After a thrilling week in Abu Dhabi last week, the European Tour heads to Qatar for the second leg of the “Desert Swing” and we should be set for another top week.
The field isn’t as strong this week, as we wave goodbye to Jordan Spieth who opted to play in Singapore, Rickie Fowler last week’s champion who has returned to the U.S for the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, and Rory McIlroy who is taking the week off.
The event has still attracted some top names though, with the two tournament favourites both very much household names. 2014 champion Sergio Garcia returns, as does Branden Grace who will defending the title he won twelve months ago.
Both players are looking to force their way into the Top-10 in the World Rankings, with Grace currently sitting 11th, and Garcia 12th, and they can boost their chances with a win this week.
Garcia finished 4th on his last start at the Thailand Golf Championship and also won the week before, winning the inaugural staging of the Ho Tram Open in Vietnam. Whilst neither event boasted the strongest field, he is clearly in form and although I have no interest in backing him at 9/1, there is every chance he features at the top of the leaderboard throughout the week.
The Spaniard’s finish of 46th in 2015 was far and away his worst finish here in recent years, with finishes of 1-2-5-9-24–7-7-19 preceding last year’s effort. Like I say I have absolutely no interest in backing him, as he is not the sort of golfer I want to watch on a Sunday when backed at single-figure odds, but it would be silly to write him off.
Grace is a similar prospect, however he had edged out Garcia ever so slightly as the favourite this week at 8/1. Again I have no interest in backing as I rarely get involved at single-figure odds, but there is every reason to believe, like Garcia that Grace can win this week.
The South African has finished in the top-5 in each of his last three, making it four top-5 finishes in his last seven starts. He’s also finished 8th, 22nd and 17th in that span, quite incredible form figures.
Grace had a stellar 2015, raising his game and his profile fairly dramatically. Of course he had that four-win season back in 2012, but it was his performances in the last two majors of the year (4th in the US Open and 3rd at the US PGA) which really caught the eye of the golfing world. He is now a worldwide superstar and much is expected of him every time he tees it up.
In four efforts here he has finished 1st, 13th, 6th and lastly 47th on his course debut and I am sure he will keep that form guide looking tidy this week with another top performance.
To complete the head of the betting, the next three are Thomas Pieters (18/1) he came within an inch of tying Fowler on the 72nd hole last week, Louis Oosthuizen (22/1) who tees it up for the first time since his T11 finish at the Nedbank Challenge (a 30-man field) and Matthew Fitzpatrick (28/1) who was solid if unspectacular last week in Abu Dhabi finishing 26th.
All of those players chances should be respected, but Pieters is short enough (with good reason) and other than that Oosthuizen hasn’t played here for two years, and Fitzpatrick is just not for me this week, despite continuing his steady form in Abu Dhabi this past week.
A big course at 7,400 yards, you would be forgiven for assuming big hitters will prosper here, and for the most part that is the case. Looking at previous winners, the last three, Grace, Garcia and Wood ranked 9th, 5th and 13th respectively in Driving Distance. Past that Paul Lawrie ranked 9th in 2012, Karlsson 15th in 2010 (Quiros who came 2nd ranked 1st), but the anomaly came when Thomas Bjorn won in 2011 ranking 36th. The Dane made up for his lack of distance by hitting 77.8% of Greens in Regulation, the 3rd best on the week and that is another important stat this week.
Five of the last six winners here have ranked inside the top-7 for Greens in Regulation, Garcia being the exception to the rule in 2014 (ranked 32nd) so it’s imperative that you hit plenty of greens or you will lose round on the rest of the field.
The event has a links feel to it due to the length of the course and that fact it is exposed to high winds, which are again forecast this week. You can date back 10 years and all of the winners of this event have played well at the Open Championship. Lawrie and Els are the two players to win both, with Garcia and Bjorn both finishing runner-up twice, Stenson and Scott have also done the same on one occasion each, whilst Wood, Karlsson and Retief Goosen have also placed in the top-5. It’s such an obvious link and one that cannot be avoided, and whilst I would never advise you put all your eggs in one basket, it’s a strong link and if there is any course form to boot then that player is definitely worth another look.
With all this in mind, I feel like I have found a group of players that can really challenge this week and hopefully we can improve on last week’s effort of Luiten who finished 5th (unfortunately so did five other players, which lead to the dreaded dead heat!!).
Mikko Ilonen 66/1 (General) 1.5pts e/w: Ilonen is somewhat of a links specialist in my eyes, something his wins at both the Nordea Masters on the aptly named “Links Course” and the Irish Open can confirm.
The International Course at the London Golf Club in Kent has also been described as having a “distinctly inland links feel” and this is the course that hosted the 2014 Volvo World Matchplay, an event Ilonen also won beating Henrik Stenson in the final.
Why this week? Well, it isn’t just down to his form elsewhere that I rate the Finns chances, he also has some pretty handy form at this course, including his runner-up finish here in 2014, when he lost in a play-off to Garcia, and the year before when he placed 9th. Other than that he also has a trio of mediocre top-50 finishes and one missed cut (last year) in his last six visits to Doha GC.
Ilonen played for the first time in 13 weeks last week, finishing in a tie for 22nd, an impressive effort considering he was bound to be rusty and also it was his first time out with new caddie, Jason Hempleman.
Hempleman has worked with David Howell, Francesco Molinari and most famously 31-time European Tour winner, Colin Montgomerie, so he should add valuable experience to the bag of a player who is also rich in that department. Hempleman was on the bag for Molinari at Medinah, which will always live long in his memory, and hopefully he can help Ilonen build on an impressive couple of years.
There were a few blemishes on Ilonen’s card last week, but if he can tidy up those and make fewer mistakes (something that should come when match fit as it were) he could well find himself bang in contention this week.
Due to time constraints this week, mainly due to the Wednesday start I have had to cut down the preview. The research has been done and I am confident in all my picks, but just can’t go in the great detail as I did with Ilonen.
Alex Noren 66/1 (General) 1.5pts e/w: Classy performer when fit, and an encouraging return last week, finishing 35th.
A five-time winner despite career being plagued by injuries, Noren like Ilonen has won the Nordea Masters, both last year and in 2011 and has also won the Wales Open, played at Celtic Manor.
Other winners of the Wales open include Paul Lawrie and Robert Karlsson both of whom have won here.
Noren has finished 9th and 4th on his last two starts here, in 2015 and 2013 respectively and could easily go close again.
66/1 about a five-time winner who suits this test looks good value after proving his fitness last week.
Sticking with these two, as two players who I wanted to post were both three-figure prices earlier in the week, with Soren Kjeldsen now 66/1 and Johan Carlsson now 80/1. Both will have strong chances I believe but Kjeldsen cut too much at this stage and Carlsson is definitely more of a place bet than a win and 80/1 doesn’t quite offer the top-5 price I’m after.
8 points were staked last week, and only recouped 4.5pts with Luiten’s 5th place finish due to the five-way dead heat. Just the modest 6 points placed this week.
Total Points staked this week: 6
Profit/Loss for 2016: -3.5