Ben Coley looks ahead to this week's Open de France, where a Presidents Cup reject could be poised to make something of a point.
2pts e.w. Ryan Fox at 30/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Adrian Otaegui at 35/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Andy Sullivan at 40/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Marcus Kinhult at 70/1 (Sky Bet, Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. James Morrison at 140/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Jamie Donaldson at 150/1 (Coral, bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
From Ryder Cup future to Ryder Cup present, the DP World Tour swaps Rome for Paris, Marco Simone for Le Golf National, as the (Cazoo, like everything these days) Open de France makes a welcome return to the schedule.
This event was right there when the European Tour began some fifty years ago and has been played on what's a generally popular course since 1991. It's one that cemented its place in those imaginary golfing history books when finally getting its Ryder Cup in 2018, as Europe thumped the USA under the expert guidance of Thomas Bjorn.
That tournament is unique, but it still tell us much about Le Golf National and what's required here, on the outskirts of Paris. Or should that be what's not required, namely driver, which is so often taken out of the hands of straight-jacketed professionals who desperately want to reach for it but know they really ought not to, for the most part at least.
The United States team didn't much like it whereas for star man Francesco Molinari, it was and is perfect. Hit fairways (or rather don't miss them by a long way), hit greens (ditto) and you'll do fine here, but stray from that path and there's thick rough, penal bunkering, and water all around. Stadium golf it may be, but of a quite different kind to that which we're likely to see next September.
Nevertheless there are some comparisons with soon-to-be stablemate Marco Simone, as there are with Celtic Manor, Gleneagles and particularly Sawgrass. For something tangible to go with the speculation note that from 2010 to 2012, the Wales Open went to Graeme McDowell, Alex Noren and Thonghai Jaidee. There have been seven renewals of the Open de France since, and that trio have won four of them.
One thing that certainly ties these courses together is toughness – potentially increased by some recent damage to this one – and that's just fine for two members of the world's top 50 who are vying for favouritism, Patrick Reed and Thomas Pieters.
Reed flies in from Chicago, making it four successive weeks of transatlantic travel, and is playing well enough to cause a stir just as he did at Wentworth. He'd dearly love to win during the week of the Presidents Cup and his chance is an obvious one, but he did play poorly here for much of the Ryder Cup and fatigue is enough of a concern to ignore odds of 14/1.
Pieters then looks the man to beat. We might not think of this as a course made for the powerful Belgian, but he says it's one of his favourites and has made five cuts in six, the other a disqualification. It was here that he made his European Tour debut a decade ago and, just as was the case when his mentor Nicolas Colsaerts won the event when last it was played, there's a heightened level of comfort in Paris.
He's hard to leave out at 18/1 and should give his running once again, but RYAN FOX is the other top-50 player in this field and is just preferred for the headline wager at a nice price.
Only Pieters is enjoying a better season than Fox, a winner in the Middle East and then robbed, for all that he left the keys in the door, when second in the Dutch Open. The pair rank first and second in strokes-gained total and now boast all-round games which are helping them to fulfil their potential, their respective weaknesses turned to strengths.
Where Pieters' improvement on the greens and between the ears should see him return to the Ryder Cup fold in a year, Fox can count himself most unfortunate not to be playing in the Presidents Cup this week. He's in fact just ahead of Reed in the world rankings* and it's difficult to argue he's not among the best dozen international players who were eligible for selection.
Typical of one of the most liked players on the circuit, he took the bad news with good grace, admitting that his game hadn't quite fired when he needed it to. As others like Taylor Pendrith and Cam Davis upped their games on the PGA Tour, Fox perhaps paid the price for a gruelling first six months and wasn't a factor when the world was watching, either in the Scottish Open or the Open that followed.
Still, he did fight hard to make the cut in the former and only just missed out on a weekend tee-time in the latter, so I wouldn't be sure that the golden touch has deserted him. More likely is that he just ran out of steam a little, returning to go 22-MC when under pressure and playing at courses which wouldn't necessarily suit.
Le Golf National does, as he showed when 18th on debut and when sixth, leading after the first round, three years ago. That was the first renewal to be played in October and the course was softer as a result, but the firmer conditions expected this week won't be a problem for a player with a fine record under such conditions.
Twice inside the top six in greens hit at the course, it's one he can plot his way round as fellow big-hitter Colsaerts did, so we come back to the state of his game and his position in the market. For my money, two poor putting weeks at Crans and Wentworth have no real bearing on the former, but they've certainly had a bearing on the latter.
Fox probably explained it best himself, when speaking to John Huggan about his omission from Trevor Immelman's team.
