So, that was the 2015 season on the European Tour.
Time to sit down, reflect and take a well-earned……. oh, wait a minute. What’s this? The 2016 season is starting just four days later?
Yes, folks, the European Tour doesn’t hang around. We’re straight back into it this week and several names that took part in the season-ender in Dubai have made their way over to the season-opener in South Africa.
This week’s Alfred Dunhill Championship in Malelane is the first stop on a 45-event 2016 schedule which takes place in 26 countries.
It’s one of six events in South Africa and is being played once more at Leopard Creek.
The tournament was first contested at Houghton Golf Club in 1996 where Justin Rose won his first European Tour title in 2002. This will be the 12th edition at Leopard Creek.
The organisers will be pleased that the three main heavyweights of South African golf have all returned home to battle it out for the title.
The players will encounter a 7,287-yard par 72 this week. The four par fives are spread unevenly with the first at No. 2 and the other three all in the final six holes (13, 15 and 18). The fairways and rough consist of Kikuya while the greens feature Creeping Bent. The course was designed by South African golf legend Gary Player and opened in 1996. It’s set on the edge of the Kruger National Park and winds among trees, bushes and grassland. There are plenty of water hazards (streams and dams) but perhaps it’s best known on the European Tour for doubling up as a wildlife programme. Expect to see a hippopotamus (named Harry), lots of leopards (hence Leopard Creek) crocodiles and various member of the deer family.
Past five winners, scores and stats
2014 -20 Branden Grace (DD: 7, DA: 33, GIR: 9, Src: 19, PA: 9)
2013 -17 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 7, DA: 30, GIR: 4, Src: 2, PA: 4)
2012 -24 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 18, DA: 40, GIR: 1, Src: 3, PA: 3)
2011 -19 Garth Mulroy (Not available on Europeantour.com)
2010 -11 Pablo Martin (DD: 29, DA: 10, GIR: 33, Src: 3, PA: 6)
Notes: Greens in regulation is obviously vital but short game has always been important at Leopard Creek with recent winners high up the scrambling and putting stats. There’s obviously a need to keep the birdie count ticking over given those recent winning scores.
There’s a dramatic spike in the weather in Thursday’s opening round with temperatures set to soar to over 100 degrees around 2pm local time. It cools down considerably after that and there’s mild rain forecast for each of the final three rounds. Winds could be quite strong over the first 36 holes but are due to ease off over the weekend.
The Leading Contenders
After finishing third on the 2015 Race to Dubai, Grace will want to launch his 2016 bid with a win. And he has every chance of doing so having cruised to a seven-shot win in this very event last year. That added to a T12 on his previous visit. He’s won two of his last three starts on home soil and, without doubt, is South Africa’s No. 1 golfer these days after rounding off a huge season with a third place at the DP World Tour Championship last week.
“It’s definitely one of my favorite courses that we play in the year, if not the favorite. For some reason Leopard Creek always seems to spark something special in my game,” says Schwartzel of this week’s venue. And you can see why. He’s won this tournament in 2004, 2012 (by 12 shots!) and 2013 and has been runner-up four times. He’s coming up off a T4 in last week’s DP World Tour Championship (2nd for scrambling), so if he holes his share of putts, a fourth Leopard Creek win for Schwartzel is very much on the cards.
Unlike Grace and Schwartzel, Oosthuizen hasn’t yet managed to post a victory at Leopard Creek although he did finish runner-up in both 2005 and 2014. “I feel like Leopard Creek owes me a bit. It is definitely my favorite golf course in South Africa.” Bizarrely, between his two second places at this venue, Oosthuizen’s record was five missed cuts and a WD so it’s been feast or famine for him here. He’ll hope to find something after a flat run of results in the Final Series (44-37-38).
Always look for Van Zyl on home soil as his last six starts in South Africa show two second places, two thirds, T6 and T15. He’s not been that consistent at Leopard Creek mind, with just two top 10s in nine attempts, the best of those a third place in 2009. He started the playoffs with an excellent runners-up finish in the Turkish Airlines Open but had to settle for T46 in the BMW Masters and T42 at the DP World Tour Championship.
The in-form Dane hits it long and scrambles well (8th for that stat in last two events) so should be a good fit for this course. That theory seemed to be working out perfectly last year when, after a T16 on debut, he shot 68-67-66 to sit second with a round to go. Incredibly, he closed with an 89 to finish T46 and there were no injury excuses either. He’s also been in the top two with a round to go in recent starts in Hong Kong and China. He closed those events with a 69 and a 70 to finish second and third respectively so Bjerregaard is much more comfortable near the lead now and looks a likely title contender.
The 39-year-old South African boasts three European Tour wins and 11 on the Sunshine Tour and has a bunch of top 10s in this event. They include a win at Leopard Creek in the 2003 Southern Africa Tour Championship and a 6th (2006), 9th (2007) and 7th (2011) in this event. Otto was T13 in last week’s Cape Town Open and, before that, T18 in the Portugal Masters.
A European Tour regular for many years, Fichardt hasn’t really found his best golf at this venue. He did win the Southern Africa Tour Championship at Leopard Creek in 2001 but since a fourth place in this tournament in 2006 he’s not posted a top 10. The obvious plus is that he’s coming off a win at the Vodacom Origins – Final. He opened that event with a 61 before closing out with a 70 to capture his 14th Sunshine Tour win.
