Compaq European Grand Prix
Compaq European Grand Prix
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Event Features
South African star set for debut
Westwood to play in Grand Prix

Preview of European Grand Prix

Following the Moroccan Open, which admittedly played understudy to the US Open last week, the European stars stop off at the De Vere Slaley Hall Golf Club at Northumberland for the European Grand Prix.

For the third edition of this tournament they will have the finest field ever assembled in the north-east of England with the late entry of Worksop wonder Lee Westwood adding to a star cast that includes Darren Clarke, Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer. Unfortunately Ian Woosnam has had to pull out of the event because of his hand injury.

The course is a traditional Dave Thomas, (who constructed the Belfry), design with towering pines, rolling moorland and water hazards lining the fairways. Along with huge bunkers and raised greens the 7,073 par-72 course does give a slight advantage to those long off the tee.

The signature hole is the 452-yard ninth where players will have to contend with water and hanging pines and rhododendrums before reaching a sloping green. Former Ryder Cup player Ronan Rafferty described it as akin to an Augusta par four.

The course record was set in 1996 by Ross Drummond who carded a seven-under-par 65. That was equalled the following season by Colin Montgomerie who went on to win the tournament that year.

Last year's event was abandoned because of heavy rainfall with the second round incomplete.

LEADING CONTENDERS:

Darren Clarke: The Ulsterman has been in superb form over the past few weeks which culminated in a magnificent top ten finish in the US Open last week. Clarke justifiably deserves favouritism here despite never playing at the Northumberland course. Following some rustiness in the early part of the season Clarke has steadily improved to finish in the top 20 of his last five European starts with his runaway victory at the Compass English Open the highlight. The real question mark over him this week is how quickly he has recovered from his Major experience. And to boot he has already won this season and has secured his place in the Ryder Cup so he may just be content with sharpening his game if he isn't in contention after the first couple of rounds. And on several occasions after a visit Stateside he has performed badly on his return to action on the European mainland.

Retief Goosen: One of the in-form players in Europe with five top 10s in his last seven starts. With his length off the tee he will again be a factor provided he isn't too disheartened from his efforts over the Atlantic. The South African was not the only one to suffer continuous heartbreak on the domed greens at Pinehurst No.2 at North Carolina as he missed the cut. At Slaley Hall he can be considered to be a course-specialist as in the two full events staged there he not only claimed his maiden Tour win in 1996 but followed that up the next year with a second place.

Bernhard Langer: The German Ryder Cup stalwart is one of the favourites here. Looking to secure his place in Mark James' line-up he will be refreshed after a week off. Prior to a disappointing effort at the German Open where he was down the field in 32nd place he had been in solid form with top tens in both the Volvo PGA championship and Benson & Hedges international. However the 14-1 on offer does seem a touch harsh from bookmakers as he has yet to record a victory so far this season after a barren 1998.

Lee Westwood: Westwood was a late entry into the tournament after gaining permission from his sponsors to miss a promotional day. Recent injuries have led to a dip in form for the Worksop wonder. By his own admission he played terribly at Pinehurst and not just on the tough greens. And that missed cut followed on from a similar performance at the Compass English Open. Better news for Westwood fans is that he has played at Slaley Hall before. In 1997 he was one of the members of a field blown away by Colin Montgomerie but finished a creditable third before his stellar rise to prominence.

David Carter: Carter has produced one of the more heart-warming stories on the European Tour. In 1997 he was at death's door as he underwent brain surgery. Has since made a full recovery and snatched a memorable victory over Colin Montgomerie in a play-off at the Irish Open in 1998 despite blowing four shots in his last six holes in regulation play. Then to finish off '98 he and partner Nick Faldo secured England's first victory in the World Cup of Golf. Was tied sixth in the 1997 European Grand Prix.

Stephen Leaney: Another rising star from Australia, Leaney burst onto the European scene in fine style with two victories in 1998. Dismantled the field in the Moroccan Open and followed that up with the Dutch Open. His career had been interrupted by a blood clot which needed surgery. Making his debut at Slaley Hall and has already posted two top 10 finishes on the European Tour this year.

Padraig Harrington: Harrington starred on his first two years on the European Tour. In fact in 1997 he had a brilliant season with the flat stick and recorded a startling number of birdies. His long-hitting game has been suited to the Slaley Hall course where he has been tied ninth and 26th in '96 and '97 respectively. Started the season well with top tens in the Malaysian Open and at Maderia Island. And again he took second place in the Italian Open before a slight slump in form at the Deutsche-Bank TPC of Europe and Volvo PGA championship.

Andrew Coltart: Consistency is the key for Coltart and he has again failed to find it this season. One good tournament is usually followed by an inexplicable performance the next. On his last European outing he missed the cut in the German Open after a fifth place in the English Open so he again remains frustrating to follow. With Ryder Cup places on the line, Coltart has to find his form soon if he is to force his way into the team. A rib injury prevented him from participating in the US Open so he may not be fully fit still.

