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It's a double header this week on the European Tour and, I've got to be honest, a couple of weeks back my plan was to just cover the Volvo World Match Play - with no live TV coverage in Madeira and an entry list which is more Challenge Tour than it is European Tour, it hardly whets the appetite. However the brutal truth is that the Match Play event isn't great from a betting perspective, so I've split my stake between them both this week. This is a week to keep stakes low with a view to a more aggressive approach as we hit Wentworth next week and a string of better events from then on in. Anyway, time to jump off the soap box and crack on with this week...
The 24-man Volvo World Match Play event finds a new home this year as we head to the relatively recently opened Thracian Cliffs course, the second Gary Player designed course developed by Bulgarian businessman Krassimir Guergov in an attempt to showcase the beauty of Bulgaria. The course does indeed look beautiful with its holes flanking the Black Sea as the players navigate the cliff-side setting, however the stunning scenery is simply an aesthetically pleasing sticky plaster for a format that's both difficult to follow and challenging to map through from round 1 to final compared to the WGC Accenture Match Play.
At 7,291 yards the par 72 won't overly favour the longer hitters, although 2 early par 5s will present an opportunity for the bombers to get their noses ahead in matches - however course setup is often secondary in Match Play events as the format tends to breed a different type of winner. As is often the case with Match Play, there are plenty of risk/reward holes and the course will be set up to reap birdies and eagles to reward good shots. Smooth bentgrass greens will help ensure that plenty of putts will drop during the week and will keep excitement levels high.
With bookies opting to pay just 2 places each way this week (most offered 4 places last year in this event) and the distinct possibility that the round-robin phase could result in your selections meeting well before the final, this is a week for picking a small number of players who you think can actually win this event and backing them on the nose in my view. Just 2 selections from me as follows:
Mr MatchPlay himself can never be ignored in this type of event and despite some indifferent form of late - he cut a very frustrated figure at TPC Sawgrass last week on his way to missing the cut - he still has every chance of winning yet another event in Match Play format. In truth, Sawgrass has never been the happiest of hunting grounds for Europe's Ryder Cup hero with just 1 top 20 finish in 10 starts, so a weekend off has effectively bought him a couple of extra days preparation time for this event and, having seen the course and the surroundings for the first time, he's been waxing lyrically about the tournament since he arrived. The 2011 Volvo Match Play champion also has the 2010 WGC Match Play trophy in his cabinet and his Ryder Cup record is exceptional as everyone who observes golf will be aware - quite simply he thrives in this format.
Perhaps his light 2013 schedule has impacted his strokeplay form so far this term, however 4th at Dove Mountain when arriving cold just underlines what he can do in this type of event and I'd be surprised if he doesn't go very close this week. Thongchai Jaidee and Thomas Aiken present the opposition in the group stage with Peter Hanson, George Coetzee or Shane Lowry awaiting him in the last 16 should he progress - for a player as seasoned as he is in this format that's hardly striking fear into his heart! RESULT: 1st Round
On the other side of the draw to Poulter is defending champion Nicolas Colsearts who has also developed into a decent player in this format. His length off the tee can be a hugely intimidating factor in Match Play and, provided he gets through the group stage, he could go really quite deep into this event for the third consecutive year. 3rd on debut in this event in 2011 was an excellent effort seeing as only Match Play experts Luke Donald and Ian Poulter finished ahead of him, then he followed that up with victory last season, finally seeing off Graeme McDowell in tough conditions in the Sunday final. The 30 year-old beat both Bill Haas and the fancied Justin Rose in rounds 1&2 at the WGC Accenture in February before succumbing to eventual champion Matt Kuchar in the third round which is no disgrace whatsoever, plus who can forget his explosive Ryder Cup debut match against Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker where he single-handedly defeated the massively experienced duo with 8 birdies and an eagle?
