Power-packed Pieters ready to show Ryder Cup skipper his wares
Belgian bomber could dominate in Prague
The Ryder Cup is just over a month away and starting to become the focus of the golfing community. Thomas Pieters, the star of the last edition, has certainly got the impending Paris match at the forefront of his mind and the in-form powerhouse is hoping Czech Masters glory will advertise his claims for a place on the European team.
Pieters tops the market in Prague, with popular Englishman Eddie Pepperell next in the betting and 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett close behind. European Ryder Cup skipper Thomas Bjorn announces his four wild-card selections on September 5.
Palmer's top tip
Thomas Pieters 13-2
A nightmare 71st hole in the US PGA Championship does nothing to change the fact that Thomas Pieters is fully fit and firing for the first time in several months, and the brilliant Belgian bomber fully deserves short-price favouritism for the Czech Masters.
Pieters started his revival with 14th place in the Italian Open at the start of June and he has stepped up a gear in his last three tournaments, finishing sixth in the Scottish Open, 28th in the Open Championship and sixth in the PGA, where he looked set to post a competitive clubhouse target in the final round until finding water off the tee at the 17th and carding a double-bogey seven.
Pieters contended for Major glory last time out in one of the strongest fields of the season, so he should be oozing confidence about bossing the moderate field which has assembled at the Albatross Resort. This looks like a golden victory opportunity on a track which massively plays to his strengths, and he should be in the thick of things throughout unless the forecast Friday thunderstorms create a significant early draw bias.
Pieters can lose interest in lesser events, but this week is not just about the Czech Masters. Pieters knows he needs to produce late fireworks to retain his Ryder Cup spot, with Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Matt Fitzpatrick and Rafa Cabrera-Bello also requiring wild-card picks as things stand. Determination seems guaranteed from the man who heroically won four points on a European side who were thrashed 17-11 two years ago.
Garcia, Stenson, Poulter and Pieters seem probable picks if Stenson's elbow problem clears up in time, but Pieters knows that if he flops in Prague and in Denmark next week it would put captain Thomas Bjorn in a difficult position.
Expect the cocksure 26-year-old to rise to the challenge. Pieters won this event by three shots in 2015, then made a stout title defence, finishing runner-up, three clear of third place, pipped by a shot. All his three European Tour victories have come in late August or early September, and the beast appears to have awoken at an ideal time again this year.
Dean Burmester 25-1
The Albatross sets up superbly for big-hitters – it is long and open, and looks likely to be played under windless skies this week – and Pieters may find two power-packed South Africans provide the most serious threat.
Dean Burmester is one of the most impressive players on the planet when in full flow – his slam-dunk eagle-two after a 411-yard drive at the 18th hole in round one of the US Open in June highlighted how destructive his game can be – and the 29-year-old is yet to realise his potential.
Burmester, a seven-time Sunshine Tour champion, has always been more comfortable in Africa but has slowly developed into a force overseas. He has finished ninth and 12th in the last two BMW PGA Championships at Wentworth, and fourth place in the DP World Tour Championship in November was another excellent performance.
He was 35th on his Czech Masters debut in 2016, but that was only his second European Tour event in Europe, and he finished 14th when more experienced 12 months later. A share of 56th in the US Open – his only Major – was a solid effort and ninth place in the Scottish Open last time out offers more evidence that the menace of Burmester is increasing.
Haydn Porteous 40-1
The defending champion is Haydn Porteous, who bravely covered the final five holes in two under par last year for a two-shot triumph. He loves this event, his long-time girlfriend is Czech and he has every chance of retaining the trophy.
Last year, Porteous dropped a handy clue that he was a Prague dangerman by finishing sixth the week before in Denmark, and this time he could repeat the trick. A final-round 65 hauled him to sixth spot in the Nordea Masters on Sunday – he improved as the tournament wore on – and the 24-year-old Joburg boy may have timed his run perfectly for a third European Tour title.
Others to note
The Australian youngster has grown comfortable in European Tour events, finishing strongly for fifth spot in Sweden on Sunday. Could take a shine to the Albatross on his debut.
The French slugger finished 13th in the Nordea Masters and looks another dangerous Prague debutant. He was fourth in the 2015 Czech Challenge.
The French have a decent set of runners and power-packed Pavon could make an impact in his first visit to the Albatross.
The KLM Open champion finished fifth in the European Open last time out and is another French debutant to consider.
The star of the Challenge Tour last year opened with a 62 in the Nordea last week, before fading to 17th place. He has won four times on the CT and ET glory looks within his compass.
The underachieving Englishman won his only ET title in the 2011 Czech Open and some decent recent efforts make him worthy of interest at a big price.
5pts 13-2 general
2pts each-way 25-1 Coral
1pt each-way 40-1 Coral
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Course Albatross Golf Resort, Prague, Czech Republic
Prize money €1m (€166,660 to the winner)
Length 7,467 yards Par 72 Field 156
Course records – 72 holes 268 Thomas Pieters (2015) 18 holes 64 Scott Jamieson (2014), Mikael Lundberg (2015), Paul Peterson (2016)
Course winners taking part Jamie Donaldson, Thomas Pieters, Paul Peterson, Hadyn Porteous
When to bet By 6am Thursday
Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 10am Thursday
Time difference Czech Republic is one hour ahead of the UK and Ireland
Last week – Nordea Masters 1 P Waring (125-1), 2 T Aiken (90-1), 3 M Kieffer (80-1), 4 T Olesen (9-1), 5 L Herbert (70-1), T6 J Janewattananond (125-1), A Pavan (90-1), H Porteous (150-1), R Rock (40-1)
Course overview The European Tour returned to the Czech Republic four years ago after a three-year break, but to a new venue. The Moravia Silesia Open started out as a European Tour event in 2009, staged at Prosper Golf Club in Celadna, then changed its name to the Czech Open for the following two years.
Lack of funding saw the tournament axed, but the Czech Masters was created in 2014, with the Albatross Resort hosting. This course was opened in 2009, billed as the best layout in the Republic. A reported €16m was ploughed into the project by entrepreneur Jari Simane, with Keith Preston given the job of designing this immaculately manicured track.
It is a long, fairly exposed layout, with lots of water hazards at the end of each nine. A creek runs down the right of the 18th fairway and a lake stretches up to the green on the left, providing an arena for much last-gasp drama on Sunday.
There are two reachable par-fives (the first and 12th) and two of more than 600 yards (the ninth and tenth). The first three par-threes are long and testing, but the 168-yard 16th yields more birdies. The first six holes are the easiest stretch, so it is essential to make a fast start.
Story of last year Haydn Porteous won a final-round duel with Lee Slattery, the South African almost producing an ace at the 16th hole as he raised his game near the finish line, eventually completing a two-shot success.
Weather forecast Hot and humid for the first day, before thunderstorms Friday, then a cooler weekend. Hardly any breeze throughout.
Type of player suited to challenge There is plenty of yardage to cover at the Albatross and trees are in short supply, so big-hitters are usually licking their lips. Power tee-shots need to be followed by accurate approaches to small greens.
Key attribute Power
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