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The passing of Nelson Mandela will undoubtedly dominate proceedings this week, however the European Tour have decided to persevere with the tournament which will now run from Wednesday to Saturday in order to be complete before Sunday's state funeral. Emotions will be running high this week I'm sure, particularly for some of the home-grown players, however from a betting perspective let's see if we can finish the year on a high after last week's overall profit courtesy of The Mechanic's successful defence in Hong Kong.
As a second-year event it's understandable that there's little to go on in terms of history - however following last year's 36-hole pitch-and-putt debacle at Royal Durban we really are starting from scratch here this week. With the exception of the Mount Edgecombe Trophy which ran in 1993/94 and again in 2007/08 on the Sunshine Tour, there is virtually no useable course form to study and the vast majority of the field will be playing the imaginatively named 'Course One' track competitively for the first time this week. Course One is a short, old-fashioned parkland layout which shouldn't be confused with its newer neighbour called - you've guessed it - 'Course Two' which is linksy in style. A short track then that's set to play event shorter than those aforementioned Sunshine Tour events as the par-5 fifth hole has been turned into a short par 4, meaning that the overall yardage is now a touch over 6,600 yards for its par of 71.
Such short tracks need a defence from the modern professional and that comes in the form of water in play on more than half of the holes as well as thick, penal and wet rough that's been impacted by particularly inclement weather in the recent past. Mike Hollick, who you may recall we had a small play on at Leopard Creek, is attached to the club and knows the track far better than most - he mentioned on twitter how wet the course was and how difficult the rough is, putting the emphasis firmly on hitting fairways in order to compile a competitive score. The weather isn't likely to give the course any respite either with rain forecast for the first two days before being replaced by drier weather with the chance of thunderstorms. Fingers crossed we don't end up with the kind of farcical situation that occurred last year on an already sodden track, however with the European Tour 100% committed to finishing the event on Saturday don't be too surprised if the event is cut short to 3 rounds should there be any significant interruptions to play.
The field is limited in terms of depth as you might imagine with Branden Grace the highest-ranked attendee and bookies favourite around the 16/1 mark. Anywhere near his best you'd expect Grace to take a field like this apart if he has a good week off the tee, however that's not been his most reliable suit in 2013 by any stretch of the imagination. Second-favourite George Coetzee is yet to find top gear after enduring a wrist injury over the summer and whilst he's a European Tour winner-in-waiting, I'll be observing his progress for a little while longer before dipping into my wallet, although regular readers will know that Coetzee is a player that I like and I'm sure will do good things in the years to come.
Beyond the top dozen or so players you're suddenly in the depths of OWGR ranks 200 and above and that lack of quality is reflected in the prices towards the top of the list. All things considered, my selections for this week are as follows:
If we're looking for a talented player who's been keeping the ball in play off the tee in recent times then Thomas Aiken could well be our man. Until 2011 it was fair to say that the 30 year-old was a little unpredictable off the tee, a facet of his game which ultimately kept him out of the winner's enclosure on the European Tour at the time. With age the Joburg native has also developed some control and after picking up his first piece of silverware away from the Sunshine Tour at the 2011 Spanish Open, he's reined in his driving just a touch in favour of more accuracy - and boy does it show in his statistics. 126th and 132nd in driving accuracy over the full seasons in 2010 and 2011 respectively improved to 29th in 2012 and 12th in 2013, underlining that his strategy now is far more about controlled aggression than wild hitting in an attempt to gain an extra few yards. That control paid off in India earlier this year when he romped to a 3-stroke victory over local favourite Gaganjeet Bhullar and I suspect he'll steadily accumulate more trophies if he sticks to his game plan longer term.
Success or failure this week is likely to come down to his performance with the putter assuming he maintains his form off the tee - that's one aspect that's been surprisingly erratic in his game of late, however with 10 or so good days practice at home after narrowly missing the cut at Leopard Creek he'll be arriving here fresh and ready for a final effort to cap 2013. Aiken proved with his win in Spain - which coincided with the passing of Seve Ballesteros - that he's able to focus on the task at hand when golf almost becomes secondary to events off the field, and although that's a tenuous reason I'll admit, I no longer fail to be surprised when history repeats itself when it comes to this game.
