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Across the Pond

Five European Tour Questions

by Matt Cooper
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

The dawning of every New Year – overlooking that golf confuses the issue by starting a few weeks earlier than everyone else – prompts questions.
Is Rory McIlroy set to win a fifth major? Is Henrik Stenson going to ride the wave and make it two? Will Sergio Garcia finally win one
But what about further down the European Tour rankings? Let's look closer at the rest of the membership. Here are five questions to consider as we march into 2017.
1. Can Bernd Wiesberger bridge the step up in class?
First things first: the 31-year-old is a very, very good performer on the European Tour. He closed 2016 in stunning style, with six finishes of T7 or better in his last seven starts, but the exception tells a story: it was T35 in the HSBC Champions.
In other words: at a higher (WGC) level.
Since regaining his ET playing rights on the Challenge Tour in 2010 he has never come close to losing his card, winning three times, clocking 34 top tens in 165 starts (21%) and finishing ninth on the Race to Dubai in the last two seasons. However in the last four campaigns the consistency is even more pronounced: he’s 89-for-103 with 50 top 20s (49%).
Despite all of this, when stepping onto the WGC and major championship stage, he’s struggled to make an impression. Three visits to the WGC World Match Play have reaped almost nothing and he has just two top 25s (best of T14 at the 2015 Cadillac Championship) to show from seven attempts in the strokeplay events.
Moreover in the majors he is just 5-for-14 with T15 in the 2014 PGA Championship his only top 20 and his inability to break 70 is a real problem. He’s not done it in 12 tries at the Open Championship, in six at the U.S. Open (where he is 0-for-3), in eight at Augusta National (although he has pegged T22 and T34), and at the PGA he is 1-for-5, failing to break 70 the four times he’s missed the cut but doing it three times in 2014. 
In other words he has carded a sub-70 round in only one of 14 major championship appearances. If he wants a goal for the year, improving on that record is a good starting point.
2. Can Thorbjorn Olesen add quantity to the quality?
The Dane makes a neat contrast with Wiesberger. Both graduated from the 2010 Challenge Tour and neither has come close to losing their playing rights. With Olesen’s 29 in 159 starts (18%) they enjoy a similar top ten hit rate too.
It’s in the last four years that there is a subtle difference. Whilst the Austrian churned out the top 20s, Olesen made 27 in 99 starts and missed more weekends too (64-for-99). But in the win column? The Dane wins, collecting three of them.
There’s a general perception that the 27-year-old is strong in front, somewhat backed up by going 4-for-5 when holding a 54-hole lead although it maybe worth noting that he’s yet to experience holding a narrow advantage at that stage, since four were three-shot leads and the most recent seven strokes (in the Turkish Airlines Open).
At his best Olsen impresses everyone. The key in 2017 is to call a halt to the periods when he goes missing. Between finishing second in the BMW International Open and winning in Turkey he went 3-for-11 with just one finish better than T50 (and that was T30). 
His medium term target – having enjoyed the 2016 Ryder Cup as an observer, a week that might have triggered the late season win – must be participation in the 2018 match and he’ll know that periods of longueur like that mid-season will not help the cause.
His best will get him to Paris, he just needs to post more of it.
3. Is Tyrrell Hatton a future Open champion?
Surely no-one is licking his lips about the newly created links swing more than the Englishman who broke out in 2017? The 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale will be set up by an Irish Open at Portstewart GC and a Scottish Open hosted at Dundonald Links – the perfect prep for the big week and also playing right to the strengths of the 25-year-old.
Finishing 36th on the Race to Dubai in 2014 and 35th in 2015 had him marked down as one to watch, and he backed that up with six top tens through the heart of the year, before the win finally came at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October.
On the one hand it was a little surprising it came there (he’d missed the cut on both previous visits), on the other it made perfect sense: he was sensational on linksland all year, finishing T2 at Castle Stuart in the Scottish Open and T5 at Royal Troon in the Open.
Nor was it a one off. In 2015 he was T4 at Royal County Down in the Irish Open and a quarter finalist at Murcar Links in the Paul Lawrie Match Play. A year before that he marked T4 in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen. 
He’s clearly got the game for links golf, so maybe the stunning second in the DP World Tour Championship, where he maintained excellent composure, hints that he has what it takes to put big prizes in the cross hairs. One like the Claret Jug maybe?
4. Is Rafa Cabrera Bello going to learn to convert?
The Spaniard always had a touch of class. He graduated as a winner from the Challenge Tour of 2006 and 2008, and if he struggled as a rookie on the main tour in 2007, he has had no problems since, chalking up eight seasons without needing to fret about retaining his card.
He was a winner in 2009 thanks to a final round 60 which overcame an eight-shot deficit in the Austrian Open and then coped with a quality field to grab a second win in 2012 at the Dubai Desert Classic.
2016 was his finest year yet, albeit without a win. He finished the year at eighth in the Race to Dubai, was an impressive Ryder Cup debutant and 19 of his 27 worldwide starts reaped top 25 finishes, three of them seconds – and there’s the rub.
If he has an aim in 2017 it’ll be simple: get another win. He has 13 seconds and thirds against two wins on the European Tour.
Is he a bit twitchy? He’s been top five heading into the final round 19 times on the European and PGA Tours, winning just the once (in Dubai). On 14 of those occasions he was top three.
He’s got a great long game, putts well and seems a nice guy. He might just need a killer streak – it just needs to last about four and a half hours on Sundays.
5. When will we see another final round charge to victory on the European Tour?
Here’s a quiz question for you: what do the 2016 season wins of Nathan Holman (at the Australian PGA Championship), Danny Willett (at The Masters), Jeunghun Wang (at the Trophee Hassan II), Chris Wood (at the BMW PGA Championship) and Alex Noren (at the Nedbank Challenge) have in common?
Answer: they were the only European Tour winners not ranked tied third or better heading into the final round.
Not that this select band exactly smashed their way through the ranks – they were all tied fifth or better with 18 holes to play. 
Big final round comebacks are less common than we’re consistently led to believe (there were just four from outside the top five in 2015 and five in 2014), but 2016 did stick out a little.
Furthermore 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 pegged two weekend rounds of 65. The first lifted him from T45 to T19, the second pushed him into a play-off he ultimately won.
We might be due another final round charge in 2017.