All set for Tour’s grand finale
You can always tell it’s getting close to the end of the season when you find yourself in southern Spain for the Volvo Masters. This is the European Tour’s grand finale event where the top-60 on the Order of Merit tee-up at Valderrama. It’s a top-quality tournament, played on a beautifully conditioned and tough golf course.
The one thing people have been asking me about in the build-up to the tournament has been my right-hand thumb. You may remember I damaged it on a Wentworth tree as I swung through and hit a tree late in my quarter-final match with Thomas Levet at the HSBC World Match Play Championship.
Well, here’s the low-down. It didn’t recover as quickly as I thought it would but it is getting more comfortable by the day. Most importantly, it doesn’t look like there’s any real damage there – there’s no fractures or anything like that. Also, I’ve had some good physio on it from Dale Richardson which has really helped.
Valderrama and me
While I have won the Volvo Masters back in 2001, that success was at Montecastillo, a course I seemed to thrive on. Valderrama, though, is a slightly different matter. It is a really testing track and not one that I’ve done that well on over the years. In 1999, when the American Express World Golf Championship was held there I did manage to compete for all four days and ended up in fifth spot. But in general, it’s not a course I’ve found easy to get to grips with, even though I like it, as my finishing positions of 36th and 19th in the last two years show.
It’s a course that should suit me with really good quick true greens, which I like. The difficulty as far as I’m concerned is hitting the narrow fairways with the cross-winds that we have here. The fairways are easily the narrowest we come across and if you don’t get it in play off the tee, the second shots become really difficult. For instance the 370-yard par-4 14th can be an innocuous uphill hole. But if you miss that fairway, coming out of the rough and trying to judge how much spin you or aren’t going to get it becomes very difficult.
The guys that have done well here over the years are straight hitters – some of whom are low-ball players. It’s not a long-hitters course, that’s for sure. There’s hardly a hole on the course that you open up your shoulders on.
There are a lot of challenging holes at Valderrama and the course tests you all of the way. In fact, the closing stretch is possibly the hardest part. You’ve really got to be on top of your game if you want to pick up birdies at the 15th, 16th and 18th – while the par-5 17th requires a deal of strategy matched by good execution.
Starting with the 15th, this is a 226-yard par-3 where the narrow green is below the tee. You need to find the putting surface with a long iron – if you don’t, there are bunkers all around. I had a nightmare at the 16th on the first day last year, ending up with a triple bogey. The 422-yard par-4 plays with a tight dog-leg to the right. You need to put your tee-shot in a decent position. Do that and you’re in good shape ahead of an approach to a small-ish green.
The 536-yard par-5 is probably the most well known hole at Valderrama. It’s all about whether you lay up with your second or have a go at a shallow green that is protected by water in front and sand at the back. You can birdie the hole if you play it well – but you can also run up a high number. The last is a strong par-4. Long-ish at over 450 yards, you can either attempt to carry the trees on the left of this dog-leg off the tee or play safe with a long-iron. A par here is never a bad result.
On the first day, I’ve been paired with a fellow European Ryder Cup winner – Miguel Angel Jimenez. He’s had a great year and will be keen to finish it off well in front of home support down here in his native Andalucia. We’re last out at 2.10pm.
I mentioned in my preview to the Volvo Masters that I find Valderrama a tough course and it didn’t disappoint me in that respect last week. A couple of times it looked like I was just getting into the edge of contention, only for a bad hole or two to knock me back. The end result was a tie for 19th, which funnily enough was exactly where I finished in the Volvo Masters 12 months ago.
Fighting the wind
I got the worst of the conditions on the first day, heading out in the last pairing with Miguel Angel Jimenez as the gusting winds increased. Now, Valderrama is hard enough with benign weather, but when the wind starts blowing it makes even more difficult. Miguel and I were the two top-ranked players on the Order of Merit ahead of the first round, but we made just one birdie between on us on the front nine. I made a three at the par-4 7th hole but promptly gave the shot back at the next.
On the back nine, it was just a case of trying to grind out pars and hope for the occasional birdie. I picked up a double bogey at the tough 225-yard par-3 15th. But at least the day ended on an upbeat note when I birdied the last for a one-over 72. That left me in a tie for 19th place, some five shots behind the joint leaders Sergio Garcia and Jose Manuel Lara.
Setback at the 16th
For a long while Friday was shaping up to be a good day. I’d dropped a shot at the tough par-4 second, but had hit back nicely with four birdies between the 7th and 13th. So, at that point I was two-under and only a couple or three off the top spot. But like most players, I’ve always found the dog-leg par-4 16th a tricky hole – I treble bogeyed it on the first day last year – and it burst my bubble a bit again with a double bogey. Even so, I finished with a 70 to lie in a share of 10th place at level par. That left me six shots behind at the half-way point.
I moved forward a couple of spots on Saturday into eighth, but it was hard work. I notice from my stats that I missed eight greens in regulation and yet managed to get up-and-down on six occasions. I made some pressure putts and hung in there to record a 71 that included two birdies and two bogies.
On the back foot
I started the final day nine shots off the lead and I just wanted to put in as good a round as I could – and see what unfolded elsewhere. It was a pretty blustery out there and some of the tighter fairways were always going to be difficult to hit. But I made a reasonable start with a nice approach shot at the 5th setting up a birdie to go to one-under for both the day and the tournament. Frustratingly, I bogeyed the next and never really got any momentum back. I did make another birdie at the par-5 11th, but the tournament finished disappointingly for me with three bogies in the last six holes. So, I shot a 74 in the end to leave me back at three-over, 10 shots behind both Sergio Garica and Ian Poulter, who took the play-off on the first extra hole.