NEWPORT, Wales — The 12th edition of the Wales Open – the £1.8 million ISPS Handa Wales Open to be precise – gets underway at Celtic Manor this week, venue for the last Ryder Cup. Here’s the skinny on what you should be looking for from the only European Tour event in Wales.
1. CAN PAUL LAWRIE IMPRESS JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL? Lawrie has practically penciled himself into this year’s European Ryder Cup team, but he is still looking to impress captain Jose Maria Olazabal this week.
Lawrie tees it up with Olazabal in the opening two rounds, along with Gonzalez Fernando-Castano. The 1999 Open champion will be hoping things go better than Spain earlier this year.
The Scotsman drew Olazabal for the first rounds of the Andalucía Open, but failed to impress. Lawrie missed the cut after scores of 78-75.
“It is the only really poor two days I’ve had for a long time,” Lawrie said.
Lawrie has made no bones making this year’s Ryder Cup team is foremost on his mind. He won in Qatar earlier this year, finished third in the Volvo World Match Play and second at Wentworth last week.
The 43-year-old is now second on the European points table and within touching distance of making the team since his debut in 1999.
“The Ryder Cup is the only big thing I’m interested in doing,” Lawrie said. “If I can get on that Ryder Cup team at 43, then I think that would be the biggest achievement of my career.”
That’s a big statement from a man who owns a Claret Jug. It’s just the sort of talk two-time Masters winner Olazabal wants to hear.
Hopefully Lawrie’s golf can match his mouth.
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2. CAN NOREN DEFEND? Alex Noren has a chance this week to do what no man has ever done – win back-to-back Wales Opens.
Noren has good vibes as he prepares to defend the title he won by two shots over Denmark’s Anders Hansen and Gregory Bourdy of France. Noren won last year after qualifying for his first U.S. Open. The Swede enters this year’s tournament after qualifying for his second U.S. Open.
The former Oklahoma State player finished as the leading qualifier at Walton Heath on Monday to take his place at Olympic Club next month.
“I feel better than I did last year at this time,” Noren said. “The swing is looking better. Everything is looking better. I’ve trained a lot better the last three months than I’ve ever trained. I feel like I’m on the right track.”
Noren is the third-favorite to win this week at 16/1 behind Francesco Molinari at 11/1 and Lawrie at 14/1.
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3. WHERE DID THE STARS GO? Last week the BMW PGA Championship fielded an ultra-strong field. This week features players from the lower end of the European Tour food chain.
The BMW PGA featured the world’s top three players in Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. There were four of the top 10, and 18 of the top 50.
Fast-forward to this week and just three of the world’s top 50 are teeing it up over the Ryder Cup course. Lawrie is the highest ranked player at No. 29, with Francesco Molinari at No. 32 and Thomas Bjorn at No. 37.
This is such a low-key event that 25 category-11 players, (European Tour Q School qualifiers and 11-20 on last year’s Challenge Tour) are in the field. No category-11 players made the BMW PGA Championship.
That is the way of today’s European Tour. The stars pick and chose their spots, sometimes because they can get appearance fees, and smaller tournaments like Wales suffer as a result.
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4. WILL WE GET A WELSH WINNER? It’s the perennial question. No Welshman has lifted the trophy in 11 years, although two players have finished second.
Former Walker Cup and East Tennessee State player Rhys Davies finished solo second two years ago. He closed with a 10-under 62 only to lose by three shots to Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, who posted a 63.
Bradley Dredge was joint second in 2007.
There are nine Welshman in this week’s field. The odds aren’t great one of them will win. Jamie Donaldson is the man most likely to mount a charge. He is the world’s highest ranked Welsh player at 106. Davies is next at 245th.
Donaldson is 28/1 with British bookmakers William Hill, while Davies is 80/1. Phillip Price, who played on the 2002 European Ryder Cup team, is 125/1. Three amateurs make up the rest of the Welsh contingent.
“I’m sure it won’t be too long, hopefully, until a Welshman picks up the trophy,” Davies said.
The emphasis is on “hopefully.”
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5. NO PRESSURE FROM OLAZABAL: Olazabal didn’t ask to play with Lawrie. It’s just the luck of the draw. Previous Ryder Cup captains have rigged the draw to play with potential team members, but not Olazabal.
“I know 10 guys are going to make the team automatically through the rankings, and it’s early days,” Olazabal said.
The Spaniard has not ruled out asking to be paired with a player somewhere down the road.
“We’ll see what happens when decision times comes,” he said.