I must admit, the prices on my two backup players for Aiken are far from attractive, however when push came to shove I couldn't ignore either:
Darren Fichardt is one of only a handful of players with positive course experience this week and is another who's been working hard on improving his accuracy off the tee in recent times. The last time I backed the 38 year-old from Pretoria was at Leopard Creek a fortnight ago where he'd moved into a semi-contending position after a blistering front 9 on Friday before faltering on the back 9, eventually racking up a 10 on the reachable par-5 18th after putting his ball in the water 3 times - all of which added up to a missed cut. Success often follows adversity in this game though - Keegan Bradley's PGA Championship triumph after collapsing at Firestone and Kyle Stanley's win in Phoenix after blowing a 7-shot lead at Torrey Pines the week before still resonate from the recent past - and although Fichardt's capitulation was on an entirely different scale to those examples, it's amazing how often players bounce back. Just 3 weeks ago, Indian star Gaganjeet Bhullar finished plum last at the World Cup - a full 32 strokes behind the leader - only to pick himself up and record a 3-shot victory over a half-decent field at the Indonesian Open the week after.
One bad hole doesn't make a bad player and in my opinion the underlying form of Fichardt is solid - two European Tour wins in the last 18 months has seen him hover around the OWGR top 100 for most of that time, driven largely by a marked improvement in accuracy off the tee. Mark Murless picked his pocket here in 2008 to eventually win in a playoff having started 7 shots behind Fichardt on the Sunday, however the 4-time European Tour winner is a far more accomplished player 5 years down the line and that course experience could be critical.
If the weather worsens versus what is already a pretty grim forecast then Richard Finch could well find himself in with a great chance of regaining his lost card for next season before 2013 is through. The pasty Englishman lost his automatic playing rights after finishing 125th in the Race To Dubai this year after failing to register a single top-10 until he arrived in Perth in late October. A fruitless trip to Q-School followed, although there were hints again that his game was coming together when he opened with a 64 before fading to 49th overall. A sponsor's invite to the Alfred Dunhill Championship saw a different Finch though and after pushing Charl Schwartzel hard on Sunday he settled for 2nd and a healthy cheque; 8th last week on a Fanling track where he'd only ever missed the cut in the past underlines how well he's playing at present and I can see him producing one more effort here this week as a top-5 will secure his 2015 playing rights at this early stage of the season.
One under-the-radar player who has the accurate game and course experience to compete here at a longer price is Tjaart Van Der Walt. Not to be confused with namesake Dawie who won the Tshwane Open earlier in 2013, Tjaart is a 39 year-old journeyman who finally got his first professional victory after 17 years of trying last month in Cape Town after a string of near misses around the world. One of his numerous runners-up finishes came on this track back in 2007 when a final round 66 was just one shot shy of a playoff against compatriot Steve van Vuuren and that experience can only be seen as a positive this week on a track that many are seeing for the first time.
The Pretoria-born South African, who now lives in Durban, missed out on a Q-School card by a single stroke last month and will find his starts limited on the European Tour in 2014 after finishing 129th on the R2D. These small co-sanctioned events become critically important as a result - from a similar predicament last season Van Der Walt produced his two best finishes in smaller events with a top-5 at the Africa Open and a play-off defeat in St Omer...clearly this is the kind of level where he's competitive. An accurate (lead the field on that count at Leopard Creek) local with course experience, a recent victory and a real hunger to get a result could be a potent combination this week.
We'll be back on December 31st with our stats and preview of the Hyundai Tournament Of Champions on the PGA Tour. Keep up to date in the meantime by following us on twitter (Paul: @golfbetting; Steve: @bamfordgolf) or join over 1,350 members on our thriving facebook group: GBS facebook. Merry Christmas everybody and here's looking to a happy and prosperous new year!