The Tour that never stops does finally put its feet up at the end of this week.
But, to make sure you’ve had your fix before the month-long break, the European Tour says goodbye to the calendar year with a double header.
In South Africa, a hefty prize fund of $6,500.000 is on offer at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City while, also in the southern hemisphere, the Australian PGA Championship is included on the Race to Dubai for the first time. These are the latest two events on the 2016 calendar which kicked off with last week’s Alfred Dunhill Championship.
The Nedbank will actually feature twice on the 2016 Race to Dubai as it also forms part of the Final Series next November. The field in that event will be expanded to 72 but this week it’s a 30-man line-up which goes into battle.
Danny Willett defends his title at the Gary Player Country Club and has some classy opposition to overcome with Henrik Stenson and last week’s Alfred Dunhill Championship winner, Charl Schwartzel, pegging it up along with several of the European Tour’s leading lights from 2015.
It’s also good to see several American PGA TOUR stars make the trip. Major winners Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson will make their debuts in the event while Robert Streb and Scott Piercy also try their luck.
Gary Player Country Club
This is a familiar stage in world golf and has hosted every running of the event since Johnny Miller won the first one back in 1981. Up until 2013, it was a 12-player invitational but, from being something of an end-of-season carve-up for the game’s elite, it’s evolved from gaining world ranking points for the first time in 2006 to gaining full European Tour status in 2013 when it expanded to 30 players. The parkland course stretches to an almost obscene 8,000 yards (7,831 to be precise) and features fairly narrow Kikuya fairways and rough along with Bent grass greens. That said, winning scores of -20 and -18 means there are plenty of birdies to be had. Thomas Bjorn, the winner in 2013, said: “If you’re not playing well, then this course is a beast to get around, there are certainly stretches that can really bite you. But there are opportunities to score well too, which is the nature of a good course.” Local man Louis Oosthuizen added this insight: “You need to hit fairways and not just take driver and bomb it. There are a lot of holes out there where I’ll be hitting five woods, three-woods and three-irons just to get myself in play.”
Past winners, scores and stats
2014 -18 Danny Willett (DD: NA, DA: 23, GIR: 3, Src: 1, PA: 3, AA: 3)
2013 -20 Thomas Bjorn (DD: 4, DA: 5, GIR: 3, Src: 1, PA: 5, AA: 1)
Notes: The top three last year (Willett, Ross Fisher, Luke Donald) ranked 3rd, 1st and 3rd for greens in regulation and were also all in the top three for Putting Average. Thomas Bjorn was 1st for GIR when he won in 2013 and also made the top six in both putting categories. For the record, Bjorn and Willett ranked 69th and 176th on the season-long Driving Distance stats in 2015 so don’t get obsessed with length at this course despite the intimidating yardage.
Sun City lives up to its name as we’re in for a hot and dry week with plenty of rays shining down. The wind picks up a little in the final round according to the forecasts while temperatures should also peak on Sunday, perhaps hitting the 100 mark.
The Leading Contenders
No doubt, the strangest story at the DP World Tour Championship two weeks ago was Stenson finishing joint last in T59. He shot himself out of the tournament with an opening 77 and never recovered. Of course, it could have been a case of him losing interest on the weekend but it’s also worth noting that he’s booked in for surgery on his right knee after competing here. If the knee is okay and he’s mentally prepared (a pre-tournament safari with the family should help him relax), Stenson’s course form makes him a big title threat. He smashed the field by nine shots to win in 2008 and has also finished runner-up twice (2006, 2009) and fourth twice (2007 and 2014).
A lacklustre opening 36 holes meant Grace never got in a blow when defending his Alfred Dunhill Championship crown last week but he did manage to work his way through the field and finish T8. That followed a third place in the DP World Tour Championship. What he doesn’t have compared to the other main contenders is a bank of course form. Having only joined the upper echelons in recent years, Grace has only contested this tournament once and that produced a modest T20 out of 30 in 2013.
After a two-year drought, the South African finally got another ‘W’ on the board via a four-shot victory at the Alfred Dunhill Championship last week. It came as no surprise that Leopard Creek was the venue for that overdue triumph as it was the fourth time he’s lifted the trophy there. He certainly doesn’t enjoy such a record in this event. In the 30-man format he was T14 last year and sixth in 2013 while his finishes when up against just 11 rivals were 5th (2006), 10th (2007), 6th (2011) and, best of all, 2nd in 2012.
