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Last week's skinny profit was scant reward in an event that looked so promising with less than an hour to go. With Hennie Otto holding a 4 stroke lead and just 4 holes to play - plus Alejandro Canizares having battled back into the paying places after starting poorly on Sunday - the champagne was rapidly heading towards the ice bucket, however there's nothing certain in this game as we all know. Let's have another crack at funding this year's Christmas presents this week as we head to Leopard Creek once again for the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
The 7,326 yard par-72 layout is being used for the 10th successive year so we have plenty of events and course form to study, however it always lodges in the memory due to the wildlife which shares the area including crocodiles, lions and the odd hippo thrown in for good measure. Historical stats would suggest that hitting fairways isn't the easiest of tasks here - 70% or thereabouts tends to lead that stat by the end of the week - however with relatively lenient rough and the real trouble only applicable to the seriously wayward, this isn't a course which overly favours the most accurate players by any means.
The last few renewals have seen damper conditions underfoot which has helped the longer hitters, however drier conditions have prevailed in 2013 and this brings the medium-length players back into the mix in my view. The back 9 tends to be the place where a score is compiled with its 3 par 5s, however the front 9 with its short par-5 2nd and driveable par-4 6th also presents decent birdie opportunities. For me the key differentiator here will be those who can handle the slick bentgrass putting surfaces once on board and compile the requisite score with decent playing conditions expected throughout the week.
With Charl Schwartzel heading the bookies' lists once again - you may be lucky to get 7/2 about the 2011 Masters Champion if you're reading this on Wednesday - we have an almost identical dilemma to last week as to how to play this event from a betting perspective. We were right to swerve Charl at Glendower GC although that decision was in serious doubt on Sunday before he found the water on 6 and doubled the 10th to effectively end his chances. Leopard Creek is a different equation though as the 29 year-old has outstanding course form with 2 wins and 4 runners-up finishes from 8 attempts since the event moved here at the latter end of 2014. Whether you back him heavily here, as a stake-saver or not at all is the question and I'm opting for the 3rd option as I look to find some profit elsewhere - even if that does mean battling for the places should he indeed convert his hat-trick of Alfred Dunhill Championship titles.
There are 2 key factors to consider with Charl in my opinion: firstly, the disappointment at having failed to capture his first South African Open will hurt at some level, despite his cool exterior; secondly, he arrived here last year fresh off the back of an 11-shot victory in Thailand and was playing the best golf in the world at the time - that can't be said here this week, despite global form of 7/1/29/4. He's around a point shorter this year than last too and, all in all, that's too much for me to stomach, despite his very obvious chance.
Instead, here's who I'm backing this week:
Whilst the pre-event focus will undoubtedly be on Charl Schwartzel as the standout favourite, defending champion and by far the highest-ranked player in the field, there is another entrant with excellent course credentials at almost 10 times the price - step forward 2011 winner Garth Mulroy. We scored on Mulroy in this event in 2011 (2012 Season) at 45/1 and whilst he's a fair amount shorter this week, that's a fair reflection of his chance in a field that quickly drops away in terms of quality once you look past the top dozen or so players, especially given that he defended his title adequately (3rd) last year and showed some decent form in last week's SA Open (10th).
Mulroy loves the track, "It's probably my favourite course in South Africa – I love going back to Leopard Creek. I hope it can inspire me again. It's always nice to go back to a place where you have played well or won in the past." he said before last year's renewal and he'll be buoyed by his 3rd South African Open top-10 at the weekend where he birdied 15 out of 16 of the par-5s on the week - a critical element for success at Leopard Creek. What really stood out for me last week though was that he ranked 7th in the field for driving accuracy, an area of his game that he's not really renowned for; that, coupled with the rest of his game, makes him dangerous. With controlled aggression and excellent putting being the key components to success here in my opinion, Mulroy could be just the type of player who could upset the odds and topple the hot favourite.
A couple more South Africans make the team this week as the Sunshine Tour Order Of Merit draws towards a close. Darren Fichardt currently heads that list mainly due to his early-season performances at the Africa Open (winner) and Tshwane Open (2nd) and he'll be desperate to capture a 3rd OOM after successes in 1999/2000 and 2003/2004 - a task which will be made significantly easier with a decent cheque this week. Whilst his course/event form is solid if not spectacular (4 top 20s from 9 attempts, 4th in 2006), he did win his second of 13 Sunshine Tour events on this track at the 2001 Tour Championship and went out in the penultimate group here on Saturday last year after flawless opening rounds of 67 & 68 had kept him just about in touch at the halfway point. I'll keep faith in the 38 year-old despite him letting us down last week - if anything, the fact that he made the cut and progressed to a top-40 finish after a disastrous opening round of 77 shows that the desire to succeed is still strong at this late stage of the year; having been pushed out from 33/1 to 50/1 in the space of a week I'll take that with both hands.
If you're looking purely at European Tour performances then Jbe Kruger's 2nd place finish at Glendower GC will have come as somewhat of a shock. 10 consecutive ET missed cuts is hardly the kind of form that suggests a contending performance with 21 birdies and 2 eagles is just around the corner! Global form tells a slightly different story though and 3 top-13 finishes in 4 events prior to last week at least hinted at some better underlying form and the 2012 Avantha Masters champion may well keep that positivity and progression going on a track that he's finished top-10 on both of his last 2 attempts. He led this event by 4 strokes at the halfway point in November 2011 before a pair of 73s over the weekend halted him in his tracks as he sought to win his first European Tour event, so can clearly play the course well; his aforementioned win in India should settle him down when he's in a truly contending position again in the future - which could well be as early as this weekend. Kruger's result last week came despite hitting a little over 1/3 of fairways and the wide landing areas here at Leopard Creek can only help on that count.
A couple of longer prices to complete this week's selections:
South Africa isn't a typical golfing destination for Thomas Levet - indeed this is his first career visit to Leopard Creek - and his motivation for adding these late-season events to his schedule needs some scrutiny. The 2002 Open Championship runner-up qualifies for this event by virtue of his 2011 French Open victory, an event which carries a 3-year European Tour exemption - good news for the forthcoming season for Thomas, however that does mean that he needs to start accumulating either Euros or a victory this season if he's going to maintain full playing privileges the year after. So, in that respect, the €13,486 he earned by finishing 17th last week at Glendower GC is just part of the foundations that he needs to build going forwards. That finish featured some excellent iron-play as he finished 2nd in the field, matching the performance he produced at St Andrews in September when he recorded his only top-10 of the year to date having briefly looked like winning the event after a blistering start on the Sunday. In truth that was the 45 year-old's first contending performance for well over a year, however with his irons back in the groove it wouldn't take a great deal of improvement with the putter for the experienced Frenchman to make an impact at this level.
Finally I've saved a punt for one of South Africa's rising stars, Michael Hollick. The second-year Sunshine Tour player, who turned professional as recently as 2011, is progressing nicely after finishing 3rd in the rookie list last year and making the top-5 four times in 2013. The 26 year-old was desperate to play in this event given his improving form (5/5/24/28/2/6/22 in all events) and his appeal to the sponsors was granted giving him an excellent chance to put himself in the spotlight this week after last week's strong recovery at Glendower GC. The backbone of his recent form has been a hot putter including a stretch of 15 holes recently that including an incredible 12 one-putts - with a putter that's performing like that he could well feature on the leaderboard this week, hopefully for us that will be on Sunday afternoon.