to-green game this week - it's only a case of how much juice is left in the tank for the 27 year-old Dutchman who ranks No.1 in this week's predictor model. In his last 4 events Joost has ranked 14/2/6/1 for driving accuracy and 11/1/2/4 for Greens In Regulation - that's a recipe for success around a demanding course like this and he cannot be ignored in my opinion. You can get 33/1 on Joost in one or two places with 5 places EW/Win Only, but I prefer 30/1 with 6 places this week. RESULT: T49
Finally a trio of longshots to complete the team this week, all of whom have some solid reasons to back them here at small stakes. I've backed them all at the best price available at the time of writing, however you may prefer to grab an extra place (at slightly lower odds) through Bet Victor or Stan James who are offering 6 places each way.
Scot Marc Warren has been quietly playing some excellent golf in 2013 and could feature here after finally getting to grips with Le Golf National last season on his 6th attempt. That top 20 here a year ago was good progress having previously missed the cut on 4 of 5 attempts, however he's playing at a level above that at present and could easily have won twice already this season. Having thrown away the Spanish Open with a mistake-riddled back 9 - eventually 3-putting the final 2 holes to miss the playoff by a shot - he then found himself in the lead coming down the stretch at Wentworth before the birdies dried up and he eventually lost out in a 3-way playoff to Italian starlet Matteo Manassero. 3rd time lucky this week perhaps? He's certainly striking his irons well enough as he led the GIR category in Ireland for his top 20 finish and the 2-time European Tour winner is the kind of player who could surprise on a tough track like Le Golf National. RESULT: T13
Simon Khan was the third player in that BMW PGA Championship playoff and he's worth a small punt here. 3 mediocre results in Sweden, Merion and Ireland last week followed his effort in Surrey, however this is the sort of test where we often see Simon Khan increase his performance levels. His record at Wentworth (not dissimilar in terms of field strength and difficulty) is excellent with a win and two runners-up finishes; in addition he's also performed well at Valderrama before which was undoubtedly the toughest test on the European Tour before sadly dropping off the schedule. 3rd (2007), 5th (2011) and 12th (2006) in this event, interspersed with a number of missed cuts, is typical Simon Khan form and I suspect we'll either see another missed cut or a contending performance, with not much scope for anything in the middle. At 150/1 I'm willing to see if he can rekindle that Wentworth form that saw him lead the GIR category that week and come so close to securing another huge title. RESULT: T18
Soren Hansen is quietly finding his range once again and whilst he's yet to record a top 10 since returning to the European Tour on a medical extension, the signs are there that his excellent ironplay is back on song and a decent pay cheque is just around the corner. At the peak of his powers Hansen was a top 50 player and the leading Dane in world golf, however injury and taxation issues have hampered his progress and he hasn't built on his 2 European Tour victories, the last of which coming in Germany back in 2007. Le Golf National has been a happy hunting ground for the 39 year-old though and if there's an event that could catapult him back up the World rankings from his lowly position in the mid-600s then this is it. 4 times a top-6 finisher here between 2005 and 2009, his best chance to win came in 2007 when he led by 1 coming into the final day before a poor start on Sunday effectively killed his chances. 200/1 is a punt, granted, however the list of winners I detailed in the preamble suggests that equally strange things have happened here in the past... RESULT: T49