Even before winning this event last year, the Englishman had a superb record in this part of the globe. From 2012 to 2014, Willett teed it up eight times in South Africa and cracked the top 20 seven times. Four of those were top 10s. Still, he was definitely breaking the mould when winning this event on debut 12 months ago as history suggested course experience was vital. That victory paved the way for his second place on last year’s Race to Dubai and he followed it up by finishing fourth at the Alfred Dunhill Championship the week after to improve his record in South Africa further. He was fourth at the DP World Tour Championship on his very latest start so a big defense is expected.
Fitzpatrick will be seeing the Gary Player Country Club for the first time but he has had some decent results in South Africa in his fledging career. Twelve months ago the young Englishman cracked the top five in the South African Open and he also posted a top 15 in March’s Tshwane Open. His biggest asset, though, is current form after he rounded off a superb rookie campaign with a top four at the DP World Tour Championship – one of six top four finishes since July which includes a win at the British Masters. A lack of length may put some off on a course measuring over 7,800 yards but Luke Donald was third here last year so there is more than one way to skin a cat at this venue.
Oosthuizen missed the cut at the Alfred Dunhill Championship but that can hardly rank as a surprise as he’s failed to make the weekend at Leopard Creek in six of his last eight visits now despite finishing runner-up there twice. At Gary Player Country Club, his record is mixed. He was last of 12 in 2010 but improved to fourth in 2012. Since the tournament moved to the 30-player format in 2013, he’s posted T14 and T7. Despite home advantage, it’s hard to work up too much enthusiasm about him this week given that he hasn’t managed a worldwide top 10 since his playoff loss at July’s Open Championship.
One of the stars of the Final Series after three top four finishes. That late-season burst helped An finish his rookie season ranked 7th on the Race to Dubai so his potential upside looks enormous if he continues in this vein. The Korean is 6-for-6 in European Tour events in South Africa although a T7 in this year’s Joburg Open is his only top 20. He’ll be making his debut at Gary Player Country Club but Danny Willett took the trophy home without a previous look so there is a precedent for An.
The German’s T10 at the DP World Tour Championship was his best ever finish at the Earth course so that could act as a big marker for this event. Kaymer edged out Charl Schwartzel to win this tournament in 2012 while he’s finished T16 (2013) and T21 (2014) since the field size increased from 12 to 30. Overall, the 2015 season was a frustrating one for Kaymer after he failed to emerge with a win but having hit 86.1% of greens in his last two events he could be in ideal shape to come up with a second victory at Sun City.
For all the signs of promise, Knox was becoming a rather frustrating character near the business end of tournaments. However, he put all that right with a superb victory in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China to make his first win a World Golf Championship event. The Scot followed that by flying to Mexico and finishing runner-up at the OHL Classic so he’s very much golf’s man of the moment. Having topped the GIR stats at the Shriners and the OHL Classic (he was 4th in that category at the HSBC), Knox has his irons dialled in and that should count for plenty on his debut at this course.
Only the brilliance of Rory McIlroy two weeks ago denied Sullivan a spectacular finish to an already spectacular season. The pair had pulled clear of the field at the DP World Tour Championship but Rory found an extra gear over the weekend to leave the happy-go-lucky Englishman in second. Two of Sullivan’s three wins in 2015 came in South Africa so the good vibes will come flooding back on his return to the country. This is his first start at Gary Player Country Club but he’s played well on a variety of courses in SA so don’t be surprised if he makes another title push.
The Next Rung
The Frenchman played in this event two years ago, finishing 20th out of 30 while his only visit to South Africa since then resulted in a top five at the Volvo Golf Champions at the start of 2014. He’ll still be feeling the buzz from his Turkish Airlines Open victory at the start of November and backing that up with top 20s at the BMW Masters (T17) and DP World Tour Championship (T13) suggests it wasn’t a bolt from the blue after a poor run before that.
Despite a couple of T17s (WGC-HSBC Champions and DP World Tour Championship), Wiesberger couldn’t’ quite find his best stuff in the Final Series. This is his first appearance in the Nedbank and first start in any South African event for two years. He has enjoyed previous visits though and his last three results there show a second place in the 2011 South African Open and a T9 in the 2012 Joburg Open.
