Birdies are the order of the day at the Portugal Masters, where Ben Coley is backing George Coetzee. Read his in-depth preview.
Last week's Open de France had a nonsensical feel to it from the off, as various players were disqualified for bizarre infractions - one of them voluntarily, having played lift, clean and place despite no bugger else doing it - at the same time as one of the circuit's best putters suddenly became its best ball-striker for long enough to post the clubhouse lead.
By the end of the week, we were one too many J.B. Hansen mistakes away from the Dane winning a tournament having made a nine during the third round. Instead, we got Nicolas Colsaerts winning for the first time in seven years, and doing so at a course where he'd never cracked the top 10 in 13 previous visits; where, in 42 previous rounds, he'd broken 70 just six times yet here did so on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Had some soothsayer revealed that the loveable Belgian would win one of the final two events of the European Tour's regular season, 100 per cent of sane people asked would have voted for option B, the Portugal Masters, over option A, the Open de France. Golf is what happens when you throw all the strangest habits of other sports into one of those driving range ball dispensers. Predicting what might happen is at worst madness, at best the very definition of inexact science.
If that reads like an excuse, so be it, but it's actually there to demonstrate that, in golf, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, there's still a chance it's something else entirely. In other words, if a golf course screams accurate plodder who loves to scramble a par, there's still a chance that big-hittin', yip-chippin' Colsaerts swans off with the title and makes you look like an absolute madman for ever suggesting anything else.
There's your warning that the Portugal Masters may not be a shootout dominated by big-hitters and those who manage to keep tabs on them with either world-class iron play or wizard-like putting - but I'm playing the odds and attacking this event with the sort of player who has dominated it over the years.
Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course is resort in style, straightforward in nature. The average winning score here is 20-under, a figure which even takes into account the 36-hole edition won by Alex Levy, and nobody was surprised that the first European Tour 59 came here last year when Oliver Fisher entered the history books.
Fisher went on to finish seventh behind Tom Lewis, whose 27 birdies earned him a second title here. There's your blueprint. Lewis pounds greens and doesn't much like chipping, so a course where he can reach for driver upon driver and worry little about the big miss is exactly what he wants. You could say the very same about 2017 winner Lucas Bjerregaard and there's logic beyond the style of the course: players will tell you that if you miss a fairway by a yard, you're more likely to find a tricky lie than if you miss by 10.
Big-hitters are at a definitely advantage here - a point Colsaerts made himself a few years ago - and they form the basis of my staking plan, with Sam Horsfield very much at the top of the shortlist.
Ian Poulter's protege is one of the form players on the circuit right now, making nine cuts in succession since flying through the field to take third place behind Thomas Pieters and Adri Arnaus in the Czech Masters.
If you are looking for form ties, the Czech Masters is a very good starting point. That's held at another long, easy course, where there's little punishment for serious wides, and Lewis is among several players who crop up when you cross-reference leaderboards.
That effort is enough to overlook two modest starts from Horsfield in this event, though it's no bad thing that he got four rounds under his belt when playing on an invite in 2017, with six birdies and an eagle in Friday's 67 showing the damage he could well do.
Two years on and he's closing in on a first professional victory, one which should come under low-scoring resort conditions like those faced this week in Portugal.
Horsfield leads this field in birdie average whether your measure is three, six or 12 months, evidence of his scoring prowess, and his consistently long hitting combined with a recently red-hot putter is just the dream combination in the Portugal Masters.
Typically I'd be reluctant to side with a player leaning so heavily on their putter, but Horsfield has been deadly on the greens for two months now - it's simply a strength of his. If he takes it to a course like this one, where he should be able to push up his greens-in-regulation percentage, then there's an excellent chance he could become the latest English winner in front of a UK-heavy crowd.
The aforementioned Arnaus will do for many having been one of the rookie stars of the season, and I couldn't put you off. He wasn't far off winning the Open de Portugal on the Challenge Tour, also came fourth in the Portuguese Amateur, and having twice gone close in his native Spain and also hit the crossbar in the Czech Masters, he has much in his favour.
However, going back to the old adage about ducks, sometimes it does pay to stick to the obvious and in George Coetzee we've a rock-solid option who also looks generously priced at around the 28/1 mark.
Coetzee's record here is blemish-free, with a worst finish of 31st and a best of third in six appearances, three of which have resulted in an each-way payout.
It's a record similar to that which he's built in Qatar, which has some similarities in terms of the challenge despite being a little tougher, and Coetzee was second there in the spring to underline his horses-for-courses nature.
That's what makes last week's third place in France so surprising, given that he'd never done much around a course which is much harder than he'd like, but it goes to show that when a dynamite putter clicks with his irons then the playground becomes far less relevant.
By his own admission, it's not been a great year for the burly South African, but having struck the ball much better in Italy he took another big step forward at Le Golf National, ranking fourth in strokes-gained tee-to-green and producing his standout approach figures of the campaign.
If - and, as discussed at the top, it's always 'if' - Coetzee brings that long-game to Portugal, where he actually led the field in greens hit two years ago, then there's no reason whatsoever he won't take up his usual position on the first page or two of the leaderboard.
