The European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre is one of Steve's favourite tournaments and he's struggled to limit himself to just five pre-event picks...
"Crans is a tricky and fiddly track so it’s no surprise to see that the quality players shine and it’s also not surprising that debutants have a poor record. Experience of this unique and beautiful venue is a huge plus."
First staged way back in 1923 as the Swiss Open, the European Masters has been a mainstay of the European Tour since it began in 1972 and it's been a co-sanctioned event with the Asian Tour since 2009. This will be the 80th edition.
Crans-sur-Sierre, Crans Montana, Switzerland
Par 70, 6848 yards
Stroke index in 2013 (par 71) - 70.76
This is one of my favourite events of the year and mainly because of the setting. The spectacular Crans Montana mountain range is constantly in view and Crans-sur-Sierre is as easy on the eye as it gets.
The course dates right back to 1908 but has been tweaked quite a bit of late. Significant changes came in 1999, when Seve Ballesteros oversaw a redesign, and prior to last year's renewal changes were made to four holes (10, 12, 13 and 17) with the biggest coming at the par 13th, which now has a couple of lakes in front of the green and a seating area behind it. This year, changes have been made to holes 1, 2, 4, 5, 9 and 14...
The fairways and fairway bunkers have been remodelled on holes 1, 2 and 4 but the biggest changes have come elsewhere. The tee has been moved back by 25 yards on the par 4 5th, so that's no longer drivable, and the 9th has been completely remodelled with changes to the fairway and bunkering as well as a completely new green and green complex. The 14th hole, previously an easy par 5, has been reduced in length by just 38 yards and will be played as a par 4 so expect that to be the toughest hole on the course this year.
The fairways are slopey, mostly tree-lined, and of average width and the greens are small and upturned-saucer like. They've had the worst summer in 60 years, with an awful lot of rain, so the greens are predicted to run at just 10.5 on the stimpmeter. Water is in-play on six holes - 10, 12, 13, 14, 17 and 18 and holes 6 and 7 are drivable par 4s - although hardly anyone takes on the tight 6th, the vast majority will have a dig at the 7th.
Live on Sky all four days - 10:30 and 14:30 on Thursday and Friday, midday on Saturday and 11:00 on Sunday
Last Five Winners
2013 - Thomas Bjorn -20 (playoff)
2012 - Richie Ramsay -16
2011 - Thomas Bjorn -20
2010 - Miguel Angel Jimenez -21
2009 - Alexander Noren - 20
What Will it Take to Win The European Masters?
Alex Noren ranked fourth for driving distance in 2009 but he's the only winner to rank inside the top-ten in the last ten years. Being at altitude, Crans doesn't play as long as its yardage and accuracy off the tee isn't vital either. Thomas Bjorn ranked second when he won here in 2011 and Miguel Angel Jimenez ranked sixth but they're the only two in the last ten years to rank inside the top-ten for finding fairways. It's all about finding greens and/or scrambling really well.
When Luke Donald won ten years ago he putted the lights out but every winner since has ranked inside the top-six for either greens in regulation, scrambling or both. The greens are really small and tricky and you either have to find them relentlessly or you need to scramble brilliantly.
Is There an Angle In?
Bjorn hadn't been in the best of form when he won 12 months ago but the vast majority of winners have been. Ramsay had finished sixth the week before he won and when Bjorn took the title in 2012 he was winning back-to-back following victory at Gleneagles in the Johnnie Walker Championship. A year early, Edoardo Molinari ran Jimenez close having also won at Gleneagles the week before.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The European Masters has a very impressive list of winners and many true greats have won here. In addition to recent champions, Bjorn and Jimenez, major champions Nick Faldo, Seve, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ian Woosnam and Ernie Els have all claimed the crown and class acts Colin Montgomerie Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood have all won here in the modern era.
The event doesn't have the quality it once had with the majority of high profile Europeans chasing the huge pots of cash Stateside at this time of year but in the last few years, with the possible exception of Ramsay, the cream has risen to the top.
