After a near-miss in the Italian Open, Ben Coley looks ahead to the Open de France and a fine chance for in-form Joost Luiten to strike.
If any doubt remains as to the nature of Le Golf National and what will be required in this week's Open de France, cast your mind back to the Ryder Cup, the birth of Moliwood and perhaps even the death, as a Ryder Cup golfer at least, of Phil Mickelson.
Paris National then played as it should now: a test not so much of strategy, but of execution. There are holes here where hitting driver is either an obviously bad option or not an option at all, and while that ought to help clear the mind, it remains devilishly difficult to find the fairway. And it doesn't get any easier after that, with water in play on half the holes and so often guarding the green.
This stadium-style course, built to serve the purpose which it served last year, is tough and unrelenting. And, while it played firmer in summer, it'll play longer in the cooler, softer conditions of autumn. Historically, if you reach 10-under in an Open de France, you'll go close to winning it; Paris National is the sort of test which makes a mockery of suggestions the European Tour has become some sort of point, shoot and putt exercise.
It's little wonder that winners here have tended to either be exceptional ball-strikers - Tommy Fleetwood, Bernd Wiesberger and Martin Kaymer are among the best this circuit has produced lately - or natural grinders like Graeme McDowell and Thongchai Jaidee. Francesco Molinari's conveyor-belt drives helped him build a winless but outstanding record even before the Ryder Cup, while 2018 champion Alex Noren is arguably at his most comfortable in the sort of breeze which reliably whips around this impressive, modern property.
Regrettably, the reality of this renewal, 15 months on from Noren's win, is that it has failed by dint of a smaller prize pool to attract anything like the sort of field we'd grown accustomed to in the run-up to The Open. Mike Lorenzo Vera might even challenge the Swede for favouritism despite never having won a European Tour event, and that's because at 90th in the world he's not far off the best player in the field. Not one of the world's top 50 takes part.
That's a shame for organisers but not necessarily for us, because a lack of depth in what's a restricted field of 120 should make easy the task of narrowing down contenders and top of the list by a distance is Joost Luiten.
It's fair to say that right now, nobody on the European Tour is hitting the ball as well as the becurled Dutchman, whose greens-in-regulation rankings since he played well in The Open read seventh, 17th, first, fourth, first, 11th, latterly in Italy last week.
Luiten was a tempting 50/1 chance there, but truth be told we're still waiting for the Wiesberger-like ascent to the very top table to begin and for now, the 33-year-old remains the sort of player who wins when the best on the circuit are elsewhere.
His record at Le Golf National - six cuts made in seven but nothing better than ninth - further underlines that point, and it's the drop in grade from previous editions which should make him a key player at a course which is set-up nicely for him.
Given the way he's striking the ball, which is also supported by strokes-gained stats, Luiten needs one of two things to happen if he's to go really close: improvement with the putter, or the sort of test where that club is perhaps less important than it can be.
While it's true that both Jaidee and McDowell made more than their share of putts in winning here, the exploits of Wiesberger, Fleetwood and even Noren, who ranked second in driving accuracy and fifth for GIR last July, underline again that this is essentially a tee-to-green exam which is really hard to pass.
Two wins in the KLM Open, another by the sea in Oman and victory over Fleetwood and Shane Lowry at Celtic Manor all stack up well with this week in mind, and the latter is of particular interest to me. McDowell, Noren and Jaidee have all won here and at the 2010 Course and both were purpose-built as exposed, stadium layouts which have hosted Ryder Cups.
It's probably no coincidence that form ties between the two are solid and Luiten, who has both won and finished runner-up in Wales, can add further weight to them providing he avoids big numbers when mistakes do inevitably arrive. Hopefully, his cross-handed putting grip is sufficiently bedded in now and he can really capitalise on what's been an autumn of excellence otherwise.
Noren is the highest-ranked player in the field and remains a big fish in a small pond here, despite a frustrating season. His memories of Le Golf National aren't limited to winning the Open de France either, after he signed off the Ryder Cup in style on the 18th green, and having been on the fringes over the last three weeks he's entitled to go well.
In fact, that sentiment applies to everyone at the top of the betting. Matthias Schwab remains in excellent form and this course is an ideal one for his breakthrough; Erik van Rooyen should better a poor debut here; Thomas Pieters always plays the course well, as Lorenzo Vera tends to, and the same has been true of in-form Jordan Smith in two visits so far; Marcus Kinhult was fifth on debut and continues to impress.
It's hard picking holes in any of the above, with Smith and Kinhult the most appealing, but I'm not sure any of them are quite as reliable as I'd like at the prices and the one who has been this year, Schwab, is still searching for that first win.
So too is Romain Langasque, but there's not much between the pair bar a little consistency in favour of Schwab, and on home soil and at three-times the price I'll take the Frenchman this time.
Langasque has already shown that he's capable of producing in his national open, having made the cut weeks after turning professional in 2016 (when thrown into a marquee group) and then fired a second-round 65 during his second visit a year later.
In 2018 he did fail to make the weekend, but he was struggling on the Challenge Tour at the time so it was always likely his game would be exposed on this course, particularly in a strong, Rolex Series field.
It's significant that once he'd recaptured his form, he went on to make his professional breakthrough on home soil in the Open de Provence and that's a further indication that rather than find this occasion too much, he could well rise to it.
Though playing in front of an expectant crowd can be a burden, the brightest talents on the European Tour tend to cope. Molinari, Wiesberger, Kaymer, Luiten, Noren - these have all won in such circumstances and while this is a big ask, Langasque has the game and the confidence to join them.
It's true that he arrives on back-to-back missed cuts, but Dunhill Links form can be ignored (Wiesberger's current form reads 5-17-MC-1, the MC coming in Scotland) and Langasque only got into the Italian Open courtesy of an invite from Keith Pelley himself last Tuesday.
Given no time to prepare, there was absolutely no shame in missing the cut on the number and I'd be very keen to take a more positive view of his game, one built around the kind of strong iron play which sees him ranked 10th for greens hit this season.
Langasque is bound to be inspired by the exploits of Victor Perez in the Dunhill Links and could be the man to emulate Jean-Francois Remesy and Thomas Levet in winning this for France.
With wet weather very much part of the forecast, the fact that Aaron Rai always plays in two gloves stands out and so too do his ball-striking stats, which confirm he's been finding fairways and greens all year long.
The Englishman shot 80-72 here on his course debut but is much better than that and well suited to the layout, so on the back of another encouraging display in Rome he's also in the staking plan.
While Rai is fourth in fairways and fifth in greens for the campaign, it's his recent strokes-gained improvement which stands out as he's started to hit the ball with serious authority since finishing 26th at Wentworth in the BMW PGA.
Finishes of 54th and 18th subsequently, the latter courtesy of another step forward with the irons, provides a good platform for his return to France where he's already a winner courtesy of Le Vaudreuil Golf Challenge in Normandy.
That potential for drizzle may also play into Jamie Donaldson's hands and the Welshman is worth siding with at anything close to 100/1.
One of the many stars of Europe's 2014 Ryder Cup success, Donaldson hasn't been able to kick on and make the latter stages of his career as productive as he'd have liked, but now free from injury he's played some nice stuff this summer.
At 32nd in driving accuracy, Donaldson is putting the ball in play and the short-game which helped him qualify for Gleneagles has been as good as ever - he in fact leads the Tour in strokes-gained around the green having been prominent in the scrambling charts for most of the year.
That's very much the McDowell/Jaidee route to success at Le Golf National, and as well as bagging a couple of top-10 finishes here at the height of his powers, it's encouraging that the veteran has made cuts when in dire form including last year.
Having improved since, he looks an interesting outsider, especially given finishes of fourth and eighth at Celtic Manor plus a top-10 finish at Sawgrass, another stadium-style golf course and one which many will tell you provides a similar test.
When Donaldson has missed cuts lately, it's always been because of the putter, so one way or another we should expect him to pop up on leaderboards when it does behave. There may be no place better than Paris, a course he knows inside-out.
Stewart Cink is another 40-something showing signs of good form and the 2009 Open champion is interesting enough.
Despite the fact that the US Ryder Cup side were annihilated here, several Americans have played the course very well - Julian Suri, Peter Uihlein and Kevin Stadler all went close to winning, while Brendan Steele was a regular feature on his visits - and its stadium nature appears to suit some.
Perhaps Cink is done winning, though, and 50/1 looks short enough, so I'll finish with one at the other end of the age scale in 24-year-old Jeunghun Wang.
I mention Wang's age because it's easy to forget how young he is, having won three times on the European Tour from early 2016 to January 2017, when he captured the Qatar Masters to climb to a career-high 39th in the world.
Now down at 436, it goes without saying he's struggled since - but those green shoots of recovery have been in evidence over the last couple of months as he's finished 27th, fifth and 10th, with two missed cuts in the same stretch still offering signs of encouragement.
Last week he carded rounds of 72-69-64-71 for 10th place in very good company and only two players scored better over the final 54 holes of the Dunhill Links at the end of September, all signs that he's heading in the right direction once more.
There's a chance this is still a little soon in his recovery, but with wins in five- and six-under to his name this really ought to suit, and he certainly played some good stuff when 22nd on debut having been in front at halfway and second through 54 holes.
"Actually for me, it's I think not really hard," he said back then, when asked to describe the nature of the test and how much it suited him. We can chalk that apparent confidence down to the language barrier as much as anything, but it at least provides a reference point as he arrives back here in the sort of shape required to compete.
All three of Wang's European Tour wins have come when wind is a genuine factor and the tough conditions expected in Paris might be enough to bring him on again, all of which means he's given the benefit of the doubt.
Ryan Fox and Ross Fisher also made the shortlist - both would be well suited by a longer-than-the-scorecard test - while Steven Brown is among the more interesting rags along with Pedro Figueiredo, back down in grade and out in price following an event in which he was always likely to struggle.
Ultimately, though, we should expect this to go to a classy player relative to the grade, which is quite low. All five selections apply, with Luiten confidently expected to be in the shake-up.
Posted at 1745 BST on 14/10/19
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