Paul Williams

Paul Williams' Nedbank Golf Challenge Tips 2019

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The crossbar was smashed once again last week as Tyrrell Hatton stumbled over the line under the floodlights in Turkey, exactly a week after flattering to deceive when carrying our money in China. That frustration was doubled as headline pick Victor Perez was one of those who missed out on the title in the 6-man play-off, having had a putt to take the trophy home in regulation play drift past the hole on the 72nd green.

As the European Tour season nears completion, as per the last three years the Nedbank Golf Challenge is the penultimate event ahead of next week’s finale at Greg Norman’s Earth Course in Dubai. Once an event reserved for no more than a dozen players each competing for a share of the biggest prize fund in South African golf, the format has evolved of late having become a 30-man event in 2013 when it was first co-sanctioned, before being expanded to 78 players for the past 3 years. A change again this year though as just 63 tee it up this time (top 60 available in the Race to Dubai, plus 3 invites) as the players jostle for position ahead of next week’s main event.

There was little change at the very top of the Race to Dubai rankings last week with Bernd Wiesberger and Shane Lowry treading water, meaning that only eventual winner Tyrrell Hatton made any real progress, however with the Englishman not playing this week that’s going to be of little consequence to the overall race. With Matt Fitzpatrick the only player in the top-5 who can make any inroads into Wiesberger’s position this week, it’s once again a huge opportunity for the Austrian to put daylight between himself and the chasing pack, however he’s going to need to improve over his last few outings if he’s going to make his lead virtually unassailable.

Given the continued apathy from those who reside in the upper echelons of the season-long points list, we find ourselves with a pretty open field here this week, headed by Louis Oosthuizen at 10/1 at the time of writing. Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson and Matt Fitzpatrick all rate as 16/1 shots or shorter in this no cut event.

Course Overview. The 7,831 yard Gary Player Country Club at Sun City is the venue for the Nedbank Golf Challenge – on paper the course looks a brute in terms of length, however it’s worth considering that the altitude will reduce that yardage as it often does in South Africa and officials have a tendency to play around with tee positions between rounds, so don’t expect this to play purely into the hands of the bombers and nobody else. That said, length is certainly of assistance on the par-5s which provide the best scoring chances and those players with a level of controlled aggression will tend to enjoy this track more than most.

The fairways aren’t particularly wide for this style of long, South African course and the greens are slick bentgrass that will reap a score for players who can find putting surfaces in the right number, however veering off of the fairway can leave players in some very tricky spots with thick rough in places, plus trees and bushes there to punish the errant.

Tournament Stats. We’ve published some key player statistics for this week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Combined Stats.

Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.

Winners & Prices. 2018: Lee Westwood, 40/1; 2017: Branden Grace, 16/1; 2016: Alex Noren, 20/1; 2015: Marc Leishman, 66/1; 2014: Danny Willett, 25/1; 2013: Thomas Bjorn, 30/1.

Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Sun City is here. Thunderstorms will soften the course ahead of the tournament itself, with Thursday holding the biggest risk of any final disruptions before the weather clears. From there on we should expect hot and sunny conditions with temperatures edging towards 90 Fahrenheit, accompanied by light winds of 5-10mph.

Tournament Trends & Key Factors.

Analysing the final stats of the last 6 winners of this event gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited to this test:

  • 2018, Lee Westwood (-15). 51.8% fairways (36th), 76.4% greens in regulation (4th), 52.9% scrambling (14th), 1.64 putts per GIR (1st)
  • 2017, Branden Grace (-11). 42.9% fairways (54th), 62.5% greens in regulation (31st), 59.3% scrambling (12th), 1.64 putts per GIR (4th)
  • 2016, Alex Noren (-14). 46.4% fairways (39th), 75% greens in regulation (1st), 55.6% scrambling (13th), 1.69 putts per GIR (4th)
  • 2015, Marc Leishman (-19). 50% fairways (12th), 76.4% greens in regulation (1st), 94.1% scrambling (1st), 1.73 putts per GIR (8th)
  • 2014, Danny Willett (-18).  46.4% fairways (23rd), 70.8% greens in regulation (3rd), 85.7% scrambling (1st), 1.69 putts per GIR (3rd)
  • 2013, Thomas Bjorn (-20). 64.3% fairways (3rd), 77.8% greens in regulation (1st), 81.3% scrambling (3rd), 1.66 putts per GIR (4th)

Since its move to the European Tour, the winning formula here has been to maximise greens hit coupled with a strong enough short game to minimise bogeys. The card would suggest that bombers should thrive here, however with the likes of Thomas Bjorn as well as Trevor Immelman and Jim Furyk (twice) having lifted this trophy over the years, I’d suggest an accurate type is equally if not more likely to win this event.

Incoming Form: In terms of incoming form, last year’s winner Lee Westwood had heavily hinted that a first win for 3 years might be on the cards with 5th place finishes at the Italian Open and Valderrama Masters in his last 12 starts, as well as a play-off defeat to Matt Wallace in Denmark.

Prior to that, Branden Grace hadn’t recorded a top-5 finish all year, however 6th at the Open Championship and 15th on his previous start at the WGC HSBC Champions hinted at some decent underlying form; conversely Alex Noren completed his 4th victory of the year here in 2016 and was clearly playing some excellent golf.

Marc Leishman had lost out in a play-off at the Open Championship earlier in the year in 2015 and 11th on his penultimate start at Sheshan showed some positive form also. Danny Willett had recorded 3 top-10 finishes in his previous 8 starts before winning here in 2014, the most recent of which was in Turkey on his penultimate start, whereas Thomas Bjorn had finished 2nd at the World Cup on his last start and had won at Crans a few weeks before:

  • 2018, Lee Westwood: 5/WD/19/32/61/61/2/12/36/MC/5/35
  • 2017, Branden Grace: 9/50/15/6/28/MC/MC/25/47/32/15/15
  • 2016, Alex Noren: MC/8/1/46/49/2/1/34/11/1/37/12
  • 2015, Marc Leishman: 5/MC/39/MC/2/33/MC/MC/MC/29/11/MC
  • 2014, Danny Willett: 11/MC/30/13/5/32/MC/7/WD/21/4/21
  • 2013, Thomas Bjorn: MC/73/MC/MC/58/1/57/5/39/18/21/2

Event Form: The last 2 winners here, Westwood and Grace, both had strong records here at Sun City and both encouraged further investigation. Prior to that, the previous 4 winners were all making their Nedbank debuts the week that they won:

  • 2018, Lee Westwood: 6/5/1/1/5/16/28/6
  • 2017, Branden Grace: 20/4/3
  • 2016, Alex Noren: Debut
  • 2015, Marc Leishman: Debut
  • 2014, Danny Willett: Debut
  • 2013, Thomas Bjorn: Debut

In good weather this event encourages a winning score of around -18 to -20, however trickier conditions over the past 3 years have kept the winning scores down to between -11 to -15. Birdies are there to be made for players who can find the majority of greens in regulation, however bogey avoidance is equally important on a course which isn’t a complete pushover.

Par-5 scoring usually makes up around half of the red numbers that a player posts around these parts, so maximising those opportunities while keeping out of trouble on the rest of the course is the order of the day. A positive record on other tracks at altitude – be that of the longer variety in South Africa or the shorter track at Crans – are a plus, as those players have shown an aptitude to adapt their game to suit the varying yardages.

My selections are as follows:

Lee Westwood 2pts EW 33/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Betfred

With winning scores of this event ranging from 16/1 (Grace) to 66/1 (Leishman), and Tyrrell Hatton proving once again that these Rolex Series events are difficult for Tour maidens to convert, perhaps siding with a more experienced hand is the way forward this week. The likes of Oosthuizen, Fleetwood, Stenson and Fitzpatrick are multiple winners with the class to take an event of this stature, however none appeal more to me than defending champion Lee Westwood who simply adores Sun City.

Across the various Sunshine Tour and European Tour events which are played on the 2 tracks here at Sun City, Westwood has amassed 4 wins and 8 further top-6 finishes from just 17 starts and clearly the resort plays to his strengths. 3 of those victories came in this event, including last year as I’ve alluded to, and he’s already successfully defended this title when winning back-to-back in 2010 and 2011.

On the subject of defending titles, I’m not generally a great believer in backing the returning champion, however with Worksop’s finest I’m happy to make an exception as he’s already achieved that feat 3 times across various Tours in his career, including a rare three-peat at the Taiheiyo Masters in Japan between 1996-8. Clearly that part of the equation is less of a hindrance to him than many other players, and you can add to that element that he’s also won 7 other titles on multiple occasions over the years.

Incoming form was arguably slightly better on paper last year ahead of his victory here with two top-5 finishes in his previous 6 starts, however with 4th at the Open Championship in July and 10th last week in Turkey, we have 2 higher-class finishes this year to suggest to me that there’s not much in it overall.

