This will be just the ninth edition of the Portugal Masters, which was first staged in 2007. Steve Webster won the inaugural tournament and an Englishman has won the event every alternate year. Organisers will be hoping for better weather this time around as last year's event was curtailed badly by rain, with Alexander Levy winning over just 36 holes but the forecast suggests more rain again this weekend.
Oceânico Victoria Golf Course, Vilamoura, Portugal.
Par 71, 7209 yards
Stroke index in 2014 - 69.52
The Arnold Palmer-designed Oceânico Victoria opened in 2004 and it staged the World Cup of Golf a year later, when Wales won a weather-shortened event. An exposed course with water in play on seven holes - it's been the venue for this tournament from day one. The well-bunkered fairways are of an average width and the bentgrass greens are large and undulating. The rough is usually minimal and often not very punishing. I played the course in August and there was no rough at all but they were closing it to run an over seeding exercise to try and get it a bit thicker.
Prior to the 2012 edition of event the rough was changed to Bermuda and the third hole was changed from a par five to a par four and the par five 12th has been lengthened a couple of times. It went from 547 in 2012 to 593 two years but it still ranked as the easiest hole on the course. It was lengthened again to 610 yards prior to last year's renewal and it ranked as the second easiest hole.
It's a course that the pros devour. Last year's winning score was 18-under and they only played two rounds! It was rain-softened last year which made scoring even easier but this is where we could witness the European Tour's first sub-60 round. Martin Kaymer shot 61 in the opening round of the very first staging, Scott Jamieson shot 60 in round three two years ago and Nicolas Colsaerts opened up last year's renewal with a 60 before Levy shot 61 in round two.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2014 - Alexander Levy -18 (36 holes)
2013 - David Lynn -18
2012 - Shane Lowry -14
2011 - Tom Lewis -21
2010 - Richard Green -18
What Will it Take to Win The Portugal Masters?
With the first five winners ranking 11-1-12-43-4 for Driving Distance, I used to think big hitters had quite an advantage here but David Lynn was by no means long off the tee and he ranked just 67th for DD when he won two years ago and Levy ranked just 40th last year.
Driving Accuracy is even less relevant with Lee Westwood, in 2009, the only winner ranking inside the top-ten for that stat. The eight winners to date have an average Greens In Regulation ranking of 17.12 and three of the last four have ranked first or second for Scrambling but in order to win, whatever the stats say, you need to make lots and lots of birdies.
Only one of the eight winners has ranked outside the top-three for birdies (David Lynn -ranked 6th) and five of the eight have made more birdies than anyone else. Here are the top-ten Birdie Average rankings over the last three months on the European Tour.
Is There an Angle In?
Two courses that appear to correlate nicely are the Emirates, home of the Dubai Desert Classic, and Doha, the venue for the Qatar Masters. Last year's winner, Levy, doesn't have any form at either course but the runner-up, Colsaerts, has top-tens at both tracks and five of the first seven winners had plenty of form at both venues.
The 2013 winner, Lynn, who has since retired, was third in Dubai and he had back-to-back top-11 finishes in Qatar. In 2013 and 2014, the inaugural event winner, Webster, finished fourth and fifth in Qatar and seventh and fifth in Dubai. The 2009 winner, Westwood, has been runner-up at the Dubai Desert Classic three times and has twice finished inside the top-five in Qatar. Richard Green, successful here five years ago, has also won the Dubai Desert Classic and has two top-four finishes in Qatar, and Alvaro Quiros, who is now based at Oceânico Victoria, has won all three events.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Levy went off at around 80.079/1 12 months ago and he was the seventh winner in eight years to be un-fancied by the market. Lynn was matched at 120.0119/1 before the off in 2013, Shane Lowry was another 80.079/1 shot and I was lucky enough to back Tom Lewis 12 months before that at a whooping great 160.0159/1.
Green in 2010 and Webster in 2007 were big outsiders and Quiros, in 2008, was another winner to go off at 80.079/1. The only winner that was well-supported before the off was Westwood, in 2009, so don't be afraid to back a few outsiders.
