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Back to South Africa this week after the festive break as we take in our 3rd of 5 events on the African continent over the winter. This week's test is the East London Golf Club in Eastern Cape, the venue of 6 prestigious South African Opens in its time and host of this tournament for the 4th consecutive season, and the 3rd time as a fully-fledged European Tour event.
Louis Oosthuizen is back to defend his title this week and arrives in excellent form following a 6th place finish in Dubai, his 5th consecutive top 10 finish on the European Tour. Not surprisingly, Oosthuizen leads the betting at 5/1 with Paddy Power, closely followed by a number of his compatriots including Retief Goosen, Thomas Aiken, George Coetzee, Jaco Van Zyl, Garth Mulroy and Jbe Kruger. According to the bookies, the highest-ranked non-South African is Chris Wood who is available at 40/1 with Stan James at the time of writing.
The course itself 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 under 6,800 yards this par 72 is there for the taking and a score in the 20-under region is the likely requirement to take the title this week. With 4 reachable par 5s and 3 short par 4s, the longer hitters can take this course apart if they can stay out of trouble off the tee.
One of the main defences on this course is the prevalence of wind - this week looks like posing a reasonable challenge in this respect according to the long-range forecast with a fair breeze picking up over the weekend.
My selections for this week are as follows:
Defending champion Oosthuizen is the bookies' favourite and it's easy to see why. The 2010 Open Champion arrived here last year fresh after the Christmas break hot on the heels of a strong performance at the South African Open and a string of contending performances following his St Andrews victory. Fast forward 12 months and once again we have a player in tip-top form with finishes of 5/7/3/8/6 in his last 5 European Tour events - arguably that's even better form.
With very few top-class players on show this week, it could easily be a walkover for the South African - with the exception of Retief Goosen who I cover off below, there have to be doubts over the likes of Thomas Aiken (erratic form) and George Coetzee (still a maiden). The only thing that puts me off a bigger bet here is his contention-to-win ratio, so I'm treating this bet more as a saver bet this week. Oosthuizen is also our predictor no.1 selection - click here for details. RESULT: Winner
2009 Africa Open champion Goosen is the most likely player to push Oosthuizen for the title according to the bookies and, for me, this is absolutely right. With Ladbrokes offering a top price of 12/1 and 6 places each way on the former double US Open champion, there's good scope for profit from this bet even if Oosthuizen does prove to be victorious this week.
Goosen won the 2009 Africa Open on this course while it was still a Sunshine Tour event - with the likes of Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel and Angel Cabrera all finishing behind Goosen that year don't be fooled into thinking it was a poor field he beat. 9 times a winner in South Africa tells its own story and whilst it's fair to say that The Goose hasn't been firing on all cylinders recently, there were sufficient signs at the South African Open - where he finished 6th - that his game is getting back on track. He couldn't push on in the final 27 holes having not been in contention for quite some time, however that performance will give him confidence and there's no reason why he can't bounce back to winning ways here this week. RESULT: 3rd
Sam Little had an outstanding year on the Challenge Tour and can make an immediate impact as he attempts to retain his card once again at the upper echelon of European golf. The Londoner notched 3 wins in the space of 4 weeks in the Autumn to guarantee a return to the top flight and followed that up with solid performances at Leopard Creek (15th) and the South African Open (35th) to end a successful 2011.
Little has come close to winning before on the main tour - 2nd to Gregory Bourdy at the Mallorca Classic in 2007 (to save his card) and 2nd at the 2009 Czech Open suggest a player who can compete at this kind of level and I'm surprised to see a 3-figure price available about a player who tasted victory 3 times so recently, even if it was at a level lower than this. RESULT: M/C
Finally I have 3 longshots who I think all have an outside chance of making the frame at a long price:
Edberg is one of those yo-yo players who doesn't tend to keep his card for long, however he's just regained his playing privileges with an excellent finish to the 2011 Challenge Tour season with a playoff defeat in Rome and 5th place in the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final. His aggressive style is sure to reap some birdies and eagles on the crucial par 5s around the East London course as he looks to build a 2012 campaign that keeps him inside the top 115 from the very start. The Jocular Swede - who's rarely seen without his trademark headband - finished 8th here in 2010 despite a double bogey on the 72nd hole and could well hit similar heights this week given his current form. RESULT: M/C
South African Ockie Strydom celebrates his birthday during the Africa Open and he'll be looking to raise a toast to another excellent performance in South Africa following his 3rd place finish in the South African Open before Christmas. That effort was just his 2nd attempt on the European Tour and that instantly earned him a place on my watch list - with a similar quality field assembled here I see no reason not to back him for a repeat performance. 4 top 10s in his last 5 Sunshine Tour events suggests a player very much in form and capable of big things here this week...RESULT: T79
Shaun Norris completes my selections, however don't let his long price put you off a speculative punt here. Norris won the inaugural Africa Open in 2008 when it was a Sunshine Tour event and played at the nearby Fish River Sun Country Club. He had a tough 1st year on the European Tour in 2010 following his Q-School qualification, however a return to South Africa in the autumn proved to be the right move as he secured 3rd place at the BMG Classic followed by victory at the Nashau Masters a week later. Played all 4 round of the Alfred Dunhill and South Africa Open following that victory and a return to East London, where he recorded his solitary Euro Tour top 10 in 2011, could spell another big week for the South African. RESULT: T14
Odds and bookmaker offers correct 17:40GMT 3.1.12 but naturally subject to fluctuation.
Our tips, picks and predictions for the 2013 edition of this event will be published here on the Tuesday before the event - bookmark this page and come back soon!