The European Tour hotfoots from Morocco to Beijing this week for the Volvo China Open and our man has the lowdown ahead of Thursday's start. Read Steve's in-depth preview here...
“Matt Wallace seems to have been forgotten very quickly given he’s looking for his third European Tour event in the space of 12 months. The first of the Englishman’s two victories came at the Open de Portugal last May in what was another low-scoring birdie-fest so although he’s never played here before, there’s no reason to think it won’t suit him.”
Paraguay's Raúl Fretes won the first Volvo China Open in 1995 when it was an Asian Tour event. This is the 24th edition but it was first co-sanctioned with the European Tour in 2004 when Wales' Stephen Dodd took the title and it's been an ever-present on the schedule ever since. The tournament is tri-sanctioned by the China Golf Association, European Tour and the Asian Tour.
It's been a largely nomadic tournament, but for the third year in-a-row the Topwin Golf and Country Club in Beijing will be used again. For the last three years, the Volvo China Open has followed the Shenzhen International, creating a two-week stretch in China but after just three renewals that tournament has been dropped form the schedule.
Topwin Golf and Country Club, Beijing, China.
Par 72, 7,261 yards
Stroke index in 2017 - 71.87
Designed by Ian Woosnam, Topwin opened in 2011. It's a beautiful parkland course that runs through rural countryside among fruit and pine trees, chestnut orchards, and an abundance of natural wildlife. From the course, there are frequent views of one of the Seven Wonders of the World - the Great Wall of China.
Topwin has generous fairways but there are water hazards on every hole except 13, 14 and 15. The greens are creeping bentgrass, sloping and they've previously been set fairly slowly at 10 on the stimpmeter.
In addition to the last two renewals of this event, Topwin was one of the courses used for the Shui On Land China Golf Challenge in 2011, where the likes of Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter no doubt scooped up plenty of cash. It was also the venue for the Pingan Bank Open in 2016 and for another of the PGA Tour China series events - the Cadillac Championship - in September 2014.
That tournament was won by Australian, Bryden MacPherson, with a 16-under-par total, and prior to the first edition of this event here, Bryden was kind enough to reply to a tweet I sent him asking him about the venue.
"Hey Steve. It's a nice course. Long from the back tees. Sloping greens. Look for a bomber with good touch. But, if I can shoot -16 with a 63 then it'd be "safe to assume it won't be a tough test" for the Euro boys."
He wasn't wrong. Hennie Otto opened up the event with a nine-under-par 63, Haotong Li won with a 22-under-par total, and two thirds of the holes averaged below par scores for the week.
It played a bit tougher with a bit more wind 12 months ago and only seven holes averaged below par but Alex Levy still won in 17-under-par.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Thursday at 07:30 UK and Ireland time. Live coverage will begin earlier over the weekend, beginning at 05:30.
Last Five Winners
2017 - Alex Levy -17
2016 - Haotong Li -22
2015 - Wu Ashun -9
2014 - Alexander Levy -19
2013 - Brett Rumford -19
What Will it Take to Win the Volvo China Open?
Hole performance stats for the 2016 winner, Haotong Li, are collatable and I see he played the par fours better than anyone else, but there were no performance stats produced for Li. That's a bit of a hinderance but looking at those that placed behind him, and all the placed players 12 months ago, the picture is fairly clear.
Length off the tee is important and more important than accuracy. The first and second 12 months ago ranked second and eighth for Greens In Regulation but Scrambling could be a better stat to ponder. The number one scrambler for the week in 2016, Lucas Bjerregaard, finished tied for third and the first five home 12 months ago ranked third, 11th, eighth, fifth and 18th for Scrambling.
Levy ranked tied second for Par 4 Scoring 12 months ago, the runner-up, Dylan Frittelli, ranked first and Pablo Larrazabal, who finished third ranked tied second. That isn't much of a surprise given two of the four par fives are genuine three-shot holes.
The par five eighth and 18th holes were the two easiest on the course last year but the par five 12th was no pushover and the fourth averaged 5.05 and was the fifth hardest hole on the course.
The three stats I concentrated on were Driving Distance, Scrambling and Par 4 Performance.
Is There an Angle In?
I spent time after last year's renewal looking at how players who had played in China the week before had fared but that's transpired to be a complete waste of time now so again, with so little course form, we haven't got too much to go on but form at the Dubai Desert Classic may be worth investigating.
The 2016 winner here, Haotong Li, won the Dubai Desert Classic back in January and last year's winner, Levy, finished fourth, with last year's runner-up, Frittelli, back in sixth.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
In the 14 years that the Volvo China Open has been a part of the European Tour, players from 11 different countries have won the event.
Last year's winner, Levy, was a well-fancied [25.0] chance and Korea's Y.E Yang was quite well fancied back in 2010 but the six winners in-between were fairly hard to find.
Li trailed by six after round one in 2016 and Frittelli, who led by three through three rounds last year before being beaten in a playoff, trailed by seven after the opening round, but being up with the pace from halfway has been were the winners and the placed players have been.
Although Levy won from seven strokes adrift through 54 holes last year he was still in third place and the final top-three were all inside the top-three places at halfway and when Li won, the final top-five were all within three strokes through 36 holes.
With little wind in the forecast, we can expect another low scoring birdie-fest and I suspect a similar scoring pattern. Being up with the pace going in to the weekend will probably prove pivotal.
It's all about Alex Levy this week. He's not only looking to defend the title, he's looking to win it for a third time and he's also looking to win back-to-back tournaments following victory in Morocco on Sunday. It's not inconceivable that he achieves the feat but he's half the price he was last year and half the price he was last week so it's hard to make a case for him being a decent price.
Haotong Li enjoys playing in his homeland and although his form has dipped slightly since his win in Dubai, he's impossible to dismiss. I'm not sure there's any value to be had at less than 20/1 and the same can be said of Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Bernd Wiesberger.
Aphibarnrat isn't especially long off the tee but he ticks the right stats boxes otherwise and he was in fine fettle recently at the WGC - Match Play event in Texas but he missed the cut here last year and I'm happy to swerve him.
Wiesberger is harder to ignore given he finished fourth last year, has a great record in Asia and that he was 24th at the US Masters last time out but he just doesn't win regularly enough for me.
I'm playing four outsiders before the off and first up is recent Indian Open winner, Matt Wallace, who seems to have been forgotten very quickly given he's looking for his third European Tour event in the space of 12 months.
The first of the Englishman's two victories came at the Open de Portugal last May in what was another low-scoring birdie-fest so although he's never played here before, there's no reason to think it won't suit him. He's missed his last two cuts since him impressive victory in India but he'll bounce back sooner or later and he's too big at [95.0].
Having highlighted him as someone to follow in yesterday's De-Brief, I'm going to give last week's runner-up, Alvaro Quiros, a chance at [100.0] and I'm also playing big hitters, Haydn Porteous and Lucas Bjerregaard. Both are European tour winners who can find form out of the blue and the latter led here with a round to go two years ago.
Porteous is the one that fits the stats remit best, currently ranking eighth for Driving Distance, 18th for Par 4 Performance and 28th for Scrambling on the European Tour over the last six months. He's inconsistent but he's a two-time European Tour winner and I thought he was a lovely price at [140.0].
I'll be back this afternoon with my Zurich Classic of New Orleans preview.
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