After a couple of weeks off over the festive season, the European Tour stages its first event of the new decade with a return to South Africa.
To give it its full title, this is the South African Open hosted by the city of Johannesburg, a reminder that in late 2018 the tournament stayed alive thanks to a merger with the Joburg Open.
Joburg was known for its enormous field and two course set-up and those elements have been transferred across.
Hence, for the second year running, the South African Open boasts a huge 240-man field and uses two venues at Randpark GC - the Firethorn and the Bushwillow.
In terms of recent course form, we have two years as the 2017/18 Joburg Open was also staged across the Firethorn and Bushwillow.
It's good to see that all the big-name South Africans are taking part but the overseas challenge is relatively modest even though Europeans have won six of the last ten editions.
A couple of other quick notes. First, the leading three players in the top ten, who are not already exempt, will earn their place in the field for the 149th Open Championship at Royal St George’s Golf Club in July.
Second, the rescheduled Hong Kong Open also takes place this week following its December cancellation due to trouble in the region. However, that doesn't carry European Tour status.
Finally, if you're playing the season-long European Tour fantasy game, the South African Open doesn't count. That format tees off with next week's prestigious Abu Dhabi Championship.
Firethorn hosts one of the first two rounds and also both weekend laps. It's the tougher of the two layouts, measuring 7,506 yards and playing to a par of 71. The Bushwillow also has just one front-nine par 5 but is a shorter and easier par 71 at 7,115 yards. The 2017 Joburg Open winner, Shubhankar Sharma, fired a 61 there on the way to victory. It has tree-lined fairways and water hazards.
Leading finishers, scores and stats from 2017 Joburg Open at Randpark
-23 Shubhankar Sharma (DD: 39, DA: 12, GIR: 31: Scr: 1, PA: 3, AA: 1)
-20 Erik van Rooyen (DD: 21, DA: 23, GIR: 1: Scr: 4, PA: 47, AA: 2)
-17 Shaun Norris (DD: 32, DA: 33, GIR: 55: Scr: 5, PA: 1, AA: 6)
-17 Tapio Pulkkanen (DD: 1, DA: 54, GIR: 41: Scr: 2, PA: 23, AA: 3)
-15 Marcus Armitage (DD: 12, DA: 64, GIR: 31: Scr: 6, PA: 39, AA: 19)
Leading finishers, scores and stats from last season's South African Open at Randpark
-18 Louis Oosthuizen (DD: 12, DA: 54, GIR: 36: Scr: 4, PA: 2, AA: 6)
-12 Romain Langasque (DD: 42, DA: 57, GIR: 19: Scr: 3, PA: 27, AA: 27)
-10 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 17, DA: 63, GIR: 22: Scr: 1, PA: 39, AA: 23)
-10 Bryce Easton (DD: 31, DA: 26, GIR: 14: Scr: 36, PA: 13, AA: 11)
-10 Oliver Wilson (DD: 56, DA: 46, GIR: 22: Scr: 13, PA: 28, AA: 37)
-10 Thomas Aiken (DD: 51, DA: 26, GIR: 47: Scr: 18, PA: 23, AA: 37)
Notes: Notes: Scrambling stood out a mile when Sharma won at Randpark in 2017 and that played out again last year with top-ranked Schwartzel T3 and winner Oosthuizen and runner-up Langasque 4th and 3rd respectively for scrambling. Chipping can be difficult from the kikuyu rough around the greens so those who excel are rewarded.
Temperatures are set to be in the early-to-mid 80s and the forecast is generally good but there's a threat of t-storms in Friday's second round. The wind could also be a factor on Friday afternoon with it due to pick up towards 15-18mph. It's calmer although still present on the other three days.
Shubhankar Sharma: "I hit the ball good and I putted really well but the key up-and-downs I made over the first three days, I think I only missed two up-and-downs over the whole week."
The Leading Contenders
Winning the South African Open was still a bucket list wish until Oosthuizen did it in style with a six-shot victory at this venue last season, opening with a 62 on the easier Bushwillow and never looking back. He’s finished seventh and sixth in two Euro Tour starts in his home country since then and was last seen playing well and scoring 2.5 points from four matches in the Presidents Cup. If he’s on, Oosthuizen will take some stopping.
EVR played this venue in the 2017 Joburg Open and finished runner-up with rounds of 64-67-70-66 so that elevates what were already strong credentials anyway. Also second in November’s Turkish Airlines Open, the South African was 10th on last year’s Race to Dubai, playing 29 times during a busy and successful campaign.
Grace had a pretty miserable 2019 on the course, tumbling out of the top 50 in the world all the way down to 127th. However, he did sign off on a positive note when finishing tied third in his home Alfred Dunhill Championship and he remains a cut above the vast majority of this field. Grace’s record on home turf is outstanding and he was T7 at this venue in the December 2018 edition.
For Grace, read Schwartzel too. He’s also coming off a forgettable 2019 (an injury was to blame in his case), matched Grace’s tied third at the Alfred Dunhill Championship on his comeback last month and is in a different league to most of his fellow competitors. Schwartzel also made the top three at Randpark 13 months ago so it’s reasonable to expect a big week despite his lack of competitive action (he was off the course from April until returning with T3 at the Alfred Dunhill).
Crashed the top 20 on the Race to Dubai last season (28 starts) after a breakthrough campaign highlighted by victory at famed Valderrama. Made a mess of the Alfred Dunhill Championship on his last home start in November but recovered with a top 25 in Mauritius. MC in this event last year but was T30 (T7 after 54 holes) in the 2017 Joburg Open and ranked in the top 10 for Scrambling last season so is strong around the greens.
Four of the last six winners of this event were recording their first European Tour victory so that should be music to Detry’s ears as he continues his search. The near misses are racking up and his last four worldwide starts show a T3 on South African soil at November’s Alfred Duhhill, T4 at the Mauritius Open and T2 on the Asian Tour’s Thailand Masters just before Christmas. This is his Randpark debut but confidence is high.
The Englishman seemed to go a little quiet at the end of 2019 but actually posted a top ten and two other top 20s in his final five starts. That included T19 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship on his only 2019 start in South Africa. Pepperell revealed last week that he’s switching to Ping clubs in 2020 (he’d already being playing their driver) so gamers may want to factor that in ahead of his first look at Randpark.
A big factor in the two recent European Tour events played in South Africa. Lombard was the 54-hole leader at the prestigious Nedbank Challenge before finishing T8 and added T7 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship. He had good Scrambling figures in both events and a top 15 here in last year’s South African Open further marks our cards.
Three of his four European Tour wins have come on native South African turf so it remains the best place to try and hit the jackpot with Coetzee. He added a local Sunshine Tour victory in November and has opened up the 2020 campaign with a pair of tops 25s in the Alfred Dunhill Championship and Mauritius Open. Only T30 and MC at this venue maybe adds a little doubt.
Adding to the strong home challenge is Harding, who was T7 at the Alfred Dunhill before missing the Mauritius Open cut. He made rapid strides in 2019, winning the Qatar Masters, and will want to get back into the world’s top 50 (currently 72nd) after finishing T12 on his Augusta National debut last year. One negative is that he's 0-for-3 at Randpark even though his excellent short game (6th in Scrambling last season) suggests it should suit him.