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A controlled, professional performance from Andy Sullivan in South Africa rewarded those who kept faith in the trend for short-priced winners at the Joburg Open and was a welcome boost to our 2015 campaign. It's refreshing to see a player enjoying the challenge of Sunday afternoon contention and I suspect that we're only just scratching the surface of what the 28 year-old Nuneaton man may achieve over the next few years. 2 wins already for Sullivan in 2015, a spot earned at the Open Championship and a very real chance of breaking into the OWGR top 50 pre-Augusta summarises what has been a whirlwind 2 months for him.
While the world's elite are tackling the challenges that the new Doral possesses, here on the European Tour it's business as usual as the regular season events continue with the Africa Open at East London Golf Club. For this week's other events click here for my preview of the season's first WGC event from Doral; in addition Steve Bamford previews the Puerto Rico Open (click here to read his preview) having backed last year's winner Chesson Hadley 12 months ago at a juicy 50/1.
Event Overview. This week's test is the African Open hosted at the East London Golf Club in Eastern Cape, the venue of 8 prestigious South African Opens in its time and host to this tournament for the 7th consecutive season and the 6th time as a fully-fledged European Tour event, having previously resided on the Sunshine Tour before 2010. The attendee list this season makes for reasonably pleasant reading it has to be said and is stronger in relative terms to most previous years - we're still not talking superstars here, however it's certainly better than I expected in truth.
East London GC, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Designer: Hotchkin 1893; Course Type: Coastal; Par: 71; Length: 6,616 yards; Water Hazards: None; Fairways: Kikuyu; Rough: Local grasses; Greens: Sea Dwarf Seashore Paspalum, 9' on the stimp; 2014 scoring average: 69.17; Rd1: 69.31, Rd2: 69.15, Rd3: 69.22, Rd4: 68.82.
Course Overview. The course is set amongst coastal dunes overlooking Noonah Beach and is a mix of links and parkland-style courses. The front 9 features the links-style holes with tight landing areas off the tee and approach shots into small greens; the back 9 is parkland-style with more generous fairways and large, undulating greens. At a shade over 6,600 yards, this par 71 is extremely short for professional golf with a series of reachable par 5s and fiddly par 4s on the card, however don't be fooled into thinking this will play into the hands of the longest hitters as its quirky nature does demand an element of accuracy and strategy. That said, scoring on the par 5s is paramount so don't be surprised to find a mix of players with differing styles fighting it out over the weekend. One thing is for sure though, a low score is going to be the order of the day to be in the mix come Sunday, so those who can score heavily when the situation dictates must be favoured.
One of the main defences on this course is the prevalence of wind - despite a relatively calm forecast in the 10-15 mph region, the layout often receives a little more breeze than you might otherwise expect. Unless it's seriously windy that doesn't tend to make the course a great deal less scoreable, however it may be wise to side with players who have shown some ability to handle those types of conditions in the past.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Africa Open that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available. Gregory Bourdy, Darren Fichardt and course specialist Jaco Van Zyl comprise the top 3 of the final predictor output.
Winners & Prices. 2014: Thomas Aiken, 10/1; 2013: Darren Fichardt, 40/1; 2012: Louis Oosthuizen, 5/1; 2011: Louis Oosthuizen, 9/1; Charl Schwartzel, 9/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2014 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Eastern Cape is here. The tournament should enjoy mild temperatures in the high 70s Fahrenheit throughout with only a small chance of a shower each day but, on the whole, quite pleasant. The breeze is forecast at around 10-15 mph throughout, however it's often a little more noticeable than that given the geography of the course.
Bookmaker Offers. Boylesports continue their 2nd and 3rd place cashback (up to €50 currency or equivalent) offer - for full details click here.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 3 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Clearly a couple of different paths to success here from recent evidence with controlled tee-to-green performances from Aiken, Schwartzel and Oosthuizen mixed with the short game skills of Darren Fichardt in 2013 getting the job done. In breezier events scoring on the par 5s has become significantly more critical to overall success, whereas in calmer weeks accumulating birdies on the par 4s has been equally important.
Darren Fichardt was the only player to arrive here without eye-catching recent form of some description and the last 3 winners here had all finished inside the top-20 the previous year in this event. Prior to that, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel were playing the Africa Open for the first time on the European Tour.
Players with a positive record on short, more strategic tracks are favoured, as are those with good records on coastal courses where wind is often a feature. The slow, paspalum greens aren't to everyone's liking either so contending performances on similar surfaces is also a plus point.
My selections are as follows:
Andy Sullivan is the favourite here quite rightly after winning the hard way last week in Johannesburg having limped around at level par on the easy course last Thursday before springing to life. That victory has propelled the 28 year-old up to 58th in the OWGR and within touching distance of an invite to Augusta, however whether he can back that up with another victory straight off the bat is another matter - he followed up his SA Open success with a 57th place finish in Abu Dhabi earlier this year - and I'll reluctantly pass this week. Of more interest to me is Gregory Bourdy who finished 2nd here on debut in 2013 and had an eventful 4 days last year that included opening and closing rounds of 65, an ace at the par-3 15th on Saturday and 2 doubles and a treble bogey that were ultimately his downfall.
The Frenchman was certainly backable this time last year following a string of top-25 finishes in decent events, however 12 months on and 2015 form including 5th in Qatar, 13th in Dubai and 5th again in Malaysia (paspalum greens) is far stronger than most of the field here can get remotely close to. Victories at short, fiddly tricks such as Pula GC (2007), Penha Longa (2008) and Hong Kong GC (2009) are perfect for this and he got to grips well with the greens here 12 months ago finishing 6th for putting with an average of 1.608. Surprising good on the par 5s for a relatively short hitter (he ranked 4th in the field in my analysis for par-5 performance), the 32 year-old from Bordeaux has also been putting nicely for some time now and a missed cut at the Joburg Open will have given him time to recharge his batteries a little ahead of what should be a far more suitable task here at the East London GC. RESULT: MC
Another player who fits this layout perfectly is David Horsey and in an event where so few proven winners are in attendance, I was surprised by the early 50/1 that was chalked up by a few of the early-bird bookmakers. That price was snapped up early on Monday, however 40/1 still represents more than a fair return on the Manchester man and the predictor No.5 position is courtesy of his strong fit for these shorter setups as opposed to any scintillating recent form.
It was around this time last season that the 29 year-old found started to find his form with 4 consecutive top-12 finishes included a tie for 3rd here on his Africa Open debut, however it wasn't until later in the season at another low-key co-sanctioned event in Russia that Horsey added a third European Tour title to his resumé. This field bears similar hallmarks to that event and the track here suits far better in my opinion in terms of length, plus we know he's had success on tracks close to the coast when he won in Morocco in 2011. A neat and tidy player from tee-to-green and an excellent putter when he's on top form, by his own estimation it's only his holing out that's holding him back at present and a return to the Paspalum greens that he was so positive about 12 months ago could be the catalyst for more success. RESULT: MC
Unless you dismiss Jaco Van Zyl from your staking plan due to his short price alone, there's precious little other justification for suggesting that he won't contend here. His event form here reads 4/4/2/5 over the past 4 seasons and he's finished 3rd (Dimensions Data Pro-Am) and 2nd (Joburg Open) on his last 2 starts, so the classic course/current form combination is impossible to ignore. Tie that in with the fact that he's 19-under for the par 5s over his past 2 starts and played his final 30 holes in Joburg without a single blemish to his scorecard and we have a player who is hot to trot, surely? Well almost, and I will back him here this week on the strength of everything I've just said, however even at a price as short as he is I'm hedging my bets and going each-way as there's always a lingering doubt in my mind when the 36 year-old hits the front in European Tour standard events. 13 Sunshine Tour victories tells you that he can get over the line on his home Tour - indeed 4 of those successes have been by 5 strokes or more - however European Tour silverware, even of the co-sanctioned kind, has eluded him thus far. That said, if there's an event that he's likely to find that breakthrough on then surely this is it, plus we know that the Pretoria man can maintain his form for a prolonged period of time as his last 3 wins on the Sunshine Tour in 2013 come during a purple patch of form that read 11/2/1/WD/1/1. RESULT: T6
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