Steve looks forward to this week's European Tour action in Morocco where he fancies a pair of maidens and an inspired Spaniard to prosper. Read his in-depth Trophée Hassan II preview here...
“Pablo Larrazabal will be greatly inspired by the victory on Sunday of fellow Spaniard, Sergio Garcia, and that extra motivation may prove enough to see him figure here. He’s a four time European Tour winner and he’ll feel it’s about time he won a fifth.”
The Trophée Hassan II was first staged back in 1971 but it was a limited field, invitation-only tournament, unsanctioned by any official tour.
It remained an unofficial event for a small but select field for almost 40 years before the format changed completely in 2010 and it became a full field European Tour event.
The Red Course, Royal Golf Dar Es Salem, Rabat, Morocco
Par 72, 7487 yards
Stroke index in 2016 - 74.27
After five straight years at the Golf du Palais, which gave us a lovely bank of unique course form to work with, the organisers moved the tournament back to Royal Golf Dar Es Salem last year and we're back at the Red Course again this time around.
Royal Golf Dar Es Salem was the venue in 2010, when the event was a pro-am and, both this one and the easier Blue Course were used over the first two days of competition, with the weekend action being staged here on the Red Course. It was also the host site prior to the event becoming an official European Tour tournament and it was also used for the now defunct Moroccan golf Challenge on the Challenge Tour in 2002 and 2003 and for the also now defunct Moroccan Open on the European Tour in 1987, 1992, 1996 and 2001 so we've got form to peruse in addition to last year's renewal.
Like the old venue, Golf du Palais, Royal, Golf Dar Es Salem is also a Robert Trent-Jones design. Its Kikuyu fairways are of an average width and tree-lined and the Agrostis Pencross and Poa greens are small and undulating. Last year they were set at 11.2 on the stimpmeter. Water is in-play on three holes - nine, 12 and 17.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Thursday at 11:30.
Last Five Winners
2016 - Jeunghun Wang -5 (Playoff)
2015 - Richie Ramsay -10
2014 - Alejandro Canizares -19
2013 - Marcel Siem -17
2012 - Michael Hoey - 17
What Will it Take to Win the Trophée Hassan II?
As is so often the case, neither Driving Distance nor Driving Accuracy were especially key stats last year, although given the tree-lined fairways and the potentially thick rough, I'd slightly favour accuracy over length. The rough was dense enough to prove troublesome when the short grass was missed last and I see no reason to think it won't be the same again this time around.
There were no stats produced in 2010 but Greens In Regulation was the most important stat back in 2001. The winner back then, Ian Poulter, ranked 23rd for Greens In Regulation but everyone else inside the top-12 ranked inside the top-12 for GIR so accurate iron play was the key then, but last year it was putting...
There were no stats produced for the winner, tournament invite Jeunghun Wang, but if his performance on the 18th on Sunday is anything to go by, it was great putting that won him the tournament. He holed from 18 feet to get into the playoff, from 50 feet at the first extra hole to stay alive and from 20 feet to take the title! Four of the next five on the leaderboard had a Putting Average ranking inside the top-ten last year and thinking back, the 2010 winner, Rhys Davies, was considered something of a flat-stick phenom so it looks like a perusal of the putting stats might help.
It was a bit of a birdie-fest in 2010, with Davies amassing a winning score of -25. Playing the Blue Course for one round would have helped scoring but there was a massive differential between Davies and Wang's totals. The young Korean played off with Nacho Elvira after the pair played the 72 holes in five-under-par. Wet and windy conditions on Sunday will have helped keep the scoring down but it appears it's a far tougher test than it was seven years ago.
Is There an Angle In?
There's very little to go but the last two course winners, Wang and Davies, were both young up-and-coming players who were winning on the European Tour for the first time. I'm fairly sure it has no bearing whatsoever but both had missed the cut the week before the won and I do wonder whether the South Africans may be worth special consideration.
Kikuyu is a grass type that's used all over South Africa but it's rarely encountered elsewhere. I'm far from advocating it as a fabulous angle in but in the absence of much else, I thought it worthy of note.
