Our man previews the competitive Open de France at Paris National, where he fancies Ian Poulter to contend again on a track that suits. Read Steve's comprehensive preview here...
"It took Poults a while to get to grips with the track but his last eight visits have produced form figures reading 14-3-30-3-18-4-25 and now he’s found some form, I thought he was worth a small interest at a big price."
France's Arnaud Massy, the Open Champion of 1907, won the first two editions of this event in 1906 and 1907 and the Open de France is the oldest national open in Continental Europe. The tournament wasn't played during the war years and so it celebrated its centenary edition 12 months ago making this the 101st staging. The Open de France has been a mainstay on the European Tour since its inception in 1972.
Falling where it does on the schedule, just a few weeks before the Open Championship, the event nearly always attracts a high-quality field. There's no Rory McIlroy this year (he finished third last year) but Spain's Jon Rahm will be playing in the event for the first time and so too is Scotland's Russell Knox. Both are PGA Tour players but both will have ambitions of playing in the Ryder Cup here next year.
This is the start of a cracking four-week stretch on the European Tour with the Irish and Scottish Opens following over the next fortnight before the Open Championship in three weeks.
Le Golf National, Paris.
Par 71, 7,249 yards
Stroke index in 2014 - 73.04
Le Golf National only opened in 1990 but it's already establishing itself as a truly great venue that provides an extremely demanding test.
It's a fairly exposed track with undulating fairways of average width. The greens are bentgrass, of an average size, and they usually run at around 12 on the stimpmeter. Water is in play on holes 1, 2, 13, 15, 16 and 18.
It's a stadium style course designed by Hubert Chesneau and Robert Van Hagge and it's going to make for a tremendous Ryder Cup in just over a year's time.
The course underwent some significant changes prior to last year's edition, in preparation for the Ryder Cup, and this hole-by-hole guide on the course website details them all.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 9:30 on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2016 - Thongchai Jaidee -11
2015 - Bernd Wiesberger -13
2014 - Graeme McDowell -5
2013 - Graeme McDowell -9
2012 - Marcel Siem -8
What Will it Take to Win The Open de France?
Last year's winner, Thongchai Jaidee, drove the ball as you'd expect a winner here to do. He ranked 22nd for accuracy and 42nd for distance resulting in the last 13 winners averaging 22.7 for Driving Accuracy and 35.7 for Driving Distance. You don't have to hit it monstrously long but being accurate helps although neither stat is vital.
Jaidee ranked 18th for Greens In Regulation and that was a little worse than the average. The previous 12 winners had an average GIR ranking of 9.9 and seven of the last 12 winners have ranked inside the top-three for GIR.
Jaidee ranked second for Scrambling and that was very typical. Getting up-and-down here with regularity is essential. The 2015 winner, Bernd Wiesberger, ranked third for Scrambling and the top five scramblers two years ago all finished inside the top-six places. Jaidee also finished runner-up here three years ago when he also ranked second for Scrambling, with Mathew Baldwin, who finished 5th, ranking first. In 2013, six of the first seven home ranked inside the top-eight for Scrambling and in 2012, four of the first six home ranked in the top-six.
Thomas Pieters, who finished tied 16th, topped the scrambling stats 12 months ago and he was the first to do so and not place in 13 years! In the previous 12 years the top scrambler for the week finished in the places and seven of them finished inside the top-three. GIR is a stat to concentrate on but Scrambling looks the most important.
Jaidee had a Putting Average ranking of third last year and the first three home ranked third, fifth and fourth, but putting well isn't usually vital here. Wiesberger's Putting Average two years ago was just 33rd and he wasn't the only recent winner to have an average week with the flat-stick. Graeme McDowell ranked third three years ago but the three winners between 2011 and 2013 had an average PA ranking of just 25.6.
The big stat to concentrate on may well be Scrambling but an accurate all-round game is the key to success really. Alex Noren was just beginning to get into gear this time last year and he won the Scottish Open a week after he'd finished eighth here, but eighth was probably the best he could have hoped for here given that he only ranked T50th for D.A and 43rd for GIR.
Pieters, who also ranked T50th for D.A, was the only other player in the top-24 to rank that poorly for accuracy off the tee and like Noren; he didn't find the greens enough either - ranking T38th for GIR.
Noren actually scrambled and putted well, ranking seventh for both Scrambling and P.A and his performance highlights nicely how you need that all-round accuracy. This is a tough track and missing too many fairways and greens will take its toll no matter how well you scramble and putt.
Is There an Angle In?
Sometimes I spot a link and it baffles me a bit and this is one such link. The last three Open de France winners have all also won the now defunct Ballantine's Championship in Korea...
G-Mac and Jaidee won the tournament in 2008 and 2009 at the Pinx Gof Club on Jeju Island and Wiesberger's success, in 2012, came at Black Mountain but the two venues may well have similarities. Marcus Fraser and Brett Rumford finished first and second at Pinx in 2010, three years before Rumford beat Fraser in a playoff at Black Mountain.
Rumford has a poor record at Paris National but Fraser, who was 15th last year, was third in 2006 and had Lee Westwood got the better of Martin Kaymer here in the playoff in 2009, we'd have been looking at four players that had won both events. Westwood won at Black Mountain in 2011.
