Should we be siding with tournament host and favourite Sergio Garcia at the Andalucia Masters? Get Ben Coley's verdict on this week's European Tour stop.
Not for the first time in his career, Sergio Garcia could do with a hug. Asked how he felt about his game entering the US Open, the Spaniard simply uttered the word 'horrible'. Encouraged to elaborate, he told reporters that he didn't know where the ball was going, which is somewhat troubling for one of the finest ball-strikers of his generation.
Garcia went on to finish 52nd, gently easing his way down the leaderboard. At least he made the cut, which he'd failed to do in his previous seven majors, and has since failed to do in the calmer waters of the BMW International Open at a course he enjoys. Make no mistake, Garcia isn't at his best. Since winning the Masters, these slumps have become alarmingly common and harder to escape.
Yet if there's one place on earth at which the 39-year-old can arrive and turn things around in a few holes, it is Valderrama, which keeps its place on the European Tour schedule for the fourth year in succession. This is Garcia's golfing oasis, a course at which he has 13 top-10 finishes in 14 tries and three victories in his last four, including last year when he escaped the field over just 54 holes.
To others, Valderrama's embrace is suffocating. To Garcia, it is warm and welcoming, capable of conjuring from him one of those fluid, effortless performances which have punctuated a 20-year career. When he's happy, healthy and loved, Garcia is in a completely different league to all bar one, maybe two players in this field. Even in this latest existential funk, he's bloody well tempting at 13/2.
Those one or two players who can hold a candle to the tournament host are youngsters with vastly different builds and vastly different games.
Jon Rahm is a combustible bully of a golfer who started off winning at the longest course on the PGA Tour and has since blasted his way to various victories the world over. The lengthening list of titles includes one in Spain, but not here, and Valderrama is the one course on earth which most undermines what he's good at.
Given that Rahm can get a little, shall we say, frustrated, this nudge-and-grind layout, the European Tour's spiritual home which offers a throwback to the days of loose-fitting trousers and straight-hitting shorties, I can't have him on my mind at all. It's no exaggeration to say he'd be clear favourite over Garcia at any other venue in the world of professional golf, but the layers aren't wrong: here, he's second best at best.
Then we have Matt Fitzpatrick, half the mass of Rahm and twice as suited to the course. The 24-year-old should've won in Germany on Sunday, where nobody in the field hit more greens, and it won't surprise anyone if he gains quick compensation. For a quiet type, Fitzpatrick has made no secret of his frustration at the wide-open courses which account for most of the schedule. He'll know this is a chance not to be missed.
At 10/1, Fitzpatrick is not much easier to get away from than Garcia. This is a golf course which has tended to unearth a champion of high calibre and his skill set is perfect for it. Should the putter warm up just a degree or two and he avoid the sort of stumbling start which probably cost him in Hong Kong last November, we could well be in for title number six.
If pushed, I would default to the host, whose performance here last year was imperious. Yet while I'm am happy to occasionally dip a toe into the deep end, it's best to do so only when the player in question has few questions to answer. The biggest concern anyone can have about anyone is the state of their game and I can't back a player who can't answer that most fundamental of queries. Garcia has been all but invulnerable here, but to my eye much depends on how he starts and for once I would not be surprised if he doesn't click.
We might, then, be able to get the big three beat, and the mission in doing so is to focus on a very specific type of golfer. Valderrama's narrow corridors require absolute control from the tee, and it really doesn't matter how far you can hit the ball. Of greater importance is limiting the big misses and scrambling well, avoiding trouble spots which make doing so impossible. If they had a table for focus and decision-making, I'd be referring to that.
These skills aren't called upon as often as they ought to be, and that means it's easy to tie this course to certain others. By far and away the most straightforward comparison is Fanling, in Hong Kong, where Fitzpatrick was second as mentioned, and it's the man who beat him who heads the staking plan.
Aaron Rai is younger than perhaps ideal for a challenge like this, but the rigorous midlander overcame a lack of experience to produce a dominant breakthrough triumph late last year.
The way he fended off one of the most ruthless, unrelenting players on the circuit was seriously impressive, and for the time being it's likely that he remains at his most dangerous when presented with a similar kind of test.
Valdderama is exactly that. When Wade Ormsby finished fifth to secure his card here in 2017, he celebrated a month or so later by winning in Hong Kong, and it's entirely possible that Rai goes a step or two further and emulates Ian Poulter and Miguel Angel Jimenez in landing both events.
Rai is in fact already one of the many players who tie the courses together, as he was an excellent eighth here in debut in 2017. Each of the seven players ahead of him had played this unique course before, yet Rai competed with them through a mix of accurate driving, tight scrambling and that mature approach to course management which looks to be one of his chief strengths.
The negative is the absence of worthwhile form this year, but for which Rai would've been a good deal shorter. However, his long-game appeared to be in excellent shape in Denmark last time as he defied an opening 74 to climb to 18th, and closing rounds of 68, 70 and 67 represent the kind of step forward he needed.
All season, the long-game has been solid enough - he's fourth for driving accuracy and third for greens hit among those to have played a minimum of 30 rounds - and if he can find any kind of confidence on the greens he's a massive danger.
Now returned to this type of course - a win in Kenya on the Challenge Tour further underlines that tree-lined definition absolutely suits - Rai is expected to take another step forward if the putter behaves and rates a strong fancy at the price.
Ashley Chesters is a similar player at similar odds, but he has nowhere near the potential of Rai in my book, nor has he achieved as much to date. Chesters was in the staking plan at a three-figure price when placed here late last year, but at a best of 80/1 he's left out this time.