Crans is a tricky and fiddly track so it's no surprise to see that the quality players shine and it's also not surprising that debutants have a poor record. Experience of this unique and beautiful venue is a huge plus.
Last year's winner, Bjorn, was tied for fifth and just three adrift after round one and was never worst than second thereafter. And that's pretty typical of Crans winners. A fast start is usually essential.
The 2012 winner, Ramsay, was six off the lead and tied for 33rd after round one but he was an anomaly and the first winner to be further than five adrift after the opening round since Costantino Rocca in 1997. In the years 2000, 2001 and 2003 all three winners won wire-to-wire and the next four winners were never more than three back at any stage.
The opening hole, a par 5, is always the easiest on the course. Last year it averaged just 4.27 and now that the 14th is a par 4, the front nine is going to the much easier nine. I suspect that may even eclipse the consistently tough par 3 16th as the toughest hole on the course and that seven of the final nine holes will be amongst the hardest nine, with only the par 5 15th and the straight forward 17th offering easy chances to score.
That needs bearing in mind if you're trading in-running and over the first two days in particular. Anyone starting on the back-nine and up with the leaders as the make the turn will be worthy of close consideration
Jamie Donaldson heads the market and rightly so. Had he not had the constant strain of having to win to qualify for the Ryder Cup last time out, he may well have won the Czech Masters a bit easier than he did. He's never been straight forward in-contention, although his three European tour titles have all now come in the last three seasons, and I didn't feel he represented value in the Czech Republic with so much pressure on his shoulders. And the pressure did tell to a certain extent, he hit the front a few times and traded very short before making mistakes and drifting out again but now that he's in the team he can surely relax.
He missed the cut he last year but was ninth the year before and third in 2011. I think he'll be as happy as he's ever been given he's just won and made the Ryder Cup for the first time. With Gleneagles on the horizon, he's bound to have kept his game sharp and he's a very worthwhile favourite.
Bjorn is attempting to win his third European Masters title in four years and he comes here on the back of a decent effort in his homeland. I like Bjorn and I wouldn't want to put anyone off him but he's short enough for me at just 16.015/1 - as is Victor Dubuisson. Given he has finished inside the top-ten in each of the last two majors and that he was third here 12 months ago, he's another with very obvious claims, but in what is a fairly competitive heat, I'd have wanted a bit big for someone with just one win to his name.
It doesn't feel quite right leaving course specialist Jimenez out of my plans. He did me a huge favour here when he won four years ago and he absolutely loves the place but I can't ignore how much his form has dipped since he won in Spain in May.
Some weeks I struggle to fancy anyone and others it's hard to get down to a reasonable shortlist. This has been the latter.
As already detailed, I fancy Donaldson to go really well not stress-free and so I've had a stake saving wager on him and I've had very small bets on five others.
Fellow Welshman, Bradley Dredge, won this event in 2006 and has three other top-four finishes. He's finished second in his last two events so is bang in form and although he's notoriously difficult to win with, I felt I couldn't ignore him. And he looks a great bet for anyone who likes to play the top-five and top-ten markets.
Richie Ramsay is another I found impossible to ignore. The 2012 winner is injury free and also in top form after his fourth place finish in Italy last week and he should be confident of another fine effort at Crans. He isn't the best value price I ever came across but I made him a bit shorter than 46.045/1.
David Howell very nearly caught Hennie Otto in Italy on Sunday and if he putts like he did there on Sunday the others won't see him for dust. He won the Alfred Dunhill Championship last year, straight after the Open D'Italia, and he looked a fair price to me for someone playing so well.
And finally, I backed Max Kieffer at a huge price last year and he managed to finish 12th on debut. I may add to my wager should he drift before the off but for now I've had a tiny little nibble at 150.0149/1.
Jamie Donaldson @ 13.5 (stake saver only)
Bradley Dredge 44.043/1
Richie Ramsay @ 46.045/1
David Howell @ 75.074/1
Max Kieffer @ 150.0149/1
I'll be back tonight or more likely in the morning with my BMW Championship preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter