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Following the European Tour's experiment with the GolfSixes in St Albans last weekend which received a mixed reaction overall, we return to something approaching normality this week as a full field tackles the Morgado Golf & Country Club in Portimao, Portugal as the Open de Portugal returns to the schedule after a 7-year hiatus. A new course awaits the players this week if you're perusing the event history stats from 2010 and back, plus the event's co-sanctioned status with the Challenge Tour means that the quality of field is far below that of a normal European Tour tournament, however these small events often present some decent betting opportunities and an interest this week is justified.
For the Challenge Tour players in the field, the Open de Portugal is of huge importance given its prize fund of €500k with points acquired counting towards both Race to Dubai and Road to Oman totals, plus a 1-year exemption to the upper tier isn't to be sniffed at for those looking to advance or resurrect their careers. That's a huge carrot to dangle in front of many of the players in attendance this week.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews this week's main event at TPC Sawgrass - read Steve's Players Championship preview here.
Course Overview. The Morgado course is described as taking its inspiration from Scottish links courses with its wide, flat fairways and pot bunkers, however sitting inland it's a parkland track first and foremost. Located to the north of Portimao and one of two courses in the region, the layout features a fairly flat and wide front 9 before it becomes more undulating and a little trickier as the round progresses.
Situated in a valley, the course can toughen up quite quickly when the wind blows whereas in more benign conditions there's little to trouble professionals. The Russell Talley (European Golf Design) layout opened in 2003 and measures 7,419 yards for its par of 73 from the new tees as announced by the European Tour on Tuesday. 5 par-5s ranging from 556 yards to 624 yards will present scoring opportunities for the more aggressive players and short par-4s are the order of the day with the 9th (355 yards) and 12th (384 yards) amongst the shorter holes. Greens are large and become more undulating as the round progresses so don't be surprised to see players who start on the 1st hole get a good round going before stalling a little towards the end of the 18. The revised card as confirmed by the European Tour on Tuesday afternoon is here.
Tournament Stats. Please note, this is the first Open de Portugal since 2010 and all previous renewals were held elsewhere, so event form should be considered accordingly: Current Form | Event Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Weather Forecast. The latest forecast for Portimao, Portugal is here. Relatively cool for Portugal with temperatures struggling to reach 70 Fahrenheit coupled with the chance of rain for the first 2 days at least, plus a keen breeze of 20-30 km/h to start the event. Thursday could well see interruptions due to electrical activity before the weather gradually clears to leave an improving picture over the weekend with warm sunshine and calmer conditions following on behind.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors. A course being used for the first time at this level plus no event history since 2010 doesn't provide us with any kind of pointer as to where we should be looking in order to find our winner this week. Wide fairways, 5 par-5s and a couple of short par 4s all point to aggressive players who are willing and able to attack being favoured. Despite some new tees having been built in recent times, this really isn't going to overly stretch the professionals and the only real chance of a lid being kept on scoring is if the wind really does blow which doesn't look likely as the event progresses. Large, undulating greens will be relatively easy to hit, so expect high GIR numbers in the main, however long-distance putting on these reportedly very good greens wont be easy so those players who can minimise putts per round should be favoured.
Looking back at the co-sanctioned events between the European Tour and the Challenge Tour in recent years, only Peter Uihlein at the Madeira Islands Open in 2013 (25/1) was amongst the favourites when lifting the trophy. Roope Kakko won the last event in Madeira at 66/1 and that kind of price point is far more common at this level. The expectation on the favourites often proves to be a little too much which leaves the door ajar for a lively outsider or mid-priced player to take the spoils. Marco Crespi (200/1) also proved at the NH Collection Open, which was another event at this co-sanctioned level played in 2014, that the seemingly out-of-form outsiders cannot be totally ignored either.
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My selections are as follows:
The pre-event money has been pouring in for Ricardo Gouveia who's one of the few players to have practical experience of the Morgado G&CC. Having taken the Challenge Tour by storm in 2015 and adding a further two titles to his 2014 EMC Golf Challenge success, the Portuguese 25 year-old quite rightly plies his trade at European Tour level nowadays and clearly has a live chance here this week. Early prices as high as 28/1 have disappeared though and despite his course knowledge, I'm happy to swerve him this week - especially after all the local links proved ineffective at the Wells Fargo Championship over on the PGA Tour last week with the likes of Webb Simpson and Carl Pettersson well fancied. Trevor Fisher Junior couldn't convert at the Zimbabwe Open a fortnight ago and again, despite his chance and having won on the European Tour in the past, I'm not convinced he can be trusted at the price on offer when push comes to shove on Sunday.
That leaves me looking a little further down the list and the name that caught my eye more than most was Oliver Fisher who may finally be ready at the age of 28 to start realising the massive potential that he had as a youngster. Despite an exceptional amateur career that had the Essex man touted as one of the likely superstars of his generation, only one European Tour title has followed and that was back in 2011 at the Czech Open. That's scant reward for someone with so much talent and aside from a play-off defeat to Thomas Aiken at the 2014 Africa Open, professional golf has been largely a struggle for Oliver over the past few years - the fact he needed a final day 64 at the Portugal Masters last autumn to finally secure his playing rights for 2017 is a case in point.
2017 hasn't been a complete write-off to date though and at 66/1 I'm happy to take a chance that he's ready to contend at this level once again. 26th at the SA Open, 23rd in Abu Dhabi and 41st in Qatar could have all been far better had his Sunday rounds been more competitive and 18th on his penultimate start at the Tshwane Open featured a sparkling 3rd round of 62 to suggest that his game is pretty sharp right now. 2nd at the Madeira Islands Open back in 2010 is a positive pointer for this kind of event and save for a 3rd round 74 in this very event back in 2008 at Oitavos Dunes, he could be returning here as a former winner this week. RESULT: T6
Another player who's previously tasted success on the European Tour is Mikael Lundberg and with his 2014 Lyoness Open exemption now a dim and distant memory, a win here would be the quickest and simplest way for the 43 year-old to get back to playing golf at the kind of level he should be. A win at the Lumine Lakes Open on the Nordic Golf League in March hardly screams impending success at European Tour level, however with all due respect to the players involved this week, we're looking at a glorified Challenge Tour event and that should hold no fear whatsoever to the 3-time European Tour winner. One of those victories was at this co-sanctioned level at the Russian Open back in 2005 when in a similar predicament career-wise, so clearly he has no problem in giving these opportunities his full attention.
4th in this event in 2009, 4th at the Madeira Islands Open in 2012, plus 2nd at the Estoril Grand Final on the Challenge Tour back in 1997 is all positive Portugal form and back-to-back impressive finishes at the Czech Masters (19th) and Made In Denmark (10th) on the European Tour last autumn suggests to me that he's far from finished at this kind of level. Top-25 finishes on the Challenge Tour on his last 2 starts isn't a disaster and with his mind fully focussed on a return to the European Tour, I'd expect the Swede to go well this week. RESULT: MC
Eye-catchers when I reviewed this week included Justin Walters, Florian Fritsch, Jeff Winther and Jaco Ahlers who is 2nd in this week's predictor model, however I'm going to back up my top 2 with a trio of lively mid-priced contenders who I think could go well in equal measures:
First up Christiaan Bezuidenhout who, at the age of 23, has a bright career ahead of him. The talented South African grabbed the Sunshine Tour rookie of the season award following his maiden victory at the Sun Fish River Challenge in October, however it's his 2nd place finish at last year's BMW SA Open which suggests to me that he's more than capable of performing at this kind of level. A strong tee-to-green performer and a decent enough putter, it's usually his short game which lets him down a little around the greens, however with the large putting surfaces here he should be finding a large proportion of greens in regulation which can only help his scoring this week. 4 top-10 finishes in his last 7 starts suggests he's in decent enough nick to contend here and 8 birdies in his final round last week at the Investec Royal Swazi Open on his way to 8th place will give him confidence ahead of this week's likely low-scoring test. RESULT: MC
At the age of 33, Jens Fahrbring may well be one of golf's later developers when it comes to performing at the higher levels. After years of relative obscurity on the Nordic golf circuit, he eventually graduated to the Challenge Tour in 2013 where he promptly won his first of two titles to date at the Norwegian Challenge. Further success followed in the Czech Republic in 2015, however after a largely disappointing rookie season on the European Tour in 2016 (the highlight was 12th at the Portugal Masters) he's earned himself another crack at this level via Q-School and early indications are that he's in far better shape to retain his card this time around. 18th at the SA Open, 23rd at the Joburg Open and back-to-back 13th place finishes in India and Morocco is far more tangible form than many can boast this week and further improvement is possible here. RESULT: MC
Team ISM don't recruit players without good reason and Matt Wallace is one of the most recent additions to their team and with good reason. 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 has of course now graduated to Challenge Tour level full-time. 4th at the Terre dei Consoli Open in October and 3rd on his penultimate start at the Barclays Kenya Open suggests he's quickly getting to grips with golf at that level too and this week's task won't present a huge difference in terms of the field he's competing against to suggest he can't contend once again here. Having held the lead in Kenya before Aaron Rai eventually triumphed with a final round 65, the defeat will no doubt serve as good experience and learning for the future which will set him in good stead should he get himself into the mix here this week. RESULT: Winner
A speculative punt to finish this week, however I couldn't resist a small play on Oliver Wilson who may just be inspired by Edoardo Molinari's return to wining form a few weeks ago. Both Wilson and Molinari are previous OWGR top-50 and ex-Ryder Cup players who have lost their way a little in recent times, however as the Italian proved in Morocco class is permanent and despite a run of 5 missed cuts in 6 events, I'm happy to take a chance on Wilson given the price on offer in this weak field.
If we wind back to 2014 we find the 36 year-old plumbing the depths of the Challenge Tour with 8 missed cuts in his previous 13 events before he produced a huge 500/1 shock at the Alfred Dunhill Links to win one of the European Tour's most prestigious titles. 47th on his start prior to that victory at the Kazakhstan Open looks innocuous on paper, however a 2nd round of 63 was at least a glimmer of hope - the rest is history. 45th then on his penultimate start in Kenya looks equally uninspiring, however rounds of 67/69/69 had put him on the fringe of contention before a final day 76 put paid to any hopes of a lofty finish. Maybe a flash in the pan, and a subsequent low-key victory at a local pro-am last week may be nothing more than a point of interest, however form is so often temporary in this game and with his exemption now a thing of the past, this is a great chance to get his playing privileges back. RESULT: MC
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