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Friday, 18 January, 2019

Rejuvenated Danny Willett has the game to reclaim Alpine crown

Englishman is on his way back to form

Danny Willett plays a shot on his way to winning the 2015 European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre
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Live on Sky Sports Golf from 10.30am Thursday
Starts 6.40am

Thomas Bjorn is a two-time winner of the European Masters, staged at beautiful Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club in the Swiss Alps, and he could have a say in proceedings again this week when he names his Ryder Cup wildcards on Wednesday.

The continental captain has a decision to make and the top three in the betting for this event will all be on his mind. By the time they tee off on Thursday, Matt Fitzpatrick, Thomas Pieters and Made in Denmark winner Matt Wallace will know which of them, if any, are heading to Paris.

There’s a significant chance that all three will miss the boat. Wallace has won three low-grade events this year but is yet to prove himself at a higher level while Pieters and Fitzpatrick have the pedigree without recording a 2018 victory. It’s likely that at least two of the three will be playing with a point to prove.

Champion’s top tip
Danny Willett 40-1
Fitzpatrick leads the betting as he defends his Crans-sur-Sierre title. The accurate Sheffield star produced a pair of 66s over the weekend in Denmark to finish in a tie for seventh at Silkeborg Ry and he must go close on a track that he loves.

The 23-year-old has form figures of 1-7-2 on his last three trips to Switzerland and is the obvious favourite to go back-to-back in the Alps on a layout that, measuring just 6,848 yards, favours accurate hitters who can find fairways and greens in regulation. The dancefloors are tight and not easily negotiated.

Fitzpatrick fits the bill perfectly but so does fellow Sheffielder Danny Willett and the 2016 Masters champion, winless since his Augusta heroics, could be about to secure some long overdue silverware.

It’s no secret that Willett has struggled with the expectation that comes with being a Major champion. He burgled a Green Jacket from the clutches of Jordan Spieth when the Texan recorded a quadruple-bogey at the par-three 12th and has failed to live up to those heights ever since.

In 2017, Willett recorded just three top-50 finishes in 18 European Tour events but, after making a poor start this season further afield, he has looked in much better nick since returning to his home continent. An eighth-placed finish in the Italian Open showed promise and he also looked closer to somewhere approaching his best at the Irish and Scottish Opens before finishing 24th at the Open.

A missed cut at the US PGA can be excused - Bellerive is a not a course that plays to Willett’s strengths - and he started well at the Made in Denmark before an inexplicable second-round 72.

The cream usually rises to the top at Crans-sur-Sierre with Alex Noren, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald among a list of classy former champions.

Willett won the title in 2015 and his career form at Crans reads MC-12-1-5-26-2-25-42-23. He may not be back to his Masters-winning best - if he was he would be rivalling Fitzpatrick for favouritism - but the 30-year-old is on the right path and can confirm his return to form with a victory.

Next best
Thomas Detry 40-1
While Pieters is second behind Fitzpatrick in the market, this short course is not a perfect fit for his power-packed game and he was unimpressive when in contention at the halfway stage in the Czech Masters. Instead, punters should take a chance on his consistent Belgian compatriot Thomas Detry shedding his European Tour maiden tag.

Detry and Pieters are close friends but their respective games are quite different. The 2016 Ryder Cup star hits the ball miles but his prodigious length won’t be an advantage around Crans while Detry is a much more accurate operator.

He ranks highly among this field for greens in regulation and his recent form is up there with the best on the European Tour. He has made eight cuts from his last nine events, recording five top-20 finishes in the process including his tie for seventh at the Made in Denmark, his best placing of 2018.

He would have gone close at Silkeborg Ry were it not for a horror lie at the 12th which saw him record a double-bogey when bang in contention. But Detry will have learned from his mistakes and has every chance of contending again on a track which should suit - a narrow missed cut last year will have done him no harm.

Other selections
Miguel Angel Jimenez 80-1
Aaron Rai 66-1
Complete the staking plan with two golfers at opposite ends of their careers in Miguel Angel Jimenez and Aaron Rai. Jimenez is 54 but still contending on the European Tour and, with a stellar record around Crans, the Mechanic would probably be a lot shorter were it not for his advancing years.

