The European Tour heads to the Algarve this week and our man has the lowdown. Read Steve's comprehensive Portugal Masters preview here...
"I’m happy to chance Eddie Pepperell. Since his card-losing calamity of three years ago he’s returned to the venue to finish third and second so he clearly likes the place. He’s a superb links exponent and a winner of the aforementioned Qatar Masters and this is a title I can very easily see him winning at some stage."
First staged in 2007, and won by England's Steve Webster, the Portugal Masters is now an established event on the European Tour. It's always been staged at the Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course (formally known as the Oceânico Victoria) and this will be the 13th renewal. We've seen numerous dramatic finishes but in 12 previous editions, there's never been a playoff.
Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course, Vilamoura, Portugal.
Par 71, 7191 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 69.69
The Arnold Palmer-designed Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course opened in 2004 and it staged the World Cup of Golf a year later, when Wales just edged out Sweden in a weather-shortened tournament.
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 fairly generous in width and the bentgrass greens are slightly larger than average and undulating. The rough is often minimal and not very punishing but might not be case this year. Andy Swales has looked at the venue in detail here and it appears there's been a few changes.
It's a resort course that the pros usually devour and the changes may have very little impact. The two winners before the schedule switch in 2017 amassed a 23-under-par winning score and in 2014 Alex Levy won in 18-under but they only played two rounds! Martin Kaymer shot 61 in the opening round of the very first staging, Scott Jamieson shot 60 in round three seven years ago, last week's winner, Nicolas Colsaerts, opened up the 2015 renewal with a 60 before Levy shot 61 in round two, and of course, last year Vilamoura witnessed the European Tour's first ever sub-60 round when Oliver Fisher posted a 59 in round two.
Prior to the 2012 edition the rough was changed to Bermuda and the third hole was changed from a par five to a par four.
Live on Sky all four days, beginning on Thursday at 11:30.
Last Five Winners
2018 - Tom Lewis -22
2017 - Lucas Bjerregaard -20
2016 - Padraig Harrington -23
2015 - Any Sullivan -23
2014 - Alexander Levy -18 (36 holes)
What Will it Take to Win the Portugal Masters?
The last four winners have ranked 12th, 15th, 25th and 11th for Driving Distance and I'd slightly favour length over accuracy but it's certainly not essential. David Lynn won here six years ago ranking just 67th for DD and Eddie Pepperell finished tied for second last year ranking 58th so a lack of length can be overcome.
Accuracy off the tee is certainly not essential and last year's winner, Tom Lewis, ranked only 69th for Driving Accuracy.
In the 12 years we've been coming here, only four winners have ranked inside the top ten for Greens In Regulation - Lucas Bjerregaard ranked fourth in 2017, Andy Sullivan ranked fifth in 2015, Lee Westwood ranked second in 2009 and Lewis ranked fourth when he won here for the first time in 2011. He only ranked 23rd for GIR last year though and Padraig Harrington managed to win three years ago ranking just 67th but the two players tied for second last year ranked first and second for GIR and the average ranking of the 12 winners is only 19.67 so good iron play is clearly important but arguably not as important as scrambling and putting...
The first and second ranked sixth and second for Scrambling last year and although the winner, Bjerregaard, only ranked 33rd two years ago, five of the six winners before him ranked first or second for that stat. In addition to Scrambling, the most important stats to focus on are Birdie Average, Par 4 Scoring and Putting Average.
The last three winners have only ranked third, fifth and second for Par 4 Scoring but the three winners before them all played the par fours better than anyone else and eight of the 12 winners to date have made more birdies than anyone else. The last two winners have ranked number one for birdies made and Mikko Korhonen (tied third) was the only player in the field to record more birdies than Harrington in 2016.
We can look at the figures all we want but this is basically a birdie-fest and a putting contest. Lewis only ranked sixth last year but Bjerregaard, Harrington and Alex Levy have all won here in the last five years ranking first for Putting Average and the last seven winners in-a-row have all ranked inside the top seven for that stat.
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.
The last two winners here have drawn a blank in Dubai and Harrington hasn't played there for a long time but he was second there back in 2001. The 2015 winner, Sullivan, has finished second, fourth and sixth in three of the last five Dubai Desert Classics and he finished ninth in Qatar on debut in 2013 and 11th this year.
The 2014 winner, Levy, was fourth in Dubai last year and the runner-up here five years ago, Colsaerts, like Sullivan, has top-tens at both tracks and five of the first seven winners here had plenty of form at both venues too.
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 seven years ago, has also won the Dubai Desert Classic and he has two top-four finishes in Qatar, and Alvaro Quiros, who was, and may still be, based at Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course, has won all three events.
Links form stands up really well and two of the last seven winners are Open Champions - Harrington (2016) and Shane Lowry (2012).
Check out the Bubble Boys
It's the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China next week and that's followed by a run of Rolex Series events - the Turkish Airlines Open, the Nedbank Challenge and the final event of the season, the DP World Tour Championship - so this is the last chance for some to move up the Race to Dubai standings.
