European TourGolf

European Masters: Rory McIlroy is on fire but don’t discount Aaron Rai

August 26, 2019January 6th, 2022

RORY McIlroy hit the financial heights last weekend, banking an astonishing $15 million in winning the PGA’s Tour Championship and with it the FedEx Cup, but this week he is rather more literally hitting the heights, as he flies back across the Atlantic to play in the European Masters, high up in the Swiss Alps at Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club. It’s one of the most spectacular venues in the sport and the list of winners includes many legends of the game – can McIlroy join them?

 

Winner – Rory McIlroy 7/2

Back in 2008, as the Northern Irishman came towards the end of his first full season as a professional, he led this tournament from start to finish of the 72 holes and then, apparently on the brink of a breakthrough, he was toppled in a play-off by unheralded Frenchman Jean-Francois Lucquin. The near-miss hurt, but it kick-started a run of form that ended with that first win in Dubai the following February. A year after that course debut he was seventh at Crans and in his only other visit, in 2011, he was third. So we know he likes the course and he played superbly last week. The big question is if he rides the wave or hits the buffers because he is playing for a seventh week in eight.

But also consider this. In the aftermath of his FedEx win the Northern Irishman revealed that a number of factors had motivated him, including the desire to wrench back control of number one spot in the PGA Tour’s Stroke Average rankings. His success achieved that and his base numbers make for good reading this week, too, because over the last six and 12 months he is averaging more than half a shot better than his nearest rivals in this field. Over the course of four laps, of course, that equates to two strokes. Fatigue has to be a possibility, but so, too, does a breaching of the trophy cabinet’s defences. He has been close to so many wins this year and last weeks might herald a quick burst of them.

 

Each Way – Aaron Rai 100/1

With such a short-priced favourite in the staking plan it makes sense to add a couple of big-priced outsiders (I wouldn’t overlook backing them to finish top ten as an alternative to each way) and first up is Englishman Aaron Rai who impresses for his ability to play at altitude. It’s a factor the players always reference. “Altitude is the biggest challenge,” said Martin Kaymer last year and David Lipsky in 2017 insisted: “At this height controlling distance is key.” Rai is worthy of consideration because he won the 2017 Kenyan Open and his first European Tour top ten was at the Joburg Open – both of them at altitude.

Moreover he is also the reigning Hong Kong Open champion and that appeals because in the last few years players who excel at Crans have also done so at the similarly short and tricky Hong Kong GC – that includes winners Matt Fitzpatrick, Thomas Bjorn, Danny Willet, Richie Ramsay, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Lipsky, as well as play-off losers such as McIlroy, Lucas Bjerregaard and Scott Hend. And whilst at first glance, Rai missed cut at Crans last year is the problem, he actually shot a first-round 67 to lie tenth on Thursday night. He’s found some nice form recently, notching 12th at the WGC St Jude a few weeks ago and shooting 66-65 last weekend in Sweden.

 

Each Way – Marcus Kinhult 100/1

Kinhult has quite a lot in common with Rai. First up, they are both first-time winners on the European Tour this season, the Swede’s victory coming at Hillside in the British Masters. He’s also found good form in recent weeks, albeit rather more slowly that Rai. In Kinhult’s case, he’s climbing the form graph with results showing MC-61st-48th-20th, with that latter performance saw him post a strong 66-64 last weekend in Gothenburg.

Like Rai, he possesses form in Hong Kong and once again it is not quite up to the Englishman’s standard. In 2017 he was top ten after 18, 36 and 54 holes before finishing the week 27th and last year he was 20th. Where he trumps Rai is with his course record. Back in 2015 he played as an amateur on an invite and opened 65-66 to lie fourth heading into the weekend before logging a top ten. This looks like a fine opportunity for him to contend again.