Soren to soar in the mountains
Ben Coley previews the Omega European Masters and fancies Soren Kjeldsen to build on a fine week at Celtic Manor.
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Crans-sur-sierre is once again the venue for one of the European Tour's oldest and most popular events, the Omega European Masters.
Year on year players look forward to visiting the short par-71 perched high in the Swiss Alps, a course which offers views unmatched anywhere else on the calendar.
Bar one or two obvious exceptions the roll of honour is an illustrious one and though this year's field can't quite live up to that of 2011, when Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer were close behind eventual winner Thomas Bjorn, there's plenty of quality towards the head of the betting.
The course, in keeping with its surroundings, is truly unique. It begins with as straightforward a par-five as you'll find on tour and includes a trio of miniature par-fours on the front-nine, each of which can tempt players into going for the eagles which are most certainly there.
Some holes are enclosed by trees, others sit on the edge of the mountains which make Crans-Montana such a popular tourist spot all year round, and it's no surprise that while some stupendously low scores are possible, disaster awaits on every tee, too.
This is why you'll struggle to find blemish-free records. That belonging to 2010 champion Miguel Angel Jimenez is superb, but Bjorn's is patchy as are those of other recent winners Alex Noren and Richie Ramsay. I get the impression that this course can be made to look easy but is equally capable of exposing players who don't demonstrate exceptional course management from Thursday through to Sunday.
It must be noted that modifications have been made to four holes on the back-nine and what they do to scoring and the relevance of past form is hard to predict at this stage. All four changes include the addition of water, so if anything the emphasis on accurate hitting will be even more apparent by the time a winner is crowned.
And accuracy was certainly the name of the game for Ramsay last year. Arriving on the back of a return to form on his previous start, he led the field in greens hit as did Bjorn and Noren before him, with Jimenez - the absolute course specialist here - the only exception in the last four years.
A year prior to his success, Ramsay had dropped a hint by finishing 35th while matching winner Bjorn's field-leading driving accuracy stats. More so than just about any other event on the European Tour calendar, this event requires some precision driving to open up the best angles to flags often tucked away in the corner of these small, undulating surfaces.
In short, my basic formula for success here is a supreme ball-striker who arrives in form and I wouldn't be overly concerned if they've never strung four rounds together here before - I simply want them to have offered a clue that the course suits, as Ramsay had.
There are also some fascinating course links worth exploring, chiefly that between this venue and Blackstone GC, current host of the Ballantine's Championship.
This year's winner Brett Rumford helps establish the link between two courses which certainly place an emphasis on distance control, albeit for different reasons. Rumford won the European Masters in 2007 and holds a great record at Blackstone.
Marcus Fraser helps further underline it. He has finished third and second in the last two editions of the Ballantine's and was second here last year. There are more, too: Alex Noren has been fifth, sixth and seventh in three visits to Blackstone and has won here, while Jimenez was runner-up to Westwood there in 2011. Both are Crans winners.
Other courses to look at include Gleneagles, where Rumford has also won, and Qatar, a course Bjorn has tackled successfully before. Grouping four courses together like this might appear a little over the top but the ties between leaderboards are as clear as day to anyone who studies them closely.
I'll come to my selections from the top of the market in due course but there was no doubt about my headline tip once I saw the prices, and that man is Soren Kjeldsen.
Like Ramsay, Kjeldsen isn't the longest hitter but when on-song he's an excellent driver of the ball with a superb short game, which is just the perfect combination for Crans-sur-sierre.
A poor start in the Wales Open left him with too much to do last week but he stormed through the field with a stunning final round, one which would've been bogey-free were he not forced to be aggressive on the 18th hole as he attempted to post a competitive total to challenge those still on the course.
On Sunday he hit 12 out of 13 fairways and 15 out of 18 greens in an exceptional display of ball-striking, one which saw him beaming to interviewers afterwards having clearly had a great time out on the course with his young son cheering him on.
That his effort wasn't enough shouldn't concern Kjeldsen, because history tells us that if he's going to win, it's likely to happen soon after a top-10 finish.
The Dane's first win - which came at Gleneagles, by the way - arrived on the back of a run of form that saw him finish 20th, seventh and 11th in his three preceding starts.
His second win, some five years later, came at the tight, tree-lined Valderrama a week after he'd finished fourth at Castellon, another venue which requires precision driving to open up hidden pins.
The following year he won the Open de Andalucia from two other excellent drivers of a golf ball, Francesco Molinari and David Drysdale, and again it came after a great week, this time a share of seventh at Doral in Florida.
So the message is if you're going to back Kjeldsen, the best time to do so is when he's playing on a short, tight course which eliminates the disadvantage his lack of power can bring, and when he's bang in form.
That's very much the case this week and while he owns only a patchy record here, a share of fourth in 2006 shows he has what it takes and two years ago he fired three good rounds before a disappointing Sunday saw him fall just outside the top 30.