Colsaerts is a class act who will get his breakthrough on the PGA Tour sooner rather than later - 8th on his penultimate start in New Orleans showed plenty of potential - and after a week off will arrive here with nothing less than a successful defence of his Volvo World Match Play title on his mind. The Belgian came close to defending his Volvo China Open title last season, eventually finishing second to Branden Grace who was at the very top of his form at the time, so clearly isn't overawed with the prospect of defending and could well go one better. RESULT: Quarter Final
Despite the lower grade of player involved in Madeira, I think this actually makes for a far more appealing betting event. The Santo de Serra course hosts the event for the second consecutive year, following a 3-year switch to the nearby Porto Santo Golfe track, and defending champion Ricardo Santos arrives here as clear 14/1 favourite with 5 top-10s to his name this season including 5th on his last start in China. Santos turned a 4-stroke deficit into a 4-stroke victory with a magnificent final round 63 last year and became the first Portuguese player to win a European Tour event on home soil, much to the joy of the local fans, and is a worthy front-runner here. The only question for me is whether the media spotlight and added pressures and commitments of defending this week will take its toll on a player who is very much hit or miss - we shall see.
At a little over 6,800 yards and perched on the mountains overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the track isn't a challenge in terms of length for even the shortest of modern-day players. With over 1,000 feet of elevation changes, the course's undulations are one of its main features as the fairways are reasonably wide and exposed, presenting little challenge to the professionals. Other than the typically Trent Jones tough greens and surrounding rough/bunkering, the course's only real defence is the wind which is pretty prevalent here week in, week out - however this week may pose a little more challenge than normal in that department with 25-35 km/h winds forecast pretty much throughout the 4 days. Given that forecast I wouldn't be surprised to see half a dozen shots less required to win this week than Santos' 22-under total from last year.
Here's my selections:
One of the most competent wind players in the game gets the nod here. Whilst you'd expect most professionals to be able to handle a bit of breeze, when it gets above 25 km/h or so it starts to sort the men from the boys and Irishman McGrane is capable of taking it all in his stride. His sole European Tour victory in China in 2008 came in atrocious conditions and he simply blew the field away to win by a massive 9 strokes - now I'm not suggesting for one minute that we're in for those kind of conditions, however the point is he's got the capability to hang around in tougher conditions and, with so many inexperienced players in the field, that could be a great advantage.
I tend to classify McGrane as a grinder who gets his best results on tougher tracks (2nd at the Trent Jones designed Valderrama in 2010 is a great example), however he can also compile a score on the shorter tracks too - 14-under in Morocco last term was his best 2012 finish (2nd) on another short Trent Jones track by the Atlantic and he's also compiled mid-division totals of 9-under in Qatar (where it's always breezy) and 10-under at Copperleaf on a track that's arguably still too long for him despite the altitude. A second round 66 on his last start in China pushed him into the fringes of contention before a sluggish weekend saw him drop back into a tie for 29th - this is much easier and with his driver behaving itself at the moment he could well be contending for a second piece of silverware on Sunday. RESULT: T42
Forsyth grabbed just his second European Tour victory on this track back in 2008 when he defeated Hennie Otto in a tense playoff and the burly Glaswegian must be hoping for a repeat performance here this week to rekindle his career. Having finished 133rd in the Race to Dubai last season he must make the most of these limited opportunities to accumulate sufficient Euros to help propel himself back towards a full European Tour card. His recent form doesn't make good reading (although that hasn't stopped a number of winners this year!), however fact is he loves this event and after finishing 28th on course debut - which could have been far better for a Sunday 74 - his form reads 1-10-9, with two of those three coming on this track specifically. There's clearly something about Madeira which brings the best out of the 37 year-old - that 9th place finish here last year was his last top-10 finish in all competitions - and I'm willing to take the 66s to see if he can find his form again here this week. RESULT: MC
My final selection for this week is another wind-positive player who could make an impact at this level. Top 20s here in 2001 and 2005 suggests he can play the course more than adequately and, with his excellent 2007 Open de France victory tucked away since then, he's a player who won't fear the opposition here one bit. The 35 year-old from Hartlepool enjoyed a strong end to 2012 with decent cheques picked up in Holland (5th) and at St Andrews (15th) which ensured his playing privileges for 2013 and, whilst he's yet to record a top 20 in 2013, there are signs that he's not far from finding a higher gear once again. A sparkling 62 in the second round of the Joburg Open, which included an ace at the short par-3 5th hole, wasn't quite enough to ignite a challenge that week, however more prominent displays at Copperleaf for 3 days and in China for the first 2 days are encouraging and he's well capable of putting a run together in this kind of company at what may prove to be a generous price. RESULT: T68