The European Tour heads from Turkey to South Africa this week for the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Gary Player CC in Sun City.
It’s the penultimate event of the Race to Dubai and with Francesco Molinari over a million points clear and none of his main rivals taking part, the main focus is on securing a place in the 60-man field which contests the season-ending DP World Tour Championship next week.
Major winners Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett punched their tickets for Dubai with good performances in last week’s Turkish Airlines Open and the standings around that crucial top 60 mark now look like this:
55 Lee Slattery
58 Joost Luiten
61 Nacho Elvira
64 Robert Rock
67 Jens Dantorp
All the above are heading to South Africa this week.
Jumping back to the top ten of the RTD, Rory McIlroy (8th) returns to action after sitting out last week while Turkey runner-up HaoTong Li (9) will try his luck again after his agonising play-off loss to Justin Rose in Antalya.
What strikes you first when looking at the scorecard for Gary Player CC is the yardage. It can stretch to 7,831 yards so looks an absolute monster. That didn’t used to equate to scoring which was typically low but in the last three years the winning number has gone from -19 to -14 to -11 so the test is getting tougher. The parkland track features narrow Kikuya fairways and rough along with small, well-guarded Bentgrass greens.
2017 -11 Branden Grace (DD: 63, DA: 54, GIR: 31, Scr: 12, PA: 4, AA: 31)
2016 -14 Alex Noren (DD: 14, DA: 39, GIR: 1, Scr: 13, PA: 4, AA: 4)
2015 -19 Marc Leishman (DD: 6, DA: 12, GIR: 1, Scr: 1, PA: 8, AA: 1)
2014 -18 Danny Willett (DD: N/A, DA: 23, GIR: 3, Scr: 1, PA: 3, AA: 3)
2013 -20 Thomas Bjorn (DD: 4, DA: 5, GIR: 1, Scr: 3, PA: 1, AA: 1)
Notes: Driving it long and straight and hitting plenty of greens is usually the formula here although Branden Grace rather skewed that thinking last year. However, his numbers did further highlight the importance of short game.
For those perusing course form, remember that this event was played with an elite field of just 12 up until 2013/14 when the field was increased to 30. The last two years we’ve seen it rise again to 72 and 73. If a player finished 11th in 2012, that was actually a poor week as they beat just one other rival!
Temperatures start at 83 degrees on day one but rise as the week goes on, hitting 95 for Sunday’s closer. Winds are light so it’s the course which offers the main challenge this week.
The Leading Contenders
Good luck if you can give an accurate assessment of where Rory’s game is, never mind his head. While he’s always tended to drift toward inconsistency, red flags have to be raised when he starts finishing T54 at the WGC-HSBC in China, an event where he’d previous clocked up five top sixes and T11 in his six starts. The top tens are still plentiful, putting him in a different league to most of this week’s rivals, but the wins have dried up. He’s not played here since 2009 (73-76 and WD) although his only start in the country since then produced a second place in the 2017 South African Open.
Valderrama is his playground so it was no surprise to see Sergio justify his status as hot betting favorite by cruising to a four-shot win there last month. Still on a Ryder Cup high, Sergio has to be considered a huge title threat here as he loves this place too. He took the title in its 12-man field days in 2001 and 2003 and finished runner-up on his last appearance in 2013.
He must be wondering how he didn’t win last week’s Turkish Airlines Open. A three-putt from nowhere in the play-off cost the Chinese star although that approach over water to 15 for a tap-in eagle will live long in the memory. If he can shake the disappointment off, Li has struck a hot vein of form at the perfect time, a run of 5-9-11-2 thrusting him into the top ten on the Race to Dubai. Adding to his appeal is course form of fourth last year and T20 in 2016.
He’ll know the course better than almost everyone and hasn’t been outside the top 14 in seven starts here. That includes T8 and T9 in the fuller fields the last two years. The local hero had a month off after going out of the FedExCup play-offs at the penultimate event (T58) and returned with T32 at the Alfred Dunhill, T5 at the CIMB Classic and T29 at the CJ Cup, looking sharp with his irons in the latter two. Plays here on an invite.
Definitely coming on strong at the right time and his last five starts show a sixth place in Portugal, second to Sergio at Valderrama and T14 in Turkey last week after consistent rounds of 68-70-67-68 (2nd GIR). At this venue, the Irishman has never broken 70 but he’s still managed T11 in a 30-man field in 2014 and T12 last year when shooting all four laps in par or better. A tree-lined track which asks for a strong short game suits him.
Last year, Grace arrived on the back of a pair of top 15s in the CJ Cup and WGC-HSBC Champions and showed all his fighting skills to emerge as the victor. He returns having posted T41 and T48 in those same two Far East events and lacking a top 20 since May. #TeamCourseForm will shout loud about his results at Gary Player CC though and rightly so. The local man loves this track and before the win was third in 2016 and fourth in 2015.
The good times just keep rolling. Bjerregaard hinted at a dip when 69th at the WGC-HSBC but quickly bounced back with T5 at last week’s Turkish Airlines Open (1st GIR). That now makes it a win, a, second, a fifth and three further top tens in his last eight starts. Add in four top sixes between April and June and he’s been a fantasy stud the last six or seven months. T37 and T32 in his two appearances here but deserves to be judged most on current form.
In theory, the yardage looks daunting for a short hitter like Fitzpatrick but he was T8 last year after twirling seven-under on the weekend, T20 in 2016 and T16 in 2015. Each year, he’s thrown in one big number on the first two days so if the Englishman can eliminate that he has a big upside. A winner at the European Masters in September, he was T16 in last month’s British Masters before producing a weird performance in the WGC-HSBC Champions (67-80-70-81).
