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A first prize of £1M, the biggest in golf, has not proved enough to attract Tiger Woods across the Atlantic for this week?s HSBC World Matchplay at Wentworth. Given this year?s earlier finish of the main PGA Tour, it is a little disappointing that none of the leading Americans could be bothered to make the trip, though I suspect hell would freeze over before Phil Mickelson got on a flight in October. No matter, Woods? absence probably makes this great event a little more competitive and there are plenty of quality alternatives from various parts of the world along with some decent B-list Americans.
Naturally, Ernie Els starts favourite as he bids for his seventh Matchplay title though even his most ardent supporters must be running out of patience. Ernie?s weekend efforts in Scotland were among the most frustrating of his 2-year winless stretch outside South Africa. His long game was characteristically superb but the putter yet again failed to deliver. And having fought his way into contention on Sunday with a superb back-nine run, Els threw in a triple-bogey from nowhere on the 16th. With a little more luck, he could have won comfortably but these kinds of mishap are becoming all too frequent.
Of course, he could easily turn this around in matchplay on his favourite ?home? course, but Ernie will have to overcome a tricky draw to do so. Fellow Wentworth specialist Colin Montgomerie will be no pushover in the first round, nor will quarter-final opponent Niclas Fasth or Andres Romero. I suspect that Els will be available at better odds than the current 4/1 at some stage in-running, and prefer to look to slightly less competitive sections of the draw for a bet.
Considering his tricky draw, it can only be outstanding course form forcing Els? price much lower than JUSTIN ROSE. Runner-up on Sunday, Rose finished ahead once again in what must be one of the best stretches of form without a win I can remember. His outstanding run began in the WGC Matchplay event at the end of February, when Rose showed his suitability for this format. That week, Rose played impeccable golf in his first three wins, including one against Mickelson, before bumping into an even more inspired Trevor Immelman in the quarter-finals.
Previous course form is a particularly crucial asset on this tough course, where positional awareness is paramount and the greens take some learning. Having finished runner-up here in May, Rose has quite a considerable advantage over his first-round opponent Hunter Mahan, one of three overseas debutants in the top-half of the draw along with Rory Sabbatini and Jerry Kelly.
Kelly could have his work cut out in the first round against defending champion PAUL CASEY. Youth is another tremendous asset in this marathon, with the winner playing up to 144 holes. Last year super-fit Casey outstayed everyone else, thrashing Shaun Micheel in the final. A couple of weeks ago he was struggling and would have been hard to support, but he bounced right back to form in Scotland over the weekend with three good closing rounds.
In the bottom half, the best value could lie with course specialist ANDERS HANSEN. Hansen opens up with a tough game against Order of Merit leader Padraig Harrington but is no forlorn hope round the West Course. Pod did reach the final of this event in 2002, but generally has a disappointing record here. In fact, he used to explicitly avoid the prestigious Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth because he felt it didn?t suit his game.
In stark contrast, Hansen won his second PGA in May and has been placed on another occasion. The Dane has since maintained that form in the US, and will be a very tough opening opponent for Harrington. Furthermore, the quarter-final opponent should not be too fearsome, with either limited American course debutant Woody Austin or out of form Henrik Stenson lying in wait.
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