It’s always a case of ‘follow that!’ after Masters week – especially for ‘Across The Pond’ this year with Europe getting its first win at Augusta National since 1999 thanks to that superb closing 67 from England’s Danny Willett.
But instead of another low-key event in Asia, the Tour heads back to one of its iconic venues, Valderrama, for the 90th edition of the Open de Espana.
The Spanish venue hosted the 1997 Ryder Cup, the WGC-American Express Championship in 1999 and 2000, the season-ending Volvo Masters from 1988-1996 and 2002-2008, along with the Andalucia Masters in 2010-2011.
Plenty of course form then even though it’s not as recent as we might like.
Garcia has used his influence to attract good friend and Ryder Cup colleague Martin Kaymer while course winner Soren Kjeldsen jets in from Augusta after his rather surprise T7.
The course – Valderrama
Tree-lined, narrow and tough would be a fair summation. Here’s what Martin Kaymer told europeantour.com about the 6,991-yard par 71: “It is very challenging from the tee. You need to hit all kinds of tee shots: fades, draws, low, high and even when you hit the fairway you can be blocked by trees. So you need to have a good strategy for the golf course. The greens are very small so it is all about ball striking - it is never going to be a putting competition. Any day, if you shoot something around par it is a very good score, but shooting a round of 68 or 75 can be very close together, so that is the exciting part about Valderrama.” There have been some alterations though and the pruning of the fairway-lining cork trees is set to allow more “aggressive play” from the rough.
Winners and Winning scores at Valderrama
2011 -6 Sergio Garcia (DD: 24, DA: 10, GIR: 10, Sc: 4, PA: 8)
2010 -3 Graeme McDowell (DD: 47, DA: 6, GIR: 1, Sc: 18, PA: 4)
2008 -8 Soren Kjeldsen (DD: 41, DA: 29, GIR: 22, Sc: 4, PA: 12)
2007 -1 Justin Rose (DD: 4, DA: 26, GIR: 8, Sc: 7, PA: 3)
2006 -2 Jeev Milkha Singh (DD: 52, DA: 52, GIR: 17, Sc: 16, PA: 15)
Notes: These aren’t as biased as I was expecting but generally it’s a good idea to hit fairways, hit greens, scramble well when you don’t and hole putts. The bombers will have to rely on their other skills to thrive this week. Note the lack of a winning score in double digits under par.
Players should be greeted with plenty of sunshine and temperatures dance either side of 80 degrees through tournament week. Winds look modest on the early forecast although they’re probably at their strongest (13mph) on the afternoon of the final round.
The Leading Contenders
It’s a busy week for Sergio as tournament host but he performed such a role at the Castello Masters (his home course) and won that event twice so he’s shown he can deal with all the other distractions. Of Valderrama, he says: “It is my favourite golf course in the world and it is one of the best courses we have in the world, definitely in Spain and around Europe. The golf course, I heard, is looking great as always.” The enthusiasm is reflected in his results. He won the last tournament it held, the 2011 Andalucia Masters, was a three-time runner-up in the Volvo Masters and has 10 top 10s from 11 starts there. Expect him to bounce back from his modest T34 at Augusta National.
The little Dane is a must-pick for gamers this week. He defied expectations to post T7 at Augusta National where he battled gamely to defy his lack of length and, at one point, was tied for second on Masters Sunday. The short, narrow Valderrama could have been designed for his steady hitting and tidy short game and it’s reflected in his results. He won the 2008 Volvo Masters there and was runner-up in two events either side. Says Kjeldsen: “I love the place and I love playing the golf you need to play around there. You need to keep it straight and it gets windy round there, so it suits my game.”
A homecoming for the Spaniard who has been making waves in America. RCB has raised his profile considerably in the United States after his third place in the WGC-Dell Match Play, a fourth in the Houston Open and a very satisfactory T17 on his Masters debut. His scrambling, a previous weakness, looks much improved and he’ll feel happier on these greens after struggling somewhat at Augusta National. He’s played two events at Valderrama, missing the cut in the 2010 Andalucia Masters but returning the following year to post T19 despite an opening 78.
Even though he made the cut for just the fourth time in nine visits, Augusta National continues to bamboozle Kaymer and he finished T49. To be fair, it was only a continuation of some poor form and his fifth place in the Masters Driving Accuracy stats could be a good sign heading to Valderrama. The German has some decent form at the Spanish venue, with a second place in the 2008 Volvo Masters, sixth in 2007 and a pair of top 25s in the two editions of the Andalucia Masters.
Many first-timers have been brought to their knees by Augusta National and that was the case with Sullivan last week when his debut lasted just two rounds after scores of 80 and 77. In particular, he struggled on the greens so he should be much more in his comfort zone this week despite it being his first competitive start at Valderrama. That said, he’s missed his last three starts on Spanish soil so this may not be the best week to play him despite his rapid recent rise.
Pieters may bomb it long rather than hit it straight but don’t dismiss him too quickly here. The Belgian first rose to prominence on the European Tour when finishing runner-up to Miguel Angel Jimenez in this event at PGA Catalunya Resort in 2014. That was a tree-lined venue that produced a winning score of just 4-under and accuracy was important that week. Pieters finished third in Thailand just three starts ago and could easily make another big impression here.
