Golf expert Ben Coley returns with a preview of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, where Matt Fitzpatrick can go very well.
When February comes around, and it's sixth months since Shane Lowry lifted the Claret Jug, and instead of writing love letters to old flames you're writing aggressive ones to old men, bemoaning the reshaping of golf's major schedule in block capitals, remember this: Wentworth was really good.
Because it will be, won't it? This is the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour calendar, whatever that calendar may have you believe. To those of us who grew up watching Seve Ballesteros and Colin Montgomerie and (Sir) Nick Faldo tackle the Burma Road, this does matter more than Dubai, more than the money. It is, by virtue of its history rather than the depth of its back pocket, prestigious.
And in moving the event from May to September, escaping the spring-to-summer major run which shapes the conversation and the riches of the FedEx Cup which shape schedules, Wentworth this year will be elevated beyond even last spring's showdown between a multiple major champion and the man who went on to win The Open at Carnoustie.
The course will be immaculate and the field is strong, with Francesco Molinari back to defend, Rory McIlroy at the top of the betting, and Jon Rahm joined by fellow PGA Tour stars Tony Finau, Patrick Reed, Billy Horschel and Viktor Hovland, who from a standing start is about to enter the world's top 100 as his ascent towards the very top of the sport really gathers pace.
Hovland's timing - this is his European Tour debut as a professional, having missed the cut in Germany last year when still an amateur - is intriguing, because the BMW PGA marks the start of the Ryder Cup points race for those who play under the flag of Europe. He'll need to take up membership to qualify and he'll be offered it if he wins. As storylines go, Norway's golden boy winning the week after its golden girl captured the Solheim Cup, in doing so opening the path to Whistling Straits, is hard to top.
Yet it's another Ryder Cup hopeful who tops my list as Matthew Fitzpatrick looks to engineer a return to the side following a quiet debut in 2016.
Fitzpatrick has enjoyed a fabulously consistent year, climbing 10 places in the world rankings in a section where every move is hard-earned, but it lacks one thing: silverware.
He was clumsy in Germany, handing Andrea Pavan a play-off chance which the Italian did well to take, and he was unlucky in Sweden, when Erik van Rooyen holed everything and held firm as Fitzpatrick's prospects were ruined by a heavy dose of misfortune.
Second place in the Arnold Palmer was unfortunate in a different way - he bumped into Molinari at his irrepressible best - and if we take a broader view of the European Tour season then we can throw in another silver medal, this time in Hong Kong last December, when Aaron Rai responded to every question asked by one of the circuit's toughest operators.
The difference between winning and losing at this level is so often microscopic, and Fitzpatrick won't be deterred by his failure to have done so now that he's presumably over a rare mishap in Germany. That said, when contending in Sweden he revealed that he's eager to keep alive an impressive streak. Dating back to his 2015 breakthrough success, Fitzpatrick has won at least once every year as a European Tour member, and time is running out if he's to extend it through to the next decade.
Wentworth, where he's progressed from 47th on debut to 12th and then eighth last year, is a good place to start. Like Molinari, Fitzpatrick is suited by some pressure off the tee, and his short-game is a huge strength in an event where those who limit their mistakes tend to populate the final leaderboard.
At 17th for the season in scrambling and first in bogey avoidance, Fitzpatrick is doing exactly that and it strikes me that 28/1 is a generous price at a course which so clearly suits his game, one not dissimilar to Woburn's Marquess on which he won the British Masters.
Heading into the European Masters, an event he'd won in each of the previous two years, Fitzpatrick was an 8/1 chance - shorter than Tommy Fleetwood, and not far behind McIlroy. Those were unique circumstances - it's rare for any player to be seeking a hat-trick - but I would still expect Fitzpatrick to be splitting those two players, which he is not.
Furthermore, his failure to live up to market expectations in the Alps is easy to forgive. The youngster not only had plenty to live up to owing to his previous exploits in the event, and history to pursue, but he did so just days after his second runner-up finish of the summer. It would've been some effort to gather himself again, particularly having been hard done by in Sweden.
Ultimately, his profile is an extremely likeable one for this, his strike-rate is excellent, and he's more than capable of toppling those bigger names who are ahead of him in the market. He rates a rock-solid bet at anything around the 25/1 mark.
Fleetwood went backwards over the weekend here last year but has a solid profile, as ever, without leaping off the page. Henrik Stenson also comes into the reckoning having seemingly made peace with a course which ought to allow his accuracy and trademark iron play to flourish, but it's over two years since he last won and that has to rate a slight concern.
Instead, it's worth chancing the aforementioned Shane Lowry to win for the first time since becoming Champion Golfer of the Year two months ago.
As a general rule, I tend to give the more surprising major champions a wide berth, as so many of them struggle afterwards. Danny Willett would be the best recent example, but even a player of the fortitude and top-level experience of Patrick Reed took time to adjust, while Stenson went more than a year without silverware after his success at Troon.
Lowry, however, seems to me to be the type to find the right balance, which includes celebrating for a sustained period after that remarkable performance at Portrush, to the extent that he essentially wrote off the FedEx Cup despite its financial clout.
Any other year, and there would remain a risk that Lowry would cruise through to Christmas, content to parade the Claret Jug as he will of course be expected to do this week. But this is different: not only are there Ryder Cup points to play for, but they're points for the 2020 Ryder Cup, the one in which Europe will be captained by Padraig Harrington, the one in which Lowry is so desperate to play.
It would be cruel were he not to make it, given what he's achieved in 2019, but that's how it works. All that Lowry has done since January, when he landed the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, means nothing when it comes to the Ryder Cup standings which begin this week. Yes, he'll benefit from his status in the game should things be tight in the battle for wildcards, but when it comes to qualifying he starts level with everyone else on zero points.
Lowry then will know that Wentworth, where he's made eight cuts in nine, finished second in 2014, fourth in 2011 and sixth in both 2015 and 2016, is an opportunity he can't afford to miss. Last year's 15th came after a dismal six months, proving once more than he lights up around here, and there shouldn't be concerns over rust given that he'd been off since November prior to winning in January.
Few players in this field can claim to be as comfortable around Wentworth. One of them, Molinari, finally won here after years of near-misses on his way to becoming Open champion. Lowry might well be capable of completing the same journey in reverse.
The bang in-form Bernd Wiesberger earns respect along with Rafa Cabrera Bello, who has contended here a couple of times and showed in the middle of summer that he's dangerous in Europe when returning from America. The Spaniard in particular is respected at the prices while I will continue to keep a close eye on Martin Kaymer as well as the returning Hao Tong Li, both of whom may well win before the year is out.
However, at a slightly bigger price there are two classy youngsters who look to be in better form, namely Sam Horsfield and Marcus Kinhult.
Horsfield has clicked since returning from an enforced summer break, during which he, like so many, simply didn't have anywhere to play as the European Tour paused following The Open.
The Florida-based Englishman returned with a bang with third place in Prague, then carded a closing 62 for 10th in Sweden, and while a little quieter since the general feeling is he remains in good shape and ready to contend once more.
Last week saw him sit second after the first round and sixth at halfway, and it serves as a nice way to prepare for a return to Wentworth, where he played alongside McIlroy in the third round last year having sat second to him at the halfway point.
Despite holding his own for the most part, it wasn't surprising to see Horsfield slip down the leaderboard to a respectable 15th place - which still represented a marked step up on the events leading up to this one.
Sixteen months later, Horsfield returns with the putter firing and his driver as a major weapon, one he can use to attack the course off the tee now that so many fairway bunkers have been taken out - a factor McIlroy pointed to in 2018.
It's asking a lot to go on and win a Rolex Series event but at three-figure prices I'm willing to take a chance on a player of enormous potential, one who may yet be capable of launching a Ryder Cup bid of his own and a potential pairing with his mentor, Ian Poulter.
As for Kinhult, his last start in England was a winning one as the Swede proved his mettle by holding off the likes of Fleetwood, Matt Wallace and Eddie Pepperell to win the British Masters at Hillside.
Having understandably cooled thereafter, Kinhult now seems to have adjusted to his elevated status and form figures of 61-48-20-12 have a progressive shape to them as he looks to build on last year's share of 12th here.
That was a massive performance - he'd gone MC-MC-MC-MC-63 after taking third in Qatar in February - but not a totally surprising one. Kinhult is accurate off the tee and a quality iron player, again built in a similar mould to Molinari and perhaps capable of succeeding him.
Hopefully, the young Swede can start brightly here as having shot 66-64 over the weekend in Sweden and 65-65 in Switzerland, he's dangerous when within touching distance as he searches for a quick follow-up to that excellent effort in Southport.
Finally, while there's temptation to really roll the dice given the prices on offer - players like Ashley Chesters, Edoardo Molinari and even Andres Romero make some appeal - I'm going to give Andrew Johnston one more go.
Johnston was in my staking plan for both Sweden and Switzerland, and while failing to do what was required he did more than enough in finishing 10th and 23rd to justify inclusion.
Since finishing fourth in Scotland, the on-course conclusion to a lengthy off-course battle with mental health issues, Johnston has looked ready to resume the career which looked so promising when he impressively closed out a first European Tour win at Valderrama in 2016.
Six weeks later, he climbed from 114th after day one to somehow finish seventh at Wentworth, which alongside 21st place in 2017 is evidence enough to suggest that the course suits his undoubted ball-striking talents.
Certainly, playing on home soil does as he's also been eighth and 27th in The Open and it's easy to envisage a scenario in which one of the most popular players in the event feeds off the crowds and produces something similar to that Scottish Open effort back in July.
With a baby on the way very soon, all is good in Johnston's world once more and with his short-game better than ever at 19th for the year in scrambling, I expect him to continue to play well as he has done in his last three regular European Tour starts.
English players so often rise to the occasion in this event and that's the clincher which puts him ahead of the solid Alex Bjork and into the final slot in the staking plan.
Finally, a quick word on Jon Rahm. However you dress it, his strike-rate in non-majors on the European Tour is exceptional and, in this type of event, he's the most prolific player here. Is Wentworth ideal for him? No. Might he be rusty? Yes.
It's just - and I do mean just - enough to put me off, but perhaps it won't you.
Posted at 1945 BST on 16/09/19.
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