Four lions ready to roar

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: March 28 2013, 8:32 GMT

We're in the King's garden this week in the fourth edition of the Trophee Hassan II as a European Tour event.

  • Matthew Baldwin: Could go close at a price
  • David Howell: Close to his best once more 
  • David Horsey: Past winner at Golf du Palais Royal 
  • Andy Sullivan: Former Walker Cup player can go well 

The tournament itself stretches back to 1971, but only since the year of Rhys Davies' success has it held full status, and the switch has been welcomed by touring professionals who in the main regard this as a special event.

His Royal Highness Prince Moulay Rachid rarely lets anybody play his beautiful Golf du Palais Royal so conditions should be perfect on what's a short, turning course that plays to a par of 72 despite measuring well short of 7,000 yards.

For winning, a dagger and not a trophy is the prize awarded by HRH himself after he's relaxed on his throne at the back of the 18th green watching the action unfold.

Michael Hoey described playing in the event as like being in a James Bond film, and perhaps that in part explains why leaderboards here have had a very UK feel about them.

Not only is Northern Ireland's Hoey joined by Welshman Davies and England's David Horsey as winners of this event, but last year those who chased him home in the places were from Ireland, Wales and England.

Just why that is perhaps only these men truly know, but tight, tree-lined tracks are common over here and while the winds are warmer in Morocco, they're equally a factor.

Davies' success came at a different venue, one which is less penal, so to identify the precise skillset required we need to focus on Horsey and Hoey.

The former is as straight a driver of the ball as you'll see and Hoey isn't far off when on-song - he's wildly erratic when he isn't, but having just made the cut last year he hit fairways and greens for fun at the weekend.

Short and steady will almost certainly win the race this week and while Horsey was only in his third full season on Tour he had already won an event and in that sense had experience.

Last year's leaderboard was littered with touring professionals like Ignacio Garrido and Phillip Price, players who've been around the block and back again, and course management is going to be important throughout.

I really like this event from a betting perspective, because while an on-song Francesco Molinari would take the beating, he's been a tad laboured in the USA lately and I can't have him at the price.

Likewise, his brother Edoardo returned to form in superb fashion in Malaysia, his new-look, Sean Foley-modelled swing holding up extremely well under pressure for a deserved second and fine reward for his first cut made this season.

But one swallow does not a summer make and both brothers have a little to prove for me, as do plenty of others at the head of the betting given how little room for manoeuvre there is off the tee and around the greens.

Instead, my focus is on Brits who look to offer a bit of value in a tournament where market leaders have typically struggled, and first among them is Matthew Baldwin.

The 27-year-old is among the European Tour's shorter hitters, and it's therefore hard for him to build the sort of consistent profile that we punters often look for.

But here on a short, turning track he has no excuses whatsoever, especially having finished 17th on his debut last year when two bogeys in the final three holes cost him a potential top 10.

Even with those bogeys it was a result he bettered only twice all season and it's no surprise to read very positive messages on his Twitter account, including praise for a course he describes as one of his favourites on Tour.

Baldwin has been playing well enough on what are probably the wrong courses of late, most notably when 29th in the Avantha Masters won by big-hitting Thomas Aiken.

Our man ranked fourth for greens hit in India, worse only than the winner, runner-up and 12th-placed Magnus Carlsson, and that bodes extremely well for this week.

Encouragingly, Baldwin has form in the Challenge Tour's Moroccan Classic, too. Not only is that an event won by Hoey in the past but also Coles, who underlined its relevance with a big-priced third here last year. Baldwin was fourth there in 2010, a final-round 65 underlining how well he can score when on form.

Interestingly, his sole Challenge Tour win came in the Fred Olsen Challenge de Espana, an event won two years prior by none other than Davies. Again, it came at La Gomera in the Canary Islands, on a coastal course where wind is a factor throughout.

Baldwin hasn't yet been in contention to win on Tour and it's hard to say how he'll react should he feature among the final groups this week, but at this price I'll pay to find out.

Sticking with the English theme, this looks a fine opportunity for David Howell to return to the winners' enclosure.