Alex Cejka: Set off this season like a man possessed posting top 10 finishes at will. A player that should in all reality win more than he has done as he continually puts himself into contention before the putter goes cold. From tee-to-green he remains as good as anyone on Tour. The mercurial German lost his bearings a little as he missed the cut in the star-studded Volvo PGA championship which followed a disappointing tournament at the TPC of Europe. However his last European event saw him finish in the top ten again at the German Open.

BEST OF THE REST: Gary Evans has a fine record at Slaley Hall. In the two events played there he has managed to finish in the top 20 twice with a fourth place finish in the first tournament at Northumberland. Showing signs of running into form after a missed cut at Wentworth he made the weekend field for the English Open before a ninth at the German Open.

David Howell who had led the Order of Merit earlier in the season should also be considered for an event where he also finished fourth in the inaugural tournament. A 13th place at Wentworth showed he wasn't just a player to take advantage when the big guns are missing from the European tour (he won the Dubai Desert Classic).

Jamie Spence and Paul McGinley also have fine records in the first two years of this tournament.

Spence managed a sixth and ninth place previously at Slaley Hall. He made a good start to the season with top tens in the Qatar Masters and the Peugeot Open de Espana. However retired after the first round of the Volvo PGA, and with relatively low finishes in the English Open and TPC of Europe he may best be followed on the spreads.

The same can be said of McGinley as well. He was in the top 20 on both occasions that the tournament was played. Top tens in the Dubai Desert and the Spanish Open were good finishes but in a field that has more class in it than those early years, backing him each-way where fourth or fifth place is a must for money returns may be asking too much.

SUMMARY

Whilst the late entry of Lee Westwood has had an effect on the betting market, it may be wise just to avoid the Englishman given his recent play.

Of course it is always dangerous to write off the chances of a top-class player especially when he has “fire in his belly”. But as noted already his post-round interviews from Pinehurst clearly indicated he is struggling with his game with few signs of improvement.

Admittedly this may be the place to find his game again but with other star golfers in prime form it seems as though we'd be asking just a little too much from him.

Instead we will look to the course specialist Retief Goosen. His odds are hardly tantalising at 12-1 but his record here is second to none. Grabbing his maiden European Tour win here clearly gives him good vibes about the course and to show that he has good associations with the course he finished second the next year. The only reason why he didn't win was that he met an unstoppable juggernaut in Colin Montgomerie who equalled the course record on his way to victory.

Punters may be wary of his dismal showing at the US Open but we should consider that he has had two extra days to recover back in England and has had time to refocus. He is also trying to top the Order of Merit as well and is looking to take advantage of Montgomerie's absence here.

Over the past few weeks his record has been exceptional. Losing a play-off to Jarmo Sandelin in the German Open, where he missed a tiddler to win in the regulation 72 holes, wasn't the ideal preparation for the second Major of the season. But before we start to look at the downside of this we do well to remember that he won the Novotel Perrier Open de France in a play-off.

But tied 28th at the English Open followed on from a fourth place at the Volvo PGA championship clearly showed he was at ease amongst the elite Europeans. Then as Tiger Woods surgically tore apart the Deutsche Bank TPC of Europe he was again a superb second.

Bookies already seem cautious of David Carter as he is as short as 20s with some firms. Slightly more forgiving is the 25-1 on offer from William Hills. And this is a price we should pick up on.

Carter runs Goosen close for form horse going into Northumberland. Three top tens in his last three European events, all done in quality fields, indicate his swing is in fine fettle along with his broomstick putter. In fact a third place at the English Open shows that if it weren't for the blistering form of Darren Clarke then he could possibly have notched up his first win this season.

Carter has shown great courage in not only recovering from a serious illness but also on the course. Winning the Irish Open on extra-holes against the European number one pinpointed pedigree. During that tournament he had dropped four shots on the closing six holes of normal play yet the true charisma of the fellow shone through when he was still able to smile through that experience and win!

And he certainly knows how to win as he went on to capture the World Cup of Golf with Nick Faldo. With his swing smooth and accurate as anyone on the Tour then it is only a matter of his putter going hot over the weekend that could provide him with his second individual win.

Forcing his way into contention on the staking plan is the enigmatic Padraig Harrington. He can supply a torrent of birdies on any given occasion but just as easily weigh in with blue figures on his card.

On a course where a long drive can put you in a position to attack the pin then he could feature prominently on Sunday. He had been in the top ten consistently in the early part of the season and finished well on his last outing at the German Open (sixth). So with this top finish he may well be in the right groove to take advantage of some tired souls after their exertions at North Carolina.

Only 22-1 with Corals you can pick up the more generous 40-1 with Ladbrokes on Harrington.

And finally Gary Evans presents our each-way option who is another player who has great affection of the course. One of the few players to complete his second round in the rain-abandoned tournament last year with a 67 and 69. This followed sixth in '97 and tied fourth in '96. His last tournament produced a top ten finish so hopefully he can carry that form into this week after a rest.

Coral have made Evans a 33-1 chance but the value is there at 66-1 with Hills who clearly don't rate him as highly.

 


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