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Wentworth is one of the 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 Championship, the US Open, in a little over 4 weeks' time. The winner of this event gets an automatic invitation to Chambers Bay if they've not already qualified, however for many this will be as much about taking a share of the generous €5m prize fund that can make a real difference in the Race To Dubai standings as well as helping to secure 2016 playing privileges for those further down the pecking order.
As usual for this event we have a fair selection of the World's best players in attendance, including 14 of the top 50 players in the OWGR - namely McIlroy, Rose, Kaymer, Koepka, Westwood, Dubuisson, Donaldson, McDowell, Willett, Grace, Lahiri, Wiesberger, Gallacher and Luiten - plus an excellent supporting cast as you'd expect for the European Tour's flagship event. The only obvious names missing from a European Tour perspective are Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey who have all chosen to play at Colonial instead this week over on the PGA Tour. Steve Bamford previews that event, the Crowne Plaza Invitational - you can read his preview here.
With 64 OWGR points up for grabs to the winner and a healthy distribution 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 also awaits the winner, although of more importance to the top players is the fact of simply winning such a prestigious event that many Europeans class in a category not a million miles away from a Major Championship.
West Course, Wentworth, Surrey, England. Designer: Harry Colt, 1926 with Els re-design 2010; Course Type: Technical, Classical; Par: 72; Length: 7,302 yards; Fairways: Bentgrass, Fescue, Poa Annua; Rough: Rye, Fescue; Greens: Colonial Bentgrass, 10' on the stimp; 2014 scoring average: 72.83; Rd1: 73.99, Rd2: 71.85, Rd3: 72.12, Rd4: 72.83.
Course Overview. Wentworth's West Course needs little introduction and after a reasonably mild winter the track is expected to be presented in perfect condition. The 7,302 yard par-72 is a classical, tree-lined affair with the premium squarely placed on tee-to-green excellence following the Ernie Els remodelling in 2010. Rough isn't so much the issue here; trees and strategically placed bunkers are far more likely to be the undoing of those drifting from the straight and narrow. The course closes with the iconic back-to-back par 5s that are pivotal to securing a good round and often play a large part in determining who will triumph come Sunday evening.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's BMW PGA 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. World No.1 and defending champion Rory McIlroy tops the predictor following yet another victory last weekend at Quail Hollow, closely followed by Justin Rose.
Winners & Prices. 2014: Rory McIlroy, 14/1; 2013: Matteo Manassero, 66/1; 2012: Luke Donald, 8/1; 2011: Luke Donald, 15/2; 2010: Simon Khan, 200/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. The tournament will enjoy pleasant spells of sunshine and temperatures in the mid-to-high 60s Fahrenheit for the 4 days. The breeze will be at its strongest on Thursday at 10-15 mph, dropping a little for the other 3 days.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the last 5 winners here since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
With slightly less challenging conditions over the past 3 renewals and winning scores in double-digits under par, the key to scoring sufficiently to contend has been in mastering the par 5s. The top 4 finishers last year were 49-under for the par 5s on the week and just 2-under for the remainder of the course; similarly in 2013 the top 5 were 41-under for the par 5s and 7-under through the over 56 holes; 2012 saw the top 5 play the 5s in -40 and the other holes in -12. Also worth noting is that every player finishing in the top 5 or better in that time, excluding Rory McIlroy last year, played the par 3s under par for the week also. With relatively tranquil conditions forecast and greens softened by rain over the weekend and early this week, I'd expect scoring to be similar to the past 3 renewals. A solid tee-to-green display should suffice as opposed to anything approaching Adilson Da Silva level accuracy, however a strong short game to minimise bogeys when greens are missed is a must in my opinion. This is a strong all-round test and contenders can't be lacking in any particular area of their game this week.
The three short-priced winners (McIlroy and Donald twice) entered the event off the back of some strong form and at least 2 consecutive top 10s immediately prior to victory here. Donald backers should note that both his wins followed excellent early season performances which, in both instances, produced some silverware in the lead up to his success over the West Course. Manassero's form was less obvious with a couple of top 20s in his previous 4 outings, whereas Simon Khan's win came from completely off the page as a late sponsor's invitation.
