After two weeks at Celtic Manor in Wales, the European Tour skips back to England for the final event of the UK Swing - the UK Championship at the Belfry. Steve Rawlings previews the event here...
"Looking at the list of Belfry winners, the first thing to notice is what a stellar list it is. The three B&H winners have all won major championships and both Lee Westwood and Paul Casey’s names will pop up in any discussion surrounding the best players that are yet to win one."
The UK Championship is the sixth and final event of the innovative UK Swing. The UK Swing was created in response to the pandemic and the UK Championship is intended to be a one-off event.
The Belfry, Wishaw, Warwickshire, England
Par 72 - 7, 233 yards
The Belfry makes a return to the European Tour after a break of 12 years, having last hosted the British Masters in 2008.
That was the third year in-a-row that it hosted that particular event and it also hosted the last four editions of the now defunct Benson & Hedges International between 2000 and 2003, as well as four editions of the Ryder Cup.
The Belfry is a relatively flat, mostly tree-lined course, with some narrow fairways. Water is in play on seven holes - most noticeably at the short drivable par four 10th. The majority of the Poa Annua greens are fairly small and the bigger ones have tiers and undulations, placing a premium on long putting and scrambling.
Live on Sky Sports from 12:00 on Thursday
Last Seven Winners at the Belfry
2000 B&H International - Jose Maria Olazabal -13
2001 B&H International - Henrik Stenson -13
2002 B&H International - Angel Cabrera -10
2003 B&H International - Paul Casey -11
2006 British Masters - Johan Edfors -11
2007 British Masters - Lee Westwood -15
2006 British Masters - Gonzalo Fernandez Castano -12 (playoff)
What Will it Take to Win the UK Championship?
I couldn't find any stats for the 2001 and 2002 editions of the Benson & Hedges International but there are enough clues from the five events staged here this century to suggest accuracy is very important - especially on approach.
When Lee Westwood edged out Ian Poulter in the British Masters in 2007, the pair ranked second and first for Greens In Regulation and Jose Maria Olazabal and Paul Casey both topped the GIR stats when they won here.
The worst any of the five ranked for Driving Distance was 28th (Olazabal), although ninth (Casey) was the highest any of them ranked and that looks slightly more important than accuracy from the tee if the winners' stats can be believed.
All Lee Westwood's stats were really good. In addition to ranking second for GIR, he also ranked third for Driving Accuracy and first for Scrambling but when Johan Edfors won here he ranked only 54th for DA and 45th for Scrambling. And Fernandez-Castano missed 40% of the fairways - ranking 31st for DA. He did rank highly for Scrambling though (fourth) and the worst any of the winners (with stats) ranked for Putting Average was 11th.
Is There an Angle In?
Looking at the list of Belfry winners, the first thing to notice is what a stellar list it is. The three B&H winners have all won major championships and both Lee Westwood and Paul Casey's names will pop up in any discussion surrounding the best players that are yet to win one.
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano hasn't won a major, in fact the closest he ever came was tenth in the 2013 US Open, but he's won seven times on the European Tour and Edfors was very much the man to beat back in 2006. He's only ever won three European Tour events but all three were between March and July in 2006, so even though that pair can't be described as out of the top drawer, they're multiple winners who were in great form. Fernando-Castano's win here was his fourth title in four consecutive seasons.
Jose Maria Olazabal started slowly with an opening round of 75 that saw him sit tied for 25th and six off the lead and a fairly slow start can definitely be overcome. Paul Casey and Lee Westwood both trailed by five after round one when they won here and Fernandez-Castano was four adrift and tied for 24th after the opening round in 2008.
Casey was tied for the lead after three rounds in 2006 and Henrik Stenson won wire-to-wire but four of the last five course winners came from behind, trailing by two, three, three and four strokes, so it can't be described as frontrunners course.
Thomas Pieters contended for a second week running at Celtic Manor last week before a disappointing fourth round saw him slip from tied fourth to 15th in the Wales Open, a week after he'd finished third in the Celtic Classic.
The market continues to view him with plenty of respect but he often flatters to deceive and he's not one to trust implicitly in-contention. He ranked 61st and 55th for Greens In Regulation in Wales and if that doesn't improve this week, it's hard to see him winning. As is so often the case, he's one to swerve for me.
With post-lockdown form figures reading 2-6-3, Rasmus Højgaard returns to the fray after a two-week break in search of his second European Tour title, having won the Mauritius Open in December. His GIR figures are superb and he's a young player on the up but having backed him in the British Masters at a triple-figure price, I can definitely let him go in more exalted company just a few starts later at almost a tenth of the price taken at Close House. He's a fabulous prospect but the market has well and truly found him now.
After nine starts on the PGA Tour, Matt Wallace returns to the European Tour for the first time since the restart and he too looks short enough. His fourth-placed finish behind Jon Rahm in the Memorial Tournament was a terrific effort but he wasn't great before that and his form has been progressively worse since, with figures reading 59-77-MC. He didn't paly last week so he's had a week or so to prepare but I'm happy to let him go unbacked given he hasn't won for nearly two years now.
Haotong Li finished 17th at the US PGA Championship, having led at halfway and he contended again last week at Celtic Manor, despite a pedestrian start. His chance was derailed by an awful third round (76) when the course was set up at it's most generous but he still finished inside the top-eight after a 67 in round four. That round still included a disastrous double-bogey at the 14th and there lies the problem if you back him. That was his fourth double of the week and he also made seven bogeys through the first three rounds. He's a phenomenal talent but he makes a lot of silly errors.
In addition to winning the British Masters here comfortably in 2007 (by five strokes), Lee Westwood was beaten in extra time when defending 12 months later so he clearly has an aptitude to the venue. He was tailed off at the British Masters at Close House when hosting in his first event back in July and he was only 34th in the English Championship three weeks ago but his GIR figures were markedly better and he might just be ready to contend in his third start back. Whether he's value to do so is debatable though.
I may well add another pick or two once the market strengthens and if I do I'll post them to Twitter but the only one I really like at this very early stage is Andy Sullivan at around the [26.0] mark.
He was disappointing at the Celtic Classic two weeks ago but a poor effort there wasn't a huge shock after his win in the English Championship the week before and the week off may well have done him good.
He won three times in 2015, his stats were very strong when he hacked up by seven at Hanbury Manor three weeks ago and I couldn't really see why he's not much shorter than he was then, when others have shortened without winning.
Andy Sullivan @ circa [26.0]
I'll be back tomorrow with my BMW Championship preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
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