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Best Bet - Adrian Meronk
Danger - Jorge Campillo
Next Best - Adri Arnaus
Top 10 - Niklas Norgaard Moller

After a pair of enthralling co-sanctioned Asian events, the DP World Tour returns to mainland Europe for the long-established Italian Open.

After years of being hosted by courses more akin to strategic planning and a links feel, the 7200-yard par-71 Marco Simone track offers a little more freedom for the big hitter, even if that isn’t the be-all-and-end-all as a pointer. The previous two outings here have seen a traditional, and welcome, return to a prevalence of quality tee-to-green play although through Nicolai Hojgaard and Adrian Meronk (first and second here in 2021), and Robert Macintyre, Matt Fitzpatrick,Victor Perez and Rory McIlroy we are not short of power off the tee box.

The Italian Open would usually take place in September, and the course may react differently some six months earlier than was previously the case, but after some rain, we can expect conditions to be perfect for strong approach play as players try to persuade Luke Donald, the 2023 European captain, to put them on the picks list for the upcoming Ryder Cup.

Despite no McIlroy, Fitzpatrick, Hatton or Hovland, Adrian Meronk is just a few points shorter than he was for this event six months ago and, after a promising first outing since the Masters, appeals as the best of the top lot.

It’s tight between the Pole and ’21 champ Nicolai, with just one shot separating them on that form-line, a final round 66 bettering both the eventual winner and Tommy Fleetwood by five strokes. Previously they had tied for 17th at the driver-friendly Czech Masters, whilst similarities appear this year at Abu Dhabi (tied 10th) and at Ras Al Khaimah, where the Dane’s final round 73 and 13th place was bested by eight shots and nine places.

Notice of Meronk’s talent at this level came when leading the Alfred Dunhill Championship in 2020, when, alongside Sean Crocker and Jayden Schaper) lack of experience let in home favourite Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Despite the issues in that final round, the 29-year-old finished in front of the likes of Macintyre and Arnaus, for whom this event more than suits.

Events since then have seen Meronk rise from just inside the world top-200 to a place inside the top-50, giving him access to Augusta last month, his fifth U.S event in a row and breaking records as the first player from Poland to make the cut at a PGA Tour event, when finishing 45th at Riviera.

14th at the Honda and just failing in a three-man play-off at the Match Play are all efforts that sing his quality, no more than we could expect following a 2023 that consists of the afore-mentioned top-10s at Abu Dhabi and Ras, where only a disastrous third round 75 kept him from the title.

The Al Hamra course provides links to this week via a win at each for Meronk’s nearest challenger, Nicolai, as well as Arnaus, winner of the only Challenge Tour finale held at the desert track, with runner-up Victor Perez and tied-sixth Macintyre finishing in the top two here last season.

Meronk’s victories at the driver-heavy Irish Open (from fellow long-hitter Ryan Fox) and his five-shot romp at the Australian Open suggest he has the potential to be too good for this lot when conditions suit, as they do here, whilst his return from The States last week was something to build on.

Whilst the Korea Championship stats need a touch of care, it is not hard to believe the current world ranked 63 was second off the tee and 20th in approaches, leading to a ranking of fifth for tee-to-green, nor that he was just two shots off Macintyre’s lead going into the final day.

Ultimately, three-over through five holes was never of any use, particularly as the offending numbers 4 and 5 were playing a combined under par. Still, it was an eye-catching performance from a player that has usually recorded his final rounds in the 60s, as 13 of his last 24 Sundays have proven, and if coming on from a hugely satisfying 72 holes, has to go very close this week.

Alongside Meronk after three rounds last week, Marcus Helligkilde – one of the 2023 Players to Follow – fared much better on Payday, knocking in seven birdies to negate the bogey and painful double, finishing as the closest challenger to eventual winner, Pablo Larrazabal.

The Dane reminds me very much of his compatriot, the Italian Open champion of 2021, with monster driving, form at the right places (including 13th at Al Hamra) and a progressive run of form spoilt only be a missed-cut in Thailand where a second-round 73 saw him miss the cut on the number.

Similar comments apply to another of the same age in Guido Migliozzi, a three-time winner on the DPWT and whose problems may be over judged on his recent form of 14th at Korea and 23rd in Japan.

