Just days after Jon Rahm closed out the 2019 European Tour season with victory in Dubai, the 2020 season kicks off in South Africa with the Alfred Dunhill Championship. Read Steve's detailed preview ahead of Thursday's start here...
"Pablo Larrazabal was bang in-contention last year before a poor final round saw him drop to ninth. He’s a bit inconsistent but he knows how to win and he’s a juicy enough price."
First staged in January 2000, at the Houghton Golf Club in Johannesburg, and won by the now retired, Anthony Wall, 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 of the event.
The Alfred Dunhill Championship is co-sanctioned between the European Tour and the Sunshine Tour.
Leopard Creek Country Club, Malelane, South Africa.
Par 72, 7249 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 73.33
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.
There was no event here in 2018 as the course underwent a complete overhaul. The fairways and rough used to be Kikuyu but that's all gone now - replaced by a cynodon warm-season Bermuda grass and the greens were changed from Creeping Bent to a genetically engineered ultradwarf Bermuda, called Champion G-12 - the same strain planted at Quail Hollow prior to the 2017 US PGA Championship in North Carolina.
The fairways, which are undulating and lined with natural bush and trees, now run faster and firmer, bringing bunkers back in to play.
Leopard Creek has now been used for 15 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.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 10:30 on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2018 - David Lipsky -14
2016 - Brandon Stone -21
2015 - Charl Schwartzel -15
2014 - Branden Grace -20
2013 - Charl Schwartzel -17
What Will it Take to Win the Alfred Dunhill Championship?
I wasn't convinced the changes to the track would have a huge impact and we can't draw too many conclusions form one edition but it's undeniable that Lipsky's stats were quite different to the average Leopard Creek winner before the renovation.
The nine winners before the changes had an average Driving Distance ranking of 21.77 and an average Driving Accuracy ranking of exactly 20 so neither driving stats could have been described as crucial and they definitely weren't 12 months ago. Lipsky ranked 33rd for DD and 64th for DA.
When Pablo Martin won back-to-back editions in 2009 and 2010, he only ranked 33rd and 41st for Greens In Regulation but he was the only winner in the nine renewals before last year to rank outside the top-11 for that stat. Lipsky ranked 53rd for GIR.
Prior to last year, the most crucial stat had been Scrambling. Schwartzel only ranked 29th in 2015 and in 2014, Branden Grace had only ranked 19th but Branden Stone ranked sixth in 2016 and Grace was the first winner in seven years to rank outside the top-three for Scrambling. Lipsky ranked 16th last year and the runner-up, David Drysdale, ranked fourth but the next five on the leaderboard ranked 42nd, 36th, 67th, 14th, 51st and 48th so the jury's out on that stat too.
Stone's putting figures weren't spectacular in 2016. He had a Putting Average ranking of 19th and he ranked 12 for Putts Per GIR but the previous eight winners had all had a Putting Average ranking of 11th or better and they'd all ranked inside the top-12 for Putts Per GIR. Lipsky ranked fourth for PA, Drysdale ranked tied 11th and the two men toed for third, Zander Lombard and Scott Jamieson, ranked first and tied 11th so a good week with the flat-stick looks imperative.
In addition to ranking fourth for Putting Average, Lipsky ranked first for both Putts Per Round and for Putts Per GIR and he had 12 one-putts on Sunday alone.
Is There an Angle In?
Charl Schwartzel has won the title four times and he's finished runner-up four times but he's far from the only player to consistently perform well here, so course form used to count for plenty here.
In addition to Schwartzel and the two-time winner, Pablo Martin, Ernie Els should have won the event back-to-back, Garth Mulroy finished third when defending in 2012 and Richard Sterne, the 2008 winner, finished fourth in 2009. A number of players have back-to-back top-ten finishes and numerous players have multiple placed efforts but that all changed last year.
The previous six renewals of the Alfred Dunhill Championship had gone the way of a South African so it was very noticeable that Lombard was the only South African in the first six places last time around and with the benefit of hindsight, that made a bit of sense.
