England expects home winner
Our Ben Coley previews the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and expects the home contingent to thrive.
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Wentworth's West Course once again plays host to the European Tour's flagship event, and it's fitting that the betting is dominated by some of the finest players this continent has produced over the last 15 or so years.
Former world number ones Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy head the betting along with US Open champion Justin Rose, with the likes of Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer in behind.
Indeed, only Graeme McDowell stands out as a notable European absentee and this is an event perfectly set-up to showcase all that is good about golf in this part of the world.
That also goes for the course, which is a stunningly beautiful layout in the heart of Surrey. Designed by the genius that is Harry Colt, it winds its way through the trees and provides a picture-perfect platform - even if the weather forecast threatens to spoil the springtime party to a certain extent.
Most will be aware that Colt's original masterpiece has undertaken changes of late, changes which came at the hands of Ernie Els. Although initial feedback to his £6.5m renovation was mixed at best, subsequent tweaks - the return of the 12th to a par-five, the return of 18 to a reachable one - have most players happy and the greens have improved year-on-year since they were relaid.
Champions here are many and varied and by no means have they all been predictable. Simon Khan's come-from-behind win in 2010 goes down as a big shock even if he's franked the form since, while the likes of Ignacio Garrido and Scott Drummond show that damage can be done by the outsiders.
Skills required include patience and course management, as there's no way to overpower Wentworth. Longer hitters will of course thrive if able to find the fairways, but the test begins on the tee and ends at the hole and there's no let-up in between. With wind forecast for the first two rounds and rain throughout, this appears likely to be a real examination and Matteo Manassero's 10-under par total from last year may well suffice once again.
The Italian's victory fits nicely with those of Donald (twice) and Khan, in that short, relatively straight hitters have prospered since Els changed things. Manassero and Donald are particularly skillful as they close in on the green and with some dramatic bunkering and steep run-offs, a sharp short game is a must once more.
Perhaps the best starting point, though, is to look at the home contingent. Although Manassero was ultimately triumphant last year, it was the eighth successive renewal in which an English player either won or lost after a play-off.
You have to go back to 1998 for the last time the places didn't feature a home player and it seems clear to me that they're inspired to perform well at what feels to them like the home of golf, especially those for whom major starts are not guaranteed thereby making this the number one event on the calendar.
Given that I had a very, very lengthy shortlist ranging from Grillo to Garcia, Canizares to Quesne and many stops in between, I've decided to rely on that English trend continuing as it seems the best way to filter through the players I can see going well.
Top of my list is Tommy Fleetwood, who appears good value at 100/1.
The 23-year-old from Merseyside is a former English Amateur champion - just like Wentworth winner Paul Casey - and has shown an ability to perform close to home having won the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles last year.
A return to Gleneagles to represent Europe in the Ryder Cup is at the forefront of his mind and there have been several glimpses that he's close to the second win he needs to kickstart that challenge. As recently as three weeks ago he finished eighth in The Championship having a week earlier finished second in the Volvo China Open, while back in January he finished third in the Volvo Golf Champions.
Fleetwood has the benefit of two looks at Wentworth and it's encouraging that he's made the cut in both of them, finishing a respectable 49th during a rookie season in which he struggled before carding four solid rounds for 24th last year - a performance which at the time ranked among his best of the campaign.
At 78th in the Official World Golf Rankings, Fleetwood is on the cusps of a first start in the US Open and he's every incentive to crack the top 50 and secure spots in all the seasons big-money events, which in turn will only strengthen his claims in the race to make Paul McGinley's side.
In terms of this test specifically, Fleetwood's short game has improved significantly over the last few months and we know already that he's capable in the wind, very much a required quality at Wentworth. He was strong throughout the bag in China and Singapore, and I'm more than happy to forgive an off week in Spain.
Tyrrell Hatton has impressed in his rookie season and could surprise a few with a big week here.
Although it's a stretch to envisage such an inexperienced professional contending here, Chris Wood and Danny Willett showed that it could be done when featuring among the final groups in 2010 while just last year it was Eddie Pepperell's turn to make a surprise run at the places.
Hatton has adapted very quickly to life at the top level and the signs were there, given that he secured a European Tour card by playing his best golf when it mattered most last year to tie for second in Khazakstan on the Challenge Tour.
"I'd love to play the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth," he said. "It's only 25 minutes from my house and I've grown up going to watch that event as a kid, so it would be amazing to be inside the ropes this time."
The 22-year-old already has a top-10 finish in a quality renewal of the Abu Dhabi Championship on his CV as well as a share of second in South Africa, and providing he can channel his excitement in a positive way I can see him finding comfort close to home and really announcing himself on this stage just as his friend Pepperell did 12 months ago.
As mentioned, Danny Willett has already shown a liking for Wentworth and he looks close to a second BMW title, having already won the International Open in Germany.
The Sheffield professional flew out of the gates with an opening 65 here in 2010, and while unable to close out victory he did well to hold on for fifth having shared the lead during the early stages of the final round before faltering around the turn.
In 2012 he sat just outside the top 10 at halfway before a poor third round, while last year he finished in a share of 32nd thanks to a stunning final round. That finish is all the more meritorious as he'd taken an extended break of over two months to enjoy getting married, and it again suggests that he can contend here especially now that he's sharp and ready to go from the off.
So far this season, Willett has been in very solid form with nine cuts made and one withdrawal in 10 starts, including a solid share of 15th last week, a tie for fifth in Malaysia and a couple of top 20 finishes in the competitive desert swing.
Almost all of his best form comes at venues which require a little thought - Crans, Lake Karrinyup, here and Le Golf National stand out as examples - and he seems to be fully fit right now too, so at anything around the 80/1 mark and upwards I think he's smashing value.
Another already mentioned is Chris Wood and he looks in the sort of form which makes him a live player.
As well as leading by two entering the final round here in 2010, Wood has placed at a couple of Open Championships, finished 10th in Wales, seventh in the Dunhill Links and third in the Irish Open to demonstrate a love for playing close to his Bristol home.
Part of that is no doubt a reflection of how comfortable he feels, but he also happens to own a game which is best suited to the type of test typically on offer in the United Kingdom in that he's an expert in the wind and a pure striker of the ball.
A win in Qatar last season offers further evidence of his suitability to this type of test and also proves that he has what it takes to cross the line, given that it came via one of the shots of the season to defeat Sergio Garcia and George Coetzee by a single stroke.
Like Willett, Wood struggled on his second start at Wentworth - perhaps due to expectation - but played well for the most part in 2012 only to undo all of the hard work with a poor third round.
His withdrawal last year is easily forgiven as, again like Willett, he's struggled with injuries, but he seems in grand shape now and would've placed in both his last two tournaments but for a bogey on the 72nd hole in Spain last Sunday.
Given the strong trend for English players to really step up to the plate here and a recent line of form which stands up under scrutiny, he too looks a sporting each-way bet against the class players at the head of the market - the majority of whom failed to trouble the judge last year.
I'll end with a look at the star players as one of them is worth including in the staking plan.
With 11 wins in just over 200 European Tour starts, I was tempted to include Sergio Garcia. He played really well here last year considering he was dealing with big distractions and was a 14-shot winner of a junior event at Wentworth.
However, I just wanted to see a couple of extra points on his price after a modest Open de Espana bid and can pass him over, as I can Lee Westwood even if he's in a better place now than when spurning a good opportunity here last year.
Justin Rose has gone close on a couple of occasions and merits respect, whereas I fancy Rory McIlroy might just play well enough on Sunday to achieve a decent finish without threatening at a course he admits he finds difficult.
But the one for me is Luke Donald who has to go in as a win-only saver at the price.
Twelve months ago Donald was around the 13/2 mark for this and I don't really see that much has changed since, except for the fact that he did of course miss the cut in his bid for a hat-trick of titles.
Forgive him that and you've a player who won the event so impressively in both 2011 and 2012 and has a solid record both before and after the redesign, who has also gone close at two of his favourite US courses this year to further underline that he repeats form at courses on which he's comfortable.
This is a tournament with a rich history of repeat champions and no man plays Wentworth as well as Donald. I make him clear favourite and have to get him into the staking plan even if the ideal scenario is for a less heralded Englishman to win.