3pts e.w. Matthias Schwab at 18/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1.5pts e.w. Sean Crocker at 33/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. John Catlin at 66/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Ashley Chesters at 150/1 (BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano at 150/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
0.5pt e.w. Lorenzo Scalise at 300/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
For the casual golf fan here in the UK, the Masters at Augusta National is part of a collection of sporting events which are synonymous with spring. The Grand National behind us, the Craven ahead, snooker soon to wave goodbye and cricket to arrive, it's a time of seasonal change: jumps to flat, indoors to out.
For those of us who are purists, the same can be said of the European Tour landing in continental Europe. More than five months have passed since the Tour left Italy for Cyprus, since which time it has commuted between the Middle East and Africa. Now, it is set to return to Austria's Diamond Country Club, where everything resumed last summer following the coronavirus-enforced hiatus.
Back then, the Austrian Golf Open was part pre-season friendly, part Operation Dark Winter, a feeling strengthened by the fact that it looked like, well, a dark winter. Dr Andrew Murray and his team took the chance to test their new set of protocols before heading to the UK and those of us needing to track the progress of Marc Warren had to resort to questionable internet streaming of cameras fixed on the final two holes. In every sense, it was an event for the desperate: to play, to watch, to reacquaint.
This time the break has been far less prolonged, at least for those who took part in that breathless fortnight in Kenya. Others make their competitive returns having been absent since the Qatar Masters, and there are some for whom this will be a first taste of tour-level golf in 2021. This is life on the European Tour and those at the helm continue to make the best of it, despite losing the Open de France and having to fight fires wherever they go.
Gladly, the field for what used to be called the Lyoness Open is stronger than that of last summer, considerably so, and Sky Sports are in Austria to bring us live coverage. But because nothing is ever perfect, rather than the sights and sounds of spring, we'll be welcomed by a wet and cold Austrian April, conditions even more miserable than they were during the weekend of Warren's (can I say heroic? Yes, heroic...) victory.
That weather forecast, which even offers the threat of snow, might be key to unravelling the tournament. Diamond Country Club has typically been a course for those who plot their way around what's a parkland layout with plenty of hazardous spots, former champion (albeit in the Shot Clock Masters) Mikko Korhonen pretty much the blueprint. But at almost 7,500 yards and with four par-fives, there is a risk that soft fairways and heavy air transform the event, rendering the form book worthless.
Last year didn't really answer that question. The final leaderboard featured many who are of that classic Diamond profile, the likes of Connor Syme and Darius van Driel in the mix all weekend ahead of veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez. But the joint-best score on Sunday came from Wil Besseling, one of the bigger hitters in the field, and just a couple of shots worse was Jonathan Thompson, an English giant who wallops the ball forever.
On balance, I am not too concerned that this will turn into a slugfest. Partly, that's because there just aren't all that many powerhouse players in the field, but it's more about the nature of the course, with a couple of par-fives that are hard to reach in two whatever the weather — even for Sam Horsfield and Adri Arnaus. And with that established, I'll do as I expect many others will and make MATTHIAS SCHWAB the best bet.
At times in the past I dare say I've fallen guilty of believing that hometown players, which Schwab is here, are burdened by extra pressure, when there's more evidence that the benefits outweigh the costs. Schwab's compatriot Bernd Wiesberger has won here, something Markus Brier did three times; Dutchman Joost Luiten is a two-time winner of the KLM Open, Francesco Molinari began his career with a victory in Italy, Thomas Levet effectively signed off his winning in France, the aforementioned Warren has won in Scotland, and Sergio Garcia delivers in Spain.
For years, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth has been dominated by English players, Alex Noren has triumphed twice in his native Sweden, Hao-tong Li and Ashun Wu have won in China and, as Christiaan Bezuidenhout demonstrated late last year, when one of the best South Africans tees it up in South Africa, they typically prove difficult to shift. We've been very close to a French-speaking champion in Mauritius, too, while SSP Chawrasia and Anirban Lahiri are among the winners of the Indian Open. You get the point.
