After its brief Festive break, the 2016 European Tour schedule resumes with the BMW South African Open in Johannesburg.
This is the fourth event of the season, the first three seeing home wins for Charl Schwartzel in the Alfred Dunhill Championship and Nathan Holman in the Australian PGA Championship while Aussie Marc Leishman landed the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa.
This is the 105th edition of the South African Open – it’s the second oldest national Open in world golf - and for the third year running it heads to Glendower Golf Club in Ekurhuleni.
The field includes Ernie Els, who will again fulfil host and ambassador roles, but not Schwartzel.
Schwartzel was due to take part but withdrew after picking up a stomach virus over Christmas.
That leaves Branden Grace as the clear favorite with all the British bookmakers.
The 2016 European Tour Fantasy game doesn’t start until March ("the game is being improved for 2016," said a recent tweet) but at least these early weeks and months give us a chance to make some notes and spot some clues.
Glendower is a 7,564-yard par 72 which features kikuyu grass fairways and has water on 11 holes. The parkland layout is well bunkered with plenty of trees. If it looks lengthy on the card, it’s worth remembering that it’s set 5,000 feet above sea level so the ball will really fly. It’s staged this tournament five times (2015, 2014, 1997 the last three) while further course form can be obtained from the BMG Classic (a local Sunshine Tour event) which is played there each year.
Past winners, scores and stats
2015 -11 Andy Sullivan (DD: 18, DA: 41, GIR: 31, Src: 5, PA: 1)
2014 -19 Morten Orum Madsen (DD: 14, DA: 66, GIR: 5, Src: 28, PA: 17)
Notes: The obvious first thing that jumps out is that the winners were European raiders rather than locals. That said, evidence can be mixed when it comes to home advantage. When Denmark’s Madsen took victory, seven of the first 11 finishers were South Africans. However, only three of last year’s top 12 were home players while in the only other full-field event played in South Africa so far on the 2016 schedule, the Alfred Dunhill Championship, Europeans occupied seven of the top 10 slots even though Charl Schwartzel went home with the first prize. In theory, the heat, grasses and altitude give the hosts an edge but, overall, most of the Euros have played enough golf in South Africa to negate it. The rough was more of a factor when Sullivan won (-11 compared to Madsen’s -19) although he missed plenty of fairways. Short game was the key to the Englishman’s success.
Temperatures could soar into the mid-90s on Thursday afternoon but it’s due to be cooler on the weekend. As well as the sunshine, there is a threat of rain in the forecast each day but winds should be light.
The Leading Contenders
At No. 14, Grace is the highest-placed South African in the world rankings and he’ll now be looking to burst into the top 10. After some superb displays in the majors, he ended 2015 with four top 10s in his final five starts, including a fourth place in the Nedbank Golf Challenge. He has some decent form at Glendower (15th here last year and T8 in the 2010 BMG Classic) but most impressive is the stat that shows he’s won five of his last 19 starts on South African soil.
The Englishman’s rise from promising 20-something to serious player started with a breakthrough victory in this event 12 months ago when he came from seven shots back on the final day before beating Charl Schwartzel in a playoff. It came in his 84th European Tour start and he then made it two wins in 89 after landing the Joburg Open soon after. Sullivan added a third victory in 2015 with a runaway victory in the Portugal Masters and then pushed Rory McIlroy all the way before finishing runner-up in the DP World Tour Championship. This is the first chance we’ll get to see how well he manages to defend a title.
He’s a 13-time Sunshine Tour winner but the elusive first European Tour title still won’t come for Van Zyl. However, the knocks at the door got louder in 2015 as the South African posted four top three finishes and ended a career-best 21st on the Race to Dubai. He’s 11th on this season’s RTD after T8 (Alfred Dunhill) and T13 (Nedbank) in the two pre-Christmas events while he was T12 in this tournament two seasons ago (only T55 last year).
The Frenchman, a four-time European Tour winner, will be getting a first look at Glendower but he’s a proven performer in South Africa so should be expected to hit the ground running. Bourdy’s final appearance of 2015 saw him finish solo second in November’s Alfred Dunhill Championship (also third there in 2012) while a runners-up finish in the Africa Open and a T8 in the 2015 Tshwane Open means he has four top 10s from his last 10 starts on South African turf.
Wattel missed the cut at Glendower last year (71-73) but his overall record in South Africa is strong with three top 10s and a T18 (November’s Alfred Dunhill Championship) in his last seven starts. After finishing 28th on the 2014 Race to Dubai, his 69th last year represented a disappointment but, at 24, he has time on his side and the pull of the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris gives him an extra focus. After finding some of his touch again in the second half of 2015, he might be one to watch here.
Goosen’s last Tour start was a top six in the Barracuda Championship so where has he been? His website offers an explanation: “I decided once I had secured my PGA Tour card for next season that I would take some time out with the family, and although we are just staying around home it is nice to have a break from the travelling.” He did show up again in the unofficial Franklin Templeton Shootout in Florida (his US base) last month, finishing T7 out of 12 alongside Danny Lee, so at least we know all is well. At Glendower, ‘Goose’ was T22 two seasons ago and 6th back in 1997.
He couldn’t find a win but Howell had three second places on the European Tour last season. One of those came in South Africa (March’s Joburg Open) while he’s made the top 25 in six of his last seven starts on SA soil. Howell’s only experience of Glendower came back in 1997 when he missed the cut but, in theory, it’s a course that should play to his strong short-game skills. At his best, he’s one of the Tour’s best putters although he cooled off on the greens in the second part of 2015.
Stal’s shock win in the prestigious Abu Dhabi Golf Championship appeared to come out of the blue but, in fact, he’d dropped a hint of something big to come by finishing fifth in this tournament the week before. The Frenchman clearly enjoyed Glendower and let’s not forget he started the event with a 75. He struggled to back his Abu Dhabi win up but did manage T22 in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Slattery will be hoping to kick on again after his career-high 45th on last season’s Race to Dubai. That included a win (just his second in 11 full seasons) at the M2M Russian Open in September and a T2 at the following week’s KLM Open in the Netherlands. He also finished T17 in the DP World Tour Championship after shooting 68-65 on the weekend. The Englishman comes into even sharper focus in the crosshairs when considering he finished solo third at this course last year.
After breaking his left ankle whilst surfing in Bali, Coetzee hasn’t been seen since a T38 in August’s Wyndham Championship. “Looking like a fresh start in January,” he tweeted at the start of December so the local man is ready to return to action. Obviously, rustiness could be a big factor and it would make more sense to back him in some of the South African events which follow, especially February’s Tshwane Open which he won last year.
The big-hitting Belgian, who played in the 2012 Ryder Cup, still disappoints far too often but he did at least end 2015 with three top 20s in his final four starts. If that’s the foundation for a big 2016, there’s a fair chance he could flourish straight out of the gate as he’s posted top 10s in his last two starts in South Africa – at Fancourt and Durban. This is his first start at Glendower.
The Next Rung
After losing his way in America (he ended his 2015 campaign there with seven straight missed cuts), the South African at least found some home comforts when returning to finish T20 in the Cape Town Open (3rd after 54 holes) and T34 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship. He also posted T20 in this event last year and it’s worth remembering that four of his six European Tour titles have come on home soil, the last of those coming in 2013’s Joburg Open.
Another of the home contingent, Kruger is well worth a mention given that he finished runner-up at Glendower two seasons ago and was also T8 there in the 2013 BMG Classic. He suffered a real dip in form throughout the middle of 2015 but rebounded with some good form in Asia which included a second place in the Manila Masters and T17 at the Thailand Golf Championship in the middle of December.
The 26-year-old Frenchman wrapped up his European Tour card with a win at the Challenge Tour’s Kazakhstan Open in September and got off to a flying start with a top four finish at the 2016 season-opening Alfred Dunhill Championship. That included a third-round 63 so if he can carry that confidence to Glendower he could make another big impression.
The South African probably knows this course as well as anyone and has a second (2014) and a sixth (2011) in the Sunshine Tour’s BMG Classic held there. That said, he hasn’t done too well when it’s staged South African Opens, missing the cut last year and posting T37 the season before.
After his breakthrough win at March’s Africa Open gave him a first European Tour title, Fisher, Jr. didn’t do an awful lot after that although he did find some form later in the year when T3 at the Portugal Masters. In the two South African Opens held at Glendower, he’s posted T15 and T7 while he also has two further top 10s at this week’s venue from the BMG Classic.
One of the course horses this week as Otto is a two-time runner-up at Glendower. The most recent was in this event two seasons ago (the other in the BMG Classic) while he’s made the top 16 in three South African Opens at this venue. He’ll be keen to start the new calendar year well after ending the previous one with an 85 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
Els has won his national Open three times - 1997 (Durban), 2007 (Humewood) and 2011 (Durban) - since it gained official European Tour status and was also successful twice (1992 and 1995) before it became co-sanctioned. At Glendower, he was fourth in 1997 and also finished T20 last year. As tournament host he’ll have plenty on his plate again so that, and his general decline, suggests something around the top 20 again.
The Swedish teenager hit the headlines at his home Nordea Masters in June when, still an amateur, he led at halfway before falling to T33. He then posted T10 in the European Masters in Switzerland in his only other European Tour start of 2015 before taking the 17th card at Q School to gain full status for 2016. After contemplating a college career in the United States, he’s now turned pro and is committed to Europe. Watch out for him this year as he could be a real star.
The South African youngster registered his first pro win when capturing the Sunshine Tour’s Cape Town Open in November and followed that with T18 in the co-sanctioned Alfred Dunhill Championship. In that respect, he looks an exciting player very much on the up although two missed cuts at this course temper expectations this week.
The German endured a miserable 2015, not managing a single top 20 since his T18 in February’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He did however give this insight at November’s BMW Masters in China. “Changed my coach four weeks ago, new caddie, mental coach. So I changed the whole team. I want to really perform at the highest level consistently. That’s why I did the changes.” It’s his course debut and presumably the changes will take time to bed in but a fourth place on his last appearance in South Africa (Nedbank Challenge in late 2014) at least offers some encouragement.
Morten Orum Madsen
As well as winning this event at Glendower in 2013, the Dane has racked up a series of impressive results in South Africa (seven top 20s in his last 10 starts) so is always worth considering when the European Tour pitches up there. He closed out 2015 with five missed cuts in six events so will hope SA soil reinvigorates him again.
Who’s On The Team?
Grace has an obvious chance but is short in the betting so, if you do fancy a wager, turn instead to a couple of those around the 50/1 mark.
One To Fade
George Coetzee is coming back from a lengthy break following injury so it’s asking a lot for him to be competitive so soon.