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We visit Scotland for the second and final time in 2017 this week as we take in the annual pro-am jaunt that is the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. The introduction of the Rolex Series may have relegated this event a little in terms of stature, however it's still more than a decent title to win with a $5m prize fund up for grabs and the event is equally about the celebrity amateurs who play alongside their golfing heroes at and around the home of golf for 4 days. 5 of the World's top 50 are in attendance plus a pretty solid undercard from the European Tour, however all 168 entrants will be looking to take the biggest possible share of the pot that's on offer this week - for many of the Europeans this is very close to the make-or-break point of the season where cards can be retained, flights to Dubai booked and world ranking positions gained with decent OWGR points up for grabs this week.
The event is played over 3 courses for the first 3 days - Kingsbarns, Carnoustie and St Andrews - then the final round is contested around the Old Course with slightly trickier pin positions after 3 days of pretty generous placements to help the amateurs. Temperament is an important factor in this quirky event where rounds can take over 6 hours to complete with some of the amateurs barely able to claim 'hacker' status. Long waits of half an hour or longer are common on some tees as play grinds to a halt, so those with the personality to enjoy the occasion whilst retaining focus when it's eventually their time to play a shot are at an advantage - short fuses don't tend to work in this format.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Safeway Open - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Overview. The Old Course at St Andrews needs little introduction as the 'home of golf' is steeped in golfing tradition dating back to the very roots of the sport some 600 years ago. The 17th Road Hole with its notorious bunker and the closing 18th, which features the Swilcan Bridge and the Valley of Sin, are the most famous closing holes on the planet and this rolling links is recognisable worldwide to those with just the most basic of golfing knowledge.
The 7,305 yard, par 72 has a peculiar setup of 14 par 4s and just a pair each of par 3s & par 5s and features 7 double greens with huge, fescue/bentgrass putting surfaces. The other two tracks used for a day each in this event are Carnoustie and Kingsbarns with Carnoustie tending to play the toughest of all 3 courses, however much depends on the strength of the breeze as we saw first hand at the 2010 Open Championship when a windy Friday decimated many scorecards at St Andrews - including that of Rory McIlroy who shot 80 that day to ultimately scupper his chances of what would have been his first Claret jug.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship 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. 2016: Tyrrell Hatton, 66/1; 2015: Thorbjorn Olesen, 200/1; 2014: Oliver Wilson, 500/1; 2013: David Howell, 125/1; 2012: Branden Grace, 50/1; 2011: Michael Hoey, 250/1; 2010: Martin Kaymer, 16/1. 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 St Andrews is here. A dry but windy start on Thursday with the potential for some particularly strong gusts before high pressure builds and settles the weather down for the remainder of the event.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the last 7 winners of this event gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited to this test:
With the exception of Carnoustie, fairways are wide and greens large and easy to hit so much of this event comes down to how players perform on and around the greens. Converting birdie chances is critical if players are going to compile a contending score and minimising bogeys from off of the green is also vital in an event where 20-under or lower is typically the target to be in with a sniff on Sunday afternoon.
As well as the event's nuances that are more obvious in that a slow, pro-am event on 3 different links tracks isn't likely to suit everyone, there are also some other important points to consider:
With generous pin positions and scoreable par 4s and 5s - particularly at Kingsbarns and St Andrews - this event, for me, is about birdie-making first and foremost. A fairly stiff breeze may well keep a lid on scoring to a degree on Thursday, however the emphasis is still likely to be about performing and scoring well on and around the dancefloors.