It's a curious correlation but there may be something in it and it might also be worth checking out the now defunct Wales Open at Celtic Manor where both G-Mac and Jaidee have won.
Course form counts for plenty here and I'd think twice about backing anyone that hasn't previously played well here. Both G-Mac and Jean-Francois Remesy have won the event back-to-back and there was enough evidence in last year's renewal alone to highlight how important course form is...
Jaidee's Paris figures now read 31-MC-26-15-MC-2-10-1 and last year's runner-up, Francesco Molinari, was occupying that finishing position for the third time. Rory McIlroy has been placed twice in three starts, Rafa Cabrera-Bello has now been placed two years in-a-row and former winner, Martin Kaymer, finished fifth.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Jaidee was a 60/1 chance 12 months ago, Wiesberger was generally a 38.037/1 chance before the two years ago and G-mac was a 16.015/1 shot in 2014, a year after winning at 34.033/1 so the last four winners haven't been impossible to find before the off but long shots have a decent enough record and six of the eight winners before McDowell were matched at a triple-figure price before the off.
Jaidee was magnificent last year, calmly converting a two-stroke lead into four-stroke margin win but this is usually a really hard track to hold on at and he was just the second third round leader or co-leader to convert in eight years. G-Mac had been tied for the lead after 54 holes when he won the first of his two titles in 2013.
Every winner here has been inside the top-ten through 54 holes but we've seen plenty of strokes made up on a Sunday. We've seen winners come from two, three, four and five adrift and when McDowell defended three years ago, he trailed by eight with a round to go!
The finish is tough at Paris National and last year the 17th and 18th ranked as the two most difficult holes on the course, averaging 4.35 (17th) and 4.29, so if your fancy is in front with two to play you might want to bank some profit and if you're planning to trade in-running on Sunday, a player already in the house will have a distinct advantage on anyone on the same score with still the last two holes to play. That may seem obvious but the market always favours those still on the course, with optimistic punters imagining birdies, but in reality a par-par finish is a great way to end the round.
World number 11, Jon Rahm, heads the market and given his sole victory to date came at Torey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open; he shouldn't be fazed by a tough track like this.
The 22-year-old Spaniard is here to get a taste of the course ahead of next year's Ryder Cup and Captain Bjorn will be pleased by his commitment but I'm not convinced he's worth backing given the depth of the field and that this is his course debut. He's the right favourite and a fair price in comparison with others but I'm happy to wait and see how he takes to the course.
Francesco Molinari is a course specialist extraordinaire and it's highly likely he'll figure but after three second place finishes, can he go one better? He's notoriously difficult to get across the line and he's not for me either before the off at a short price. Although he'll be a very interesting proposition come Sunday morning if he's four, five, six or even more off the lead. He fired a final round 64 in 2012 to move from tied 22nd to second. He may not be a great front runner but he's always worth considering at a big price when chasing.
Another that looks sure to figure is the 2015 winner, Bernd Wiesberger. His form figures here over the last four years read 13-18-1-11 but they don't tell half the story. He shot 65 to win here in 2015 but in 2013 he sat third through 54 holes before he limped home with a 75, in 2014 he fired 77 in round four having sat inside the top-five through 54 holes and then when defending 12 months ago he shot 75 to fall outside the top-ten having sat fourth with a round to.
Tommy Fleetwood did brilliantly to finish sixth last week after a gruelling US Open but this could be the week when he goes a bit flat. He's played here four times previously and not made it to the weekend so that's a big negative and he looks very easy to dismiss.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Alex Noren win this given he's just coming to the boil again and that his Scrambling figures have been spot on of late. He missed the cut at the US Open but prior to that he'd ranked third, fourth and second for Scrambling when finishing 15th at the Players Championship, first at the BMW PGA Championship and 15th at the Nordea Masters but his form figures here read an uninspiring MC-MC-MC-78-37-15-MC-8 and that's off-putting.
Those with fairly decent memories may recall Ian Poulter's hissy fit seven years ago when he found water on the 15th in round four when in with a great chance to win.
He blamed a photographer for his poor shot and claimed he'd never return but he also said it was a title he wanted to win and he was back the following year - although he hasn't played in Paris since 2013. It took Poults a while to get to grips with the track but his last eight visits have produced form figures reading 14-3-30-3-18-4-25 and now he's found some recent form, I thought he was worth a small interest at a big price.
His recent results haven't been brilliant and his last three outings have seem him finish 35th in Texas, 40th at Wentworth (although he never plays well there anyway) and 31st in the St Jude Classic but he was second in the Players Championship only last month and he's been playing better than the results suggest. His DA stats for his last four outings read 23rd, 12th, fifth and third, his GIR rankings have been fifth, 24th, third and fourth and he ranked second for Scrambling when he was runner-up at the Players and sixth at the St Jude Classic last time out. He needs to putt a bit better than he has been doing but a return to familiar greens might just do the trick.
I thought this looked a really tricky and competitive tournament so that will do me before the off but keep an eye on the First Round Leader market. Graeme Storm might be of interest if he's around the 80/1 mark given that he won here ten years ago and that he's led or co-led after round one no less than eight times in his career - including here in 2011.
Ian Poulter @ 50.049/1
I'll be back later with my Quicken Loans National preview.
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