Poulter Poised for Perfect 10
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1.5pts e.w. Ian Poulter at 30/1 (Betfred, totesport, 1/4 1,2,3,4,5).
1.5pts e.w. Francesco Molinari at 20/1 (General, 1/4 1,2,3,4,5).
2pts e.w. Martin Kaymer at 16/1 (General, 1/4 1,2,3,4,5).
0.5pt e.w. Marcus Fraser at 80/1 (General, 1/4 1,2,3,4,5).
1pt Victor Dubuisson to be the Top Frenchman at 7/1 (BetVictor, 1/4 1,2,3,4,5).
This week's European Tour event is one of my favourites on the calendar, the Open de France at Le Golf National.
Chief reason for that is the golf course, a stunning par-71 designed by Hubert Chesnaeu with advice from Robert Van Hagge, one whose quality has been rewarded with the 2018 Ryder Cup.
Add in a stellar line-up of players who recognise the importance of this event in terms of both prestige and its position on the calendar, and four days of high-class sport are in prospect.
The layout itself is exactly what a modern Ryder Cup venue should be. It's a fair test in terms of length, the rough is penal, several greens are guarded by water and, crucially, it provides a grandstand finish.
Holes 15, 16, 17 and 18 are this course's chief defence, notably 15 and 18 which played as the toughest holes last year and may well do so once more. Tournament director David Probyn told the European Tour's official website that playing the final holes well will prove crucial.
"The final four holes here are as tough a closing stretch as you will ever see with water a really big feature throughout," said Probyn. "Level par for these four holes will always be a great finish and the players this week will be eager to avoid the big scores that are frequently seen on the 15th and 18th."
When asked what skills would be required this week, he added: "Accurate driving; with firm greens missing the fairway will really be a penalty. And of course getting through 15-18 four days in a row without disaster will be key."
Despite his comments, forecast showers, coupled with an extremely wet June, may mean these greens are more receptive than last year. Indeed, former champion Miguel Angel Jimenez reckons they're good greens to attack providing you're in the fairway, so expect the winner this week to have controlled his ball off the tee - no easy task on a wind-exposed layout.
Last year's event provided a fairytale finish, as Thomas Levet came from off the pace to deny rising star Thorbjorn Olesen, with England's Mark Foster also just behind. The winning score of 277 was the highest since 2007, but in the conditions I'd expect something in the region of -11 to be competitive this time around.
It's worth noting that as well as driving the ball straight, stats suggest that hitting greens and scrambling are crucial.
In the last eight renewals, the leader in greens in regulation for the week has finished in the top 10 seven times, winning twice and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three years.
In that same eight-year time-frame, the leader in scrambling has won three times. To me that makes sense and points to ball-strikers, whose misses aren't as severe as those who lack control of their golf ball, which makes scrambling easier.
Put all of this together and top of my list is Ian Poulter.
The Englishman is enjoying a solid year after a modest start, and is now on an active streak of 16 cuts made. His last European Tour start produced a personal-best finish at Wentworth, while top-10s at Bay Hill and Augusta also suggested his winning turn may be close.
There are few better venues for him to get over the line than here at Le Golf National, where his form figures since 2004 read: 14-DNP-3-9-30-3-18-DNP.
Back in 2009 he improved throughout the tournament to finish three shots behind the winner and impressed with his ball-striking, ranking third for both fairways and greens hit, and given that he ranks third and fifth respectively this season, it's reasonable to expect a similar display tee-to-green this week.
Around the greens, there are few better. Poulter ranks just 156th in scrambling on the European Tour but that's taken from limited starts and clearly isn't a reflection of his ability. Instead, it should pay to focus on his seventh in the similar PGA Tour list, and we can expect him to get up-and-down when he does fail to find the green.
We all know Poulter as a matchplay specialist but he's won no fewer than nine strokeplay events on the European Tour, in events that require a flurry of birdies and those that develop into a grind.
He will be determined to play well at a future Ryder Cup venue given how much that event means to him and perhaps that's why he's playing here and not in next week's Scottish Open.
Indeed, he also missed last week's Irish Open to underline just how much he enjoys this tournament, and Poulter can build up to the Open Championship in perfect style.
Second on my list is another man for whom missing cuts is a shock, and that man is Francesco Molinari.
