Our final week in South Africa takes us to the south coast town of George, equidistant between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and to the fantastic Links course at Fancourt. The attendees are all (bar a few exceptions) 2011 European Tour winners as the event sets out to mimic the Hyundai Tournament Of Champions in the States, however, like its American counterpart, a number of the top names have decided to give this event a swerve and extend their winter break for another week ahead of the high-profile Abu Dhabi Championship next week. So, in total, we have just 35 players to choose from and 4 places being paid each way by the bookies.
The Links course was opened in 2000 on what was originally an airfield and the Gary Player design now ranks as the best course in South Africa. Based on Player's view of the best Links courses in Scotland and Ireland, an absolute brute of a course has been constructed which will cause these top-class professionals some real problems, particularly if the breeze is prominent as the long-range weather forecast would suggest.
3 events have been hosted at the Links course since it opened - the 2003 President's Cup, 2005/6 South African Open (click here for the final leaderboard) and 2010 Senior Masters (click here for the final leaderboard). On both leaderboards you'll see an awful lot of scores in the high 70s and 80s - whilst the field will be far stronger this week, don't expect anyone to be shooting silly low scores around here and anything under par could well be in a contending position on Sunday.
The course will play as a par 73 this week at 7,271 yards with 5 par 5s - not excessively long by today's standards and this will play much more as a test of all-round Links golf rather than power-bombing off the tee. I'm looking for proven links players with the right kind of mentality - and short game - to take on a challenge like this, so positive results in tougher European Tour events and Open Championships is key for me.
My selections for this week then are as follows:
Along with Ernie Els, Retief Goosen is the only player in the field who can boast any competitive form at the Links at Fancourt - his 2005/6 South African Open victory was impressive in that his -9 total was 7 shots ahead of 3rd place and one of only 4 players to shoot under par for the week. Els was hot on his heels that week, however their form coming into this week is poles apart and if either are going to contend then I'd suggest it's Goosen.
8 Open Championship top 10s tells its own story - the South African simply loves Links golf. The biggest wonder of all is how he's failed to convert any of those performances into a victory to accompany his pair of US Open titles, however there's still time in his career to put that one to bed also.
Current form is solid for Retief - 6th in the South African Open before Christmas, 3rd at the Africa Open and 16th last week in Joburg after a fast start are all positive, however combine that with a return to Links golf on a course where's he's already been victorious (and virtually nobody else has played competitively) then we're potentially on to a winner. The biggest obstacle for Goosen could be that he's failed to win any tournament since 2009, however with a massive 44 career victories to his name I'm sure that killer instinct will return when the opportunity arises - and it could well be this Sunday. RESULT: 2nd, Lost In Playoff
Signs of improvement are increasingly evident for the 2-time Open Champion now that swing changes are finally starting to bed in - 8th at St Andrews in the Autumn, 16th in Portugal and 3rd in Johor hardly sniffs of a player so horribly out of form that he's unbackable and, like all of my selections, he'll relish a return to Links golf this week.
Harrington is one of those players who navigates all 18 holes with a smile plastered to his face - on a tough course such as this, that's a massively positive trait in my opinion. Bogeys and doubles will be around every corner, so a positive attitude in the face of adversity will be key to success this week - grinding out pars and an immaculate short game from tricky greenside positions is going to be vital and there are few better equipped in that department than Harrington.
Aside from this Open Championship victories, Harrington also has an excellent record at the Dunhill Links Championship with 2 victories, Irish Open (2007 winner) and at the tough Valderrama (form line of 19/19/10/2/4/13 up to 2008 in the Volvo Masters) - all of which will set him in great stead here this week. RESULT: T10
2011 ended with a visibly fatigued Thomas Bjorn running out of steam following 3 wins in the season and 4 in total in little over a year - despite his cracking form, the Dane clearly needed a rest! Following over a month of R&R during the festive period, I'm backing Bjorn to come back fighting in 2012 as he bids to play a proper part in the 2012 Ryder Cup after his Vice-Captain appearance in 2010 at Celtic Manor.
Like Harrington, Bjorn has a positive record on tough tracks like Valderamma where par is a great score, plus has an Irish Open (2006) to his name. A veteran of 14 Open Championships, Thomas has secured 5 top 10s in golf's biggest Major and arguably should have secured at least one victory in his time. Nevertheless, that form is extremely positive in a field that certainly isn't of Major quality and this is a great opportunity to once again prove that the bookies are wrong to price him up at such a generous price. RESULT: T16
Darren Clarke OBE is the final member of my quartet this week and a selection that I couldn't resist making after considerable deliberation. It's fair to say that Clarke has been in dismal form following his Open Championship triumph in July at Sandwich, and many backers will choose to swerve him this week for that reason alone, however I think we might find a different Darren Clarke emerge this week.
Following his Sports Personality Of The Year runners-up position and the award of his OBE in the New Year's Honours List, Clarke has set about his 2012 campaign with a new objective - to prove that he's not a Major one-hit wonder. Always a hard worker on the range and in practice, the Ulsterman has appointed a new fitness instructor to help shed the pounds like ISM stablemate Lee Westwood, as he's all too aware that fitness is a key ingredient to top-level golf. He's also been seeing an eye doctor to help cure his tendency to miss putts to the left - he's also recently been seen sporting glasses for the first time (I wonder if we'll see them this week on the course?). All in all, he means business in 2012 in my opinion.
For me we can forget about the second half of 2011 and start afresh in 2012 with a rejuvenated Darren Clarke who will be looking forward to the campaign with massive enthusiasm. An Open to defend, an Irish Open at Portrush and Ryder Cup qualification to get moving on - a return to links golf is the perfect tonic for the Ulsterman and I'm expecting him to go some way to silencing his critics this week at what may prove to be another huge price. RESULT: T20
Odds and bookmaker offers correct 20:30GMT 17.1.12 but naturally subject to fluctuation.
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