The European Tour moves from Italy to France and our man's chancing a pair of Americans. Read Steve's Open de France preview here...
"Kurt Kitayama is playing here for the first time but he might just take to the place and he’s in form. He missed the cut in Las Vegas two weeks ago but in his last three European Tour starts he’s finished 21st, 14th and third on Sunday in Italy, where he ranked fifth for Greens In Regulation and first for Scrambling."
France's Arnaud Massy, who won the Open Championship in 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 three years ago and this is the 103rd staging. The Open de France has been a mainstay on the European Tour since its inception in 1972.
The Open de France has been shuffled back five months in the schedule and it's not a Rolex Series event this year and as a result, the field isn't as strong as usual.
Le Golf National, Paris.
Par 71, 7,247 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 73.35
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
underwent some significant changes prior to the 2016 edition, in preparation for last year's Ryder Cup.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 11:00 on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2018 - Alex Noren -7
2017 - Tommy Fleetwood -12
2016 - Thongchai Jaidee -11
2015 - Bernd Wiesberger -13
2014 - Graeme McDowell -5
What Will it Take to Win the Open de France?
Alex Noren drove the ball well when winning last year, ranking 35th for Driving Distance and second for Driving Accuracy and the driving metrics averages show accuracy is more important than power. The DD average for the last 15 winners is 34.9 and the average DA ranking for the 15 is 19.8 so just like last week in Italy, being straight off the tee is more important that hitting it miles but what you do after the drive is more important.
Noren ranked fifth for Greens In Regulation, three of the front four ranked fifth or better, and eight of the last 14 winners have ranked inside the top-three for GIR so that's a really key stat and so is Scrambling. Noren only ranked eighth last year and the 2017 winner, Tommy Fleetwood, only ranked ninth but Scrambling would be my idea of the most important stat to look at.
Thongchai Jaidee ranked second for Scrambling when he won three years ago, the 2015 winner, Bernd Wiesberger, ranked third when the top-five scramblers all finished inside the top-six places. Jaidee also finished runner-up here five 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 for that stat.
Thomas Pieters, who finished tied 16th, topped the scrambling stats three years ago and Henric Sturehed, who finished 12th was the best scrambler last year but they're the only top scramblers not to place in 16 years! GIR is a stat to concentrate on but Scrambling looks the most important.
Noren only ranked 37th for Putting Average but it's not unusual to see someone to rank poorly for putting and win. Fleetwood's PA ranking in 2017 was only 53rd, Wiesberger ranked just 33rd four years ago and the three winners between 2011 and 2013 had an average PA ranking of just 25.6.
Is There an Angle In?
Fleetwood won the title on his fifth visit and after four missed cuts but he also has a bizarre set of form figures in Abu Dhabi that reads MC-MC-19-MC-MC-1-1-42 so jumping to a conclusion that course form is unimportant here on the back of the 2017 result would be a mistake. Course form usually counts for plenty here.
Noren took his time to get to grips with Le Golf National too, he missed his first three cuts and his next four visits yielded form figures reading 78-37-14-MC but he was trending in the right direction having finished eighth in 2016 and tenth in 2017 before he won last year.
Both Graeme McDowell and Jean-Francois Remesy have won the event back-to-back and there was enough evidence in the 2016 renewal alone to highlight how important course form is.
He's past his best now so we can probably ignore his last two attempts but Jaidee's Paris figures now read 31-MC-26-15-MC-2-10-1-62-MC, the runner-up to Jaidee, Francesco Molinari, was occupying that finishing position for the third time here, Rory McIlroy finished third, six years after he'd fished fourth on his previous visit, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, who finished fourth, had also placed in each of the two previous editions and former winner, Martin Kaymer, finished fifth.
Sometimes I spot a link that could be merely coincidental, and this is one such correlation but it's too strong not to mention. The three Open de France winners before Fleetwood two years ago had all also won the now defunct Ballantine's Championship in Korea...
Graeme McDowell 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 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. Noren gives the link a boost too given his Ballantine's form figures between 2010 and 2013 read 60-5-7-6 and he also gives another link a boost...
Although it's form that's getting old now, it might also be worth checking out the now defunct Wales Open at Celtic Manor where the three winners between 2010 and 2012 were G-Mac, Noren and Jaidee. Unfortunately, we lost the Wales Open in 2014, when Joost Luiten claimed the title, but it's definitely worth investigating. Fleetwood finished second to Luiten in Wales and the man who finished second to Fleetwood here two years ago, Peter Uihlein, was the runner-up in Wales in 2013. And finally, South Africa's Richard Sterne has finished second at both venues.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
This an event that appears to be shifting somewhat. Outsiders used to have a really good record but the winners have been somewhat easier to find of late.
