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After what seems like an eternity, the European Tour's regular schedule resumes again this week after more than a month off for those players not fortunate enough to have been involved in the WGC Match Play or The Masters. The Trophee Hassan II in Morocco is this week's task at hand before we head off to China for a fortnight as we start the build-up to the start of the Rolex Series which kicks off at Wentworth at the end of May.
This event in Morocco has been part of the European Tour schedule since 2010 and with 2 courses in use for this event since its inauguration, it's important to note that we're returning to the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam track outside of Rabat that hosted 3 rounds in 2010 and all 4 rounds last year. Defending champion Jeunghun Wang is one of just two players to be arriving here direct from The Masters, however neither he nor Mike Weir troubled the scorers at Augusta over the weekend whilst the rest of the attendees were sitting with their feet up. Indeed, aside from Wang and Joost Luiten who also played the WGC Match Play, only those who've been involved with 2nd or 3rd tier events in the past 4 weeks will have had any competitive action whatsoever since SSP Chawrasia won in India in early March on the European Tour.
Also this week, Steve Bamford previews the RBC Heritage over on the PGA Tour - you can read his thoughts for that event here.
Royal Golf Dar Es Salam, Rabat, Morocco. Designer: Trent Jones Senior, 1971; Course Type: Classical, Parkland; Par: 73; Length: 7,615 yards; Water Hazards: 3; Fairways: Kikuyu; Rough: Kikuyu Greens: Bent/Poa, 10' on the stimp.
Course Overview. The Red Course at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam is a 7,615 yard par 73 Robert Trent Jones Senior design carved at the King's request from the forest of Zaers back in 1971. The brief was to create a layout 'fit for a King' from the 1,000 acres at his disposal and that's what Trent Jones did, ultimately producing 45 holes across 3 separate courses to cater for golfers of various standards. A classical layout by design, this tree-lined track features numerous dog-legs, extensive bunkering and the customary Trent Jones upturned saucer-style greens. Different varieties of trees with a whole array of exotic fruit flank the fairways and Roman ruins between the 11th and 12th holes add to this unique test.
For this year's renewal, the 8th hole is listed as having been returned to a par-5 measuring 578 yards, whereas it was previously a long par-4 of 496 yards; other adjustments on the course versus last year are less impactful, however overall the course is due to play 128 yards longer than last season and with 5 par-5s instead of 4. The par 3s tend to prove the most testing aspect to this course with 3 of them measuring over 200 yards, plus there's the signature 9th hole where players need to clear the pond from 188 yards and find the tiny island green to avoid bogey or worse. Greens here are bentgrass which has seen some poa annua grow in over the years to make them a fairly standard bent/poa mix.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Trophee Hassan II that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event. Please note, this week's track was used for 3 rounds of the 2010 event won by Rhys Davies and again for all 4 rounds last year; 2011-2015 tournaments were held on a different course in Agadir: 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.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Jeunghun Wang, 50/1; 2015: Richie Ramsay, 80/1; 2014: Alejandro Canizares, 66/1; 2013: Marcel Siem, 40/1; 2012: Michael Hoey, 80/1; 2011: David Horsey, 80/1; 2010: Rhys Davies, 35/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Rabat is here. The tournament should enjoy mild conditions with temperatures in the low-to-mid 70s Fahrenheit before a warmer day on Sunday where 84 degrees is possible. It will be mostly sunny throughout with light winds picking up just a little to maybe 10 mph each afternoon. After a little rain on Monday this week sets up for some better scoring conditions compared to last year.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors. No official stats were recorded for winner Jeunghun Wang 12 months ago which is a little frustrating, however those players who achieved punters an each-way payout fared as follows:
With a 5-under total being sufficient to make the play-off last year, it's clear that this is a challenging course where biridies are at a premium. The addition of a 5th par-5 (assuming that the information from the European Tour is correct this week) and a better forecast this year should see the winning score a little lower relative to par this time around, however that doesn't mean that the course will play a whole lot easier. One aspect that sticks out from last year's stats is that even the leading contenders missed an abnormally high number of fairways and greens which put the emphasis very much on how players fared on and around these relatively small putting surfaces.
Looking at the most recent winners on this track, Ian Poulter (Moroccan Open, 2001) is a tidy player from tee-to-green who can be exceptional with the putter when he's on form. Rhys Davies, whose 25-under winning total in 2010 featured three rounds on this course, was renowned as one of the best putters in the world before losing his form and confidence with the flat stick in recent times. Last year's winner Jeunghun Wang, who putted exceptionally well on his way to victory, ranked 6th for the full season in both the Putts Per GIR and Total Putts categories on the European Tour for 2016, so clearly there's some correlation here in terms of flat stick prowess.
None of the three winners are particularly long off the tee which suggests that length isn't the be-all and end-all on this layout, however at over 7,600 yards the course would certainly appear to favour the longer hitters in terms of specification. Last year's cold mornings and breezy afternoons, combined with a bit of rain, helped keep a lid on scoring overall and whilst better weather is expected this year, I'd still err on the side of control combined with a tidy short game over brute force.
