Matt Cooper

Across the Pond

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European Tour: Five Questions

Sunday, December 31, 2017


 
A New Year prompts questions. The answers might not be quite so forthcoming, but it's always fun to play around with numbers, flick through the form books and delve into the database, with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie close at hand.
 
In that spirit of festively-fuelled forensic analysis, let's take a look at a few European Tour issues worth considering outside of the top echelons of the Race to Dubai.
 
 
Have the young English found the missing links?
 
A feature of recent seasons is that young Englishmen are not only thriving, but doing so on linksland. Tommy Fleetwood, for example, has always excelled in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship (six top 25 finishes) and Tyrrell Hatton has eight finishes of T11 or better by the sea (including back-to-back Dunhill Links wins).
 
They're far from alone. Another three English twentysomethings have impressed over the last few years and, as they seek to confirm that promise with a win, they might all fancy doing so on the linksland.
 
Just 53 starts into his European Tour career Callum Shinkwin has played very little of it by the seaside, but when he's done enough to suggest he likes it there. He owns four top ten finishes at this level and two have been on the links (Castle Stuart and Dundonald Links) whilst a third was at the links-like Le Golf National.
 
Matthew Southgate gave notice of his links credentials as an amateur (Links Trophy winner on the Old Course), as a minor tour pro (winning at Royal St Georges) and even during his, mostly struggling, early years on the European Tour (T2 at halfway in the 2013 Scottish Open). He's proved himself a fine performer after a breakthrough fourth in the 2016 Irish Open which was not on links, but T12 and T6 The Open, then T2 in the Irish Open, were. Moreover, he's on record as saying he loves the imagination required by this form of the game (and enjoys playing in front of big crowds). 
 
Eddie Pepperell is both the most experienced of the trio and has also proved himself with top ten finishes on a wide variety of courses, including six in his last nine starts of 2017, but he also gets the job done by the sea. If you count Kennemer in the Netherlands as a link course (and I do) he has six top 12 finishes in 14 starts and on a seventh he very briefly led the field (in the third round of the 2015 Open).
 
A win might be a step too far, but maybe a bold English big for the Claret Jug is due in July?
 
 
Does it matter where and when you thrive?
 
Yes and, of course, it's always been that way: Better to play well every year at the Scottish, rather than Tshwane, Open. But the Rolex Series has undoubtedly exaggerated this factor. Consider these two records from last season:
 
Player A best finishes: 4-5-6-12-13-13-23-23-25 (26 starts, 9 MCs) 
 
Player B best finishes: 3-3-6-13-13-19-20-22-25 (30 starts, 12 MCs) 
 
Both had nine top 25s and they are remarkably similar when placed together, but guess what? Player A finished the year ranked 102nd on the Race to Dubai, needing the Access List to retain his card. Player B? Ended the season cashing in at the DP World Tour Championship and was ultimately 49th at year's end. 
 
Player A was James Morrison, who admitted that he played the Rolex Series poorly (in fact he missed the cut at all of them). In contrast Player B (Matthieu Pavon) was third in the Open de France, a huge boost to the coffers.
 
Why does this matter to fantasy gamers? Because in the official European Tour game we're in the same boat: the big money weeks matter.
 
 
Is paternal pride pertinent?
 
Popular Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera has turned his career around in recent times. His first three seasons on the European Tour in 2008-2010 reaped not one top 100 end-of-season ranking. But having graduated from the Challenge Tour in 2014 he has notched three consecutive seasons inside that mark, peaking at 35th last year. 
 
He now makes 71% of cuts (compared to 42% pre-2015) and lands a top ten in 15% of his starts (up from 7%). Possible reasons? Maturity is said to be one, work undertaken with a popular French sports psychologist another, and don't overlook the birth of daughter Toni in late 2015. 
 