When Jean-Francois Lucquin won the Morocco Classic here in 2002 on the Challenge Tour, he trailed by seven strokes after round one but he sat second at halfway and he was in front after 54 holes. Like Lucquin, Wang also sat second at halfway but the other four course winners since 1996, Peter Hedblom (1996), Poulter (2001), Greig Hutcheon (2003) and Davies in 2010 were all in front through 36 and 54 holes, suggesting this isn't an easy place to make up ground but I should highlight that Wang was three back with a round to go last year.
Not only was Wang three adrift, but Elvira, who he beat in the playoff, had begun the final round four adrift but that could be misleading. The four men above Wang with a round to play, Chris Hanson, Clement Berardo, David Dixon and Joshua White, all looked readily opposable and all four flopped in round four, shooting rounds of 73, 75, 75 and 76.
Despite the two playoff protagonists coming from slightly off the pace with a round to go last year, this looks a hard place to make up ground and I'll be concentrating on the leaders from fairly early on.
As already stated, the course played tough last year and the only holes to average below par for the week were the four par fives - five, ten, 12 and 18.
Recent Tshwane Open winner Dean Burmester looks a worthy favourite. The South African's putting stats are superb, he's clearly in good form and he finished tied for 14th last year but his recent Driving Accuracy stats aren't especially encouraging and that's just enough to put me off.
Joost Luiten is the established class-act in the field and like Burmester, he too finished tied for 14th last year. The Dutchman ranked first for both Driving Accuracy and Greens In Regulation at the WGC Mexico Championship recently and he hasn't finished outside the top-30 since he was 45th at the British Masters in October, but will his putting be strong enough? He hasn't ranked any better than 25th since his Putting Average ranking of 18th at the WGC - HSBC Champions in October last year and in Mexico he averaged 1.93 putts per hole.
Having won twice in his homeland on the European Tour last year, rising South African star, Brandon Stone, could be ready to strike again and this time on foreign soil. He makes his course debut this week but he should feel at home on the Kikuyu and before his disappoint performance in Mexico he'd finished seventh in the Dubai desert Classic and fourth in the Joburg Open. Obvious claims.
I quite fancied the defending champion, Jeunghun Wang, to perform well on debut at Augusta last week and although he missed the cut with a pair of 78s, he didn't play terribly. Four double-bogeys and a triple derailed him as his lack of course knowledge took its toll but it didn't escape my attention that he putted really well again (averaging 1.56 puts per hole) and given that's his big strength; a strong defence can't be discounted this week.
I'm going to look to concentrate on the leaders in-play here but I've still found three I want to side with before the off.
Pablo Larrazabal will be greatly inspired by the victory on Sunday of fellow Spaniard, Sergio Garcia, and that extra motivation may prove enough to see him figure here. He's a four-time European Tour winner (he beat Sergio in a playoff in Germany for the second of the four) and he'll feel it's about time he won a fifth.
Larrazabal was only 49th at the course in 2010 but he has event form in the bag having finished fourth in 2013 and third in 2015 at the old venue. He's a streaky player who relies on confidence so he'll need to putt well from the start but he's a decent price if he does.
Finland's Mikko Korhonen, is a player I've been keeping an eye on since his impressive third at the Portugal Masters in October, where he was in-the-mix all weekend. His seventh in the South African Open and his second behind Burmester last time out are his best efforts since and he ranked first for putting at the Maybank Championship back in February where he finished 20th after a slow start.
Losing a playoff to Wang at the Qatar Masters at the end of January seemed to hit Sweden's Joakim Lagergren quite hard so he needs to bounce back from two missed cuts in-a-row but a month off may have helped considerably and if it has, the 75.074/1 available on the Exchange is generous.
The last two winners at the course were winning on the European Tour for the first time and I can see Korhonen or Lagergren emulating them. Both players have been catching my eye of late and both look like winners in waiting.
Pablo Larrazabal @ 44.043/1
Mikko Korhonen @ 48.047/1
Joakim Lagergren @ 75.074/1
I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
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