Recent winners here have also produced a top-10 or better over the West Course in either its previous or current guise, suggesting that positive experience of this part of Surrey in some shape or form is pretty critical. Wentworth hadn't been Rory McIlroy's favourite stomping ground prior to victory 12 months ago, however he had produced a top-5 on his second attempt in 2009; Matteo Manassero had finished 7th two years prior to victory which followed his 17th place finish on debut; Luke Donald had finished 3rd in 2008 and 2nd in 2010 prior to his back-to-back wins in 2011 and 2012; 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 - which he again proved in 2013 when making the play-off.
All things considered, my selections are as follows.
Looking back through my records I noted that I've backed Justin Rose here at Wentworth for each of the past 3 seasons, much for the same reason as I'm going to back him again this week - he's got the perfect game to contend and potentially win around Wentworth and if anyone is going to prevent Rory McIlroy from defending this title, it could well be Justin. There's no doubting that if Rory plays like he did last week at Quail Hollow then back-to-back victories are not only possible but highly likely, however the bookies are taking absolutely no chances with nobody willing to offer even as much as 3/1 against the Northern Irishman here. Perhaps trying to pick holes in McIlroy's chances will prove to be futile in the end, however until last season you'd have argued that Wentworth wasn't exactly his favourite course and the claustrophobic confines of this layout can catch many a decent player out if they're not very careful. Rory will also have an eye on next week's Irish Open which he's hosting, plus with the media commitments from being defending champion here coupled with travel from the US after victory at the weekend, I'll reluctantly give Rory a miss this week at such a short price.
Back to Rose then and most recent BMW PGA Championship winners had a contending performance or two in their history of this event and Justin's 3 top 10 finishes here in his last 7 starts 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 a home crowd. He arrives here fresh from his customary missed cut at TPC Sawgrass, an event which he has an awful record in bar his 2014 performance, and instead of battling at Quail Hollow or in Spain he's been preparing for Wentworth as he bids to recreate the form that saw him win his 5th regular PGA Tour event (7 in total with WGCs and Majors) in New Orleans last month.
We know from his 2010 record that Justin is well capable of stringing a couple of wins together in a short space of time - he captured the Memorial Tournament and AT&T National within 4 weeks of each other back then - and securing this title after a few decent opportunities to do so in the past is well within his grasp. Tee-to-green Rose has been exemplary of late if you can see past his performance at The Players Championship: 6th for accuracy at Augusta coupled with 2nd for GIR is mightily impressive and he improved further off the tee when securing that aforementioned title last month at the Zurich Classic. His putting has also been vastly improved of late - he led the field in New Orleans on that front - and if the flat stick is anything approaching hot this week then he has to go very close here.
My notes from last year scream 'don't ignore the Race To Dubai leader' after then No.1 Thomas Bjorn arrived here with little very recent form and romped into an early lead that perhaps should have proven unassailable. Well this year's R2D leader is quite predictably Rory McIlroy, however if we're pursuing that angle to any degree then Danny Willett, who sits 2nd at present, needs some serious scrutiny. Following his Nedbank victory and 4th place finish at Leopard Creek, the 27 year-old sat at the top of the European Tour pile for a number of months until Rory McIlroy started to accumulate his recent finishes at the WGCs and Masters, however €1.7m earned with the bulk of the big-money events still to come is a fantastic position for the Sheffield man and his success of late is reflected in his current career-high standing of 37th in the OWGR. The sad part of his recent success is that his outstanding semi-final finish at the WGC Match Play last month earned him special temporary membership for the PGA Tour and his appearances in Europe will no doubt be minimal for the remainder of 2015, however from his own personal perspective he's got a huge opportunity to gain a strong foothold in the world's top 50 ongoing and the access to golf's best events that his standing brings.
Tee-to-green Danny has the talent to take on Wentworth - as he proved on debut in 2010 by finishing 5th - however what really swings it for me is the improvement that he's made to his short game that will give him far more opportunities to contend in events of this stature both here and in the United States. 1st for scrambling on the European Tour for the season to date (99th last year) and 18th for sand saves could well be the final piece of the jigsaw for a serious week of contention on a track where minimising bogeys when greens are inevitably missed is second only to the quality ball-striking that's required to succeed around here in my opinion. The WGC Match Play performance will have given Willett a massive injection of confidence and he has a decent shout here at a reasonable enough price.
