Ben Coley has tipped European Tour winners at 60/1, 66/1 and 45/1 over the last five events, so don't miss his selections for the British Masters.
2pts e.w. Rasmus Hojgaard at 25/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
2pts e.w. Matthias Schwab at 30/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. J.B. Hansen at 50/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Eddie Pepperell at 50/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Richie Ramsay at 100/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
0.5pt e.w. Edoardo Molinari at 250/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
While the PGA Tour has been learning to speak Italian between pilates sessions, hilarious Zoom quizzes and online shopping, the European Tour has had to scrap through this pandemic like the parent of a five-year-old whose class keeps getting sent home because of sniffling Simon. Translated, this means new events in new territories, no sign of its biggest stars, and an acceptance that the standard of the course cannot really be a factor in selecting where to play.
But there have been small mercies, and one of them is how much golf has taken place in the United Kingdom. At a time when collaboration with the PGA Tour has been necessary to stay afloat, and to fend off oil-rich competition from the Middle East, it's perhaps all the more important that the European Tour remembers where it came from. The cold, wet midlands will take care of that when the British Masters gets under way at The Belfry on Wednesday morning.
The Brabazon course is iconic because of what has happened here: Christy O'Connor Jnr, Paul McGinley, four Ryder Cups and plenty more drama besides. You'll still do well to remember many holes bar the 10th and 18th, and that's fine — as I was reminded when one Sky Sports commentator labelled Quail Hollow one of the very best courses in America, sometimes memories are enough to kid us along. Any tournament at The Belfry has them as its bedrock, and a return to this penal, parkland layout, complemented by a pretty miserable forecast, is most welcome.
Contrast can be everything in this sport, and here it will be stark. Three weeks in the Canary Islands saw two South Africans find comfort in their surrounds and dominate, removing drama by the time of the back-nine. All those who contended were able to reach for driver upon driver, seldom with any real threat of punishment in a test of who could keep churning through low rounds. At the Brabazon, expect something more in keeping with the Austrian Open, where precision and patience were the most valuable attributes.
The same was certainly true here in August, when Rasmus Hojgaard defied a slow start to catch Justin Walters and then beat him in a play-off. Martin Kaymer ought to have been in that play-off at worst, only to make a mess of the par-five 17th, and the fact he was in the mix in Austria a few weeks ago confirms where the best recent form guide can be found.
After a three-week run of drive, chip and putt, this will be a through-the-bag test where the best iron players thrive, just as Hojgaard, Kaymer, and fourth-placed Benjamin Hebert did in what was the UK Championship. The leaderboard there was littered with players high up in strokes-gained approach, and those who set up a platform from the tee and get their second shots dialled in will surely dominate once more.
With that in mind, MATTHIAS SCHWAB is put forward to land his first European Tour title.
The Austrian, who will have no issue whatsoever with the cool conditions which are guaranteed, is one of the very best iron players on the circuit and we've seen that lately, as he's ranked eighth or better in strokes-gained approach on four of his last five starts.
The one occasion he failed to actually came on home soil, but stats from the Austrian Open are likely way off and there can be absolutely no doubt that his long-game is purring once more. Seventh place there was one of three top-10 finishes in succession and there wasn't much wrong with 33rd on his sole subsequent start in Tenerife, either.
One week earlier, Schwab was admittedly disappointing in contention in the Gran Canaria Open, firing a final-round 70 which ensured he was left behind. Still, the lights-out scoring of that event, and the only one he's played in since, was never likely to bring out the very best in this fairways-and-greens type who can struggle with putter in hand.
Now presented with a more demanding test, he can step up on last year's mid-pack finish on his Belfry debut. Back then, he was making his first European Tour start since the spring having been out in America playing on invites, and this disjointed schedule probably explains why he generally struggled. There was nevertheless enough in his final-round 68 here, bogey-free, to suggest the Brabazon will suit.
It certainly should. Schwab has been at his best on parkland courses, including when going close in Germany, and his game ties in very neatly with Kaymer and Hojgaard. Last season, despite failing to register a single top-10 finish on the European Tour, he ranked sixth in strokes-gained approach, not far behind second-placed Kaymer. So far in 2021, he sits in 15th, with Kaymer eighth and Hojgaard ninth.