The Dutchman missed the Masters (perhaps no bad thing given how gruelling it was mentally this year) but he’s been playing well in 2016 with three top 10s and two further top 15s in six starts. He can also boast a top five in the 2010 Andalucia Masters and a fourth place in this event two years ago when it was staged at PGA Catalunya Resort. That latter tournament was won with 4-under so he can perform strongly on tough and windy courses in this part of the world.
First thought is that his long but wayward driving means he hasn’t got the ideal skill-sets for Valderrama. This is his debut so we’re guessing and he did play well to finish T9 in Malaysia when conditions appeared against him. Uihlein followed that with a pair of top fours in Perth and Thailand and T31 in India. He’s played in three previous Spanish Opens and finished 8-MC-69. That top 10 came at Parador de El Saler in 2013 when 5-under was the winning score so he doesn’t need birdie-fests to post good results.
Give the Spaniard close attention this week as it’s a home game. “I am very excited, it’s my home course, I’ll be at home, and I will have my family there. It’s one of my favourite golf courses. The greens are going to be fast and it’s going to be tough.” In his two competitive starts there, Canizares was T21 in the 2010 Andalucia Masters and T7 the following year so he’s put those local smarts to good use. In addition, he has some useful form this season with top 10s in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and a T15 last time in the Indian Open.
Having been schooled and brought up in Wentworth, Fisher is used to tree-lined tracks and there is plenty of good correlating form between the English venue and Valderrama. Fisher has been consistent in his four starts at this week’s venue – 23-14-11-14 – and is 4-for-4 this season from his rather limited schedule. On his latest start, he was sixth in Driving Accuracy when T42 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
The Next Rung
After missing the cut by a distance on his only previous Masters starts in 2010, Wood went all four rounds on his return last week although a disappointing weekend (75-79) relegated him to T42 at the finish. Before that he’d lost in the group stages of the WGC-Dell Match Play but did hang up a useful T20 at Bay Hill. He has limited experience of Valderrama, a T40 in the 2010 Andalucia Masters his only start there.
Larrazabal’s lack of accuracy off the tee has caught up with him at Valderrama and it’s shown in his results. In three starts between 2008 and 2011 he’s finished 38-47-39 and shot some big numbers in that run. He played nicely in Qatar (T13) and Malaysia (T6) at the start of the year but has cooled off a little since. Runner-up in the 2012 Open de Espana and third in 2011 so can shine in front of his home fans, perhaps just not on this course.
Still without a win on the European Tour despite several near misses although he did rack up another Sunshine Tour victory in his native South Africa at the end of February. This will be Van Zyl’s first start at Valderrama but he’s an accurate driver of the ball and has two top 20s (7th and 18th) in two of his last three starts in Spain where he enjoys the sunshine.
The Englishman has served up five finishes between T12 and T33 in his five starts on this year’s Race to Dubai and three of those are top 20s. It’s a consistency his game has been lacking for some time. Rock has also been solid at Valderrama in two previous visits (T28 in 2011 and T21 in 2010) and his Driving Accuracy will likely serve him well again.
The Aussie had March off but prior to that posted T7 at both the Tshwane Open and Perth International. He’s made every cut at Valderrama in four visits between 2004 and 2011 although he’s never once broken par or finished in the top 20 so he doesn’t leap off the page this week despite those two good recent finishes.
Another of the home contingent, Campillo could certainly enter the equation this week. On current form, he’s one to watch after registering four top 20s in his last five European Tour starts, including fourth in Malaysia and T10 in India. He’s also done well in his home Open with a T7 last year and a fifth in 2012. This will be his first pro tournament at Valderrama, however, and his Driving Accuracy stats aren’t great.
One of the European Tour’s straightest hitters, it would make sense that the Frenchman has a good record at Valderrama. The theory becomes reality when delving back into his results as he’s 5-for-5, was sixth on his most recent appearance in 2011 and also posted T21 in 2010 and T19 in 2005. Havret comes in off back-to-back top 10s in Thailand and India so the planets look aligned.
Quesne is another in-form Frenchman heading to Spain after a run of three top 10s in his last four starts – T4 in Malaysia, T9 in Perth and T10 in India. The two-time European Tour winner hasn’t teed it up at Valderrama but he has tasted victory in this corner of Spain when landing the Challenge Tour’s Open de Andalucia in 2012.
Kieffer deserves the status of tournament specialist after posting 9-5-2 in the last three editions of the Open de Espana although that comes with the obvious caveat that none were played at Valderrama, where he’ll be making his debut. But there are some common traits (wind, quick greens, tough scoring) so he’s definitely worthy of sleeper pick status.
Who’s On The Team
Sergio is the obvious starting point but Soren Kjeldsen (another course specialist) is definitely in the crosshairs after his excellent Masters.
Alejandro Canizares is in form and playing on his home course this week while a more left-field pick would be veteran Frenchman Gregory Havret.
I’ll reveal my full line-up in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips Feature.
One To Swerve
Several of the Spanish players make appeal but Pablo Larrazabal has really struggled at this venue.