Jason Daniels sets the scene ahead of the final round of the British Masters, where Justin Harding looks the one to be on.
While it is great to see golf back in the UK to start a six-week stint around the island, the lack of a star names in contention for the British Masters takes the shine off somewhat. Of course, worldwide circumstances and the re-jigging of the majors have conspired against the good work done by the European Tour in arranging such events and in the end we must be thankful for professional, televised golf on both sides of the Atlantic.
Back to the job and the picturesque but confusing Close House.
On paper the Newcastle venue poses tricks - water in play, narrow fairways, elevation changes and blind shots - but while it is a slightly different track to that played in 2017, when Paul Dunne hit 20-under after a final-round 61, the softish greens certainly seem to have taken the sting out of it and the rough seems to have made scrambling easier than we might have have expected.
The first three days have seen 10 holes play over their par, and the three par-fives are recording averages of around half-a-shot lower than level. The three holes just after the turn provide some sort of interest, with the easy par-five followed by the risk-reward 11th being a choice of whack-it-and-see or lay short for a blind approach, and then a tricky par-three 12th where pin position will dictate difficulty. These, plus the 15th, 16th and 18th (all playing over par) should make it a trader's paradise given the relative lack of experience up top.
'Moving Day' proved just that with rounds of 66 and 67 aplenty, an eight-under from Jack Senior (including a hole-in-one) and an explosive, Dunne-matching 61 from Sam Horsfield which included an eagle at each of the three longer holes. Both Senior and Horsfield have above average form in the British Isles which may or may not be a factor but they have clearly put themselves in with a chance despite the old adage that it is hard to back up a low one. More to the point, even those efforts leave them seven and four shots off the lead respectively.
Relative unknown Dale Whitnell made his first bogey of the tournament at the 13th hole in round three, recovering well from that to birdie his final two holes of the day and leave himself very much in contention. This former Walker Cup team-mate of Tommy Fleetwood and Chris Paisley shot a final-round 63 at the KPMG on the Challenge Tour to win in a play-off so clearly doesn't mind pressure although this televised event will be a step up. Playing with aggressive and talented youngster Rasmus Hojgaard could be a boon and prices of at least 18/1 do look fair, especially for exchange players..
Hojgaard, at 19 already a winner at this level, is clearly going to the top in Europe and has gone from a world ranking of 2006 in 2018 to 192 at the end of last year. He wasted no time in getting off the mark, winning a play-off in Mauritius in which Renato Paratore gave way early. It's hard to say what he likes and what he doesn't this early on - most likely he can play anywhere - but his sixth in Oman plus that last December suggests he won't mind the breeze which is forecast. His interview on Saturday didn't inspire confidence but he has an experienced caddy on board and makes some appeal at around 9/2.
Current leader Paratore was put up here for the final round at Saudi Arabia in February where he didn't do quite as expected, and he will feel the pressure on Sunday, having not won since the Nordea Masters in 2017. The stats are with him with only Dunne coming from off the lead (and he was only second) in the last few renewals whatever the course, but he has only been in the final four on four occasions and dropped back in all bar one. He's been very impressive this week and is the only player bogey-free for 54 holes but leading here will do what leading does and while his chance has, of course, to be respected, current prices are very unappealing given his overall record.
Sandwiched by all this potential, JUSTIN HARDING comes here with most golf viewers knowing exactly what he is going to do.
Winner of eight tournaments from a lifetime record of 14 starts in the final group, Harding was seen as a 'home' specialist for many years, often falling short at European Tour level. However, a stellar season in 2018 saw him rack up four victories at home alongside numerous top finishes to see his world ranking go from 712 to 85, and 2019 further rewarded that work with an excellent desert swing and a victory at the Qatar Masters where he recovered from a poor third round to shoot 66 for a two-shot victory.
Summing up his improvement is easy - he was 12th in the 2019 Masters, several leagues above the class he faces tomorrow - and his dynamite short-game has been complemented by a string of quality shots this week.
Overnight rain may help and I've been impressed with the way he has played his way out of trouble on the more difficult holes. With just two bogeys on his card so far, he looks the man to beat here and prices look more than fair - a case can be made for making him favourite. Harding's experience might just do for Paratore's raw talent, especially if the Italian finds his bogey-free run somehow a distraction. It's a different level, but Justin Thomas entered the final round of the Workday bogey-free, and made two in his first four holes.
It is never impossible for someone to come from the pack with a Horsfield-type round but history dictates it won't happen and the top lot look just too good to all fail. It would be fantastic to see Robert Rock come out with a high finish given the work he has put in with a junior tour and clearly top-class coaching of various tour players, but I am taking the experienced Harding to simply know 'too much' as he plots his way round without the errors expected from those around him.
Posted at 2035 BST on 24/07/20
We are committed in our support of responsible 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 on 0808 8020 133, or visit begambleaware.org.