Alfred Dunhill Championship: Pepperell can kick the new season off in style

Eddie Pepperell at Leopard Creek last year
Eddie Pepperell at Leopard Creek last year

The 2017 European Tour season kicks off this week with action in Australia and South Africa - read Steve's in-depth preview of the Alfred Dunhill Championship here...


“I can’t pretend I wasn’t tempted to play Schwartzel. All things considered, his price is fair but it’s no more than that. I can see him winning again or at least contending but I can live with missing out on a 7/2 winner so I’m going into the event with just one pick – Eddie Pepperell.”

Tournament History


First staged in January 2000, at the Houghton Golf Club in Johannesburg, the Alfred Dunhill Championship moved to its current venue, Leopard Creek, in 2004, when due to a scheduling change from January to December, there were two editions, so this is the 18th edition of the tournament.

As it did 12 months ago, the Alfred Dunhill Championship kicks off the European Tour season but it's not the only European Tour event staged this week - Paul Krishnamurty has previewed the Australian PGA Championship here.


Venue

Leopard Creek Country Club, Malelane, South Africa.


Course Details

Par 72, 7287 yards
Stroke index in 2015 - 72.88

Set on the edge of the Kruger National park, the spectacular Gary Player designed Leopard Creek opened in 1996. The signature hole is the par five 13th, which has a green that overlooks Crocodile River, but that's far from the only highlight - the course is visually stunning from start to finish.

Harry the Hippo, who used to reside in the lake adjacent to the 16th hole, is sadly no more but the cameramen frequently catch sight of leopard, impala, zebra, crocodile and many other species and Leopard Creek is an interesting venue. Regardless of the result, the Alfred Dunhill Championship is an event I always enjoy watching.

The tees are Bermuda, the fairways and rough are Kikuyu and the greens (which usually run at around 12 on the stimpmeter) are Creeping Bent (Crenshaw + A1). The fairways are undulating and lined with natural bush and trees, and water is in-play on a number of holes.

Leopard Creek has now been used for 13 previous editions of this event and Darren Fichardt, Nicholas Lawrence, Hennie Otto and Andrew McLardy all won the Sunshine Tour's Tour Championship here soon after the turn of the century.


Weather Forecast


TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 8:30 on Thursday.


Last Five Winners

2015 - Charl Schwartzel -15
2014 - Branden Grace -20
2013 - Charl Schwartzel -17
2012 - Charl Schwartzel -24
2011 - Garth Mulroy -19


What Will it Take to Win the Alfred Dunhill Championship?


The last eight winners have had an average Driving Distance ranking of 23.75 and an average Driving Accuracy ranking 20.87 so accuracy from the tee is marginally more important than length but neither can be described as crucial stats.

When Pablo Martin won back-to-back editions in 2009 and 2010, he only ranked 33rd and 41st for Greens In Regulation but he's the only winner in the last eight years to rank outside the top-ten for that stat and Charl Schwartzel, when winning the event for a fourth time 12 months ago, ranked fourth for GIR.

That suggests it's a second shot course and that good iron play is important but the most crucial stat appears to be Scrambling. Schwartzel only ranked 29th last year and 12 months earlier, Branden Grace only ranked 19th but he was the first winner in seven years to rank outside the top-three for Scrambling and the last eight winners have all had a Putting Average ranking of 11th or better and they've all ranked inside the top-12 for Putts Per GIR.


Is There an Angle In?


Given Schwartzel has won the title four times and finished runner-up four times, it's perhaps obvious to state that course form stands up well but he's far from the only player to consistently perform well here.

In addition to Schwartzel and the aforementioned two-time winner, Pablo Martin, Ernie Els should have won the event back-to-back, Garth Mulroy finished third when defending and Richard Sterne fourth. A number of players have back-to-back top-10 finishes and Gregory Bourdy lines-up this week looking to improve on his form figures by a place. In his last two visits, he's finished third and second.


Is There an Identikit Winner?


The last five winners have all been South African and the last four have been very well-fancied but prior to that, outsiders and overseas players had a reasonable record. South Africa's Garth Mulroy won at 55.054/1 in 2011 and few picked out Spain's Pablo Martin on either occasion. England's John Bickerton, was hard to spot and so too was brand new European Tour player, Alvaro Quiros, who won the first of his six European Tour titles here 10 years ago.


In-Play Tactics

Schwartzel sat second after round one before powering home thereafter last year and 12 months earlier, Grace won wire-to-wire. Schwartzel was inside the front four after round one and in front by halfway in the two previous editions but prior to 2012, a number of winners started slowly.

Mulroy trailed by five after round one and by six at halfway when he won and in the seven years before Mulroy won, every winner was at least three off the lead through round one.

Schwartzel trailed by five in 2004, Ernie by seven in 2005 and Quiros was six adrift in 2006, so don't give up hope if your selections start slowly.

The third round leader has converted in six of the last seven years but the first five winners here were all trailing by at least two strokes and three of them, Quiros, Bickerton and Sterne, all won from four back with a round to go. Although the last four editions have been won by two high-class individuals that have dominated from early on, it is possible to come from off the pace here so if the leaders look vulnerable they might be worth taking on.


Market Leaders


I don't think anyone will need me to highlight how obvious a chance Charl Schwartzel has here and he's a very worthy favourite. With an event record that reads eight top-two finishes from 11 starts, he's impossible to ignore as he bids to win the title for the fifth time in total and the fourth time in five years. He arrives at his beloved Leopard Creek on the back of a rock-solid third in the DP World Tour Championship and if you don't mind taking a short price in a big field event he's your man.

My only caveat with Charl is that he never makes it easy for his backers and even if he wins, the chances are he'll put his followers through the wringer. He led by five at halfway last year and was trading at around the 1.51/2 mark but he lost focus numerous times over the weekend and he twice went from very long odds-on to odds against before he eventually won by four after two rounds of 70.

Branden Grace had a poor record here to begin with and his first four starts yielded form figures reading MC-53-MC-MC before he finished 12th in 2012. He didn't play in 2013 but won the event in 2014 and he finished eighth last year when defending.

Grace finished third at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in his penultimate start but ever since he finished fourth at the USPGA Championship in July he's been largely disappointing. The third at the Nedbank was his only top-25 finish in his last 10 starts.


Selections


I can't pretend I wasn't tempted to play Schwartzel. All things considered, his price is fair but it's no more than that. I can see him winning again or at least contending but I can live with missing out on a 7/2 winner so I'm going into the event with just one pick - Eddie Pepperell - and I've set out my reasons for backing him in this week's each-way column here.


Selection:
Eddie Pepperell @ 75.074/1


I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.


*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter


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