After the short festive break we're ready and raring to go as the European Tour's 2016 events get underway in South Africa. The season may already be 3 events old following the low-key tournaments that followed Dubai, however the action for me really kicks of from this week with the South African Open then Joburg Open in quick succession which is then followed by the Middle-East Swing starting in Abu Dhabi in a fortnight's time.
The Joburg Open next week is the first in a whole host of schedule changes for 2016, many of which have come about directly as a result of the addition of a men's golf event to the Olympic Games in August. The WGC Match Play a fortnight before the Masters is a notable change, as is the WGC Bridgestone Invitational which is now being played at the end of June and clashing with the Open de France. The final Major of the year, the US PGA Championship, has also been moved forward to July meaning we'll have two Majors in the space of a fortnight with the Open Championship starting on the 14th July and the US PGA on the 28th. All change!!
On to matters at hand though and this week we have the BMW South African Open as well as the Hyundai Tournament of Champions over on the PGA Tour - Steve Bamford previews that event here.
Course Guide. Glendower GC is a classical parkland track first opened in 1937 which received a fairly extensive renovation in 2007 with updates predominantly to the green complexes. At 7,564 yards the layout may look a brute on paper, however being at the altitude of the South African Highveld you can scrub around 10% off of those figures and players will tend to convert metres to yards for this type of test, so 6,900 or so is a more realistic figure to work with. The greens are USGA standard and feature relatively speedy (for the European Tour) A1/A4 bentgrass that measures around 12 on the stimpmeter.
Glendower GC, Gauteng, Johannesburg. Designer: Allison, 1937; Course Type: Classical, Parkland; Par: 72; Length: 7,564 yards; Water Hazards: 11; Fairways: Kikuyu; Rough: Kikuyu; Greens A1/A4 Bentgrass, 12 on the stimpmeter; 2015 scoring average: 73.47, Rd1: 73.79, Rd2: 74.16, Rd3: 71.44, Rd4: 73.15.
Course Overview. 2012 BMG Classic (Sunshine Tour event, played here at Glendower GC) winner Teboho Sefatsa describes his home course as 'as one of the country's best courses' stating that 'The course does not favour the big-hitter or the deft short-game player. You need to bring an all-round game, and you need to play the course gracefully. Simply put, you need to hit straight and then follow up with quality shots'. Jordi Garcia Pinto backed up this assertion, "You have to be really focused on this golf course, because if you go to the rough it’s a bogey every time." he said after shooting 68 in round 1 last year to sit 2 shots back at the time. 2 heavy pointers for accuracy, however then we see the name of Morten Orum Madsen - hardly renowned for pinpoint accuracy off the tee - on the winners list which muddies the water somewhat.
The fairways were narrowed for the 2013 event to present a stiffer challenge off the tee, plus with trees and water awaiting the more errant players this track isn't a pushover as was reflected in the scoring a little over 12 months ago. What made last year particularly tough though -ultimately seeing 8 shots taken off the winning score compared to the season prior - was that the rough was exceptionally thick following the wettest December in the region for a quarter of a century. Missed fairways ultimately made par a good score and every player in the top 10 dropped at least 10 shots through bogeys or worse over the course of the 4 days. Par 5 scoring was also far less of a factor overall 12 months ago as greens in two were virtually taken out of the equation unless fairways were found off the tee - easier said than done on this track.
In stark contrast to 2014, the back end of 2015 saw the worst drought in South Africa since 1982 and although the course is reportedly in outstanding condition, the rough is nowhere near as thick this year and the fairways and greens will play far firmer and faster. With hot and sunny weather expected for at least the first 2 days before the risk of thunderstorms, I'd expect easier playing conditions from the rough and, with that, lower scores and a slight shift away from accuracy being the primary success factor this time around.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's South African Open that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll 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.
