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If the Masters signifies the true start of the golfing season for many golfers and punters alike then the European Tour finally reaching European soil must mean that we're approaching the more eagerly anticipate events on the calendar this side of the Atlantic. Our visit to the continent is just a brief sojourn however as the next 4 weeks take us back to more distant climes with China (twice), Morocco and Mauritius on the agenda before we return to the K-Club for this year's Irish Open in just over a month's time.
After a nearly 5 year hiatus, the world-class Valderrama graces the European Tour schedule once again. A former WGC and Ryder Cup venue, the track was briefly used for the Andalucia Masters in 2010 and 2011 having dropped off the schedule following the demise of the season-ending Volvo Masters and the famous layout will feature renovations that have been made since we last saw it used competitively. Tournament favourite Sergio Garcia will host the event and the former course winner (2011 Andalucia Masters) leads a fairly strong field containing the likes of the in-form Rafael Cabrera Bello, Andy Sullivan, 2008 Volvo Masters champion Soren Kjeldsen and Ryder Cup star Martin Kaymer to name but a few.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the RBC Heritage - you can read his thoughts on this event here.
Club de Golf Valderrama, Sotogrande, Spain. Designer: Trent Jones Snr, 1985, with recent Kyle Phillips updates; Course Type: Classical, Technical; Par: 71; Length: 6,991 yards; Fairways: Bermuda Tifway; Rough: Bermuda/Rye; Greens: Bentgrass (G2) 11'6" on the stimp; 2011 scoring average (Andalucia Masters): 73.95; Rd1: 74.75, Rd2: 74.69, Rd3: 72.98, Rd4: 72.22.
Course Overview. The course is set just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coastline and is a typical Trent Jones test in many respects with narrow, undulating fairways leading to tiny, sloping and fast bentgrass G2 greens. At a shade under 7,000 yards the course isn't long by today's standards, however it is still a stern test in all departments which can turn positively nasty if the weather closes in - fortunately for the players all looks fine and calm in that respect, however that's not to say this will be a pushover by any stretch of the imagination.
Changes to the course have generally been to the bunkers and tees, however the cork trees that line the fairways and give the course its claustrophobic feel have been reportedly cut back so how that affects difficulty levels remains to be seen. The layout remains the same with 3 par 5s in the par 71 35-36 format, with the back 9 and particularly the closing stretch featuring a succession of tough holes and the par 5 17th offering little in the way of respite, despite its seemingly attractive 536 yards.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Open de Espana 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.
Winners & Prices. 2015: James Morrison, 225/1; 2014: Miguel Angel Jimenez, 22/1; 2013: Raphael Jacquelin, 55/1; 2012: Francesco Molinari, 16/1; 2011: Thomas Aiken, 45/1; 2010: Alvaro Quiros, 18/1 . For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Valderrama is here. The tournament should enjoy pretty much perfect weather for golf with temperatures in the mid 70s Fahrenheit, mostly sunny conditions and light winds of between 5-10 mph.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 5 winners at Valderrama gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Hitting the narrow fairways at Valderrama is only a small part of the task at hand as is clear from the stats of the most recent winners on this track. GIR stats as low as these for winners is extremely rare which emphasises just how difficult it is to hit the greens here and the winner is going to need to have an outstanding week scrambling from off of the putting surfaces in order to compile a winning score. Valderrama truly tests all aspects of a player's game and any weaknesses are often cruelly exposed.
Incoming Form/Event Form Of Winner.
I've talked a lot about the course as opposed to the event and for a nomadic tournament like this that approach makes most sense in my view. Some characteristics remain fairly consistent at the Open de Espana though regardless of the venue and that is that a strong set-up tends to lead to a relatively in-form winner: Quiros (18/1) had finished 2nd in Qatar, 6th in Dubai and 6at at Doral before winning in 2010; Aiken (45/1) had top-7 finishes in Joburg, Qatar and Dubai to his name already that year; Molinari (16/1) had 8 top-20 finishes in 9 starts and arrived in Spain following a 6th place in China; Jacquelin (55/1) had missed just one cut in 13 starts and the tough, coastal track was ideal for him and Jimenez (22/1) had finished 4th at Augusta on his last start. Morrison (225/1) was the least obvious of the bunch, although even he arrived off a top-20 finish on his last start and had finished 6th earlier in the season in Abu Dhabi. For a summary of 2015 winners' current/event form prior to winning their respective events click here.
Boiling it all down then it looks like the most likely winner will be a player who can handle a grind who's shown some good form of late and is performing nicely on and around the greens. Accuracy both off the tee and with approach shots is an advantage and far outweighs brute force off of the tee in my opinion.
My selections are as follows:
The Spanish line-up is strong this week with tournament host Sergio Garcia heading the betting at a best-priced 6/1 and with incredible course form of 7/5/7/7/2/2/2/34/4/10/1 it's impossible to cross him off the list of very likely contenders here this week. The only negative I can really produce is that hosting an event like this - it's his national Open Championship after all - is likely to demand a lot of his attention and that's not ideal if you're looking to back a player at such a short price. Rafa Cabrera-Bello is playing some outstanding golf at present and following his Match Play and Houston Open results he produced his best ever Major finish over the weekend at Augusta. 14/1 is plenty short enough though for a player who still struggles to get over the line when push comes to shove and at a far more attractive price I'm happy to take that pair on with another local in the shape of Alejandro Canizares.