Incoming Form. In terms of incoming form, the winners here since 2010 have been very mixed as is reflected by odds ranging from 16/1 to 500/1 and 4 of the 7 winners in that period have been 125/1 or longer pre-event. Martin Kaymer (16/1) in 2010 completed a personal hat-trick of wins here having captured the US PGA Championship and KLM Open in his two previous events, however he was the only really 'obvious' winner given current form trends. Michael Hoey (250/1) hadn't finished inside the top 30 in his previous 10 starts, David Howell (125/1) had recorded a solitary top-10 in the previous 6 months, Oliver Wilson (500/1) had failed to make the top-30 in his previous 15 events, most of which were on the Challenge Tour, Thorbjorn Olesen (200/1) had missed 10 of his previous 14 cuts after his return from a wrist injury and despite some good early-season form Tyrrell Hatton arrived here with incoming efforts of MC/MC/45. 2012 winner Branden Grace (50/1) had shown poor recent form on the European Tour before winning here, although he did arrive fresh off the back of a low-key victory the previous week on the Sunshine Tour. A very mixed bag indeed:
Event Form. Going back to 2010, 4 of the 7 winners had fairly tangible form here - in fact Kaymer, Wilson and Olesen had all finished runner-up in this event previously in their respective careers. David Howell had 4 top-8 finishes from 12 starts here prior to winning and clearly also enjoys the format. Hoey, Grace and Hatton on the other hand would have been very difficult to pick out simply by eye-balling their previous efforts at the Alfred Dunhill Links.
The events in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 all immediately followed the Ryder Cup so with no such consideration this week there's no travel/fatigue/disappointment/elation to factor into the chances of some of this week's attendees. That said, Ryder Cup qualifying is now well underway and there's a very healthy $5m prize fund up for grabs this week which would give anyone with aspirations of making Thomas Bjorn's team on merit a decent head start in the rankings.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
In an event where following players at or near the head of the market has proven largely futile over the past few years - you have to go back to Martin Kaymer in 2010 for the last player to triumph from a fancied position in the betting - there's only one player near the top of the betting that I'm comfortable backing here this week and that's Shane Lowry. He headlined for me last week in Newcastle where he managed to scrape the final each-way place courtesy of playing the final 13 holes in 4-under par, however there was enough to like about most aspects of his game to encourage another investment here this week and he'll undoubtedly be buoyed having been the first to congratulate compatriot Paul Dunne on his win on Sunday.
Much may hinge on how nasty Thursday turns out to be weather-wise - writing this on Monday afternoon there's still considerable uncertainty in the forecast - however I suspect we're in for a pretty tough day regardless of which of the three tracks this week's attendees are playing. If that's the case then siding with a player who's well capable of tackling any tough conditions to stay in touch before things calm down may well the most prudent strategy and we know from Lowry's breakthrough win at Baltray back in 2009 that he can take pretty much whatever's thrown at him.
Rory McIlroy aside, who's a worthy favourite and showed some excellent form in trying to chase down Paul Dunne on Sunday, the rest of the market-leaders hold far less appeal to me. Tyrrell Hatton is a hugely talented player, however he's easily irritated and is also defending a title for the first time this week; Branden Grace hasn't been in good form for some months now; Tommy Fleetwood became a father for the first time last week and whilst that can undoubtedly boost some players, this may be a little soon to be expecting him to fly out of the blocks. In fact there are question marks about a lot of the top players this week and aside from Lowry I'm happy to look further down the list for a return this week.
Back to Shane and there's been a lot to like about his game statistically in recent times. 48th at the US PGA Championship wasn't great, however at least the putter was working nicely (4th for putts per GIR) and 7th the week after at the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship saw him hit 84.7% of greens in regulation. After a few weeks rest the Irishman returned to action in Portugal where a 29th place finish was fuelled primarily by hitting 81.9% of greens and he repeated that exact same number last week in Newcastle where he led the field on that score. The missing ingredient these past two weeks has been a stone-cold putter and last week's greens, which contained more than their fair share of lumps and bumps, weren't to Shane's liking - that much was evident - however a drier forecast once any lingering weather passes on Thursday and some more resilient putting surfaces may well see the 30 year-old's putter spark back to life. Lowry's last 4 attempts at this title have seen top-20 finishes on each occasion and his best effort of 3rd here in 2013 was driven by a field-leading putting performance of 1.61 putts per GIR - couple that with his current excellent iron-play and he's got to go close here this week. RESULT: T25
A couple of locals who've caught my eye recently are Richie Ramsay and Marc Warren and both are worthy of investment here this week.