A location specialist. Sullivan’s first two wins came in South Africa (both in early 2015) and he took third place at this venue in 2016 after T16 of 30 the year before. Aside from a poor weekend at the WGC-HSBC Champions, the Englishman has shown admirable consistency of late with four top 20s in his last five starts, including T18 in Turkey last time when closing 68-66-68. Strong Total Driving stats over the last two months are worth noting given this week’s challenge.
Found form again with T4 in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China and backed it up with a top 25 in last week’s Turkish Airlines Open and looked dialled in with his irons (6th GIR). His form at Gary Player CC shows a T5 and T12 in four starts although he’s struggled a little (T39 and T42) in the tougher scoring conditions the last two years.
There are plenty of great memories for Westwood at Sun City as he won this event back-to-back in its 12-man field days in 2010 and 2011. Perhaps of equal relevance is that he returned here last year to crack the top six again so his game is still a great fit. It was a similar story at Valderrama last month when Westwood made the top five and although T35 in Turkey was a little modest he did close it with a 66 and made the top 10 in Scrambling.
The Next Rung
Luiten has finished T11 at Valderrama and T23 in Turkey last week in his two comeback events after a near six-month injury lay-off so, with some good evidence on board, gamers may now be happy to pull the trigger. This is certainly a track that the Dutchman can go well on again after T12 last year and T14 in 2016. His long game already looks up to speed and if the putter catches up he can have a big week.
An absolute go-to guy for those leaning heavily on current form. After wins on the main tour and Challenge Tour in September, he’s now connected six top 15s and T14 in Turkey last week included a second-round 63. 1st for DA and 5th for GIR in the Turkish Airlines Open, Lewis is playing Gary Player CC for the first time but he did post T18 in last year’s South African Open.
After a tough couple of years since the high of his Augusta win, Willett is definitely going in the right direction again and T7 in the Turkish Airlines Open put him through to Dubai. This is a free hit therefore and that makes him dangerous. He won this event in 2014 (30-man field), was fourth when defending and added T11 in 2016. That’s part of an excellent body of work on South African soil so he’s well worth considering.
The Frenchman went out in the final three-ball in Turkey and although he became a bit of a spare part in the duel between Justin Rose and HaoTong Li, the T10 he emerged with was his best finish since winning April’s Trophee Hassan II. It had been coming though after T28 in the WGC-HSBC Champions added to previous hints. On the right course, I’d look for him to kick on but form of 37-64-21 at Gary Player CC suggests his aggressive approach doesn’t really suit.
You might expect to see Schwartzel’s name on the trophy, but like his great friend Oosthuizen, he’s yet to manage it. Closest brush? Runner-up to Martin Kaymer in 2011 in the 12-man field days. Also T12 last year and T39 in 2016, the 2011 Masters champ doesn’t jump off the page like he does at other SA courses and recent form of 70-MC-40 is off-putting.
At risk of missing out on the DP World Tour Championship for the first time, Kaymer found an answer with two 66s and two 69s to make the top five in the Turkish Airlines Open. He’ll look to continue that upturn in form on a course where he beat 11 rivals to take the title in 2012 and also posted T5 last year.
Since an obvious dip through The Open to the Alfred Dunhill Links, Bjork is back to being the hugely promising talent we’ve seen the last two years. Last three starts – second place at the British Masters, T28 in elite company at the WGC in China and T14 in Turkey after a poor start. He didn’t get to grips with this course last year but has two top sevens in his last five starts in South Africa.
Does he need a rest? Since digging deep to win the Made In Denmark and claim a third win of the season, Wallace has finished better than T28 just once (T16 British Masters) in six events. He’s still starting fast but T50 in China and T47 in Turkey suggests he’s running out of gas. Wallace took T34 on his debut here last year.
The South African has made America his focus in recent months, playing in the Web.com Finals and making cuts at the Safeway Open (T25) and Sanderson Farms (T54). In theory, he’s a threat on home soil but T42 last year doesn’t scream ‘pick me’ and his record in co-sanctioned events in South Africa isn’t very compelling either.
After a burst of 2-3-7 in Portugal, Scotland and England, Herbert took a slight backward step in Turkey but, in truth, that was only down to a slow start as he finished 68-68-69 for T35. The Aussie youngster has the length to succeed here although his lack of experience on the different grasses in South Africa adds a cautionary note.
Beef does well on parkland, tree-lined tracks and has to pull something out of the bag to make the top 60 as he starts this week in 74th on the Race to Dubai. T22 at Valderrama; T34 here last year.
Local has plenty of experience at Gary Player CC (T13 in 2015) and has found some strong form recently with T16 at Valderrama and T10 in Turkey. 71st on RTD.
A lofty 19th on the Race to Dubai but over 100/1 with the bookies after three poor results (MC-46-72) although he was T10 at the Alfred Dunhill Links only last month. No form (66-69) here however.
First-timer here but arrives with form of 18-22-10-27 and close to making next week’s Dubai field (69th on RTD).
Opened his red-hot start to 2018 with victory in the South African Open in January. T50 here last year but some nice flickers of form again in recent weeks after a lull.
Playing on home soil. T6 at this course last year. T23 in Turkey. 72nd on RTD. Nice mix for someone under the radar.
Enjoyed visits to South Africa last year when runner-up at Joburg Open and T19 here. Won Nordea Masters in August and shot lower each day in Turkey.
Unexpectedly strong record in South Africa with T19 here and two top fours at Alfred Dunhill. 62nd on Race to Dubai so plenty of incentive too.
Who’s On The Team?
Sergio Garcia looks a definite candidate for captaincy in the official European Tour game but after that it looks a tricky week.
I’ll reveal my full six-man line-up for the E.T. game in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.
One To Swerve
Alexander Levy’s return to form may catch the eye of many gamers but I can see bogeys all over his card this week if he continues to play his attacking game.