Indeed, the Italian had gone 20 events without missing the weekend prior to doing so in the Players' Championship, but as that came just days after his win in the Open de Espana it's a performance we can forgive.
The reason Molinari is so consistent is that he's among the best ball-strikers in the world. He currently sits fourth for greens in regulation and 22nd in driving accuracy on the European Tour, while it's a perhaps surprising bonus that he's 19th in scrambling - that's again an indication that his misses aren't severe.
It's perhaps not a surprise, given his strengths, that he's gone close here before. Back in 2010, Molinari defied a double-bogey on the first hole of his final round to force a play-off with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Alejandro Canizares, holing a superb putt in that play-off only to be denied by a similar effort from Jimenez.
Impressively, Francesco led the field in fairways and greens hit for the week, so this is clearly a course that fits his eye, and it's fair to argue that he's never arrived in better form.
The 29-year-old has played 14 events in 2012, finishing in the top-30 no less than 11 times, one of which was that victory in Spain.
Last week he tied for 10th in Ireland, again ranking in the top five for both fairways and greens hit while scambling successfully over 60 per cent of the time, so his game remains in fine shape.
His consistency tee-to-green is exactly what's needed throughout the week at Le Golf National, and Molinari looks ready to take the next step in his career by becoming a multiple winner this season.
The other man I want on-side at the head of the market is Martin Kaymer, whose record here is second to none.
As well as beating Lee Westwood in a 2009 play-off, Kaymer finished seventh on his 2007 debut, sixth in 2010 and fourth last year, while he also shares the course record thanks to an incredible 62 on his way to the title three years ago.
Indeed, we can also explain away his missed cut as it came just a week after an emotional victory in the BMW International Open on home soil, and while he's since shown he can win back-to-back events, at the time he'd struggled immediatedly after a victory.
It's fair to say that Kaymer hasn't quite been at his best this season, but when your best is winning four events including a Major as he did in 2010, it's always going to be hard to maintain that level.
Recently, signs are that his game is on the up. Kaymer missed the cut in the BMW International Open last time but prior to that had finished 15th in the US Open, 15th in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and 15th in the Players' Championship too.
Go back further and he made the cut for the first time in the Masters, so although he's yet to seriously threaten to win in 2012 that could well change at this venue, one that suits him to a tee.
Looking to those at bigger prices, there are a few who make obvious appeal. Both Foster and Anthony Wall played superbly in Ireland and have previous here, but they really struggle to get over the line and at 55/1 and 80s respectively I'm not convinced either rates as value.
Olesen took to the course last year and could go close but he's just a few points bigger than Poulter which underlines the lack of juice in his price, while course-specialist Richard Green hasn't done enough to convince me he's ready to contend at present.
James Morrison is a three-figure poke worth considering given his form here and excellent driving, Richie Ramsay played much better last time and has few peers when it comes to hitting fairways and greens, while Simon Khan can also go well at a price.
However, completing my outright staking plan is Marcus Fraser, who surely shouldn't be 80/1 given the way he's played all season.
The Australian has finished in the top six in three of his last six events, including when losing a lengthy play-off to Danny Willett in the BMW International Open last time out.
Fraser is finally free of injury troubles which have held him back for some time, and it's really showing in his game as he currently sits 15th in the Race To Dubai standings.
He ranks a respectable 32nd in fairways hit this season and an impressive second in putts per round, and although his record here is hit-and-miss he did finish third in 2007.
That performance came on the back of a barren run that included four missed cuts in five events, and I see no reason why this two-time European Tour winner can't get straight back on the bike after a week off considering the state of his game at present.
Finally, I'm going to dip into the top Frenchman betting and side with Victor Dubuisson, who leads the European Tour's greens-in-regulation statistics.
A supremely talented player, Dubuisson hasn't finished outside the top 30 since March, a period of five events that also includes two top-fives.
He was in nothing like this sort of form when finishing just outside the top 50 here last year, nor was he when also making the weekend in 2010, but he has got a round of 66 under the belt to show he can score at the course.
Dubuisson has been out with a minor injury but says he's fit for this return, and I'm happy to take him at his word although stakes will be kept small.
Ultimately there wasn't quite enough in his profile to suggest that he's a bet at 80/1, but with doubts about most of his compatriots I reckon he's worth a bet at 7s to be the best of the home contingent.