Matt Cooper

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Open de España Preview

Monday, April 9, 2018


If there is an inevitable sense of after-the-Lord-Mayor's-show about this week's golf, there is also a nice sense of nostalgia whenever the Masters is followed by the Open de España because this is how the European Tour started.
 
Back in 1972 (the circuit's opening year) Jack Nicklaus was triumphant at Augusta and a week later Antonio Garrido lifted his home Open at Club Golf de Pals in Girona. A week later the Tour headed to Madrid, which happens to be this week's base for the an event which has a history stretching all the way back to 1912.
 
Last year it dropped off the schedule, the only time it hadn't been run since '72, so Andrew 'Beef' Johnston returns as "defending" champion, having claimed the title at Valderrama.
 

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The host course this week is Centro Nacional de Golf, the Spanish Golf Federation's headquarters, situated in the northern suburbs of the capital city. Madrid is a fine location to re-start the 2018 European Tour, which will continue to cross continents for the next few weeks before settling into a summer of European destinations.

 

 

It is also worth nothing that after this week there will be a re-rank of the Q School grads. Here's the EuropeanTour.com website explanation: "As at Monday 16th April 2018, the 15 Players from Category 17 who have earned the most 2018 Race to Dubai Points on the 2018 Race to Dubai Rankings will be reranked 1-15 in this Category, in order of Total Race to Dubai Points won. The remainder of the Category will be ranked below this in the order established at the Qualifying School and taking account of those Players within this Category from 101-111 on the Final 2017 Race to Dubai Rankings."

 
 
 
Previous top fives at Centro Nacional de Golf on the European Tour:
 
2009 Madrid Masters
-25 Ross McGowan (DD: 25, DA: 13, GIR: 2, Scr: 63, PA: 8, AR: 29)
-22 Mikko Ilonen (DD: 21, DA: 26, GIR: 25, Scr: 17, PA: 1, AR: 2)
-21 David Drysdale (DD: 26, DA: 50, GIR: 59, Scr: 1, PA: 10, AR: 20)
-18 Gareth Maybin (DD: 67, DA: 13, GIR: 15, Scr: 22, PA: 6, AR: 11)
-18 Gary Murphy (DD: 54, DA: 50, GIR: 55, Scr: 38, PA: 2, AR: 53)
-18 Alex Noren (DD: 6, DA: 39, GIR: 1, Scr: 4, PA: 42, AR: 3)
 
2007 Open de España
-16 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 4, DA: 42, GIR: 2, Scr: 8, PA: 33, AR: 3)
-15 Jyoti Randhawa (DD: 13, DA: 34, GIR: 3, Scr: 27, PA: 1, AR: 1)
-14 Carlos Rodiles (DD: 17, DA: 37, GIR: 23, Scr: 23, PA: 3, AR: 6)
-13 Simon Dyson (DD: 43, DA: 50, GIR: 29, Scr: 1, PA: 7, AR: 18)
-13 Mark Foster (DD: 39, DA: 15, GIR: 10, Scr: 32, PA: 9, AR: 7)
 
Notes: Both winners ranked second for Greens in Regulation and in total there are 11 players in those two lists and 10 of them had hot putters that ranked top ten for Putt Average (albeit the missing man was the first winner). In 2009 the field also went really low (4-under was needed to make the cut, 16 players were 16-under or better for the week, the winning total in 2007).
 
Whilst this track has absolutely no aesthetic similarity to Royal Johannesburg, long time host of the Joburg Open, it does share one factor: altitude. At 667 metres above sea level Madrid is very far from the 1,753 metre heights of the South African city, but take a look at the two winners: Schwartzel has four top fours at Royal Johannesburg, including two wins; McGowan's fondness for that venue is rather more hidden, but he's been T5, T4 and T7 after 54 holes. 
 
 
The Course - Centro Nacional de Golf
 
Opened in 2006 the track was a little raw for the two ET events it hosted so it will be interesting to see how it has matured, although the unseasonally dry winter, combined with high frost, has impacted on this hope. A Dave Thomas (Belfry, Slaley Hall, San Roque, St Leon Rot) design it is visually very modern: shifted land creates sweeping fairways, greens and mounds down the side of the holes too. There are water hazards on six holes, including 16, 17 and 18.
 
 
The Weather
 
A cold start to the week, with temperatures in the high 40s/early 50s, but mid 60s should be attained at the weekend. Most of Thursday should be dry, but there is a predicted 80% chance of heavy rain that evening and it will be persistent, if not so heavy, throughout Friday. Sunny conditions are forecast for the weekend. Thursday might be blustery, with breezes expected thereafter.
 
 
The Leading Contenders
 
There is every possibility that Rahm will gobble this course up. He's knows it well enough, having played it whilst studying in Madrid (it was his golf based in the city). If he can cope with the jetlag after his journey from Augusta, he ought to feel a little like a thoroughbred horse which narrowly failed to overcome a slow start in a prestige race and is now faced with lower grade opposition on an easier track. Teed it up in five regular European Tour events last year: finished top 15 in four, won two.
 