Despite missing the cut in China the week before grabbing his maiden European Tour victory here last year, Jeunghun Wang had nevertheless signalled his intent by finishing 2nd at the Indian Open prior to the enforced WGC/Masters break. A change in scheduling this year means that virtually all the players are coming into this week cold from a competitive golf perspective, so looking for those players who can hit the ground running seems sensible.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My final selections are as follows:
The European Tour's pre-Masters break didn't come at the best of times for James Morrison who had worked himself into some excellent form over the early part of the year. 23rd in Dubai and 12th in Malaysia preceded back-to-back top-6 finishes in South Africa and the 32 year-old's approach play improved relative to the field on each occasion. Progressive putting stats of 1.77, 1.71, 1.71 and 1.69 over that period also bodes well for this week, as do top-20 scrambling figures on each of those occasions. In fact statistically I very much like the look of Morrison this week as he ticks pretty much every box. Perhaps the reason that he's not higher up in the betting is that his record in Morocco on both the Challenge Tour and European Tour over the years is far from stellar - a 23rd place finish in 2014 at Agadir was his best effort - however none of those efforts were on this particular track and I suspect that given the state of his game this season that he'll take to this course very nicely indeed.
7 of Morrison's last 8 rounds have broken 70 and a continuation of that kind of level would surely see him in contention here this week on a relatively tough course. In fact if we're looking for a player who's more than capable of compiling a competitive score on the more challenging of layouts then we need to look no further than his best efforts over the last couple of years that read 1st (Spanish Open 2015, -10 total), 2nd (Open de France 2010, -10 total), 4th (Spanish Open 2016, +4 total) and 4th (Lyoness Open 2016, -10 total). I suspect that we're looking at somewhere in the region of -10 as being a good score here this week which fits in very nicely with those figures and it's interesting to note that 3 of those 4 efforts also came after a week or more break from competitive golf. RESULT: T13
Will Sergio Garcia's long-awaited maiden Major victory have some kind of positive knock-on effect on his compatriots over the next few weeks and months? The jury's out on such factors, as it is on other aspects of golfing psychology such as major life changes, becoming a father etc, however we've certainly seen stranger things happen and if one Spaniard is likely to latch onto Sergio's success and use that to boost his own confidence it's Pablo Larrazabal.
Some players are calm, reserved characters; others wear their heart on their sleeve and Pablo's very much in the second category as one of the more vocal characters on social media and he was clearly massively enthused by his friend's victory on Sunday. Will that translate to his own success in the near future? Watch this space, however given his excellent record in Morocco (9th, 4th and 3rd in this event - all at Agadir - between 2012-15) and signs that his game is in pretty good shape with finishes including 8th in Hong Kong and 2nd in Abu Dhabi already this season, I'm happy to take a chance that the 'Sergio Factor' is going to boost Larrazabal's game this week. RESULT: T13
Although he's yet to record a top-5 finish as a professional, I think it's only a matter of time before Paul Dunne grabs his first victory on the European Tour which may well be a stepping stone to bigger and better things the other side of the Atlantic in years to come. The Dublin-born Irishman attended the University of Alabama where he excelled from a golfing perspective, however it was at the Home Of Golf that he first surfaced to the wider audience by leading the 2015 Open Championship after 54-holes as an amateur before eventually finishing 30th from the final Sunday group. A baptism of fire most definitely, however despite not having pushed on quite as readily as some may have expected, he's still produced 3 top-10 finishes since then having turned professional shortly afterwards, plus he impressed on his PGA Tour debut at Torrey Pines, eventually finishing 13th.
16th here last year was promising given that he got to grips with the task at hand on and around the greens, ranking 10th for scrambling and 15th for putting, so with a year's worth of additional experience under his belt an improvement on that performance is more than possible. 6th on his penultimate start at the Tshwane Open ranks as his best professional finish and could have been so much better if it weren't for an opening round of 73. The putter was hot that week (1.56 putts per GIR) and if he can repeat that here then he won't be far away on Sunday. RESULT: 2nd, Lost Play-Off
Of the longer prices, one that particularly caught my eye was the 200/1 about former Trophee Hassan II winner Michael Hoey. That 2012 victory was his 4th European Tour title at the time - he's added another one since in Russia - and although it came on the other track used for this event in Agadir, the Northern Irishman is sure to have fond memories as he returns to this country (he also won the Moroccan Classic in 2008 on the Challenge Tour) and event. Fond memories alone won't get him into contention here though and it's fair to say that Hoey needs to make the most of these opportunities (he's here on a sponsor's invite) as he lost his European Tour card last year and narrowly missed out at Q-School in the final round in November in Girona, so his motivation to give this week his 100% attention has rarely been greater.
One thing we know about the 38 year-old is that he's well capable of winning when in contention with his 2011 Alfred Dunhill Links success ranking as his career highlight to date. A 7-under total to take the Open de Portugal title in 2009 and 10-under a couple of years later in Madeira suggests that the Belfast man isn't afraid of a challenge and when the putter gets hot he can be an extremely streaky scorer. After a disastrous 2016 campaign, it would seem that Michael has buckled down to the task at hand in his limited starts this season: 37th at Leopard Creek (1.54 putting average on the bentgrass greens, 3rd in the field) and 8th in India on his last European Tour start have contributed over €45k towards his Race to Dubai total as he looks to earn his playing privileges for next year as quickly as he can. RESULT: MC
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