European golf fans, usually after Ryder Cup wins, express a strong desire for more matchplay on the schedule and this week their wishes are granted.
The Saltire Energy Paul Lawrie Matchplay at Murcar Links GC is a brand new event which will be part of the Race To Dubai for a minimum of three years.
Lawrie, of course, was part of Europe’s Ryder Cup side at Medinah in 2012 and his 5&3 hammering of Brandt Snedeker was the biggest winning margin in those unforgettable Sunday singles and played a key part in the visitors’ incredible come-from-behind victory.
The 1999 Open winner is a born and bred Aberdonian and used his strong local connections to get this event off the ground and host it in his own back yard.
In truth, this isn’t a huge week for gamers playing the European Tour Fantasy game as the purse is one of the smallest on Tour this year but it’s still well worth having the winner onside, especially if he’s carrying star player status (points are doubled).
Format and Draw
Good news for matchplay purists…. forget round-robin, this is straight knockout. The field of 64 will be whittled down to two finalists over four days of action which will see two rounds played on both Saturday and Sunday. To build anticipation and give the tournament extra publicity, the draw has been held over to Tuesday afternoon and will be made live on Sky Sports News HQ.
The course – Murcar Links GC
Founded in 1909, Murcar Links sits right next door to Royal Aberdeen which hosted the 2014 Scottish Open won by Justin Rose. So, yes, this is a pure links – rugged, challenging, windswept and protected by pot bunkers, burns, gorse, heather and narrow, crumpled fairways. At just 6,409 yards, the par 71 looks mighty short but with plenty of blind shots, gnarly rough and, of course, strong winds blowing in off the North Sea, Murcar Links GC will put up a good fight. Those who can consistently find the short grass off the tee and control their ball in the wind will be best equipped to take it on. The day after finishing T40 in the Open Championship at St. Andrews, Lawrie said on his website, “I popped over to Murcar Links yesterday afternoon and was very impressed how the whole place looks. The course looked in perfect shape.”
Is there any? Well, a little. A Challenge Tour event – the Scottish Challenge – was held there in 2006. Six of this week’s line-up played and three finished in the top 10. They were: 3rd Chris Doak, 4th Richie Ramsay, 8th David Drysdale, 41st Marco Crespi, 50th Alvaro Quiros, MC Scott Jamieson.
As we saw at St. Andrews, Scottish weather is often subject to change and basically does what it wants. Differing weather sites are giving different opinions this week although all show a mix of cloud, sun and rain. Most significant, though, is there’s nothing to suggest that the gusts which played havoc at St. Andrews will appear again. Inevitably there will be wind but nothing extreme.
The Leading Contenders
Aside from Lawrie, no-one will know this course as well as Ramsay as he also hails from Aberdeen. In fact, Ramsay holds the course record at Murcar Links with a nine-under 62. That came on the last day of the 2006 Scottish Challenge when he shot contrasting rounds of 77-63-73-62 to finish fourth. Despite tweeting “short game was poor all week”, the Scot still managed to finish T10 in the Omega European Masters on Sunday so a bit of sharpening up and he’ll be a big contender here with his straight driving and local course knowledge. It’s also worth remembering that he won the 2006 U.S. Amateur under the matchplay format.
After a T4 in the Scottish Open and a prominent showing for 36 holes in the Open Championship (T4 at halfway before sliding to T40), Warren gets another chance to show off his links skills on home soil. He’s got an overall 4-2 winning record in singles matchplay and had three good games in the recent WGC event at Harding Park in San Francisco, beating J.B. Holmes, losing to Brooks Koepka at the 20th hole and being edged out on the final green by Russell Henley.
With two top fives to his name in the Open Championship, Wood will be delighted by the choice of venue this week. A winner of the Lyoness Open last month, the towering Englishman is likely to be a popular pick this week and rightly so. He didn’t qualify for St. Andrews but did get a recent test of his links skills in the Scottish Open at Gullane when shooting 69-69-67-70 to finish T31.
Howell has played on two triumphant Ryder Cup teams (2004 and 2006) and emerged with a winning record (1-1 in singles). Adding to his appeal is a T10 in the recent Scottish Open and a closing 63 to finish T16 in last week’s Omega European Masters where, notably, he topped the putting stats. The Englishman also won the 2013 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland so, in theory, he looks set for a big week.
A winner at the Open de Espana in May, Morrison has since finished runner-up at the Open de France, T11 in both the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and BMW International Open in Germany and, most recently, T20 in the Open Championship at St. Andrews. Few in the field have form anywhere near that.
The young Englishman had 23 birdies and an eagle when third in last week’s Omega European Masters but also seven bogeys and a triple. That attacking philosophy makes him a dangerous opponent in matchplay and he’s also proven himself on links courses by finishing T4 in the Irish Open at Royal County Down and T22 in the Scottish Open at Gullane. Of equal significance is a top four in last year’s Scottish Open as that took place right next door at Royal Aberdeen.
After a miserable run of missed cuts, the Frenchman finally found a spark with a closing 68 to finish T24 in his home Open de France and followed that with a second place in the Scottish Open at Gullane. He missed the cut at St. Andrews but again contended in Switzerland last week, finishing T7 after a double bogey at 18. His putter has warmed up considerably so Jacquelin could be a match for anyone.
The German’s magnificent record of having not missed a cut in 2014 continued in last week’s European Masters where, despite two middle 67s, he had to settle for T44 after a closing 73. While you can’t beat him for four-round consistency, Kieffer will be vulnerable in this format as, invariably, he throws a bad/average round in somewhere. His last four top 10s, for example, have included a title-ruining lap in each (76, 75, 77 and 76).
The hard-working Swede is getting plenty of reward for his efforts in recent weeks and a T10 in Switzerland on Sunday was his fourth finish of T13 or better in the last six events. His stats at Crans-sur-Sierre were particularly eye-catching (1st in Driving Accuracy, 6th in Greens In Reg and 3rd in Putting Average). There is a question mark however. His only two poor performances in the last few months, both missed cuts, came on the links of Royal County Down (Irish Open) and Gullane (Scottish Open).
After an impressive T22 in the Scottish Open at Gullane, a few shrewd pundits thought the Frenchman could be a player on the wider fairways of St. Andrews but, disappointingly, he missed the cut. He also failed to cash in last week’s Omega European Masters. Levy played in the 2014 Volvo World Match Play in late 2014 and also May’s WGC-Match Play at Harding Park but look away now if you think that gives him an edge. Why? He lost six matches out of six.
The 2013 U.S. Amateur champion’s first European Tour win gets closer and he so nearly crossed the line at Crans-sur-Sierre last week before finishing runner-up to Danny Willett. Fitzpatrick still needs to be on a course that really suits to be at this best and, for now, that’s a short track where driving accuracy counts. That describes Murcar Links perfectly and a T8 in the Irish Open at Royal County Down is recent evidence of his links skills.
The Next Rung
So what of the tournament host himself? True, he’ll have lots of extracurricular activities on his plate but he is a links specialist and showed that for 36 holes at St. Andrews last week, going out in the penultimate group in round three after opening 66-70. He also took T17 in the Scottish Open the week before but to make the final this week he’d have to play twice on Saturday and again on Sunday morning so that’s a big ask for the veteran given all that’s going on.
Wall is coming off his second best finish in a major (T12 at the Open Championship) and for a brief moment in the final round at St. Andrews it even looked as if a fairytale victory was on the cards. The Englishman is in the top 50 in the Race To Dubai after a solid season and also sits 30th in Driving Accuracy so is worthy of attention here.
A straight hitter, who grew up playing in the wind. That looks an ideal formula for Murcar Links. The Aussie was T15 in the Open de France and T20 in the Open Championship at St. Andrews while he opened 67-65 in Switzerland last week to lie fifth at halfway last week before, unexpectedly, shooting a third-round 78 and finishing T60. Forgive him the poor weekend and he has strong credentials this week.
If you can forgive him a record of 10 missed cuts in 11 career starts in Scotland (is he allergic to Haggis?), Quesne has enough good form to interest gamers. Eight of his last 11 starts have produced finishes of T27 or better and some solid putting stats contributed to a T24 in Switzerland last week (67-70-69-69).
If hitting fairways proves key this week, Aiken will certainly have an advantage as he slots in at fifth place in the European Tour’s Driving Accuracy stats. He’s also made his last 11 cuts, a run that includes five top 25s although only one of those came in his last seven outings. He got to practice his links skills with a T41 at Gullane and a T80 at St. Andrews but putted poorly in both events and that makes him vulnerable in matchplay.
Bourdy is a fan of links golf – Muirfield is his favorite course – and also sits 20th in Driving Accuracy this year so looks well suited to this week’s layout. A pair of missed cuts on his last two starts doesn’t look good although he did shoot 68 (Scottish Open) and 69 (European Masters) in his second rounds at both events so there isn’t much wrong.
The big-hitting Belgian missed the cut in Switzerland last week (his third halfway exit in four starts) so spent some of his weekend in the Sky Sports commentary box. One obvious problem is that his putter looks ice cold, a stark contrast to his famous Ryder Cup debut when he holed everything (to the point where playing partner Lee Westwood couldn’t stop laughing) in a four-ball win over Tiger and Steve Stricker. Being 198th in Putts Per Round doesn’t bode well for matchplay.
The American has some wild shots in him – one drive in the European Masters in Switzerland nearly ended up in Austria – but you can afford bad holes in matchplay. In the end, he was a respectable T37 at Crans after three rounds in the 60s while a second place in the 2013 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship shows he can play this style of golf.
Jamieson played in the Challenge Tour event at Murcar Links in 2006 but missed the cut which doesn’t really help us but he did take T8 at Royal Aberdeen in last year’s Scottish Open so can perform well in this environment. The Scot shook off a run of three missed cuts with a T31 in last week’s Omega European Masters.
Rock now sits one spot above Tiger Woods in the world rankings but, these days, that means we’re talking about the world Nos. 265 and 266. Unlike Tiger, the Englishman has three top 10s to his name this season, including a third place in last month’s Lyoness Open. His last start produced a T53 in the Scottish Open.
The Thai owns a career singles record of 2-2-2 across various matchplay events. If that’s the mixed news, the good is that he’s a winner this season (April’s China Open) and had top 10s in the Thailand Open and BMW International Open last month. The bad news is that he’s failed to cash in his last four starts and has a poor record (1-for-5) in Scotland.
Canizares arrives in Scotland on the back of a solid T16 in Switzerland where he hit it straight and putted well – a seemingly good recipe for this week. He’s in the top 20 for Driving Accuracy this year and that helped him land a T10 at Wentworth and a T13 in the Nordea Masters.
Dredge looked all set for another good week in the Swiss Alps (he’d had a win and three previous top fours there) when opening 66-67 at the Omega European Masters but was nowhere to be seen at the finish (well, T50) due to a third-round 77. Three of his previous five starts resulted in top 25s including a T10 on the challenging links of Royal County Down so he’s not without a chance here.
Who’s On The Team
Matchplay on a course that most have never seen…. erm, good luck gamers!
This preview has been written before the draw although I’m not sure knowing how the matches set up will help. Genuinely, anyone can beat anyone.
However, there is some logic to apply and it makes plenty of sense to side with straight hitters, most notably local man Richie Ramsay who holds the course record.
Tyrrell Hatton looks another must given his form on links courses this year and birdie barrage in Switzerland last week.
I’ll reveal my full 10-man line-up in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.
One To Fade
Alexander Levy has missed his last two cuts and is 0-6 in matchplay singles.