At this early stage, there's a fair bit of rain forecast over the weekend and especially on Sunday so it's not inconceivable that we get another curtailed event. With that in mind, getting the early pacesetters onside makes sense but get ready to lay them back if the rain doesn't arrive as holding on here isn't easy.
Outsiders before the off have obliged in seven of the eight renewals to date and we've also seen a couple of players win having been a huge price on Sunday morning. Lynn shot 63 to win quite comfortably from a tie for 16th and six back two years ago, the two winners before him had both trailed by four with a round to go, and Green had been an incredible seven adrift before going on to win by two strokes in 2010. Quiros is the only third round leader to go on to win and taking on the leaders could be the way to go.
If you're betting in-running, the final four holes at Oceânico Victoria offer up two good birdie chances and two tough holes. The drivable par four 15th and the par five 17th are chances to pick up a stroke or two but the par three 16th isn't straight forward and the finishing hole is really tough - especially off the tee - and a par there is always a good score.
Martin Kaymer and Bernd Wiesberger can't be separated at the head of the market and they both look fairly priced.
I had the temerity to question whether Kaymer has lost his nerve a bit after he dropped away tamely last time out but with more reflection, maybe I was being harsh. He was playing with his dad and his brother there and that might not have been ideal. He's been in fair form of late and he's a fan of the venue. His form figures read 7-30-8-MC-13 and it's hard to envisage him not figuring.
I backed Wiesberger here in 2012 at a tasty 65.064/1 and having led with a round to go, he really should have won. He looked in total control early on in round four but it all changed when he drove in to the water on the 11th hole. He lost his way completely after that and found water again on the 17th to finish with back-to-back bogeys and to fall to fourth.
He came third 12 months later but shot a pair of 71s last year, so he has a mixed bag of form here. He was also tied for 52nd on debut in 2011. The big Austrian is in fine fettle this year and he comes here fresh off a top-four finish in the Alfred Dunhill Championship. He impressively won the prestigious Open de France back in July and it wouldn't surprise me to see him win again here.
Chris Wood finished ninth at Woburn on Sunday, despite bemoaning his putting on Twitter, and he was tied for fourth in the Dunhill the week before so I'm not surprised to see him so short but is he enough of a birdie-making machine to take this title?
Søren Kjeldsen came up just shy at the British Masters last week when finishing runner-up to Matthew Fitzpatrick and that was his third top-ten in-a-row but he looks plenty short enough here.
Woburn was perfect for his neat and tidy game, whereas this is a totally different test. He missed lots of short putts last week and he has to lift himself having traded at odds-on through the turn and that won't be easy. If you're looking for one to take on in the Top 5 and Top 10 markets, this affable Dane could be perfect given he's never bettered 16th here in eight starts.
At the top of my shortlist this week was Thomas Pieters and I was more than happy to take 33/1 on the Sportsbook. After back-to-back victories in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, the big hitting Belgian missed the cut at the Alfred Dunhill and finished tailed off at Woburn but they're two efforts that are easy to overlook. He must have been running on fumes in Scotland and Woburn was simply too tight off the tee for him. This is much more his type of test and I can see him bouncing back in style.
Pablo Larrazabal was in-the-mix here two years ago before a disappointing final round saw him drop to a tie for eighth so he has course form in the book. He's not been in great form since winning the BMW International Open in June and he made his first cut in four starts last week but he's found form from seemingly nowhere on numerous occasions before and I thought he was worth chancing at a juicy price.
Sweden's Pelle Edberg is having the oddest of seasons - placing one week and missing the cut the next. This track looks like a suitable venue for his gung-ho style and I'm happy to get him onside again at a big price.
And finally, I was onboard Alvaro Quiros when he won here in 2008 and he's been a favourite of mine for years. I can't possible describe his current form as anything but poor but he owes me nothing and he's now based at the resort so I was happy to throw a few pounds his way at a big price too.
Thomas Pieters @ 33/1 (Sportsbook)
Pablo Larrazabal @ 80/1 (Sportsbook)
Pelle Edberg @ 140.0139/1
Alvaro Quiros @ 140.0139/1
I've previewed this week's PGA Tour event - the Frys.com Open - here and I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
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