For good measure, Kjeldsen has two top-20 finishes at Blackstone and is a previous runner-up in Qatar and if he brings his Celtic Manor Sunday form to this event he must have an outstanding chance to contend.
Available at 80s with bet365 and 66/1 generally, Kjeldsen makes plenty of appeal.
Next on my list is another unfashionable player who has the game for this test, Thongchai Jaidee.
The diminutive Thai may be a more relaxed man this week now he's got rid of the burden of defending his Wales Open title, something he did with credit with a closing 69 good enough for a share of 26th.
As has been the case for most of 2013, Jaidee excelled with his irons in ranking third for greens in regulation and having finished 17th at Gleneagles prior to that he's not far away from contending for another title.
Jaidee has only played here at Crans five times and on each occasion he's made the cut, with each of his last 16 rounds at the course par or better, in itself a fine achievement at such an idiosyncratic venue.
In 2009 he led the field in driving accuracy and ranked fifth in greens hit on his way to a share of fifth in what was a hot renewal, and his form prior to that effort was very similar to that which he arrives with this time around.
Jaidee closed with a round of 65 for sixth in the Ballantine's earlier this season and at 66/1 I think he's been unfairly overlooked.
The man I think could go extremely well here is Richard Sterne, who can easily be forgiven a missed cut in the US PGA Championship last time.
A hugely talented player whose career has been beset by injuries, Sterne is now fit and firing again and I expect the best is very much to come.
Earlier this year we saw further proof of his birdie-making abilities when he put in a monstrous display to win the Joburg Open, his sixth European Tour title, while his second at Le Golf National underlined that he can perform whether the order of the day is birdie making or bogey avoidance.
Sterne led the field in driving accuracy when 14th here in 2008 while last year's 41st promised to be so much better until a poor Sunday back-nine derailed his prospects of another top-20 finish.
Back in 2003 he fired a second-round 64 and that really stands out as it was the best round of the week by any player and proves that when at his best Sterne definitely has what it takes to score around this course.
Sterne hasn't missed a cut outside of majors this season and no player in this field has a better stroke average, so back him to go in again at a more than fair price.
I can see Simon Dyson going close here but at the prices I'm compelled to go with two rather obvious selections, but ones I really did expect to be shorter.
For me, Miguel Angel Jimenez should be favourite here and one missed cut in the Wales Open isn't enough to suggest that he can't win the title for a second time.
Jimenez has been coming here for a long time and his record is quite incredible. This will be his 25th appearance and he's managed a win in 2010, two seconds, a third, a fourth, a sixth, two sevenths, a ninth and last year's 11th, when he was no fewer than 14 shots off the pace after day one but halved that deficit over the final three rounds in a remarkable 54-hole run.
Interestingly, that 11th came after a very similar run to that which he's on now, that being a fine effort in the Open, a top-30 in the PGA Championship and a missed cut in Wales, although this time he also has an exceptional share of fourth at Firestone to call upon.
Clearly, we won't get paid out if he's 11th again but providing he's ready to go on Thursday I'd be shocked were he to perform so poorly one year on.
As stated previously, Jimenez is one of the players who helps establish the link between this venue and Crans while he's also gone well at courses like Valderrama and Castellon.
And despite his advancing years, I see absolutely no evidence that he's regressed and am in fact encouraged by short game figures which suggest he's as sharp as he's ever been around the greens.
Were he arriving here on three missed cuts or with health concerns I'd have my doubts but my basic feeling is if he hadn't played in Wales he'd be 20s and still backable at that.
It's easy to forgive him a poor week at Celtic Manor and Jimenez remains the man to beat in the mountains.
Finally, I'm compelled to have a small bet on Brett Rumford at 45/1 given the outstanding profile he brings to the event.
A re-dedication to his game and an inspiring Australian victory at the Masters has seen Rumford take off this year, winning two events back-to-back including at the aforementioned Blackstone, and he'll have been looking forward to this event for some time on account of what's a terrific record at the course.
The winner here in 2007, Rumford was the joint-halfway leader a year later while in 2009 he opened up with a stunning 62 before fading.
He's now made the weekend in nine consecutive visits and confirmed with his recent sixth at Gleneagles that he really is a horses-for-courses player - indeed, his Blackstone win was preceded by finishes of seventh and 20th.
Rumford's short game has been simply awesome throughout the last fortnight as he's registered back-to-back top-10 finishes and the most recent of them is particularly noteworthy given he'd never before shown much of a liking for Celtic Manor.
There are no real faults to be found in Rumford's profile for this and with his ability to cross the line in no doubt I'll take the 45/1 offered by 888sport, a price which seriously underestimates his liking for the course and the year he's having.
Those looking to back him each-way are certainly not put off doing so at anything 33/1 and upwards.