Golf expert Ben Coley returns from a break with selections ranging from 80/1 to 300/1 for the Scottish Open.
- For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, click here
You may have read something similar before: winners of Rolex Series events, like this week's Scottish Open, have to a man been proven at this level by virtue of their respective trophy cabinets. Most if not all of the nine will play Ryder Cup golf in September. Above all else, this has been and will likely remain the most effective filter when attempting to predict the next, and the next, and the next to land one of these illustrious prizes.
The strength of this week's ensemble in East Lothian appears to further the likelihood that you're asked to read a paragraph like the above come the next in the series, but if there are circumstances which can both literally and figuratively blow the game wide open, they are to be found under the links conditions which make up this fabulous summer swing around the UK and Ireland.
Last week, Ryan Fox was the victim of a remarkable sequence of events, but for which he'd have become the first player to make a Rolex Series title his first on the European Tour. The 54-hole leader in Ireland, Erik van Rooyen, would also have been breaking new ground had he not succumbed to a bout of the Sunday blues so while Russell Knox's victory was one for the form book, there was so nearly an upset.
SKY BET BEN COLEY SCOTTISH OPEN SPECIALS
20/1 Any one of Ben's selections wins the tournament
14/1 All of his tips make the cut
3/1 Any player finishes in the top five (including ties)
6/5 Any player top ten (including ties)
Click here for more specials
And last year, in this very event, Callum Shinkwin was also unfortunate - even if, like Fox only to a greater degree, he had himself to blame for turning first into second. Shinkwin, another talented maiden sent off at a big price, needed five at the last but took six, opening himself up to Rafa Cabrera Bello's eagle-shaped killer blow. As with Ballyliffin, Dundonald almost unearthed our first real shock since the Rolex Series was launched last May.
One counter argument is the roll of honour in this event. Since switching from the parkland Loch Lomond to the links of Castle Stuart in 2011, six of the seven champions have been out of the top drawer and the other, Jeev Milkha Singh, had won three previous European Tour titles including in elite company. Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose are all on the honours' board and all are towards the top of a market littered with world-class players.
Still, I am keen to exploit the idea that a shock winner is more plausible here than it might be at, say, Wentworth or in Turkey later in the season. The Open Championship is just a week away now and while its proximity won't stop all of the elite players here, it will see some lose focus on this title over the weekend and with seven or eight places on offer, each-way speculation looks the way to go.
First on my list is Mikko Ilonen, available at 150/1 generally.
The Finn is a distinguished, experienced links player, so it was no great surprise to see him rank third for greens hit on his way to 19th place in last week's Irish Open, an effort he can build on here.
Ilonen's love for links golf can be traced right back to his junior days and by the time he was competing in the top amateur events, he was among the best equipped for the challenge of golf at its most pure. The skills he'd honed in the cool, windy conditions of home saw him win the West of Ireland Amateur in 1999, before he added his named to an illustrious roll of honour by landing the Amateur Championship at Royal Liverpool the following summer.
As a professional, some of Ilonen's standout performances have come on links courses, including ninth at Lytham and 16th back at Hoylake in the Open Championship, while his second place at the Qatar Masters is another piece of his links jigsaw. That runner-up finish came at the expense of Sergio Garcia in an event won by many of the best links players in modern golf, such as Adam Scott, Ernie Els and Paul Lawrie.
Here in the Scottish Open, he's bagged top-20 finishes at Castle Stuart and Royal Aberdeen recently while last year at Dundonald he shot to the top of the leaderboard on day one, despite arriving completely out of form and with a brand new set of clubs in the bag.
"I enjoy (links golf) very much," he confirmed at the time.
"Last week was fantastic and The Open coming up next week, I'm not in for that yet, but it's always been one of my favourite tournaments. I just think the Irish Open, the Scottish Open, should definitely be on links courses, every year.
"I've played links golf when I was a kid. As an amateur we played, and I won the Amateur back in the days; there's some experience in there.
"I've had a couple of good Opens in the past. I've played a fair amount of links golf. I know what to expect."
Ilonen's last two victories have come in the UK and Ireland and while not at his peak currently, last week's effort plus an earlier third place under tough conditions in Morocco confirm that now is a good time to back a player whose best form has come when the elements have played a part.