Yet to miss a cut in England and with huge potential to climb back into the world's top 100 and beyond, Schwab should threaten the places if he turns up in the form he's shown throughout the last month or so. And in a tournament which doesn't have the depth its title might suggest, given its place in the calendar, he's well capable of securing an overdue breakthrough.
Robert MacIntyre is respected but looks underpriced. He's the top-ranked player in the field and was 12th in the Masters, but his iron play is in and out and I would rather back Kaymer, who was third at 25/1 in August, has gone close on a number of occasions subsequently, and whose class should not be forgotten.
He's the final name off the shortlist but at a bigger price I'm inclined to side with RASMUS HOJGAARD, who along with Sam Horsfield has done more winning than those further up the betting and is probably entitled to a little more respect.
While Horsfield might prefer an easier assignment, Hojgaard defied breezy conditions to win in Mauritius early on last season before doubling up here courtesy of a dazzling weekend and is better equipped to avoid mistakes, which is what he did over the closing 36 holes to deny Walters.
Just two bogeys during the final two rounds, both at the difficult 12th, helped Hojgaard recover from a slow start which saw him lie in 67th and trail the South African by fully nine strokes. From Friday onwards he was sensational, shooting 15-under, fully six shots better than anyone else, and all thanks to an imperious display of ball-striking.
Of course, Hojgaard was in red-hot form at the time, and it's his patchy returns in 2021 which have helped hold up the price. However, look closer and you'll see that he has two top-10s in high-class Middle East events, with his form on the European Tour reading a very solid 25-9-6-MC-12.
Last time he played out here, the 20-year-old ranked second in stroke-gained approach to finish 12th in Austria (taken with a pinch of salt, but believable), again despite a slow start, and since then his only appearance came in the Valspar Championship on the PGA Tour. There, Hojgaard emerged with great credit, again hitting it really well and missing the cut by just one shot after a second-round 69.
While playing in the USA remains new and something he has to adapt to, back at this level he looks just about as likely as anyone to deliver. Throw in the fact that he's the man who won here last time but does not carry the burden of defending — he won the UK Championship; this is the British Masters — and he can stay under the radar while host Danny Willett deals with most of the attention, along with MacIntyre.
Willett has to be respected having contended when dipping in grade on the PGA Tour, but he was poor here last year and his long-game isn't quite where he may need it to be. Instead, I'm keen to get another Scandinavian on-side with conditions likely to suit, and it's J.B. HANSEN who gets the vote.
It's of course tempting to side with a back-to-form Thorbjorn Olesen, who would've been favourite or thereabouts for this back in 2018 and may be returning to that sort of level, but he might have been just a little flattered by his form in those Canary Islands shootouts.
By contrast, Hansen played well in a couple of them while suggesting that he can improve for a stiffer tee-to-green test. That's what he did when 25th on his debut here last year, when 11th through 54 holes, and he was in the mix in Qatar earlier this year where Antoine Rozner won in eight-under par.
Also seventh at Wentworth and a runner-up in the Open de France back in 2019, Hansen's quality long-game should ensure that something less than a total shootout is best form him and that's why I take a really positive view of seventh and 22nd on his latest two starts, during which he ranked 13th and 12th with his approaches.
Back in Qatar he was fourth in the same department, leading the field in greens hit, and if his iron play continues to fire then this prolific Challenge Tour winner can add to his European Tour breakthrough, which came at Wilco Nienaber's expense in South Africa and showcased his improved short-game and temperament.
He looks to be in similar form now and having been third in a Scottish Open, second elsewhere in Scotland, won in Denmark and been second in Sweden, as well as that effort in Paris during a cold and wet October, Hansen looks to have plenty in his favour.
Andy Sullivan is very close to the sort of price where he has to be a bet in these events and is one for the shortlist along with Maverick Antcliff, the Aussie whose ball-striking is outstanding. Antcliff's contending effort at Galgorm Castle last year, in an event won by tough-course-specialising John Catlin, could be relevant and he didn't miss the cut by far on his Belfry debut.
That said this is a step up in grade and the proven credentials of former British Masters champion EDDIE PEPPERELL are preferred.
Pepperell's victory in this came at Walton Heath, where he defied difficult conditions, and he was runner-up when defending at Hillside. Last summer he sat 14th through 54 holes before a poor finish at Close House and his record in this tournament is really solid.
That's also true of his form close to home. Pepperell once lost an Irish Open play-off at Royal County Down, was sixth at Wentworth as a rookie, finished sixth there again last year, and took fourth place in one of just three starts in the Wales Open at Celtic Manor.
Better yet is his form in Scotland, where he was runner-up at Gullane and then placed in the Open Championship at Carnoustie, so returning home from the Canary Islands ought to be a big positive for a player who was in contention against the best in the world at Sawgrass just a couple of seasons ago.
It's fairly well-documented that he's struggled for form lately, but he looks to have found something over the last couple of weeks, perhaps helped by having his girlfriend on the bag. In particular, I was taken with 12th place on Sunday, his long-game looking good, and only one player in the field bettered him in strokes-gained approach.
Quality iron play has always been key to Pepperell's success — he generally struggles off the tee — and when it clicked at Wentworth last autumn, he backed it up the following week in Scotland. If he does something similar, 50/1 generally and the standout 66/1 will look very good business, especially as he went off around the latter price for a BMW PGA that was won by Tyrrell Hatton.
Jordan Smith is another quality ball-striker who has a good record in this while Richard Mansell is a player I've written about several times now, and who I really rate. Fittingly for one so-named, there are few better drivers on the circuit, and he's capable of taking a slightly easier opportunity should it arise later this year.
For my final selections, however, I'm siding with proven European Tour winners. The British Masters remains a big deal, despite this year's so-so turnout, and while my headline selection is yet to get it done, he has contended in a World Golf Championship, in Rolex Series events, and on the PGA Tour. It's very hard to see a rookie or someone finding their feet at this level fending off a likely strong chasing pack come Sunday.
On the other hand I wouldn't be at all surprised were RICHIE RAMSAY to win and he looks the pick of the realistic outsiders.
As with several of my team, Ramsay played well and got in the mix in Tenerife, despite conditions being against him. This former US Amateur champion is much better suited to courses where there is punishment off the tee and where his neat, tidy, accurate game can compete. Faced with a bombs-away course like the ones we've witnessed over the last three weeks, he's always on the back foot.
That's what makes three top-30 finishes read like really strong form and Ramsay, who defied a slow start to finish a decent 31st here last year despite putting poorly, can step up markedly now back in the UK.
"It does feel close because I feel like I’m playing really well and I believe fully in the process I’m going through, the process of doing the right gym work, the stretching in the morning, making sure I’m getting enough rest, making sure I eat well," he said last Friday, as he sat in third place.
"My whole thing is just trying to stay in contention on Sunday because I love that. That’s where you get the buzz and the adrenaline, and that’s where you feel like ‘this is my chance to open the door and get number four’."
Go through his record and the Scot has been a regular contender on home soil, narrowly missing out in the Dunhill Links a few years ago and also finishing sixth in the Scottish Open, which was enough to qualify for the Open Championship a week later.
This side of the border he's got a couple of Wentworth top-10 finishes and his run of cuts made in England currently stands at a dozen starts, two of which were top-10s in the British Masters.
In fact Ramsay was never worse than 38th in the five events which made up the 2020 UK Swing, two of which were played under far easier scoring conditions, and I am certain he will benefit from the contrast from last week to this.
With his approach play firing — third two weeks ago, ninth a week before that, and good in Kenya where he was in the mix at halfway — this proven winner is well worth supporting each-way, particularly with such generous place terms on offer with several firms.
Finally, EDOARDO MOLINARI isn't without hope if this is a proper grind.
Twice a winner in Scotland, all three of Molinari's European Tour wins have come under tough conditions, with winning scores in the nine- to 12-under range. He also won in five- and six-under on the Challenge Tour and 13-under in the Dunlop Phoenix, hardly surprising given the way he goes about things.
The obvious negative is that he's missed the cut on both starts here, but the first was in 2008, when he was missing cuts everywhere, and he was actually on course to make the weekend before a 6-6 finish last August. Had he done so, perhaps he'd have been a little shorter in the market having hit the ball really, really well the last fortnight, finishing 28th and 45th because of some terrible putting stats.
He'll have to leave those behind, but ranking 14th and fourth from tee-to-green tells us his long-game has clicked and that makes him somewhat dangerous, just as was the case when he built on an eye-catching Indian Open display to win the Trophee Hassan in 2017.
With plenty in his favour and on a course which will properly reward his accuracy, Molinari senior might just play his way into the mix. If the putter behaves, he can stick around.
Posted at 1700 BST on 10/05/21
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