After a year's break, the Volvo World Match Play makes a welcome return to the European Tour schedule and, to the tournament's credit, they've managed to attract some top quality names with no fewer than 6 of the World's top 10 in attendance in Spain this week. A strong Match Play event like this is a welcome interlude before we begin a run of top quality events in the run up to The Open in July, starting next week with the PGA Championship at Wentworth. However we've got this week to work out first, so here goes!
Having spent the first 36 years of its existence at Wentworth, this event returns to the 2009 venue in Andalucía, Spain with the Finca Cortesin Golf Club playing host once again. The course itself is reasonably long at a shade under 7,400 yards and it certainly seemed to favour the longer hitters last time out with Ross Fisher beating Anthony Kim in the final and Robert Allenby (who isn't short of the tee himself) beating Angel Cabrera in the consolation match. The greens are fast bent and the fairways quite wide - perfect for attacking Match Play.
The 24-man field will play in 8 groups of 3 players on Thursday and Friday with everyone playing 2 matches - the top 2 from each of the 8 groups will go through to the weekend where it's a straight knockout with the round of 16 & quarter finals being played on Saturday, then the semis and final on Sunday. A gruelling weekend for those lucky enough to last the distance, so fatigue may come into play towards the end. For a lowdown of the groups click here.
With the bookies paying 4 places Each Way, it makes sense to try to work out who is most likely to make their way through to the semis and back 4 players who may well avoid each other up to that point. Unfortunately it's not as straightforward in that respect as the WGC MatchPlay given the group setup, however we can still apply an element of logic to our selections.
First and foremost we need to decide who isn't going to make it past the group stages - for me I've gone for the following players to get an early bath: Hansen, Molinari, Oosthuizen, Colsaerts, Moore, Edfors, Noh and Kjeldsen. Most of these have limited Match Play experience at best and/or perform better on Bermuda putting surfaces. From the final 16, here's the 4 that I'll be backing to reach the semi finals and give us an EW payout at least:
Lawrie is teamed up with Francesco Molinari and Ian Poulter in the groups stages, then he'll need to get past Westwood, Hansen or Baddeley to get to the quarters, however I'm backing the evergreen Scot to do just that and potentially progress to the semis ensuring us a payout. Lawrie is playing some cracking golf at present and form of 1/5/5 over his last 3 tournaments underlines that, however his Match Play record is what interests me most here.
Lawrie partnered with Monty at the 1999 Ryder Cup where the pair were joint European point-scorers with 3.5 points - with a little more support on Sunday from their teammates the Europeans would have walked away from Brookline with the trophy tucked under their arm. A veteran of 4 World Cups, 3 Seve Trophies, The Alfred Dunhill Cup and Royal Trophy in 2009 (Lawrie again top scored), the 2003 WGC Match Play quarter finalist knows how to play this format and could well produce a shock here against some younger, more fancied players...Result: Rd1
GMac's putt at Celtic Manor's 16th hole will be repeated on our screens for the foreseeable future and rightly so: it showed the tenacity, grit and determination required - and thankfully possessed by McDowell last autumn - to succeed in Match Play golf at the highest level. Over 6 months later and the Ulsterman has been struggling to find top form, however I have a feeling that this could well be the week to see him back at full throttle.
Having found something on the range last week, McDowell led at Sawgrass going into the final round only to come unstuck on Sunday, perhaps partly due to having been out of contention for a while. Much of his problems on Sunday were caused by errant drives that were punished quite severely in the thick Bermuda rough - this will be a little more forgiving and Graeme can let the competitor in him loose once again and extend what is already a superb career Match Play record with a competitive performance here. Result: Quarter Finals
The other side of the draw looks very tough for all involved with WGC Match Play winner Luke Donald, defending champion Ross Fisher and WGC Quarter-finalist Ryan Moore battling to face either Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel, Johan Edfors or Ryder Cup star Miguel Angel Jimenez. Donald's Match Play pedigree is unquestionable, as is his current form, however at 7/1 the win I'd much rather go with Fisher who seems to have been overlooked by the bookies a little here, plus Donald will have spent an awful lot of mental and physical energy at Sawgrass.
Fisher has an excellent record in Match Play with a Vivendi Cup record of 4-0-1 and scoring 2 points on debut at the Ryder Cup (both achieved whilst supporting an out-of-sorts Padraig Harrington, you may recall), as well as victory in this event in 2009 and 4th place at the 2009 WGC Match Play. He has the length to dominate on this track as he proved last time out, plus current form of 3 top 20s in 4 events - including 15th at Augusta on fast bent - is strong enough to suggest that 28/1 is overly generous and he could go a long way to defending his title. Result: Last 16
My final selection is another Match Play specialist who has the length and talent to dominate around Finca Cortesin. Already a winner on the European Tour this season, Casey will be looking to add a more significant trophy to his cabinet this week after an unconvincing spell of form in recent weeks.
4 last-16 efforts from 8 attempts (including runner-up in 2010) at the WGC Match Play suggests he likes the format, as does his 2006 win in this event at Wentworth. Having narrowly missed a spot at Celtic Manor, Casey will once again be keen to prove that he should have been there and could well go close this week on a course that will suit. Result: Rd1
Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 19:45BST 17.5.11 but naturally subject to fluctuation.
Check out my spread betting tips for this event here: Volvo Match Play Spread Tips