As detailed in yesterday's de-brief, last week's winner, Nicolas Colsaerts, was sitting outside the crucial top-110 in the standings prior to the Open de France and he was therefore at risk of losing his playing privileges. He's not the first and he won't be the last to find form out of the blue when drinking in the last chance saloon and it's worth checking out the standings here.
It may well be worth playing anyone you fancy from around the 120 mark in the First Round Leader market as well as, or rather than the win market. Only three years ago, Eddie Pepperell led after the first round here but he messed up his final hole in round two (the par four ninth) to miss the cut and lose his card! These guys are under so much pressure that winning is a huge ask but getting off to a flier is clearly possible.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
This is a great event for outsiders and Lee Westwood, ten years ago, is the only well-fancied winner in the event's entire 12-year history.
Lewis was matched at 80.079/1 before the off last year, Bjerregaard was a 70.069/1 chance in 2017, Harrington was matched at 130.0129/1 in 2016, Sullivan was a 55.054/1 chance in 2015 and Levy went off at around 80.079/1 the year before. Lynn was matched at 120.0119/1 in 2013, Shane Lowry was another 80.079/1 chance in 2012 and I was lucky enough to back Tom Lewis 12 months before that at a whooping 160.0159/1.
Richard Green in 2010 and Steve Webster in 2007 were big outsiders and Alvaro Quiros, in 2008, was yet another winner to go off at 80.079/1 so don't be afraid to back a few outsiders this week. And if they're young and English you could be on the right track. Half of the 12 winners to date have been English and six of the last eight winners have been in their 20s.
If we disregard the misleading curtailed 36-hole event of five years ago, seven of the other 11 winners were within three of the lead after round one but it's certainly possible to get away with a slow start. Although only tied seventh after round one, the inaugural winner, Steve Webster, trailed by five strokes after the opening round, the 2010 and 2011 winners both trailed by six and Lewis came from miles back last year after a pedestrian 72 saw him sit tied for 110th and nine shots adrift!
Sullivan won wire-to-wire in a canter four years ago and David Lynn is the only other first round leader to claim the trophy but he was one of numerous winners to come from some way off the pace after three rounds...
Having tied for the lead after rounds one and two, Lynn dropped to six off the pace and a tie for 16th after a disappointing 73 in round three but he shot 63 to win by one and the two winners before him had both trailed by four with a round to go. Green had been an incredible seven adrift before going on to win by two strokes in 2010, although somewhat bizarrely, no winner has trailed by more than five strokes at halfway.
If you're betting in-running, the final four holes 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.
Lucas Herbert found water on 18 last year having been matched at a low of 1.374/11 and for the third year in-a-row, only the par four seventh hole played harder than the 18th last year.
I'm not in the least but surprised to see Matt Wallace heads the market but he looks short enough to me. After winning three events last season, looking bombproof in-contention, he's let more than a few slip this year and he tends to get quite animated in-the-mix. I'm not for a second suggesting his unreliable but it has to be factored in and his course form figures, reading 39-44, don't inspire confidence either. I'm a big fan but I'm happy to swerve him here.
Lucas Bjerregaard could only finish 20th when defending last year and that was a poor effort in hindsight, given he'd finished second at the European Masters in his previous start and he won next time out at the Alfred Dunhill Links (another boost for links form here). He's not even close to that sort of form this time around and he's enough I'm happy to leave alone. As is the third favourite, Martin Kaymer.
The 34-year-old German was a creditable fifth in France last week but he has an extraordinarily good record at Le Golf National, whereas his figures here read an uninspiring 8-MC-13-50 and he hasn't played here since 2015. He hasn't won anywhere since 2014. Too short.
I'm happy to chance Eddie Pepperell for modest stakes at 26.025/1. Since his card-losing calamity of three years ago he's returned to the venue to finish third and second so he clearly likes the place. He's a superb links exponent and a winner of the aforementioned Qatar Masters and this is a title I can very easily see him winning at some stage.
I've detailed my reasoning for backing Chris Paisley in the each-way column and I'm also happy to take 40.039/1 about another Englishman, the 2015 winner, Andy Sullivan. He absolutely trotted up that year and would have won 12 months later, were it not for an ice-cold putter. He's only shown glimpses of form this season but the venue suits him so well I'm happy to chance him at a juicy price.
Mr 59, Oliver Fisher, who sits at number 112 on the Race to Dubai standings, should be safe given the affiliate members don't count but he will want a good week just to make sure. A return to the scene of historic round could go either way and he looks fractionally overpriced at 140.0139/1.
Demark's Jeff Winther is a decent scrambler and putter and he was fourth just two starts ago at the Open de Espana. He too looks too big at 140.0139/1 and finally, I've thrown a few pounds at huge outsider, Ben Evans, who needs a good week to keep his card (137 on the standings). The Englishman is fairly long off the tee, he's a decent scrambler and he's not been playing too bad of late. He's made six of his last eight cuts and I can see him contending at a monstrous price.
Eddie Pepperell@ 26.025/1
Chris Paisley @ 40.039/1
Andy Sullivan @ 40.039/1
Oliver Fisher @ 140.0139/1
Jeff Winther @ 140.0139/1
Ben Evans @ 500.0499/1
I'll be back later today or this evening with my ZOZO Championship preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter