There's more fun and games on the European Tour this week with Thomas Pieters set to host the first edition of the Belgian Knockout, previewed by Ben Coley.
It would be easy to write off the Belgian Knockout as an exhibition, whose result(s) will be almost random and where genuine consequence will be negligible. This is the European Tour at something near their most mischievously creative and should be treated as it is designed: a bit of fun, nothing more and nothing less.
But for Thomas Pieters, the star of Belgian golf who hosts an event his own sister helps to promote, there may be more to it than that. It's almost two years now since he last won an event of any kind, and anything will do as he searches for another - not least because we are once again in a Ryder Cup year.
It's not insignificant that Pieters sprang to life in the summer of 2016, forcing his way into Darren Clarke's Ryder Cup side at the eleventh hour. He did so in low-key events, taking second in the Czech Republic before a classy success in Denmark, and with a mountain to climb to make the 2018 team, he may feel that something similar is required once more.
Of course, Pieters' performance at Hazeltine was good enough for many captains to give him the benefit of what is now considerable doubt, and Thomas Bjorn may be one of them. But with Alex Levy making a more clear cut case and the likes of Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey still outside the automatic qualification spots, space on that team will be tight and Pieters is aware that a semblance of form is going to be required.
Those with faith in the undoubted talents of last year's Masters fourth will be encouraged by the similarities between 2016 and 2018. Pieters started both seasons in excellent shape, contending in Abu Dhabi, before his game deserted him somewhat only to return when he needed it. With European qualification points set to be worth 50 per cent more as of next week's BMW PGA Championship and majors set to come thick and fast through summer, the time for Pieters is now.
At a best of 33/1, Pieters is towards the top of the betting with some of those who have been performing with greater credit at this sort of level all year - Joost Luiten, Jorge Campillo, Adrian Otaegui and Mike Lorenzo-Vera, the latter having lost a play-off in Sicily last weekend. All have outperformed Pieters this spring, but none are anywhere close to him when each is at his best.
The format and venue
Regular European Tour followers are now well versed in experimentation, but the imponderables are nonetheless plentiful here at Rinkven International Golf Club on the outskirts of Antwerp.
Firstly, the format. There are 144 players in the field and over the first two days, they'll take part in traditional stroke play over a composite 18 holes, nine from the venue's North Course and nine from its South Course. In the interests of thoroughness, it's holes 1, 11, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 on the South and holes 10-18 on the North.
After Friday's second round, the top 64 players will progress to the weekend, where there are six rounds of head-to-head knockout matches to navigate. It is not clear whether the leader of the medal will face the player in 64th and so on, but that is probably a fair assumption.
Those knockout matches are played over just nine holes, but the scoring system remains stroke play - each will go the distance.
Predicting how these matches might play out is further complicated by the fact that half of the draw will head to the North and the other half to the South. The North has two par-fives and two par-threes over the nine holes in operation; the South has just one of each. They are also somewhat different aesthetically, with the South much narrower and more traditional-looking, whereas the North plays longer but is more spacious and modern.
If you're backing Pieters, it would be fair to say his chances would be enhanced were he playing his knockout games on the North Course, where his power would appear certain to be more of an asset. Without greater insight into the planned execution of the event and some sort of time machine, it's fair to describe the mission to work out where he might be teeing off on Saturday as impossible.
Given that we've two different nines in play, analysing the course isn't easy and events held here have been few and far between. England's Lee Slattery dominated the Telenet Trophy in 2010, shooting 21-under to win by four, with 10 shots back to sixth place. while Sweden's Isabella Ramsay shot seven-under in a 54-hole event played on the LETA - the Ladies' European Tour's little sister, much like the Challenge Tour is to the European Tour - just four years ago.
Rewind further and one Rory McIlroy shared fourth in the European Amateur Championship here in 2005. Joost Luiten was alongside him with Rafa Cabrera Bello just in front, while others who are in the field this week include Lorenzo Gagli (8th), Matthew Baldwin (8th), Jorge Campillo (13th), Florian Fritsch (13th), Pedro Oriol (39th), Pontus Widegren (44th), Lorenzo Vera (54th) and Ross McGowan (MC).
It's not been possible to establish whether Slattery's win came on the North, South or a composite course, but as Ben Evans described the layout as "very tight", a point reiterated by various others, perhaps it was the South. Winner Slattery spoke of how the layout was short and fiddly but was on top of his game all week, and would've played the first 36 holes bogey-free but for three putts on the final hole of round two.
For what it's worth - and it's probably nothing - Slattery's two subsequent European Tour wins have come on what you'd call ball-strikers' golf courses, both on mainland Europe. Behind him in Madrid were the likes of Thomas Aiken, Francesco Molinari and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, while in Russia he saw off Tano Goya, David Horsey, Pablo Martin and James Heath.
The key contenders
My working theory is that solid, straight-hitting par makers will come to the fore as is so often the case in low-grade match play, and that points to Adrian Otaegui perhaps being the man to beat.
The Spaniard leads this field in both scoring average and bogey avoidance this season and he's among the straightest hitters on display for good measure.
It's also noteworthy that Otaegui makes cuts for fun - he hasn't missed one since the Dunhill Links last autumn - and in every one of the 13 events he's played subsequently, his 36-hole position would've been enough to make the weekend here.
Given that Otaegui was second last time out, the pick of five consecutive top-20 finishes, there's every hope that he will feature in the first knockout round and as one of the hardest men to beat of the 64 still standing.
His sole European Tour win to date came on a parkland golf course in neighbouring Germany in the Paul Lawrie Match Play, an indication perhaps that a less-than-traditional format may play to his strengths, and on balance he rates the most solid option.
All that being said, if Pieters is able to balance his commitments to the event with a very definite need to show something positive on the course, he could serve up a reminder of just why he's the serious Ryder Cup contender in this field.
Pieters is a world-class talent, significantly more capable than any of these, and on those grounds alone has to be factored into calculations. He also boasts some notable match play form and if he can't get up for this, he really is in trouble.
Campillo has course experience courtesy of that European Amateur, arrives at the top of his game and is very similar in many respects to Otaegui, who perhaps found it easier to get off the mark in a match play event than he might have in stroke play.
If Campillo picks up where he left off in China, where third place was his fourth top-five finish in six starts, he looks a big contender. That said, backing someone who has played in over 200 European Tour events without winning is not for everyone, particularly in this format and at odds of 33/1.
Favourite at best prices is understandably Joost Luiten, who is looking to make the Ryder Cup side the old-fashioned way and could yet do so.
Luiten has been back close to his best in 2018, winning in Oman before a pair of top-10 finishes subsequently, and this isn't far off being a home game for a player who has twice won his national title.
The second wave
Jordan Smith's breakthrough came in Germany last year and he burst into life in China last time out. It was a performance very similar to that of Lucas Bjerregaard, who was just behind Smith and went on to place again in Italy, so the big-hitting Englishman has to be considered.
His compatriot Aaron Rai is even more tempting, having closed out well for 20th in China to make it four top-20 finishes in his last six starts, which makes for a very solid platform in what's his rookie season at European Tour level.
If accuracy off the tee is a key pointer then straight-driving Rai goes straight towards the top of any list, while the fact that he won the Andalucía Costa del Sol Match Play 9 on the Challenge Tour - an event with its own range of idiosyncrasies - rates an interesting pointer.
Rai beat Gavin Moynihan in the final there, too, and we saw the latter win GolfSixes with Paul Dunne a fortnight ago; that may edge on Rai a little, while it hints at certain players being better than others at embracing these new, unique challenges. It also came one year ago this week, a fact which will not have escaped the Wolverhampton pro with enormous potential.
Chris Wood, Callum Shinkwin and Sam Horsfield are other English players to consider when it comes to finding the man to follow Lee Westwood as the next European Tour winner in Belgium, and Horsfield is another who has shown form in a unique event having made the semi-finals of the World Super 6 in Perth.
It could also pay to keep an eye on Nicolas Colsaerts, who gets a bit of stick in some quarters but undoubtedly has the quality to take down a field like this one.
Late last year, Colsaerts made Justin Rose pull out all the stops in Turkey and if we go back much further, he's a past winner of the Volvo World Match Play Championship, has won a 36-hole stroke play event of sorts (US Open qualifying) and has form such as 10th in the US Open and seventh in the Open that many of these can only dream of.
His recent form has been poor, but Colsaerts is a new dad with something of a point to prove given that Pieters and even Thomas Detry will steal much of his spotlight. At prices in the region of 50/1, he is tempting.
Finally, I quite like the look of Thomas Aiken, who might not quite be the player he was but, like Colsaerts, is good enough to remind us all of his relative class.
The South African is as straight as they come from the tee, doesn't make many bogeys (just one all weekend in Sicily) and has hinted that his lengthy slump could soon come to an end, particularly when (and indeed 'if') the emphasis is on accuracy.
Up for the challenge?
There are a number of Challenge Tour players in attendance this week for whom this represents a free shot at glory, which could make all the difference. We saw as much when Matt Wallace won a co-sanctioned event in Portugal last year while Julian Suri was another European Tour winner who was without a card at the time.
Pick of the options may well be Joachim B Hansen, the 27-year-old who is delivering on long-held promise right now. He followed a convincing win in Turkey with ninth place in Spain two weeks ago, while if we go back to February he was also successful for the second time on the highly-competitive Nordic Golf League.
Speaking of which, Hansen's first career win came in a stableford event on the NGL so again, the change from traditional stroke play might suit him more than some others.
Another option from the second tier is Lorenzo Gagli, who closed 67-67 for 20th place in Sicily having earlier this year won the Challenge Tour's season-opener in Kenya.
Gagli was second to Slattery in Madrid seven years ago, has experience (albeit dated) of the venue and is close to his best right now having also been second in the Turkish Airlines Challenge, behind Hansen, at the end of April.
Robin Sciot-Siegrist should also be considered at 200/1. The left-handed Frenchman won the Northern Ireland Open last year, the closest thing to this you'll find. That Challenge Tour event involved a 54-hole stroke play portion before six-hole stroke play head-to-heads, and this par-making machine came out on top.
Matthias Schwab, the hugely talented Austrian who will certainly progress beyond this grade in time, topped the stroke play portion and is another name to consider in what's quite clearly a difficult event to unravel. He's actually in possession of a full European Tour card but features in this section just because.
I've long been a big believer that friends and compatriots can help each other to further success, and we saw an example of that on Sunday when Joakim Lagergren won a fortnight on from Alex Bjork's victory in China.
Both had been winners-in-waiting for some time and it was surely no coincidence that Lagergren's turn came so soon after Bjork's. For good measure, they were team-mates at GolfSixes in between.
So, given we've also record of a Swedish winner here on the LETA (yes, tenuous), it may pay to consider some of the Swedes in this field: Jens Fahbring (best form in neighbouring Germany), Jens Dantorp (friends with Lagergren), Peter Hanson (formerly excellent), Henric Sturehed (could be anything), Robert Karlsson (probably gone at the game), Christofer Blomstrand (far too erratic), Pontus Widegren (there are more Swedes than I thought when starting along this road...), Johan Carlsson (very bad since return from injury) and any others I may have missed.
Out of the blue...
As mentioned, Matthew Baldwin went well in the European Amateur here some 13 years ago and also happens to be a straight-hitting type who won't mind if the wind swirls, as it can here.
Baldwin scraped through Qualifying School last year to earn his return to the European Tour, prior to which he made the quarter-finals of the aforementioned Andalucia Match Play 9 when plying his trade on the second tier.
Sebastian Gros ranked second in greens last week and is one to watch this summer, albeit his power doesn't appear likely to be all that much of an advantage here, while the smart Brandon Stone, who might be reinvigorated by some time back home in South Africa, first came to prominence in Europe at the BMW International Open in Germany and is more capable than most.
Finally, Florian Fritsch will relish the relatively short drive from Germany and has form here as an amateur, Richie Ramsay is a ball-striker who could be ideal for the course and showed more in Morocco and Scott Fernandez, twice inside the top 20 in Belgium when playing on the Challenge Tour, appears to be getting there at last.
Clearly, this is a complex puzzle and I defy anyone to offer up confident selections. That said, the World Super 6 in Perth has gone to course specialist Brett Rumford and class act Kiradech Aphibarnrat in its two renewals to date, while the Andalucia event on the Challenge Tour was won by the pick of the would-be graduates last year.
In other words, this is still golf and class still counts, so I'm going to advise small-stakes plays on both Pieters and Otaegui, who I consider the two most likely winners albeit for different reasons. Pieters at his best is just leagues apart from these while Otaegui appears to fit the mould, arrives in form and should be hard to beat once, as expected, he makes the last 64.
Pick of the (slightly) bigger prices are Aiken and Rai, whose fairway-finding capabilities should serve them particularly well, but with Aiken's overall form raising plenty of questions it's winner-in-waiting Rai who gets the vote. His victory in a quirky Challenge Tour event exactly one year ago makes for fascinating reading.
Finally, with the big prices quoted about Schwab having been mopped up I'll take a chance on Stone, who is a serious talent, knows how to win, has been making the right noises lately and struck the ball well in his two starts prior to a missed cut in China on a course which isn't for everyone.
Stakes are kept to an absolute minimum and are advised on the outright market. The idea of backing a player in the 36-hole stroke play portion holds very little appeal, given the lack of incentive to win or place.
Posted at 1920 BST on 14/05/18