The course hasn't changed a lot visually but the change from kikuyu to Bermuda grass sped the whole track up (especially the greens) and the transformation brought the scoring down nicely. This is a tougher test now and it's a very different test so we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised that course specialist, Charl Schwartzel didn't even make the weekend or that the winner was playing here for the first time. Having no preconceptions appeared to be a plus for Lipsky.
I wouldn't be surprised if Schwartzel and co adapt to the changes but how quickly?
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Stone was a 25/1 chance and the five before him were very well-fancied (Charl Schwartzel won it three times in that period!) 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, when he took the title 13 years ago. Lipsky was an almost unconsidered 270.0269/1 chance last year, matched at a high of 340.0339/1, so don't be frightened to chance an outsider or two. Especially given the changes to the track and the fact that only one of the top-six was South African last year.
Lipsky sat tied for 13th and four off the lead after round one but he was in front at halfway and just one off the notoriously poor finisher, Scott Jamieson's lead with a round to go. A year earlier, Stone had sat tied for third after round one, just one stroke behind joint-leaders, Charl Schwartzel and Paul Dunne, but he led all the way after that. Up with the pace has been the place to be of late and frontrunners have a strong recent record.
Schwartzel sat second after round one in 2015 before powering home thereafter and 12 months earlier, Branden 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.
Garth Mulroy trailed by five after round one and by six at halfway when he won in 2011 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, despite how the more recent editions have panned out.
The third-round leader has converted in seven of the last nine renewals 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 five of the last six editions have been won by three 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.
Highly promising South African, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, heads the market and while I'm a huge fan, I'm happy to let him go unbacked here. So highly do I rate Bezuidenhout, that I can see him even winning a major one day but as he showed at Valderrama, the tougher tests are more to his liking. He has improving course form figures, reading MC-56-18 but I'm reluctantly letting him go at such a short price.
I ummed and ahhed yesterday about taking circa 28.027/1 about the 2016 winner, Brandon Stone, who I backed at 32.031/1 last year but decided against it. He's shortened up a lot since then and he was very popular before the off 12 months ago to, eventually going off at 14/1 and he did contend. Indeed, he traded at just 3.02/1 when he started nicely on Sunday but he lost his way badly after that to finish 15th. I'm being ultra-critical, but having backed him numerous times, and watched him plenty, he can go awol and I almost think he lacks concentration at times so I'm reluctantly leaving him out before the off too.
To a certain extent, I can understand the short prices of the front two - this is a weak renewal and most of the market leaders are hard to fancy. Both former winners, Branden Grace and Charl Schwartzel, are difficult to make a case for. Grace has been woeful for ages and Schwartzel's been out injured for seven months. Fellow South African, George Coetzee, is incredibly hard to get across the line, although he did win on the Sunshine Tour at the beginning of the month, and Eddie Pepperell, whose course form figures read 30-MC-8-MC, was bemoaning his putting last time out in Turkey before he was disqualified for running out of balls!
As already stated, I like the two market leaders but I'm happy to see how the event starts. I may look to side with one of them in-running. I think I'd be unlucky to see them both start really well so given the strong in-running trends, I'm happy to wait on both of them but I have backed five outsiders before the off.
Pablo Larrazabal was bang in-contention last year before a poor final round saw him drop to ninth. He's a bit inconsistent but he knows how to win and he's a juicy enough price and I've also backed my each-way pick, Hennie Otto, on the exchange at a big price.
Scotland's Grant Forrest stated last season nicely before losing his way but a new season might see him press the reset button and I've also backed Robin Sciot-Siegrist at huge price too. The Frenchman, who won the Northern Ireland Open on the Challenge Tour two years ago, was placed several times this year before finishing second in the Challenge Tour Grand Final a couple of weeks ago to gain access to the European Tour.
And finally, I know next to nothing about South Africa's James Hart du Preez except his last three starts on the Sunshine Tour have seen him finish third, second and 20th and he really can putt if his stats can be believed. His Putting Average rankings since September read a very impressive 13-7-3-1-1-4.
Pablo Larrazabal @ 80.079/1
Hennie Otto @ 180.0179/1
Grant Forrest @ 380.0379/1
Robin Sciot-Siegrist @ 410.0409/1
James Hart du Preez @ 560.0559/1
I'll be back on Thursday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter