The European Tour starts its three-week Iberian swing with a welcome return to Valderrama for the Andalucía Masters. Steve Rawlings previews the event here...
"I know Rasmus Højgaard is making his course debut this week but he's been making his debut every week given he's so new to the Tour and it isn't stopping him."
The Andalucía Masters made a welcome return to the European Tour schedule three years ago, six years after it had last been staged. The tournament had only twice previously been played, with Graeme McDowell winning the inaugural event in 2010 before Sergio Garcia claimed the second edition 12 months later and the Spaniard took the title for a third time in 2018.
With G-Mac, Sergio and last year's winner Christiaan Bezuidenhout all absent, someone new is going to win this week's sixth edition.
Real Club Valderrama, Sotogrande, Spain
Par 71, 7,001 yards
Stroke Index in 2019 - 72.81
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr, and opened in 1985, Valderrama is a short, tree-lined course with Bermuda fairways and Bentgrass greens.
In addition to this tournament, Valderrama was also used on the European Tour in April 2016 when it hosted the Open de Espana, won by Andrew Johnston. Prior to the inception of the Race to Dubai, it was the home of the now defunct season ending, money list deciding, Volvo Masters, between 1988 and 1996 and again between 2002 and 2008. It was also the host venue for the 1997 Ryder Cup and also for the WGC-American Express Championship (now the WGC-Mexico Championship) in 1999 and 2000.
It's a tough but beautiful course with narrow sloping fairways, framed by cork trees. The greens are smaller than average, undulating and they usually run at around 12.5 on the stimpmeter. Water is in play on holes four, 10 and 17.
For more on the course, see the hole-by hole guide here.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 11:00 on Thursday
First Five Tournament Winners with Pre-event Exchange
2010 - Graeme McDowell -2 [16.5]
2011 - Sergio Garcia -6 [7.4]
2012-2016 - No Event
2017 - Sergio Garcia -12 [7.0]
2018 - Sergio Garcia -12 (54 holes) [5.5]
2019 - Christiaan Bezuidenhout -10 [120.0]
What Will it Take to Win the Andalucía Masters?
Valderrama is a tight track off the tee and the greens are small so accuracy is the key to success. When winning the Open de Espana four years ago, Andrew Johnston ranked first for both Driving Accuracy and Greens In Regulation and they're often the key stats.
I've looked back at the last three Volvo Masters tournaments to be staged here, as well as the five results of this event, and at Johnson's win four years ago, and the stats are pretty similar. See below.
2019 Christiaan Bezuidenhout -10 (DD: 53, DA: 18, GIR: 66, Sc: 1, PA: 1)
2018 Sergio Garcia -12 (DD: 16, DA: 10, GIR: 4, Sc: 6, PA: 7)
2017 Sergio Garcia -12 (DD: 8, DA: 12, GIR: 9, Sc: 27, PA: 9)
2016 Andrew Johnston - (DD: 35, DA: 1, GIR: 1, Sc: 20, PA: 25)
2011 Sergio Garcia -6 (DD: 24, DA: 10, GIR: 10, Sc: 4, PA: 8)
2010 Graeme McDowell -3 (DD: 47, DA: 6, GIR: 1, Sc: 18, PA: 4)
2008 Soren Kjeldsen -8 (DD: 41, DA: 29, GIR: 22, Sc: 4, PA: 12)
2007 Justin Rose -1 (DD: 4, DA: 26, GIR: 8, Sc: 7, PA: 3)
2006 Jeev Milkha Singh -2 (DD: 52, DA: 52, GIR: 17, Sc: 16, PA: 15)
DD= Driving Distance
DA= Driving Accuracy
GIR=Greens In Regulation
Bezuidenhout's ranking of 66th for Greens In Regulation really went against the grain as the previous eight course winners had an average Greens In Regulation ranking of 9.0 but ranking first for Scrambling made sense and made up for it.
The last nine course winners have an average Scrambling ranking of 11.44, so hitting the tiny greens is important and getting up-and-down when they're inevitably missed is also key but looking at the stats, a good week with the putter is also very important.
The last nine course winners have had an average Putting Average ranking of 10.11. Bezuidenhout topped the rankings last year, the first three home in 2018 ranked seventh, 15th and ninth, the top-three in 2017 ranked ninth, sixth and first and the first five home here in this event in 2011 all ranked inside the top-10 for that stat.
Although not right on the coastline, Valderrama often experiences windy conditions and that's another reason for the higher than average scoring. An ability to handle breezy conditions well is often crucial, and that certainly looks to be the case this week looking at the forecast.
Is There an Angle In?
Bezuidenhout had only played here once before he won last year and Johnston won here on debut four years ago, so it is possible to take to the course straight away, but course experience is extremely beneficial.
Garcia's form here is very obvious but the runner-up in 2018, Shane Lowry, had finished 18th, fourth and 12th in three previous visits and the second in 2017, Joost Luiten, had also finished second to Johnston in 2016. Garcia could only finish third that year and another course winner, Soren Kjeldsen, was back in fourth.
In the 2011 edition of this event, only one of 19 debutants (Richie Ramsay) bettered 73 in round one. It's also interesting to see that Bezuidenhout's first round here was a 77 but he followed that with a 68 and a 69 to finish 29th over 54-holes in 2018 so the clues were there.
It's a quirky little track so it stands to reason that course form holds up well and backing first-timers is risky.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The cream tends to rise to the top at Valderrama and having an outsider win last year was very unusual - although I do rate Bezuidenhout very highly and I suspect he'll have a great career.
Major winners Justin Rose, Garcia, G-Mac, Tiger Woods, Mike Weir and Bernhard have all won here. And Ian Poulter, Colin Montgomerie, Paul McGinley, Mark McNulty and Soren Kjeldsen are all multiple winning, top-class pros that have tasted success at the venue.
Last Five Tournament Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Final Round
2019 - Christiaan Bezuidenhout led by five strokes [1.56]
2018 - Sergio Garcia led by four strokes [1.15]
2017 - Sergio Garcia led by one stroke [1.7]
2011 - Sergio Garcia led by two strokes [1.67]
2010 - Graeme McDowell tied for the lead [1.76]
Having sat second and one back after the opening round, Bezuidenhout dominated the event thereafter. He was leading by four at halfway, by five through 54 holes and he went on to win by six!
The event was reduced to three rounds in 2018 but the result was never really in doubt then either. Garcia sat third and two off the lead after round one but a sensational 64 saw him scoot four clear after round two and he went on to maintain the margin at the finishing line.
Having tied for the lead after round one, Garcia and Luiten dominated the event three years ago, never falling outside the first three places at any stage and in what transpired to be another example of the class-acts dominating at Valderrama, the two finished the week separated by a solitary stroke but four clear of the remainder. Yet another example of how important a fast start is.
Johnston sat second after rounds one, two and three when winning the Open de Espana here four years ago before pouncing to win and the last eight course winners have been inside the front five places all week long. The last three winners of this event and the five course winners before Johnston were all in front with a round to go. All five winners of this event have been in front and odds-on with a round to go.
Every course winner and beaten playoff protagonist since 1996 (as far as I've gone back) has been inside the top-five places with a round to go, and all bar two have sat inside the front three, but it is possible to make up a reasonable strokes deficit...
Simon Dyson and Soren Kjeldsen sat second and fourth, trailing by four and seven strokes respectively, with a round to go in 2007 but both made it to a playoff before getting beat by third round leader Justin Rose and Paul McGinley trailed by four after 54 holes when he won here in 2005. Poulter won from three back after three rounds in 2004 and Langer trailed by four in fifth place after 54 holes in 2002.
If you're planning to bet in-running, the finish is really tough. The par five 17th is a birdie chance but it's risky to go for the green in two with water in play and holes 15, 16 and 18 ranked as the third, sixth and second hardest last year.
On the back of his fast-finishing fifth in the UK Championship on Sunday, Bernd Wiesberger has been backed down to favouritism, despite having never played here before, and he makes little appeal.
His scrambling and putting stats were good last week but I'm not sure how much credence to give those numbers. They could be a flash in the pan given that he ranked 78th and 63rd for Scrambling and 52nd and 57th in his two previous outings.
Last week's winner, Rasmus Højgaard, is also making his Valderrama debut this week but at [18.5], he's drifted to a price that's worth taking. His form figures on the UK Swing read a phenomenal 2-6-3-1 and that victory was his second in just 12 starts on the European Tour.
Højgaard started slowly at the Belfry so there's a risk he gives up his chance on Thursday given his unfamiliarity with the course but he's ranked first, first, third and sixth for GIR in his four starts since the restart and he topped the Putting Average rankings last week.
The 19-year-old spoke last week about how comfortable he is playing in windy conditions so that's in his favour this week and it would be no surprise at all to see him contend again. Or indeed, win again.
Andy Sullivan is another trading at a far bigger price on the exchange than he is on the High Street and I'm not really sure why. He has form figures at Valderrama reading a very respectable 16-18-13 given those figures were produced when he wasn't playing anywhere near as well as he is now and his stats are good too. He ranked second for Scrambling when he won the English Championship three starts ago and he ranked first for Strokes Gained putting last week when finishing ninth at the Belfry.
In two starts here, Thomas Detry has finished 36th and eighth and he was second last time out in the Celtic Classic but I'm more than happy to swerve him given he's still in search of his first European Tour win. The same applies to Martin Kaymer, who's looking for his first victory in six years.
The 35-year-old German has form figures reading 6-2-21-23-6-27 and he was in fine form at the Belfry last week but he should have got over the line there and winning again is definitely an issue.
I was intending to wait until the off and to see if I could back Rasmus Højgaard in running again but given he's such a big price, I'm happy to get him onside now. He's 14/1 in a place and generally a 12/1 shot on the High Street so quite what he's doing trading at [19.0] is beyond me. I know he's making his course debut this week but he's been making his debut every week given he's so new to the Tour and it isn't stopping him.
I fancy Andy Sullivan to have a good week and I was more than happy to chance him at [19.5] and my only other fancy is the back in-form Sami Valimaki.
The fact that the 22-year-old Finn hasn't played here before is a negative but having won the Oman Open back in March, he's returned to form of late, finishing sixth in the Celtic Classic and second in the Wales Open, where he enhanced his reputation nicely. Given he won't mind the breezy conditions, I thought [55.0] was more than fair.
Rasmus Højgaard @ [19.0]
Andy Sullivan @ [19.5]
Sami Valimaki @ [55.0]
I'll be back later today with my Tour Championship preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
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