The PGA TOUR may be superior in so many ways but the European Tour knows how to do unique.
So how about a tournament played in the grounds of royalty!
Yes, welcome to the Trophée Hassan II in Morocco.
This tournament was established by the late King of Morocco in 1971 and the course – the Golf du Palais Royal – is set inside the Royal Palace walls in Agadir. The players will be let into the palatial gardens this year by current ruler, Mohammed VI. Let’s hope he remembers the royal keys.
The humble golfers know it's something pretty special and former winner Marcel Siem summed it up nicely. "Once you get inside the palace grounds, everything is pretty perfect,” said the German. “There are times when you think you shouldn't be playing golf on the course because you don't want to take a divot!”
Although this is the 42nd edition of the tournament, course form is only relevant for the last four years, with Golf du Palais Royal staging each event since 2011.
After last week's non-event - literally - in Madeira, the field this week is decent.
Those taking the Marrakesh Express (one for Crosby, Stills & Nash fans there) to the Moroccan coast include multiple European Tour winners George Coetzee, Ross Fisher, Alexander Levy, Andy Sullivan, Pablo Larrazabal, Rafa Cabrera-Bello and all four of the previous champions (see below) at this venue
Winners at Golf du Palais
2014 Alejandro Canizares (-19)
2013 Marcel Siem (-17)
2012 Michael Hoey (-17)
2011 David Horsey (-13)
NB: All four were previous winners on the European Tour. Canizares had one previous win, Siem two and Hoey three. A bit of experience appears to count.
Golf du Palais Royal was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Agadir. This is linksland with bumpy fairways built on sand and small, sloping greens protected by deep bunkers. Visually it offers something different, though, with many of the fairways tree-lined and, of course, it's all surrounded by majestic walls that stand in front of the Atlantic Ocean. At just 6,951 yards, it's very short for a par 72 and the par-5 10th hole played to an average of just 4.37 last year. Hopefully, their royal highnesses don't give away precious jewels for each eagle as there were 46 last year so they won't have many left. One quick note, the 2011 event shared hosting duties with Golf De L'Ocean (surely you don't need that translated).
After the carnage in Madeira which caused the tournament to be cancelled (only 18 holes had been played), the good news is that the forecast is lit up by sunshine. Temperatures are due to hover around the high 70s and perhaps creep into the early 80s while the percentage chance of rain is 0. Winds can definitely be a big factor here but they're due to be modest for the first three days before rising to 15mph in Sunday's final round.
Stats of winners
Canizares (DA 16th, DD 35th, GIR 1st, Putts Per GIR 4th, Sand Saves 50%)
Siem (DA 15th, DD 16th, GIR 7th, Putts Per GIR 11th, Sand Saves 67%)
Hoey (not recorded on European Tour website - honestly!)
Horsey (again, none exist)
There's not much to go on but, as you might expect on a short course, Driving Distance is the least important stat while hitting lots of Greens In Regulation is clearly a good idea.
The Leading Contenders
The pony-tailed German has been trying his luck on the PGA TOUR of late and with a fair degree of success too. He was T18 at Pebble Beach (R3 63) and, after an opening 78, closed with a 67 to recover to T38 in the WGC-Cadillac Championship. His biggest appeal this week, however, is that he’s a former champ at ‘The Palace’. Siem won the title in 2013, taking the lead with a 64 and completing a wire-to-wire three-shot victory. The four-time European Tour winner was on course to make a good defense when sitting in the top 10 at halfway last year but limped home with a pair of 75s to finish T48.
An excellent winner of his home Tshwane Open (it really was his home as he’d been a member of the club since a boy) a fortnight ago, Coetzee kept the engine running by playing in a Sunshine Tour event (Investec Cup) last week and finished third. He topped the Scrambling stats in both those events even though chipping is supposed to be his weakness. The laidback South African enjoys the Golf du Palais Royal and two appearances in this tournament have brought him a fourth in 2011 and a T11 last year.
If it’s reliability you want, Fisher is offering exactly that with six top 30s from the six events he’s played this season. That run includes a second place in the Nedbank Golf Challenge before Christmas, T9 in Abu Dhabi, T20 in Dubai and T23 in the WGC-Cadillac. Add it all up and Fisher sits third on the Race to Dubai. He had his first crack at this tournament last year and finished T37. The Englishman will be looking to break 70 at Golf du Palais Royal for the first time this week.
The fire-at-the-flags Frenchman returns to the European Tour after a three-tournament stretch in the U.S. He had some good rounds (a 67 at Pebble, a 68 at Doral) but overall it will go down as a learning experience after two missed cuts and a T38 at the WGC-Cadillac. His last two outings on the European Tour resulted in a T29 in Dubai and a T20 in Abu Dhabi while Levy has finished T37 and T35 on his two starts here. On a course that requires strategy, perhaps something similar looks likely again.