Another making his Nedbank debut, Grillo has had a superb couple of months and shouldn’t be taken lightly despite the big names he’s up against. After a win in the Web.com Tour Championship, he posted his first PGA TOUR victory when capturing the Frys.com Open. And, most recently, he took fourth place in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. The young Argentine even has some previous good form in South Africa (5th in 2014 Africa Open) to add to his credentials this week.
Fisher finished runner-up to Danny Willett in this event last year while, in the 12-man era, he was fifth in 2010 and third in 2009 so he’s clearly a big fan of the Gary Player layout. That extends to South Africa as a whole as his last eight starts there show a win, a second, a third, a fifth and a 10th. The Englishman was rather hit-and-miss during the 2015 season but a third place in the WGC-HSBC Champions three starts ago shows what he’s capable of.
Jaidee shots 12 rounds in the 60s in the Final Series and just missed out on victory at the BMW Masters after taking the 54-hole-lead. In short, he’s ending 2015 strongly. There’s every chance he can hang up another good finish this week as his two starts (both in the 30-man format) have produced top 10s. He was 9th on debut in 2013 and improved to T7 last year. Add in a third place in the 2013 Volvo Golf Champions and he likes the courses in South Africa.
The big Thai shot twin 68s on the weekend at this event last year to finish solo fifth so he’s another who could get in the mix. He returns this year as a two-time European Tour winner having captured the Shenzhen International in China and the Saltire Energy Paul Lawrie Match Play in Scotland. Since that latter triumph in August, Aphibarnrat has reeled off four top sixes while he ended the 2015 Race To Dubai season with T22 at the DP World Tour Championship.
The Irishman will never forget 2015 having conquered American by winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational but it does appear he’s in need of a rest. After a top 10 in Turkey, his form tailed off in the remaining three Final Series events as he finished way down the limited fields, posting T68, T56 and T48. If Lowry can find his mojo again, a T11 in this event last year is something to build on.
If it’s course form you want, turn to Westwood. He won here in 2010, defended the title with the aid of a Saturday 62 in 2011 and also made the top five either side of those two wins. The Englishman even won the Dimension Data Pro-Am at Gary Player Country Club back in 2000 so it’s a special place for him. Of course, we haven’t see him at his best for some time now but T11 in Turkey and T18 in last week’s Australian Open suggests Westwood could be close to a big week and this looks as likely a venue as any.
The American has enjoyed the second half of 2015. He posted a win at the Barbasol Championship, took third in the BMW Championship (the third leg of the FedExCup playoffs) and opened with a 62 before finishing T7 at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia at the start of November. He has plenty on his plate having never teed it up in South Africa but he could emerge as the most likely US challenger.
One piece of good news for Bradley is that the course features Kikuya. The same grass is used at Riviera where Bradley has a second, a fourth and four straight top 20s. South Africans do well at Riviera (Rory Sabbatini and Ernie Els have won there; Schwartzel was third on debut and fifth in 2014) so maybe an American can shine here. Bradley is coming off a T8 in the OHL Classic in Mexico (his first top 10 since May) so could be ready to challenge again.
Like his compatriot Bradley, Simpson won a major with the long putter and is trying to adjust to the short stick ahead of the new laws kicking in. Both men’s recent putting stats suggest it’s a process that may take a while and Simpson has only managed one top 25 in his last 12 starts. His most recent outing was a T56 in Las Vegas in October.
If not Bradley, Simpson or Piercy, how about Streb? After top fives at the Wells Fargo, Greenbrier and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational along with a top 10 at the PGA Championship, his form dipped but he closed 66-69-69 in the RSM Classic two weeks ago to post T25. At his best, he’d be far from a fish out of water.
Who’s On the Team
As noted last week, the European Tour Fantasy game doesn’t begin until January but if you’re playing in a private league or want a bet, there are some good opportunities here.
Top of the list in terms of value would be Martin Kaymer at around the 20/1 mark.
He’s a previous course winner, his recent greens in regulation numbers are superb and he’s hungry for a win after, so far, falling short in 2015.
At 33/1, Emiliano Grillo could be an interesting wager.
He’s on a roll after two recent wins and a top four in the DP World Tour Championship and on his last visit to South Africa he carded middle rounds of 63-62 when fifth at the Africa Open.
Finally, the 40/1 about last year’s runner-up Ross Fisher looks big. His form is in and out overall but in South Africa he rarely runs a bad race.
One To Swerve
Again, I’ll put up Louis Oosthuizen in this category following his missed cut last week.