Fleetwood aiming for three in-a-row
Elite field assembles in South Africa
The Nedbank Golf Challenge was first played in 1981 when Johnny Miller pocketed the then huge purse of $500,000.
It remained an exclusive 12-man invitational up until ten years ago when it became an official co-sanctioned Sunshine and DP World Tour event for an extended field of 30 before it underwent an even more expansive revamp in 2016 when the field was increased to 72.
Last year's renewal, won by Tommy Fleetwood, was the first since 2019 due to Covid.
As it was back in 2019, and again last year, the Nedbank is the penultimate DP World Tour event of the season and it's yet again a limited field event for the leading available 60 players from the DP World Tour Rankings, the winner of the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit, and a handful of tournament invites, including US Ryder Cuppers Max Homa and Justin Thomas.
The Gary Player Country Club, Sun City, South Africa
Par 72, 7,819 yards
Stroke index in 2022 - 72.1
Gary Player's lengthy creation is a parkland course set in an extinct volcanic crater. It has fairly narrow kikuyu fairways and kikuyu rough and the small well-bunkered, bent grass greens usually run at around 11 on the stimpmeter.
In addition to hosting this tournament since day one, the Gary Player Country Club also hosted the Dimension Data Pro-Am on South Africa's Sunshine Tour up until 2009 and it's been the venue for the Sun City Challenge since 2012. It was also the venue for the 2020 and 2021 editions of the South African Open, won by Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Daniel van Tonder.
A hole-by hole guide on the event's website can be viewed here.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 8:30 on Thursday
Last Six Winners with Pre-event Prices
- 2022 - Tommy Fleetwood -11 11.010/1
- 2019 - Tommy Fleetwood -12 (playoff) 20.019/1
- 2018 - Lee Westwood -15 55.054/1
- 2017 - Branden Grace -11 18.017/1
- 2016 - Alex Noren -14 24.023/1
- 2015 - Marc Leishman -19 80.079/1
What Will it Take to Win the Nedbank?
I'm not really sure how Branden Grace managed to win six years ago. He shot a six-over-par 42 on the front nine on Friday, he ranked 63rd for Driving Distance, 54th for Driving Accuracy, 31st for Greens In Regulation and 12th for Scrambling but he did putt well and he made more birdies than anyone else in the field.
Even so, after that 'hiccup' in round two and with stats that poor, it was a remarkable achievement so it's a renewal to ignore.
Tommy Fleetwood only ranked 31st for Driving Distance and 28th for Driving Accuracy when defending the title 12 months ago but an excellent tee game is usually an essential prerequisite and he drove the ball far better in 2019 - ranking seventh for DD and eighth for DA.
As it's at an altitude, the ball travels around 10% further than it does at sea level, so Sun City doesn't play as long as the yardage suggests, but it's still a long course and getting it out there off the tee is important. And so is finding the fairways.
The Kikuyu rough is notoriously hard to play from and missing fairways with regularity makes it impossible to find the number of greens necessary to compete. Lee Westwood has always been regarded as one of the best drivers in the world so it's no coincidence that he's prospered here, winning the Nedbank three times in total.
Total Driving is a good stat to consider but Greens In Regulation and Scrambling are usually the most important.
South African Open winner, Bezuidenhout, ranked first for Greens In Regulation and second for Scrambling, van Tonder ranked ninth for GIR and first for Scrambling, and Grace looks like a real anomaly.
Not counting the Sunshine Tour events, three of the last eight Nedbank winners, like Bez, ranked first for GIR and other than Grace and van Tonder, the other three odd men out, Danny Willett (2014), Westwood (2018) and Fleetwood (2019 and 2022), still ranked third, fourth, eighth and second.
Although Grace only ranked 31st, the next four on the leaderboard ranked fifth, first, 11th and second, so GIR is definitely a key stat.
Having ranked 17th last year, Fleetwood only ranked 40th for Scrambling in 2019 but the runner-up four years ago, Mathias Schwab, ranked sixth, and Jason Scrivener and Bernd Wiesberger, who finished tied for third, ranked first and fourth.
The six Nedbank winners before Fleetwood ranked 13th, first, first, third, 12th and 14th for Scrambling and as already mentioned, Bezuidenhout and van Tonder ranked second and first.
Bezuidenhout and van Tonder both ranked first for Par 4 Scoring and Fleetwood ranked second last year but historically, making hay on the par fives has been crucial here and five of the last seven Nedbank winners played the long holes better than anyone else in the field.
Is There an Angle In?
This used to be a notoriously bad event for debutants and not just because there were only one or two in the small fields of 12.
Back in 2012, five of the 12 were making their debut but only one of the five, Bill Haas, who finished third, finished inside the top-six. In 2013 more than half the field were playing Sun City for the first time and yet only one of them, Brendon de Jonge, managed to finish inside the top-six but all that changed ten years ago.
The 2013 winner, Thomas Bjorn, had only ever played Sun City twice before and that was in the last century in the Dimension Data, 16 years prior to his win, so he can't have been too familiar with the venue. The next three winners, as well as the 2016 runner-up, Jeunghun Wang, who traded at around 1.330/100 in-running, were all playing the course for the first time.
Having considered it almost essential to have played here previously, that run of results changed my opinion, but Grace had some nice course form in the book before he won here in 2017. Indeed, the first four home in 2018 all had an abundance of strong course form and Fleetwood now has course form figures reading 14-21-14-10-1-1.
From a course form correlation perspective, a number of course winners (and seconds) have form at both Wentworth and Doha, home of the Qatar Masters.