Another reason to think Ilonen's prospects here at Gullane might be stronger than some expect is his record at Kennemer, where he shot 62 and 64 on his last visit for 18th place and also finished 11th in 2014.
That regular host of the KLM Open is a masterpiece, a British links in the Netherlands, and ties between it and Gullane were hinted at when Fowler won here in 2015. In behind the American where Joost Luiten and Eddie Pepperell, who between them have been first, second, fourth and fifth at Kennemer, while surprise Scottish Open contender Raphael Jacquelin also boasts a solid KLM Open record.
A little further back in seventh was former Kennemer champion Ross Fisher while Marc Warren was one of several others to tie the knot with a top-five, and it's the Scot who looks worth sticking with at 200/1.
Warren hasn't been at his best this year either, which explains the price, but this class act has the habit of coming alive under two distinct sets of circumstances: firstly, when his card is in jeopardy and he needs a big cheque and secondly, whenever he's playing close to home.
A former winner at Gleneagles, Warren has been fourth and fifth in the Dunhill Links, the former on his last start in Scotland, while in addition to fourth place here he's been third at Castle Stuart and Royal Aberdeen, on both occasions in contention until the very end.
In total, he's made 44 starts in Scotland at Challenge or European Tour level and to go with that win in the Johnnie Walker Championship, he also has seven further top-five finishes. More recently, his form figures since 2014 read 3-25-4-40-4-38-62-MC-9-5-MC-4 - that's six top-10 finishes in 12 starts, all bar one a full place.
Beyond his performances at home, Warren has always shown a preference for exposed, breezy conditions, which is why his other two European Tour titles have been in Denmark and Sweden, and victories in scores ranging from nine- to 12-under underline that Gullane could be ideal - Fowler's victory having come in 12-under par.
Another with strong form in Qatar to complement all of the above, Warren is far more likely to hit the frame that his price implies even if there's an obvious risk that he bombs out completely. That he made the cut and bagged some links prep in Ireland is a positive and he's hard to leave out.
Going back to the top of the preview, there are of course a handful of players who would be surprise winners in terms of price, but who would by no means be outliers when it comes to the Rolex Series and its predisposition to a top-class champ.
Two examples are Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, and both go in the staking plan.
Harrington needs little introduction when it comes to links credentials. This two-time Open champion has also won the Dunhill Links twice and there can be little debate when he says his game goes up a couple of notches under such conditions.
Last week, he made a bright start in Ireland only to drop from second place after round one to missing the cut, but as one of the sport's eternal optimists seems more likely to draw upon the positives of Thursday.
"I’m looking forward to playing this week for a number of reasons," he'd said beforehand.
"I’m excited about being back playing links golf, the course is in great shape and is a super layout and I feel that my game is not far away. I can see a lot of good signs in my game at the moment, I just need to put them all together."
While Harrington's positivity never dimmed even during his worst stretches, we shouldn't dismiss what he says and it's notable that he's been starting well for a little while now - in fact, his first-round positions read a progressive 23-9-2 and he was also 17th at halfway in the Travelers Championship.
That suggests he really isn't far away and bears definite similarities to this time last year, when he arrived in Scotland having started well (26-6-23) in each of his previous three starts only to drop down the leaderboard. Harrington went on to finish fourth despite a third-round 79 and would add another top-five finish in Turkey later in the season, another Rolex Series event.
Harrington has won and twice finished inside the top five over the course of his last 20 European Tour starts and remains one to watch closely at three-figure prices when returning from the United States.
He's shown with low-key victories in Ireland prior to each of his Open wins that he values a winning links prep ahead of the season's third major and more recently he's made this event a staple since it was moved to links courses, making six cuts in seven with five top-30 finishes, and starting 68-68 here in 2015.
And finally, the man himself reckons he's value.
"To put me out there at 66/1 on a links golf course was strange (on bookmakers') part, at home in my home country. My performances always go up when it comes to a links course."
Those comments were made last week ahead of his debut in Donegal. After a missed cut, he's more than doubled in price despite having some positive experience of Gullane and while there are abundant risks - as with all of my selections this week - the upside is a massive price about a player clearly capable of winning this.
McDowell meanwhile has been playing some solid golf lately and, of those named vice captains to Thomas Bjorn, appears to be among the more likely to make a late run at the Ryder Cup side - particularly given two previous wins at Le Golf National.
He was 12th at Wentworth and fifth in Italy prior to a couple of missed cuts in the US, but since returning to Europe has finished 37th in France and 40th in Ireland last week, when he arrived having withdrawn from final Open qualifying after his clubs were lost in transit.
McDowell was frustrated throughout his national open and also told reporters that he was struggling to find the required energy for a difficult course, having been busily pursuing a place in the field at Carnoustie. That's a concern, the biggest negative as regards his prospects, but one of the toughest grinders on the circuit is capable of finding the necessary reserves having decided to play in Scotland, where there are Open places up for grabs.
The former US Open champion was second at halfway here in 2015 to show an affinity for the course and, 10 years on from his success in the event, there would be a degree of poignancy to victory should he qualify for Carnoustie in style.
With top-20 finishes at Castle Stuart and Dundonald and having led at the former entering the final round in 2011, his links credentials are also clear and it's that alongside the quality of his recent European Tour performances which makes the case.
That said, I must admit I'm drawn to the idea that he'll be ultra determined to make up for last week's debacle. Players like Harrington and McDowell are at their best when the heat is on and for the latter, having an extra incentive might be enough to overcome fatigue and spark a return to winning form.
Given the approach this week, the shortlist was especially long and includes three young South Africans, none of whom quite make enough appeal.
Christiaan Bezhuidenhout first crept onto the radar at the Dunhill Links and has bags of talent. He's had six top-30 finishes in 11 starts outside of South Africa this year, including in Ireland, and having sneaked into the field is one who could surprise a few at some stage.
We saw Zander Lombard do exactly that last week with an out-of-the-blue top-10 finish, and this former Amateur Championship runner-up could well build on it. The closest he's come to winning on the European Tour was by the coast in Sicily and, clearly, he's spent plenty of his youth honing those bullet two-irons.
And then there's Dean Burmester, whose links credentials are less obvious. He's simply playing out of skin and looks the type to go very close in Europe soon, having built up huge confidence with a run of cuts made which started at Wentworth and includes a more than respectable US Open debut.
All three are considered along with compatriot Richard Sterne, who appeals as a more solid option.
In 13 starts this year, he's made 12 cuts and 31st in France and 37th in Ireland provide a nice platform for a return to Scotland, where he's long been effective.
Sterne was 19th in this event last year and 13th in 2016, in between which he added second place at the Dunhill Links to a record which already included a pair of previous sixths.
He's also been 34th at Turnberry, 21st at Muirfield and 46th at Troon in the Open and with health issues hopefully now behind him, it's possible that he could step up a level at Gullane, the concern being that he struggles to turn solid weeks into spectacular ones.
Those looking to expand upon the potential Kennemer link should consider Eddie Pepperell, who won in Qatar earlier this year but appears out of form now, Fabrizio Zanotti and a returning-to-form Thomas Pieters, who won there in 2015.
England's Matthew Southgate is tempting considering his links credentials, especially having been fifth two weeks ago, but completing my staking plan are compatriots Oliver Fisher and Ashley Chesters.
Fisher has been 11th, ninth and 36th in his last three Kennemer starts, where he also shot 65 on his debut way back in 2007.
His form in Scotland includes fourth in the Paul Lawrie Match Play and seventh in the Dunhill Links, and right back to the start of his career there are positive signs as he kicked off with 19th and ninth at Loch Lomond and Gleneagles respectively.
A former winner of the St Andrews Trophy, he was also second in Qatar earlier this year which strikes me as particularly relevant form.
More recently, he's been 21st in Italy and 28th in Ireland and not much more is needed on those efforts for this hugely talented 29-year-old to force his way inside the top 10.
Chesters meanwhile is an arrow-straight hitter who is scrambling really well - the latter was key to Fowler's success here and might be the most relevant stat to study, hence the inclusion of McDowell and Harrington.
A run of form which reads seventh in Austria, 63rd in Germany, 21st in France and 14th Ireland suggests that Chesters is getting comfortable on the European Tour and his 12th place in the 2015 Open Championship at St Andrews is form which points towards his prospects here.
Chesters turned pro after impressing at Royal Lytham for the GB & Ireland Walker Cup side and can showcase his links skills once more.
Posted at 1310 BST on 10/07/18.