Like Lowry, I'm sticking with Richie Ramsay for a second consecutive week as I think he's pretty close to a 4th European Tour title. Going off in the final group on Sunday, the 34 year-old could only watch and admire as Paul Dunne produced a master-class on and around the greens to win a well-deserved first European Tour title and with any luck some of that will rub off on Ramsay this week whose putter was stone cold on Sunday. Another assured performance with his irons is encouraging though for the Aberdeen man - he's now finished inside the top-11 for GIR on each of his last 4 strokeplay starts - and despite hardly making a putt on Sunday, he still produced his best overall putting performance since finishing 2nd behind Jon Rahm at the Irish Open earlier in the summer. I noted in the preamble that 3 of the past 7 winners here had previously finished as runner-up in this event and in that respect Ramsay's 2nd place finish behind Oliver Wilson in 2014 is perfect form for another assault on this title, backed up by a 4th place finish here on debut back in 2009. RESULT: WD
Next up Marc Warren who was having a wretched season before finding his range with his irons in Portugal where he finished 2nd. From a position of struggling to retain his playing rights for 2018, that effort behind Lucas Bjerregaard coupled with a solid 15th place finish last week in Newcastle has seen the 36 year-old rise to 87th in the Race To Dubai and another big effort here this week given the healthy prize fund on offer could put him inside the top-60 and within touching distance of reaching the season's finale in Dubai. Whilst not quite as good with his irons last week, Marc still ranked inside the top-20 for GIR and despite the bumpy putting surfaces he still managed to record a sub-1.7 putting average which was good enough for 10th place on that count. The Glaswegian has twice finished 5th at the Dunhill Links over the years - including last year where his incoming form wasn't a patch on his last two efforts - and overall his record in his homeland is outstanding with a victory at the 2007 Johnnie Walker Championship as well as three top-4 finishes at the Scottish Open over the years. RESULT: T4
A couple of outsiders to complete this week's team, both of whom have played well in some relevant events this season. First up Austin Connelly who's yet to find the kind of consistency that puts him on the bookies' radar, however from what we've seen this year he's more than capable of competing at European Tour level and at the price on offer I'm happy to take a punt that he'll find this event and format to his liking. Connelly, who holds dual citizenship in the USA and Canada, enjoyed a sparkling amateur career before heading to the Canadian PGA Tour where he finished 7th in the Order Of Merit last year. Top 10 finishes at the World Super 6 and Nordea Masters have followed his European Tour qualifying school effort which earned him conditional status on Tour this year, however it was his effort at Royal Birkdale which put him on the radar for many golf punters when rounds of 67, 72 and 66 earned him a spot in the penultimate Sunday group alongside Brooks Koepka. Whilst the final day didn't quite pan out as he'd have hoped, 14th place that week and 2nd behind Romain Wattel in Portugal on his penultimate start has cemented his playing privileges for 2018 and it won't be too long before we see him lifting his first trophy I'm sure. RESULT: MC
Another player who produced an eye-catching performance at the Open Championship was Matthew Southgate and he's also worthy of a small investment this week. 2nd at the Irish Open a fortnight before finishing an excellent 6th at Birkdale rubber-stamps the links promise that the Essex man hinted at when he finished 12th at The Open a year before. Of course following the same logic would lead us to a repeat performance of the missed cut he produced here 12 months ago, however a year down the line he's a much improved player with bags more experience under his belt and this event should, in theory, suit him very nicely indeed. Having tried his hand at qualifying for the PGA Tour through the web.com finals - where he far from disgraced himself with a 5th place finish Albertsons Boise Open before suffering a bizarre 4-shot penalty at the DAP Championship which made his task a whole lot harder - he returns back to British soil this week and is again a little under-the-radar. A missed cut at the web.com Tour Championship meant that the 28 year-old could make it back to the UK in good time for this week's event and back on far more familiar ground I wouldn't be surprised to see him contend again on what's proving to be his most comfortable style of golf. RESULT: MC
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