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After the short festive break we're back on the road for the start of the European Tour's 2014 events with the restricted field Volvo Golf Champions kicking things off. Just 36 players - a mix of 2013 winners and a selected few previous champions/career qualifiers - will line up at the historic Durban Country Club on the east coast of South Africa this week and battle 72 holes or strokeplay, with no cut, to determine who wins the increased first prize of just over €1/2 million.
Whilst this is the 4th renewal of the Volvo Golf Champions on paper, the format and location of the event has changed since its inception so those of you who study the event history should be aware that only the 2013 renewal was played on this track with a similar number of entrants. Originally we were due to be venturing to a new location for this year's tournament too, however that plan never materialised so we at least have some data from last year; in addition there's some recent SA Open leaderboards to study as this Durban track has hosted a total of 17 national Open Championships over the years. Leaderboards for the 2011 (Ernie Els), 2005 (Tim Clark), 2002 (Tim Clark again) and 1998 (Ernie Els again) renewals are available to view via the links in blue.
The track itself is a short, sub-6,700 yard par 72 which sits just inland from the Indian Ocean - the Course Superintendent's Blog gives a great view of the course location - and was built originally over sand dunes making many of the holes really quite undulating. Tree-lined fairways, very tight landing areas on some holes and a number of dog-legs makes this much more of a classical test with excellent course management and strategy likely to just about outweigh brute force, however the Durban Country Club is very scoreable for those players who can find the putting surfaces as Ernie's -25 total a few years back would suggest. The greens were re-laid prior to the last South African Open with Bermuda Mini Verde replacing the indigenous paspalum surfaces meaning much fairer, flatter and putting faster surfaces; wet weather last year dampened those down to a large degree, however they're expected to be much slicker this year. Some aesthetic changes have been made in the last 12 months to open up some areas of bush, however this isn't expected to play a massive part in proceedings; instead the course's close proximity to the sea and the sudden wind changes that are part and parcel of this track are its main defence, with the opening day expected to be the trickiest in that respect.
The betting market is dominated by Charl Schwartzel who, at a best-priced 10/3, is the overwhelming favourite for this event. It's fair to say that South Africans have dominated at the Durban CC in recent times with Louis Oosthuizen winning last year and Els/Clark capturing the 4 South African Opens listed above, so it's no great surprise that the highest-ranked player - as well as one of the most in-form - is such a short price. However to back him at such a level it's really an all-or-nothing bet and I'm not 100% convinced he'll win this as easily as the bookies are suggesting. 15th (2002), 2nd (2005) and 4th (2011) at Durban CC shows he can play the track and he's very likely to be in the mix, however there's some quality in this field and it won't be a walk in the park for Charl. Louis Oosthuizen is an interesting contender at 16/1 in places - after all he's won his first event of the calendar year on each of the past 3 years - however injury problems plagued the defending champion throughout 2013 and you're gambling more on his health than his ability this week. Jamie Donaldson is no bargain at 12/1 having surrendered some great positions before Christmas; at a similar price Thomas Bjorn is a more reliable winner but tends to start most years sluggishly.
For me this event will be about players who have a history of hitting the ground running, plus a little bit of course experience is also of benefit. Despite some holes being gimmie birdies to the longer players, I don't think this will be dominated by the power-hitters; instead those with positive coastal (including links) records and positive January performances historically are favoured. My selections are as follows:
After a largely disappointing 2013 in which Branden Grace failed to add to his fabulous haul of trophies from the previous year, it was with some satisfaction that the South African held onto 50th place in the OWGR at year end with a last-ditch 6th place finish at the Nelson Mandela Championship. That finish came after a run of 8 events in 9 weeks and the 25 year-old was understandably exhausted, but elated, at the end of that stretch of events and will no doubt be looking forward to another big year in 2014. After the best part of a month's break, the 2012 winner of this event is one of only a handful of players who has an impressive enough record in January events to really convince me that he'll have burnt off the excesses of the festive period and be ready and raring to go this week.
Last year's 7th place finish masks a number of points. Firstly, it was Grace's first time defending a European Tour event and he mentioned in his pre-event interviews that this had been on his mind - cue a first round 75 which left him just half a dozen places above last place after the first day. Secondly, 203 strokes for the final 3 rounds was the best in the field from Friday onwards demonstrating that once he'd shook off the first day nerves/rust he took to the course very nicely indeed. The Bermuda greens were no problem whatsoever for Grace as he topped the total putts category on the week with just 107 and was 6th for putts per GIR. Combine that with the fact that his irons were improving all the way until the end of the year then we could have a potent combination here - provided we don't get a repeat of last year's opening round. RESULT: 2nd
2014 could be a big year for Paul Casey. Golf is littered with stories of players yo-yoing between the upper echelons of golfing stardom and realtive obscurity for a whole variety of reasons - and sometimes seemingly without reason - and the Englishman, who once sat 3rd in the World Rankings, is on his way back towards golf's top table in my opinion. Having drifted as low as 169th in the OWGR as he battled back from a series of injuries, the 36 year-old grabbed his first win in nearly 2 1/2 years at the Irish Open last June as his putter finally warmed up after months of holding back his results. That win, combined with top-20 finishes in the first 3 Final Series events last autumn, put the former Ryder Cup star back into the World's top 100 and he has his sights firmly set on a top-64 position ahead of the WGC Match Play in a little over a month's time. Casey knows that the only way to get back to the top of World golf is to be playing in the Majors & WGCs, so priority number 1 is to get himself within touching distance of the OWGR top 50 and a win here would be a great step towards that goal.
3 of Casey's last 5 European Tour wins have come in January - his Abu Dhabi victories in 2007 & 2009 were also both his first starts of the calendar year - and the 12-time European Tour winner knows how to focus his preparation to ensure a fast start to the year. After an opening 74 last year, Casey closed with 3 consecutive rounds of 69 to slowly edge up the leaderboard to a more respectable 18th on course debut and he'll know much more about the intricacies of this track this time around. As always, much will depend on how the putter behaves, however with his irons still in great shape (1st for GIR in 2 of his last 4 starts) and a proven ability to perform on Bermuda greens with his Abu Dhabi victories, this could be another step in the right direction for the Englishman. RESULT: T19
It was fascinating listening to a recent interview with Padraig Harrington where he described in detail the issues he's had with both the physical and mental aspects of the game in recent times. My take from this was that the 3-time Major Champion feels that every aspect of his game is in decent shape right now, that his tee-to-green game is better than ever, and that his first win since the Johor Open in 2010 is just around the corner. Last year's 4th place finish here was the 42 year-old's best finish of the season and, whilst there were lots of missed cuts around the middle of the year, he did finish off with 3 pay-cheques in decent events before his customary extended winter break.
It goes without saying that he's a proven coastal performer and an excellent putter on Bermuda greens when the confidence is high with the flat stick (2nd last year here on that count), however what really interests me is that more often than not he's been able to put in a contending performance the first week back to competitive golf after Christmas. Enthusiasm is always in abundance with Harrington but that combined with a positivity about his game that's been missing for some time, being fully rested and the small matter of it being Ryder Cup year, I wouldn't be surprised to see him contend here. RESULT: T5