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After an excellent event at The Grove, the European Tour returns to the Victoria Clube de Golfe, Vilamoura for the 10th consecutive year as the battle for playing privileges and access to the season finale in Dubai reaches fever pitch. With the WGC HSBC Champions next week ahead of the shortened Final Series, this really is last chance saloon for many of this week's attendees so expect players to have a real go this week in an event that's all about attacking golf.
Last year's runaway winner Andy Sullivan returns to defend his title and is a best-priced 20/1 to achieve that feat, however it's the massively in-form pair of Alex Noren - fresh off of his third win in recent months - and Ryder Cup star Thomas Pieters who dominate the betting with the pair rating as 7/1 and 8/1 shots respectively. The late removal of Alex Levy from the field has done nothing to improve the odds at the top of the betting and those looking to back Tommy Fleetwood will do well to find 18/1 this week, however this isn't an event that's been particularly kind to the favourites in recent years and perhaps the value lies elsewhere.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford casts his eye over this week's action at the CIMB Classic - you can read his preview here.
Victoria Clube de Golfe, Vilamoura, Portugal. Designer: Arnold Palmer, 2004; Course Type: Resort; Par: 71; Length: 7,146 yards; Fairways: Bermuda; Rough: Rye/Bermuda; Greens: L93 Bentgrass; Stimp: 10.5ft.
Course Overview. The Victoria course tends to be set up to suit the more aggressive players who can handle the fast, undulating bentgrass greens, however a premium still remains on finding the vast majority of greens in regulation to be in position to make a decent enough score. The 7,146 yard, par 71 Arnold Palmer design is pretty flat and exposed with water in play on 7 holes and a number of strategically-placed fairway bunkers to contend with, however it's not overly difficult by today's standards and a score of 18-under par or better is likely to be required to be in with a sniff come Sunday afternoon. 10 years' worth of growth for the scattered trees and shrubs won't overly scare the players and birdie-making is the order of the day to succeed around here with a fairly good weather forecast allowing for low scores.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Portugal Masters 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: Andy Sullivan, 50/1; 2014: Alexander Levy, 70/1; 2013: David Lynn, 80/1; 2012: Shane Lowry, 66/1; 2011: Tom Lewis, 100/1; 2010: Richard Green, 50/1 . 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 Vilamoura is here. A settled first two days are expected with dry and largely sunny weather and temperatures reaching the low 70s Fahrenheit in the afternoons. The weekend has the potential for rain and a little more wind.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the last 6 winners of this event gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited to this test:
In lower-scoring years the winner has generally dominated on the par 4s. Sullivan was -13 for the par 4s, Levy was -11 over two rounds, Lynn -10, Lewis -7 and Green -9; given that the three par-5s are on the long side at 579, 589 and 610 yards this makes a fair amount of sense as they're 3-shotters to the vast majority of the field in normal conditions. With winners like Lynn and Green in the past 6 years, long hitters don't seemingly hold a massive advantage here at Vilamoura, instead finding a minimum 75% of greens in regulation and putting lights out seems to be the way forward.
All 9 previous winners here had recorded at least a top-25 finish in their past 3 starts, so if you want to be as rigid as excluding every player who doesn't fit this criteria then you're already down to a fairly short list of players. 6 of the past 7 winners here had recorded a win (Sullivan, Levy) or a runner-up finish (Lynn, Lowry, Green, Westwood) in that season to date so had been clearly knocking at the door at various points that year. With winning scores ranging from 50/1 to 100/1 over the past 6 years, this event doesn't seem to overly favour those at the very top of the betting - not unusual for resort-style tests where a hot putter is often the key component.
Bookmaker Offers: Paddy Power are the only bookmaker who haves extended their EW terms this week, going 7 places each-way at 1/5 odds:
My selections are as follows:
Both Alex Noren and Thomas Pieters are playing the kind of golf that could see either of them win this title and neither player can be dismissed this week, however at more than 4 times the price I'm happy to take a chance on Peter Hanson who's working his way back up to top gear following an injury-plagued few years.
Having resided in the OWGR top-50 for long stretches of his career - with a best ranking of 17th following his BMW Masters victory in 2012 - the Swede has steadily drifted in the rankings and the days of automatic qualification for the Ryder Cup and all 4 Majors are now a distant memory. At 39 years young all is not lost in the world of professional golf though and I'm happy to take a chance on the 6-time European Tour winner after a string of promising performances of late culminated in a contending 4th place finish last week where he played in the final Sunday group courtesy of opening rounds of 69, 64 and 65. "I haven't been in that situation for such a long time, so it was nice to feel a bit of nerve and see the people around. Back to old days. Obviously it helps if you're up there week-in and week-out, I think it helps you to perform and maybe pull off a win" he said in Hertfordshire and whilst he couldn't keep up with the pace of Alex Noren in the end, the fact that he performed so well to get into the limelight once again can only act as a positive in my view as he seeks to improve further.
At 63rd in the Race To Dubai, Hanson's performance this week will have a critical impact on his schedule over the next few weeks, so returning to one of his more positive venues can only help his cause. Finishes here of 3/45/4/11 between 2007 and 2011 more than suggests that he gets on with the track and 3 eagles and 80 birdies over those 4 events is pretty impressive scoring. Included in that stretch of results includes rounds of 64, 65 (twice) and 66 (twice) and given his effort last week - which included bogey-free rounds on Friday and Saturday - I'm happy to back up this week's predictor model No.1 and take on the favourites here.