The cigar-toting Spaniard has played sparingly in European events this year, prefering to pick up big cheques on the Champions Tour, but in four starts he has finished seventh in Hong Kong, 19th in Dubai, 14th in Italy and 12th in the Shot Clock Masters.  

He’s also the ultimate Crans form horse, making his first appearance in 1989 and since recording 11 top-ten finishes including five in six years from 2008-2013. He loves this event and could contend providing he’s not completely shattered after finishing fifth in Canada last week.

Rai is only 23 and is making his Crans debut but he has chalked up four top-30 finishes in his last seven events including top tens at the BMW International Open and the Scottish Open.

He ranks 20th in greens in regulation on the European Tour and 35th in strokes gained off the tee, so the Wolverhampton youngster should find the Alps course to his liking.

Others to note
Matt Wallace
 The Made in Denmark winner is having a stellar year and will consider himself unlucky if he doesn’t make Paris. Has generally struggled the week after a victory.

Lee Westwood He contended last week but that was a rarity this season for the 1999 European Masters champion who has struggled for consistency.

Scott Hend A playoff loser in each of the last two seasons, but he is in poor form and unlikely to go close again.

Charl Schwartzel The former Masters champion is a fascinating contender and could leave his opponents in the dust if in top form. Recorded 63s at the WGC-Bridgestone and the US PGA, but consistency remains an issue.

Staking plan
D Willett
2pts each-way 40-1 BetBright
T Detry
1pt each-way 40-1 Betfred
M A Jimenez
1pt each-way 80-1 Sky Bet
A Rai
1pt each-way 66-1 Coral 

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The lowdown

Course Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club, Crans Montana, Switzerland

Prize money €2.5m (€450,000 to the winner)

Length 6,848 yards Par 70 Field 156

Course records – 72 holes 260 Colin Montgomerie (1996) 18 holes 60 Jamie Spence (1992)

Course winners taking part Lee Westwood, Ricardo Gonzalez, Bradley Dredge, Brett Rumford, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Richie Ramsay, David Lipsky, Danny Willett, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Robert Karlsson, Mathias Gronberg

When to bet By 6.40am on Thursday

Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 10.30am Thursday

Time difference Switzerland is one hour ahead of the UK and Ireland

Last week – Made in Denmark 1 M Wallace (35-1), 2 Steven Brown (300-1), L Westwood (45-1), J Thomson (500-1), E van Rooyen (50-1)

Course overview The famous Crans-sur-Sierre layout, renowned as one of the most beautiful in the world and with views to die for, was opened in 1908. There has been a European Tour event staged there every year since 1972. A Seve Ballesteros redesign in 1999 made it much tougher, creating lots of run-off areas around the greens.

This made approach shots difficult to keep on the putting surfaces and made chipping more challenging too. It has average-size fairways but its mountainside location means most of them are either severely uphill or downhill. The sixth and seventh are driveable par-fours where players are looking to pick up shots.

Small, firm, unreceptive greens are the main problem for the competitors, although they are aided by the fact that the ball flies further than normal at the altitude.

Most fairways are tree-lined, while water hazards can be found on holes ten, 12, 13, 14, 17 and 18. Two of the three par-fives are fairly straightforward (the 540-yard first and the 516-yard 15th), but the 633-yard ninth is less easy to conquer.

Dropped shots are always on the cards at two long par-threes on the back-nine – the 217-yard 11th and the 235-yard 16th.

The story of last year Matt Fitzpatrick carded a final-round 64 to force a playoff with Scott Hend which he won at the third extra hole. Hend was also beaten in a playoff by Alex Noren in this event in 2016.

Weather forecast Perfect playing conditions should greet the morning starters before rain arrives on Thursday afternoon while conditions shouldbe similar on Friday. The weekend will be sunnier with light winds throughout.

Type of player suited to challenge Length is useful for gamblers on the two driveable par-fours, but overall this is a track where accuracy from tee to green and course-management are the keys to success. Miguel Angel Jimenez, Thomas Bjorn (twice), Richie Ramsay and Matt Fitzpatrick have won recent Crans events through precision allied with sharp putting.

Key attribute Accuracy

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After making a poor start this season further afield, Willett has looked in much better nick since returning to his home continent
E.W. Terms
Sky bet