"I’m not going to sulk about this," he said. "But it has affected me. I found out I had been left out when I was in Switzerland and didn’t do too well there. There was some rust involved there, too, though.
"Hopefully this week (at the BMW PGA) I can show Trevor what he is missing. I’ll be trying to do that, but there are a lot of really good players here for that to happen. And this is generally not a place where I’ve done too well in the past. I think I’ve only ever had one top-20. But this year I do have some extra motivation. I’ll be doing my best to at least give Trevor some second thoughts."
It's pretty clear that he was hopeful rather than expectant at Wentworth, where he withdrew after Friday's second round was cancelled (editor's note: this was due to injury which had not been factored into preview), so this is a far better chance to show Immelman what he's missing, something that surely helped drive Lucas Herbert to a big performance in Italy.
That sense of additional motivation combined with his clear preference for Le Golf National makes for a compelling candidate, one who all but deserves more silverware to make up for his misfortune, and Fox can go out and prove his point.
Course form tends to hold up well here, even in the case of shock winner Colsaerts. McDowell won his two titles back-to-back, Jaidee had been second and 10th before getting it done in 2016, and Noren also won following successive top-10 finishes. Bernd Wiesberger made all eight cuts and had contended a year before his stunning finish and the only exception is Tommy Fleetwood, whose record here reads MC-MC-MC-MC-1-MC, and 4-1-0 in the Ryder Cup.
It's also striking how classy a list it is and that all were previous winners, the last man to secure his first victory here being qualifier Pablo Larrazabal back in 2008. Le Golf National isn't necessarily complex in that for the most part the decision is made by the course on behalf of the player, but it requires real nerve and isn't necessarily a place where one would expect rookies or maidens to fend off those with a little more nous.
For now it could catch out the Hojgaard twins and Thorbjorn Olesen might lead the Danish challenge, at a course where his own record is patchy but includes two near-misses plus a fine end to his sole Ryder Cup appearance. He was sorely tempting having won again this year but there's no doubt he was at the very top of his game ahead of both the 2011 and 2017 renewals, and I don't think the course is as good a fit as it might seem.
Instead it's on to another former Ryder Cup player, ANDY SULLIVAN, for whom this certainly is the right kind of test.
Sullivan demonstrated how valuable experience can be with a missed cut on debut, but since then has never failed to play well here, with finishes of 26-6-5-13-21-23.
Sixth in 2015 and then firmly in the mix in both 2016 and 2017, he also started well here in 2018 and across the first three of these ranked third, sixth and seventh in greens hit, and third, fifth and third in ball-striking. Time and again he's arrived here and produced some of his best golf and it's no wonder he called it 'one of my favourite weeks of the year' on his penultimate visit.
Perhaps 23rd place in 2019 tells us as much as his stronger efforts in earlier years as he arrived in dismal form yet still found something, and he's certainly one who will be glad to see the event return. Only recently has Sullivan climbed inside the cut off for 2023 tour membership and this presents an ideal chance to really push towards the DP World Tour Championship, a tournament he's almost won and dearly loves.
The reason for his move up the Race to Dubai these last two months is that his ball-striking has turned a corner. Sullivan has driven it consistently well for a long time now, only losing strokes at the quirky Crans recently, and his iron play has been similarly excellent: first in Denmark, ninth in Wales, and among the best around since the Open.
Only a poor putting week kept him from having a good chance to win the Made in HimmerLand, just as it did Robert MacIntyre, and he's since kept moving forward with solid efforts at Wentworth and in Italy. This now represents a drop in grade and a return to a course we know he enjoys, with Marco Simone not necessarily in that category (MC last year) and certainly playing longer than he'd like.
This four-time DP World Tour winner looks very close to piecing everything together and can do so at a course which properly rewards his accuracy off the tee, which is key to his success when firing on all cylinders.
Sullivan's latest win came at the 2020 English Championship and the man who chased him home in that event, ADRIAN OTAEGUI, also makes the staking plan.
One of the straightest drivers on the circuit, the Spaniard is another who has contended here in the past, leading at halfway in 2017 (seventh) and sitting within sight of the leaders a year later (12th). Both of these were far stronger renewals and so was that of 2016, when he sat second after round one.
Three times a winner and always in Europe, including over the border in Belgium, the 29-year-old knows how to get the job done and has been hinting at winning again all year, with four top-fives from his 18 starts on this circuit, and zero missed cuts since May (albeit he's played a couple of events without one).
It's no surprise then that he's eighth among this field in strokes-gained total and we might just see even more from him if the LIV Golf experiment is in the past. Otaegui didn't feature in Chicago last week and isn't a player Greg Norman and co are invested in for the long run, which perhaps explains why he was in Italy instead.
Finishing 25th on a course which favoured power over precision was a good effort and while his long-game stats don't leap off the page, that's in no small part down to the nature of the layout. What's more, during Sunday's back-nine he peppered virtually every flag, six birdies in his final seven holes coming without a putt of real note.
Given that he's one of the most accurate players here and is outstanding around the green, and that he's putted well for most of the season, more of that flag-hunting approach work should make him a formidable proposition around a style of course much more suited to his game.
He's been in the mix in two of his last four starts and his only real blemish of late came on Thursday in Rome, when he was certainly hurt by an early tee-time and being on the wrong side of a three-shot draw bias. Granted no such misfortune here, it'll be disappointing if he doesn't pick up where he left off and he's a bet at 33/1 and upwards.
Alex Bjork is a similar price but his strike-rate leaves a little to be desired and perhaps MARCUS KINHULT can prove the pick of the Swedes this time.
Like Otaegui, he was hurt by the draw at Marco Simone, a course which I don't think is for him, so a missed cut while doing nothing terribly isn't a worry. Indeed, I return to the simple reason for supporting him in Switzerland, where he finished 23rd when putting poorly: how well he's played at courses we know he likes throughout the season.
Kinhult's four best tee-to-green displays and indeed his four best finishes so far in 2022 have come at Doha, in Kenya, at Hillside and at Crans. Those are places where he's either contended or, as is the case at Hillside, won in the past. That he's even managed to punch above his weight at places like Albatross, home of the Czech Masters and a course where power is king, tells me he's back close to his best.
That was certainly the case when leading the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green in the Cazoo Classic where he'd have won with anything like a decent putting week, and the neat-and-tidy Swede now returns to another course which complements his skills, rather than rendering him a little toothless.
Fifth and 11th in two starts here, including when leading a strong 2018 renewal which could have put him into the Ryder Cup conversation had he won, Kinhult's record at the course is very strong and he led the all-around ranking back in 2019, when fifth in accuracy and ball-striking and gaining strokes with his long-game.
At times an electric putter who is often razor-sharp around the greens, if he can spend his week playing from the fairway then he can force his way into the mix. Once there, the way he handled himself when winning the British Masters, and a back-catalogue of high-class amateur form, would make him a threat to all.
Given all that's been discussed about the nature of this course, the fact that distance counts for little and danger lurks everywhere, it makes sense that we've seen some older champions down the years. Jaidee won it at 46, Thomas Levet at 42, Miguel Angel Jimenez at 45 and Jean-Francois Remesy at 40, and we've had some more experienced players win on the other short played courses lately, namely Richie Ramsay and Oli Wilson.
I had considered Soren Kjeldsen as a result, as his iron play has been excellent and three top-10s here down the years confirm that he likes the course and has done since a closing 64 on his debut back in 1998. However, he continues to putt poorly and has done all year, which makes it particularly difficult to envisage a surprise win to go with that he managed in the Irish Open back in 2015.
Of the French contingent, Mike Lorenzo Vera has similar credentials and he did well to defy a nightmare start from a bad tee-time in Italy. However, it's closing on two years since his last top-10 finish, he remains a maiden, and he too has lost his magic touch on the greens. Without it, what would be an emotional breakthrough may have to wait.
Instead I'll scroll a little further down the odds list to find JAMES MORRISON, a genius on and around the greens at his best.
Morrison has done really well to keep his head above water on the DP World Tour, winning twice in a long career despite battling Crohn's disease throughout it. It's a real testament to his character and ability to squeeze everything out of his game that he's only lost his card once since 2010, and got it back immediately at Qualifying School.
Thanks to another solid season he'll be back for more in 2023 but it could get better yet, as he's been playing nicely of late. Anyone who shoots rounds of 62 and 64, as he has among his last three outings, is clearly doing a lot right and throughout each of them he's been inside the top 20 at halfway before fading.
A closing 75 at Wentworth last time will have been enormously disappointing in an event he holds dear but again, the fact that he was 11th with a round to go suggests he's really close and I like that his success – which stretches back to 13th place in Ireland, 36th in world-class company in Scotland and a good effort in the Barracuda – hasn't depended entirely on that short-game of his.
Indeed it's what let him down at Wentworth and kept him on the periphery in Denmark, yet we know what damage he can do with putter in particular. Among his peers, Morrison is considered one of the very best chippers and putters on the circuit and as long as he's ticking over with his long-game, those low numbers are always on the horizon.
Both wins came on the continent at exposed courses, a description which very much covers Le Golf National, and this is one of his favourite places to visit. "The golf course suits me," he said in 2011. "I drive it straight and I'm getting longer by the week, with my technique and physical stuff.
"I feel the golf course is right in my ballpark and I can be patient and keep control, because eventually I'm going to miss a few, and it's a matter of on this course missing in the right places and not compounding those mistakes, so if I can do, that would be good."
He led at halfway and through 54 holes back then, eventually finishing seventh, and was unfortunate to bump into Wiesberger in 2015. The pair played alongside each other in the penultimate group that day, Wiesberger's 65 trumping Morrison's 67 as they engaged in a private battle down the home stretch.
He's also been fifth at Celtic Manor despite once professing to detest the place, and his best form this year stacks up too with Abu Dhabi (halfway leader) and the Stadium Course at PGA Catalunya (again in the final group heading into Saturday) both decent guides. So has been Eichenried, where he's led through three rounds in the past.
With his game in good order, Morrison looks the sort of wise old owl who might be able to plot his way to a big finish at 150/1.
Connor Syme will be looking to emulate his fellow Scots who between them have won four of the last 20 events at this level and there are some signs that he could like this, as he boasts a brilliant Celtic Manor record and has also gone well at Diamond Country Club, a tough track in Austria which also throws up some nice ties.
He continued to drive the ball well at Wentworth and could be a threat if putting better, as could Marcel Schneider on what will be his debut in the event.
Schneider has nine top-20s in his last 15 starts and is right up there on the heels of the best players in Europe from a statistical perspective, ranking 10th in SG: total this season, one spot behind Otaegui.
Over the last three months he rates the second best player in this field in total driving and third best ball-striker and these old-school stats translate well into the new age, as he's gained strokes off the tee in his last six starts and has at times shown himself to be a fine iron player.
Last week he ranked second in that department, finishing 16th because of a quiet time of things on and around the greens having been the fourth best ball-striker in the field, only Jordan Smith ahead of him among those who reassemble in France.
At 23rd for the season his putting isn't usually a problem and shouldn't be for long and this slow burner is clearly at the top of his game, missing cuts only narrowly with the exception of the US Open and capitalising when he does make the weekend.
As you can tell he's among the last off the list with a lack of course knowledge and winning form the only negatives, but I'll overlook him in favour of taking a chance on JAMIE DONALDSON.
The Welshman is something of a course specialist having been fifth and sixth here in back-to-back years and been right in contention in 2019, when third entering the final round before a disappointing Sunday.
He's had three or four genuine chances to win since making his debut at Le Golf National 20 years ago and it suits his game, which is based around accuracy and, at his best, saw him rank among the better iron players in Europe and boast a sharp short-game to go with it.
At 46, his best days are gone but since rediscovering his game a couple of years ago he has been a persistent threat, often in good company. Last season's best saw him finish runner-up to Billy Horschel at Wentworth, just as he had to Christiaan Bezuidenhout in the previous year's South African Open, and he has eight top-10s in his last 50 starts.
Inconsistency is part of the package now but sixth place in the Scottish Open this summer is genuinely elite form and he opened 66-68 two starts ago in Denmark to lie 21st. Then, at Wentworth on a golf course which was softer than he'd like, he rallied from a slow start to shoot a second-round 68 and miss the cut on the number.
Throughout these last six rounds he's driven the ball really well and if that continues here in Paris, he might finally get the win he's long been seeking here. It would complete a fabulous return across these Ryder Cup courses I've mentioned, having gone close in Wales and of course secured the winning point at Gleneagles in 2014.
Final word goes to the French, among whom Victor Perez and Antoine Rozner are again the men most likely. Regular readers will know I'm fond of Julien Brun, too, while it should be noted that 200/1 shot Victor Dubuisson continues to strike the ball well and there are some talented youngsters who've been handed spots.
However, the one I looked twice at was Robin Roussel, a Parisian whose sole professional win came in France. He also won the French National Championship in June, beating some good DP World Tour regulars and a few up-and-comers, and since then has often caught the eye with either good ball-striking, fast starts, or both.
That was again the case last week and this accurate sort could massively outrun his odds, but victory is almost beyond the realms of possibility so some creative thinking may be required. Dubuisson once led after round one here and perhaps he could too if handed a favourable tee-time.
Posted at 1900 BST on 19/09/22
We are committed in our support of safer gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline / GamCare on 0808 8020 133.