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As the European Tour season nears completion, as per the last two 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 with the European Tour and for last the past 2 years, and again this year, it has become a 72-man field (top 68 available in the Race to Dubai plus 4 invites) as the players jostle for position ahead of next week’s main event.
Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood both made inroads into Francesco Molinari’s lead at the top of the Race To Dubai rankings last week, however none of them play here this week and much like Turkey we have a very poor attendance from the top end of the rankings this week. Bookies’ favourite Rory McIlroy currently sits in 8th place knowing that a win here this week would at least give him a mathematical chance of topping the charts if he were to also win at the Earth Course next week, however other than that the Race to Dubai is fairly inconsequential given the continued apathy from those who reside in the upper echelons of the points list.
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.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 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. After a perfect week in Turkey, the players will be greeted with near identical conditions this week in South Africa with unbroken sunshine pushing temperatures up to the low 90s Fahrenheit by Sunday and light winds throughout the 4 days.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the last 5 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. Last year’s renewal won by Branden Grace was slightly different with windier conditions keeping the scoring down and placing more of an emphasis on chipping and putting, however in perfect conditions I’d always err on the side of tee-to-green excellence here. 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 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:
Branden Grace had excellent course form here of 20/4/3 ahead of his win last year, however the four winners prior to that 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 over the past 2 years have kept the winning scores down to -14 and -11 respectively. 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:
Danny Willett 2.5pts EW 33/1 with bet365
4 years ago, Danny Willett arrived here at Sun City with a solitary European Tour victory to his name and no competitive course experience before romping to a 4-stroke victory over compatriot Ross Fisher. That was the catalyst for his entry into the world’s top-50 for the first time in his career that led to a debut at Augusta the following year (finished 38th), which he then built on in exquisite style the following year when he captured the Green Jacket. Life hasn’t been anywhere near so rosy since that point with a loss of form threatening to see him fall outside the OWGR top 500 earlier this year, however there are increasing signs that the Sheffield man is getting back to something approaching his best. 8th at the Italian Open saw the 31 year-old sitting in 4th place heading into Sunday and although it wasn’t to be that week, 6th at the Irish Open, 19th at the Scottish Open and 24th at the Open Championship were all encouraging efforts in the summer. What really excites though are his last couple of outings where 23rd at the PGA Tour’s CJ Cup featured opening and closing rounds that were amongst the very best on the day, and last week’s 7th place finish in Turkey saw Danny hit the weekend in 2nd place and despite not pushing on to really contend down the stretch, he didn’t drop away badly like a number of his peers which will please him I’m sure.
When at his best it was always Willett’s long game that excelled and top-10 ball-striking performances on his last two starts bodes well for this test at Sun City. Aside from his victory here, Danny has also finished 4th when defending his title in 2015 and 11th the year after, so clearly gets on very well with the course, and further success at altitude at Crans-Sur-Sierre in 2015 also encourages for this test on the Highveld. Top-5 finishes at the Joburg Open (twice), Tshwane Open, Volvo Golf Champions and Alfred Dunhill Championship all add to the South African positivity for the Englishman and further success in the Rainbow Nation could well come this week.
Erik Van Rooyen 1.5pts EW 50/1 with Paddy Power
A couple of capable young players are my preference to back up Willett as my headline pick. Whilst it’s impossible to write off the chances of some of the market-leaders, no single-figure chance has won this event since it joined the European Tour and with Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia there’s not a great deal of room for manoeuvre if included in the staking plan. Rory’s driving has been an issue of late and this track isn’t particularly forgiving from off the tee, whilst Sergio arrives here in better heart following his Valerrama success and would be my preference of the two if pushed.
Of the European Tour maidens out there, Erik Van Rooyen is one of the most likely to produce a breakthrough victory before too long. The 28 year-old came closest to a win at the Joburg Open last December, ultimately finishing runner-up to Shubhankar Sharma despite carding a 20-under total, however that effort has pushed him on in 2018 and greater things surely await the talented South African. Further top-10 finishes at the Tshwane Open, Trophee Hassan II, Irish Open and Made In Denmark have pushed Van Rooyen’s earnings through the €1m barrier for the season, however that elusive first victory at this level still awaits and an event in his homeland might prove to be his best chance of getting over the line in the short term. Erik has proven that he can compete in the classier events on Tour – leading the Irish Open for 2 days was a case in point – and a prominent performance at the Open Championship will also set him in good stead for the future. He improved throughout the 4 days on his WGC debut at Sheshan last month, ultimately finishing 22nd, and last week’s effort in Turkey started and finished with rounds of 67 to suggest that his game’s in a fairly strong place at present. Although this is Erik’s Nedbank debut, he does have some course experience having finished 9th at the Sun City Challenge on the Sunshine Tour in 2016 and he’s a far stronger player nowadays with the ability to compete at this kind of level. Long off the tee, accurate and hits lots of greens – if he can have a decent week on and around the greens this week then he may well go close.
Adrian Otaegui 1pt EW 90/1 with bet365
Some players don’t get the credit they deserve when it comes to how odds compilers rate them, whereas others seem to be perennially nailed down in terms of price. Falling into the former camp is Adrian Otaegui who’s now a 2-time European Tour champion and arrives here fresh off the back of an impressive 3rd place finish last week in Turkey where he starting finding the greens in regulation once again that had eluded him for the past few starts. Long enough and straight is a strong combination for a test like Sun City and if the European Tour produced Total Driving stats then the Spaniard would surely sit at the upper end of that list season after season, such is his accuracy from off the tee. He led the field for fairways found one again at the WGC HSBC Champions to hint that his game wasn’t in bad shape and last week’s effort rubber-stamped that assertion. It’s interesting to note that his European Tour wins both followed a top-5 effort on his previous start and lightning striking for a third time isn’t out of the equation here by any means. Two efforts at the Nedbank read 56th and 60th which goes some way to explaining why the bookies have taken a dim view of his chances here this week, however top-10 finishes at the Joburg Open (at altitude) and Tshwane Open back in 2015 suggest that he’s capable of performing in South Africa and with some immediate form to boost his confidence I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the mix here this week.
Thomas Aiken 1pt EW 125/1 with Boylesports
Of the longer prices available this week, one that really caught my eye was the 3-figure quote about Thomas Aiken. Students of the game will know all about 35 year-old’s metronomic tee-to-green game that has the ability to get him into contention when accuracy is a key requirement, however last week’s 10th place finish in Turkey was achieved with a hot flat stick (4th in the field for putting average) and that makes him an interesting prospect this week. That’s not to say that his long game was poor – 66.1% of fairways and 76.4% of greens in regulation put him inside the top-20 in the field for ball-striking – however if he can couple a more typical week from tee-to-green with his putting performance in Turkey then he could make a mockery of the price quoted. A play-off defeat at the Nordea Masters as recently as mid-August tells us that his game isn’t far from a 4th European Tour victory and with 8 successes over his career on the Sunshine Tour he clearly feels comfortable playing in his homeland. The Johannesburg native has more experience playing at altitude than the vast majority of this field and aside from his two top-5 finishes on this Gary Player layout on the Sunshine Tour’s Dimension Data Pro-Am in 2006 and 2008, Thomas has also tasted success at the Sun City resort having won the 2004 Origins of Golf Tour on the neighbouring Lost City course. Nedbank attempts have resulted in 13th (2015) and 32nd (2016) place finishes, however Aiken putted poorly both times and anything close to last week’s effort on the greens would have him recording a massive personal best here this time around. Food poisoning had laid Thomas low ahead of his Turkish challenge which makes his top-10 finish all the more impressive, with his health restored in familiar surroundings I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sneak a place here.
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