Instead, Richie Ramsay is tipped to further underline his own love affair with the course.
The Scot kept hold of his playing rights when playing well here in October, grinding his way to 11th place at a course where he'd been third and 29th in his only other appearances.
"It's a fantastic venue and I just want to go out and give 100 per cent like I do every week and hopefully it'll be enough," he said at the time.
"I feel that if I play to my capabilities around here, I can definitely get in contention and maybe not think about keeping my card, more so think about vying to win a title."
Under immense pressure, it's little wonder that Ramsay did ultimately look over his shoulder rather than any doomed attempt to reel in Garcia, one of just a dozen players in the field with a better course scoring average, and it was a case of job done as he kept hold of his status on the circuit.
Now back at Valderrama having already done enough to avoid such drama later in the campaign, Ramsay has everything in his favour having ticked over nicely this spring, the highlight being fifth place in the British Masters when presented with suitable conditions.
On a bigger golf course in Germany last week he produced his worst round in several months, but Friday's 67, while not enough to avoid a missed cut, suggests the game which powered a run of 14-5-12 before a narrow defeat at the Belgian Knockout remains intact.
Ramsay is another who ranks inside the top 25 in driving accuracy and from that base he can launch a sustained title challenge at one of the few tracks which brings out his best.
Jason Scrivener has strong form here and at Fanling, enough to be of some interest, while Max Kieffer also earns a place on the shortlist. Statistically speaking, Kieffer is among the standout candidates in the field but he was far from bullish about the state of his game last week in Germany, where only a burst of scoring during the second round kept his head above water.
Kieffer could well build on that share of 37th now returned to Spain, where he came closest to a European Tour breakthrough at El Saler and has been 29th and fifth here, but I prefer the classier Andrew Johnston.
Beef won the Spanish Open here in 2016, defying exceptionally tricky conditions to triumph in one-over, and he played better than his finish position when 23rd as the de facto defending champion the following October.
Being grouped with Garcia there may have been a slight hindrance but Johnston largely failed to contend because of the slower greens which he struggled to adjust to, so the hope is that a return to this sort of slot on the calendar helps him return to the winners' circle.
It's true that he's been a little disappointing since, albeit with several caveats from the trappings of fame to various injuries, but signs lately are that he's getting back to where he belongs and there was much to like about his ball-striking in Germany.
Having been 22nd here in October, Johnston has a pretty flawless record at a course which produces similar leaderboards year after year, and the hope is that he's timed this to perfection.
Back to the top of the market and it would be easy to forgive Joost Luiten a missed cut last week now back at Valderrama, where he was second to Garcia in 2017, while Matthias Schwab has the right sort of game for this if he can bounce back quickly from Sunday's disappointing finish.
They're respected along with Marcus Kinhult and Adrian Otaegui, but there are better bets at bigger prices and the pick of them is Edoardo Molinari.
It was Molinari who knocked Ramsay out in Belgium, which came after a run of three solid events across April and May, and he stepped up on all of that to finish an excellent third last week.
As usual, it was a performance built on accurate driving and a tidy short-game, and along with his refusal to quit this makes for an ideal Valderrama make-up.
So far, he hasn't quite shown that the course is perfect for him but I'm adamant that it is, and he's at least improved from a couple of missed cuts at the start of the decade to finish 42nd, 58th and 22nd over the last three years.
In 2017, Molinari was in fact eighth at halfway while last year he was fifth in driving accuracy and eighth in scrambling, only for the putter to leave him with too much to do. It's not surprising to me that he says it's the best course in Europe and part of the reason he never wanted to base himself in the USA.
With confidence levels undoubtedly higher now and his victory in Morocco two years ago coming on arguably the next hardest course on the European Tour, Molinari looks a massive player at three-figure prices having always been favoured by a stiff test.
At a similar price, I'm also drawn to Thongchai Jaidee, who has made all five cuts here and had been playing well until missing the cut last week.
A little like Ramsay, Jaidee paid the price for a slow start in Germany but a second-round 69 suggests all is not lost and it comes on the back of 35th in the British Masters, 33rd in Denmark and victory alongside Phachara Khongwatmai at GolfSixes.
Clearly, that's questionable form, but Khongwatmai has followed it up by finishing third and 31st, latterly sitting second at halfway and ninth through 54 holes, and there's no arguing with the fact that any kind of win can boost confidence.
Given that Jaidee hasn't been all that far away throughout spring, it may be that winning over in Portugal tees him up for a strong summer as he looks ahead to opportunities on the senior circuits with his 50th birthday looming.
Valderrama is one of just a handful of realistic chances and given that he's the highest-ranked scrambler in the field, as well as being among the more accurate drivers, he looks worth siding with while we can.
Finally, I'll stick with Ricardo Gouveia who has been in my staking plan every time he's teed up at Valderrama.
In part that's because he has some winning non-tour form at the course, one he says he adores, but mainly it's because this multiple Challenge Tour winner is the sort of accurate driver who should prosper here.
Gouveia has justified such a theory to an extent, finishing 16th last year and fading from sixth at halfway and seventh through 54 holes to take 23rd in 2017, which at the time was just enough to keep hold of his card.
It has been a miserable year so far for the Portuguese, but he is capable of popping up at his favourite venues and last week's 44th, where he closed with a round of 69, was a step back in the right direction.
Posted at 1755 BST on 24/06/19.