The European Tour stays in Continental Europe this week for the fifth edition of the D+D REAL Czech Masters.
This is usually a low-key part of the schedule but this year the Prague tournament has some extra fizz due to it marking the start of the qualification process for the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris.
Medinah hero Martin Kaymer is one of the star names heading to the Czech capital while other former Ryder Cuppers, Thomas Pieters, Matt Fitzpatrick and Lee Westwood, will also look to get early points on the board.
In addition, the field includes last week’s Made In Denmark winner, Julian Suri, the latest American to show that there’s plenty to be gained by cutting your teeth in Europe.
Albatross Golf Resort, designed by Keith Preston and opened in 2010, is a long, exposed and undulating par 72 which measures in at 7,467 yards. It opens with a friendly 538-yard par 5 while the other long holes are more challenging (639-yard 9th, 603-yard 10th and 573-yard 12th). It means those teeing off at the 1st play three par fives in the space of four holes. It’s a crucial stretch and the first two winners here, Jamie Donaldson and Thomas Pieters, played them better than anyone else (12-under). Last year’s champion Paul Peterson was second for Par 5 scoring (8-under). There is water in play at 4, 7, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 18.
2016 Top 4 and stats
-15 Paul Peterson (DD 40th, DA 3rd, GIR 1st, PA 2nd)
-14 Thomas Pieters (DD 3rd, DA 35th, GIR 15th, PA 7th)
-11 Ryan Evans (DD 44th, DA 21st, GIR 36th, PA 5th)
-11 David Howell (DD 62nd, DA 60th, GIR 11th, PA 28th)
2015 Top 4 and stats
-20 Thomas Pieters (DD 1st, DA 27th, GIR 22nd, PA 1st)
-17 Pelle Edberg (DD 2nd, DA 20th, GIR 1st, PA 10th)
-16 Matthew Fitzpatrick (DD 19th, DA 12th, GIR 2nd, PA 5th)
-14 Robert Dinwiddie (DD 56th, DA 10th, GIR 4th, PA 7th)
2014 Top 4 and stats
-14 Jamie Donaldson (DD 23rd, DA 34th, GIR 2nd, PA 4th)
-12 Bradley Dredge (DD 31st, DA 44th, GIR 14th, PA 14th)
-11 Merrick Bremner (No stats given)
-11 Soren Kjeldsen (DD 63rd, DA 5th, GIR 14th, PA 15th)
Notes: It’s a real mix of short and long hitters who have done well here, as highlighted by last year’s 1-2, Peterson and Pieters. The common thread? Strong putting stats.
After a bright start to the week and high temperatures in Thursday’s opener (mid 80s), the mercury levels drop for the final 54 holes. Showers are possible Saturday and rain is very much in the forecast for Sunday’s closer. Winds look fairly modest.
The Leading Contenders
This has been one of the Belgian’s standout events thanks to a win and a second the last two years. And it all makes sense given that it’s a long course with four par 5s to go at. But what do we gamers make of his back-to-back missed cuts in the PGA Championship and Made In Denmark. At least you can argue his round scores are coming down during that blip – 79, 77, 74, 70 – so maybe this is where he clicks back into gear.
The German makes his first start on Czech soil and will want to raise it a notch after T31 at the Made In Denmark. To be fair, that came after over a month off due to an inflammation in his shoulder which led to withdrawals from the WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship. No top 20s since T16 at Augusta National is certainly a concern for anyone thinking of him as a no-brainer pick.
No wonder Fitzpatrick has signed up again for this tournament. He’s played it twice before, finishing third and fifth, so it looks the ideal venue to start his bid for Ryder Cup points and a first crack at the Americans on home soil after his disappointing debut at Hazeltine (0 points from two matches). He played pretty poorly in the summer majors and links events but we only have to go back to June for his second place in the Nordea Masters.
It’s a good time for Jordan S’s in golf. An already impressive rookie year for the English youngster jumped to new heights with a breakthrough first European Tour victory (July’s European Open) followed by an excellent T9 in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow where he ranked second for greens in regulation. It’s his debut in this event but he did finish runner-up in the Czech Challenge on his last visit to the country in 2016.
The veteran has the benefit of a previous look at the course having played last year and posted a decent enough T27. After not really getting much going in the big summer tournaments, he should find this gentler atmosphere easier in which to thrive and T10 at the Open de France in early July shows he’s still got plenty left.
The Czech Masters has a big part in Donaldson’s story as it was victory here in 2014 that booked him a spot on the European Ryder Cup team and paved the way for that famous winning shot at Gleneagles. Although he’s struggled to recapture those good times, his recent play is promising with four top 20s in his last seven starts, including T16 and T9 (Paul Lawrie Match Play) in the last two.
Brooks Koepka paved the way with Challenge Tour win, European Tour win, PGA Tour win and major. Now fellow American Suri is halfway along that left-field path after capturing last week’s Made In Denmark following a flawless closing 64. "I feel like my game belongs at the top of the game. This is definitely something I've worked for and kind of expected for a long time,” he said after winning at Himmerland and there’s no reason why he can’t make a big run at this title too. One other big plus… his Challenge Tour win came on Czech soil when he last visited the country in May.
A runner-up in Germany at the end of June, the Belgian rookie continues to ooze promise and he followed a run to the last 16 of the Paul Lawrie with T14 in last week’s Made In Denmark, shooting 65-69 on the weekend. He’s ranked in the top six for Putting Average in three of his last six strokeplay starts and that has to bode well at Albatross Golf Resort.
