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 13th consecutive year we'll have played this tournament at Le Golf National, the 22nd time in total, so there's plenty of course data to review. In addition there's a reasonable quality field attracted by the highest prize fund of the continental Europe events with the likes of top 30 OWGR players Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn, Victor Dubuisson and defending champion Graeme McDowell headlining the event.
As an added incentive to this week's players, there are 3 Open Championship spots available for the top non-exempt players who finish inside the top 10 this week, 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 there's only one more Qualifying Series event to go this side of the Atlantic and that promises to be altogether tougher ask as the quality of field ratchets up a notch or three in Aberdeen.
Le Golf National is always set up strongly for this event and danger lurks on many holes if you miss fairways with water 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.
2011 and 2012 renewals saw wet conditions which effectively lengthened the course whilst making the fairways a little easier to hold, whereas 12 months ago dry weather leading up to the event meant firm and fast conditions as Graeme McDowell battled to an ultimately impressive-looking 4-stroke victory. Wet or dry, the rough here is amongst the very toughest on the European Tour plus 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. With a dry, calm start to the event expected to deteriorate to wet and breezier conditions over the weekend, this year's French Open is likely to be even more testing than normal for those who do manage to make the cut.
Recent years have seen scores ranging from -7 to -15 winning this event, however typically somewhere in the middle of that range is enough come Sunday evening in average conditions. Trend-wise there's nothing of real note about the winners in recent years: G-Mac was in the middle of his win-or-bust run when he arrived here 12 months ago with form of MC/1/MC/1/MC/MC/MC; 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.
In terms of the betting, Martin Kaymer leads the way at a best-priced 9/1 despite missing the cut at his home event last week. Scoring this week is going to be much tougher and having just won the US Open the German may well slip back into the 'grinding' mindset this week, however backing him at that price takes some faith given last week's no-show. Graeme McDowell is defending this week and in truth he could have won the Irish Open on his last start if a few more putts had dropped on the Sunday, however with the additional pressures on his time this week the 12/1 quote isn't massively appealing to me, although he has an obvious chance.
Prior to McDowell's win here at 25/1 last year, a cursory glance at the recent winners here would have suggested 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). G-Mac broke that trend as we know and his accurate, high GIR game fits this track well - this, for me, is a pretty specialised event where tee-to-green precision is the overriding route to success. My selections are as follows:
Despite finishing just outside of the top 10 last week in Germany, it was clear that Francesco Molinari's long game was firing on all cylinders and that's perfect preparation for a week that will demand tee-to-green excellence from start to finish. 1st for accuracy at Gut Larchenhof is perhaps what we've come to expect from the Italian, however in truth he's not been up to those highest of standards for a few months or so now so I'm taking last week's performance as a strong indicator that he's just about ready to grab some silverware for the first time in 2 years. Twice a runner-up around these parts, Molinari knows that this event isn't ever going to be a putting contest and, despite the hours of practice he's put in with Dave Stockton to improve his flat stick prowess, it will be his arrow-straight driving that sets him in great stead for this week.
As well as holding some of the more tangible current form coming into this week (6th at Sawgrass, 7th at Wentworth and a creditable 23rd at the US Open before last weekend's effort), as well as the aforementioned contending performances here, there's also the small matter of Ryder Cup qualification that's by no means guaranteed as he currently sits in 13th position on the World Points List with a number of those places above him all but sewn up. In short, Francesco needs to grab a win (or two) between now and September to feature in Paul McGinley's team and this week is a gilt-edged opportunity given the obvious marriage of his game to the demands of the course. Given the Italian's gap between wins I am playing this cautiously with just a couple of points win-only with Boylesports who have a 2nd place money-back offer this week, however I'd be surprised not to see him up there with a great chance of converting on Sunday.
