With no PGA Tour action this week, all eyes will be fixed on the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa, so read our man's comprehensive preview ahead of Thursday's start...
"Can Larrazabal become the second Spanish Pablo to double up, almost exactly 10 years after Señor Martin successfully defended the title?"
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. That year, there were two editions of the event, due to a scheduling change from January to December, and there are two on this year's European Tour schedule too.
Pablo Larrazabal won this event exactly one year ago, when it was the first of the 2020 European Tour schedule. With the season extending after the coronavirus, this week's edition is the second renewal of the season.
The Alfred Dunhill Championship is co-sanctioned between the European Tour and the Sunshine Tour and it's the second of three events in-a-row here following last week's Joburg Open, won by JB Hansen and prior to next week's South African Open.
Leopard Creek Country Club, Malelane, South Africa.
Par 72, 7249 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 74.34
Set on the edge of the Kruger National park, the spectacular Leopard Creek was designed by Gary Player and 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, so this 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 16 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 but on the evidence of the last two renewals, Leopard Creek is a very different course now.
Charl Schwartzel once won here with a winning total of 24-under-par (in 2012) and the average winning score of the six winners prior to the renovation, was more than 19-under-par but with absolutely nowhere to hide, the course averaged 74.34 for the week last year and Pablo Larrazabal's winning score was -8.
David Lipsky managed to get to 14-under-par in the first edition after the changes with a truly incredible putting performance. He had 12 one-putts on Sunday and alone and he was one of only four men to beat Larrazabal's eight-under-par total.
Live on Sky Sports form 10:00 on all four days, beginning on Thursday
Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
2019 - Pablo Larrazabal -8 60.059/1
2018 - David Lipsky -14 270.0269/1
2017 - No event
2016 - Brandon Stone -21 30.029/1
2015 - Charl Schwartzel -15 6.611/2
2015- Branden Grace -20 25.024/1
What Will it Take to Win the Alfred Dunhill Championship?
With the course changing so much, this is a very difficult event to evaluate statistically. Brandon Stone won the final edition before the alterations in 21-under-par and Pablo Larrazabal clung on to take the title a year ago in eight-under.
The first winner following the course changes, David Lipsky, ranked 33rd for Driving Distance and 64th for Driving Accuracy and Larrazabal wasn't too straight either. He ranked 43rd for DA and 19th for DD. 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 we can probably conclude that neither driving metric is critical.
Prior to the changes, Greens In Regulation (GIR) was always a key stat. When Spain's Pablo Martin won back-to-back editions in 2009 and 2010, he only ranked 33rd and 41st for GIR but he was the only winner in the nine renewals before the alterations to rank outside the top-11 for that stat.
Lipsky only ranked 53rd for GIR in 2018 but I expect that will turn out to be an anomaly. Larrazabal ranked third for GIR last year and Will Besseling, who finished third, topped the GIR stats.
Prior to 2018, the most crucial stat had been Scrambling. Schwartzel only ranked 29th in 2015 and in 2014, Branden Grace had only ranked 19th but Brandon Stone ranked sixth in 2016 and Grace was the first winner in seven years to rank outside the top-three for Scrambling.
Since the changes, Lipsky ranked 16th and Larrazabal only 33rd last year, so it's tempting to think that isn't the crucial stat it once was. However, the 2018 runner-up David Drysdale ranked fourth and Joel Sjoholm, last year's second, ranked first for Scrambling.
Either side of the course changes, putting has always been an important factor. 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 all had a Putting Average ranking of 11th or better and they all ranked inside the top-12 for Putts Per GIR.
Lipsky ranked fourth for PA in 2018 and Larrazabal ranked third last year. A good week with the flat-stick looks imperative.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
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 perform consistently here, so course form used to count for plenty.
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 finished fourth 2009 after triumphing the previous year. A number of players have back-to-back top-10 finishes, and numerous players have multiple placed efforts, but we've seen a bit of a change in the last two years.
Prior to 2018, the previous six renewals had gone the way of a South African but Zander Lombard was the only one in the first six places in 2018 and the first two home last year were Europeans.
Following Larrazabal's victory 12 months ago, three Spaniards have now won four of the last 13 renewals.
Is There an Angle In?
The course hasn't changed a lot visually but the change from kikuyu to Bermuda grass has sped the whole track up (especially the greens) and the transformation has brought the scoring down considerably. This is a much harder test now which is why the tour's toughest track now appears to correlate very nicely.
With a bit of wind present, Valderrama played really difficult back in September, with John Catlin holding on to win the Andalucía Masters with a two-over-par winning score. Will Besseling, who was tied for third behind Catlin was also tied for third in this event last December, Justin Harding, who finished alongside Besseling was tied for seventh here last year, Connor Syme was eighth in Spain and 11th here and finally, Johannes Veerman finished tied for 10th at Valderrama and tied seventh here 12 months ago.
Given his quality, South Africa's Harding playing well in his homeland, as well as at a tough place like Valderrama, wouldn't have raised any flags. But the other three players to finish in such lofty positions at both events are low-ranking players that rarely show up anywhere. It looks like a decent angle in and there were other examples in the previous renewals.
Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four
2019 - Pablo Larrazabal led by three strokes 1.845/6
2018 - David Lipsky trailed by a stroke 5.95/1
2017 - No event
2016 - Brandon Stone led by three strokes 2.1211/10
2015 - Charl Schwartzel led by five strokes 1.4840/85
2014 - Branden Grace led by a stroke 2.588/5
A fast start is absolutely vital here. As many as six of the last seven winners were inside the top-four after day one. The last seven winners have been in front at halfway and eight of the last 10 led with a round to go. The two odd men out sat second and trailed by a stroke. This is not a place to play catch-up and a morning start on Thursday could be a big plus.
As many as 19 players broke 70 on Thursday last year and, although there wasn't a huge differential between the AM-PM scores over the first two days, it was noticeable how many early starters on Thursday made hay early. Ten of the top-12 after round one enjoyed an early start. The eventual third, Besseling, and the winner, Larrazabal, sat first and second after round one and the two were locked together on the 72nd tee so that fast start really was key as the course just got harder and harder.
Only five players broke 70 on Friday and Sunday and only four managed it in round three. Concentrating on those who have started well in the morning on day one could well pay dividends.
There's been plenty of money for the 2016 winner, Brandon Stone, but I was more than happy to swerve him. He has a relaxed and jovial manner on the track but I'm not convinced that's conducive to the sort of grind this event appears to be now. A fabulous but streaky talent, he's undoubtedly at his best when the birdies are flowing and the scoring's low. He played fairly nicely at the Joburg Open last week but he missed enough fairways to think he's a bit short here now.
Robert McIntyre will be nicely rested after his win at the Cyprus Showdown a couple of weeks ago and his only spin around Leopard Creek came after the changes in December 2018 when he finished tied for 15th after four very steady rounds between 70 and 72. His tied 24th at Valderrama doesn't look great at first glance but he opened that event with a round of 80 and he was one of only eight players to shoot 70 or better on the Sunday. I respect his chances but back-to-back winners are rare and he's no value to achieve the feat.
The 2018 Valderrama winner, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, would be my idea of the most likely candidate but I'm just concerned about his wellbeing. He must have been fatigued when finishing tied for 15th at the Joburg last week, having travelled over from Georgia following a gruelling US Masters, where he finished an excellent tied 38th.
His course form figures, reading MC-56-18-MC aren't great, either side of the changes, and he's just not playing well enough to side with before the off.
It's going to be tough for Wilco Nienaber to lift himself after Sunday's disappointment, when he failed to convert a three-stroke lead at the Joburg Open, but I was prepared to give him a go here at 29.028/1. He's shortened up fractionally since I backed him yesterday and whether I'd take 26.025/1 (especially if he gets an afternoon tee time on Thursday) is debatable but there's a lot to like about South Africa's latest budding superstar.
Much was made about his prestigious length off the tee last week but there's plenty more to his game - as his tied sixth at Valderrama in September demonstrated. At 20, he has the golfing world at his feet and if he can pick himself up, dust himself down, and shoot a decent round on Thursday, he might just have the grit to survive a tough last three days. His tied 24th last year suggests he can handle the track.
Spain's Jorge Campillo is one of Matt Cooper's each-way fancies and I'm fairly keen on him. He can't be described as prolific but all his stats were impressive last time out in Cyprus (especially the putting) and given the excellent record of the Spanish here, I thought he was worth chancing.
The defending champion, Pablo Larrazabal, has moved in the opposite direction to last year. I took 80.079/1 on the Monday 12 months ago before he tightened up into 60.059/1 but he's drifting like a barge this year and I'm happy to chance him at a big price.
Suffering with blisters, he lost the plot completely in round four 12 months ago, drifting from odds-on to 55.054/1 in-running as he made five bogeys and a double on the front nine alone. A lone birdie at the short par four sixth saw him go out in a six-over-par 41 before he recovered superbly to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
One could be completely put off by that finish or one could wonder just how far he could have won by? He's a five time European Tour winner, he loves Leopard Creek and he's already won the BMW International Open twice. Can he become the second Spanish Pablo to double up, almost exactly 10 years after Señor Martin successfully defended the title?
Since he's drifted out from a low of 36.035/1 and he's been allocated what I believe may be a favourable morning tee time on Thursday, I've added another Spaniard, Adri Arnaus, who finished second to Christiaan Bezuidenhout at Valderrama last year.
He missed the cut last week at the Joburg Open after a poor first round but he finished fifth in the Italian Open in his penultimate start and he finished ninth here on his only previous appearance two years ago. With the draw yet to be made, I thought he was short enough but now I know he kicks the event off early; I was happy to take 46.045/1.
I've also picked a couple of outsiders for the Find Me a 100 Winner column here.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
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