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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 Championship, the US Open, in a little over 3 weeks time. The winner of this event gets an automatic invitation to Pinehurst if they've not already qualified, however for many this will be as much about taking a share of the generous €4.75m prize fund that can make a real difference in the Race To Dubai and Ryder Cup qualification as well as helping to secure 2015 playing privileges for those lower down the pecking order.
As usual for this event we have pretty much all of the World's best European Tour players in attendance this week, including 9 of the World's top 30 players - namely Stenson, Garcia, Rose, McIlroy, Schwartzel, Donald, Poulter, Westwood and Kaymer - plus an excellent supporting cast as you'd expect for the European Tour's flagship event. The only obvious names missing are Graeme McDowell, who's chosen to stay Stateside with his pregnant wife Kristin, and Victor Dubuisson who's pulled out due to injury, however other than that we've got a pretty healthy attendance.
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.
Wentworth's West Course needs little introduction and after a wet, mild winter and recent warm weather the course 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. Rough isn't so much the issue here; trees and strategically placed bunkers are far more likely to be the undoing of those drifting away from the straight and narrow. The warm temperatures and sunshine of last weekend isn't likely to be repeated over the 4 tournament days with slightly cooler air and showers forecast; Thursday is likely to be the toughest day wind-wise with a weather front moving across the British Isles and a breeze in the 15-20mph range is possible - that's certainly enough to keep the players honest around these parts.
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, which he again proved last season when making the play-off. 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:
It's virtually co-favourites of 4 at the top of the betting with Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Justin Rose all in the 12/1-14/1 region generally and, as always, you could build a case for any of them if you so wished. McIlroy has looked like a winner-in-waiting all season and is likely to walk an event sooner or later once he strings 4 rounds together; Westwood grabbed a morale-boosting win in Malaysia last month and has top-7 finishes at Augusta and TPC Sawgrass to his name in his last few outings; Luke Donald has won this twice in the past 3 years and 2nd at the RBC Heritage on his penultimate start would suggest that swing changes have pretty much bedded-in now. However, of the 4, I think that Justin Rose is the most likely winner here this week and is the one I'll be backing.
Most 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 6 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 a home crowd, however this year is slightly different as the pressure he puts on himself to contend here will be slightly lower and that could spell success by Sunday night. The Englishman will be defending his US Open title in 3 weeks time and arrives at Wentworth for the first time as a Major Champion, so by comparison this event will feel far 'easier' given the massive pressures of defending at Pinehurst, however it's his recent rehabilitation from tendonitis in his shoulder that's likely to have lowered his expectations and taken the pressure off of his game. That rehabilitation looks complete now with progressive form of 14th (Masters), 8th (New Orleans), 5th (Quail Hollow) and 4th (Sawgrass) on his last start.
His performance at the Players Championship shouldn't be underestimated (ignoring the 2-shot penalty fiasco) - TPC Sawgrass has never been a happy hunting ground for Justin who, before this season, had failed to register a single top-20 in the event in 10 attempts and had missed the cut 5 times, so a 4th-place finish gives some indication of where his game is currently. Translate that form to a track that he's come close to winning on twice already and we could have a recipe for success here this week. "I would say definitely I've been feeling good for a number of weeks now and feeling good on the driving range for at least a month. Sometimes it's a lag affect before it shows up on the golf course, but I just felt that I needed to string a number of rounds together. My short game is sharp, and I'm seeing the ball go in with my putter, so all in all feeling really good." was how he summed up his game recently - let's hope he continues his improving form into this week. RESULT: T25
Contenders at Wentworth generally have a recent success under their belt - Manassero had won in Singapore the previous winter, Donald had won the Transitions Championship and WGC Accenture respectively before his two wins, Khan the Qualifying School, Casey the Shell Houston Open & Abu Dhabi Championship, Jimenez the Hong Kong Open - so Fisher's first win for nearly 4 years at the Tshwane Open earlier this year puts him on the right page for this. The Ascot-born Englishman recently switched to a new Nike putter and the results have been impressive - combined with his exceptional long game any improvement in that respect is noteworthy - and although he hasn't quite hit the same highs since his success in South Africa, there were strong signs last week in Spain that he's ready for another contending performance.
The 33 year-old local, who's an ex-scholar at Wentworth, feels immensely comfortable on his home track and despite the changes since his schoolboy days he still has a distinct advantage over the bulk of this field in terms of sheer knowledge and experience of these parts. 2nd behind Paul Casey in 2009 pre-remodelling and 10th the year after following the Els changes, the 5-time European Tour winner has the perfect game for Wentworth and finished inside the top-20 for putting here last year. If he can rekindle the flat stick form that he found in South Africa a couple of months back we could well see him in contention this weekend. RESULT: MC
Continuing the theme of players who have performed well at Wentworth in the past, here we have two in-form European Tour stalwarts also worthy of backing:
Anders Hansen can count himself exceptionally unlucky not to have won the inaugural Championship at Laguna National a fortnight ago when Felipe Aguilar's holed approach shot on the 72nd hole left him a shot outside any potential playoff. The Dane didn't do much wrong though over the 4 days and he'll know that his game is in great shape as he returns to the scene of his two greatest victories in this event in 2002 and 2007. Yes, the course has changed somewhat since his last victory, however this is still the same stretch of land for all intents and purposes and the 43 year-old can draw on his vast experience this week. Hansen hit 81.9% of greens on his aforementioned last start and ranked 6th for putting on the week - that's the kind of combination that's going to get you into contention more often than not - and now that his injury woes are behind him we may well see his name far more regularly on European Tour leaderboards, starting with this week. RESULT: T30
Like Ross Fisher, Alejandro Canizares is another player who has secured an early season victory after a barren few years. In fact it was 8 years between wins for the son of Jose Maria Canizares whose 5-stroke demolition of the field in Morocco was mightily impressive to watch. As so often happens after the boil is finally lanced, the 31 year-old proceeded to miss his next 3 cuts including a virtual home game at Sotogrande, however last week's Spanish Open top-10 suggests he's now back on track and ready to contend once again. The catalyst for success for Alejandro has been a massive improvement with his approach play: he's a great putter who typically resides in the lower third of greens in regulation stats, so it was almost inevitable that he'd eventually win another event when he found his range with his irons - as he did in Morocco. 3rd last week on the same count is eye-catching therefore; combined with last year's near miss here - he led going into the Sunday before 3 bogeys in the middle of his final round derailed him - the touring pro for Valderrama must be feeling confident about his chances this week. RESULT: MC
Simon Khan (200/1), Marc Warren (150/1), Alejandro Canizares (250/1) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (150/1) all secured full each-way payouts last year so there's certainly scope to make some profit if we can dig out the right longshots - here's a couple worthy of a small investment:
This event has a habit of throwing up repeat contenders - clearly some players get on with the track and others don't - so Marc Warren's performance last year that eventually saw him lose out in the playoff having led with 4 holes to play gets him the nod. Combine that effort with some improving form of late that's seen 6 paid weekends from his last 7 outings, plus a best-of-the week 73.6% GIR last week in Spain, and we need to get him in the team here this week. In truth, the 33 year-old's season form is very similar to this time last year with one top-10 and a few mid-division performances under his belt and the Glasgow man clearly feels comfortable around these parts with 5 top-30 finishes from 6 completed events. The 2-time European Tour winner has failed to finish off 3 gilt-edged chances to secure more silverware over the past couple of years, however he's well capable of getting into contention and reward each-way backers even if he struggles to finish the job off. RESULT: T16
I was pleasantly surprised to see the 150/1 quoted about Raphael Jacquelin this week as he's been in my thoughts for this event for a few weeks. I backed the Frenchman at Laguna National and he finished in a frustrating 8th place in an event that ended up being a little too low-scoring for his liking - that said, he did very little wrong and made only 2 bogeys all week, counterbalanced by 17 birdies. His scrambling was excellent and his long game solid so having defended his Spanish Open title last week adequately (24th) it's now time to speculate again at what is a generous price in my opinion. 4th here in 2011 is a huge positive in an event that is littered with examples of previous contenders going on to succeed further down the line and with positive vibes still ringing around the French golfing fraternity I wouldn't be surprised to see the 40 year-old in the mix on Sunday afternoon. RESULT: T46