Schwab, is who good enough to improve beyond Wiesberger and lead the way among a strong collection of Austrian golfers, should be at an advantage on home soil, and he has been playing in tournaments here since he finished 32nd as a 15-year-old at the beginning of the last decade. He also made his professional debut at Diamond in 2017 and his only subsequent appearance came in the unique and experimental Shot Clock Masters, where he finished 12th after a disappointing weekend.
More than that, it is fundamentally a good course for him. Perhaps not surprisingly given his upbringing and the nature of his game, this beautiful ball-striker has so far proved best suited by tree-lined, parkland tests, coming closest to winning just over the border in Germany when second at Green Eagle; when third, leading during the final round, at Eichenried, and when beaten in a play-off in Turkey at the end of 2019, a chance he should've taken.
It's true that he's become a little frustrating since, largely because as his long-game has got better and better, his putting has become an issue. That was particularly evident towards the end of 2020 and is the only thing holding him back. Perhaps, though, the positive performance he managed last time out in Kenya will mark the turning of the tide, because it's not that long since the putter was in fact among his strengths.
Seventh place there in Nairobi was an unsurprising personal best for the season, because he's not yet proven particularly effective in the Middle East, where ninth in the Dubai Desert Classic was a big step up on his previous efforts.
All this and the fact he continues to rank among the best iron players on the circuit confirms that he is in tip-top shape, and he hinted as much last week, telling the Salzburger Nachrichten: "I'm not putting too much pressure on myself. My game is going in the right direction and if it continues like this everything will fit together in the near future. Maybe this week."
Those comments came before he took part in an event on the Audi Circuit, finishing a few shots behind winner Lukas Nemecz, a little tune-up which should have Schwab primed for a big performance. And just to put into context a seemingly disappointing 2020 (remember, he was confined to his snowy escape in the Austrian mountains for much of the year), he ranked second in strokes-gained total among this field.
The only player ahead of him was the similarly talented Thomas Detry, who heads the betting. But with home advantage in his favour, and on the back of his best European Tour finish since he lost that Rolex Series play-off in Turkey, this looks an excellent chance for Schwab to really begin climbing the rankings. He has bags of ability and I strongly fancy him to show it at a course he knows really well.
By now we're all used to what the front end of these markets look like, the order reshuffled to fit the occasion, course, or recent adjustments in form. Here, it's very easy to construct a case for Joost Luiten, whose Diamond CC credentials are outstanding, but he's climbed up towards 20/1 as a result and whereas I believe Schwab deserves his lofty position in the betting, as far as Luiten is concerned I'm not so sure.
Certainly, at these prices I would rather side with those who have a little scope to leave this grade behind and one such player is Sam Horsfield. He was a huge eye-catcher across those two events in Kenya, his return from injury, and could so easily have won the second of them. Given that he has picked up two titles since last summer and will have eyes on the PGA Tour, many will find it strange he's six points bigger than Detry.
Horsfield is definitely respected, but it's his friend and practice partner SEAN CROCKER who appeals more at 33/1, a price which I believe underestimates just how good he is, and just how well he's playing.
If — and it is an if — Crocker develops a working short-game he'll prove as capable as anyone in this field if not better, and the way he's struck the ball since last July speaks to his enormous potential. Week in, week out he's been among the very best tee-to-green players around, and the one and only time he gained strokes with the putter, he teed off on the 72nd hole at Leopard Creek with a chance to win.
That's a mark of how good he is. If Crocker holes just a few putts, he will have a huge chance to break his duck wherever he's playing on the European Tour, and while there's little to suggest he will return with real confidence on the greens having last been seen ranking 71st of 72 players in Qatar, it's a chance I'm willing to take on the grounds that this screams long-game test.
Last time, he ranked third off the tee and 11th with his approaches, gaining nine strokes with his ball-striking. That was in fact a step down on the 12-plus strokes he gained in Saudi Arabia, and the 11-plus in Dubai. For those with only a passing interest in golf these numbers will mean little, but they reveal that he wasn't far off champions Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey in terms of how well he hit the ball.
Of course all this has been true of Crocker for a while now but I don't think the market has him in the right place and he's therefore of huge interest whenever he plays the right course. Third on his sole start in Austria, albeit elsewhere, he should take to Diamond Country Club and is the only other player I'm interested in at less than 50/1.