Noren was a fairly well-fancied 19.5 chance last year and although he had no course form, Fleetwood was in fine fettle in 2017 so he was a well-supported 25.024/1 chance. Jaidee was a 60/1 chance 12 months earlier, Wiesberger was generally a 38.037/1 chance four years ago and G-mac was a 16.015/1 shot in 2014, a year after winning at 34.033/1, so the last six winners haven't been impossible to find by any means. Longshots had a decent enough record before McDowell's first victory though and six of the eight winners before 2013 were matched at a triple-figure price before the off.
Although never in front until day four, Fleetwood was in the van from the get-go in 2017 and Jaidee was magnificent in 2016, calmly converting a two-stroke lead into a four-stroke winning margin but this is usually a really hard track to hold on and eight of the last ten 54-hole leaders have been beaten.
Every winner here has been inside the top-ten places through 54 holes but we've seen plenty of strokes made up on a Sunday. We've seen winners come from two, three, four, five and seven adrift and when McDowell defended the title five years ago, he trailed by eight with a round to go!
Noren trailed by seven with a round to go last year and he was one of five men to trade at odds-on in round four. Marcus Kinult, who had led after round three, was matched at a low of 1.8810/11, Jon Rahm hit 1.981/1, Julian Suri was matched at 1.9520/21 and the eventual second, Chris Wood, traded all the way down to 1.454/9 before bogeys at 15 and 17 did for his chances. It's a really difficult finish and posting a score and waiting for the rest to fail has often been the way the title's been decided.
The 17th was the seventh hardest hole last year but in the two previous renewals, the 17th and 18th had ranked as the two most difficult holes on the course. In 2016 they averaged 4.35 (17th) and 4.29, in 2017 it was 4.32 (17th) and 4.42 and last year they averaged 4.18 and 4.53.
Previously a par five, the 18th is repeatedly the hardest hole on the course but after the par five 14th, it's a tough finish all round, with the final four playing a combined 1.21 strokes over-par so if your fancy is in front with four to play you might want to bank some profit and if you're planning to trade in running on Sunday, anyone already in the house will have a distinct advantage on anyone on the same score with 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, playing the last four holes in level-par is a great finish.
The defending champion, Alex Noren, heads the market but he's not playing well enough to chance. He finished 11th at the Open Championship back in July but that remains his best effort this year and his tied ninth at the DP World Championship last November remains his only top-ten finish since his victory here last summer. No thanks.
Now that he's finally off the mark, Erik Van Rooyen, could go on to be quite prolific. He's a fabulous talent but he's put in far too many poor efforts in-contention for me to start considering worth following anywhere at less than 20/1, let alone somewhere he's played just once and missed the cut.
Mike Lorenzo-Vera missed his first five cuts here but he has a fairly strong bank of course form now and his last four outings have produced form figures reading 6-MC-3-16 but he too makes no appeal at a short price. Since finishing sixth in Switzerland and 10th in the KLM Open, he's finished 37th, 15th and 40th last week. That's not hot enough form for me to want to back him, especially given he's still looking to win on the European Tour for the first time at the age the age of 34, on his 192nd attempt, with the added pressure of playing at home.
Matthias Schwab was 37th on debut here last year and he's a rock-solid candidate. Hitting greens and scrambling well is his forte and he's in great form. He also has the added incentive of seeing his fellow Austrian winning his third title of the year in Italy last week. Hard to dismiss and highly likely to contend but too short for my liking given he too is yet to win.
Joost Luiten fits the Wales Open angle in but his course form figures read a slightly uninspiring 42-MC-47-49-18-9-32 and he's not exactly setting the world alight at present. He's a best price of 20/1 with the Sportsbook with eight places up for grabs so that's the place to play him but I'm happy to let him go unbacked.
I may have other selections to add once the market settles and if I do, I'll update the preview and Tweet out any extra picks but for now I've played just two.
Kurt Kitayama is playing here for the first time but he might just take to the place and he's in form. He missed the cut in Las Vegas two weeks ago but in his last three European Tour starts he's finished 21st, 14th and third on Sunday in Italy, where he ranked fifth for Greens In Regulation and first for Scrambling. Already a two-time winner this season, he's more than capable of going in again and securing the Rookie of the Season title one could argue he already deserves.
Korn Ferry Tour graduates have been flourishing on the PGA Tour so far this season so I'm happy to take a monstrous price for a few pounds about another American, Charlie Saxon, who plies his trade on the Korn Ferry and who's stats suggest he could enjoy it here too
Kurt Kitayama @ 44.043/1
Charlie Saxon @ 450.0449/1
I'll be back tomorrow with my CJ Cup preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter