Donald to relish Scottish test
Ben Coley previews the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen and fancies Luke Donald to launch a strong bid for his second win in the event.
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If last week's Open de France at Le Golf National was the amuse-bouche, the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen's Balgownie Links is the five-star appetiser ahead of next week's Open Championship.
One of the world's oldest golf courses, this virtually untouched gem runs up and down the coast and is completely exposed to winds which can howl off the North Sea. Fairways are tight and undulating, surrounded by lush rough and dotted with pot bunkers, making this an ideal preparation for Hoylake.
That certainly appears to be the view of Rory McIlroy, who has added this event to his schedule for the first time since Loch Lomond in 2009, and he heads a field which includes defending champion Phil Mickelson and recent Stateside winner Justin Rose plus the likes of Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.
Given that previous Scottish Open venue, Castle Stuart, produced winning scores of 17- and 19-under, and that Loch Lomond provided an altogether different test before that, it's questionable how valuable form in the event will prove at this new venue.
Perhaps more relevant are performances at classic Open venues such as Birkdale, Lytham, Royal St George's and Turnberry, but in truth there's a degree of guesswork involved here and that's before even considering the weather forecast, which at this stage looks fair.
I'm sure plenty will look to local hero Paul Lawrie who lives just down the road, or fellow Royal Aberdeen member Richie Ramsay, but neither are for me. Lawrie has been desperate to win this event for many years and the extra pressure of virtually hosting the event seems sure to harm his prospects to some extent, while Ramsay withdrew with an injury last week and the market knows all about his local ties.
Instead, I'll take Luke Donald to follow Graeme McDowell's lead and secure valuable Ryder Cup points with a first victory of the season.
Donald hasn't been sighted since missing the cut in the US Open, where he again played himself out of the tournament on day one as he had done in the Masters. But, just as he did when finishing second in the RBC Heritage following a missed cut at Augusta, I can see him returning to form in an event which has been kind to him over the years.
The former world number one was at the height of his powers when romping to victory at Castle Stuart in 2011, carding 19-under in an event reduced to 54-holes, but as well as confirming that the course suited him it also suggested he simply loves this event, having finished in the frame in all three visits to Loch Lomond some years earlier.
It's that which leads me to think that as well as being a horses-for-courses type of player, Donald is also one who thrives in the comfort of events which have been kind to him. His best finishes this season have come in events he's always enjoyed, including the Honda Classic which switched courses following his win there in 2006.
Whether being back at an event he's won before proves a benefit to his chances or not, Donald can also call upon top-five finishes at both Lytham and Turnberry and with two victories at Wentworth to his name it's clear that returning to the UK offers him the ideal opportunity to get back to winning ways.
Yes, a missed cut at Pinehurst was disappointing but he'd placed in two of his previous four starts and no player in this field can boast such a strong record in the Scottish Open.
Providing he takes to the layout and gets a bit of luck where the weather is concerned, I expect Donald to enjoy a timely return to the final groups on Sunday.
Chris Wood is another Englishman expected to go well and at 66/1 or bigger he's worth backing.
The tall Bristolian first came to prominence with a top-five finish in the 2008 Open Championship when still an amateur, before proving that to be no fluke by adding another a year later at Turnberry having turned professional in the interim.
It probably shouldn't have surprised us that his first European Tour victory came at a typically windswept Doha GC in the Qatar Masters, an event won by links specialists Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Thomas Bjorn and the aforementioned Lawrie, and it's under such conditions that Wood is always worth a second glance.
Happily, it appears that the 26-year-old is rounding into form at just the right time having carded three top-10 finishes in his last six events, and it was only a poor week on and around the greens which saw him finish just outside the top-20 at Wentworth where he's also gone close in the past.
Wood's last visit to Scotland saw him finish seventh in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and I'm convinced that the switch from Castle Stuart to Royal Aberdeen will be in his favour, so get him on-side.
Other English players to note include Eddie Pepperell, who has shown a tendency to play well in the UK even at this early stage in his career, and Ross Fisher, a former Lytham Trophy runner-up who led during the final round of the 2009 Open and led the field in greens hit last week.
However, my final two selections come in the shape of two Dutchmen in Joost Luiten and Daan Huizing.
For my money, Luiten is the most improved player on the European Tour over the last 18 months or so and it's quite possible he could play his way onto Paul McGinley's Ryder Cup side.
To do that he needs to bag a title or two over the coming months but this event provides a decent chance for him to do that following an excellent top-20 finish last week, one which saw him play the final 63 holes in level-par after a shocking start to the tournament.
That top-20 finish was merely a continuation of the form Luiten has been showing all year. In standard European Tour events his worst finish is a share of 23rd in Dubai, and more recently he's been fourth (Spain), 12th (Wentworth), third (Austria) and 18th (France) having also finished a fine 26th in the Masters.
Luiten's record in this event is poor but he's only played it twice and the most recent of those was in 2010, since which time he's gone from being merely a promising youngster to one of the most consistent players on the circuit.
His victory in the KLM Open confirmed that he's got the courage to match his quality and given that it came on the Harry Colt-designed links at Kennemer, it may well prove a decent pointer - it's a course on which Darren Clarke has won and it's always suited strong wind players such as Luiten's play-off victim Miguel Angel Jimenez.
At 50/1, I'd back Luiten in just about any event in Europe but this one might just suit him down to the ground.
Huizing is expected by many to prove every bit as good if not better than his compatriot in the long term, and he looks to be finding his feet on tour with five cuts made over the course of his last six starts.
In truth he's not yet put four rounds together but it's only a matter of time and it could well be that the testing nature of links golf provides the ideal platform for that. Huizing was a runaway winner of the Lytham Trophy in 2012 and followed that up with victory in the St Andrews Trophy, so already he has an eye-catching links pedigree.
The youngster won twice on the Challenge Tour last year including in Northern Ireland and I'd be inclined to follow him at monster prices while you can.