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After a 3-week break to allow for the WGC at Firestone and US PGA at Oak Hill - plus a blank week on the schedule - the European Tour returns to action this week as we begin the final dozen strokeplay events of the 2013 season, culminating in the new 'Final Series' and ultimately the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in mid-November. With the start of the PGA Tour Playoffs keeping most of the household names away from Scotland this is a great chance for Europe's rank-and-file to compete in a decent event on an excellent track. Francesco Molinari leads the line from a betting perspective at 14/1 and as one of only 2 OWGR top-50 players in attendance (the other is the seemingly out-of-form Thorbjorn Olesen) he's clearly a class act in what is otherwise a pretty ordinary field.
The Ryder Cup next year will no doubt be the main conversation point in commentary over the course of the 4 days with Gleneagles hosting the 2014 renewal. Indeed this is the final time we'll see the track prior to next Autumn's clash as the Johnnie Walker Championship will be taking a one-year breather to allow for the course to be 100% ready for battle. In preparation for the Ryder Cup a number of changes were made to the PGA Centenary Course prior to last year's event with 1,000 tonnes of additional sand added to the remodelled bunkers to demand a more strategic approach off the tee, plus more extensive changes to 6,9 and 18 that made the course more scoreable to those who found the fairways and greens on those holes. A sub-air system was also installed to improve the quality of the greens, tackling an issue which had been griped about over the years and that went down well with the players by all accounts. Since then the tweaks have been pretty minor so expect much of the same this year as we saw last. Qualification for Paul McGinley's team doesn't start until next week in Wales, however with the captain in attendance there'll be a few players keen to make an early impression with most of the 'expected' team members in action over in New Jersey.
The main difference this year is that we're playing on a relatively dry track whereas recent renewals have generally seen far soggier conditions. Fairways will have more run on them this year and with trouble lurking off of the straight and narrow this will demand a far more strategic approach from the tee - length will be less of a factor this year in my opinion, instead I suspect accuracy and high GIR will be far more critical to success come Sunday afternoon. The 7,296 yard par 72 isn't a pushover by any means and generally anything into double figures under par coming into Sunday should be in a contending position.
The last 7 winners of this event were all previous winners on the European Tour, although form varied dramatically on the run-up to Gleneagles. Paul Lawrie had a victory in Qatar and runners-up finish at Wentworth before victory here last year; Thomas Bjorn won a 5-man playoff to add a 2nd title to his name in 2011 before picking up a 3rd victory the following week; Edoardo Molinari was having a great season which ultimately earned him a Ryder Cup pick from Monty in 2010; similarly Paul Casey in 2006 was at the peak of his form when he won this. The other 3 winners sandwiched in between were having far less impressive seasons - Hedblom, Havret and Warren each had just a single top 10 to their names in the season to date before triumphing here.
Here's who I'm backing this week:
The last 3 winners at Gleneagles - Ed Molinari, Thomas Bjorn and Paul Lawrie - had all already grabbed European Tour silverware in the season and if that trend is to continue then we have a very short list to choose from with Stephen Gallacher being the most likely victor in my opinion. Bjorn and Lawrie had both won the Qatar Masters - unfortunately this year's winner Chris Wood has elected not to play here - however Gallacher won a week after Qatar at the Dubai Desert Classic and that success catapulted the 38 year-old up to 60th in the World, his highest ever position. Confidence is high for the Scot and, with a homeland victory already under his belt at the Dunhill Links in 2004, he'll be keen to ensure this trophy remains in local hands after compatriot Lawrie's success last season.