The fact that this starts the Ryder Cup points race for Paris 2018 will add a little je ne sais quoi for the French contingent this week and Hebert could easily be the best of them. A T6 in last week’s Made In Denmark (68-68 on the weekend) elevated him to T6 and secured a third top 10 in his last eight European Tour starts. MC here on only start in 2015.
Another tournament where hot putters come to the fore should put Rai on any shortlist. He justified a pick last week when T10 at the Made In Denmark and his confidence must remain sky high after earning battlefield promotion with three Challenge Tour wins this season. Watching Julian Suri win must make him think he can too.
The Next Rung
Capable of big things but the Thai is another just struggling a little over the last few months. He did flicker back to life in the first two rounds of the European Open last time but a poor weekend (75-73) left Aphibarnrat in T37. This is his first start in the Czech Republic.
A late withdrawal from the Made In Denmark after he was originally listed in the field so that casts a little doubt. It means his last start was T44 in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The Italian’s high point this season was a first win (June’s Nordea Masters) and he has some nice course form here too with a top five on debut in 2015 and T27 last year.
A popular pick in Denmark last week, Dredge fluffed his lines with 75-74 and a missed cut. That adds to a feeling that he’s in a slight trough and therefore not the best option this week. The waters are muddied by his second place here in 2014 although T40 and T47 since didn’t help gamers much.
After a rough ride on the links, Lipsky found his mojo again in Denmark last week. He arrived at Himmerland on the back of five straight missed cuts but started well and kept it going to post T23. That should set him up nicely for another crack at an Albatross course on which he’s shot under par in 10 of his 12 rounds. The American finished T19 and T22 on his first two visits and jumped to T6 last year.
He found it tough going when stepping up to major/WGC level but in regular, low-key events earlier this season the young South African showed his potential with a win at the Lyoness in Austria and second and fifth in the two China events. T70 here in 2014 doesn’t persuade further but he’s a far better player now.
Shinkwin will probably have plenty of reoccurring nightmares about how he didn’t win the Scottish Open when teeing off at the par-5 last with a one-shot lead. The other side of the coin is that he was superb for 71 holes and is clearly a big future talent. MC in the following week’s Open doesn’t really tell us much and this is his first start since. Course form here of MC-51.
The writer of the best golf blog on Tour, Pepperell’s golf can be top-class too as shown by T16 in June’s U.S. Open. T23 at the Open de France and T28 in last week’s Made In Denmark were decent follow-up efforts and his course form at Albatross of 5-22-MC will get plenty of gamer’s attention as well.
Has to be regarded as one of the Tour’s form horses after following T5 in the Fiji International (54-hole leader) with a top six in Denmark last week. Also T14 in July’s Irish Open so this is a sustained run from the Aussie. No course form though (MC on only previous start in 2014).
Three 69s in Denmark and T31 added to a good run of form through June, July and early August. The former amateur hot-shot is capable of stepping up in a weak field like this although his putter will need to heat up a little.
He’s 2-for-3 at Albatross with a best of T30 but he’s shot three 68s and appeared on leaderboards. Slattery can find form at this time of year and that’s playing out again when looking at his three July finishes – T30 Irish Open, T9 Scottish Open, T19 European Open.
Like Suri, Evans is another Challenge Tour star who looks ready to win at a higher grade. He won the second tier’s Turkish Airlines Open in April and has reeled off finishes of 3-9-8-10-5 in his last five Challenge Tour events. If that wasn’t enough, the 30-year-old Englishman was tied third in this tournament 12 months ago.
We have to give the defending champion a shout out after his hugely impressive win last year when charging through on the weekend with rounds of 64-67. The American southpaw hasn’t done much since but his last three strokeplay starts show a top 20 in the Scottish Open and T44 in last week’s Made In Denmark (R3 66).
A three-figure price with the bookies but the veteran Swede was T7 on debut last year and opened with 65 before sliding at the Made In Denmark. Has made last four cuts, starting with T30 in Irish Open.
Interesting option. No form at all for months and then T14 in last week’s Made In Denmark. Add that to his T11 here in 2016 and the Scot has obvious ‘Sleeper’ appeal.
The Ryder Cup talk could just spark Gallacher, who played at Gleneagles in 2014. He already has some nice credentials due to T12 in the European Open two starts ago and T7 on his only appearance here three years ago.
Real course horse with 19-8-13 on three appearances here. Struggling for recent form although has opened with 68 (European Open) and 69 (Made In Denmark) in last two starts.
Early exit in Denmark last week but before that had made the last eight at the Paul Lawrie Match Play on the back of T12 and T26 in previous two strokeplay starts. Debut here.
Quiet of late but had top 25s in Open de Portugal and Lyoness Open in May/June and landed a top five finish when last playing in this event two years ago.
Few in this field can match his course form (T7 and T13 last two years). Leap of faith required though after three straight missed cuts on the Challenge Tour.
Usually best considered on his home South African turf, Walters has appeal here due to a back-to-form T14 in the Made In Denmark (eight missed cuts before that) and T11 in last year’s Czech Masters.
Top 10 in last week’s Made In Denmark followed a T3 on the Champions Tour. Daly stays in Europe for a second crack at this after playing four rounds last year (T51) and could have another surprise up his sleeve.
Who’s On The Team?
Course horse Thomas Pieters has to be given another chance despite his recent blip and a 70 in round two last week suggests he’s ready to shine again.
I’ll reveal my full six-man line-up for the European Tour’s official Fantasy game in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.
One To Swerve
Bradley Dredge is a former runner-up but crashed out at halfway when a course specialist last week.