While the world's best are in Florida for the co-sanctioned WGC-Cadillac, the European Tour's lesser lights spends another week in South Africa at the short and blustery East London GC. Steve Rawlings offers an in-depth take on the Africa Open...
"Links exponents have fared well here before. Oosthuizen is an Open Champion and the likes of Darren Clarke, Chris Wood, Branden Grace and Michael Hoey have all finished runner-up."
Shaun Norris won the first Africa Open in 2008 before it was switched to East London Golf Club a year later. A stellar field assembled there in 2009, when Retief Goosen came from four back to win, and in 2010 it became a co-sanctioned event between the Sunshine and European Tours.
Originally staged in January, it was played in February in 2013 and 2014 and moving it back to March this time around certainly hasn't helped to produce a quality field. With the WGC-Cadillac Championship (previewed here) drawing all the quality players, including the well-known South Africans and the defending champ, Thomas Aiken, this is every bit as weak as last week's fare.
East London G C, East London, South Africa
Par 71, 6,616 yards
Stroke index in 2014 - 69.1
East London is a traditional, coastal course dating right back to 1893. The greens are small, slightly undulating and layed down to Sea Dwarf Seashore Paspalum - running quite slowly at around 10 on the stimpmeter. The Kikuya fairways are tree-lined and of average width. There are no water hazards and the course's main defence is coastal winds. It's very short by modern standards and open to very low scoring in benign conditions.
The 1st and 11th holes were changed from par 5s to par 4s prior to last year's renewal and they ranked the two hardest holes on the course, with the 1st proving the most troublesome - just ask Emiliano Grillo! The Argentine began the final day leading by two strokes last year but he was soon up against it after recording a nine at the opening hole.
In addition to staging this event for the last six years, East London also hosted the 2001 South Africa Open won by Mark McNulty.
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Last Five Winners
2014 - Thomas Aiken -20 (Playoff)
2013 - Darren Fichardt -16
2012 - Louis Oosthuizen -27
2011 - Louis Oosthuizen -16 (Playoff)
2010 - Charl Schwartzel -20
What will it take to win the Africa Open?
All the winners here have been fairly long off the tee and accuracy hasn't been essential - Louis Oosthuizen ranked just 60th for finding fairways when he won the second of his two titles. Darren Fichardt ranked just 48th for greens hit when he won here two years ago but he's the only winner to rank outside the top-12 for that stat.
All the winners have ranked inside the top-20 for scrambling and sand saves so a strong recovery game is needed when greens are missed and the last two winners have ranked first for par 5 scoring but judging by the early forecasts, the most important factor this year, could be an ability to handle very windy conditions.
At this stage, the wind looks set to blow hard for the first three days before relenting slightly on Sunday.
Is There an Angle In?
There are number of courses that have correlated nicely with East London in the past and I have again considered form there carefully. Golf du Palais Royal in Morocco, home of the Trophee Hassan II, Oitavos Dunes in Portugal, which used to host the now defunct Estoril Open de Portugal, and we certainly have to look closely at the form of the Volvo Golf Champions events from Durban Country Club in 2012 and 2013. Louis Oosthuizen won both those events in Durban and he doubled up here also in 2011 and 2012.
Kennemer Golf and Country Club, home of the KLM Open, Royal Portrush, which hosted the Irish Open in 2012 and Parador de El Saler, which staged the Open de Espana two years ago are three other very similar venues to consider carefully.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
A quality South African has won every renewal here to date but therein lies the rub - there isn't one in the line-up this week! It was a similar situation at last week's Joburg Open, where I went for a couple of quality South Africans who were out of form. The run ended there though with Andy Sullivan claiming his second South African title of the season so we may well see a change here this week too.
With the best South Africans all in Florida for the WGC-Cadillac Championship, we shouldn't get too hung up about following the home contingent.
Links exponents have fared well here before. Oosthuizen is an Open Champion and the likes of Darren Clarke, Chris Wood, Branden Grace and Michael Hoey have all finished runner-up.