Gallacher has been knocking on the door of this event for years without really being able to string 4 good enough rounds together to win. 5 top-10 finishes at Gleneagles from his last 10 attempts doesn't really tell the whole story - opening rounds of 76 (2003, finished 5th), 75 (2011, finished 6th) and 74 (2012, finished 6th) could have potentially all been victories had he opened with something in the 60s. Conversely a final round 77 pushed him from a contending position in 2010 to a tie for 14th - again a round in the 60s would have sufficed. Finding greens is Stevie G's strength - he's always at the upper-end of that statistic over the full season - however it's his putting here last year on the revamped surfaces that secures his vote from me as he topped both the putts per GIR and total putts stats for the week, that's pretty unusual for him! More recently 8th on a tough track in France and 21st at the Open are both solid performances relative to the field and rounds of 68 (round 2) and 69 (round 4) at Oak Hill were pretty impressive. His victory in Dubai came after 2 consecutive top 10s in that event and he arrives here with identical statistics - I'm expecting a big week from one of the local favourites here. RESULT: T2nd, Lost Playoff
Of the season-long winners in attendance (Gallacher, Jacquelin, Uihlein, Rumford, Hoey, Jamieson, Thornton and Fichardt), the only other player who holds appeal for me here is Raphael Jacquelin. Had Brett Rumford been in slightly better recent form (he's gone on record to say he's struggling with his swing at the moment) or if Peter Uihlein had some experience of the track then I may well have backed them, however I'll settle for the bearded Frenchman who won the tough Spanish Open earlier this year. Conditions aren't forecast to be either excessively wet or windy in Scotland this year, however the course isn't a pushover by any stretch and Jacquelin is a master when it comes to slowly accumulating a score on tougher tracks. The 4-time European Tour winner has 4 top-10s in this event to his name, including 3rd here in 2000, and finished 8th on his last start (in Scotland) in a far stronger field. Plays some of his best golf when fresh and the 3-week break will have suited him down to the ground.
Gregory Havret seems to come alive when he ventures onto Scottish soil and the 3-time European Tour winner could well be warming up for another victory after finishing in a tie for 5th at the Jack Nicklaus design in Russia on his last start. Since falling outside of the OWGR top 100 last spring the Frenchman has struggled with his game somewhat, however recent results suggest a change in fortune with 5 top-20 finishes in his last 8 outings and a season's best finish at Tseleevo. His all-round game is looking in good nick right now and a return to the scene of his last European Tour triumph in 2008 could be just what the doctored ordered for the 36 year-old. Only 3 players putted better than him in Russia and that confidence with the flat stick is key for Gregory, as will have been making 21 birdies on a course that was a touch on the long side for him. He's neat and tidy from tee-to-green and with the aforementioned victory here, plus another at Loch Lomond to draw upon, I can see Havret competing here in Scotland while fresh as he was on his way to victory 5 years ago.
Continuing the Jack Nicklaus/Russian Open theme from Havret, I've saved a couple of points for two longer-priced players who could enter the equation, both of whom finished top-5 at Tseleevo. Firstly, Mark Foster has performed well here over the last couple of seasons and will be hoping that it's a case of third time lucky this week. The 38 year-old hasn't won on the European Tour for 10 years however he came closest here in 2011 when becoming the 3rd player to fall out of the 5-man playoff that Thomas Bjorn eventually won - however in truth Foster should have wrapped up victory in regulation play as he only needed a par at the 72nd hole to lift the trophy. That wasn't to be, however he proved his liking for this Gleneagles track again last season by leading at the halfway point before drifting to finish 26th as mistakes crept into his game. His return to form in Russia makes interesting reading then and could be the timely lift that the Englishman needs for another valiant attempt at this trophy.
Finally James Morrison is worth a punt at a long price now that he's seemingly found his long game once again. The 28 year-old Chertsey man will have been delighted to see his pal Alastair Cook lead England to Ashes victory (Morrison played in the same youth team as the England cricket captain) and that may help spur the 2010 Madeira Islands Open winner to his second European Tour victory in the near future. His tie for 5th in Russia featured great control from tee-to-green and was his best finish for nearly 2 years on the circuit, backing up a much improved performance at Castle Stuart where he was competitive for the first 2 days before drifting away. 21st and 19th here in the last 2 seasons holds some promise and if he can control the ball as well as he did in Russia then he could find himself in contention here on a drier track where his lack of punch off of the tee won't leave him as exposed as some other setups.