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With Ryder Cup fever building with every passing day, the European Tour heads to the scene of the 2010 Team Europe triumph as the final preparations are made for next week's showpiece a few hundred miles further north. With the FedEx Cup having reached its climax last week at East Lake, the Wales Open is the only event available for top-class golfers this week and 4 of Paul McGinley's team - namely Jamie Donaldson, Lee Westwood, Stephen Gallacher and Thomas Bjorn - are all in attendance here in South Wales. Now, before you strike those 4 names off of your list on the basis that they'll be far more interested in preparing for next week's battle, it's worth considering that Ryder Cuppers don't have a bad recent record in the final warm-up event - indeed Robert Karlsson was the last team member to win the week before the big event (2008) - however whether the likes of Westwood et al attack this week all guns blazing remains to be seen.
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Of far more consequence to many of this week's attendees will be the fact that there are only 4 more strokeplay events after this week before we head into the European Tour's 'Final Series' and that means that positions need to be rapidly improved for some in order to either put themselves into position to play these big-money events which conclude (as always) in Dubai, or simply to retain playing privileges for 2015. That said, this is a pretty strong field on what's proving to be a challenging track and some of the Tour's lesser lights will need to have an outstanding week if they're going to feature at the top end of the leaderboard on Sunday.
The Twenty Ten course at Celtic Manor needs no introduction - at 7,352 yards the par 71 offers a decent test to the professionals with generous fairways encouraging a healthy smash off the tee, however with water lurking on many holes there's no room for serious waywardness. The yardage and course setup suggests that bombers should prosper here, however they certainly don't have it all their own way if you look at the contenders and winners over the past few seasons. Since 2008, of the 6 winners (Strange, Huldahl, McDowell, Noren, Jaidee and Bourdy) the only player who I'd class as possessing anything more than moderate length off the tee is Alex Noren and I suspect that the shorter hitters won't be as penalised as the card might suggest. It's also fair to say that this event has become one of the sterner tests on the schedule with single-figure totals under par getting the job done in each of the past 3 seasons.
The exposed track, which is a fusion of the old Trent Jones Jnr-designed Wentwood Hills track combined with 9 new holes added by Ross McMurray back in 2007, features five par 3s and four par 5s to create its overall par of 71 and it's those holes that may well hold the key to success around these parts. Scoring on the par 5s is essential, as it often is for the modern-day golfer, however survival on the tough par 3s is just as critical at Celtic Manor. The short holes played a combined 576 over par 12 months ago and those players who can tame the 3rd, 7th, 10th, 13th and 17th over the course of the 4 days should set themselves in good stead for a decent week.
Despite a reasonable weather forecast with moderate breezes accompanying the sunshine and odd shower, I still can't see this turning into a birdie-fest and, for me, the key to success is quality approach shots having kept drives away from the worst of the trouble. The bent/poa putting surfaces aren't the toughest on Tour and will reward good golf shots, however the emphasis for me is far more about hitting greens in regulation and slowly accumulating a score. My selections are as follows:
It's difficult to oppose Joost Luiten's favouritism for this event and, instead of trying to fight it, I'll embrace the view that he's the most likely winner and back him accordingly. 2nd here on debut in 2012 where he immediately got to grips with the tee-to-green demands of this Welsh layout was impressive (4th for accuracy, 7th for GIR) and last year's effort to finish 4th was due largely to a similar set of statistics as he finished 5th for greens hit on the weeks. In both instances his putting wasn't quite up to the task as he struggled to beat 1.8 putts per GIR, however right now he's having no such issues and that makes him extremely dangerous. 4th and 5th place finishes over his last 2 starts has been driven by a putter that has warmed from 1.724 putts in Italy (21st in the field) to 1.642 (6th) last week in Holland and, quite frankly, if he repeats something in between those numbers with a typically strong GIR week then it will take something special to beat him.
