Grand Final preview
Matt Cooper previews this week's Challenge Tour Grand Final in Dubai and offers up his best bets.
By Matt Cooper
Last Updated: 29/10/13 11:07am
It's the last week of the Challenge Tour and, just like the main tour, everything now ends in Middle East.
The top 45 players in the rankings are eligible to attend the Dubai Festival City Grand Final and most of them start the week with a dual aim: initially they need to perform well in the tournament itself, but, in the back of their heads, is the knowledge that the top 15 players in the rankings after the golf is completed will leave Dubai with a guaranteed European Tour card for 2014.
That secondary aim splits the field into three distinct groups. Those currently outside the top 25 know that a spectacular week is required (but not out of the question - in recent years James Busby and Andrew Johnston have transformed their season at Grand Final). For those in the top 12 the week is tension-free - their card is safe. For everyone in between it is a week of stress, when the golden ticket is so near and yet so far.
With the glaring exception of Henrik Stenson (victor in 2000) winners of the Grand Final itself haven't progressed to glory. They include journeymen, players who have disappeared from view and youngsters who've struggled to make the grade at the top level.
Winning the rankings, on the other hand, has been a sign of better things to come, for example multiple European Tour winners Johan Edfors, Marc Warren, David Horsey and Edoardo Molinari. Other recent Challenge Tour graduates include Martin Kaymer, Alex Noren, Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Nicolas Colsaerts.
A change of venue
Grand Final began life in Portugal in the mid-1990s, moved to Cuba and then France, before it settled at the San Domenico GC, in southern Italy, for eight years. Now, it moves again, to the Middle East. It's sort of become a Race to Dubai to join the Race to Dubai.
Al Badia ('Land of the Bedouins') is a Robert Trent Jones Sr design which has hosted Mena Tour events in recent years. Veteran Welshman Stephen Dodd won there last year and it is, inevitably, reminiscent of the Middle East's other courses - lots of water, lots of sand and skyscrapers always on the horizon. It's a generous course from the tee and the rumour is that the players could go low this week.
Italy's Andrea Pavan currently tops the rankings, has two victories this year and is a past winner of the event (in 2011, albeit on home turf) so he has plenty in his favour. With confidence renewed after a tough year on the main tour, a strong performance would be no shock.
Daan Huizing (the Netherlands) and Francois Calmels (France) are both two-time winners this season, but both arrive in poor form so might be best avoided.
In contrast England's Tyrell Hatton has timed his race to a top-15 season finish to perfection with two second placed finishes in his last three starts, whilst Spain's Nacho Elvira has done a similar job, with four top ten finishes in recent weeks, including a maiden win in China two weeks ago.
The man in best long-term form, however, is Sweden's Johan Carlsson, a rookie, who's been brilliant since mid-summer, won in Kazakhstan and was sixth last week.
If anyone challenges Carlsson's consistency in the last three months it is Spain's Adrian Otaegui, whose problem has been winning (he's had five top five finishes, including three second places). But watch out for the talented 20-year-old - he's a protégé of Jose Maria Olazabal.
Viewed from one perspective, playing on the Challenge Tour proves that you are only ever as good as your last season. But Oliver Wilson was good enough to play in the Ryder Cup and Rhys Davies promising enough for Colin Montgomerie to involve him behind the scenes in 2010. If they find their A-game they could mount late charges for the tour cards and even contend. Wilson also boasts a solid record in the Middle East.
And if you knew that Scotland's Duncan Stewart played on the Middle East's Mena Tour in 2012 and finished in the top ten in five of his six starts, you might add his name to the shortlist. The problem is the exception - T52 at Al Badia...
The Grand Final is a curious beast. By necessity there is plenty of tension and stress, but there is also a element of school trip or last day at school about it as well. That is most evident after the final round, but for some players - those whose cards are safe or who drift out of contention early in the week - the feeling begins earlier in the week.
That is worth bearing in mind when observing a few trends that have emerged. Seven of the eight Grand Final winners at San Domenico had European Tour cards sewn up at the start of the week, seven of them also had form (in the shape of a top ten finish in their previous three starts).
The trends are maintained if you look at the last 15 winners - 11 of 15 were in card positions and 11 of 15 had that form.
Those stats suggest that card-chasing occupies the players on the cusp of getting them so it is best to focus on players who can play with a bit of freedom. If someone confound the trends it doesn't mean the stats were wrong, rather the stats will put their effort in perspective.
The picks are two men in the top 12 of the rankings with recent form.
The first is Carlsson who attributed his Kazakhstan win to inspiration from fellow countryman Henrik Stenson's recent success. Perhaps he can repeat the trick because Stenson won the Grand Final in 2000.
Carlsson also won the Nordea Tour Championship (i.e. that tour's Grand Final) this time last year which might add a level of comfort and if the rumour about birdies is true his hot putter will be an advantage too.
Add the youngster Otaegui because the slightly less pressured week might help him find the top spot.
1pt e.w. Johan Carlsson at 14/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4)
1pt e.w. Adrian Otaegui at 18/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4)