We move 500 miles or so to the East for the 5th instalment of the increasingly popular Ballantine's Championship this week as we continue the Asian leg of the early 2012 European Tour schedule. After 3 years at the Pinx Golf Club on Jeju Island, we moved last year to the newly-opened Blackstone Golf Club on the South Korean mainland not far from the Capital City of Seoul. With the event being a relatively short hop from last week's event, it's no surprise to see many of the same on the entry list, however there are some notable additions this week in the shape of Adam Scott, Miguel Angel Jimenez, YE Yang, SM Bae and KT Kim all of whom will be looking to add this title to their respective collection.
The Blackstone Golf Club proved last year that it's no pushover as Lee Westwood completed back-to-back victories with a 12-under winning total and just 34 players finished under par despite favourable conditions. There have been a few subtle changes this year which will push the yardage just over the 7,300 barrier and forecast heavy rain on Wednesday will soften the course ahead of play on Thursday. That rain, coupled with some chilly mornings, may well make the course play a little longer than expected, however the main challenge on Thursday and Friday will be the wind which is forecast to be blowing up to 35 km/h over the first 2 days before dying away for the weekend. If anything a late/early tee time could be favourable, although predicting such things this far in advance is always a challenge!
The course itself is tree-lined, however that should only really affect the seriously wayward as the undulating fairways are in reality quite generous. The trick on this course is the second shot and being able to find the right tiers on the greens with precise irons, however that can be tricky with the wind swirling around the hills causing confusion when picking clubs. The bentgrass greens will be a similar speed to last week so, in that respect, those who putted well last week should be fancied to do so again this week, however that's the only real similarity to speak of. With 3 of the 4 par 5s reachable for the mid-to-long hitters, plus a couple of risk-reward par 4s, this course does present birdie opportunities but it's certainly isn't easy if you miss the greens, or find the wrong part of the putting surface.
So, after considering all the factors, here's my 4 selections for this week:
The Frenchman may still be European Tour maiden, however after an excellent amateur career the 22 year-old is one of those players who I'm sure will quickly progress to bigger and better things - this week could well be the start of that journey for the young man from Cannes.
His first full season last year on the European Tour saw top 10s in challenging conditions in Qatar and at Gleneagles (both behind Thomas Bjorn), plus a top 5 at the similar-length par 72 Diamond Country Club in Austria, and he's followed that up with a further 3 top-11s so far this term which have virtually secured his card for 2013. Progressive form of 27th (Sicily), 11th (Malaysia) and 4th (China) suggest a player who is becoming increasingly comfortable with his surroundings and finding himself in contention and, for me, this course will suit him down to the ground where the emphasis is more on protecting your score than making a hatful of birdies.
Dubuisson's irons have been in excellent form over the last 3 events with overall GIR positions of 3rd (83% - Sicily), 2nd (83% - Malaysia) and 1st (87% - China) - combine this with his length (11th on Tour - 302 yards) and the fact that his putting improved to sub 1.7 putts per GIR on similar speed bentgrass last week, you can see why I'm keen on him breaking his duck here in South Korea this week at a cracking price of 50/1. RESULT: T3
Evergreen Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez is the only one of the 'big names' that I can comfortably back here this week. Adam Scott is the obvious favourite after his fast-finishing top 10 at Augusta, however he's not played a great deal of golf this season and hasn't really been in a contending Sunday position for a while now. Ian Poulter is gearing up to a win I'm sure, however for me his best surface is faster-paced Bermuda and I think that impending win will come Stateside over the next few weeks. Bae, Kim & Yang will no doubt excite the locals and get plenty of backing, however for me the most likely contender of the favourites is 'The Mechanic' as he looks to improve on his 2nd place finish here last year.
As I've mentioned before, I think you'll find that players like Jimenez discover a new gear when it's Ryder Cup year and if the 48 year-old wants to make a 5th appearance he's going to need a few wins very soon, as he did in 2010 when he secured 3 victories in the space of 7 months to grab an automatic berth on Monty's team. 18 European Tour wins could soon become 19 if he can repeat the crisp ironplay from 12 months ago that saw him come within a sand-save on the 18th of forcing a playoff with Lee Westwood. 7th on his last start in Europe signalled a level of intent and I think you'll find he steps up that extra gear this week in South Korea. RESULT: T5
South Africans have dominated in 2012 so far and last week was no exception as Branden Grace picked up his 3rd victory of what is already an outstanding season in China. It was a toss-up between Jaco Van Zyl and Jbe Kruger for this selection, however I've finally plumped for the diminutive Kruger whose length off the tee could well prove to be a telling factor (14th on Tour at 300 yards average this season) and who also hits more than his fair share of Greens In Regulation, a critical asset this week in my view.
Jbe finally got the win that he's been threatening for a while back in February at the Avantha Masters, relegating our selection Marcel Siem to 2nd place, and after a few weeks of rest and recuperation it's encouraging to see the man from Bloemfontein building his form once again with consecutive top-20 finishes in the last fortnight and some cracking rounds in the 60s in the process. He would have been much closer last week were it not for 3 late bogies once any lingering hopes had disappeared and that has helped keep his price at a backable 40/1. He putted well in Malaysia without finding the requisite number of greens; he improved his irons last week in China without putting his best. If he puts them both together this week then he'll take some beating...RESULT: MC
My final selection is another young Frenchman searching for his maiden victory on the European Tour. Like Dubuisson, 21 year-old Wattel enjoyed an outstanding amateur career which culminated in him becoming just the 5th Amateur to win on the Challenge Tour with his victory in Strasbourg back in 2010. His results have been a little erratic recently with decent performances interspersed with missed cuts, however what encourages me most here is that his best efforts have come on some of the European Tour's more demanding courses - 5th at Pula GC, 8th at Castellon, 19th at Valderrama last season and 12th in Dubai speaks volumes. He finished 7th in Malaysia on his penultimate start and his excellent total driving stats will set him in great stead here this week as he seeks his first professional title. RESULT: T12
Our tips, picks and predictions for the 2013 edition of this event will be published here on the Tuesday before the event - bookmark this page and come back soon!