Chris Wood, the bookmakers’ favourite for this week’s Estoril Open de Portugal, believes his first European Tour title could be just around the corner.
The 22 year old Englishman has been knocking on the door in recent weeks, with top five finishes in Mallorca and Italy as well as a sixth place finish at the BMW PGA Championship, where he led going into the final round.
That form has propelled him to 34th in The Race to Dubai and has seen him installed as the favourite to collect €166,660 first prize at Penha Longa Golf Club, on the Estoril Coast.
“I've been pretty steady for the past few weeks – I’ve just been struggling with my putting really,” said Wood, who has finished fourth and third in the last two Open Championships.
“I’ve been hitting a lot of fairways and greens and giving myself plenty of chances – now I’ve got to start taking them more often than not. But we’re not far away.
“My game’s in good enough shape. It’s just a question of waiting for it to happen naturally, instead of putting too much pressure on myself.
“Any player who hasn’t won on Tour before is always desperate for their first victory, but once I’ve got it under my belt, hopefully the floodgates will open and I’ll grow in confidence. The more times you contend the more comfortable you feel in that situation, and hopefully with a win my career can really take off.
“You’ve still got to play very well to win any event on The European Tour. So to be the favourite to win gives me a bit more confidence going into the tournament.”
Wood admits tough playing conditions got the better of his title tilt at Wentworth Club during the final round, but accepts the challenges at Penha Longa Golf Club will be no less testing.
“There are some great holes out there – it’s a really nice course to play,” he added.
“But the wind's going to be a big factor, because there are quite a few exposed greens. There quite a lot of birdie chances out there, because a few of the par fours are under 400 yards, so you’re only hitting a wedge into some greens.
“But if it’s windy, you’re probably not going to be looking at making seven or eight birdies round here - it'll be more a case of steady as she goes. So it’s weather dependent this week – there are a few tight tee shots, so it could play fairly tricky.”
Another player carrying some good form into the event is Wood’s compatriot Oliver Fisher.
The 21 year old, who in 2006 became the youngest player to earn a European Tour card through the Qualifying School, enjoyed four top-ten finishes in a row in April.
That has all but ensured Fisher will regain his playing privileges for next season after a disappointing 2009 campaign, but the former Walker Cup star is refusing to get complacent.
“It’s the same every week really, no matter what tournament you’re playing in. If you play your best golf, you’re probably going to be in contention,” he said.
“That’s the same this week, it’s not going to be easy. You’ve still got to hit the ball in the right areas and hole the putts if you want to be contending.
“My understanding of my swing and my game overall has improved dramatically, and as a result I’ve managed to keep the ball in play much better than I did last year. I struggled a bit with my control last year, but this year it’s been a different story.”
At the other end of the experience spectrum is Thomas Björn, who has also hit a rich vein of form in recent weeks.
The great Dane finished in a tie for ninth place at last week’s Celtic Manor Wales Open – his second best performance of the season – and on Monday came through International Final Qualifying for The Open Championship at Sunningdale.
Björn said: “I played well for the first three days in Wales. Sunday was obviously a little disappointing to put it mildly, but overall I was very happy with the week. I played really well again at Sunningdale on Monday. The qualifiers are always fairly tough, because you don’t really know where you’re placed and how low you need to go. You always think that you might need to be doing better than you are to qualify, so it’s a tough day mentally and also physically, because you have to play 36 holes.
“But I came through it well enough, and I’m pretty happy with where my game is at the moment. Until recently I was working really hard at my game without getting much out of it in terms of my results, but slowly I’m starting to get the rewards for my good play. Hopefully that can continue this week.”
In contrast, Björn’s fellow Ryder Cup winner, Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke, is by his own admission struggling with his game.
But the Ulsterman is working hard to iron out the flaws, and is relishing the chance to go one better than in 1995, when he lost out in a play-off at Penha Longa Golf Club to Adam Hunter, who was recently diagnosed with leukaemia.
Clarke said: “I’ve had a very disappointing last couple of months, but I honestly don’t feel my game is in that bad shape. I’m just not scoring well – I’m taking as many as I possibly can whenever I go out on the course. So it’s been very frustrating, but in terms of striking the ball, I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I just can’t seem to turn that into decent scores at the moment, but it’s not for want of trying.
“I just haven’t really been hitting it close enough to give myself a chance of holing the putts, especially with my wedges. That’s where you’ve got to be scoring, and I’m just not at the minute. But it’s something I’m working very hard on to try to improve, and hopefully this week we’ll start to see signs of improvement.”