One of the rare players in the field who has played in all three top level events hosted by the course, but he'll want to forget every visit! He missed the cut in 2006 on the Challenge Tour, repeated it on the main circuit in 2007 and whilst T43 in 2009 he only once broke 70 in a free-scoring week. All of that said, he's a very different golfer nine years on. T3 in the Mexico Championship reads well against this field, opened with a 69 at Augusta on his way to T38. His 35th stroke play start in Spain yet oddly still yet to beat the T4 he posted on debut back in 2002.
 
Another with a win on his latest start, Coetzee cashed in on extreme home advantage when capturing the Tshwane Open at the South African course where he’d been a member since childhood. Also T9 in Mauritius and T8 in the Qatar Masters, that win in early March slots him in at 35th on the Race to Dubai. One curiously negative stat for Coetzee backers this week is that he has a simply terrible record in Spain. The Springbok has teed it up 16 times and missed 13 cuts.
 
Finished T59 in the 2006 Challenge de España on this course and withdrew after a round one 71 in 2009 so little to go on. We do know that he is a proud Spaniard (flying the Spanish flag at last autumn's Anadalucia Masters, a somewhat political gesture during a fraught time in the country's history) and has twice come close in the event, when T3 in 2011 and T2 six years ago. His recent form is very strong: 3-44-4-4.
 
The Irishman has been trying his luck on the PGA Tour since February and, after a disappointing start, he’s been one of the quiet stars with a top five in the new Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship followed by T8 in the Houston Open when starting out with a 64. He also cracked the top 20 in Abu Dhabi earlier in the campaign. His scrambling was top-notch in all three of those tournaments, as it was when he posted T16 in this event at Valderrama in 2016, his only previous start on Spanish soil.
 
As mentioned above, he is a somewhat quirky "defending" champion this week. That result is one example of some very solid country form. He's 8-for-9 in Spain (on the European and Challenge Tours), with seven top 30s, three of them top fives including the win at Valderrama. Admittedly it is some while since the European Tour was in action, but Beef was in form: T12 in the Oman Open followed by T2 in the Indian Open. He likes a tough test so if it's anything like 2009 it might not be ideal.
 
Like Pepperell, Wallace hasn’t been able to try and ride the momentum of a win on his last start. That came in the Hero Indian Open where he shot 11-under to take his second trophy in under a year after also landing last May’s Open de Portugal. He’s got some fine form in Spain too at Alps Tour and Challenge Tour level as well as T18 at Valderrama in October’s Andalucia Masters. A player with plenty of upside.
 
The Englishman had a dodgy spell of four missed cuts in five start towards the end of 2017 but since then has played four rounds ten times on the trot and the results are improving too. T6 in Dubai was followed by top 20s in Malaysia and Oman before a little drop off with T34 in Qatar. Won the Portugal Masters with 23-under and was also second in the same event on 22-under so if it is low scoring he won't be afraid. No course experience.
 
It’s a first start for the Dane at this course but he can boast T5 (Sevilla 2012) and T19 (Valderrama 2016) on two of his last three starts in the Open de España. Having previously played in WGC events (T10 Bridgestone last year) and The Masters (T6 on debut in 2013), it’s been a frustrating few weeks for Olesen having to watch rather than participate so he’ll want to get that world ranking back up from its current 104th. He’s had a rather patchy start to the season so far with MCs either side of a top 10 in the World Super 6 Perth.
 
It’s a home game for Campillo, who is one of three Spaniards taking part this week that sit in the top 15 in the Race to Dubai (RCB 9th, Rahm 11th, Campillo 12th). Went close to that elusive first win when runner-up in the Maybank Championship and followed it with T4 in the Oman Open. T27 at the WGC-Mexico Championship on his last start was a fair effort too. Course form? Yep, Campillo played the 2009 Madrid Masters at this venue and posted T10 while he also cracked the top 10 at the Open de España in 2012 and 2015. 11th in Strokes Gained: Putting.
 
 
The Next Rung
 
The World No. 82 has impressed on his few starts on the European Tour this term. T27 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship kicked it off, he missed the cut in the World Super 6 Perth, was T4 in the Oman Open, and then T13 in the Qatar Masters. That quality was backed up with T5 in the Corales Puntacana Championship on the PGA Tour and T52 in the Houston Open.
 
A stop start few weeks for the South African who opened the year with cuts made, but little impression gained in his home Open, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. A missed cut followed in Malaysia and he was T30 in the WGC-Mexico Championship, either side of which he notched top fours on the Sunshine Tour. Has only once played in Spain, when T25 on the 2016 Challenge Tour.
 
As well as providing both sporting and social commentary on Twitter, Pepper is still basking in his breakthrough win at the Qatar Masters in February. Due to the European Tour’s blank period of regular events, it means he hasn’t had the chance to peg it up again since shooting 18-under to win in Doha so he must be itching to get going again. He’s 4-for-5 in Spain and 4-for-4 in this event, a run which includes T8 at El Saler in 2013. 12th in Strokes Gained: Approach this season.
 