I gave Thomas Bjorn a watching brief last week following his withdrawal from the US Open due to injury, however the Dane showed no ill effects from the reported neck/shoulder issues as he eased himself back into competitive action at Gut Larchenhof - in fact, had he been a little sharper on the greens then he could easily have made the play-off or better. Whilst not quite so arrow-straight as Molinari, Bjorn is still amongst the most capable tee-to-green performers on the European Tour and that was in evidence again last week as he ranked inside the top 15 for both accuracy and greens in regulation. 3rd here in 2007 and 8th here last year having started the weekend just a shot off of the lead, Bjorn has a game that's well-suited to the demands of Le Golf National and the 43 year-old knows he's within touching distance of guaranteeing himself a Ryder Cup spot that a victory between now and September will surely rubber stamp. Bjorn missed just 3 up-and-downs last week in Germany and a combination of tee-to-green excellence and a sharp game around the greens here is a great combination as the Race to Dubai leader looks to exorcise the demons of surrendering a 5-stroke lead at Wentworth a little over a month ago.
When it comes to Le Golf National, Richard Green always tends to exceed expectations and last week's effort in Germany where he tied for 12th position sets him up perfectly for another good week on a course that he loves. 5 top-7 finishes from his last 8 completed events around this Paris track is amongst the very best course form on offer and the Australian thrives on the stern test that this course presents which matches his precision game down to a tee. 3 times a winner on the European Tour, the 43 year-old has been playing some quietly impressive golf over the last couple of months with a play-off defeat at the tough Spanish Open, a tie for 16th at Wentworth, which was his best result in Surrey for 6 years, and last week's aforementioned effort that included a best-of-the-week 62 in Round 3. If anything, Green's accuracy has stepped up a notch in the last few weeks (8th in Germany) and that, coupled with his evident liking for the layout here in France, makes him a must-back at 66/1.
Felipe Aguilar is one of the straightest hitters on the European Tour - currently ranking 7th for the season (6th in 2013) - and that accuracy paid off at Laguna National a couple of months ago when he captured his second European Tour title with a blistering final round of 62. Yes, he may count himself as fortunate to have holed out from the fairway on the 72nd hole to win by a single stroke, however getting over the line often requires a little bit of luck and, to be fair to the Chilean, he putted well ahead of his average all week to put himself in contention in the first place. 7th on his next start at the tough Spanish Open was also impressive before his form hit the buffers with 3 missed cuts in his last 4 events. Dig into those performances though and you'll see that his fundamentals haven't changed a great deal - he ranked first for driving accuracy at Wentworth after 2 rounds despite missing the cut; it was a similar story last week as he missed the weekend by one stroke even though he ranked 3rd for accuracy and 8th for GIR after 36 holes. Much will depend on how the putter performs this week, however there are positive signs to take out of his recent visits to Le Golf National having finished 8th for putts per GIR in 2010, 18th in 2011 and 6th on the same count in 2012. A player as accurate as him who gets on well with the greens is a potentially potent combination.
The question you have to ask yourself with Gregory Havret is whether he'll be downbeat and disappointed to have lost out in the play-off in Germany or upbeat and enthused to have put in his best performance of the season? Looking back through the 2010 US Open runner-up's history it's evident that his form comes in fits and starts - for example 3 top-7 finishes in the space of 5 events last season were Havret's only top-10s of the campaign - and it's quite possible that he'll take last week's result as a huge positive and keep momentum going into this week. His last victory (Gleneagles 2008) came after a creditable top-20 finish at the Open Championship; his win at Loch Lomond the year before came after finishes of 15th (here) then 3rd in the two weeks prior. He's an accurate hitter (48th for accuracy in 2012, 24th in 2013 and 9th for 2014 to date) who, despite his relatively mid-division finishes prior to Germany, has been striking the ball nicely for a while, plus he has a top-4 finish here at Le Golf National back in 2005 to remind us that he can play the track more than adequately. 3 of the last 10 French Open's have been home wins and at such a long price I'm willing to take a chance that Gregory can turn it on for a second consecutive week in front of his home crowd.