It’s been a disappointing year for Luiten and his 50th place on the 2015 Race to Dubai was his worst finish since 2009. He did at least improve gradually through the Finals Series with T60 in Turkey, T46 at the BMW Masters and T31 in last week’s DP World Tour Championship. He’s not played this event in the current decade but back in 2007 the Dutchman closed 64-67 on the weekend to crack the top four. He was also third in last year’s Volvo Golf Champions so has some good results in South Africa.
He’s a six-time European Tour winner (four of those in his native South Africa) but Sterne has struggled badly in the U.S. this season and ended his campaign there with seven missed cuts in a row. He returned to action at last week’s Cape Town Open and was third going into the final round before dropping to T20. Sterne won this event in 2008, was fourth the following year, T7 in 2012 and T11 last year so don’t be too quick to write him off if you’re just taking in account his form in America.
The Englishman completed his best ever season on the European Tour by closing 68-65 at last week’s DP World Tour Championship to finish T17. It elevated him to 45th on the final standings, his highest finish by 14 spots. He’s been a regular at this tournament and back in 2007 finished runner-up. Leopard Creek hasn’t been as kind to him since then although he has made each of his last four cuts at the par 72.
The Next Rung
We’ll see Aiken on the PGA TOUR this year after he won his card but before it re-starts in January he’ll try his luck back home. He’s sprinkled some decent performances in this event (4th 2008, 5th 2010) although he hasn’t made the top 15 in the last four editions which is disappointing for a player of his calibre. Aiken posted T58 in last week’s RSM Classic at Sea Island in Georgia.
This is Stone’s debut at Leopard Creek but he’ll arrive there after winning his first event as a pro. That came in last week’s Cape Town Open where the 22-year-old carded 73-66-63-70 to win by a shot. He’s also just won his European Tour card after a sixth place at the Challenge Tour’s NBO Golf Classic Grand Final so this could be a great chance for the South African to strike while the irons are hot.
Wattel has teed it up at Leopard Creek just once but made a big impression, finishing third in 2013. He’s also posted top fives at the 2013 Nelson Mandela Championship and 2010 South African Open so could be one of the Europeans to look out for this week. The Frenchman was T37 in Turkey on his last start and T22 at the Portugal Masters before that.
After gaining his first European Tour win earlier this year, Fisher, Jr. made it through to the penultimate leg of the Final Series but a T24 in China’s BMW Masters wasn’t good enough to punch his ticket to Dubai. Before the playoffs began, the South African finished third in the Portugal Masters while he took fourth place in this event last year so a title challenge wouldn’t come as a surprise this week.
Another of the Euros jetting in from the DP World Tour Championship, Bourdy rounded off his season with a T38 in Dubai. Not bad in itself but it was the sixth straight tournament he’d finished between T38 and T44 so he can’t find a change of gear at the moment. He’ll hope a return to Leopard Creek will provide a spark. Bourdy has some strong form there including a top three on his last visit in 2012 and three top 15s in his last four appearances.
The Frenchman has been a regular visitor to South Africa in the last few years but has posted just a single top 10 in 10 starts there. In this event two years ago, he was T52. At his best, he’d obviously be a genuine contender but Levy is struggling to string four rounds together at the moment. The inconsistency was highlighted in China a fortnight ago when he shot 76-63 in the middle two rounds when T28. He closed with a 68 in Dubai last week.
One of the most consistent home performers on the local Sunshine Tour over the last few months. In his last nine starts, Hugo has delivered two wins, two seconds and four other top 10s. Can he make the step up here against some of the big guns? Current form says yes but his course form is dreadful with just one finish better than T43 (T21 in 2008) in his last 11 starts in this tournament. Is that too ingrained to give him the benefit of the doubt?
Followers of the Challenge Tour will know all about the 24-year-old from Portugal. He graduated in top spot this year after two wins, including the season-ending NBO Golf Classic Grand Final. He’s certainly thinking big – “My goal is to be one of the top players in the world – and don’t be surprised to see him on the leaderboard in his first start in South Africa. Gouveia was T20 in last week’s Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.
Tjaart Van Der Walt
Van Der Walt made the top 10 here last year and is 7-for-7 overall with further top 20s in both 2012 and 2010. He’s pegged it up twice on the Sunshine Tour in November, finishing T17 in the Nedbank Affinity Cup and T8 in last week’s Cape Town Open.
The Aussie deserves a mention after posting top threes in his last two worldwide starts. The first of those came in the European Tour’s UBS Hong Kong Open while the other was on home soil in the Western Australian Open. A T11 in the South African Open back in January adds to his appeal.
Who’s On The Team?
First of all, there is no Fantasy European Tour game this week.
It starts again in January and hopefully we can beat this year’s final finish of 864th.
If you’re having a bet, Charl Schwartzel often finds a different gear at this course and is excited about how he’s hitting the ball tee to green.
With his putting stroke looking more confident during the T4 in Dubai last week he could easily land this title for a fourth time.
Lucas Bjerregaard is also worth considering on current form. Hopefully he’ll remember his opening 54 holes last year that put him in the final group rather than the woeful closing 18.
Brandon Stone has been touted as a future superstar for a few years now so looks interesting at 40/1 having won his first pro event last week.
One To Fade
If you’re going to take on one of the big South Africans, Louis Oosthuizen is very hit and miss at Leopard Creek and there are a lot more examples of the latter.