Ben Coley came agonisingly close with a 60/1 play-off loser last week, and now turns his attention towards the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama.
1.5pts e.w. Matthias Schwab at 40/1 (BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1.5pts e.w. Aaron Rai at 50/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1.5pts e.w. Andrew Johnston at 50/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Adrian Otaegui at 66/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Alex Bjork at 125/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Alvaro Quiros at 200/1 (BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
If you read last week's preview of the Open de Espana, you hopefully got the message about Jon Rahm: I wasn't exactly confident of getting him beaten. As it happens the world number one produced a slightly odd performance, one which began so spectacularly as to see him trading odds-on before lunch on Thursday, then remain odds-on when as many as five behind on Friday, only to lose just about all chance after an abysmal start on Saturday. It was precisely at the point we all expected him to go and boss matters that Rahm's hat-trick bid unravelled.
There need not be any great inquest, except to say that Rahm has had by any measure a stressful if rewarding year and is probably ready for a significant break. On the course, he has been involved in some of the most dramatic moments in men's golf: first when told he was out of the Memorial Tournament, then when holing two spectacular birdie putts to win the US Open, and more recently dancing every dance in Ryder Cup defeat. Off it, he has become a father. If he lacked cutting edge last week, that's understandable.
It's to Rahm's immense credit he's here for a fortnight's golf in Spain when many in his position would choose to be elsewhere, and there will be no surprise whatsoever if he rebounds to land a popular win the Andalucia Masters. Perhaps it wouldn't entirely make up for a missed opportunity in his national open, but Valderrama is what you might call the spiritual home of Spanish golf, perhaps even the European Tour, and would significantly soften the blow at least. Sent off 9/4 in the Open de Espana, he looks set to start a 3/1 chance here.
Those odds reflect not only the way he performed in Madrid, but the simple fact that this uniquely claustrophobic course, complete with trees in the middle of fairways and greens the size of thimbles, can destroy anyone's chance very quickly. It's just not the sort of place where taking short prices comes easy, and even Sergio Garcia's love for it had to endure great frustration. Garcia played here 10 times before winning on attempts 11, 13 and 14, and it's easy to argue his more creative style better lends itself to navigating these cruel corridors.
Rahm's biggest weapon is his driver, so the more that head cover stays on, the narrower the gap between him and the rest. It's why I'd have felt more comfortable opposing him here than at Club de Campo, although now he's been wounded and the odds have drifted, he's become somewhat tempting. After all, his record in rank-and-file European Tour events, despite having taken a hit, reads six wins in 17.
As the star attraction stepped aside, it was compatriots Rafa Cabrera Bello and Adri Arnaus who played out a thrilling if frustrating conclusion to a fabulous event. Yet again, from a relatively small crop of players, two Spaniards stepped up to dominate on home soil, and we surely should expect much better than Jorge Campillo's T17, which was the best of the red-and-gold challenge here last September.
The place to start though is in searching for a very specific kind of golfer, for the most part at least. Here at Valderrama, driving accuracy and scrambling retain their relevance, ably demonstrated by John Catlin's victory at Martin Kaymer's expense. A year earlier, Christiaan Bezuidenhout's dazzling short-game helped him dominate a stronger field, and there's simply no advantage here for big hitters. That doesn't mean they can't find another way, but it does mean they'll have to. Club de Campo, visually similar and a good place to prepare, looks like an open field compared to this place.
I'll start with two who didn't play last week, but plainly have the game for this and plenty else in their favour: MATTHIAS SCHWAB and AARON RAI.
Both men are accurate from the tee, tidy around the greens, prone perhaps to poor putting but capable of doing enough. For Schwab it's yet to translate to a European Tour victory, but if it does come then it will likely be on a course like this one.
Others are Crans, Fanling and Wentworth, where many a Valderrama form clue is buried. Crans champions Richie Ramsay and Thomas Bjorn both love it here, Alex Noren has won at two of those and been sixth here, even shock Switzerland winner Sebastian Soderberg played nicely on his Valderrama debut. So did David Lipsky and Jeff Lucquin, Brett Rumford and Bradley Dredge. The correlation is particularly strong.
Fanling is a tight, generally firm, old-fashioned golf course in Hong Kong and also throws up parallel leaderboards, and many of those who have played well in low-key events here and at Crans have also shown something at Wentworth. Valderrama is unique, but it is essentially a more dramatic cousin to these three courses.
That reinforces my view that Schwab should relish the challenge, despite missing the cut here in 2019. On the face of it there's no excuse for a shoddy, never-at-the-races performance, as he arrived in form. However it's worth noting that T3 in Germany a week earlier should've been better: he led by two during the back-nine, gave his chance away, and this is no place to nurse a hangover.
If we ignore that (and Catlin won here on his second go having missed the cut on his first), the Austrian has plenty in his favour, having been eighth at Crans, ninth from just one visit to Hong Kong, and always enjoyed Wentworth as he demonstrated again when 12th last month.
He's playing well, evidenced by the fact he earned his PGA Tour card through Korn Ferry Tour Finals, securing two top-10 finishes along the way. And while he missed the cut on his first go in the big league, rounds of 71 and 69 in a low-scoring shootout are no big deal, particularly as some quality ball-striking and even a good week with the putter were undermined by some terrible work around the greens.
Schwab will need to do better in that department but he's a capable scrambler (29th this season) whose game is all about accuracy, and who is best supported in the shadows of trees as a result.
The case for Rai is almost identical, right down to the fact his performances at Korn Ferry Tour Finals were also enough to earn him a PGA Tour card.
He's missed the cut in all three events so far but only marginally in the Fortinet Championship, before two events which are not suitable — neither course properly rewards his accuracy, and his desert form amounts to little. It's a bit surprising he played Summerlin, except for the fact it was an opportunity he perhaps felt he couldn't turn down.
Certainly, this two-time European Tour winner will be far more comfortable back in Europe, and as well as winning in Spain in the past he was eighth on his debut at Valderrama, ranking 19th in accuracy and eighth in scrambling. When last here, Rai hadn't played in a month, hadn't finished in the top 15 of any event all year, yet still hit the ball to a high standard only to miss the cut on the number because he putted poorly.
The putter is his weakness, particularly at times from close range, but the small greens here at Valderrama hopefully level the playing field just a little, and certainly tip the scales in favour of those who find fairways and whose misses with their approaches are minor.
Jet lag might be the other concern, but he was 14th at Wentworth after the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, and an early departure in the Shriners might just help. Above all else, though, this former Fanling champion is the right kind of golfer and if he can rank highly in fairways and dial in his approaches, he can win here without putting the lights out.
Towards the top of the market, victory for Matt Fitzpatrick would further underline how dangerous those returning here from the US can be. Rafa Cabrera Bello showed as much, as did Danny Willett before him, and the PGA Tour is simply much deeper. It's also a permanent away game even for those with a base in Florida, and we so often see swift transformations simply for something more familiar and less competitive.
Fitzpatrick was the first name on my list, in truth, especially as he has a similar excuse to Schwab when it comes to 2019. Fitzpatrick had in fact gifted the play-off for the BMW International Open to Andrea Pavan, and was also going through some off-course difficulty when turning in a lifeless display here. Runner-up to Rai in Hong Kong and twice a winner in the Swiss Alps, he should do much better.
Unfortunately, 12/1 in a field which includes Rahm and Bernd Wiesberger looks short enough after an uninspiring autumn and a poor Ryder Cup display which ended on a real low. He's tough and will bounce back, but I wouldn't be surprised if the clubs were locked away for a week or so before he started to prepare for the weeks ahead, and any lack of sharpness could be brutally exposed early on.
Martin Kaymer dusted himself down following his vice-captaincy stint with a so-so effort in the Dunhill Links and makes a little more appeal. He probably ought to have won this a year ago, boasts a fabulous record at the course, and is capable of doing what Lee Westwood did three years ago and using the Ryder Cup as a springboard towards a return to his best.
He'd be the one at less than 40/1 but I'm happy to keep things just slightly more speculative, with ANDREW JOHNSTON next.
Beef shot to fame with victory here in 2016, boyishly revealing how he intended to celebrate, and has since underlined how well suited he is to Valderrama by making every cut in three subsequent appearances and twice finishing inside the top 25. It would be a clean sweep of high finishes had he not ranked 70th of 71 in putting on his latest visit, too.
Sixth place at Wentworth last month yet again confirmed that he's a horses-for-courses player, one whose quality tee-to-green game demands a proper test of accuracy. That's why he's also been third at Crans, where he was in the mix again in August, and why so much of his best form over the last five years has come on courses at least someway similar to this one.
Last week's share of 24th place was a nice way to return after four weeks away, and saw his long-game fire on what was his debut at Club de Campo. The tougher conditions guaranteed by surely one of his top two courses on the circuit offer real hope that he only need keep things ticking over to find himself closer to the top of the leaderboard at a course where specialists have emerged regularly down the years.
One such example is Richie Ramsay and he too is respected, both similarly ranked in the driving accuracy and scrambling charts, but Johnston has a bit more scope and a little more substance to his overall form. He's preferred as a result.
My other confident each-way selection is a Spaniard at last, with ADRIAN OTAEGUI seemingly primed for a big week.
Inside the top 30 for both accuracy and scrambling, he has the right game for Valderrama and his record here is almost blemish-free, with finishes of 38th, 12th and 17th to go with a solitary, one-shot missed cut.
Last year he ranked 12th in strokes-gained approach here, a category in which he also shone despite failing to make the weekend in 2019, and his iron play was seriously good over the weekend in Madrid. Otaegui led the field on Saturday, continued to fire his approaches close on Sunday, and ranked fourth for the week.
Valderrama ought to be more suitable as it squeezes in from the edges and places greater emphasis on his accuracy, so the fact he found form in Madrid means he has an ideal platform. That's not necessarily been the case before, and this is certainly his best preparation yet for an important event for all the Spanish players.
Otaegui is a three-time European Tour winner who will feel he should've made it four in Sweden earlier this year. All of these performances came on courses where length counted for very little, and he's improved since being reunited with his long-time caddie. He has a lot going for him here.
The nature of this course and the change it represents makes it especially hard to narrow down a shortlist. So often of late, the European Tour has been forced to visit new courses, typically built for tourism and made with a big-is-best mantra. Valderrama has its faults, but it is a welcome throwback, and there will be players in that Ramsay mould who sense that this is a real and rare opportunity.
Fabrizio Zanotti is another, and he's a good putting week from contending, a comment which also applies to Edoardo Molinari. Mike Lorenzo-Vera meanwhile has been second and sixth in just two starts here, also has an enviable record at Crans, and finally put things together a week ago to enhance what are obvious each-way claims.
All are respected but the best outsider I can find is ALEXANDER BJORK, who sneaks in under the radar but has plenty in his favour.
Granted, he's had two goes at Valderrama and is yet to really figure it out, but he was a European Tour rookie when missing the cut by a shot on debut, and last year putted hopelessly to finish down the field. Bjork ranked seventh in strokes-gained approach but failed to take advantage.
Still, he is generally a strong putter and his driving has tightened up considerably of late, enough to gain strokes in three of his last four starts having done so in three of his previous 20. Bjork is one of the shortest hitters around, but an upturn in his accuracy stats enabled him to stay competitive at Marco Simone, one of those new, modern, big courses I referenced earlier, as well as in Switzerland and Scotland.
That's a really encouraging sign and it therefore wasn't a surprise to read this Instagram post following the Dunhill Links, where he improved on a miserable record: "Super frustrating week. Actually played really well... but burned so many edges it felt unreal. On the positive the swing feels good and I played 4 days for the first time at Dunhill Links!"
It's a shame he didn't play last week in some respects as it would've been a nice warm-up for this, but that does mean the price is held up and, like Schwab, I think his record here is a red herring. He really should love Valderrama, having been second at Fanling, never had a bad day at Crans, and shown a real liking for Wentworth where he was 27th last month.
Bjork ranks 21st in scrambling, he's climbing the accuracy charts, and since the beginning of this event last year has ranked inside the top 10 for strokes-gained approach on 10 occasions, including two starts back. Doubtless capable of lighting up the greens despite what happened on his most recent Valderrama visit, I really like his chances.
David Drysdale is playing well and has a rock-solid record here, enough to earn a second look at 250/1, but it's harder to side with a consistently bad putter when they're a 46-year-old who is yet to win on the European Tour. Steven Brown meanwhile isn't hitting his irons well enough but is based at Wentworth, and has two top-15s from three trips to Valderrama.
It's probably a decent course for Eddie Pepperell, it definitely is for David Lipsky, but I want another Spaniard on-side and will take on board all risks associated with ALVARO QUIROS.
No, on the face of it, Valderrama is not an ideal course for this monstrously long hitter with some of the fastest hands in the sport. And yet Quiros has figured things out with each and every visit, getting better here as his form elsewhere has tailed off. From 2008 to 2017 his standout effort in five tries was 34th, and he missed three cuts. Since then he's finished 16th, second, and 17th.
Had this all been the product of some hot putting weeks I'd perhaps have found it easy to dismiss, but the truth is he struck it exceptionally in 2019, ranking fourth off the tee and with his approaches, only to run into Bezuidenhout making everything. A year later, Quiros was more solid through the bag and ranked 10th from tee-to-green, putting modestly and therefore confined to 17th.
He did arrive in excellent form two years ago, less so 2020, but he's also shown real signs of life lately. His best result from January through to the start of July was 61st place in the Canary Islands, and that because he led the field in putting. Since then, he's managed finishes of 16th, 18th, 27th, 35th and 39th (along with the statutory shockers along the way) and two of these were in spite of the putter, with his approach play as good as it has been in years.
Last week Quiros ranked third in the field with his irons and was far from ragged with driver, but of the 80 players who made the weekend, he ranked 77th on the greens. That's not indicative of a major problem, though, more the volatility which has been a staple of his career. Quiros is in fact a statistically average putter, but his figures are built on extremes which can see him putt well one week and awfully the next.
I'll take that chance, as well as that he hits one too many a wayward tee-shot. As I wrote a couple of months ago, this former world number 21 has hinted that he could call it a day if things don't improve for a return to his old coach, but they have. Hopefully he'll reconsider because there's life in him yet and, having seen his friend win in Madrid last week, he's capable of following suit.
Posted at 1800 BST on 11/10/21
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.