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The exclusive Blackstone Golf Club on the outskirts of the South Korean capital Seoul is our next stop on the European Tour, featuring a fairly strong field headlined by World No.7 Louis Oosthuizen. That field would have been stronger but for the late withdrawal of American duo Zach & Dustin Johnson due to their perception of political unrest in the region, however the show goes on regardless. The event is tri-sanctioned between the European, Asian and Korean Tours meaning a number of unfamiliar names will be on the bookmakers list, however the top 14 last year were all European Tour players, with the addition of Adam Scott, which goes some way to demonstrating the gulf in class between Tours in general.
The Ballantine's Championship is now into its 6th edition as a European Tour fixture, however only the last 2 events have been played on this track - worth bearing in mind when you're looking at our history stats for this event. Previous winners at the venue are Lee Westwood, who reinforced his then World No.1 status with a slim victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Bernd Wiesberger who realised the potential many of us had seen over the previous season or so before going on to win the Austrian Open a few months later in the year. The course is a near 7,300 yard par 72 with quite severe elevation changes and certainly not your average stroll around a pancake-flat track. The fairways are quite wide and cold weather has reduced the growth of the rough, however trouble still awaits the seriously wayward with water, trees, bunkers and rock faces ready to punish errant shots. The real premium on this course though is the second shot - whilst the greens are large in terms of size, most contain 2 or 3 tiers which effectively makes the target areas far smaller and finding the right section of the green is critical to compiling a score. On the correct tier the players will find flat, makeable putts on the relatively slow bentgrass surfaces; on the wrong tier and it's 3-putt city.
One point worthy of note is that the mornings are still chilly at this time of year in South Korea and many of the very early starters in similar conditions in 2011 struggled until the sun started to warm the air. Naturally the ball won't travel as far in the colder conditions and, with the 4 par 5s and the potential to make a couple of par 4s driveable, I'll be looking for those who can give the ball a healthy whack off the tee, find a decent proportion of fairways and, most importantly, navigate approach shots onto the correct portion of the greens. Friday and Sunday both have the potential for a reasonably strong breeze so this could play into the hands of the quality ball-strikers in the field. Here's who I'm backing this week:
It's no surprise to see Louis Oosthuizen as the bookies favourite this week at a general 10/1 - after all his long, straight hitting would seem an ideal fit for the Blackstone GC, however for me he's a momentum player who wins at the end of a string of consistent, contending performances. 3 missed cuts in his last 5 starts doesn't fill me full of confidence to take such a short price and instead I'll make my largest investment of the week on the second favourite, Sweden's Alex Noren.
The 30 year-old is a quality ball-striker when at his best who has found more than 70% of greens in regulation overall for the last 2 seasons and 2013 is shaping up in much the same fashion after the first few events he's played. Generally a 290+ yard driver of the ball, he has the power to tackle this setup in chilly conditions and with 3 European Tour wins under his belt, including the Nordea Masters at a windswept Bro Hof Slott in 2011, can finish the job off when in position as he may well find himself this week. Interesting to note that previous Blackstone GC champion Lee Westwood is also a winner at the testing Stockholm track which demands similar ball-striking skills and scoring on the par 5s as this test, plus his breakthrough victory in 2009 came at the tricky Crans-sur-Sierre GC featuring the well-known undulations and elevation changes.
4th in Qatar earlier this term could easily have been a victory had he been able to keep momentum going from Friday & Saturday's rounds, 20th at Doral was respectable in far loftier company and 6th in the 3-round affair in Malaysia could have also been a win had he have kept the ball in play off the tee a little more. The wider fairways here will help and if his irons are up to scratch then he could take some beating. RESULT: T6
I was seriously tempted to back defending champion Bernd Wiesberger this week after what he's described as his best ball-striking performance of the season on his last start in Morocco. The Austrian took to the course like a duck to water last year and won at a canter in the end, holing everything in sight, and there are quite a few more victories to come for the 27 year-old in the future I'm sure. Defending a tournament is never easy, however, and this will be his first taste of that responsibility which may just prove to be too heavy a burden to carry - we'll see. Instead I'm going to opt for last season's runner-up who ran Wiesberger closest on Sunday, improving impressively on his 13th place finish here the season before on course debut.
Ramsay is an excellent ball-striker who often lacks a little bit of quality on the greens, however that was all put to one side at Crans last season as he secured his second European Tour title in some style on the courses quirky undulations. It's no surprise at all that he's performed well here in the past as the tee-to-green demands are high and that suits him down to the ground, as will the arrival of any forecast wind on Friday and Sunday. The Scot is clearly accustomed to cold conditions and for me it will all come down to whether he can convert the chances that his excellent irons will present him this week. A tie for 15th in Morocco will have shaken off any rust following a short stint in the US for the WGC Match Play and I can see him going very close again this season. RESULT: T49
In-form Chilean Felipe Aguilar was 'spared' from the marathon playoff shenanigans on the 3rd extra hole on Sunday, however the 2008 Indonesian Open champion could well bounce back here on a track which plays to his strengths. The 38 year-old led the Greens In Regulation stat for the week in Valencia with a typical display of excellent ironplay and that will set him in good stead on a track where he's finished 35th and 7th in the last 2 seasons.
I've mentioned Crans-sur-Sierre and Bro Hof Slott above and it's no surprise to me that Aguilar's best performances of 2012, other than here, came at those 2 tracks with 6th and 7th place finishes respectively, however it's his 2013 form which seen 5 global top 10s from 9 starts that catches the eye. The other 4 starts were all missed cuts - it's seemingly boom or bust with Felipe at the moment - however 40/1 is worth taking on in my opinion on a track that he's performed well on in the past and with his approach play, which is so critical here, in great shape. RESULT: T40
I was tempted on a couple of longshots to round off my selections - Espen Kofstad and Matteo Delpodio both had eye-catching finishes at the weekend and start here at 3-figure prices - and although I certainly wouldn't put you off a small wager on either of those two, I'm instead going to spend my final couple of points on two first round leader punts.
Adilson Da Silva is the type of player whose putting makes Lee Westwood look like Steve Stricker, however his tee-to-green game is so impeccable that it only takes a slight improvement with the flat stick to see him scoring heavily. The 41 year-old Brazilian did just that at the Africa Open earlier this term, romping to a 4-shot first round lead by virtue of a magical round where he hit every fairway, 16 greens and took just 23 putts en route to an opening 62. You simply don't get much better than that! With 10 Sunshine Tour victories and over 30 Zimbabwean PGA Tour trophies he's clearly no mug and although I don't expect him to win this, he could do some damage on Thursday going out early afternoon in the warmest part of the day. RESULT: T34
Another afternoon starter is Gareth Maybin and he's also worth a small punt. Conventional wisdom tends to be that early starters get the best green conditions, however for me this week could see the exact opposite due to the tricky cold start on Thursday morning. The 32 year-old shot the round of the day on Sunday in Valencia as conditions began to deteriorate and that 67, which contained just one missed green in regulation, will given the Belfast man great confidence after a string of missed cuts. Maybin regularly gets off to a fast start - 65 (China, 2011), 65 (Portugal 2011), 66 (Hong Kong 2011), 68 (Abu Dhabi, 2012), 68 (Sicily, 2012) and 66 (Italy, 2012) to name a few - and going out in the second-to-last group could be a blessing in disguise for the Ulsterman. RESULT: T44