To that end, it's worth noting that throughout his career, Coetzee has been a fairly easy player to predict. Five of his six wins have been on the back of a top-20 finish, two on the back of a top-five in fact, so the hope is that last week's performance proves to be as good a clue as it looks.
With a sub-68 scoring average, this course is as good as any if he's to win outside of Africa, and in this company there's just no denying this represents a fine opportunity to do exactly that.
Coetzee's compatriot Dean Burmester makes plenty of appeal, arriving as he does in similar form to when finishing seventh on his sole previous visit, while back-to-back top-20 finishes would have put Ryan Fox on the radar were it not for a short enough price.
But with two strong fancies in the bag, the rest of my selections are available at three-figure prices with Renato Paratore much the pick of them.
This young Italian hasn't quite kicked on from his victory in Sweden two years ago, but there have been signs this year that he's finding a level of consistency to go with his wild and wonderful scoring capabilities.
It's true that his form has dipped since 12th place in Switzerland at the start of September, but 40th place last week was a big step up on previous efforts in Paris, where he'd missed four cuts from four previously and carded some big numbers in the process.
Nothing worse than a bogey on a course where those in the mix all carded a double or worse means it was a productive, confidence-boosting week, one which came on the back of a similar performance in the Italian Open, and a return to this style of course could make all the difference.
Paratore has top-fives to his name in the Czech Masters and the European Open - the latter not as easy but certainly one for the biggest of hitters - and his own performance here last year helps underline ties between these three events.
Back then, Paratore sat inside the top six after rounds one, two and three, before running into trouble on Sunday, and one year on he looks to be in a better place.
The icing on the cake is that one of his biggest amateur wins came in Portugal five years ago, just before he sailed through Q School in neighbouring Spain, and if he hits his approaches as well as last week he can go really well.
Plenty of punters will have been lining up Lucas Herbert for this, after his near miss in 2018, but in his absence fellow youngster Minwoo Lee can fly the flag for Australia.
Lee is a 21-year-old with a huge future, and while it's been a stop-start year he's done enough on invites to secure full playing rights for the 2020 European Tour season.
That means he's enjoying a free roll at present and there were positives in his T36 finish in Germany, before an understandable missed cut in the Dunhill Links when being paired with a sporting superstar like Jacques Kallis probably didn't help.
From there, Lee went to Korea for the Genesis Championship, where he was one off the lead at halfway and, after a poor Saturday, rallied impressively to take sixth place behind PGA Tour star Sungjae Im.
That's very decent form to bring to the table and the considerably easier conditions here will suit an aggressive player who was fourth behind Dustin Johnson in the Saudi International, an event which produced a leaderboard with clear ties to Portugal through Lewis and Levy.
Lewis's win here back in 2011 helps demonstrate that inexperience can be overcome at a straightforward venue, so for similar reasons Kristoffer Reitan also makes the staking plan.
Another big-hitter, the Norwegian has been a little hard to pin down this year but top-20 finishes in Prague and Paris mark him down as a player more than capable of establishing himself in time.
He's on the verge of losing his card at 144th in the Race To Dubai, but at 21 there's not too much pressure as he's guaranteed full rights on the Challenge Tour where chances are he'd be a serious force in 2020.
The hope is he can build on 18th place last week, where he drove the ball long and straight and also ranked seventh for greens, and produce his best finish to date on the European Tour.
The key sub-plot of the week will be that battle for cards - it looks like 117 is the cut-off for those counting - and it'll be fascinating to see how regular Portugal contender Jamie Donaldson responds to that disastrous final round in Paris last week.
He's half the price here and therefore can be overlooked, with Jeunghun Wang more appealing given the fight he showed as his own battle for playing privileges goes right down to the wire.
Wang's best form has been under tougher conditions, however, so my final vote goes to massive outsider Pedro Figueiredo.
I put up the Portuguese at a similar price when he was 33rd in Spain a couple of starts ago, the sort of performance which frustrates those of us who chose golf rather than something simpler given that he massively outperformed most expectations but never really threatened the places.
The case then was built around his outstanding iron play and it has cooled just a little since, but he can be forgiven a missed cut in a Rolex Series event and would've had a great chance to make the cut last week after an opening 70, only to be disqualified for an incorrect drop.
Given his Race To Dubai predicament - Figueiredo is 177th and in need of a miracle - that will have been a serious blow, but it could just spark something mentally and he at least has the solace of a return home for last dance of a largely disappointing campaign.
Ricardo Gouveia has performed a couple of miracles here, finishing fifth and seventh over the last two years, and while Figueiredo's record at the course is less impressive he has managed a trio of top-30 finishes which he can build on now in possession - if only for another week - of his European Tour card.
Last year he stepped up on previous efforts to finish eighth in the Open de Portugal and, in an event where there's often a fairytale storyline developing come the weekend, he's worth a very small bet at 250/1 or more.
Posted at 1830 BST on 21/10/19.
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