Marc Leishman has never played Wentworth and Fleetwood's best finish there is sixth, but he sat second with a round to go there in September before Ryan Fox (who traded at a low of 1.618/13 here last year) took the title.
The five Sun City winners before him have either won the BMW PGA Championship or they've traded at odds-on to win it.
The 2019 Qatar Masters winner, Justin Harding was eighth here in 2017, sixth a year later and sixth in the South African Open in 2021, having led by four with a round to go. The 2017 Qatar Masters winner, Wang, arguably should have won here in 2016 and Markus Kinhult, who was beaten by Fleetwood in extra time here in 2019 has finished third in Doha twice.
Grace, the 2017 winner of this event, won back-to-back Qatar Masters titles in 2015 and 2016. The two-time Sun City winner, Sergio Garcia (who also traded at odds-on here in 2018), won the 2014 edition of the Qatar Masters, and Thomas Bjorn, Henrik Stenson, Ernie Els, and Henrik Stenson have all won at both venues. There are worse places to start than Doha for clues but Paris National is another to consider...
I backed Guido Migliozzi at 120.0119/1 before the off last year because he'd just won the Open de France and he was in the thick of it until he made a 10 on the 17th in round two.
Both Migliozzi and Rasmus Hojgaard (who led after round three) boosted the already strong link between the Gary Player Country Club and Paris National last year as Hojgaard had led the Open de France before getting caught my Migliozzi on Sunday, and he contended there again this year.
Fleetwood, Alex Noren and Martin Kaymer have all won both the Nedbank and the Open de France recently and when Kaymer took the title in Paris he beat the three-time Nedbank winner, Westwood, in a playoff, so it looks a strong link.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Multiple winners are fairly common. When winning 12 months ago, Fleetwood became the ninth man to win the event twice, the seventh to successfully defend the title and four men - David Frost, Nick Price, Ernie Els, and Lee Westwood - have all won the event three times but nobody has won it three times in-a-row.
This hasn't been a good event for outsiders. Westwood went off at 55.054/1 in 2018 and Leishman was matched at 80.079/1 when he won eight years ago but he was the biggest priced winner in many a year, so outsiders have a poor record.
Winner's Position and Price Pre-Round Four
- 2022 - Tommy Fleetwood - T7th - trailing by three 19.018/1
- 2019 - Tommy Fleetwood - T12th - trailing by six 90.089/1
- 2018 - Lee Westwood T3rd - trailing by three 12.5
- 2017 - Branden Grace T3rd - trailing by three 5.69/2
- 2016 - Alex Noren - T4th - trailing by six 22.021/1
- 2015 - Marc Leishman - led by a stroke 2.3211/8
In its old, limited field format very few winners came from off the pace in the Nedbank but that made sense. Not only were they small fields but they were small fields containing very high-quality golfers. The very best would separate themselves from the majority in the small field and more often than not, that would be that but since the format has changed and the fields have been expanded, a new pattern has emerged...
The last five Nedbank winners have trailed by six, three, three, six and three strokes with a round to go and players going odds-on and getting beat is now commonplace. It's a really tough golf course and your game can unravel fast.
Tommy Fleetwood heads the market but he's plenty short enough for my liking.
As already stated, nobody has ever won three Nedbanks in-a-row and things tend to need to fall right for Fleetwood to win anyway.
He came from miles back to win his first title here in 2019 and he had quite a bit of help from others last year too.
That's obviously not Tommy's fault and he commands plenty of respect but having finished down the field in an event that really suits him last time out (84th at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship), I'm more than happy to swerve him at just 8/19.00.
We haven't seen Max Homa or Justin Thomas since the Ryder Cup so it's tough to know how well the two high-class Americans are going to perform this week.
A decent paycheque for turning up and the chance to enjoy the wildlife are compelling enough reasons for making the trip and it's hard to know how hard they'll compete on debut but if I had to pick one, my preference would be Homa.
The week before the Ryder Cup, Homa failed to rack up the hat-trick at the Fortinet Championship, finishing seventh, but he's been in a rich vein of form since July, posting form figures reading 21-12-10-6-5-9-7.
He's never played here before but he's a winner of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, which is another kikuyu grass track and I fancy him to fare better than Thomas, who's struggled for much of the year.
Thomas signed off his PGA Tour campaign with a fifth-place finish at the Fortinet but he was desperately trying to find his game before the trip to Rome so he may well have overachieved there.
Ryan Fox is very hard to ignore this week at around the 20/121.00 mark on the exchange.
His career has been elevated to another level in the last 12 months or so with victories at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last autumn and Wentworth in September.
After three disappointing appearances here, when he finished 52nd, 50th and 57th, the penny dropped last year when he traded at odds-on on Sunday before eventually finishing third and if we can ignore last month's disappointing 52nd at the Andalucia Masters, he looks highly likely to contend given his recent form figures read 3-1-MC-2-52.
He missed the cut at the Open de France but that was just days after winning at Wentworth and he still shot 68 in round two so I'm more than happy to ignore that performance.
Fox has form at all the right correlating courses, he's in very strong general form, and he's already shown an aptitude for the venue.
My only other pick before the off is another player that contended strongly here last year - Rasmus Hojgaard - who's in search of his fifth DP World Tour title.
The 22-year-old Dane has ticked over nicely since finishing fourth in Paris, and with the added incentive of taking one of the PGA Tour cards up for grabs, I expect a strong showing.
Hojgaard is generally a 28/129.00 chance on the High Street so odds in excess of 40.039/1 look generous.