Manassero the man in Spain
Ben Coley fancies Matteo Manassero to win the Open de Espana but has three big outsiders in his staking plan too.
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If you thought the 77th Masters Tournament was remarkable, you're in for a treat this week.
We have a European Tour event and it's being played in Europe. I'm not joking. Yes, the long-running Open de Espana survives the cull of mainland Europe events and this year returns to Parador de El Saler, which last played host in 2001.
Typical of many Spanish courses, this Javier Arana-designed layout is not particularly long, and instead of needing to overpower the venue players will be forced to cope with strong winds from the Mediterranean Sea.
Part links, part parkland, it looks an all-round test of golf and it's hard to envisage players producing the low numbers we grow accustomed to in South Africa and the Middle East.
For further guidance as to what we can expect, let's turn to local course winner Carl Suneson, who had this to say in 2001: "Firstly, it is a great golf course. The design is fantastic. What makes it difficult is the wind as it is right by the sea.
"All the holes are pretty tough. You have a few holes among trees and the wind whistling between the trees makes the challenge more difficult. The greens are nicely designed so if you miss, it is a tough up and down. The back nine is more of a links course - a bit more exposed.
"You know where the wind is coming from but that doesn't make it any easier. All the holes are key. The 17th is a great par three and the 18th is tough - 466 yards with a howling wind off the right and out of bounds on the left. If there is no wind we could eat it up but with the wind whistling it is a tough course."
So, in trying to find the winner it makes sense to look towards players with recent form in Spain plus strong displays on similarly short, coastal layouts. Events like the Madeira Islands Open, the Irish Open and the Sicilian Open may take on extra significance this week, and form in them should be considered a factor.
At the head of the market, Sergio Garcia is very much the man to beat. The enigmatic home hope is simply the best player in the field by a distance and he's playing like it, too, with his last 15 events showing two wins, a further 12 top-25 finishes and one unfortunate withdrawal.
The question is, can he produce his best this week? He has some course form having been 16th here in 2001, but the last time he played this event when it was positioned just a week after the Masters, he finished just a modest 19th. On balance, he's opposable at the price.
It's hard to take a firm stance that all of those who played at Augusta will be disadvantaged last week, as for the last six years the Masters has been followed by an event in Asia. Last year, Louis Oosthuizen managed to win despite his Augusta play-off defeat but prior to that, champions had arrived fresh.
I do think that it's a marginal advantage to have had the week off, but my headline selection is a man who missed the cut at Augusta - Matteo Manassero.
Prior to that, the young Italian had put together a run of seven consecutive top-30 finishes in strokeplay events to advertise that his game is in good shape, and I've a sneaky feeling El Saler will suit him down to the ground.
Manassero's first win came back in 2010 in the Castello Masters, an event played just an hour up the coast from this week's venue. He's played just six events in Spain since that success, and has finished second and seventh in the most recent two.
That includes this event last year, one won in eight-under par in windy conditions by compatriot Francesco Molinari, as well a runner-up finish at Aloha Golf Club which is by the coast south of Malaga.
Throw in a 13th-placed finish in the Open Championship as an amateur and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that this shot-maker is at his best when his lack of power isn't an issue and he's asked to flight his ball in the wind.
That simply isn't the case at Augusta and I've no hesitation ignoring that line of form. Indeed, it can be used as encouragement as Manassero's three European Tour victories have come after results which read MC, MC and 48th, including when he won in Malaysia this week two years ago having prepared for that with a missed cut in America.
Those three wins speak to how good this young man is at getting the job done and given that he's played fewer than 100 events, they also show that 30/1 is a fine price when conditions are right as I believe they are this week.
Beyond Manassero, only Pablo Larrazabal and Joost Luiten make any great appeal at the head of the market.
Larrazabal has been in fine form for a while now, is rested, raring to go and loves a battle with the elements. He's gone close in this event, too, and we know he can get over the line. I just wonder whether this one matters a little too much to him, particularly coming so soon after the birthday of the late, great Seve Ballesteros, and although that may inspire him, it may also cost him.
Luiten's 2013 isn't dissimilar to Manassero's and he has no problem in the wind, as his record testifies. If you're looking for another towards the head of the market, go with a player who has produced in this event, the Open de Andalucia and the Castello Masters, and who also arrives after a break since a solid week in Morocco.
However, I'm willing to cast the net wider and rate Chris Paisley an interesting candidate at 225/1 with bet365 and 200s generally.
Here we have a player who produced a personal-best European Tour finish last time in the Trophee Hassan II, on a course located next to the sea which typically takes some knowing and shares certain similarities with El Saler.
It was an excellent performance which coupled with a tie for 22nd in the Africa Open suggests the young Englishman can make a mark in events like this as he finds his feet on the European Tour.
Paisley won the English Challenge on a relatively short par-72 last year but more relevant to his prospects this week are his performances on the Alps Tour in 2011.
He won three times in total, including the Peugeot Tour de Valencia at El Scorpion, just a 30-minute drive from this week's venue. That was his first victory as a professional and another followed just a fortnight later near Barcelona.
Hopefully, the 27-year-old can call upon those memories this week having prepared for the event with some practice in Portugal. He should certainly be in a good place mentally, given that he's recent got engaged, and that may explain an improvement in his recent results.
Encouragingly, Paisley was among the top 10 in putting in Morocco and says on Twitter that his ball-striking is great, so this former Walker Cup player - who halved his final singles match with Bud Cauley - could go close at a huge price.
Another at a big price I can't get away from is Gregory Havret.
The Frenchman has a world-class game when at his best - see his Scottish Open victory at the expense of Phil Mickelson and his effort in the 2010 US Open - but is notoriously hard to predict.
However, his tie for 12th in this event last year was a season's-best result, and it followed on from a share of fifth behind Thomas Aiken a year earlier. These two performances came on two different layouts, which gives me hope he can take his encouraging Spanish form to a third this week.
Havret has experience of the course having been 23rd here in 2001 despite a slow start, and that gives him advantage over most of the field.
He's recently started working with South African coach Jamie Gough and says that the results on the range were immediate. While a share of 52nd last time wouldn't quite substantiate that claim, there were encouraging signs in the first two rounds and what's particularly eye-catching is the fact that Havret ranked third for fairways hit and ninth in greens, aspects of his game which Gough was specifically brought in to address.
Throw those stats together with his record in this event and a solid look around the course back in 2001, and Havret looks very appealing at 175/1 with bet365 and 150s generally.
Lastly, Oliver Fisher is worth a small bet at 150/1.
His record in Spain is generally poor, but it's worth noting that his sole European Tour success to date came at Prosper Golf Resort in the Czech Republic, a layout designed by none other than Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Past Open de Espana winner Peter Hanson once beat another former Open de Espana winner Peter Lawrie in a play-off there, with Gary Boyd, who has gone close in Castellon, the third man involved.
I find that particularly interesting and when coupled with the fact that Fisher ranks 13th in ball-striking over the last three months on the European Tour, it builds a case strong enough for a small bet.
Fisher has finished in the top 15 only three times since winning at Prosper and each time at venues either next to the coast or where wind is a factor, so having been 15th in Morocco last time he looks a fascinating outsider in a week where stakes are best kept small.