Had Alex Levy decided not to give this week a miss I'd have been hard-pressed not to have backed him here with his current and course form, however another player in decent enough nick who loves this track is Nicolas Colsaerts and he's well capable of contending here in Portugal. A trio of 3rd place finishes this season in Mauritius, Sweden and Scotland have been bolstered by a spell of consistently good golf that's seen just two missed cuts in his last 18 events. All in all that adds up to a guaranteed spot at the Earth Course next month and a rise of more than 100 places in the OWGR since the start of the year, however given the relative weakness of the field, if we exclude Noren and Pieters for one moment, this week sets up as a decent opportunity for further progress for the Belgian Bomber. 81.5% of greens hit in regulation in Germany was followed by 85.2% at the Dunhill Links and when Colsaerts hits that many greens he's well capable of finding a couple of rounds low enough to put himself in with a chance of winning a title. 4th for putting as recently as Holland is an eye-opener for me and his aggressive style is well-suited to this track as we've seen over the past 3 seasons with finishes of 15/2/18 and rounds of 60, 64, 67 (three times) and 68 (twice) over that stretch.
Having followed a few groups around at Watford last week, a couple of players who caught my eye were Marc Warren and Marcel Siem and I'm happy to back them both here in Portugal this week.
Much has been made of the £30 training aid that Marc Warren picked up recently that's seemingly turned his game and his fortunes around and, at 68th in the Race To Dubai, if he can put the positivity that it's provided to good use once again this week then he could well book his ticket for Dubai come Sunday evening. 5th at the Dunhill Links and 22nd at The Grove has seen 6 out of 8 rounds of 68 or better and that kind of scoring power will once again be required if the Scot is going to contend for a 4th European Tour title here this week; in his current mood and with his putter warming up once again I wouldn't be remotely surprised to see him in the mix again here this week. 9 attempts at the Portugal Masters over the years have produced no better than a 21st place finish in 2014, however 2 of his last 5 rounds here have seen a score of 66 and with his game in a decent place I'd expect a big personal best for this event here this week. Bentgrass greens are always the 35 year-old's best fit and a 1.69 putting average (11th in the field) in Hertfordshire bodes well for this week in Portugal on similar putting surfaces.
It's been a frustrating summer for Marcel Siem as he finally succumbed to a shoulder injury in July and rested fully for 6 weeks without going near a golf club. Earlier season top-5 finishes in Abu Dhabi and China had given him enough of a cushion in terms of R2D earnings to allow his injury to heal properly and having eased himself back into competitive action over the last few weeks, it was encouraging to see him striking the ball so well in Watford last week. Only the metronomic Thomas Aiken produced better tee-to-green figures than Marcel last week and, for me, that's the green light to back the German who normally relies on a very capable short game and putter to compile his scores. "My shoulder doesn't hurt at all anymore. It feels great. it's actually the first time I feel like I could win a golf tournament again, and I'm really, really pleased. Really want to get back on track and try to get back in the Top-50 in the world" he said in interview having finished 11th overall at The Grove.
One of the most Bentgrass-positive players in this field, Marcel now has a chance of booking a ticket for Dubai with a huge week here in Portugal and having made 7 out of 9 cuts here over the years including a best of 4th in 2009, I see no reason why the 36 year-old can't take last week's momentum and contend at Vilamoura.
A couple of triple-digit players who are fighting for their 2017 playing rights complete this week's team. First up Scott Jamieson who's been playing far better golf in the past month or so and at 107th in the Race To Dubai the Glasgow man needs one final push this week if he's going to guarantee his card for next season. After a largely forgettable season, the Scot found some form in Holland where he finished 10th and then he promptly backed that up with a 7th place finish in Italy. Playing 6 weeks on the trot proved a step too far, however he returned with an opening round of 67 at the Dunhill Links before fading then started brightly again last week at The Grove with rounds of 67 and 64 before drifting to 28th. Clearly there's some good golf being played and if and when he strings four competitive rounds together he could well find himself with a live chance of adding to his maiden European Tour title gained in South Africa in late 2012. Finishes of 7th, 12th and 13th here over the years are encouraging and if the putter's working as well as it was in Italy - he ranked 1st for putts per GIR at just 1.53 - then he could well contend here.
I've left Eddie Pepperell alone for a few weeks as he's battled with his game, however I still maintain that the 25 year-old is a talented player with the potential to win multiple titles at this level and there are enough signs for me to take a chance on him this week at a healthy price. The Oxford man is an emotional sort and a deep thinker which is evident from his extensive blog posts, however it's interesting to note that he's recently returned to twitter after taking a break following some public spats on there and that in itself suggests to me that he's turned a corner mentally which, for him, I suspect is more than half of the battle. The predicament for Eddie is clear though - at 111th in the rankings, a positive performance this week is an absolute pre-requisite if he's going to take the easy route to playing on the European Tour in 2017. After a run of missed cuts and withdrawals since finishing 6th at the King's Cup in July, last week's 22nd place finish at The Grove showed a lot more promise heading into this critical event and having made the weekend both time's he's played at Vilamoura, I suspect he'll improve further on that this week and potentially threaten the each-way places.
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