Golf expert Ben Coley previews the Italian Open, where Ian Poulter can upstage man-of-the-moment Francesco Molinari.
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Last October, Tyrrell Hatton arrived in Milan for the Italian Open days after successfully defending his title in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Come Sunday, he was celebrating his third and most impressive European Tour success, having dug deep to fend off Ross Fisher and Kiradech Aphibarnrat in one of the most thrilling finishes of the season.
Hatton gets the chance to land another double earlier than he might have expected, with this Rolex Series event brought forward in the calendar, but it's Francesco Molinari and his impeccable timing who heads the market in his bid for what would be a third triumph in his national open.
Molinari produced the performance of his life last weekend, whether you take a strict interpretation of the scorecard or widen the lens to consider that he had Rory McIlroy, Alex Noren and others to deal with on Sunday. At a course where he'd spurned several good chances before, the Italian found a level of calm which allowed his flawless long game to take care of business in the most ruthless success of his career.
If able to pick up where he left off in Surrey, Molinari would take a heck of a lot of beating here. We knew long ago that he is capable of finding his best golf on home soil, we now know he's at the top of his game and we can probably take on trust that he'll be able to cope with the switch to Gardagolf, which returns to the Tour 15 years on from the shootout which ended with victory for Sweden's Mathias Gronberg.
The trouble is, there's absolutely no room for doubt in quotes of 10/1 about a player who still has just five wins in more than a decade of trying. If Molinari starts slowly or finds that there's just too much focus on him, as the man of the moment, that could be that on a course which will likely require a fast start. He deserves to be favourite, but he's by no means begging to be backed.
The formula for Gronberg was just as we'd expect for a continental, parkland golf course like this one: hit greens. It's the way Hatton and Molinari took care of Milano, just as Rikard Karlberg and runner-up Martin Kaymer had in 2015. In fact, it's five years since this event produced a winner who didn't rank inside the top 10 for greens in regulation and while we'll learn about Gardagolf as the week develops, I would be surprised were we not met with another winner who kept out of trouble.
Matteo Manassero and Nino Bertasio will know better than most what's required, both having crafted their games here, and at 80/1 and 125/1 respectively will do for some. Manassero played well on Friday and Sunday at Wentworth for 27th, while Bertasio responded to a nightmare 81 on Saturday to do some good work in the final round prior to a disappointing finish.
It was in this event last year that Bertasio secured his card with a brave 10th place, but he arrived in much better nick and knowing a course does not mean loving a course. Besides, as touched upon prior to the BMW PGA these Rolex Series events continue to churn out high-class winners who understand and are able to cope with their significance.
With that in mind, Ian Poulter rates the best bet at twice the price of the favourite.
Poulter's first professional win came in this event back in 2000 before he doubled up in 2002, and he put up an admirable defence at Gardagolf, finishing 18th after a slow start despite struggling with his long-game throughout the week - confirmation that he was woefully out of sorts at the time.
It's questionable whether he can derive any real value from having played the course before, but fond memories of the event are certainly a positive for a player enjoying a renaissance in 2018, winning his first stroke play title on US soil and very much pencilling his name in for the Ryder Cup.
Poulter finished 20th at Wentworth last week, in itself a very decent effort considering firstly that he's struggled there for some time now, and secondly that he opened with a nightmare round of 74. Only Manassero shot higher but still made the cut, which confirms that Poulter had a lot on his plate to make the weekend, let alone bag a top-20 and some valuable Race To Dubai points.
Given that Poulter has now played the BMW PGA Championship no fewer than 15 times and has a best of 10th place, his effort there suggests to me that he remains in the form which saw him win in Houston. That's supported by his record since the Masters, where he needs to play flawless golf to get anywhere close to the leaders; he's finished seventh at the Heritage and 11th at the PLAYERS and will be no less suited to this course.
Molinari's victory will further remind Poulter that competition for places on Thomas Bjorn's Ryder Cup side is fierce and of the six or seven behind the favourite in the betting, it's the Englishman who looks to be in the best shape. He's expected to go well.
With Hatton having struggled badly at Wentworth, which wasn't a total surprise, and infrequent winner Ross Fisher now half the price he was on home soil, the other value option who fits the profile of a classy winner is Matt Fitzpatrick.
Four times a European Tour champion already, this 23-year-old is the type of player who can be trusted to take an opportunity when it presents itself and wins at Crans and Woburn point to the suitability of courses like this one.
Indeed, Fitzpatrick had a really good chance to win the Italian Open at Milano just three weeks before he broke through with that deadly British Masters success, and his subsequent efforts there (16-15) only confirm the suspicion that he can go well again now returned to Italy, where his other effort was seventh place on the Challenge Tour.
Fitzpatrick looked to have rediscovered his iron play in the US before returning for the BMW PGA, and while there were a few too many mistakes on the scorecard last week he still finished eighth in a stronger field, his best performance in three visits to Wentworth.
I loved the confidence he was showcasing from the tee, regardless of the club, during the first round in particular and this should be a similar through-the-bag test, the like of which this straight-hitting type is best served by.
As well as having a dynamite short game and hitting fairways for fun, one of the biggest strengths of Fitzpatrick's game is his mid-iron play and with nine par-fours which play in excess of 400 yards, this looks the right sort of venue for a fifth success, one which would bolster his Ryder Cup claims too.
While Poulter and Fitzpatrick are quite rightly shorter than they were last week, given that Rory McIlroy doesn't play here and there is generally less depth to the field, Andy Sullivan hasn't moved in the market.
I'm a little puzzled by that, in truth, as 35th was by no means a bad effort and it was only a horrific run midway through round three which prevented a title challenge. Sullivan was seven-under and making serene progress before a sequence of six bogeys began moments after he'd spoken to Tim Barter of Sky Sports; whether that affected his concentration or not I can't say, but the rest of the week was largely positive regardless.
Prior to Wentworth, Sullivan had finished third in Sicily so a return to this part of the world could be considered a plus, and whichever way you look at it he's been working back to his best form for some time now, making every cut since this event last year.
On that note, Sullivan does have a little to prove when playing in mainland Italy, but there's a school of thought which says these courses are reminiscent of some of the classical layouts of South Africa and his two victories there could perhaps be significant.
Whatever the case, he's been threatening to win for some time now and while this will require a career-best, Sullivan looks a big enough price to produce it.
While a high-profile winner is expected, Lucas Bjerregaard and Darren Fichardt showed last week that there's always room in the frame for less familiar types and the latter is interesting at 125/1, given how well his South African counterparts have done in this event and the fact that he's played nicely in all three starts on the European Tour since landing the Sunshine Tour's end-of-season event.
However, the one I really like the look of is Finland's Mikko Korhonen, despite reservations around his ability to close the door should he find himself in front.
This solid all-rounder has the game for a parkland test like Gardagolf and caught the eye at Wentworth, finishing 15th despite a triple-bogey at the ninth hole during round four. It was an otherwise excellent effort, particularly having been two-over through three holes on Thursday, and came courtesy of his long-game - he was one of just seven players who hit more greens than the winner.
Korhonen's most significant success to date came at Q School and there's a hint that his success at PGA Catalunya could hold some significance, as Carlos del Moral is twice a winner there and won at Gardagolf in 2006. Simon Khan, another Q School winner at Catalunya, was fifth here in 2003, and runner-up to Gronberg was Ricardo Gonzalez, who was runner-up to Korhonen in 2014 and again to Nathan Kimsey two years later.
All of which is to say that Korhonen should be well suited to the course and that makes him interesting, as a player who has gone well twice in succession, who came closest to a breakthrough in South Africa earlier this year and has taken his game to a new level over the last couple of seasons.
There's no reason this late-bloomer can't take another step forward and contend for a place in an event which I expect will be won by one of the top six or seven in the betting.
Posted at 1810 BST on 28/05/18.