The Spaniard has disappointed a little in recent weeks after an excellent showing in the Middle East, producing finishes of 5th in Abu Dhabi, 27th in Qatar and 8th in Dubai where he was putting beautifully despite being a little off with his long game. The son of former Ryder Cupper Jose Maria Canizares is a star in his own right nowadays having twice been victorious on the European Tour including, most recently, at the classical Moroccan track used for the Trophee Hassan II in 2014 when he beat Andy Sullivan by 5 clear strokes. The 33 year-old should win more events given his raw credentials - he's accurate off the tee (14th for fairways hit last season), has a great short game (top 50 for scrambling each of the last 3 years and currently 7th in 2016) and is an excellent putter when at the top of his game - a potent combination for here and his only handicap, length off the tee, won't be punished anywhere near as much on this relatively short layout.
A tie for 35th in Thailand was a vast improvement over his missed cut the year before on what's a wholly incompatible layout for the Spaniard and 15th in India on his last start showed further steps forward with a much improved tee-to-green performance and an all-round ranking of 3rd in the field. Valderrama is Alejandro's affiliate club and finishes of 21st and 7th here at the Andalucia Masters proves that he can put his local knowledge to good use. With vociferous local support likely to spur on the 33 year-old and having not been overawed in his home Open Championship in the past with finishes of 7th (2014), 3rd (2010) and 2nd (2012), perhaps this will be the week that sees Canizares finally lift this trophy.
I'm not going mad with this bet after his Augusta exploits, however I couldn't not back Soren Kjeldsen here this week on his most prolific course whilst riding the crest of a wave following his best effort in a Major since finishing 6th at the US PGA Championship back in 2009. The 40 year-old Dane has finished inside the top 2 here at Valderrama on 3 of his last 4 visits and his 2008 Volvo Masters success still ranks as his most prestigious title given its stature at the time. The 4-time European Tour winner also won the 2009 Open de Andalucia in nearby Seville and he's clearly right at home in this part of the world.
Aside from last week's effort at The Masters where he eventually finished 7th, ranking inside the top-6 for accuracy and GIR in the process, Soren's runner-up finish behind Matt Fitzpatrick at Woburn last year also jumps off the page in terms of tangible form for this week. Now my only reservation is that post-Major appearances - particularly from players who finished in the upper echelons of the leaderboard - can be patchy and if things don't go right early on then Kjeldsen may take his foot off the throttle making an each-way bet far less attractive in my view. So it's win or bust the way I see it and given the way that the World No. 41 held his form when playing well in 2015 gives a lot of encouragement for another strong performance here this week.
One player who consistently pops up on classical, tree-lined tracks is Julien Quesne and given his current form he demands to be backed here this week despite it being his competitive course debut. We picked the Frenchman up at the 2013 Italian Open at a similar price for much the same reason as he approached that event in decent form (7th the week before in Holland) with the feeling that the track would suit and the same logic may well apply here this week. 4th in Malaysia, 9th in Perth and 10th in India is pretty much all the encouragement I need to shortlist the 35 year-old, however when you combine that with the course setup on which he thrives then it's game on in my opinion. 5th for GIR on his last start in India on that fiddly track suggests to me that his game is right where he wants it to be and a return to bentgrass greens can only be a positive for Quesne here this week. Competitive debut at Valderrama this may be, however his other European Tour victory came at the Open de Andalucia up the coast at the Aloha Golf Club and he should feel comfortable here this week.
Some interesting longshots this week and last year's 225/1 winner of this event James Morrison gives some encouragement that an outsider could well make the frame and reward punters. First up is Gregory Havret who's been playing some very tidy golf of late and seems to have been overlooked with a number of firms quoting 90/1 about the Frenchman here. 13th for driving accuracy for this season to date and over 71% of greens is regulation is a positive platform for this week's test and incoming form of 10th in Thailand and 6th in India has featured the 39 year-old's typically immaculate tee-to-green game. 4 top-30 finishes from his last 5 Open de Espana campaigns, including 5th in 2011, is strong enough to interest me here, however course form of 21/6 over his last two attempts is really what catches the eye. The 2010 US Open runner-up is capable of mixing it on tough tracks and there's really not a lot to dislike this week given his price.
David Lipsky's form entering this week reminds me very much of how he prepared for his first and thus far only European Tour victory at Crans back in 2014. The American was denied by a 72nd-hole slam-dunk from Felipe Aguilar at The Championship at Laguna National (another tight, tree-lined affair) before treading water with 3 consecutive top-25 performances before producing a sublime performance at the Omega European Masters on course debut and eventually beating Graeme Storm in a play-off to lift the title with an excellent performance from tee-to-green (3rd for accuracy, 2nd for GIR). Fast forward nearly 2 years and the 27 year-old arrives here off of the back of finishes of 10th (Perth), 19th (Thailand) and 9th (India) and having produced positive performances with all aspects of his game over those 3 events that, if he can put it all together for 4 rounds that suggests to me that he's in the right kind of form to take home some more silverware. 3rd at last year's Italian Open also encourages and anyone with a victory at Crans to their name can plot their way around a course, even if this is his competitive debut here at Valderrama.
Finally I'm taking a chance on Paraguay's Fabrizio Zanotti who needs to put together a decent string of results over the next few months with the exemption from his 2014 BMW International Open victory ending this year. 132nd in the Race to Dubai at this early stage of the season isn't reason to hit the panic button just yet, however the 32 year-old is better than that and a tight, tricky affair like this is the perfect terrain for him to get back on track. When he's on his game Zanotti's tee-to-green prowess is his greatest strength which sets him in great stead for a test like Valderrama and although just 2 cuts made from 6 European Tour starts in 2016 hardly sets the pulse racing, at least when he has made the weekend his long game has looked in decent enough nick. What really interests me though is his 3rd place finish at the Italian Open and 2nd place finish at Woburn last autumn - both are solid indicators for success on a track like this and he'll find himself in comfortable surroundings here in Spain having made the weekend on both of his Valderrama starts. Fabrizio also finished 2nd to Thomas Levet in the 2009 Spanish Open at the tree-lined PGA Golf Catalunya in Girona.
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