Czech Masters Preview, Picks & Analysis
THE Czech Masters, to be played out at the Albatross Golf Resort, is the penultimate event in the race for European Ryder Cup qualification, which makes it somewhat surprising that a few more of the players who are on the fringe of securing a place in Thomas Bjorn’s team are not in the field.
It means that Eddie Pepperell, already a winner in 2018 and a man who played brilliantly at The Open, can do himself some huge favours if he is able to win the fifth staging of the tournament. It was won in 2014 by Jamie Donaldson, in 2015 by Thomas Pieters, in 2016 by Paul Peterson and last year by the talented young South African golfer Haydn Porteous.
The players will find some changes since the event was played here last year. Albatross Golf Resort will present a slightly different challenge to the players this year following a partial renovation over the winter months, with the most dramatic design change coming to the 18th hole. "The green of the 18th hole was extended to the lake and now offers several very interesting new pin positions,” said Stanislav Lisner, General Manager of the Albatross Golf Resort. “From both sides, the green is protected by a pair of bunkers, and approach shots that go long will end up in a valley beyond the green that architect Keith Preston called the ‘Valley of Perdition, the Hell Valley’. We are already convinced it will create a number of shaky situations. The whole change of the green will force the players to play longer tee shots, so they can hit shorter irons into the difficult pins. I think we will see a change in the players’ strategy this year."
Pepperell will be joined in the field by Pieters, who still harbours hopes of catching Bjorn’s eye. Not only did the tall Belgian win the tournament in 2015, but the following year he finished second and then won the Made in Denmark the following week to secure his spot on Darren Clarke’s side. Europe may well have lost at Hazeltine, but Pieters was Clarke’s top scorer and best player by a country mile. You can be sure that Bjorn will be hoping that Pieters can rediscover that sort of form, especially with the likes of Sergio Garcia enduring a relatively miserable season on both the PGA Tour and in this year’s majors.
Pieters is an impressive golfer who has recorded some terrific results on both sides of the Atlantic, but he would be one of the first to admit that he has failed to live up to his potential. Most pundits would have expected him to have comfortably secured his place in the European team, but there have been too many disappointing weeks. Don’t write him off just yet though.
And don’t underestimate Pepperell either. This is a young man who, barely two years ago, lost his playing rights and was left wondering if he really wanted to carry on playing tournament golf. He went away and gave himself a good talking to, and decided that it was time to knuckle down. He headed off to qualifying school and sailed through the ordeal - no matter how good you are, nobody wants to go through the six rounds that decide whether or not you have a future on the European Tour.
He returned to the main tour and easily kept his card last season, coming close to winning on several occasions. But there were many who began to wonder if the young Englishman would ever be able to take the next step and finally win a tournament. The answer came early in the 2018 when he won the Qatar Masters. He continued to make decent enough progress as the year unfolded, finishing second at the Scottish Open, a Rolex Series event with a bumper prize fund. He then headed to Carnoustie for The Open. He opened with rounds of 71, 70 and 71.
Pepperell was bitterly disappointed with his third round on a day when he felt he had played well enough to get himself into contention. He then headed out and, by his own admission, had several glasses of wine. He returned for the final round with few expectations and a mild hangover but, on a day when most of the field struggled, he produced a magnificent round of 67. For a time, it seemed that he might even win. In the end he finished in a tie for sixth place. In the space of seven days, Pepperell had pocketed around £800,000 in prize money and reignited his challenge to make the team for Le Golf National next month.
And Pepperell could tie down his place with a victory.
Also in the field is 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett, who is finally emerging from a shocking run of injuries and form and will head to the Czech Republic genuinely believing that he might have a genuine chance of winning a golf tournament again. If ever a player deserves a break it is Willett. Many of those who witnessed his Masters success still regard it as the tournament Jordan Spieth threw away but that is to disregard the Englishman’s magnificent play in the final round, when he compiled a glorious round of 67 with the pressure was on. He apparently had the golfing world at his feet, but then it all went wrong. He was struck down by a series of back injuries and his form suffered horribly. He withdrew from tournaments, he missed cuts, he sacked his coach and he changed his caddie. Nothing worked.
But after working long and hard during 2018 and, finally free of back pain, the real Willett has started to re-emerge. He is still only 30 years old and has plenty of time left to get himself back where he surely belongs, at the elite level, and he would be a highly popular winner.
There is also sure to be some fun and games with the announcement that John Daly, the former US PGA and Open champion, has accepted an invitation to play. Now competing on the Champions Tour, you can never be sure what you are going to get with Daly, but it is certain to be entertaining.
Thomas Pieters. Will be giving it his all
Eddie Pepperell. Could be at Le Golf National
Haydn Porteous. Erratic, but brilliant at his best
Thomas Pieters. Fabulous ball striker
Eddie Pepperell. Has come through some dark days
Haydn Porteous. Terrific prospect
Danny Willett. Good to see him back
Lee Westwood. Difficult to believe he won’t be in Ryder Cup action
Nicolas Colsaerts. Still striving to rediscover his best
Aaron Rai. A star of tomorrow
Thomas Aiken. Beautiful swing
Lee Slattery. Underrated
Scott Hend. Big-hitting Australian
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