After two place payouts to sign off a successful UK Swing, Ben Coley looks for value in the Andalucia Masters, where Marcus Kinhult is the best bet.
After a hugely successful UK Swing, it's no doubt with some trepidation that the European Tour flies into Spain for the Andalucia Masters, hoping to float rather than burst the bubble they've so successfully created. The job done by the Tour has so far been exemplary. They've been more strict than their counterparts in the United States, requiring tests at home and upon re-entry, and when John Catlin stepped out of line, he was punished. So far, it really has been so good.
The problem is they now have to shift this operation to Spain and beyond, and there's already been talk of problems getting players on flights from England. Over the coming hours and days, don't be surprised to see a raft of field changes, and even among the reserves it may be a case of who can get to Valderrama. Just three alternates are listed on the European Tour site at the time of writing which, if an accurate reflection of the state of play, means the field size could reduce between now and Thursday's tee-off.
We will press on and hope for the best, that being another demanding and entertaining event at what many consider to be the spiritual home of the European Tour. Valderrama is nothing if not a unique golf course, one which might receive more criticism from those playing but for its standing as former Ryder Cup host and a place where so many of the finest players on the continent have won before. Whether you happen to love it, loathe it or somewhere inbetween, chances are you're familiar with it in some way; aware of its idiosyncrasies, and just how difficult it is.
In recent years, Sergio Garcia has ruled the roost in Sotogrande, but he's understandably not here and neither is Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who would have been defending. Jon Rahm has tried to play in Spain when possible but it clearly isn't right now, and neither Adri Arnaus nor Rafa Cabrera Bello are in the field. Given that we are still behind-closed-doors the absence of the very best locals may not be felt quite so keenly, but it is another sobering reminder of the reality outside of the golf course, where we've been able to get lost just as the players have.
What we have is another slight shuffling of the pack following a UK Championship which continued the theme of the summer. Week after week, winners have been from towards the top of the talent pool and at the Belfry, surely the standout under-20 in the world won for the second time this season after Rasmus Hojgaard denied Justin Walters the upset. At some stage there will be a shock, but for now the bulk of the prize money has been pocketed by the best players, the likes of Sam Horsfield and Andy Sullivan also among them.
Sullivan joins Hojgaard as one of five players priced at 14/1 here. To my eye that reflects a slight conflict which gets to the crux of the challenge: these five are all in excellent form and boast a very definite class edge, but at Valderrama things can go wrong for anyone very quickly. Why else would Hojgaard hold steady at the price at which he won at the Belfry? Put another way, there's a spanner in the works, and it comes courtesy of this silly, charming little course.
Neither Hojgaard nor Bernd Wiesberger have played Valderrama, and any delays to their travel plans may harm their chances of preparing properly. Sullivan has and he's done so well, but he needed a field-leading putting display to cover some poor ball-striking last week, and he doesn't look much of a price. Thomas Detry has form here but would prefer a bit of space and Martin Kaymer... well, he's the one they have to beat. He's just about half the price of last week, when he ought to have won, and I can't go in again for all the likelihood that he's bang in the mix.
Beyond this lot comes course specialist Joost Luiten, but he'll have to defy a very significant pointer - current form. From Bezuidenhout to Beef and the dozen or so champions before them, the most obvious clue has been the one to follow at Valderrama, where perhaps it's difficult to find a working game. Even shock contender Daniel Brooks had turned a corner before arriving here in 2017 and the last winner to defy a missed cut was Ian Poulter in 2004. He'd been placed on his previous start and latest in Europe, so out-of-sorts Luiten appears to have it all to do.
With Hao-tong Li having to defy a lack of course knowledge it's actually Lee Westwood who makes most appeal from the front of the betting, but I'll go a few places further down to the classy MARCUS KINHULT, who is made for this.
When Bezuidenhout produced a dominant, breakout performance last June, he did so thanks to some of the best short-game numbers you'll see. The South African ranked just 66th in greens hit, missing more than half of them, but on and around the greens he was world-class. It's rare for that combination to produce a victory, yet alone one so facile, and it does tell you a little about the course.