This is an event where you can scan down the leaderboard and take a chance on someone way off the pace. Charl Schwartzel trailed by a solitary stroke after round one in 2010 before going on to win but the other six course winners here (including McNulty in the 2001 SA Open) have all trailed by at least four strokes after the first day - as have the three beaten playoff protagonists.
Louis Oosthuizen, when defending in 2012, is the only halfway leader to go on to win and the other six winners and the three playoff losers - Oliver Fisher last year and Chris Wood and Manuel Quiros in 2011 - have all been trailing. Oosty was just a stroke off the lead in 2011 but all the others were at least three off the 36-hole lead and four winners have trailed by at least five strokes at halfway.
As many as 12 men have led or co-led with a round to go at East London but only three have gone on to win. This certainly looks like a hard place to maintain a lead and taking on the leaders throughout may make for a profitable week's trading.
Given he's looking for his third win in as many starts in South Africa and that he finished fifth here 12 months ago, Andy Sullivan has to be favourite this week in what once again is a very weak co-sanctioned event.
My only very slight concern with the hugely talented Englishman is that we haven't yet seen him do it the hard way - from the front - and given what I've written in the In-Play section, if he does find himself at the head of affairs he might be worth opposing at a short price.
The closest he's ever been to the front before round four was in Malaysia in April last year when he trailed by just a stroke with a round to go but he went on to shoot 78 and to fall from second to 13th so as brilliant as he appears in-contention, we're yet to see him do it from the front. I'm not suggesting he can't, especially now he has the confidence the two victories will undoubtedly bring, but he certainly doesn't represent value at just 12.011/1
It's highly likely that course specialist, Jaco Van Zyl, will be in the hunt again this week. He finished runner-up to Sullivan last week and was third at the Dimension Data the week before so he's in fine fettle and he hasn't finished outside the top-five here since 2010. He looks an ideal candidate for a top-5 or top-10 bet but he really struggles to get his head in front on the European Tour. With 13 wins on the Sunshine Tour over the last eight years, he's quite prolific but nerves seem to get to him on this bigger stage and for that reason I'm giving him a miss in the outright market.
George Coetzee showed again last week in Joburg why he has to be avoided at short prices. On numerous occasions his poor chipping was exposed - as it will be here - and he was yet again absolutely dreadful in-contention. He's very easy to put a line through at less than 20.019/1 - even in this low grade.
The 2009 US Amateur champion, Byeong Hun An, is clearly very talented and one to keep an eye on but for someone without a European Tour event playing the venue for the first time, he's plenty short enough.
I liked a number of players here but I've been sensible before the off and only backed two. Gregory Bourdy, Raphael Jacquelin and Simon Dyson all got close to inclusion, along with one or two others but in the end I've gone with just two - David Horsey and Michael Hoey.
Avid Manchester United fan, David Horsey, took to East London like a duck to water last year and but for a momentum-stopping third round of 70 in round three, he'd have probably won. He's also won, and finished second, in the Trophee Hassan II at Golf du Palais Royal in Morocco - a course I feel is very similar to this and I thought 50.049/1 was more than fair.
Like Horsey, Michael Hoey, has also won the Trophee Hassan II at Golf du Palais Royal and like Horsey, Hoey has already shown a liking for East London - he finished runner-up to Goosen here in 2009. Hoey led after round one in Thailand last time out before fading very tamely but given how well suited he is to both the weather and the course, I thought he was worth chancing again at a nice price.
I couldn't include it above as a course correlation as the evidence isn't there yet but I suspect the tree-lined Tseleevo Golf & Polo Club, which has hosted the last two Russian Opens, isn't too dissimilar a test and if I'm right, that will bolster the chances of my two picks. The last two winners in Russia have been Hoey and Horsey.
David Horsey @ 50.049/1
Michael Hoey @ 75.074/1
* You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter