Golf expert Ben Coley has three strong fancies for the Italian Open as he previews the latest stop on the European Tour.
Francesco Molinari is the star turn as the 2018 Champion Golfer of the Year at last gets to return to Italy and tee off as a major champion.
It was in the Italian Open of 2006 that we first saw a glimpse of what the diminutive Torinese could do, as he won his first European Tour title at a canter, and having won it again in 2016 and nearly bagged the hat-trick last spring, there's just no place like home - even if both his victories came in Milan.
Now, Molinari gets to try his luck in the nation's capital, as the exclusive, gated community of Olgiata welcomes a strong field for the fifth Rolex Series event of the season.
The course is new to most, but not to all - Francesco's brother, Edoardo, won here on the Challenge Tour a decade ago. Still, 17 years have passed since Ian Poulter took a three-round Italian Open here and since then, Olgiata has changed quite a bit. Jim Fazio, brother of Tom, remodelled 15 holes as Italy prepared an ill-fated bid to host the 2020 Olympics, and it looks like he's succeeded in bringing the course up to modern standards.
To do so, Fazio reached for the simplest option possible: extending the course's length. Now exceeding 7,500 yards but playing to a par of 71, Olgiata boasts a series of demanding par-fours and that's what sets it apart from some of the shorter layouts which have ensured that this event has been a shootout across each of the last five renewals.
Molinari senior did reach 21-under here in 2009, but subsequent winning scores on the Challenge Tour have been higher and while the five-under of Matteo Delpodio in 2015 should be left behind, we might get a proper challenge. Not wishing to labour the point, a reminder: Rory McIlroy could have played here if he had wanted to.
Rolex Series winners
2017: Noren (1/2), Fleetwood, Rahm (1/3), Cabrera Bello, Hatton, Rose (1/2), Grace, Rahm (2/3)
2018: Molinari, Olesen, Noren (2/2), Knox, Stone, Rose (2/2), Westwood, Willett (1/2)
2019: Lowry, Rahm (3/3), Wiesberger, Willett (2/2)
Those looking for a long-held connection to the course should focus on Andrea Pavan, the in-form, improving Roman who learned to play at Olgiata, and who once beat Tommy Fleetwood to a Challenge Tour title on home soil.
But while the locals - of whom Edoardo would get the vote - are all respected, the best bet here has to be Matt Wallace at 30/1, with a couple of firms paying eight places and some others going down to seven.
It's well known by now that Wallace's road to the world's top 50 was a less-travelled version than many of his peers, and it's that time on the Alps Tour back in 2016 which first demonstrated his love for a classical parkland test like that faced this week.
Among six wins in a dominant season, three came in Italy, and it was therefore little surprise that he made his Rolex Series breakthrough with fourth place in this event two years ago, contending until late on Sunday from the last group on the tee.
That was the first sign we'd had from Wallace that he might be capable of bigger and better things than a co-sanctioned win in Portugal earlier in the year, and he's since won three more titles at European Tour level to establish himself as a world-class player.
Having won six times in 2016, once in 2017 and three times in 2018, the one thing missing from a very strong 2019 is silverware and that should give him a nice, straightforward goal over the closing months of the season.
There will surely be few players so keen to snatch early Ryder Cup points than the last man off the list for Paris, but aside from all those small, motivational factors, the key here is that Wallace has hinted lately that he's ready to win.
After an excellent summer in which he was 12th at Pebble Beach and third at Bethpage in the US Open and PGA respectively, Wallace sprang back to life with third place in the KLM Open, gaining strokes throughout the bag in a rock-solid performance.
Wentworth the following week didn't go exactly to plan, but Wallace did make an excellent start before putting four solid, progressive rounds together in the Dunhill Links, where he closed with a round of 65 which only two players bettered.
With his iron play coming round and the putter as reliable as ever, Wallace - who tends to thrive on courses where driver is called upon regularly - looks a good fit for Olgiata, and if it is tough then he's shown in India and Germany that he can grind out a win.
Throw in a (relatively) fresh face on the bag in Jonathan Smart, ending that focus on his previous relationship which perhaps distracted him a little, and the world number 26 looks a prime candidate here.
The fact that this is a valuable, Rolex Series event is worth reiterating because, while weak, low prize money events like the Open de Espana are even more vulnerable to a class act running riot, there's no doubt this series has been dominated by the best on the circuit.
Jon Rahm has won three titles from just 20 events, Justin Rose, Danny Willett and Alex Noren two, with Molinari, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Thorbjorn Olesen, Russell Knox, Lee Westwood and Tommy Fleetwood among the other winners. It's no coincidence that the one real shock came in the Scottish Open, when many a mind has moved onto the following week's major, and it's unlikely we get a skinner here.
