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It wasn't so much hitting the crossbar with 50/1 pick Kiradech Aphibarnrat last week, more like missing an open goal with the Thai leading by a shot with 4 holes to play with hardly a prolific pack of winners on his tail. A pair of 7s coming home turned a likely victory into a blank though to once again underline how unpredictable this game can be as for the second consecutive week a final round, final group position has failed to deliver a bean. Anyway, enough of the wallowing, let's put things right this week in the Algarve as the European Tour returns to Vilamoura for the Portugal Masters.
A slight change in position on the schedule and a new name for the Victoria Clube de Golfe shouldn't put punters off - this is the same event being held on the same Arnold Palmer track as we've seen on the European Tour circuit for the past 10 years. Thomas Pieters is the star attraction here once again and the highest-ranked player in the field with an OWGR of 31st and personal best of 6th here the year before last, however he's an uneasy 14/1 in the betting with current form of MC/MC/66 following his 4th place finish at Firestone early last month. Former winner Shane Lowry, who finished 7th at the Wyndham Championship on his last outing a month ago, follows Pieters at 16/1 and Andy Sullivan, who's finished 1st and 2nd here over the past 2 years but has missed his last 2 cuts, is available at 20/1 at the time of writing. This isn't an event that's overly favoured the favourites though in recent times and with question marks against some of the top players it makes for an intriguing contest.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford wraps up the FedEx Cup Playoffs looking to build on his excellent 45/1 winner in the shape of Marc Leishman last week - you can read his Tour Championship preview here.
Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course, Vilamoura, Portugal. Designer: Arnold Palmer, 2004; Course Type: Resort; Par: 71; Length: 7,146 yards; Fairways: Bermuda; Rough: Rye/Bermuda; Greens: L93 Bentgrass/Poa; 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 bent/poa 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. A few 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. 2016: Padraig Harrington, 100/1; 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 four days are expected with dry and largely sunny weather and temperatures reaching the high 70s Fahrenheit in the afternoons. The breeze will be generally a light to moderate 10mph, plus the breeze does tend to pick up in the afternoons here which often isn't evident from the forecast.
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:
In lower-scoring years the winner has generally dominated on the par 4s. Harrington was -14 for the par 4s, Sullivan was -13, 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 many in the field in normal conditions. With winners like Lynn and Green in the past 7 years, long hitters don't seemingly hold an undue advantage here at Vilamoura, instead finding a high number of greens in regulation and performing fantastically on and around the greens seems to be the way forward.
Incoming Form: 5 of the past 7 winners here had recorded a win (Sullivan, Levy) or a runner-up finish (Lynn, Lowry, Green) in that season to date so had been clearly knocking at the door at various points that year; even Harrington with his pretty non-descript incoming form had finished 13th at the US PGA Championship which was a few levels higher than this. With winning scores ranging from 50/1 to 100/1 over the past 7 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.
Event Form: Previous positive form at the Victoria doesn't look essential despite both Padraig Harrington and David Lynn having recorded a 3rd place finish prior to their success. Alex Levy and Tom Lewis were both playing here competitively for the first time when they won and the other 3 winners since 2010 had hardly set the world alight on their previous attempts before lifting the trophy.
This Arnold Palmer design is a resort course first and foremost with wide fairways and light rough to encourage the longer hitters to attack. It's interesting to note though that both Richard Green and David Lynn aren't the most aggressive of players and both have prevailed here since 2010 and it's clear that there's more than one way to succeed around here. When this event has been held later in year and often in less settled weather and on a super-soft track, I can see that longer, aggressive types are the best option - however that's not the case this year. Warm, settled weather and an attackable course that isn't overly long anyway may well produce a mix of player types in contention come Sunday afternoon and I'll be going into battle with players of varying styles this week.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
With winning prices ranging from 50/1 to 100/1 every year since 2010 here at Vilamoura, it would be tempting to draw a line through all of those players at 50/1 or shorter and trust that the trend continues here. I have gone with a number of longer-priced players below, however of the favourites Thorbjorn Olesen ticked many of the boxes I was looking for and I'm happy to support the Dane here despite his short price. Thomas Pieters and Andy Sullivan will need to overcome some relatively poor recent form to justify backing at their respective prices - although both are quite capable of doing just that - and Shane Lowry hasn't been seen for a month and I prefer the Irishman when he's shaken any rust off of his game. Of the leading quartet, Olesen is the most attractive proposition for me and with 3 of his 4 European Tour wins coming in the autumn, this is the time of year that the 27 year-old tends to find his best form.
The frustration with backing the Dane is that he often flatters to deceive when seemingly in good form and will regularly produce an uncompetitive effort following a decent outing - finishes of 31/34/48/44 have followed his four top-10 finishes this season for instance - then he'll pop up and win when you don't expect it. 3 weeks off then following a fairly low-key 14th place finish in his homeland may be just the ticket and finishes prior to that of 10th at the WGC at Firestone and 44th at the US PGA Championship - where he co-led after the first round - suggest that his game is in pretty good shape overall.