Winners & Prices. 2015: Andy Sullivan, 33/1; 2013: Morten Orum Madsen, 80/1; 2012: Henrik Stenson, 14/1; 2011: Hennie Otto, 33/1; 2010: Ernie Els, 9/1. The years reflect the calendar year in which the event was played, not the European Tour season. For a full summary of 2015 winners' prices click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the Johannesburg region is here. Hot and sunny conditions are expected for the first two days with temperatures edging towards the mid 90s Fahrenheit before the risk of thunderstorms takes precedence over the weekend. Breezes will be noticeable with a fairly consistent 15mph wind blowing predominantly from the north.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors. The 2013 event here was the first time that Glendower Golf Club had hosted the South African Open since 1997 so there's pretty sparse course/event history to review, however it's worth noting that the course also plays host to the BMG Classic on the Sunshine Tour. Recent winners are: 2014: Merrick Bremner, -12 (3 rounds). Final Leaderboard; 2013: Ulrich Van Den Berg, -15 (3 rounds); 2012 Teboho Sefatsa, -10 (3 rounds); 2011 James Kamte, -9 (3 rounds); 2010: Brandon Pieters, -11 (3 rounds); 2009 Graham DeLaet, -11 (3 rounds).
Analysing the top 3 finishers here at Glendower for the past 2 seasons gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
In reality both Charl Schwartzel and Hennie Otto threw this event away in the last 2 renewals respectively having both been in extremely commanding positions with 5 holes to play, however it's interesting to note that all players listed above were inside the top 20 for the week in putting performance. To extend that point further, every (recorded) player finishing inside the top 10 for both renewals also finished 22nd or better for putting on the week, so getting along with these speedy bentgrass greens is a must.
Madsen was -13 for the week on the par 5s, Kruger was -11, Otto -9, Crespi -11 and Schwartzel -10 so maximising those longer, but reachable, holes at the altitude of Glendower was seemingly a critical path to compiling a winning score at the back end of 2013. Last year in tougher conditions from the rough this was far less important with eventual winner Andy Sullivan scoring -6 over the week on the par 5s and runner-up Charl Schwartzel one shot better at -7.
The moving forward of next week's Joburg Open means that Andy Sullivan will be defending both this week and next. Backing defending champions is an interesting strategy that some punters employ and some avoid like the plague. In order to gauge how effective this may be over time, we've summarised the last 2 years of data here and we'll continue to update this statistic ongoing.
Incoming Form/Event Form Of Winner. Last year's winner Andy Sullivan arrived here at Glendower having missed the cut on his last start (Alfred Dunhill Championship), however prior form of 21st at the Earth Course and 4th in Turkey had suggested he was playing decent enough golf to feature. 12th at Glendower the previous year was also a positive. For a summary of 2015 winners' current/event form prior to winning click here.
All things considered, my selections are as follows:
With Branden Grace at 5/1 and Andy Sullivan 8/1 heading the betting you'd be forgiven for thinking that this event is simply a two horse race. Had Charl Schwartzel not pulled out with a stomach virus that's seen him hospitalised over the festive period we'd surely have had 3 players around single-figure quotes for this event, however I'm not sure it's going to be quite that straightforward. Grace has an obvious chance naturally, however at that price he's a risk; Andy Sullivan is defending a European Tour title for the first time this week (and again next week) and the demands that responsibility entails both mentally and time-wise may well be a factor. Both could win this still of course, however when backing players at single figure prices in these full field events I'd have to be very, very convinced to take the plunge.
Instead I'm going to lead with Lee Slattery who, at 40/1, would return a better price for a place than either of the top two would for a win. That's not to say that Slattery only has place claims - on the contrary, I believe that the 37 year-old has the game to push on from his second European Tour success at last summer's Russian Open and head into the OWGR top 100 and beyond in 2016. 3rd here last season in his first start of the year was his best effort on South African soil since finishing 2nd at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in 2007, however he followed that up with a 7th place finish in Sweden (Bentgrass greens), the aforementioned win in Russia (Bentgrass), 2nd in Holland (Bent/Poa) and 9th in Turkey (Bentgrass) to accumulate well over €800k in prize money and his best season as a professional by a long stretch.
A lowly 65th at Leopard Creek on his last start may have been a step too far for Lee after a hectic autumn, however I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Southport man hit the ground running once again this year having spent some much needed R&R time with his family over Christmas. A continuation of his fine putting performances of Turkey and Dubai which saw top-10 rankings on that count in far stronger company would surely see him in the mix here once again; if he can take apart the par 5s again like he did last year (-12 over the week) in more scoreable conditions then he could well upset the odds and continue a streak that's seen a European player win the last 3 South African Opens. RESULT: T27
I gave Hennie Otto a good look this week as his record on this track both in this event and on the BMG Classic demands respect, however the enigmatic South African's best golf tends to come when he's in full control of his long game and that's not been in evidence for some time now. Instead I'm backing Otto's compatriot Trevor Fisher Junior who I fancy can push on in 2016 having finally got the European Tour monkey off of his back with victory at the Africa Open last March.
