Ben Coley sides with a trio of past champions at the Omega European Masters, as well as an Italian with Swiss connections.
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After the drama of the Made In Denmark and with Thomas Bjorn’s Ryder Cup wild cards selected on Wednesday, a trip into the rarefied air of Crans-sur-Sierre for the Omega European Masters is just what the doctor ordered.
This quaint event has been a staple on schedule since the formation of the European Tour in 1972 and while there have been changes to the golf course in recent years, the basic requirement remains the same. The primary challenges here are to be accurate off the tee and on approach to tiny greens, to take advantage of several short par-fours, avoid disaster and maintain focus, with the latter a particular challenge given the vistas on offer.
Winners vary in age and to some extent style, but there are still ways to tie them together quite neatly. Brett Rumford has one of the finest short-games around and wedge specialists Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez have also been regular contenders here. More recently, the accuracy of Matt Fitzpatrick and the touch of Alex Noren have thrived in an event which does tend to produce a high-class champion.
One way or another, hitting greens has to be a good starting point. Four of the last seven winners have ranked either first or second for the week in that department, and had Scott Hend won rather than lost back-to-back play-offs here, the total would be six. It’s possible for small misses to be negated by an excellent short-game, as was the case in 2013, but straying far and wide simply won’t get it done.
We’re probably looking for players who’ve gone well here, or else at somewhere like Fanling, home of the Hong Kong Open. That’s where Hend won his first European Tour title while 2014 winner David Lispky has also contended in Hong Kong and at Saujana, which currently hosts the Malaysian Open. The old horses-for-courses adage really does apply and you’ll typically find hints in the profiles of those who’ve either won or gone close in years gone by.
Multiple winners are fairly common as a result – Bjorn and Noren have taken four of the last nine renewals between them – and I wonder whether this might be the place for Danny Willett to just about complete his return to form.
Victory over Fitzpatrick here in 2015 was a key signpost in Willett’s Masters success of 2016 and it wasn’t a surprise. He went off among the favourites owing to a flawless course record which included second place in 2012, and as defending champion also finished a respectable 12th at a time when the first warning signs were beginning to appear.
We can surely write off last year’s missed cut, as he’d been without a stroke play top-50 since March and was in the worst shape of his career. Focus instead on those first eight appearances, where he shot 62, 63 and four rounds of 64, and you have a genuine course specialist who is comfortable at altitude.
Yet because of a missed cut last week, when Willett failed to build on a promising start, 50/1 was chalked up on Monday. It’s safe to say I was extremely surprised. Willett was half the price in a similar field on a less suitable course just two weeks ago, playing nicely for 18th in Prague, and it’s a mistake to consider him less likely to win this event.
The beautiful seventh hole at Crans
At the front of the market is a rock-solid Fitzpatrick, but he does have to defend, probably having been told he’s not in the Ryder Cup side, and this isn’t a great venue for Thomas Pieters. Matt Wallace has generally struggled to back up wins so far (T30-MC-MC at this level), Charl Schwartzel is in poor form and Lee Westwood, while solid, appears no stronger than Willett to my mind.
It seems appropriate to judge last week’s performance as a bump in the road, the like of which is only natural when you’re working on a new technique with a new coach and trying to piece a career back together.
Willett’s best form this summer – eighth in Italy, sixth in Ireland, 24th in the Open – would entitle him to sit on Fitzpatrick’s shoulder in terms of the market and both top-10 finishes came on the back of a missed cut. He’s accepting of the off weeks because he knows, at last, he’s moving in the right direction.
Prior to last year he’d ranked sixth, second and eighth in greens here and Willett, whose best form even during his long-term malaise came at courses like Saujana and Fanling, looks the outstanding bet of the week at 40/1 or bigger.
Course form really could be key here so Richie Ramsay looks a worthy back-up to the headline selection.
A winner for this column back in 2012, for those with long memories, Ramsay isn’t much shorter despite having backed up that effort with 10th as defending champion and a closing 64 for a respectable 30th last year.