Benjamin Hebert almost won in Scotland and is among the more interesting options at three-figure prices along with, forgive me, Lee Slattery, while Fabrizio Zanotti loves a tree-lined course and could build on Spain if he isn't outmuscled.
However, my focus is very much on those expected to be close to if not automatic qualifiers for the Ryder Cup, with Matthew Fitzpatrick next.
Although his performances lately have been a little short of what had been expected, particularly at Wentworth, Fitzpatrick appears to be ticking over nicely and there was nothing wrong with his effort at the Dunhill Links, an event one of the fastest players around doesn't really appreciate.
Moreover, Fitzpatrick echoed the complaints of McIlroy after that low-scoring pro-am, opining on twitter that it was "too easy to hit it 30 yards offline and be ok," and I expect he'll find this demanding test of driving much more to his taste.
Like Wallace, he's motivated to keep alive a streak of winning at least once every year, one which will stretch to half a decade should he do so before the season is out, and there can be few better opportunities than a tricky, parkland test where his quality mid-iron play - Fitzpatrick is one of the best around in that department - will be called upon.
He also has the benefit of a Challenge Tour spin at the course, finishing seventh after a slow start in 2014, so with Italian Open form of 3-16-15-30 also in his favour there should be no excuses here.
With five European Tour wins to his name at the age of 25, Fitzpatrick is made for winning titles like this one and if he can just sharpen up a little this represents an excellent chance.
Whenever we are presented with a new course - either brand new or returning after a lengthy absence - one of my starting points is to find other layouts which might represent a decent form guide.
It's not easy to paint a clear picture with Olgiata, but Royal Park Roveri shows up on a line through Molinari and Gary Boyd, among others, while its length and those high winning scores from the Challenge Tour led me to Dar Es Salam, home of the Trophee Hassan.
Again, Molinari (Edoardo) pops up - he came back from the wilderness to win at Dar Es Salam two years ago - but others from that event worth noting are Jordan Smith and Erik van Rooyen, two fine drivers who will cope better than most with a rigorous test from the tee.
Joakim Lagergren, third in this a couple of years ago, and Joost Luiten, who is hitting more greens than anyone right now, are others worth a mention but as my search broadened to Wentworth, I couldn't find a way to scratch Shane Lowry from the list.
Wentworth is an easy place to throw into any correlation analysis, simply because we all know it so well. However, in this instance it crops up because one prominent Italian golf website draws a direct comparison, and visually it's easy to see why.
Furthermore, I was struck by the fact that when visiting here for the first time, Anders Hansen said he knew it would suit him down to the ground.
"I love this course," said the Dane. "I looked down the first the first day I came here and thought this is a good course for me. Don’t know why but I like it. It’s a great course."
Hansen is best known for winning twice at Wentworth, so while he might not know why he liked Olgiata, surely it's because it's from the same family: twisting, occasionally undulating, lined by trees and made so much more difficult by even a moderate breeze, which would be hard to judge.
Wentworth of course points mostly to Molinari (Francesco), but Lowry's record there is outstanding in its own right and he too should relish a long, hard test, having hit driver upon driver on his way to victory at Firestone a couple of years ago.
Since he returned to the European Tour following that famous victory at Portrush, I've put up Lowry in both starts - without reward. However, a pair of top-15 finishes, firstly at Wentworth and then in the Dunhill Links, will have been more than acceptable from his point of view and set him up perfectly for a late-season push.
"I didn't know what to expect," he said after charging through the field for 11th in the BMW PGA Championship.
"I think I knew coming here, I could play well, but I was a bit anxious. I didn't know what to expect, and you know, I'm going up to a place that I love playing golf in next week. Conditions might be a bit tricky but will suit me.
"From then on, I feel like I'm playing on golf courses that I like and that suit me.
"I feel like I can have a really good end to the year but this is obviously a great way to kick start it, to shoot 66 today and give myself a good bit of momentum going into next week and hopefully I can build on that."
Lowry again paid the price for a slow start in Scotland, but he drove the ball exceptionally well and it's just a case of shaking off some rust on and around the greens - he's been excellent otherwise.
Crucially, since the Dunhill Links he's lost top spot in the Race To Dubai rankings, and with Jon Rahm in such irrepressible form he'll know this is not a chance to be passed up with every point massive in their dual for a place in the history books.
Make no mistake, the opportunity to join the roll of honour for leading European Tour player is a massive incentive to both players and in Lowry's case it guarantees that he doesn't rest on his laurels following that magical Open win.
"It's all going to come down to the last few events," he confirmed. "I feel like I'm playing good golf all year, so there's no point stopping now."
That attitude makes Lowry, who won the first Rolex Series event of the year, a massive player over the coming weeks, and nothing I've seen since he returned to Europe has changed that belief. He'll have a spring in his step following a stop-off at Esker Hills over the weekend and can go close.
Outsiders to consider
With three of the top seven or eight in the market in this week's staking plan and a firm belief that we'll see an elite winner, there was no real temptation to cast the net as wise as would typically be the case.
As such, in addition to the preview above, here are a list of some options for those who do wish to target the places and hope for an upset.
Though he has no form in Italy to speak of, and shot 80-75 here in 2015, Burmester is the sort of powerhouse who could find Olgiata much more to his liking now. He played really well over the final three rounds of the Dunhill Links and opened with a 66 on a less suitable track last week. It's been said South African players like Italian parkland courses due to their similarities with home and he's a big price at 200/1.
Second here a decade ago, breaking 70 each day. Although way below his best this year, the Belgian caught the eye in Spain with a final-round 64 and having signed off from the Dunhill Links with a 65, and shot 66 at Wentworth, he's showing flashes of brilliance. On a fairly long course, he could be a factor with the first-round leader market worth a look. Colsaerts has twice led after round one of the Italian Open which, while somewhat anecdotal, does support the bare facts of his recent scoring.
Sixth here in 2002, Harrington is another with course form - although much has changed since. Of greater significance is a solid bank of recent form (12-15-46-26), and he ranked seventh for greens hit at the Dunhill Links. While a tighter course wouldn't obviously suit, Harrington has gone well in Turkey a couple of times and a late-season burst is fairly common. The concern is the Ryder Cup - while not obviously distracted so far, he was in Wisconsin for a media event to mark the one-year countdown last week.
A big-hitter at a three-figure price who has enjoyed an excellent season, Green might also be inspired by the exploits of Victor Perez, his college team-mate who so impressively won the Dunhill Links a couple of weeks ago.
Consistent Frenchman who hits fairways and greens for fun, very much in the style of previous course winners - albeit before it was lengthened. He's been sixth and third at Olgiata in his own right, and a record of 25-20-15-13 in the Italian Open speaks to his fondness for a parkland course. Although quieter lately, he shot a second-round 64 at the Dunhill Links and earlier this summer lost a play-off for a Rolex Series event in Scotland.
Built in a similar mould to Hebert, Horsey has an outstanding record in Italy - 13 appearances, 10 top-30 finishes, six top-10s and a runner-up in this event in 2010. Horsey has ranked eighth and second in driving accuracy across his last two starts and was frustrated on the greens last week. There have been enough signs that this proven parkland performer is edging back to his best, and he's always been good at winning, albeit not quite at this level.
Having led the field in greens hit last week and won at the aforementioned Dar Es Salam, Levy has to be somewhat of interest. He's a five-time European Tour winner who showed he can grind on that occasion, and at his best would be a good deal shorter in the market than the standout 125/1. Clearly, not at his best - but may be getting there with new swing work bedding in.
Although disappointing in the Dunhill Links, form in that unique event isn't always worth a great deal and there were signs before that Sharma was edging back to form. First he was 10th at halfway in the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, then he was 18th at halfway in the KLM Open, before he entered Sunday at Wentworth in third place. All this suggests he's not far off putting four rounds together. Perhaps not this week, but one to keep a close eye on.
Third in this last spring and again contended for a Rolex event when leading at halfway in Scotland. Since mid-summer he's been very solid without quite putting it all together, and while his best chances have now passed, he's good enough to pop up and hit the frame at a big price.
It's asking a lot for the Swede to win twice in six weeks, but having beaten Rory McIlroy to the title in Switzerland he'll feel like it's far from out of the question. Key to the case is that he won in Italy in 2018 and was third here in 2015, while the fact he won at a twisting course in the Alps is somewhat encouraging - though he'll have to drive well and generally improve to go in again.
Mike Lorenzo Vera
While the above names are all on offer at three-figure prices, a quick word on Lorenzo Vera - who would have been the fourth selection at the top of this preview had he been just a little bigger than 50/1. His sole professional win on a major tour came in Italy, at the Challenge Tour Grand Final, and he came closest on the European Tour in Sicily. Throw in a fantastically consistent summer and an excellent attitude, aided by coach Justin Parsons, and just maybe he can get off the mark at last.
Posted at 1800 BST on 07/10/19.
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.