With just a month to go before the new 'Final Series' kicks off, we're heading to Turin for the 70° Open D'Italia Lindt - the Italian Open to you and me - where the pride of Italian golf awaits an average quality cast from the rest of the European Tour. In a country where the sport of golf continues to grow, of the home-grown superstars only Edoardo Molinari is missing as he battles a hand injury that's followed his recent wrist surgery. That leaves the way clear for his brother Francesco and young sensation Matteo Manassero to headline both the bookmakers' lists and the locals' hopes of another Italian winner in this event this week.
The Italian Open is one of the more established events having started life in 1925 and joining the European Tour right at the start in 1972, however that's not to say that the event history stats will help you massively - after the last 4 years at Royal Park GC, this year's event will take place at the nearby Golf Club Torino (La Mandria) that hosted the 1999 Italian Open as well as the 2009 Piemonte Open on the Challenge Tour. This is the track where both Molinari brothers honed their skills as youngsters and with Edoardo missing this week it will be up to Francesco to demonstrate whether home advantage pays off or not - despite an indifferent run of form that's seen just one top-10 in his last 11 starts, the bookies still make the younger brother the favourite for this event around the 14/1 mark. We saw just how much playing at home can help when Sergio Garcia ran out an 11-stroke winner at his local Castellon track in 2011 leaving the rest of the field in his wake, however Francesco will need to putt well this week on a track that should yield birdies in calm conditions, making me a little nervous at such a short price.
The track itself is a 7,208 yard par 72 and typically Italian with relatively narrow, tree-lined fairways and mildly undulating bentgrass greens. The key to success here is placement off the tee with fairly lush rough awaiting those drifting off the fairways; bushes and trees await the more errant drives and with numerous dog-legs anything out of position is risking being blocked out from the green. Warm, dry weather pre-tournament and more of the same forecast for the 4 days with very light winds should make the course play both relatively short and relatively easy to those who can keep the ball in play.
My selections are as follows:
Joost Luiten's win in Holland over the weekend was a stark reminder of how much it means to players to win their home event. Having finished 4th at Celtic Manor, the Dutchman coasted through the Omega European Masters at Crans for a non-descript 44th place finish which could have been interpreted as a deterioration in form....nothing of the sort, he was 100% focussed on winning in Holland in my view. With Jimenez's disappointing bogey on the 71st hole where the more experienced man should have turned the screw with his opponent in trouble off the tee, Luiten took his opportunity well and to the delight of the home crowd. For me this is a similar situation for World No.31 Matteo Manassero as he quickly ticks off the stepping-stones in his career which may well take him all the way to a Major Championship in the future. The young Italian's achievements are already too numerous to list here, however following his first 3 European Tour wins he grabbed his biggest victory to date at Wentworth in May and the next step before Stateside, WGC and Major success may well be to win his home Open Championship.
It's clear that the 20 year-old means business - having long been touted as 'too short' off the tee he's been working closely with athletics coach Massimo Messina on his strength and fitness, shedding a further 10 pounds since his Wentworth victory as he looks to gain the strength and physique that's required to compete at the very top of world golf. Such changes in bodyweight can affect a player's game - just look at Carl Pettersson who quit his diet to re-find his game after shedding 30 pounds and losing his touch - however the Verona resident is adjusting well to his changing body and his progressive stats suggest he could be just about ready to win another title. 34th in driving accuracy in Crans improved to 25th in Holland; similarly 38th in putting improved to 21st over the same two events. Another improvement is likely here as he looks to better his tournament form of 25/29/8/3 on a track that is sure to suit and with the support of the crowds to spur him on to success. RESULT: T42
The backup plan for Manassero features two players who are both driving the ball well this season and could both feature on Sunday afternoon.
Richie Ramsay has shrugged off a niggling hip injury that blighted the middle of his season and at 67th in the Race To Dubai he needs to make a move quickly if he's going to make the big-money finale in Dubai for a fourth successive year. The 30 year-old has played well in the Italian Open over the past few seasons without being able to make the requisite birdies on the low-scoring predecessors to this track, so a switch to a tighter setup can only help. 5th for driving accuracy for the season to date is a fair reflection of the Scot's prowess with the driver and he led the field for Greens In Regulation at Gleneagles last month, suggesting there's not much wrong with his ironplay either. Success or failure for Ramsay tends to lie with his flat stick performance and it was encouraging to see an improvement to 1.76 putts per GIR in Holland which, given his tee-to-green game, isn't far off what's needed for him to succeed around here. RESULT: T59
Thomas Aiken has had an up-and-down season with a win in India and an excellent semi-final run at the Volvo Match Play interspersed with some far more average golf and 9 missed cuts. Throughout all of that time though one thing has been consistent and that's how well he's driving the ball. 3rd for accuracy on the European Tour doesn't tell a lie at this late stage of the season and shows a strong improvement since last year where he still ranked a creditable 29th. If anything, it's Aiken's putting that's been letting him down - he's always been a decent enough exponent with the flat stick in my opinion, particularly on bentgrass greens, so the fact he's been struggling to make putts virtually all season explains his inconsistency. A missed cut at Crans - where he made 64 putts in 2 rounds - was followed by a much better performance last week in Holland where he ranked 2nd for driving accuracy and notched up identical putting figures to that of Richie Ramsay - again, like Ramsay, if he can play his accurate game to the best of his ability and maintain his putting performance this week then he could well go close. RESULT: T38
A couple of longer shots to finish this week's selections:
Julien Quesne caught my eye in Holland with an improved (if shaky at times) display and his overall performances over the past few weeks look to be heading in a significantly strong enough direction to take a chance here at small stakes. Progressive improvements in terms of accuracy off the tee (51/39/19) and with the putter (45/32/14) over the last 3 events suggests that the 33 year-old Frenchman is approaching a peak of form at present and on a track that few hold any course form advantage he's worth a punt. He won on the tree-lined track at Pula in 2012 for his maiden European Tour victory where he handled the bentgrass greens as well as anyone that week and, at 81st on the Race To Dubai, he'll be motivated to move inside the top 60 as soon as he possibly can with a decent finish here. RESULT: Winner
Magnus A. Carlsson is another player who could well fit the bill here in Italy. There are few who find a comparable number of fairways and, in particular, greens than the Swede and that must set him in good stead here. As always with this type of player, they tend to miss an awfully large number of putts - they'd be world-beaters otherwise - so catching him on the right kind of surface when the putter isn't stone cold is critical. Just as well then that the 33 year-old performs best on bentgrass putting surfaces - 12th at Leopard Creek and third in the Spanish Open in terms of putting performance this season is enough encouragement for me - and his putting in general has been improving of late from 41st (Russia), 38th (Wales) to 25th last week in Holland. If he can shave a tenth off of that this week - maybe 1 putt per day - and maintain the rest of his game then he won't be far from a place at a 3-figure price. RESULT: T32