While I'm of the view that Crocker, Schwab, Arnaus and Detry will all be winning titles on the European Tour, events so far this season have served as a reminder that those who have proven they can get the job done deserve extra respect. Daniel van Tonder might be an exception but he's been prolific at a lower level lately and anyone who knows what it takes to win will be in a good position should a chance arrive on Sunday.
That's partly why JOHN CATLIN stands out in this field and the pick of the prices are well worth mopping up, with anything 50/1 and bigger considered good value about the American.
Catlin made his name in 2020 with two wins, at Valderrama and in Northern Ireland, and both speak to his preference for a fiddly, parkland test, which Diamond very much is without being quite so demanding. Given his subsequent exploits, it's no wonder he finished eighth here last June, and he's vastly improved since then having climbed a hundred places in the world rankings.
Although Catlin had gone quiet following the second of those victories and arrives on the back of a missed cut in the Savannah Classic, there's been a notable upturn in his long-game which could be a big clue that he's ready to strike again. His strokes-gained approach figure in the Kenya Open, where he finished 28th, was his his best yet on the European Tour and similar to that which he produced at Galgorm, and he was on track to produce something not too far short of it in the following week's event.
All that may be missing is a return to something decent with the putter, as I particularly like the fact that he's among the most accurate players in the field from the tee. That may not have been all that advantageous at altitude in Kenya, where so many par-fours involved thrashing driver up towards the green, but it's long been an asset here in Austria. In fact, at fourth in the driving accuracy stats in 2020, Catlin split van Driel and Syme in the season-long standings, both having contended here.
Others like Dave Horsey, Richard McEvoy, Raphael Jacquelin, Robert Dinwiddie, Daniel Im, Simon Wakefield, Fabrizio Zanotti, Adrian Otaegui and Korhonen confirm that hitting fairways is really important at this course. In both 2017 and 2015, the top end of leaderboards were made up exclusively of accurate drivers and even with the forecast as it is, I expect it to prove a key pointer once again.
That's why I also like ASHLEY CHESTERS and while far from the most confident selection here, I do think he's the standout value in the field at 150/1.
Chesters can always be found towards the very top of the driving accuracy stats and was in fact first on the European Tour last season. It's an old-school way of doing things that he employs and if he isn't hitting fairways, which was the case towards the end of 2020 until he found improvement on his final start, then he isn't going to be a factor.
That's why his best form has come at places like Valderrama and this horses-for-courses player, who defied cold and wet conditions to finish 12th in the Open Championship as an amateur in 2015, surely has to be of interest given that he's been 28th and seventh in two starts at Diamond Country Club.
Significantly, on both occasions he arrived in questionable form. First in 2017 he'd missed back-to-back cuts but found comfort here to finish just inside the top 30, and then a year later he defied a run of five missed cuts in six starts, and nothing better than 20th all season, to take seventh. It was his best result of the year until he turned up at Valderrama and, suddenly, was competitive once more to finish fourth.
All of this tells us the venue is a good one, but what I really like is the way his game has improved through what might look like a quiet start to the year, generally at courses where he'll always find it hard to compete. That's certainly true in the Middle East, where he made two cuts in four, and he gave up lots of ground off the tee in Kenya where others could go on the attack but he could not.
The fact that he's ranked 14th, 10th and seventh in strokes-gained approach through his last three starts, one in Qatar and the other two in Kenya, suggests he is just waiting for a course where being in the fairway all day really does count. Diamond Country Club, under normal conditions, would be that course, and his ball-striking stats from two visits here prove it.
Providing the weather hasn't ruined things for him, and for us, he should play really well and perhaps threaten a European Tour breakthrough at a massive price.
Justin Walters is another maiden who should be some kind of factor, having been in good form for a while and taken a distant third in the Shot Clock Masters here. He will have sure taken encouragement from victories for van Tonder and namesake Justin Harding, and his performance at The Belfry last summer probably bodes quite well for his return to Diamond.
Walters also helps draw lines to other courses, notably The Dutch, where Ashun Wu completed a double having previously won here, and where Luiten had already done so. Given that The Dutch was only used for three editions of the KLM Open, and that the likes of Horsey, Walters, Chris Wood and Romain Wattel all contended at both, it's a very strong correlation.
