Sergio Garcia has not played professionally in Spain since winning the US Masters in April. He is competing in the country of his birth this week in the Andalucía Masters hosted by his foundation. The tournament is being held at Valderrama in southern Spain and the outstanding course has attracted a decent field including the world number five, Jon Rahm, who is also from Spain so is playing at home.
Rahm and Garcia (11th) are the highest ranked players in the field and deserve to be first and second favourites. However, playing in front of a Spanish crowd could go one of two ways. They could be inspired to deliver great golf or feel the pressure of expectation. Whatever transpires they are too short in the betting to be backed and other players are preferred. The nature of the course will be a key factor.
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This week’s test is on a really tough, tree-lined course designed by Robert Trent Jones. It demands straight-hitting from the tee and sound positional play from the undulating fairways. The greens are large, bent grass, undulating and quick. The crosswinds can be a significant factor at Valderrama, especially in the afternoons. In the par of 71 there are four par 3s but just three par 5s. Accuracy is more important than distance but the course tests all aspects of a player’s game.
Valderrama is one of the best courses in Europe. For some years it hosted the end of season Volvo Masters and staged the Ryder Cup in 1997 when Europe won led by Severiano Ballesteros, one of Spain’s most famous sons. Ballesteros started the great period in the history of Spanish golf, Jose-Maria Olazabal picked up the baton, Garcia took it on and Rahm is the latest superstar from Spain.
The pressure of playing in front of family and friends was illustrated by Tommy Fleetwood in the Open at Birkdale. The Southport player has a big lead in the Race to Dubai but struggled in his first round at the Open and never got in contention. He came back well to just make the cut and then had a solid weekend but the damage had been done when he was edgy on the first day. Rahm and Garcia could follow suit.
The latter won the tournament at Valderrama when it was last played in 2011 so he is proven on the course. However, expectations have gone up several notches after the Masters. Rahm is playing in Spain for the first time since joining the paid ranks. Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston won the Spanish Open on the course last year while Padraig Harrington is competing in Spain for the first time in nine years. Course experience will be a massive factor this week and Joost Luiten has a solid record. .
He also has a decent skill’s profile in the context of playing conditions in Spain. He is a top 30 player for driving accuracy and 13th in the latest standings for greens in regulation. He is also in the top 50 for driving distance and it’s rare for a player to be long and straight. Driving will be important this week and Luiten backs it up with excellent approach play and good putting. The Dutch player has the al-round game to win the 2017 Andalucía Masters.