There’s plenty to like about Larrazabal this week. He’s finished T20 in his last two starts (Dubai, Malaysia) and can bring course form to the mix too. The Spaniard was ninth on his second start in this event in 2012 and took solo fourth the following year after going into the final day in T2. The concern for gamers would be that this is his first start in seven weeks. Keep checking Twitter if he’s on your shortlist but you can’t quite pull the trigger. He’s prolific on there and last week said, “1 more week of preparation to go. We will be stronger than ever in Morocco.”
After his heroics in South Africa which brought him his first two European Tour wins (January’s South African Open and March’s Joburg Open), the cheery Englishman looked in need of a break after missed cuts in the African and Tswhane Opens. He’s managed only one week off though and it’s pretty obvious why. Sullivan loves this event and following a T17 on debut he finished runner-up last year after charging through the field with a Sunday 63. If the batteries have quickly recharged, he could be a big factor.
The young Argentine continues to catch the eye and already this year his CV shows a fifth place in Qatar and a play-off loss (he was one of five battling it out in overtime) at the PGA TOUR’s Puerto Rico Open. We can forgive him the missed cut at the following week’s Valspar Championship. Gamers will go for him on those results alone but Grillo can add course form to the equation, courtesy of a T11 on his only appearance in this event two years ago.
Jaco Van Zyl
After a run of 2-5-15 in the three latest co-sanctioned events in South Africa, Van Zyl stayed hot with a runner-up finish in last week’s Sunshine Tour event, the Investec Cup. On current form, he’s one of the leading contenders in the field and, intriguingly, Van Zyl also lost a play-off in this event in 2011. Four years on he’s still looking for a first European Tour success but the planets look aligned for another challenge.
After unexpected missed cuts in the Joburg and Africa Opens, the Frenchman resumed normal service with a steady top 10 at the Tshwane, hitting 80.6% of greens in regulation. Bourdy sits 26th in the Race to Dubai thanks to that effort, a pair of top fives in Malaysia and Qatar along with a T13 in Dubai. He likes links golf so this should be a good event for him. That’s partly the case as his course form mixes two top 20s and two missed cuts. He was T7 at halfway last year before finishing T17.
It’s perhaps the only chance we’ll get, so let’s take this opportunity to describe him as the course horsey. It was love at first sight for the Englishman, who won the inaugural Trophee Hassan II at this venue, and the fire still burns bright. He was 14th the following year, runner-up in 2013 and shot his lowest 18 (a 64) when T8 last year. The timing could be perfect for him again this year as he heads to Morocco on the back of a T10 at the Tshwane Open. He’d missed four of his previous five cuts before that.
RCB was surprisingly subdued on the Gulf Swing – a part of the schedule where he normally shines – but after two missed cuts and a T38 there he’s found some decent results in other parts of the globe. He restored some confidence with a T38 in Malaysia, played well to finish T10 in Puerto Rico and stayed on the PGA TOUR to finish a decent T44 in the Valspar Championship. The jet-setting Spaniard should now be ready to challenge here having finished T5 last year.
Although Canizares was 3-for-3 at Gold du Palais Royal, no finishes inside the top 30 meant his chance was hardly obvious last year. An opening 62 altered expectations and he rode that hot start to bank his first European Tour win since 2006. The Spaniard’s hopes of making a strong defence look good as he’s nestled in at 25 in the Race to Dubai standings thanks to a T3 in Malaysia, an eighth in Qatar and a T12 in Abu Dhabi.
The Englishman slots in at 34 on this year’s Race To Dubai and has course form too so looks a definite contender for a spot on the 10-man team available for European Tour Fantasy gamers. Waring’s last three finishes include a T3 in Malaysia and a T13 in Joburg while at Golf du Palais Royal he was T15 in 2013 and T8 last year. He hasn’t shot over par in eight rounds at this unique venue.
Green has a strong links pedigree (he’s finished 4th and T16 in two of his last four Open Championship starts) so should be a good fit for this course. Past results here don’t quite give 100% support to that theory but T24 (2013) and T30 (2014) suggest that he’s close enough. In his last three worldwide starts the Aussie globetrotter has finished T25 in Dubai, won his home Victorian Open and bagged a T15 in Thailand.
The lanky Swede once lost a playoff in the Moroccan Open although that was way back in 1992 and at a different venue. That said, he enjoyed his return to the country last year when finishing T11 on this week’s course. Karlsson finished 34th on last year’s Race To Dubai – his best effort since 2010 – but is struggling so far in 2015. He’s made 4-of-5 cuts worldwide but his best is T45 in Abu Dhabi and he hasn’t broken 70 in his last 15 rounds.
The Aussie deserves our attention this week on two counts. In his one start at Golf du Palais Royal, Ormsby shot four sub-par rounds (68-71-70-68) to finish T5 and two recent starts on the European Tour’s jaunt around Asia brought a T11 in Malaysia and a T7 in Thailand. One negative would be that all the previous champions at this venue had already won on the European Tour. Ormsby hasn’t.
Howell posted a top 25 in a Moroccan Open as long ago as 1999 but his best effort in this country came at this venue in 2013 when a closing 68 lifted him to solo eighth. A strong links pedigree (T7 in 2007 Open, winner of 2013 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland) suggests he’ll feature prominently again – especially after some strong recent performances in South Africa where he finished runner-up in Joburg and closed with three 68s to take T23 at the Tshwane on his last start.
A picture of Anthony Wall lifting the trophy next to the walls of the King’s Palace would make for some nice symmetry and it’s a photo opportunity that could come to pass. The veteran has three top 15s in his last six starts, culminating in a second place at the Joburg Open on his last start. Put a tick next to course form too as he was T17 (shot three rounds of 69) on his only start here in 2012.
With two European Tour wins to his name already, Quesne has the tools to win in a less than stellar field like this. For evidence that this could be his week again, turn to his ninth spot here on his last visit in 2013 and also a recent top 10 in the Africa Open.
The smooth swinger has appeared in all four editions of this event at Golf du Palais Royal. The promise of a T19 on debut hasn’t been fulfilled (missed cuts in 2012 and 2013; T33 last year) but, in theory, he should go well here given how many greens he hits. He’s in good nick too having produced a run of 8-MC-16-9 in in his last four European Tour starts.
Like fellow Englishman Rock, Bland was also T19 on debut in 2011 but he’s fared better since and last year shot 69-70-70-68 to finish T5 – one of just three top 10s he managed in 2014. Bland has shown some good early-season form with a T11 in Malaysia and a T18 in Joburg.
The young Frenchman has been one of the stars of the season so far following his victory in the prestigious Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and further top fives in the South African Open and Dubai Desert Classic. Stal, who occupies 8th spot in the Race to Dubai, made his debut in this event last year and finished T33. He’s cooled off on his latest two starts (MC in Malaysia and T70 at the WGC-Cadillac) but it would be no surprise to see him involved in the finish on Sunday.
The monster-hitting Belgian will surely be a winner soon but the smart money says it won’t come here. Driving Distance seems a wasted talent at this venue so Pieters’ powers are likely to be negated. It’s no surprise, then, that he missed the cut on debut here last year when carding 76-72.
I include Quiros here mainly to offer further evidence that big hitting doesn’t pay at Golf du Palais Royal. The Spanish bomber has lined up here just once and shot 76-81 to miss the cut by a mile in 2013. He’s dropped hints about a return to top form with T20s in both Dubai and Malaysia recently but it seems unlikely he’ll add another here.
It might take a leap of faith to pick Fleetwood given that he’s shot 80 in his last two final rounds (at the WGC-Cadillac and the Malaysian Open). A loss of adrenalin when out of contention might be a reason for his Sunday flops although it’s harder to explain away his poor putting stats. On the plus side, Fleetwood is good at links golf and made the top 25 here 12 months ago.
The Spaniard has progressive course form figures here of 37-24-11. Last year’s T11 comprised four rounds under par so he knows how to plot his way around. Adding to his appeal this week is a third place in the Africa Open two starts ago and a T15 in Thailand.
The youngster flickered back to life with a T15 in the Tshwane Open on his last start. It ended a run of seven starts without a top 50 which had followed a T5 in the South African Open. The former U.S. Amateur champ has the game for links golf and he’s been hitting lots of greens recently. He’s your sleeper this week.
Who’s On The Team?
A high ranking on the 2015 Greens In Regulation stats looks a good place to start this week so recent Puerto Rico playoff loser Emiliano Grillo (24th) appears a strong contender for Fantasy Star Pick and an each-way bet – especially when you factor in his course form (T11 on only start).
Robert Rock is 23rd in GIR this year and is in decent form as well so get him on board. Veteran English colleagues David Howell and Anthony Wall make appeal to gamers/bettors too while Matt Fitzpatrick could be an interesting outsider at three-figure odds.
To see my full 10-man team for the European Tour Fantasy Game, check out Playing The Tips on Tuesday.
One To Fade
Alexander Levy is in the top half-dozen in the betting and is clearly on the rise. But his all-out attacking approach doesn’t work everywhere and this may prove a puzzle he won’t solve.