2pts e.w. Sam Horsfield at 20/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
2pts e.w. Rafa Cabrera Bello at 25/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
2pts e.w. Andy Sullivan at 25/1 (Sky Bet, Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Johannes Veerman at 50/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
0.5pt e.w. Richard Mansell at 200/1 (Betway 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
The European Tour begins its Canary Islands cruise at Meloneras Golf, where Rafael Cabrera Bello will be the nominal host for another new tournament. Born in Gran Canaria, this was a natural fit for the Spaniard, struggling to find form on the PGA Tour, and his name is a welcome one among a reasonable field which includes a couple of genuine Ryder Cup hopefuls.
Chief among them is Antoine Rozner, last seen bowing out of the Match Play despite a memorable victory over Bryson DeChambeau, but the likes of Matthias Schwab, Sam Horsfield, Andy Sullivan and even Cabrera Bello himself will be hoping to use this three-week stretch as a launchpad towards a golden summer, and all the autumn rewards that might bring.
For now it's still early days in spring, and it will feel like it on Gran Canaria, temperatures rising markedly from Austria where John Catlin beat a luckless Max Kieffer in Sunday's play-off. That was the just the latest in a string of memorable European Tour finishes, among which Rozner's 60-foot birdie putt to take the Qatar Masters might be the highlight — that is for these 'neutrals' I keep hearing about.
The first thing to say about this week's course is that it is remarkably short. Listed as a 6,503-yard par 70, it features five par-threes, not one of which stretches to 200 yards, and a trio of par-fives which will be reachable for everyone unless the wind howls. Built to welcome golfing tourists, Meloneras shouldn't pose any kind of threat to European Tour players, and birdies are very much the order of the day.
We've been here before, that is to say the Tour has been forced to visit resort courses with the required hospitality, which are capable of supporting this bubble they've created. In Italy that meant Chervo, where 20-under won. In England, Hanbury Manor returned after a long time away, and it was demolished, Sullivan reaching 27-under. Tellingly, the courses which stood up best were the Belfry and Celtic Manor, where Ryder Cups have been played.
Here at Meloneras Golf, where rough looks to be limited, it wouldn't even surprise me were records to tumble and a second 59 must surely be possible. Perhaps that persistent albeit light breeze which is forecast will help to keep a lid on things, but the emphasis here will be on putting the pedal down and keeping it there, which represents a stark contrast to an Austrian Open which demanded precision, patience, and a very decent bobble hat.
I'll come to who that might really suit shortly, but first let's get it out of the way: I think tournament host RAFA CABRERA BELLO is being underestimated, and rate him the best bet.
It's not that Cabrera Bello's course experience is expected to be decisive, because it isn't. Of course it's no bad thing that he's played here, finishing third in the Spanish PGA back in 2007, but we're talking 14-year-old form, difficult enough to put into context were it last week, and I suspect he's hardly been a regular visitor in the intervening years.
To me it's that the difference between trying to grind your way into form on the PGA Tour, where even weak fields include some of the very best players in the sport, and competing at this level, is vastly underestimated. That might be particularly true for a relaxed, some would say timid character like Cabrera Bello, who I dare say has at times questioned whether he has what it takes to win out there.
Look at Robert MacIntyre's form right now. Generally speaking, the view is that he's done well out in the US, and there was certainly a lot to like about his 12th at the Masters. Nevertheless, in his five stroke play starts that's his sole top-20 finish. Again last week, at the RBC Heritage, he found out just how tough it is, playing well enough for the most part but finishing poorly and winding up 59th, his world ranking falling two spots as a result.
When he returns to Europe, I expect we'll see immediate improvement in terms of his bottom-line results, and that's certainly been the case with Martin Kaymer. He's played 11 European Tour events since last June's resumption, and had good chances to win in four of them, faring well in most of the others. In the US, his form reads MC-MC-MC and while two of those were majors, he was very poor in the Honda Classic. The intensity is just totally different and it can have a dramatic effect on results.
Back to Cabrera Bello then, and in making the cut in Texas last time — a 'weak' event won by... Jordan Spieth — he showed enough to suggest that his game is in decent order, and that he could make the most of the drop in level of competition, not to mention the rare and unexpected opportunity to play tour-level golf so close to where he was born in Las Palmas.
We've seen already that he can come back to the European Tour and immediately compete, regardless of the apparent state of his game, because he did it earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, finishing fourth in a vastly superior field to this one, before two solid weeks across Dubai and Saudi Arabia. In the latter, had he made four instead of eight on the final hole of the event, he'd have been inside the top 20, and it was a similar story as he fell down the leaderboard having been 17th through 54 holes of the Dubai Desert Classic.
He also did it in 2019, finishing third, fourth and ninth in mid-summer having been 65th, 41st and 71st on his three previous starts in the US, and he managed something similar in 2018, taking eighth at Wentworth and fourth in another Rolex Series event in Italy. His game was in generally better shape at the time, and he did miss the cut in Spain a week after the Masters, but these results nevertheless underline that a mid-pack finish on the PGA Tour often translates to contending on the European Tour.
It may well be that his game just isn't there, but I'm encouraged by a bogey-free final round to sign off at TPC San Antonio, where he drove the ball really well and showed flashes with his approaches, and he will absolutely relish a return home. Throughout his various strong, likely correlating performances in the Middle East and in Portugal, Cabrera Bello has referenced the style of golf which suits him best, and it's that which he grew up playing.
He is very difficult to price, but I had expected him to slot in behind Rozner in the market in the weakest event he's played in for a very long time. As touched upon last week, the best of the home challengers are always to be respected on the European Tour, and this former Ryder Cup player can live up to the billing with a massive performance, perhaps ending a four-year winless run as several more high-profile players have done of late.
Beyond the headline selection, I'm keen to look at those who might improve for this contrast from Austria, not just in terms of weather but scoring opportunities, or else have shown that a shootout is preferred. Last week's event went to one of the best grinders on the circuit right now, one with previous at Valderrama, whereas I suspect for this we should be looking more to the Portugal Masters, plus those tournaments on the UK swing last summer.
All roads lead to ANDY SULLIVAN, then, and I've no hesitation in adding him to the staking plan as one of the standout candidates in the field when it comes to stacking up low rounds.
Like Cabrera Bello, Sullivan played Ryder Cup golf five years ago but it took until Hanbury Manor, and that dazzling victory in the sun, for him to finally return to winning ways for the first time since. He was in a league of his own over the weekend there, winning by seven, and could've gone in again but for having his pocket picked by Rozner in Dubai later in the year.
Given his previous nine-shot victory in Portugal, where he ought to have defended his title, it should've surprised nobody that Sullivan needed these shootouts, the first on a short course, to showcase what he does best: find the fairway, fire approaches tight and, when the putter behaves, make a heap of birdies.
Here, with wedge in hand, he can demonstrate just why he led the European Tour in strokes-gained approach last season, which in turn powered his exceptional birdie average stats — the best among this field. In doing so he could well climb back into the world's top 50, and add a US Open invite to the one on its way from the PGA of America.
I'm confident that Sullivan will love the challenge presented by Meloneras, such as it is, and his form also looks decent. When last we saw him he finished bottom of his Match Play group but halved games with Xander Schauffele and Scottie Scheffler, while before that he was 19th under tougher-than-he'd-like conditions in the Qatar Masters.
Since the European Tour returned last summer, only at Valderrama has he missed the cut, and that again tells us something. With scoring much more to his liking this week, and form such as third in Sicily further underlining how well suited he will be to what lies ahead, he's expected to make the most of another good opportunity and contend.
With Rozner short enough on balance, and Schwab plainly better suited to a stiffer tee-to-green test, which I suspect may also be true of Kurt Kitayama, SAM HORSFIELD is the other player with everything in his favour and I can't find a reason to leave him out.
Horsfield could so easily have won for the third time in a dozen starts when third in Kenya four weeks ago, bogeying the last hole to miss a play-off by one, and three of these events were played with a back injury he picked up in Cyprus and which forced him to miss the lucrative events which kickstarted 2021 on the European Tour.
We saw with Catlin on Sunday how valuable recent winning experience can be and now he's healthy again, Horsfield has appeared determined to underline his status as one of the hottest prospects on the circuit, finishing eighth, third and 15th in his three starts this year, latterly under cold and fairly miserable conditions in Austria.
Despite being born in Manchester, Horsfield's golfing education was undertaken in Florida and ever since dominating Qualifying School here in Spain, he's shown that he's at his best with short sleeves on and birdies flying. We can mark up last week's share of 15th as a result, and this resort-style course should prove much more to his liking, especially if he is able to be more aggressive off the tee which is not the case at Diamond Country Club.
Horsfield made 18 birdies over the weekend alone in Austria — that's one fewer than Catlin made all week — and here in Gran Canaria, his aggression should be far better rewarded. Combine what could be the ideal course with some of the strongest form, a hot putter and as much talent as anyone here, and you have what to my eye looks a straightforward case at the odds.
Siding with three at the front end of the betting isn't necessarily my favoured approach, but it reflects just how quickly the field drops off after the names mentioned. Callum Hill is promising but the fact he's 33/1 says much, and Wil Besseling finds himself the same price in places after a never-threatening fourth place at a course he enjoys in Austria.
With both Catlin and Sean Crocker sure to prefer a more serious challenge, and new dad Thorbjorn Olesen making his competitive return after five months on the sidelines, this begins to look pretty weak and the only other player I like short of 100/1 is JOHANNES VEERMAN.
Here's another with form in the Portugal Masters, Veerman impressing everyone on his way to a top-10 finish there last October, and he's since gone on to take fourth in the Cyprus Showdown and contend for the Kenya Open, two more low-scoring events in warm weather.
Perhaps he saw what was coming and elected not to go to Austria, but whatever the case he should relish conditions in Spain, where he came through Qualifying School courtesy of a remarkable performance at the back-end of 2019. Veerman sat near last after two rounds but played by far the best golf in the field thereafter, enough to earn his European Tour card, and it's clearly the thing he's most proud of so far in his career.
It didn't take him long at this level to demonstrate what he's all about, which is making birdies, enough to rank third behind Sullivan and Garrick Higgo among this field last year. We saw his low-scoring prowess when he carded four rounds of 64 in a six-round spell late last year, and again in Kenya where a third-round 62 could've been lower still and vaulted him into contention.
Though very disappointing in the final round there, and no doubt suffering a hangover from that in the tournament which began less than 48 hours later at the very same course, Veerman looks to be edging closer to a breakthrough and just needs the putter to warm up. It's usually a strength, but so far this year has restricted him to 14th in Qatar and 16th in the Kenya Open, two of just three appearances.
Hopefully we'll see improvement in that department, and he might also take some inspiration from Catlin's third European Tour win. Both these Americans had to go to the Asian Development Tour to get their professional careers moving, and Veerman should be able to look to his compatriot for what can be achieved. Catlin had been behind him in the aforementioned Qualifying School, and is now aiming for a PGA Tour card as he prepares for his major debut in a few weeks.
Veerman was eighth in Portugal days after Catlin's breakthrough at Valderrama, and he's good enough to win an event like this, at a short, resort-style course which is right up his street. At around 40-50/1, he's another straightforward selection I find difficult to get away from.
Sticking with Portugal and Julien Guerrier, a runaway leader there before slipping out of the places, is somewhat interesting, largely because of his form by the coast.
The Frenchman has two top-10s in Sicily, third in Madeira, and a pair of top-fives in Tenerife to his name, as well as ninth place in Mauritius and, back in 2006, victory in Kent at the Amateur Championship. Along with the fact he's a very good putter who does make a lot of birdies, there's a decent case to be made for all his approach play is unconvincing.
Alongside him last week was Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who briefly got inside the top 10 during the second round but simply made too many mistakes to matter. In contrast to Guerrier his iron play is a real strength, and it could well be that a lack of punishment off the tee enables him to limit those errors and get back into contention on home soil, where he averages a top-10 finish every five or so starts.
Other locals of note include the talented, big-hitting Pep Angles, who has form by the coast in Sicily and won in Spain on the Challenge Tour last year, and the equally long Pedro Oriol, back to full fitness after breaking his knee in 2018 and putting the pieces of what was once a promising career back together.
No doubt we'll see that Spanish flag high on the leaderboard but I'll stick with Cabrera Bello as my sole representative, and nominate RICHARD MANSELL as the pick of the outsiders ahead of those mentioned and Shubhankar Sharma, who I like and who will improve for sunnier climes.
It was hard not to be impressed with the quality of Mansell's approach play at times last week, as he sat sixth after round one and fifth at halfway before a difficult weekend. That can be excused on just his third start of 2021, and he's certainly one to watch at this kind of level as a player I really do like with the future in mind.
Last year, he defied a very slow start to finish second in the Challenge de Espana while battling it out for Road to Mallorca honours, which were cruelly taken beyond his grasp as he missed the next event due to Covid-19. Still, that and an excellent start to the Challenge Tour Grand Final, also in Spain, hint that he might just be capable of contending again now back there.
"I’m quite looking forward to having three weeks in a row, hopefully with some sunshine," is a quote which could apply right now, but in fact came in the days before that runner-up finish in Cadiz. Six months down the line, perhaps it's too soon to expect him to win on the European Tour, but already he's had a taste of contending and there's no telling how far he could go.
With low-scoring conditions likely in his favour and at a course where all bar a couple of the Spaniards have no past experience, the 25-year-old is worth chancing at a big price.
Posted at 1930 BST on 19/04/21
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