Golf expert Ben Coley previews the ISPS Handa Vic Open, where England's Aaron Rai looks set to contend for a second European Tour title.
I've probably done enough twitter patter to avoid highlighting here the starkness of the contrast from last week to this, as the European Tour swaps Saudi Arabia for Australia; from pandering to the wrong type of crowd to pioneering the right type of event.
Let's look forward, rather than back, with the ISPS Handa Vic Open offering the chance for men and women to tee it up on the same courses, in front of the same crowds, for the same prize money. For bringing this event to a wider audience, the European Tour and the LPGA Tour deserve great credit and it's to be hoped that they're rewarded with four days of golf worthy of their spectacular surroundings just outside of Melbourne.
To avoid confusion, let's make clear that there are two events here - one for men, one for women - but they will play in alternate groups, firstly across two golf courses before the top 60 and ties in each event play 36 holes at the host Beach Course, with its sister Creek layout used only on Thursday and Friday. Come Sunday, then, the final group in the women's event will tee off just before the final group in the men's event; as best they can, the events run concurrently.
It ought not to affect the dynamics of each event, really. Essentially, we're looking at a format common in tournaments like the Joburg Open or, more recently, the Farmers Insurance Open on the PGA Tour. Playing two courses over the first two days is ever so slightly less familiar to European Tour regulars than it would be to a PGA Tour player, but it's not totally alien and, clearly, the layouts in question share many similarities. They're by the coast, albeit Creek is more inland, and should resemble seaside versions of The Metropolitan, Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath.
So while this is not just another golf tournament - and there are sure to be interesting conversations had about each individual event throughout the week, particularly relating to the absence of so many LPGA stars - for the purposes of a betting preview, it should be approached like one. That means we must take on board all the usual considerations, including the paucity of relevant course form and the significant drop in grade from the Middle East, and it's the latter which might give us the best starting point.
This time last year, Shubhankar Sharma won the Maybank Championship Malaysia having seemingly started the year in mediocre form, struggling to compete in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The same thing happened in 2017, Fabrizio Zanotti running up three missed cuts in the gulf before striking Malaysia, and it also happened in 2016, when Marcus Fraser found comfort in the same country for largely the same reasons.
We may not be in Malaysia, but the contrast from desert golf on big-hitter courses in the Middle East to the far subtler style here by the coast in Australia is likely to be no less significant, and it's with this theme very much in mind that Aaron Rai gets the headline vote.
Rai has by no means disgraced himself so far this year, finishing 54th in Abu Dhabi, 29th in Dubai and 34th in Saudi Arabia, but his accurate game should be far better suited to the likely challenge this week.
That game remains in the sort of nick which saw him really impress in winning the Hong Kong Open at Fanling, by no means a shock victory for one of the most promising young golfers on the European Tour, one whose rise through the ranks has been rapid and has not finished yet.
Victory in Hong Kong was once again built around his strong iron play and having hit 77.8 per cent of greens there for seventh place in the GIR rankings, it's telling that he's remained consistently around those numbers while continuing to find fairways throughout the first month of the year, on courses which offer less reward for the way he does it.
There's every reason to believe that Rai will kick on again in 2019 and a low-grade event in Australia, where his accuracy now counts for something, represents a fantastic opportunity for one of the biggest talents in the field.
It's no coincidence that Australian players have dominated in Hong Kong in recent years, that is until Rai put an end to it, as Fanling plays very much like a sandbelt course. The way Rai strategically took it apart before fending off the top-class Matt Fitzpatrick is particularly encouraging with this week in mind.
With victories in Spain, Kenya, Hong Kong and France already on the CV, Rai looks a strong candidate and he's entitled to be vying for favouritism - hence the chunky bet in an event which on the face of it encourages a cautious approach.
Adrian Otaegui also brings a touch of class to proceedings and I'm surprised he's not a good deal shorter after appearing to come to the boil nicely last week.
The Spaniard stepped up on a pair of missed cuts to begin the year with four sub-70 rounds and they came courtesy of his strengths, which are not dissimilar to Rai's: finding fairways, hitting greens and taking chances when they come.
With Dustin Johnson beating Hao-tong Li, Tom Lewis, Ryan Fox, Scott Hend and various other powerhouses, it's clear that the first edition of the Saudi event heavily favoured the big-hitters so it's encouraging that Otaegui just about kept on their heels and increased his birdie count as the week progressed.
This drop in grade and return to courses more likely to offer a level playing field must give him an excellent chance to add to two victories in Europe and the only real concern would be that he's not as yet shown much of a liking for golf in Australia.
Then again, he's had very few chances and did sit fifth after round one of the Australian PGA late last year, so having ranked third for greens and fifth for accuracy last week, he should have no excuses this time.
Next, I can't resist the 66/1 on offer about Callum Shinkwin, who did incredibly well to win a pair of competitive qualifiers to earn two starts in the Middle East and went on to play nicely in far stronger fields than this one.
There's a slight caveat in that he would be a player well suited to Middle Eastern golf, but it was in fact on the links turf of Dundonald that he should have won a high-class Rolex Series event in the summer of 2017, before losing a play-off to Rafa Cabrera Bello.
Shinkwin had previously been eighth in the same event and has another pair of top-10 finishes in strong European Tour events, the Italian Open and Open de France, which confirm that he has the ability to compete at higher levels than this one.
Form in the Trophee Hassan, where he's been on the fringes twice in three years, also offers some encouragement as to the suitability of this particular challenge and the 25-year-old really could be a cut above this grade when it all clicks.
The confidence he'll have taken from the formative stages of 2019 could be the difference and he's well worth having on-side.
So far there's been no mention of the home contingent, but that's because while strong in number, a large portion of them are likely to be outclassed - even with the very best of the European Tour understandably turning down this opportunity.
Clearly, there's a decent chance that the rock-solid Jason Scrivener makes his breakthrough, while birdie machine Lucas Herbert will be all the more eager to make positive headlines having come under scrutiny for a rules infraction when contending in Dubai.
Of the two, Herbert would be preferred with a reproduction of his seventh to Bryson DeChambeau likely to be more than good enough, but taking prices less than 20/1 about a player yet to win a professional event is not typically the wisest move and he's left alone for that reason.
Instead, the talented Jordan Zunic can prove himself capable of contending in this grade and lead the Aussie challenge.
Zunic should've won the Australian PGA Championship in 2017, missing out in a play-off to the world-class Cameron Smith, and it knocked the stuffing out of him for quite some time.
However, he bounced back towards the end of 2018, winning his third title in Queensland before solid efforts in the Australian Open and PGA, particularly the former where he somehow made the cut after a round-the-world journey and nightmare first round.
This is his first competitive start since and there's a slight concern he'll be rusty, but seventh place in last year's Vic Open means he brings course form to the table and he's worth chancing at a three-figure price.
It was in this event that Zunic made his professional debut four years ago and it would be a fitting venue for the next step in what remains a promising career.
Connor Syme won the Australian Amateur Championship in Melbourne and could spring into life now returning to Australia, while Josh Younger is a big price considering some solid course form, even if he looks the archetypal journeyman who would be a surprising champion.
Adam Bland has three top-six finishes in his last five starts in the event to go with experience rubbing shoulders with similar opposition on the European Tour last year, while the straight, steady Ricardo Gouveia would look a threat if returning in the form which saw him end 2018 so strongly.
However, I'll sign off with Kim Koivu, who has something about him and is worth a bet in this company at 100/1.
The Finn was late to golf and didn't turn professional until the end of 2017, when handed an invite to make his paid debut in the Australian PGA Championship. He did well in the circumstances to make the cut and said last year that he's particularly looking forward to a return Down Under.
He arrives with a mixed bag form-wise, summed up by rounds of 80 and 65 last week, but prior to that he'd sat 10th after each of the first two rounds in the Dubai Desert Classic while late last year he was on the fringes of contention in South Africa, Hong Kong and Portugal.
Ultimately, he's shown flashes of real promise since earning battlefield promotion from the Challenge Tour and with a one-in-ten strike-rate since turning professional, or thereabouts, it's clear that he knows what it takes to win.
Granted, he's got to go and do it at European Tour level and not every player completes the transition, but this is a weak field and his winning habit would be worth its weight in gold should he work his way into contention.
Posted at 1915 GMT on 04/02/19