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Wentworth is one of the true highlights of the golfing calendar for me and our annual return to the famous Surrey parkland course starts the run-up to the second Major, the US Open, in a little over 3 weeks time. The winner of this event gets an automatic invitation to the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania if they've not already qualified, however for many this will be more about taking a share of the generous €4.75m prize fund which can make a real difference in the Race To Dubai as well as helping to secure 2014 playing privileges by taking home a healthy cheque.
As usual for this event, we have pretty much all of the World's best European Tour players in attendance this week, including 7 of the World's top 20 players - namely McIlroy, Rose, Donald, GMac, Westwood, Garcia and Poulter - plus an excellent supporting cast as you'd expect for the European Tour's flagship event. With 64 OWGR points up for grabs to the winner and a healthy distribution of points to those who finish well, this is an event that provides an opportunity for those on the bubble of US Open and Open Championship qualification to grab those all-important final few points to secure their attendance in the next 2 Majors. A 5-year European Tour exemption awaits the winner although of more importance to the top players is the fact of simply winning such a prestigious event which many class in a category very close to a Major Championship.
After a few years of tweaks and changes to the course it's pretty much as you were this year with just minor changes to the fairway bunkering on the 6th hole and the run-off area on 17, so the players will once again be presented with a 7,302 yard par 72 with the 12th remaining as a par 5. Despite a cold winter and a chilly, gloomy spring the course is reportedly in great condition after last year's gripes about the putting surfaces, however a grim looking weather forecast looks likely to hit the first few days at least with a brisk northerly wind blowing across the course interspersed with showers which certainly won't be to everybody's liking. At the time of writing there appears to be no significant bias to late/early tee times - a critical element here as the course can quickly play 3 or 4 shots harder with a moderate breeze - however with temperatures struggling to get past 10 degrees centigrade the ball won't be flying particularly far, that's for sure!
Recent winners here have all had prior experience of the event and recent contending performances over the West Course. Even 'surprise' 2010 winner Simon Khan had previously finished 2nd at Wentworth 4 years previously, so his ability to play the course shouldn't have been a total shock. A preference for Bentgrass putting surfaces should also be favoured, plus high GIR stats and the ability to avoid the worst of the trouble off the tee are all pre-requisites. My selections are as follows:
Luke Donald arrives here seeking a trio of BMW PGA Championship titles and the bookies haven't hesitated in making him a best-priced 8/1 favourite to complete the hat-trick. Personally I think there's something missing from Luke's game right now - he's not far away from decent form but a 3rd (Hilton Head) and 4th (Tampa Bay) are the only top 10s he has to show from 8 starts in 2013. He's not in the same kind of form that saw him take both the 2011 and 2012 titles here and I have to reluctantly oppose him at that price. Rory McIlroy hasn't been firing on all cylinders either and 11/1 about the World No.2 given his record here of MC/5/48/24/MC hardly inspires masses of confidence either. Lee Westwood is showing some half-decent form, GMac's won 2 of his last 3 starts and Sergio Garcia had a great chance at TPC Sawgrass - all have more than enough ability to win this however, for me, the most likely winner this year is Justin Rose.
Since his win at Doral last spring, the most surprising thing about Justin is that he hasn't added another piece of silverware to his collection. Runner-up finishes here last year to Donald, at East Lake to the unstoppable Brandt Snedeker, at the Earth Course to Rory and, most recently, at Bay Hill to Tiger Woods have seen him climb to 4th place in the OWGR, however it's surely time for the 32 year-old to get over the line on a Sunday and this could well be the week. Rose finished 2012 at the summit of the Greens In Regulation statistic on both sides of the Atlantic and that's a key skill here on a demanding track that will readily punish errant shots both off the tee and when approaching the green. Forget The Players missed cut - TPC Sawgrass has never been the Englishman's cup of tea - instead I'm looking at the form he showed up to that point with the aforementioned 2nd at Bay Hill, 25th at The Masters and 15th at TPC Louisiana where he topped the GIR stats once again.
Many recent BMW PGA Championship winners had a near miss or two in their history in this event and Justin's 3 top-10s in his last 5 starts here is a perfect platform for another assault on the title. 2 of those finishes were as runner-up and from listening to him talk about the event in past interviews it's clear that he would dearly love to win this title in front of the home crowd. He has the length to contend here given the damp, chilly weather forecast and the patient game to succeed around these parts as others fall away and, if his putter is in any way warm, he'll be right up there at the business end of proceedings on Sunday. RESULT: T50
2 players who've caught the eye in recent weeks that could feature around here are Branden Grace and Paul Lawrie. Grace had such a fantastic 2012 that it was always going to be tough to keep that kind of momentum going - firstly he lost confidence in his putter around Christmas then, once he started putting well again into the early spring, his driver started to misbehave. Good signs recently though that both elements are coming together and 18th at The Masters was an excellent result on debut after a disastrous opening round of 78 had threatened a missed cut; last week's run to the semi-finals of the Volvo World Match Play was also impressive as he beat defending champion Nicolas Colsaerts 4&3 in the first round and the white-hot Brett Rumford by the same score in the 2nd before finally succumbing to eventual champion McDowell in the semis. He was a bogey-free 5-under through 16 and despite losing that match it's clear from his comments that his quality of play pleased him immensely. A self-confessed '2nd week' player, that will be a great warm-up for Grace who could easily improve on his 5th place finish here on debut last year.
Paul Lawrie, as regular readers will only be too aware, is one of my favourite players to back and he's produced some hefty returns for me over the past year or so. He's been quiet of late though with an ice-cold putter failing to convert the chances that some strong ironplay has presented over the past few months and that's frustrated the 44 year-old who has just one top-10 to his name so far in 2013. However an improved performance with the flat stick in China where he was back into the 1.7s putts per GIR (just!!) pushed him up to a tie for 14th place and, after a couple of weeks off practicing, he's making extremely positive noises on twitter about his game. Like Rose, the Scot is also a 2-time runner up at Wentworth with last year's finish adding to his 1996 performance when falling 2 shots short of Costantino Rocca - that puts him in the frame for another decent week this time around in my estimation.
Finally I'm going to throw a couple of longer priced players into the mix who might just make the frame. Paul Casey has been battling his way back from injury for some time now and 8 top-20 finishes from his last 15 worldwide starts suggests he's starting to find the kind of consistency in his game that could re-ignite his career. 153rd in the World is a far cry from the lofty heights of 3rd which he achieved in 2009, however recent signs are positive and only a few costly mistakes have prevented him from converting one of those recent finishes into a genuine contending opportunity. 7 top-25 finishes in this event in his last 10 attempts shows you how much he enjoys the track in both its past and present guises, plus he demolished everyone in his path with an emphatic victory here in the 2006 HSBC World Match Play Championship. I for one won't be surprised to see Casey do well this week and at 90/1 with 6 places being paid EW I'm willing to take the plunge.
If conditions get tough then there's few better to have on your team than Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin. The 39 year-old proved his measured, patient approach once again when he captured his 4th European Tour title on the Spanish coast near Valencia last month, finally seeing off talented German Max Kieffer on the 9th extra hole after a punishing final day's play. Having a recent success is certainly a positive coming into this event and Jacquelin can also draw on his 4th place finish here in 2011 for inspiration. An Open Championship top 10 in the same year shows he can mix it with the very best and he could be one of the few to hang around in cold, wet and breezy conditions.