Exposed tracks that take a bit of pressure off of Thorbjorn's sometimes wayward driving are the best fit for his game in my view and I always like to look for signs of life in his iron-play that suggest to me a big performance is likely - 75% of greens in regulation at the Made In Denmark is one such sign and his best performance in that respect since April. Couple that with his excellent short game - the boy can putt and 17th on Tour for Putts Per Round and 7th for Putts Per GIR don't tell a lie at this stage of the season - and an aggressive mindset means that we could have a potent combination. Course form of MC/16/21/50/50 may put some punters off at the price, however within that he's only shot one over-par round and a best effort of 64 in the rain-affected 2014 edition suggests to me that he gets on with this course just fine. Has a big chance here this week in my opinion as he looks to kick-start a Ryder Cup qualification campaign having served as Thomas Bjorn's vice-captain last time out. RESULT: T34
A couple of players with varied styles back up Olesen as my headline pick. First up Lucas Bjerregaard who'll take the bomber's approach to winning this title here at Vilamoura. Averaging nigh-on 309 yards off the tee puts the Dane in the top-10 on the European Tour's driving distance stats for the season and with pure aggression being one viable angle of attacking the Victoria course, he should find the set-up this week to his liking once again having finished 9th and 12th here over the past 2 seasons. 86.1%, 80.6% and 81.9% are the GIR numbers he's produced on this track in his 3 attempts - it's safe to say that the course suits his eye - and if there's one place I'd suggest is most likely for the 26 year-old to make his strokeplay breakthrough on the European Tour then this is it. Regular readers will know that I rate Bjerregaard and have backed him a fair bit in the past, however after leaving him alone of late now's the time to get back on board with his long game in decent shape (1st, 13th and 7th for Total Driving and 1st, 14th and 8th for Ball-Striking over his last 3 starts) and putting performances of 1.71 (5th in the field) and 1.69 (16th) in the Czech Republic and Swiss Alps. His win at the GolfSixes earlier this year with compatriot Thorbjorn Olesen may not go down as an official European Tour title, however he's more than capable of winning at this kind of level in my view and the confidence boost from that success will undoubtedly help push his game on overall. RESULT: Winner
Having backed Austin Connelly as recently as the Czech Masters (where he missed the cut), it was interesting to see him make a late run to finish 2nd at last week's KLM Open and the bookmakers clearly haven't got fully to grips with this lad's talent yet. Whilst Austin isn't blessed with the power of Bjerregaard or many of his peers, what he lacks in length he more than makes up for in control from tee-to-green and as Andy Sullivan proved when lapping the field here in 2015, an exceptional ball-striking week coupled with some quality on and around the greens can also get the job done here in Portugal. 84.6% driving accuracy and 84.7% GIR last week in Holland was an exceptional display of control from the 21 year-old and if he can repeat that again then he'll be a danger here. 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. Connelly, who shares the same swing coach as eventual winner Jordan Spieth, shot a final round 74 to finish in a tie for 14th, however the prize money from that effort and also last week has secured his card for 2018 and at 71st on the Race to Dubai it puts him in with a great chance of making the end-of-season finale if he can keep his momentum going over these next few weeks. RESULT: T50
A trio of longer-priced chances to complete this week's team, all of whom I'm taking with Coral's 7 places each-way. Englishmen have a great record in this event and it would be churlish to not include at least one in my team this week - this year's Open de Portugal winner Matt Wallace gets the nod at a healthy price. The talented 27 year-old won a record-breaking 6 times on the Alps Tour in 2016 - including 5 events in a row at one point - and effectively leap-frogged the Challenge Tour by winning in Portimao so impressively in May. Despite going off the boil a little afterwards, as so often happens when a player breaks through at a higher level, recent weeks have seen something of a resurgence with the Londoner finishing 6th at the Made in Denmark (led the field for putting that week) and 9th last week in Holland where he topped the scrambling charts with an impressive 73.7% over the 4 days. Whilst not the longest off the tee, Wallace is certainly no slouch at 295 yards average and his 73.6% GIR effort last week was his best recorded effort since he started playing at European Tour level. RESULT: T39
Another player who caught the eye last week in Holland was Justin Walters and he's worthy of support as he returns to the scene of his best-ever European Tour effort. 2nd here behind David Lynn in 2013 - where he birdied 4 of the final 5 holes - was as close as the 36 year-old has come to breaking through at this level and he clearly gets on with the putting surfaces here fantastically having recorded a putting average of 1.53 (1st in the field) that week and 1.62 (6th in the field) here last year on his way to 17th place. The South African, whose mother is English and who's represented England in the past, signed off last year's tournament with a 7-under round of 64 and he clearly gets on with this course having made 24 birdies and an eagle on the week. 28 birdies in his 2013 effort also encourages and with his game in decent shape last week - 3rd for Total Driving, 7th for Ball-Striking and 6th for Putts per GIR - he's well worth taking a chance on at the price on offer in my view. RESULT: MC
Finally I'm saving a few quid for a speculative punt on talented Frenchman Matthieu Pavon who may take some inspiration from Romain Wattel's victory in Holland last week. Matt was on hand to douse his compatriot in champagne in typical style on the 18th green after he calmly got up and down for par for his breakthrough victory, however it may not be too long before the tables are turned given that the 24 year-old has already finished 3rd twice in his rookie season on the European Tour. One of those efforts came on Portuguese soil behind Matt Wallace earlier this year, driven largely by a strong short-game performance that saw him rank 2nd for scrambling and 4th for Putts per GIR. That's not to say he's not a ball-striker though - 6th at the Nordea Masters featured 73.3% of fairways (2nd in the field) and 76.4% GIR (1st); likewise his 3rd place finish at the Scottish Open featured similar performances of 69% (7th) and 81.5% (1st) respectively. Not much has happened since for the Toulouse-born swinger - hence his price - however 38th last week in Holland once again saw his long game pick up as he ranked 4th for Total Driving and 3rd for Ball Striking and if this 304 yard (18th on Tour) driver of the golf ball can reproduce his best all-round game here then he has a sporting chance at a long price. RESULT: T39
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