On both occasions, the swashbuckling Italian has promised much in rounds of 64 at Ishioka and last Sunday in Korea (63, his best round of the week by seven shots).

However, both promising 26-year-olds were a much bigger price when the market opened and I reluctantly left them out at around 30/1 and shortening, in favour of an old (and recent) favourite.

At a bigger price, it’s hard to ignore the claims of the flying Spaniard, Jorge Campillo, who did the best of our bunch last week, when scorching through the field on Sunday, helping himself to a top three finish after a poor third round had left him outside the top-25.

That was the third time in a row that the experienced 36-year-old had left his halfway position behind, coming from 21st to win in Kenya and from 62nd at halfway and 20th after three rounds in Japan, ending in ninth place and proving he still had the desire after a five-week break.

Wins in Morocco and Kenya suggest we can put the three-time European Tour winner down as more of a cute player than the bombers, but figures over the last month have seen him elevate his overall tee-to-green game by some way.

According to the figures, the affable winner of the 2020 Qatar Masters has ranked in the top echelons for all the vital stats since and including the Indian Open, leading the overall numbers at three of his last four events, including in Korea where he was the only player in the top-10 to not record a bogey or worse in his final round.

Whilst he hasn’t the more obvious form, there may be something in the water at Cyprus, as he finished just behind the winner, Macintyre, and runner-up Masahiro Kawamura (fifth here in 2021) in 2020, whilst he mixed it with some long drivers when runner-up to Jeff Whinter in Mallorca, having the likes of Pep Angles, Laurie Canter and Niklas Lemke behind.

There will be an end to the run at some point, and whilst the track may have changed, his name fits in perfectly well with previous Spanish title winners Fedez-Castano and Canizares, as well as the nine compatriots that have been runners-up at this long-standing event.

I backed another Spaniard in Adri Arnaus last year, only to see him fail dismally to make the cut after sitting in fourth place after the first round. That is the Spaniard to a ‘tee’, and I’m uncertain anyone is ever likely to predict what we will get from the mercurial 28-year-old. (Is any Spanish player not mercurial?).

Nevertheless, taking an opening 66/68 from 2021 (in second place at halfway) and that seven-birdie opener from last year, there is a definite case for thinking backers will get a better run than they have for half his eight events this year.

Despite the four missed weekends, when he is good, Arnaus can rack up top finishes, such as 13th at the Dubai Desert Classic (4th into Sunday), a fast-finishing sixth place at Ras (more of that soon), a closing top-30 in Kenya and 10th into second place at Steyn City.

Not one to establish himself around the more finesse-type tracks, Arnaus has some eye-catching form around Al Hamra, winning the Challenge Tour finale in 2018 before a ninth (second place into Sunday) and closing sixth around the most convincing of correlation tracks.

Looking at his recent record, he comes on a fair bit from a first run-out after a missed-cut (60th to ninth; 13th to sixth and 30th to second) so I was keeping an eye on his efforts in Japan when a second round 71 spoiled a place well inside the cut-line.

It may be that fans have to accept a mid-table finish this week and go in again in Belgium next time, but given his qualifications for Marco Simone, and that he was going off somewhere between 20/1 and 25/1 for the events in February and March, he has to be played at double those odds.

I can’t go there in the win market, but am happy to back Niklas Norgaard Moller for a place in the top 10 and top 20.

The 30-year-old is yet another Dane from the school of big hitters, averaging higher than fourth place for driving distance over his last 10 completed starts. It isn’t just the bombing, though, as he has been in decent positions in eight events since the Alfred Dunhill Links in October and now attacks a track that should reward his style.

Following his always-prominent top-10 at St. Andrews (and pals) Moller was 16th at the halfway point at the Spanish Open, finished ninth in Mauritius, in 19th place at halfway in Singapore, 13th in Thailand, 23rd at St. Francis Links, seventh and 21st through two rounds in Steyn City (won by another huge driver) and 20th after three rounds in Japan.

It can be no coincidence that Moller’s best efforts include a win in the Nordic League at Himmerland, or that his notable finishes at higher levels include a top-five finish at the Czech Challenge, and first-page leaderboard efforts in Himmerland (again) and Green Eagle.

If the cap fits, wear it.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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