Last week's defence of his KLM Open title was derailed by one bad hole on Saturday - a quadruple bogey on the par-5 2nd meant he gave 4 shots to the entire field on a hole that average under par throughout the week. Take that away and he'd have surely pushed eventual winner Paul Casey to the very end, however it's of great credit that he bounced back from that setback to finish in a tie for 5th. Perhaps of more consequence was that he birdied 6 of the 16 par 3s for a 4-under total on those holes over the week and that's great preparation for the demands of Celtic Manor's short holes. The 28 year-old was naturally disappointed to finish outside of the Ryder Cup places after a decent campaign, however he's good enough to make future teams in my opinion and he at 48th in the OWGR he'll be looking at this week as a huge opportunity to cement his place in the all-important top 50 as the golfing year approaches its conclusion which, in turn, will open many doors for next season. RESULT: Winner
Last week's effort from Dyson on a track he loves and an event he dominates was hardly a surprise, however the Englishman's body language was hugely positive and being a momentum player he could easily follow that up with another strong week in contention. Despite not possessing the power off the tee of many of his peers, the 36 year-old is still capable of finding more than his fair share of greens in regulation - currently ranking 18th for the season (20th in 2013) - and that's the perfect stat for attacking Celtic Manor when you consider that he's also found some form with putter, ranking inside the top dozen for putts per GIR on both of his last 2 starts. Never outside the top 20 here on his last 4 starts, the 6-time European Tour winner has always been the kind of player who can string a prolonged period of form together when everything clicks - indeed his aforementioned victories all came in pairs achieved in the same seasons - and with his hunger for the game back following his rules altercation, I suspect he'll be adding a 7th trophy to his cabinet before too long, possibly as soon as Sunday. RESULT: WD Before Start
A trio of mid-priced players to bolster my team come in the shape of Edoardo Molinari, Peter Uihlein and Pablo Larrazabal, each of whom have reasons to look forward to this week. Berndt Wiesberger also warrants serious consideration, however the Austrian hasn't made the weekend in his last 3 visits here and that's a significant enough concern for me, despite on paper seeming to fit this test quite nicely.
Edoardo Molinari has been flattering to deceive over the past few weeks, however he's worth supporting here as the positive vibes from Team Europe's triumph here in 2010 may just give him that extra boost needed to help stay in contention for 4 full days. Being allocated the same locker at Celtic Manor that he used 4 years ago has enthused the Italian and may go some way to erasing the memories of last week's drop from contention over the weekend having gone out in the final group on Saturday morning; fact remains, however, that the older Molinari is playing some great golf following his return from injury and his putting has been particularly strong for the past couple of weeks. 4th behind Graeme McDowell here in 2010 was positive on a week where his tee-to-green game was oddly better than his putting and 2nd last season at the Malaysian Open is also interesting given how frequently that event pops up as a positive for recent winners of this event. 6 birdies and no bogeys from the 16 par-3s at Kennemer was on a par with Spaceman Andy Sullivan and only a shot off the top performance of the week in that respect (Paul Waring) - a similar performance here would set him up nicely for a decent week. RESULT: T4
After a poor mid-season, the return to Europe of Peter Uihlein's good friend and roommate Brooks Koepka may be the kick-start that the former amateur number 1 needs to rescue a year that's otherwise petering out. The fact that Koepka has also played well since returning from the US (3rd at Crans, 11th in Holland) and isn't playing this week in Wales may also be a huge incentive for the 25 year-old to improve further on last week's 22nd place finish that promised much more after 54 holes, starting Sunday as he did from the penultimate group. It was this time last year that Uihlein's game found a second wind after his early season victory in Madeira and 2nd here at Celtic Manor was quickly followed by another runners-up finish at St Andrews and a 5th at the high-class BMW Masters. The long hitter, who currently sits 7th in Driving Distance for the season, took an immediate liking to the track here in Wales making 7 birdies and an eagle on the par 5s to finish a couple of shots off the pace, however with that course experience under his belt and a distinct improvement with his approach play over the past fortnight (35th Crans, 21st Holland), I wouldn't be surprised to see another improvement from the talented young American here this week. RESULT: T26
Finally I'm going to give Pablo Larrazabal a chance here despite his implosion last week that saw a 2 shot halfway lead disappear entirely as he shot 7-over for 4 holes around the turn on Saturday. The thing with Pablo is that he often needs a near miss to remind him that he's capable of winning and when his game is in decent order he can maintain good form for a few events on the trot. His 2011 victory in Germany, which followed a 4th place finish here and 11th in Italy the week after, came 12 months after he'd blown a gilt-edged opportunity in that same event and whilst this scenario is a little different, the fact remains that the Spaniard has the ability to both exorcise his demons and win decent quality events as his other wins in France and Abu Dhabi demonstrate. The 31 year-old ranks highly in a number of key stats including performances on bent/poa putting surfaces and exposed tracks like this, plus he's one of the better wind players that may prove useful on a track that's often breezier than the forecast suggests. 65th in the OWGR is also a big carrot for the Barcelona man as a win between now and the end of the year would put him on the verge of the coveted top-50 spot he needs to provide the foundations for a progressive 2015 campaign. RESULT: MC