A Spanish record to match George Coetzee's. Six starts, just two cuts made, a best of T52. What's more, he's never broken 70 and averages 73.53 per laps. It doesn't sound like the ideal place to make a seasonal debut. In theory has two top three in his last four starts, but was last seen in the middle of November.
 
A three-time European Tour winner already, those victories have come in Morocco, Mauritius and Qatar. He won’t get much sun in Madrid this week according to the forecast and this is his first start in Spain. His seventh place in Scrambling is testament to the short game which turns challenges into wins although his putter has been cold. Wang played his best golf of these early months of 2018 on the Desert Swing when T6 in Dubai and T15 in Abu Dhabi.
 
He’s not back to the form which got him a Ryder Cup wildcard pick in 2014 but Gallacher is certainly on the up again after two top 10s in his last three starts (T9 Oman and T7 Hero Indian Open). That’s part of a 6-for-6 record on this year’s Race to Dubai. He’s played in Spain over 50 times but only once since 2012 and there are five top 10s on his resume, including a second place. 16th in Strokes Gained: Putting.
 
A sixth visit to Spain for the Swede who has an odd record in the country that reads: MC-MC-5-MC-MC. Enigmatic but a small enough sample to not be over-concerned about. The season has been a little boom or bust: four top 20s and four missed cuts. He was second in the Hong Kong Open and T2 in the Dubai Desert Classic, contending during both. A breakthrough win might not be too far away.
 
His appearance in this event in 2016 is his only previous experience of the country and it was bad. Valderrama not a great fit that week for the big hitter who carded 72-86 to leave early. T3 in the Maybank Championship, he followed it with T26 in the World Super 6 Perth and a missed cut in the New Zealand Open.
 
The Frenchman last played in Spain in his Challenge Tour days but impressed, shooting three 68s and a 72 to take a top four finish in the Challenge de Madrid at nearby La Herreria. After sneaking into the top 50 on last year’s Race to Dubai, he’s 46th this time after cashing in five of his seven starts. He started the campaign with T5 in Mauritius and has posted 11-31-28 in his latest three events.
 
This is Smith’s first start at European Tour level in Spain but he has some fond memories of the country after shooting a closing 64 to win a Europro Tour event there in late 2015. After finishing 24th on the Race to Dubai in his rookie season, the young Englishman is finding life tougher this time and T26 in Oman is his only top 60 finish in six starts so far. That will change but gamers may want to see more signs of last year’s Smith before pulling the trigger.
 
There are plenty of local connections for GFC, who grew up in Madrid. His record in Spain is hugely impressive and he made 19 straight cuts before an MC at Valderrama in 2016. That run included a top six in the Madrid Masters and second place at the Castello Masters. After some disappointing results since moving to Florida, he’s posted two top 10s on the Web.com this season and European audiences were reminded of the talents that brought him seven ET wins when he shot four rounds in the 60s for T4 in the Qatar Masters.
 

Sleepers
 
A consistent cut-maker in Spain and even has a Challenge Tour win there from 2006. Notably, he was third at this venue in the 2009 Madrid Masters.
 
Cracked the top 10 at Centro Nacional de Golf in 2009 and could have been much better but for a closing 73. Also top six on his latest start in the Open de España at Valderrama and T10 in Qatar last time.
 
A couple of top 25s on his last four starts this year and another spotted in the top 10 on the leaderboard at this venue in the 2009 Madrid Masters.
 
One of the veteran’s three previous top fours in Spain came on this week’s track – even if it was way back in the 2007 Open de España. More recently, he was T13 in the Qatar Masters.
 
Somewhat quiet of late but owns seven finishes of T21 or better in his last 11 starts on Spanish turf. Wind further back and he was T8 on this track in 2007 while, that same year, the Frenchman claimed the first of his four European Tour wins in Spain (Mallorca Classic).
 
Shot 25-under, including a third-round 60, to win the Madrid Masters on this course in 2009. That looks interesting when put alongside recent March form of 3-14 in South Africa (Sunshine Tour) and Kenya (Challenge Tour).
 
A runner-up in Qatar two starts ago and T12 at Valderrama on his last trip to Spain in October. Fisher can also add a top 25 at Centro Nacional in 2009.
 
Like former course winner McGowan, Canter also made the top 10 in Kenya on the Challenge Tour a couple of weeks ago. That added to T21 at the Tshwane and he seems to have taken a little inspiration from the first win for his great friend Eddie Pepperell.
 
Has been falling just the wrong side of the cut line in 2018 but Brooks was third at Valderrama (R3 64) in October and has some decent Challenge Tour form in Spain too.
 
 
Who's On The Team?
 
Jon Rahm is impossible to ignore and despite his poor course record it seems foolish to overlook Rafa Cabrera Bello.
 
Two other Spaniards are high in my thoughts: Pablo Larrazabal and Gonzalo Fernandez Castano.
 
The possibility of low scoring demands Andy Sullivan is on the short list. 
 
I'll reveal the full team in the Playing the Tips column on Tuesday.
 
 
One To Swerve
 
Victor Dubuisson's poor Spanish form and lengthy absence earns him a week on the bench.



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