Three players who are all capable of making the frame here given their positive history at Wentworth, current form and strong tee-to-green games make my supporting cast this week:
I've mentioned before that Richie Ramsay's form comes in defined patches that have historically contained a win or two before he goes off the boil and it makes sense to support him while he's in the middle of one of his hot spells. His 2 Challenge Tour wins in 2008 came in a 6-event stretch that also contained a runners-up finish; his maiden European Tour win a year later came 4 events after what was his best-ever result at the time in the shape of a 4th place finish at St Andrews; his 2012 Omega European Masters success was sandwiched between 3 top-6s, two of which were 2nd place finishes including St Andrews again, so his current form line of 1/11/7/15 shouldn't be taken lightly. Tee-to-green the Scot has been slowly getting the measure of Wentworth in recent times ranking 2nd for accuracy and 11th for GIR in 2010 on his way to 28th place, then 7th for accuracy and 8th for GIR when achieving his best finish here of 9th in 2013: his quality long game should always get him past any initial inspection here, however importantly for him he's also putting well enough to contend at the moment with 4 consecutive events that have averaged in the low 1.7s for putts per GIR.
I backed Thomas Aiken last week in Spain as he looked to gain back-to-back victories on an El Prat course that should have played to his ball-striking strengths. It wasn't to be for the 31 year-old who I fully expected to push on from a relaxed 4th place finish in Mauritius after an extended break, however his long game was still exemplary (9th for driving accuracy, 1st for GIR) and with far less expectation on his shoulders having effectively been the defending 'course champion' last week, I can see him featuring here if he plays his natural game. 10th on debut here in 2009 before Ernie Els made his changes to the course and 17th the year after are both positive, however it was his 7th place finish here 12 months ago when he hit 81% of fairways (3rd) and 72% of greens (8th) that gets him the nod. He clearly lifted his game that week after a quiet period following his early season in at the Africa Open; 12 months on and his very recent form coming into this week is actually more impressive and he could be one who pushes on again this week.
How long it's reasonable to carry on backing Miguel Angel Jimenez at this level of golf is open to debate, however the 51 year-old has shown little sign of slowing down to justify consigning him to the golf betting scrapheap just yet. 'The Mechanic' has won 14 of his 21 European Tour titles since his 40th birthday including here at Wentworth in 2008, plus he's of course more than competitive on the Seniors stage when he fancies dipping into those events, capturing his second Champions Tour win in Hawaii earlier this year. On any track that demands a level of precision and strategy over brute force it's still impossible to rule out the veteran who recorded his best European Tour finish of the season last week whilst defending his Spanish Open title and who averages over 71% of greens in regulation for the European Tour season to date. Included in last week's performance was another hole-in-one to add to his collection and the evergreen Spaniard has nothing to fear as he arrives in Surrey with a win and 3 top-8 finishes to his name here prior to the Els renovation, plus a 4th place finish 2 years ago for his best finish following the changes to the course.
Finally, with 6 places being paid each-way from a large number of mainstream bookmakers and Simon Khan proving that silly priced outsiders shouldn't be totally ignored, I'm also having a small punt on Soren Kjeldsen. The Dane hasn't won on the European Tour since 2009 - the year in which he achieved his career high OWGR ranking of 31st - and the past few seasons have been getting progressively more difficult for the 40 year-old as he's slipped to his lowest rating for over a decade, however there are signs of life reappearing in his game of late and he's worth a small punt here. 13th in Qatar earlier this season where he ranked 4th for overall putting was followed by a 14th place finish in Morocco (80.8% fairways hit) and 9th on his last start in Spain at the weekend where he ranked 2nd for GIR. Yes, there were some missed cuts and mid-division finishes sandwiched between those positives, however the encouraging thing is that individually every aspect of his game has found sufficient form of late to suggest that a contending week isn't far away when he finally puts it all together. A hell of a week to do that at the European Tour's flagship event you might argue, however pre-Els changes in 2010 Kjeldsen had a decent enough record here with a 7th place finish in 2003, 10th in 2008 and 3rd in 2009; couple that with an outstanding history at the tough, tree-lined Valderrama (a win and 2 runners-up finishes) when it was part of the European Tour circuit and I can see Soren finding some success at Wentworth where compatriot Anders Hansen has already won twice.
Our predictions and final tips for the 2016 BMW PGA Championship will be published here on the Tuesday before the event.