I also like Gut Larchenhof, a German parkland course, as a guide to this. Again, we can see it through Walters as well as Korhonen, Jacquelin, Horsey, Dinwiddie, Luiten, Zanotti, Wiesberger, Wood, Nino Bertasio and Lee Slattery, and it's therefore a key part of the case for GONZALO FERNANDEZ-CASTANO.
Once a fairly prolific European Tour winner, including at The Belfry, Fernandez-Castano has been trying to get his career back on track having returned to Spain following several years in Florida. It has taken a while, but at last he's finding some consistency, enough to make 12 cuts in 16 starts since returning to action in July.
Fernandez-Castano had been out for longer than most and took some time to get going, but we're really beginning to see signs of encouragement now, his brilliant short-game as good as it ever was, and his approach play in particular taking off. In fact in three of his last six starts he's been inside the top four in strokes-gained approach, leading in Qatar and ranking second last time out in Nairobi.
To some extent, this is tied to errant driving, which absolutely has to be a worry while allowing for the kind of recovery shots which can make for flattering stats. That said, he looks very dangerous if able to keep the ball in play and having been 15th and 21st on his only two starts here, as well as third at Gut Larchenhof, perhaps a return to a classic, European parkland course will help him find some improvement off the tee.
The fact that he's won at Royal Park, where Luiten, Horsey, Wood, Jacquelin, Jbe Kruger and various other straight-hitting Diamond contenders have gone close, is another positive, and yes I like that he seems to have got better and better since turning 40 last year, and for having made the decision to move back home.
Given the way he's been hitting his irons, there's more to come from Gonzo and having carded four sub-70 rounds for 14th place in the Savannah Classic on his latest start, he's really interesting at the sort of course he certainly loved in his pomp.
Others at big odds who are worth a second glance include Lucas Bjerregaard, the massively talented Dane who was making headlines at the WGC Match Play before finishing 21st in the Masters and 16th in both the PGA Championship and the Open just two years ago.
His career has been badly derailed since, coach Sean Foley seemingly unable to find the answers, but on the face of it he drove it better than he has since that 2019 campaign when making the cut in Kenya last time.
I'm just wary of the fact it was possible to embellish numbers by driving a couple of greens there, his accuracy stats still poor, and given that his game fell off a cliff when he first became a dad, it's difficult to count the arrival of baby number two as a positive.
Dave Coupland is an accurate driver who was 11th here when out of form on the Challenge Tour in 2015, and along with compatriot Dale Whitnell is respected, but I'll finish off by taking a flier on capable youngster LORENZO SCALISE.
This 25-year-old looks to be finding his feet on the European Tour and has made his last six cuts at this level, including when opening 65-68 to lie seventh at halfway in the Golf in Dubai Championship just three starts back.
Forced to wait more than three months to kick off his 2021 season, he showed signs of encouragement in the Kenya Open, then stepped up to finish 30th in the Savannah Classic, three dropped shots over the closing few holes taking just some of the gloss off another decent week.
Now back to continental Europe, he's one of those looking to kick on and Diamond CC is a good place to do that, as he has experience here from the European Amateur Team Championship. Scalise finished second in the solo section four years ago and while you might not think that counts for much at all, note that Syme — whose professional form here reads second and fourth — was close behind.
In fact there are quite a few good examples of players returning to the scene of some form of amateur success and producing once more. Just last summer, Joel Stalter won a European Tour event here in Austria at the same course where he'd landed an amateur title, and both Alex Levy and the aforementioned Bjerregaard played in the European Amateur Team Championship at Oceanico Victoria, where they've both since won the Portugal Masters as professionals.
Scalise started well here last summer and can be forgiven for going backwards, players at the time arriving with varying degrees of sharpness. Generally accurate off the tee and with top-30 finishes in three of his last four starts, the difference between another of those and sneaking into the frame may well be how well he knows and appears to like this course, and at odds of around the 250/1 mark that will do for me.
Finally, don't underestimate the significance of Hideki Matsuyama's victory in the Masters and what it might do for his fellow Japanese players, including Masahiro Kawamura. He's been a fairly persistent threat over the last year, often at tree-lined courses such as Karen and Valderrama, and was in contention on his latest start.
Posted at 1900 BST on 12/04/21
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