Howell has played some excellent golf this season, making the cut in all eight tournaments he's taken part in and finishing in the top 30 in all bar the first of them, which is worth ignoring anyway as it was the stunted Nelson Mandela.

He topped the putting charts in finishing sixth in Malaysia last week and although an improvement in his ball-striking may well be needed here, his short game will take him a long way.

Howell missed the cut on his sole start at Golf du Palais Royal but I can forgive him that, especially as one of his four European Tour wins came at Golfclub München Eichenried, a course which Horsey has also conquered.

Indeed, he's also got some form which ties in with Hoey, having finished second at Oitavos Dunes in Portugal a year prior to Hoey's success there. Several players - Hoey, Damien McGrane, Jamie Donaldson and Jose Manuel Lara - have played well at both venues.

It's also interesting to note that Price and Garrido showed last year that former Ryder Cup players whose best days may have been and gone can definitely compete in the Trophee Hassan II, and Howell is a better player in better shape than both of them.

He is towards the top of the market but deserves to be having achieved more in the game than most of these.

As a matter of pure coincidence, I happen to have put up a couple of defending champions on the PGA Tour this year and while neither won, both did place to offer some encouragement for those willing to take Hoey at his word - he says he's hitting it very nicely.

However, I'm going back a year to get David Horsey on side here at a price which seems more than reasonable to me.

Although arguably fortunate to win a three-man play-off in 2010 - Davies missed a very short putt to defend his title - it was hard not to be impressed by the way Horsey bounced back from making double-bogey on the 72nd hole to almost throw his chance away.

He then came back last spring to further demonstrate his love for this venue, carding a final round 66 to finish 14th, his best performance of an otherwise underwhelming season as he struggled to get to grips with a switch in club manufacturer.

Recent evidence suggests he's getting back close to his best, though, with a pair of top 15 finishes in late-2012 offering some promise before an excellent sixth in the Avantha Masters last time, one which meant a great deal to him.

"It's great to be back and obviously I have a lot of good memories of winning the tournament here last year," Horsey said last year.

"It is a real privilege to be invited into the King's back garden to have a whack round so to speak," he added. "It wouldn't be so bad to have that golf course in your back garden back home would it? We are very, very privileged to be invited to play here and once again the course is in fantastic condition so I am looking forward to the week ahead.

"The course is so perfect that there are points when you are playing this course that you almost feel embarrassed to take a divot out of the grass!"

Horsey has the blend of course and current form which usually makes for a terrible price, but with big doubts surrounding those at the head of the market I think he offers a good deal of value.

Of the international brigade, Pablo Larrazabal has been making the right noises for some time and he's gone well here before - a fact which further enhances confidence in Howell, given that Pablo is also a winner at Golfclub München Eichenried.

He looks likely to play well this week and the same goes for Joost Luiten, whose supreme ball-striking is a perfect fit and whose game was honed in a constant battle against the wind.

Davies has been playing terribly lately but course form does count for plenty here and it's interesting to recall tweets from his caddie late last season which suggest he'd be back to his best soon.

Finally, there was some temptation to back Peter Lawrie given his strong profile for the course and 11th last week, but he's best backed in first round leader markets - he led here after a stunning 64 in 2011 and shot 66 a year earlier at a different course to tie for first.

Instead, though, I'll complete my selections with Andy Sullivan.

The Nuneaton professional has progressed rapidly since turning professional shortly after the 2011 Walker Cup, securing his full playing rights via Q School later that same year at a venue not dissimilar to that which we visit this week.

Like so many before him, Sullivan struggled a tad during his first season on Tour but a share of 17th here represented one of his better results and bodes well for this year's event.

He's already hit the frame twice in just nine starts this season and struck the ball particularly well in the Avantha Masters, before heading to The Belfry for the launch of the English Tour which didn't go quite so well.

However, conditions were horrible that day and it's fair to assume he relaxed a tad having had a busy start to 2013, so it's to be hoped that some time back home has him ready to go in search of his first professional win.

Sullivan ranks 34th in driving accuracy so far this season and 30th in greens hit, a combination which should pave the way for a big performance on his second visit to a course which clearly suits.

  • Preview posted at 1430 GMT on 25/03/2013.