For much of this year he’s struggled to make an impact, but last week’s 12th place coincided with a return to a short, turning, dare I say interesting golf course and it’s under such conditions that he’s not only at his most effective but also his most engaged.
This former US Amateur champion relies on accuracy – he led the field in that department in Denmark – but clearly grows frustrated when it isn’t rewarded, and unfortunately for the Scot that’s too often the case on both major tours.
All the more reason to take advantage of this opportunity, then, and Ramsay looks a likely each-way contender if he produces a solid enough week on the greens.
His four-shot victory here was thoroughly dominant, especially when you consider that four of the subsequent five renewals have been decided by a play-off and the other by a single stroke, and Ramsay has the added incentive of sitting 123rd on the Race To Dubai standings and in need of a big cheque soon.
The 35-year-old is better than that, clearly, and can demonstrate it here.
Not unexpectedly, Adrian Otaegui also improved for a return to suitable conditions last week and could yet prove that he’s capable here, too, but the improving Spaniard hasn’t yet bettered a debut 40th and is overlooked for that reason.
Instead, I’ll give another chance to Nino Bertasio, who I’ve put up here in the past.
The Italian was in fact born in Zurich and considers himself to be half Swiss, meaning his performance here in 2010 takes on extra significance. Back then, playing as an amateur in his first main tour event outside of Italy, he sat seventh through 54 holes before fading to a respectable 38th.
On his return in 2016, Bertasio was ninth for accuracy and eighth for ball-striking as he finished 29th, and then last year he was fifth in greens, again ninth in accuracy and second in ball-striking en route to a frustrating share of 44th.
In other words he’s caught the eye on all three visits, latterly with his ball-striking, and I therefore find it highly encouraging that he’s struck form of late with 17th in the Nordea Masters followed by 29th in Prague.
Nino Bertasio tees off in Dubai
Both those efforts involved his customarily strong tee-to-green game but there were good signs with the short-game, enough for him to rank fourth and 11th in the all-around and prepare perfectly for one of the events on the calendar he circles at the start of the season.
Further encouragement can be taken from the fact that he produced the bravest golf of his career for 10th in the Italian Open last year, ending a poor run on home soil to keep his European Tour card, and I’m very hopeful he can put the pieces together in Switzerland having shown abundant promise in three previous visits.
Various other accurate types make the shortlist, including David Drysdale. He’s been first and second for greens hit here in two of the last three years and played nicely enough last week, having contended for a first European Tour title as recently as July.
With Richard McEvoy and Paul Waring both getting off the mark at long last, veteran Drysdale could take some inspiration and 12th place here in 2016 suggests the Swiss Alps is as good a place as any for a breakthrough.
Ashley Chesters is as accurate as they come off the tee and was another to take a step forward on a short track last week, but the most interesting course debutant must surely be Shubhankar Sharma.
The Indian has no problems with altitude as he showed in Joburg, no problems with a tight, turning test as he showed in Malaysia, and while he was down the field at Firestone and missed the cut at Bellerive he simply doesn’t have the game for those power-friendly courses.
Sharma is better judged on his contending effort in the WGC-Mexico, where Swiss nearly-men Tommy Fleetwood and Ross Fisher have contended, and has the class to make early three-figure quotes look generous if able to turn his game around again.
David Howell has played nicely enough lately and is considered at a massive price but I’ll stick with Bradley Dredge after he played nicely enough without threatening to win last week.
Having put the Welshman up at 100/1 on a golf course which was new to him, anything bigger than that here in Switzerland is impossible for me to resist given that he’s been first, second, third and fourth at Crans previously.
Granted, this is dated form and his more recent record is poor, but there’s not a great deal fundamentally different about the course and having made every cut bar one since Wentworth, he has a level of depth to his recent play which hasn’t been the case too often since his 2006 success.
He’s just behind Ramsay in the Race To Dubai, too, and strikes me as precisely the type of player to produce the goods over the coming six weeks or so. There’s no reason that can’t start here.
Posted at 1810 BST on 03/09/18.