Ben Coley previews the Soudal Open, where Sebastian Soderberg could go one better than in last week's British Masters.
2pts e.w. Victor Perez at 40/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Joachim B. Hansen at 66/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Sebastian Soderberg at 80/1 (BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Joost Luiten at 80/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Connor Syme at 80/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Lorenzo Gagli at 150/1 (BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
After two editions of a fun-and-games experiment in 2018 and 2019, Belgium returns to the DP World Tour schedule with a bonafide event headlined by its star golfer, Thomas Pieters, and World Cup-winning partner Thomas Detry. Along with a handful of others, these handsome youngsters will hope to continue a run of winners which underline that on the most global tour in golf, coming home can make all the difference – especially now that there are crowds to impress.
So far this season, four of the six DP World Tour events for which there was a strong home challenge have been won by one such player: Thriston Lawrence, Shaun Norris, Pablo Larrazabal, and Adri Arnaus. If you're happy to throw in residents of the country then that brings in Thorbjorn Olesen, based for a long time in London. Rewind to the end of last season and Arnaus lost to Rafa Cabrera Bello in Spain, while three of the four events of the post-Open 'UK Swing' went to players from the UK.
All of which is to say that Pieters and Detry in particular have to be respected ahead of the Soudal Open which, like the Belgian Knockout before it, will take place at Rinkven International. Of the two, Detry achieved more in that event and there's a chance Pieters has his eye off the ball again, while unlike Detry he's jetting off to play in the PGA Championship next week.
So is Bernd Wiesberger, who somehow came up one shot short of the places when selected at almost twice the price in Spain two weeks ago. I'm a little surprised he skipped the British Masters to play here instead, not least because of what lies ahead at Southern Hills, but he and Pieters are the best two players in this field. There is of course a reasonable chance that one of them is sipping champagne on the flight across to the United States.
Rinkven, however, might just throw another spanner in the works. This short par 71 comes in at under 7,000 yards and the biggest takeaway from the Knockout must surely be that accuracy was king. Adrian Otaegui, Benjamin Hebert, David Drysdale, Darius van Driel and various other short, straight hitters relished plotting their way around this tight, tree-lined, twisting course, and for the most part those who prefer a bit of space off the tee were left extremely frustrated.
Banking on a repeat looks the way to go, although there is just one nagging concern: I did wonder, perhaps, if the unique format of the Belgian Knockout encouraged defensive golf, first to get inside the top 32 of the stroke play portion over 36 holes, and then to edge through matches played over just nine holes of stroke play, where one big mistake with driver might spell disaster.
With four par-fours that could play under 350 yards, perhaps we'll see more aggression from those like Pieters, Sam Horsfield, Ryan Fox and Adrian Meronk who help populate the front of the betting. And, with two short par-fives there to be eaten alive, if any one of these does employ such tactics successfully, then the notion of Rinkven as a plotters' paradise may quickly unravel.
Nevertheless, when most information we have says accuracy trumps power, yet by dint of their being the better players we've a market which is power heavy at the top, the right thing to do is to take some chances. Hence I'll start us off with last week's runner-up, SEBASTIAN SODERBERG, who might just gain compensation.
The obvious negative is that Soderberg has just had a second DP World Tour win ripped from his grasp, having surely believed he'd done enough from the moment Richie Ramsay's approach to the last found water, to the moment Thorbjorn Olesen's eagle putt at the 17th found the hole.
Even then he was favourite to win the British Masters and a lot will depend on whether he can put that disappointment behind him. Ramsay for instance said he didn't sleep on Sunday having passed up a big opportunity to win on home soil, and it's easy to envisage him struggling to dust himself down and go again on Thursday morning.
Soderberg, however, did nothing wrong, and when he was runner-up at Valderrama last year, he went and finished runner-up in Mallorca a week later. Potential similarities don't end there, either: as was the case in October, his performance at the Belfry came under his favoured conditions, and courtesy of a similar uptick in ball-striking that saw him rank 15th in strokes-gained off the tee and 17th with his approaches.
The Swede now has four top-two finishes on the DP World Tour, and it strikes me that they've come at courses with genuine similarities: Crans, Valderrama, Mallorca, and the Belfry. Each of them proved pretty difficult, none can really be overpowered, and the more familiar three are all tight, tree-lined, parkland courses with something in common with each other, and with Rinkven.
Soderberg has already shown he can operate here, too, losing in the knockout stages to eventual semi-finalist Ewen Ferguson in 2019. It looks very much his type of course and whereas back then he arrived here on the back of three missed cuts and a best of 20th in 12 starts that year, this time he's already had two chances to win and also played well both in South Africa and on the Asian Tour.
There has of course been a pretty dramatic shift in his price on the basis that he'd played very poorly in Spain and you have to think twice in such circumstances. However, he'd finished fifth a week before his sole DP World Tour win three years ago to mark our cards and having also triumphed on a course that correlates well in Kenya, it could well be that the timing is perfect.
Towards the top of the market there's really only one player who made serious appeal and that's Wiesberger, but prices in the 12-16/1 mark are no more than fair given his ongoing putting crisis. Instead, I'll give a second chance to VICTOR PEREZ at more than twice that.
Perez never really got himself into the conversation at the Belfry, nevertheless his ball-striking was superb once more as he finished 21st. That's twice in three starts since returning from the PGA Tour that he's been among the top five drivers and on all three occasions his irons have been strong, so the fundamentals of his game are back where they need to be.
Whereas Wiesberger's issues are on the greens, Perez has been struggling around them, but these are extremely flimsy statistics and it won't take much to find the necessary improvement. What's more, here at a short, considerably easier course, if his long-game does fire then he should be hitting far more greens than was the case last week, which reduces the likelihood of his short-game proving costly.
Everything else about what he's done of late suggests he has a big performance in him and that's also true of his performances in 2018 and 2019, course experience which gives him the edge on a few of these. Perez shot 69-67 in his first appearance, sailing through to the knockout stages, and went on to lose after extra holes of his quarter-final with the arrow-straight David Drysdale.
Notably, Perez wasn't even a DP World Tour member at the time and arrived after a poor start to the year, later going on to win a Challenge Tour title in China and graduating before an excellent rookie season saw him win the Dunhill Links. Two solid rounds on his return the following spring suggest this is a good course for him, and I like his correlating form at Galgorm Castle (fourth) and Wentworth (second).
On the latter, Nicolas Colsaerts said "Wentworth is probably like a bigger version of this" as he warmed up for the BMW PGA Championship here, so that does look a good place to start digging for clues. So does Spey Valley, a Scottish course with clear aesthetic similarities, where shock 2018 semi-finalist James Heath boasts form figures of 8-6-1-2.
With that in mind, I can't resist chancing JOACHIM B. HANSEN, another whose short-game is often the stumbling block.
Hansen is out of form on the face of it, with finishes of 49-MC-MC since the DP World Tour returned from its latest mini-break, but his approach play has taken significant steps forward throughout each of these starts and the same goes for his driving.
We saw this quality long-game propel him towards an unlikely weekend tee-time at the Belfry only for Hansen to bogey the 18th and miss on the number, but as with Perez his issues around the green are far less likely to be a problem here in Belgium providing he takes another step forward in other departments.
Returning to those correlating courses, he's been seventh and 20th in the last two editions of the BMW PGA Championship and went MC-5-5-2 at Spey Valley on the Challenge Tour, and like Perez he played really well here in 2018 despite being a Challenge Tour member at the time.
Back then he bumped into a flying Colsaerts, who had won two matches already that day and played beautifully to beat Hansen, so it's good form and he's since completed the graduation to this level. Indeed, with wins in 2020 and 2021 he's one of the more decorated players away from the favourites and I don't mind chancing him at 50/1 and upwards after compatriot Olesen won at the weekend.
I understand fully the flaws in suggesting players might spur each other on and that's why such speculation is never the primary basis for selecting anyone. However we've just had back-to-back Spanish winners, last year two close friends from Scotland won in successive weeks, and when Rasmus Hojgaard took the title in Switzerland, you can be sure brother Nicolai raised his game a little to win in Italy just days later.
With Danish golf absolutely flying right now, Hansen looks a better bet than Jeff Winther, a winner himself back in October and capable of competing here if back putting as well as he usually does following a blip at the Brabazon.
Alex Bjork and Jorge Campillo are both the right types for this, the latter having demonstrated as much when topping the stroke play leaderboard in 2018, and it wouldn't surprise me if either bounced back following narrow missed cuts last week.
However I don't think either has been missed in the market and instead I'll take a chance on JOOST LUITEN, who should enjoy plenty of support here with his hometown just an hour north of Rinkven.
Luiten lost to Hansen in the knockout stages here four years ago so he's got some course experience to call upon, and it certainly looks his type of track. Twice a winner in the Netherlands, he's also scored at Celtic Manor and Diamond Country Club, two tricky parkland courses, and all six of his wins at this level have come in the scoring range I expect we'll see this week.
It's four years since the last of them and he's not been much of a threat since blowing a good chance to win when the DP World Tour returned in Austria two summers ago, but there have been signs of improvement lately – hence his inclusion in an eye-catchers piece written in February that produced its first winner in Olesen.
Like the Dane, Luiten is a bit of a sleeping giant at this kind of level and once more last week we were given an indication that he might be waking up, ranking fifth in accuracy, 19th in greens, 18th in strokes-gained approach and 23rd in putting to finish 36th, flying home in 32 strokes to hopefully build some momentum for this.
Luiten has a solid bank of Wentworth form, has twice been second at Valderrama, finished seventh at Karen last year (Rinkven winner Guido Migliozzi a former champion there), and should see this as a good chance to get competitive again. If he does, we'll have to take our chances with his short-game holding up on Sunday.
At a similar price, CONNOR SYME could well build on an excellent third place at the Belfry.
Last week's British Masters might just prove the best guide of all based on the 2019 leaderboard here, which saw Soderberg, Justin Walters and eventual winner Migliozzi all figure in the top dozen. Each of them has since finished runner-up at the Brabazon.
Syme's third place there added to a series of similar efforts on parkland courses, most notably in Austria where he's been second and fourth in two starts at Diamond. Throw in a run of 3-8-18 at Celtic Manor, third at Karen and eighth at Valderrama, and he has the sort of profile I'm looking for as an accurate driver with a good short-game, somewhat in the mould of an Otaegui albeit as yet unproven when it comes to winning.
The young Scot disappointed with a missed cut in the ISPS Handa Championship last month but it transpired he'd had Covid-19 during the DP World Tour break and now looks to have returned to the form which earned him a place on the list there, soon after his practice partner Ferguson had won in Qatar.
It's a little surprising that Syme can produce such a strong form line the very week before this event and still be out at 80s, perhaps a reflection that he didn't quite make the knockout stages here in 2018. However, his form during the spring portion of that campaign read MC-74-MC-MC so there's definitely more substance this time, not just in third place last week but in sixth at Al Hamra, and the strong finishes he produced either side of that.
Encouragingly, his best two results of 2021 came during a three-event spell at around this time of year and in 2020 he produced a run of three top-10 finishes in a row, so this neat-and-tidy operator looks worth siding with to build on a brilliant finish to the British Masters.
At three-figure prices, money for Jack Singh Brar makes sense as his comeback gathers pace, but the ones who interested me most were Eddie Pepperell, David Horsey, Hebert, and LORENZO GAGLI.
Pepperell seems in a good place and I like both his form at Wentworth (two top-10s) and in the KLM Open next door in the Netherlands, where he boasts four top-sixes from just six appearances. Any course which allows players to ditch driver is likely to suit this brilliant iron player and he was actually solid off the tee last week anyway, another indication that he's close to putting everything together.
Horsey's approach play has remained strong during a run of missed cuts on courses he doesn't much like and this short-hitting, multiple winner also has an each-way chance, but Gagli's irons are really singing now and he'd have made the cut last week but for a duffed chip and a short missed putt at his final hole, double-bogey there seeing him miss out by one.
He'd previously played in the final group in Spain, on a course which favoured longer hitters, having also shown promise when selected on these pages at 400/1 for the event won by Pablo Larrazabal. His odds have contracted now that the cat is out of the bag but having breezed through to the knockout stages here in 2018 and played well again in 2019, there are fewer unknowns in a tournament which may not take much winning.
Gagli of course is yet to do that at this level but his iron play last week would've seen him rank second in strokes-gained approach had he carried it through four rounds, making it five tournaments running in which that aspect of his game has been very good. Something similar here and he might get another chance to show he does have what it takes to become a DP World Tour winner, which both he and Hebert are yet to prove.
The latter definitely caught the eye last week, has Wentworth form and was runner-up here in 2018, but he continues to work on his fitness and it seems a wrist problem isn't fully healed yet. With that in mind it's Gagli who earns the final vote.
Posted at 1835 BST on 09/05/22
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