Is Nappy Factor a myth? Depends who you speak to, but a couple of card winners for this year's Tour are also new fathers (Julien Guerrier, a long-term underachieving Frenchman, and England's Charlie Ford who broke through after no less than eight years on the second tier). And Alex Noren has frequently discussed how fatherhood had changed him for the better on and off the course. The flipside is that there are probably 20-odd new fathers every year. It would be weird if some did not improve.
 
 
The Campillo Conundrum
 
Question: How many years has Jorge Campillo been on the European Tour? Anyone who knew this is his seventh (yes, seventh) consecutive year at this level, take a bow. So quietly competent is he that he's not even had to sweat to retain his card, making the top 100 every time. 
 
That said, he's rarely had to cause to sweat on a lead. In fact in his entire European Tour career (now 192 events in) he has never had an 18 or 54 hole lead, and only once shared it after 36 holes. That was in the 2016 Qatar Masters after opening laps of 68-67. His response on Saturday? To move in the wrong direction with a 76. There have been 15 occasions when he has been top three after rounds one, two or three and only four times has he still been there 18 holes later.
 
 
Can a Frenchman make the Ryder Cup?
 
Victor Dubuisson will be favorite but will need to get a move on. No less than nine of his 13 top three career finishes at European Tour level have come in September, October and November. More of the same will be too late.
 
Alexander Levy knows how to get into contention and can also pull out the wins: He has nine top three finishes, including four wins, in his last 100 ET starts. He'd be popular with fellow players and the galleries, but might need a pick. He's only once been inside the top 50 at Le Golf National and even that was T35 (in 2014).
 
Going beyond these two involves a lot of make believe, but what the heck. At the very least it's interesting to see the state of French golf (a nation which routinely provides the second highest group of competitors at Challenge Tour level). 
 
Lorenzo Vera loves Le Golf National, but has a very boom or bust record there (T3, T6 and six missed cuts). He'll need something exceptional to join Thomas Bjorn's team including, you would imagine, a win (something he hasn't done on the European Tour and not on the Challenge Tour since 2007).
 
Gregory Bourdy has four European Tour wins, but none for four and a half years. Perhaps more importantly of his 17 top five finishes the nearest to a full field event was either the 2015 Qatar Masters or last year's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
 
It was once said of Romain Wattel (by the French journalists) that he had the brain and Dubuisson the game. He became a winner in 2017, but this year's task is to prove it was not a one-off in a very odd spell of form. He notched 25 top tens in 149 starts from 2011 to midway through the 2016 season. Since then? The KLM Open victory is his only top ten in 49 appearances.
 
Benjamin Hebert is an interesting one. Twice he has earned Battlefield Promotion from the second tier and on the second occasion he burned with desire never to see that circuit again. He's been as good as his word, yet the win has refused to come. He's consistent, logging 65th-64th-64th in the last three seasons and ranking seventh for Greens in Regulation in the last two of those. If he ever finds a putter or technique that works a very profitable run is not out of the question (but highly unlikely to produce a Ryder Cup debut).
 
Matthieu Pavon will be focused on backing up his impressive rookie season and Gregory Havret, playing for an 18th consecutive year on Tour, will be hoping to make a top ten. Last year was the first time he retained his card without even one of them. It would make life a little easier in his quest to make it 19.
 
 
And finally, a footnote
 
A slightly odd one this. In last year's equivalent of this European Tour preview I noted the circuit had witnessed very few last round victory charges in recent times: "You have to go back two and half years to find a winner who wasn’t tied seventh or better with a round to go. That man was Fabrizio Zanotti who was T19 ... after 54 holes at the 2014 BMW International Open."
 
Who broke that trend? Only Zanotti himself, who was T9 after 54 holes of the Maybank Championship.
 
Alex Noren trumped both of those efforts, climbing from T21 after 54 holes at Tour HQ in the BMW PGA Championship. The last man to win from outside the top 20 with a round to go? Nathan Green, who was T39 after 54 holes of the 2006 New Zealand Open. 
  



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