The European Tour moves south from Scotland to Surrey this week for another fine renewal of the British Masters. Read our man's comprehensive preview ahead of Thursday's start at Walton Heath here...
“Stats were produced for the 2011 edition of the Senior Open here and they pretty much fall in line with what one would expect from a course that visually suggests accuracy is more important than power. Driving Accuracy was more important than Driving Distance and four of the top-five ranked inside the top-nine for Greens In regulation.”
The British Masters was first staged in 1946, when originally known as the Dunlop Masters. There was no edition in 1984 and the event was lost from the schedule altogether after Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano won at the Belfry in 2008 but with the help of Sky Sports, it made a successful return to the schedule in 2015 when Ian Poulter hosted the event at Woburn.
The 2016 edition was hosted by Luke Donald at The Grove in Hertfordshire and last year Lee Westwood took his turn as the tournament moved north to Close House in Northumberland. It's the turn of Justin Rose this year as we return south and to Walton Heath in Surrey.
Having different players hosting the tournament and having the tournament moving around from course to course has revived and reinvigorated what is now an eagerly awaiting event.
The Old Course, Walton Heath, Walton on the Hill, Surrey, England
Par 72, 7,394 yards
Designed by Herbert Fowler in 1904, Walton Heath's Old Course is very highly regarded and it's featured in the World's Top 100 rankings every year since their inception in 1938.
It's an exposed, flat, heathland course that's often described as having a links-feel. The heather-framed fairways need to be found, the penal bunkers avoided, and the greens are described on the venue's website as large, hard, fast and true.
Walton Heath was used for the Ryder Cup in 1981, for the European Open five times during the 1970s and 80s, it hosted the Senior Open in 2011 and for the last 14 years, both the the Old and the New courses have been the venue for US Open qualifiers immediately following the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. The 2005 US Open winner, Michael Campbell, qualified via Walton Heath.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 9:30 on Thursday
Last Five Winners
2017 - Paul Dunne -20
2016 - Alex Noren -18
2015 - Matthew Fitzpatrick -15
2009 - 2014 No Tournament
2008 - Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano -12 (Playoff)
2007 - Lee Westwood -15
What Will it Take to Win the British Masters?
The last staging of the European Open here was back in 1991 (Australia's Mike Harwood won with an 11-under-par total). There were no statistics produced for that renewal or for any of the previous four renewals here but stats were produced for the 2011 edition of the Senior Open and they pretty much fall in line with what one would expect from a course that visually suggests accuracy is more important than power.
Driving Accuracy was more important than Driving Distance and four of the top-five ranked inside the top-nine for Greens In regulation.
When Lee Slattery was interviewed following US Open qualification here a few years ago he gave us a few clues too.
"I felt it was really solid (his game), I controlled the ball flight really well. It was really windy out there today but I've grown up on links courses so that was key out there today, so being able to...not necessarily hit it miles out there because it's not that sort of golf course, so just control it and putted solid and everything came together."
Is There an Angle In?
As Slattery alluded to, this is an exposed wind-affected course and the forecast suggests we'll encounter blustery conditions during most of the event so an ability to play well in the wind looks key this week.
I've never been to Walton Heath and I can't remember the European Open there either so to a degree I'm guessing somewhat but I suspect form at Wentworth - another wind-affected Surrey heathland course should translate so ideally, I'm looking for accurate types that can play well in the wind and that have played well at Wentworth, and at the US Open qualifiers here.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Historically, the English have a very solid record in the event, winning five of the last ten renewals, but standards appear to be slipping. After nine straight renewals in which an Englishman has finish either first or second, they've not finished in the one-two in either of the last two renewals and although they've won half of the last ten, they've only won two of the last seven.
That's a perfect example of how stats can be twisted and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a local lift the trophy this time around.
I can see this being quite a demanding week for tournament favourite and host, Justin Rose, and although the course looks right up his street, he looks very short.
Lee Westwood knew his host course, Close House, intimately but he couldn't crack the top-ten (tied 15th), Luke Donald missed the cut when hosting at the Groove and Ian Poulter finished outside the top-30 at Woburn three years ago so hosting looks like a big distraction.
Rose won this event way back in 2002 and it's the only win his late father witnessed in the flesh so it's going to be an emotional week.
Add in his rollercoaster last few weeks which have seen him: blow a chance to win the BMW Championship, reach number one in the world rankings, blow another chance - this time at the Tour Championship, fall out of the number one spot, and still win the FedEx Cup. Also in addition to a hectic Ryder Cup, preparations for this event and the fact that a win will see him return to the top of the rankings, I can see him falling short.
Francesco Molinari should be the favourite in my eyes. The Open Champion loves Wentworth and has the perfect game for Walton Heath. My big concern is fatigue. He was shattered after his Open success and he performed poorly in a couple of events subsequently before his Ryder Cup heroics on another track that matched his game nicely.
If he's fully recovered from his Ryder Cup antics he could show the field a clean pair of heels but that's a big if and I'm happy to leave him out before the off.
Tommy Fleetwood is another Ryder Cupper who could just be shattered. Losing by a stroke at the Dunhill Links Championship last week - an event he'd absolutely love to win - won't have helped his cause any and he definitely looks like one to swerve this week.
I'm really looking forward to seeing Walton Heath but I'm not especially confident about bagging the winner. I can't say I strongly fancy anyone in-particular but I've thrown a few pounds at half-a-dozen players I thought maybe overpriced. They're in the main a mixture of players that can play in the wind, have decent links form, have form at Wentworth, and that have played well at Walton Heath before in the US Open qualifiers.
I'll be back later today with my CIMB Classic preview.
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