That effort at the Montgomerie Maxx could have been another victory were it not for some late mistakes around the greens; aside from that his game looked to be in decent shape overall and he should be looking forward immensely to his return to Sun City with an OWGR top-50 berth up for grabs if he can finish the year off strongly. Result: T6

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Shubhankar Sharma 1.5pts EW 55/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Paddy Power

I’ve been watching the improved form of Shubhankar Sharma closely over the past few weeks and with his stock still rising I’m happy to take a chance on him again this week having last backed him in Portugal 3 weeks ago when he finished 21st. The Indian star started well enough on the Algarve with an opening round of 67 to sit 12th after day 1, however he ultimately missed too many greens that week to contend – something that he seemed to correct last week in Turkey when ranking 4th for GIR at 81.9%.

To be fair to the 23 year-old, he’d started showing better form as far back as Wentworth where he sat in 3rd place heading into the final day before limping home in 76 strokes. 7th at the Italian Open offered more encouragement and whilst the same result last week in Turkey will have frustrated all but those punters who backed him with extended places, there were significant signs that he’s about to do something special having shot rounds of 64 on Friday and Sunday powered by a field-leading 1 eagle and 26 birdies in terms of par-breakers.

A switch to South African soil shouldn’t be an issue for the 2-time European Tour winner, with the first of those successes coming at the Joburg Open very nearly 2 years ago. 27th here on his Sun City debut showed steady improvement through the week as he got grips with the layout, signing off with a round 68 which was beaten by only a handful or so of players, and with his game on the ascendancy once again I can see him improving on that significantly this week. Result: 56th

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Christiaan Bezuidenhout 1pt EW 66/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Unibet

Johannesburg native Christiaan Bezuidenhout knows as much about playing at altitude as any of the field this week and another big effort on a course that suits isn’t out of the question in what’s been an outstanding breakthrough season for the 25 year-old.

2nd at the Qatar Masters, 9th at the Kenya Open and 4th at the Indian Open put Bezuidenhout firmly in the ‘future Tour winner’ category and he duly obliged in the summer when following up a 3rd place finish in Germany with victory at the iconic Valderrama. A post-win lull was to be expected, however he bounced back to contending form at Wentworth when finishing 3rd and given the form of recent winners here Alex Noren and Danny Willett around that particular part of Surrey, perhaps that form line holds a fair amount of water here this week; even Lee Westwood has proven victorious on the West Course back in the days of the HSBC World Match Play, so as the highest placed finisher from this year’s renewal – where he topped GIR – Christiaan deserves respect.

A quiet effort in Turkey has kept a lid on his price here this week, however a 3rd round 66 in China the week before – bettered by just one player – and an eventual 17th place finish at WGC level suggests to me that his in good enough shape to feature here.

25th here at Sun City on the Sunshine Tour is his best effort around these parts, however his wider South African form is good with 2nd at the 2016 South African Open the pick of his European Tour efforts. Add to that victory at the Sunshine Tour’s Sun Fish River Challenge and 2 more successes on the Big Easy Tour and we have a player who’s quite comfortable playing in front of a home crowd and is clearly a far stronger player now than he was back in those days. Result: T24

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Scott Jamieson 1pt EW 100/1 (5EW, 1/4) with bet365

Finally, in a short field with very little in the way of viable options when it comes to 3-figure punts, Scott Jamieson stands out as a little bit of value here this week given his excellent record in South Africa.

The Glaswegian’s only European Tour title came at the weather-shortened, and verging on farcical, Nelson Mandela Championship in late 2012 where a number of holes had to be severely shortened to allow completion of 36 holes. A win’s a win though, and the 35 year-old nearly proved his doubters wrong by finishing 3rd the week afterwards at Leopard Creek before blowing a golden opportunity on his return from the festive break at the Volvo Golf Champions. All 3 efforts were on South African soil and he’s continued his love affair with the Rainbow Nation with 4 top-7 finishes in his last 7 starts in this neck of the woods. One of those efforts was here at Sun City where he was pipped on Sunday by Branden Grace in 2017, having led going into the final round, and another bold effort here is quite possible.

Recent form is largely under-the-radar, hence his price, however 12th at the altitude of Crans-sur-Sierre matched Lee Westwood’s effort in the Swiss Alps prior to victory last year, plus he led the KLM Open at the halfway point the following week to suggest that his A-game wasn’t a million miles away. 10th last week was a big personal best in the Turkish Open for Scott and all aspects of his game looked to be in a good place as he edged himself close to the R2D top 60, meaning that a big effort here would punch his card for next week’s finale. Result: T44

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