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As the European Tour season nears completion, as per last year 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 with the European Tour and for last year and again this year it has become a 72-man field (top 70 available in the Race to Dubai plus 2 invites) as the players jostle for position ahead of next week's main event.
Justin Rose's second win in as many weeks in Turkey has put the Englishman within touching distance of leader Tommy Fleetwood when it comes to securing the Race To Dubai title, however the battle for who will become Europe's No.1 golfer will be concluded next week with Rose not playing here in South Africa. That does give Fleetwood a great chance to re-build a sizeable lead this week, however the new father will need to overcome a strong field headlined by Tyrrell Hatton and local favourites Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace if he's going to pick up maximum points here this week.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the OHL Classic at Mayakoba - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
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 | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Sun City is here. After a spell of very hot and dry weather, there's potential for some disruption from thunderstorms to start the event which will be accompanied by marginally cooler (mid-80s Fahrenheit) temperatures and a 10-15 mph breeze. The weekend should be calmer and drier with excellent scoring conditions.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the last 4 winners of this event gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited to this test:
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 Alex Noren completed his 4th victory of the year here 12 months ago 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:
The four winners detailed above were all making their debut at the event so course/event form needs to be considered accordingly, plus the finishes from the older tournaments may look artificially strong as the event used to be a 12-man affair.
In good weather this event encourages a winning score of around -18 to -20, however trickier conditions last year saw Alex Noren turn a 3-shot deficit into a 6-shot victory over Jeunghun Wang with a 14-under total proving to be more than sufficient. 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 despite the scoring levels we've seen in recent years. 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.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
With the likes of Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm all missing from this week's field, this is a perfect opportunity for Race to Dubai leader Tommy Fleetwood to extend his lead at the top of the rankings, however from a pressure-free position of 13th I suspect that the Southport man could be upstaged by his young compatriot Matthew Fitzpatrick here this week at Sun City. With no expectation on his shoulders this week, an OWGR top-50 berth guaranteed for the start of 2018 and a game that's shaping up very nicely as he prepares to defend his DP World Tour Championship title in Dubai next week, this week's Nedbank Golf Challenge is there for the taking in my view.
The Gary Player Country Club always looks a brute in terms of length until you factor in the altitude, warm temperatures and the organisers tinkering with the tee boxes from round to round, however this track tends to favour the ball-strikers who can find a lot of greens in regulation as opposed to the bombers - the Sheffield lad falls firmly into the first category without any shadow of doubt. That's not to say he can't play longer courses - wins at the Nordea Masters and at the Earth Course are testament to that - however length off the tee isn't the be-all and end-all here this week in my view.
A hyper-consistent run of form since capturing his fourth European Tour title at Crans in September, which although far shorter than this is also played at altitude and requires the ability to adapt distances to suit the thin air, has seen the 23 year-old record five consecutive top-15 finishes in all events with his typical blend of accuracy and high GIR. He's stated on twitter that he's happy with the state of his game and that it's trending nicely with decent momentum as the European Tour season heads towards its close and I wouldn't discount a big couple of weeks for Matt to finish off an excellent 12 months, particularly with so many Ryder Cup points up for grabs. Talking of altitude golf and Crans in particular, it's interesting to note that three of the past 4 winners of this event have also won in the Swiss Alps and Fitzpatrick adding his name to that list wouldn't be a surprise. 5th at the 2015 South African Open which was held at Glendower GC on the Highveld is also positive form for a player who was at the time feeling his way onto the European Tour.
The final piece of the jigsaw for Fitzpatrick is the putter and having ranked 5th for putting average last week in Turkey - his best effort since that victory in Crans - if he can continue that flat-stick form into this week then I can see a massive improvement on the two top-20 finishes that he's recorded here over the past 2 years and the potential for a 5th European Tour title. RESULT: 8th
With no standout favourite this week and with most bookies going 14/1 the field with Tyrrell Hatton, whose putting frustrations boiled over in Turkey, the uneasy favourite, there are a number of players who clearly have a chance this week but offer limited value at best. Local favourites Branden Grace and Louis Oostuhuizen both have their merits and Grace in particular has been striping his irons of late, however at around 16/1 they don't appeal to me here having had a decent punt on Fitzpatrick. Ross Fisher has been well-backed once again, despite a limp 58th place finish in Sheshan on his last start, however one of last week's contenders catches the eye and Dylan Frittelli is worth supporting here despite having been well backed already.
Ball-striking is the Joburg native's key strength and he put his long-game skills to work earlier this year with promising finishes of 5th at the Shenzhen International and 2nd at the China Open before capturing his maiden European Tour title at the Lyoness Open which, like this layout here at Sun City, rewards those more adept from tee-to-green. As so often happens when a player breaks through, Dylan's form has suffered of late, however an excellent runner-up finish behind Justin Rose last week in Turkey - fuelled by some incredible work from off the greens - will no doubt give him a massive confidence boost heading into this week and next.
The 27 year-old has an excellent record in his homeland as you might expect having played parts of his professional career on the Sunshine Tour - a South African form line of 4/8/25/MC/2/8/16/12 from his last 8 events in the country underlines just how comfortable he is when playing at home. Despite this being his competitive course debut, he has far more experience than most of playing in these altitude conditions and with another big week here he can put himself within touching distance of a top-50 OWGR position for year end. RESULT: T42
A couple of 3-figure chances to complete this week's team. First up Fabrizio Zanotti who despite having been victorious twice now on the European Tour is still regularly overlooked by the bookmakers and his ball-striking strengths could see him reward each-way punters here this week. A fabulous final round of 63 was good enough for a 1-shot victory over David Lipsky in Malaysia earlier this year and, if you follow the Crans logic from earlier, that's noteworthy in its own right given that Lipsky has also won in the Swiss Alps in recent times. The Paraguayan also finished 3rd at Crans in September having recorded an identical finish on a rare foray back to his homeland for the Abierto del Paraguay on the Latino-America Tour on his previous start, however last week's 8th place finish in Turkey which featured impressive stats including 7th for Driving Accuracy, 6th for GIR, 1st for Scrambling and 5th for Putting Average ultimately gets him the nod. He's stated on twitter how well he's playing right now and that he wants to finish the year strongly and having finished 16th here on debut last year, when his game wasn't a patch on where he it is right now, he's surely got a better chance than the odds compilers suggest. RESULT: T29
Finally I'm taking a punt on the talented Englishman Jordan Smith who broke our hearts when beating Alex Levy in a play-off at the European Open in Germany earlier this year. In fairness, the 24 year-old could have had no complaints if he'd have lost that play-off seeing as his French opponent missed a tiddler to win the title, however now that he's off the mark in terms of European Tour titles I'm sure there's more to come - an assertion that's backed up by the fact that he finished 9th on his Major Championship debut a fortnight later at Quail Hollow. A long but accurate ball-striker is always going to perform well at the top of world golf if he can putt and whilst Jordan certainly isn't one of the best putters on Tour, he's equally not the worst and any time that he combines a better than average week on the greens with his strong tee-to-green game he'll be dangerous. After dining out on his victory and PGA Championship effort for a few weeks, he's started to get back in the groove of late without producing any really eye-catching results - finishes of MC/MC/MC/21/58/42 hardly inspires a hefty investment. However scratch the surface and you'll find a round of 63 in there from the Italian Open, an event which also saw his best recorded putting average as a professional, as well as opening rounds of 69 and 67 last week in Turkey which put him inside the top-10 at halfway and a shot ahead of eventual winner Justin Rose. Back on more familiar bentgrass greens this week, I can see Smith producing a decent result here having already recorded a 3rd place finish earlier this season at altitude at the South African Open at Glendower. RESULT: WD
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