Everyone misses greens here. In both the 2016 Open de Espana, won by Andrew Johnston, and the 2017 Andalucia Masters won by Garcia, just one player hit more than seven greens in 10. Last year, Steven Brown led the greens-in-regulation stats by hitting three in four, and it's vital that mistakes are kept to a minimum at a course where double- and triple-bogeys are commonplace.
We've seen accurate players like Ashley Chesters avoid big numbers by hitting fairways, and those like Beef and Garcia do so by hitting greens, but few tournaments have produced a roll-of-honour so heavily tilted towards short-game wizards as this one. Players like Graeme McDowell, Soren Kjeldsen, Freddy Jacobson, Poulter and Bezuidenhout say much about the nature of the challenge, and for once I want to focus on what players do after their approach shots.
Kinhult is among the best in the field in that regard, ranking third this season in strokes-gained around-the-green and 10th in putting. Those strengths have been in evidence post-lockdown, too, with rankings of seventh and fourth around-the-green and 15th and eighth in putting across his last two starts, as his performances steadily improve.
Bar a missed cut at the PGA Championship, he's played really solid golf throughout 38th in the British Masters, 15th in the Wales Open and 13th at the Belfry, and this is the first time he'll play a course he already knows. He has some eye-catching form, too, as he was playing dreadfully and ranked outside the world's top 1000 when 42nd in his rookie season, then finished 22nd in a 54-hole renewal two years ago, when just a couple of shots outside the top 10.
His missed cut in 2019 came after a quiet run which followed his British Masters breakthrough, and there's absolutely no doubt this is a course which plays to his strengths. Positive memories from Spain come courtesy of his Q School effort in 2015 and having signed off with seventh in Qatar in the spring, he's got a solid bank of form pre- and post-hiatus.
A winner under tricky enough conditions at Hillside and at the expense of quality opposition, there's nothing for the young Swede to fear and he looks to be coming to the boil at just the right time.
Jason Scrivener loves it here and is playing well but despite attracting support already, JORGE CAMPILLO still looks better value at the same sort of price and is the next best.
The winner of the aforementioned event in Qatar as well as in Morocco last year, Campillo has resoundingly answered the one question levelled at him in a hitherto journeyman career - do you have what it takes to get the job done?
Now that we know that, he looks capable of living up to expectations as the most likely home winner on the back of top-10 finishes at Celtic Manor and the Belfry, the latter set to be a few spots better before a clumsy, Kaymer-like finish to the final round.
Like Kinhult, his short-game is razor sharp at the moment, ranking eighth and 12th across his last two appearances, and with his iron play and putting also improved last weekend he's perfectly poised for a return home, which presumably doesn't involve any headaches around flights as a Spanish citizen.
The locals are always worth considering in these events - see the 1-2-3 in the Open de Espana, and five of the top seven in this tournament last year - and none have better claims than the man with two wins and a further six places from his last 35 starts.
Romain Langasque won the Spanish Amateur Championship in 2016 and also came through Qualifying School, and there will be those hoping he emulates Horsfield, who went 1-MC-1 earlier this summer. He's tempting having been pushed out in the betting, but further down I prefer the claims of JUSTIN HARDING.
He makes his debut at the course which is a slight negative, but the South African ought to take to it owing to a brilliant short-game, and we can draw at least some encouragement from his seventh place in the Open de Espana last year on his one and only start in Spain.
At 11th in strokes-gained around-the-greens last season and a solid 32nd so far this, Harding has the touch required and he's also accurate off the tee. In fact while less promising in the long-term given he's far more exposed, his game is not so very different from Bezuidenhout's and he's a big price to go ahead and emulate his compatriot.
Harding has already contended this summer, at one of the more difficult courses played, and his victory in Qatar demonstrated that he does appear to prefer tough scoring conditions. That's a theme throughout most of his winning form in Asia and back home in South Africa, and is underlined by a share of 12th on his Masters debut.
Overpriced on his best form, we do need to overlook a few quiet weeks but he has been making cuts, and those two key attributes - hitting fairways and scrambling - have remained strong. It may well be that a switch to this type of course, where grinding pars following missed greens is massive, helps return him to the top of the leaderboard.
The market movers on Monday were almost all on my shortlist, including Richard Bland, but there's still juice in JAMIE DONALDSON's price and he's the first of three outsiders to complete the staking plan.
Fourth here on his penultimate visit, the former Ryder Cup star is another with the required short-game skills for Valderrama for all that his performance in 2018 was powered by a field-leading greens-in-regulation ranking. He led the European Tour in strokes-gained around-the-green in 2019 and while not quite so strong this time, it's still a strength of a peak-form Donaldson.
Like Kinhult, he's been on the fringes more than once this summer, finishing 15th in the Hero Open and 14th in the English Championship. In his sole start since that solid fortnight he closed with a round of 66 for 31st at Celtic Manor, and having ranked third in driving accuracy throughout his last couple of appearances he's doing all the right things for this challenge.
Donaldson's three European Tour wins have come under somewhat difficult conditions - albeit more due to wind than the sort of problems presented by this course - and if he can continue to hit fairways and putt well, there's no reason he can't contend having made four cuts in five starts here.
It's fair to say that envisaging victory for a player like Donaldson is a little difficult, given what's happened over the last six weeks, but Valderrama might just mix things up and I would certainly expect a more experienced leaderboard than some of those we've seen at easier, resort-style courses in the UK.
With that in mind it's worth chasing some place money with small bets on GONZALO FERNANDEZ-CASTANO and THOMAS BJORN.
Fernandez-Castano has a very solid record here, largely built in far more competitive events, and was fifth in the abridged renewal of 2018. Missed cuts either side reflect his general decline but at 39, there's time yet for a return to form and I wonder whether it might be triggered by the fact he and his young family have moved back to Spain from Florida.
It simply hasn't worked out in the US but the Madrid man has to be commended for attempting to make the most of his career. Now that he's able to focus on Europe, however, it's possible that things improve and there have at least been one or two encouraging signs to set against the final-round 84 he shot at Forest of Arden.
Before that he'd played nicely, as was the case when 38th at Close House, and back-to-back rounds of 70 when last seen are not disastrous for all scoring was low at Hanbury Manor. Clearly, he will need to improve but there's probably no better place for that to happen than Valderrama, and I do like the fact he's been first and second in strokes-gained around-the-green among this run.
It's only last summer we saw him shooting a final-round 64 behind compatriot Rahm when 19th at Lahinch and at 250/1, he's preferred to Pablo Larrazabal of the Spanish players who know all about what's needed this week.
If Gonzo was hard to justify you might think Bjorn would be impossible, but remove the name and the age (he's 49, for the record), and the numbers are in some ways quite compelling.
Here we have a player who was eighth on his last start at Valderrama, who has never missed a cut here, whose Ryder Cup debut came at the course, whose scoring average in recent renewals of this event puts him 11th in the field, and who was 10th in strokes-gained approach when finishing a solid 31st last week.
Bjorn's performance in the event last year saw him rank sixth in driving accuracy, eighth in strokes-gained approach and eighth in scrambling, and his ball-striking at the Belfry was as good as it has been since. In fact, it was almost identical.
This is precisely the kind of course where someone can hit the money simply by sticking around and avoiding ruinous mistakes, which exactly what Bjorn did in the UK Championship where he was among the leaders in bogey avoidance. And while he's probably too old, too grizzly to be inspired by youngsters, seeing Rasmus win on the same day as Emily Pedersen can't be a bad thing.
Ultimately, Bjorn showed enough last week to believe that he could put four solid rounds together. If he can do that here at Valderrama, a place is certainly within his compass. This has been a predictable summer, with class and promise dominating in Europe and the US. If anything can shift the paradigm, it is Valderrama.
Posted at 2020 BST on 31/08/20
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