The Joburg born and bred 36 year-old has finished 7th and 15th here over the past two renewals and shares the course record with Matt Nixon following his closing round of 64 in late 2013 which, at one point, threatened a 59. The 9-time Sunshine Tour winner has generally reserved his best form for his homeland with further top-5 finishes at both the Joburg Open and Alfred Dunhill Championship co-sanctioned events to add to his aforementioned Africa Open success, however 3rd place at last October's Portugal Masters suggests he's also becoming more comfortable playing outside of his country of birth. Aggressive on the Par 5s and a consistent 70%+ GIR performer when he's on his game, the identical A1/A4 bentgrass greens of Lake Malaren produced Trevor's best 4-day putting performance since March (1.67, 7th in the field) on his penultimate start in November and that bodes well as he returns to a track where he's also racked up 3 further top-10 finishes at the Sunshine Tour's BMG Classic to add to his solid record in this event. RESULT: T8
Another player with an excellent course record if you delve into the Sunshine Tour record books is Jean Hugo. Finishes of 4/6/10/46/5 here at Glendower from 2010 to 2014 inclusive more than suggests he's got a liking for this track and SA Open finishes of 12th and 33rd are hardly disastrous either, so at 80/1 he's worthy of further inspection. Fact is you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find Hugo's last real contending performances on the European Tour itself - 4th at the Dunhill Links and 3rd in the Trophee Lancombe behind Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen in that year were the highlights - however perhaps the best is yet to come from the 40 year-old who enjoyed a stellar 2015 on the Sunshine Tour. Prior to missing the cut at Leopard Creek on his last start, his incoming form in all events read 1/8/2/1/21/6/6/5/2 which in anyone's book is a decent effort, even if the standard was hardly the greatest. Then again, this isn't the strongest field that the European Tour has seen and marrying together his course form to his recent performances looks too strong to ignore for an 80/1 shot. RESULT: MC
A couple of lively outsiders to complete my team this week, both at 100/1 at the time of writing.
Firstly Matt Ford, a name that won't be that familiar to many and a player who nearly gave it all up to become a postman before battling through Q-School at the 10th attempt to earn his card in 2015. The Swindon man endured a turbulent rookie season with a runners-up finish behind Trevor Fisher Junior the highlight and 12 missed cuts amongst the lows, however it took a 7th place finish in his final regular event of the season in Hong Kong for Matt to retain his playing privileges for 2016. A rocky road indeed, however with his card secured he promptly celebrated by finishing 5th at Leopard Creek on his last start to get the new season off to a strong start. So of the little evidence we have to form a view of the 37 year-old's abilities, we have two top-5 finishes in South Africa, the latter of which was on A1 Bentgrass, and a last-ditch top-10 in Hong Kong on a classical, tree-lined course played in hot conditions. Ford finished 5th for all-round putting in both of those final two events and is clearly rolling the ball well at the moment, a critical element here in my view. "The South African courses suit me" he said on his blog when talking about forthcoming events - let's hope he's right and can follow up his last two efforts with another top 5 finish or better. RESULT: MC
Regular readers will know that one player who ranks highly in my estimation on Bentgrass greens is Garth Mulroy - indeed we've scored on him previously in South Africa and at 100/1 he's well worth a dabble here this week in my view. After another year of battling on the web.com Tour, which produced a seasons-best finish of 3rd at the Utah Championship in August but was ultimately fruitless once again, the 37 year-old has headed back across the Atlantic to try his luck on the Sunshine Tour and any European Tour events he can get a start in. Never the most consistent of performers, his last 4 starts have produced two top-10 finishes (Portugal Masters, Cape Town) and two missed cuts, however the 3-time Sunshine Tour winner clearly can produce the goods from time to time and a South African-based, bentgrass greened affair where putting is critical is the most likely candidate in terms of venue. 10th here in 2013 was a decent effort given that he'd finished plum last the week before in Dubai and this event in general has been positive for the Durban man with two further top-10 finishes over the years including 3rd in 2007. 2nd for putting at Woburn last autumn and 3rd on the same count in Portugal reinforce my view that he's a massively bentgrass-positive performer and I'm happy to put that theory to the test here this week given the 3-figure price on offer. RESULT: MC
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