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Quality leaderboard adds up to ‘carnage’

That was the year that was...unforgettable for Justin Rose winning his first major, unforgettable for our Solheim Cup heroines who defied 3-1 outsider odds to win for the first time on US soil, unforgettable for Henrik Stenson’s sensational comeback to the upper echelons of the game.

And unforgettable in a negative way for Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter, six European greats who couldn’t win a meaningful tournament between them (we don’t count the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, do we?).

So where does it all put Europe for the 40th Ryder Cup Matches on home ground at Gleneagles at the end of September? It all depends whether you see it as cup half-full or cup half-empty. They are odds-on with most bookmakers although two firms, Coral and BetVictor, will lay you even-money – but would I back them at evens? Not yet.

There’s a long way to go and every indication that former world No. 1 McIlroy is sorting himself out, Poulter is clearly a far better Ryder Cup player than he is for himself and we shall have Stenson, twice a winner in the US, exceptional in the European Tour finale in Dubai and currently the best golfer in the world (and by quite some way, methinks, although Adam Scott fans might disagree).

Those are three definite pluses but the downsides are there too. Matteo Manassero has gone downhill since that victory in the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth in the spring and would nowhere near merit a place on current form, Donald has generally looked a shadow of the guy who reigned as world No. 1 for quite a while in 2012, ditto Kaymer, the German whose winning seven-footer clinched that memorable Ryder encounter at Medinah and, although Graeme McDowell did well, especially in the first half of the year, the other Chicago heroes Nicolas Colsaerts, Peter Hanson, Francesco Molinari and Paul Lawrie, like the aforementioned sextet of Rory, Luke, Lee, Sergio, Poults and Martin, failed to bag a ‘W’ between them.

So a curious year, then, with ten out of the 12 current Ryder men winless on either European or PGA Tour. That said, there has been absolutely nothing wrong with Poulter’s autumn form – he finished runner-up twice on big stages – and Sergio's improved putting stroke put the moody Spaniard on the premises almost every time he teed it up. So there was progress there, while Hanson’s year was dogged by injury, so he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

So how were the majors for punters?

Looking at the prices (Scott 28-1 at Augusta, Rose 25-1 at Merion, Phil Mickelson 18-1 at Muirfield and Jason Dufner 40-1 at the USPGA), it has probably ended in favour of the old enemy who managed to get the ever-popular Tiger and Rory double act beaten at every turn. Mind you, Tiger had caned them early in the season, four of his five wins coming before the second week of May.

Ladbrokes alone would have had in excess of £2m to stump up had Tiger won at Augusta but one punter still had them by the short and curlies after striking a £5,000 each-way bet on winner Scott which returned £185,000.

Quiet-man Rose does not get the juices flowing for British punters in the same way that McIlroy and Westwood do, so his ice-cool success at the US Open was not as rapturously received as many a previous British or Irish triumph but there’s little doubt that in the year’s main betting, event, the Open Championship, the bookies caught a severe cold.

Despite Mickelson’s previous lack of Open success, there was a huge gamble on Lefty that brought his Muirfield odds tumbling from 28-1 to 18-1 on the back of his links victory the previous weekend in the Scottish Open.

“Phil cost us well over £1m at Muirfield,” reflected Ladbrokes’ odds guru Brad Barry who five months later is still wincing at the thought of the £22,000 bet he laid on the winner at 20-1. And Barry fears even worse ahead with the 2014 Open going back to Hoylake, the scene eight years before of their worst-ever hiding. Ladbrokes took a chance that July week in offering Woods at 6-1 when only 4-1 and 9-2 was available elsewhere and paid a hefty price – “the best part of £4m” in fact. “The very word Hoylake makes me ill,” says Barry.

You might well think that Dufner’s 40-1 win in the final major would have got the bookies a fair bit back but as he was tipped up by myself on four platforms and headlined by chief correspondent Steve Palmer in the trade paper Racing Post which has a massive effect on the market, that was decidedly not the case.

Reflecting on the year as a whole, Ladbrokes’ man admitted it had not gone as badly as it had started with Dustin Johnson’s victory at Kapalua starting the year off on the wrong foot for them and January results going mainly in favour of the punters, but there had been one bitter pill to swallow as the year drew to a close with one psychic £25 each-way transatlantic double on Victor Dubuisson at 50-1 for Turkish Airlines Open and Chris Kirk at 40-1 in the McGladrey Classic. Both men did the business and that improbable gamble made someone £112,000 happier.

From my own point of view it was never going to be easy replicating or even getting close to a wonderful 2012 in which I gave 30 winners in 82 tournaments in my weekly column in Racing & Football Outlook for a record profit in excess of 400 points.

Sure enough, it was all a bit after the Lord Mayor’s Show with some of that lovely profit returned to where it came from. There were notable successes, especially with Dufner, but they were not enough to cover the embarrassment of telling the world and his dog that the European girls, never before victorious on American soil, had absolutely no chance in the Solheim Cup. A score of 18-10 in their favour suggested there was no fool like an old fool...

And now on to three young prospects it will pay to follow in 2014 and for many years to come: Jordan Spieth (far left) and Hideki Matsuyama (left) on the PGA Tour and Victor Dubuisson (right) in Europe.

Note their ages: Spieth 20, Matsuyama 21, Dubuisson 23. They are more than good already and the best is very much to come. Winners in 2013, they will win again in 2014 and the first two at least will shortly be doing so on the biggest stages.

Matsuyama, who turned pro only in April has already cleaned up in Japan and played brilliantly for top-tens in two majors. Spieth’s consistency was remarkable for one who turned pro only last December. A winner in July at the John Deere Classic (that would be noteworthy in itself) it was his general level of play, toptens down the line, that marked the Texan as someone totally out of the ordinary, not only skill-wise but also in temperament.

Frenchman Dubuisson had impressed for two years and finally got the job done in top company in Turkey before almost doing the same again against the absolute cream when third to Stenson and Poulter at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. All three will be great money-spinners for punters.

More than a thousand words and only the odd passing reference to Mr Eldrick Woods. The-times-they-are-a-changin’, aren’t they? Anyway, happy punting in 2014 and don’t let the bast***ds beat you!

Issue 121

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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