Golf expert Ben Coley returns to preview the KLM Open, where home favourite Joost Luiten looks the each-way play at a course he knows well.
2pts e.w. Joost Luiten at 30/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Brandon Stone at 60/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Joakim Lagergren at 70/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Lee Slattery at 150/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Gavin Green at 250/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
'A day of Bernardus gives you the ultimate feeling of peace, quiet and relaxation,' claims the website for the new host course of the KLM Open, and after the absurd spectacle of picks and permutations last week, I think we all deserve to experience it. For one week only, this is (almost) a no Ryder Cup zone; a safe space for those who perhaps relish the three-day battle to come, but need to think of anything but for a while.
As you would expect, nobody in Padraig Harrington's side is in this field, and the injury-enforced absence of Louis Oosthuizen leaves it light on star quality even if Branden Grace extends his stay in Europe for another week. Perhaps the locals won't mind. Their hero JOOST LUITEN seeks a third victory in the event and you can be sure that Belgian pair Thomas Detry and Thomas Pieters will also attract their share of support in a tournament which is a good fit for this particular slot.
Pieters is also a former champion and rightly edges favouritism over Grace, having outperformed him at Wentworth and having played plenty of golf at this course. The uber talented Sam Horsfield isn't far behind and has to be respected along with Detry and Dean Burmester, too. These are what you might call the class acts of a thin field, where any hint of form earns you a place towards the top of the market.
Detry is the most tempting, perhaps more so now he has to overcome the frustration of being disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard at Wentworth. He finished well for third in this event in 2018 and while we're again heading to a new course, Bernardus looks quite similar, if just a little more classical, to others which have hosted this event in the recent past.
There's always some guesswork in the circumstances, but we can say for certain that Bernardus is pretty flat, heathland in ambition, rugged in places. It looks like it'll need help from the weather to represent a serious test but after some rain in midweek, dry, warm, calm conditions are expected. A venue built for hospitality, like so many European Tour newcomers of late, is unlikely to test these players in the way we'd perhaps like.
Designer Kyle Phillips isn't known for a signature style, but form at PGA Sweden National (Nordea Masters), Verdura (Rocco Forte Open), Kingsbarns (Dunhill Links), Dundonald (Scottish Open) and The Grove (British Masters) is worth a check regardless. All of it is dated, because we've not been to any of them in a couple of years or more, whereas to be frank his influence on Valderrama looks irrelevant when it comes to this week.
In such circumstances I find it hard to resist the aforementioned LUITEN, who has two wins, a second, fifth, sixth and 10th to his name from 14 appearances in his home event.
The becurled Dutchman has managed six top-25s in the eight appearances he's made on home soil since landing his European Tour breakthrough a decade ago, and his two failures came at bad times. He was in terrible form in 2017, and hadn't been playing much better in 2012, either.
When last this tournament was played, two years ago and without the distraction of that team thing I promised not to mention, the likes of Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Matt Wallace, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood turned up. Despite that and the fact he hadn't contended all year, Luiten was priced up as a 16/1 shot, no bigger than 20s, and went on to finish in a respectable 10th place.
The question is, has his game suffered so much in the interim that bigger prices in a significantly weaker field are justified? On balance, despite the fact he's shorter here than he would be in the same field in, say, France, I do believe he's entitled to be chalked up behind the big three in the betting.
Luiten was 12th in Prague, on a course longer than ideal, and 18th in Italy when you could've said the same. Then last week he continued to hit the ball nicely for 35th at Wentworth, where he tends to play reasonably but never threatens to win. Only once has he bettered his latest 72-hole total and having never made the top 10 in a dozen attempts, his latest effort in good company stacks up with previous ones.
Now back in the Netherlands, he gets to tee it up at the course he's attached to. That does not mean it suits his game, but Luiten plays similar heathland courses in the country very well, and at least we know he is familiar with a layout which is new to just about every other realistic winner bar Pieters, who is just a hair shorter than I'd feel comfortable taking.
That alone won't help Luiten's short-game but if it holds up to something like the field average, there's no question his long-game is good enough, and he's made big strides with the putter this year. If he can hit more than his share of greens, and is able to put some course knowledge to use, it looks a massive chance to land win number seven at this level, given that we know he raises his game in front of Dutch support.
Shubhankar Sharma and Andrew Johnston arrive buoyed by top-10 finishes at Wentworth, the former not needing to putt well to take ninth and the latter enhancing a fine course record. Both have to be on the shortlist, but they are huge fans of Wentworth and no certainties to find equal comfort here.
Instead, I'm drawn to BRANDON STONE, who is hard to predict but extremely capable and does appear to have enough in his favour.
The South African arrives on the back of a modest-looking tie for 45th in the BMW PGA Championship, but his previous record at Wentworth read MC-MC-60-MC-MC so having been three-over through three holes last Thursday, he produced by far his best golf yet at a course now local to him.
It's not the first time he's caught the eye lately, either. Stone came back to Europe after narrowly missing the cut on a rare PGA Tour start to miss another in the Cazoo Classic, before an outstanding tee-to-green display saw him finish 12th in Prague.
He'd have been worth chancing just about anywhere on his next start except Crans, which plainly doesn't suit and yet saw him miss another cut by a narrow margin, before doing so again in Italy where his iron play over two rounds was as good as he's ever produced at this level. In the end he was sent packing having bogeyed the par-five 18th when birdie would've done.
That led him to Wentworth in seemingly poor form and yet he found it within himself to rally after that horror start, which sets him up nicely for a return to the Netherlands. He's played the event three times before, finishing 10th on debut and 21st last time, never having prepared for it in such an encouraging way.
He's come through a US Open qualifier at Walton Heath to give us some heathland form and as well as winning in Scotland, under low-scoring conditions, he's gone well at exposed courses from Paris to Oman and several stops in between.
Despite all this he isn't the type to encourage maximum faith, but as a Rolex Series winner in a field which is packed with players yet to show they're up to this standard, he's certainly worth a try at anything upwards of 50/1.
Regulars will know I've fallen for Richard Mansell's long-game and if he putts well anything could happen, but JOAKIM LAGERGREN is far more reliable on that front and looks a better bet.
The Swede appears on the radar if you look through those other Phillips-designed courses, as he's been 18th at The Grove, won at Verdura, and shot a couple of excellent rounds at Kingsbarns including 62 on his last visit.
He's another who seems best on exposed courses, Verdura being one where he's thrived and Himmerland another, but he's also put together a solid record at Wentworth where last week he shared 27th following a third-round surge.
That was Lagergren's fourth cut made in five having missed eight of his previous 10, and behind a quiet resurgence has been improvement off the tee. Indeed his best two performances of the year have come since the Czech Masters in mid-August, with Wentworth marginally the pick of them.
Rewind to this time in 2020, and after his driving improved through the UK Championship and Andalucia Masters, it really started to sing in September and he capitalised, finishing third in Portugal and fifth in Northern Ireland. And while we don't have strokes-gained data for 2018, he was fifth in total driving, long and accurate off the tee, on his final start before that victory in Sicily.
In other words this often erratic player needs to get his driver under control, and then to make the most of it when he has. That's what he's been doing lately and with his iron play also improved at Wentworth, all aspects of his game appear ready to fire as one at this much more suitable level.
Lagergren's status for next year remains secure regardless but that's not the case with LEE SLATTERY, who needs to get moving from 187th on the Race to Dubai and knows there's no Qualifying School to fall back on here.
At 43, whether Slattery wants to go and grind it out on the Challenge Tour in the way Richard Bland did isn't clear but he's pulled rabbits from hats before and, having found form again lately, might just be able to do so again.
Finishes of 38th, 40th, 45th and 13th might not scream winner-in-waiting but they're a marked step up and this looks more winnable than the European Masters, where he played really well last time out. And crucially, this improvement is easily traced back to his iron play, which has taken off and seen him rank 19th, ninth and seventh across his last three starts.
Three times a US Open qualifier via Walton Heath, it's Slattery's form on the Phillips courses I've mentioned which completes the case. He's been ninth at Dundonald, 11th at Verdura, seventh at PGA Sweden National and 12th at The Grove. He's also been second and fourth in this for good measure.
David Law looks to have the right conditions and said on his way to 14th place at Wentworth that he's playing the best golf of his life. It's hard to argue and he's worth a second glance along with Robin Sciot-Siegrist, who is better than he's yet been able to show and has hinted as much with several strong starts of late.
Perhaps the Frenchman will stick around longer this time but Elvis Smylie and GAVIN GREEN are more interesting at bigger odds, with the latter preferred.
Smylie is a top young talent from Australia who was last seen missing the cut on the number in Wales back in July. Since then he's spent some time practicing in England, waiting for this chance, and despite being a teenager it's difficult to say he won't be ready to take it.
That said he'll need to limit mistakes and while that's also true of Green, his form over the last few weeks is much more encouraging, enough to suggest odds of 200/1 and bigger might underestimate him.
It's not that long since Green was going off at 66/1 or so for events involving the likes of Dustin Johnson but like many who disappear off the face of the Earth, he's not been able to keep his ball on it from the tee.
However, there's been word that he's started to look much more comfortable and we can see it in the numbers, as having lost multiple strokes off the tee in 10 starts running from May to August, on his subsequent three he's kept the damage to something much more manageable.
That was true even at the BMW PGA, where he started with a seven and signed off with a nine. Between those two horror holes he played some really good golf but it's 32nd in Switzerland and 24th in Italy which are the source of more tangible encouragement.
Both of those events were stronger than this one, and only moderate improvement would be needed for Green to be a factor. If we ignore Wentworth, always likely to catch him out, and take the view that this far more open layout might not be so punishing, then chancing a real talent who has definitely improved over the last month makes sense.
Posted at 1900 BST on 13/09/21
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