The European Tour hops from Spain to Morocco for the Trophée Hassan II and our man has the lowdown ahead of Thursday's start here...
“Pepperell hadn’t played for almost two months following his win in Qatar and he must have been rusty on Thursday when he shot 77 in Spain as he improved on that by 12 strokes on Friday! It wasn’t enough to make the weekend but it was enough to show he hasn’t lost his game.”
First staged back in 1971, the Trophée Hassan II began life as 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, 7,615 yards
Stroke index in 2017 - 74.09
After five straight years at the Golf du Palais, the tournament moved back to Royal Golf Dar Es Salem in 2016 so we're returning to the Red Course for the third year in-a-row.
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 some very old course form to peruse but I doubt it's worth anything given alterations to the course were made before they returned to the venue in 2016, and given all 18 greens have been changed since last year's edition.
Like the old venue, Golf du Palais, Royal Golf Dar Es Salem is a Robert Trent-Jones design. Its Kikuyu fairways are of an average width and tree-lined and the greens are undulating and brand new this year. Following last year's tournament, Course architect James Duncan was brought in to renovate all 18 putting surfaces and according the European Tour website the greens have been enlarged, creating additional pin placement opportunities, and adding internal contours to place a premium on strategy, approach play, recovery and the short game.
Duncan is also quoted as saying: "We built new greens on the basis of Mr. Jones' sketches and renovated all the bunkers while extensive improvements were also made to the irrigation and drainage systems on the course. The course is revered for its difficulty. We hope to have maintained this reputation during the renovation while also having made the golf course more flexible, beautiful and enjoyable."
The greens have been historically set at around 11 on the stimpmeter and water is in-play on three holes - nine, 12 and 17.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 14:30 on Thursday
Last Five Winners
2017 - Edoardo Molinari -9 (playoff)
2016 - Jeunghun Wang -5 (playoff)
2015 - Richie Ramsay -10
2014 - Alejandro Canizares -19
2013 - Marcel Siem -17
What Will it Take to Win the Trophée Hassan II?
Although tree-lined and with historically tricky rough, Driving Accuracy hasn't been a vital stat over the last two years and neither has Driving Distance.
There were no stats produced in 2010, when the course was last used before the 2016 edition, but Greens In Regulation was the most important stat way back in 2001, at the Moroccan Open. The winner, Ian Poulter, only ranked 23rd for GIR but everyone else inside the top-12 ranked inside the top-12 for that stat so accurate iron play was the key then, but the course has changed dramatically since then and that's not been the case in the last two years. Putting has been the most important factor over the last two years.
Last year's winner, Edoardo Molinari, who ranked first for Scrambling, had a Putting Average ranking of 14th, the runner-up, Paul Dunne, ranked first for PA, and Paul Waring, in third, ranked sixth. There were no stats produced for the 2016 winner, tournament invite Jeunghun Wang, but if his performance on the 18th in round four was anything to go by, it was great putting that won him the tournament.
Wang 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 and four of the next five on the leaderboard had a Putting Average ranking inside the top-ten.
Going back to 2010, although we don't actually have any stats to aid us, the winner, Rhys Davies, was considered something of a flat-stick wizard at the time so it looks like putting is going to be key and that makes predicting the winner tough. We can look at the various putting stats for clues but trying to work out who will putt well on any given week is impossible to predict.
Is There an Angle In?
Given all the layout changes prior to the 2016 edition, and again this year, course form probably isn't going to be worth as much as current form and last year's result arguably backs that up. The first three home in 2016, Wang, Elvira and Waring, hardly made a great argument for course form given they all failed to make the cut last year.
I obviously wouldn't dismiss it out of hand but I wouldn't give it too much credence either but decent current form has been important for the last two editions. Wang and Elvira had both missed the cut prior to this event but they had both shown signs of life before that. Wang had finished second in India and eighth in Japan before his missed cut in China and Elvira had finished eighth at the Shenzhen International before he too missed out on weekend employment at the China Open.
None of the front three had played for a month before last year's tournament but Molinari had finished an eye-catching 11th at the Indian Open in his penultimate start and although they'd both missed cuts in their starts immediately preceding their placed efforts here, both the runner-up, Dunne, and the third, Waring, had finished placed in South Africa in their previous outings.
Current form over course form may make sense given it's appears to be something of a putting contest.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
In the two editions here since the course changed, outsiders have fared well with the four playoff protagonists all going off at big prices. Molinari and Dunne were matched at [360.0] and [60.0] before the off last year and in 2016, Wang was a [55.0] chance and Elvira was [140.0].
All eight renewals since the tournament became an official European Tour event have been won by someone representing a different nationality.
This used to be a course that suited frontrunners but the last two editions have been won by someone coming from just off the pace. Dunne had led by two strokes with a round to go before succumbing to Molinari in extra time but the Italian had trailed by four through 54 holes and the two playoff protagonists in 2017 had been behind by three and four strokes after three rounds.
Coincidentally, both the last two winners have shot 74s to drop back before rallying to win. Molinari fell from fifth to 20th with a poor second round and Wang fell from second to fifth with a 74 in round three a year earlier.
Molinari recorded an eagle on the par five 18th last year but it's the hardest of the long holes and no pushover par five. That was the only eagle that day and there were only three recorded there all week but that's definitely the easiest hole coming in. The par four 16th ranked the hardest on the course and the par three 17th ranked as the fifth toughest and between the two, they averaged more than half a stroke over-par for the week.
After three top-eight finishes in-a-row (two of which were on the PGA Tour), last year's runner-up Paul Dunne, is the worthy favourite.
Course and current form make him an obvious candidate but he ran out of steam last Sunday in Spain, having led after rounds one, two and three and it has to be a concern as to whether that's taken much out of him. All good runs come to an end sooner or later and I'm more than happy to look elsewhere.
George Coetzee arrives in Morocco with form figures reading an impressive 13-8-1-4 following his win at the Tshwane Open and his fast-finishing fourth in Spain on Sunday and I can see why he's been well backed. Nobody on the Tour is putting as well as George right now but he's making his course debut this week and he just doesn't win anywhere near often enough for my liking.
If Joost Luiten putts like he did when he won in Oman recently, he's bound to contend but that's a big if. He's been quite inconsistent with the flat-stick and having ranked first for Putting Average there, he's subsequently ranked 57th and 37th! He was 14th at the venue before the changes in 2010 and 13th last year after a slow start so that's a plus.
Thomas Pieters will be looking to find a bit of form now back on the European Tour after a disappointing couple of months in the States but he's been putting poorly and he's never played the course before so I'm happy to swerve him too.
I thought this a hard event to get to grips with so I'm just playing one before the off - Eddie Pepperell.
The Englishman has played the course twice and he's yet to play on the weekend and he missed the cut in Spain last weekend too so there are negatives but I thought the Qatar Masters winner was big enough to chance at [55.0].
Pepperell strikes me as a player capable of winning multiple European Tour events now that he's off the mark and the market has definitely reacted too harshly to last week's MC. Pepperell hadn't played for almost two months following his win in Qatar and he must have been rusty on Thursday when he shot 77 as he improved on that by 12 strokes on Friday! It wasn't enough to make the weekend but it was enough to show he hasn't lost his game.
Eddie Pepperell @ [55.0]
I'll be back shortly with my Valero Texas Open preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter