Fiji International: Red-hot Harding the only play

Golfer Vijay Singh
Course designer Vijay Singh, in the field in his homeland
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The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is very much the main dish on the European Tour menu this week but the Fiji International, which starts on Wednesday evening UK time, makes for a tasty little starter. Read our man's detailed preview here...

"There’s a danger that Justin Harding gets overwrought by the prospects of a place on the European Tour but if he starts well here and keeps his nerves in check, that’s precisely where he could be playing his golf in future and judging by his most recent results, he won’t look out of place."

Tournament History

The Fiji International was first played in 2014 and it was first included on the European Tour schedule in 2016.

This is the second consecutive year that the tournament has been tri-sanctioned by the European Tour, the Asian Tour and the ISPS HANDA PGA Tour of Australasia.

Venue

Natadola Bay Golf Club, Natadola, Fiji.

Course Details

Par 72, 7, 143 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 71.32

The par 72 seashore paspalum grass championship course is renowned for its breath-taking views of the South Pacific.

The course was originally designed by three-time Major winner Vijay Singh in 2009. Singh oversaw major renovations ahead of last year's event, to include wider fairways, flatter greens and a finessed layout.

In total 12 of the 18 holes had some form of alteration and the front nine was rerouted.

For more on the changes, please see this piece here.

The signature hole is the par three eighth which last year ranked as the second toughest on the course, averaging 3.26.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

No live coverage on Sky Sports.

First Four Winners

2014 - Steven Jeffress -10
2015 - Matt Kuchar -4
2016 - Brandt Snedeker -16
2017 - Jason Norris -14

What Will it Take to Win the Fiji International?

There were no stats at all for the 2016 edition and I really don't think I can trust the ones produced last year. Did Wade Ormsby, who finished fifth, really go all week without missing a fairway, when James Marchesani, who finished tied for second only found one 35.7% of the time? If the stats could be believed, his second placed finish was something of a miracle because he only found the green 33% of the time! The European Tour site states that those stats are "cumulative as after round 4" but that's impossible.

Looking at the leaderboards and the players that have contended there over the last few years, accurate and patient types have prospered and length of the tee is an utter irrelevance but beyond that, there really isn't too much to go on.

Is There an Angle In?

For the third year in-a-row, there isn't too much wind forecasted for the week and that's a bit of a shame. Before the 2016 edition, I asked Australia's Terry Pilkadaris, who finished tied for third here four years ago, and 16th last year, if he could tell me anything about the venue and he was kind enough to respond. I asked him if it was similar to anywhere else he'd played and he replied, telling me: "Mauritius, windy and by the ocean. 40km winds."

It looked like Terry was definitely on to something with the course comparison. He himself finished seventh at the Four Seasons Golf Course at Anahita in May 2016 and Andrew Dodt, who had finished alongside Pilkadaris here in third in 2014, was fifth in Mauritius but that link hasn't helped here yet.

None of the top ten in Mauritius played here in 2016 and the first and second, Jeunghun Wang and Rahman Siddikur, who were the only two to break clear and shoot under-par (-6 and -5) at the Four Seasons in 2016 didn't exactly bolster the possible course correlation last year. Wang finished a disappointing 24th and Rahman missed the cut.

In the absence of much else to go on, that could be an event to look at for clues but with the forecast suggesting very little wind again, it might be an angle in for years to come.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

The 2014 winner, Steven Jeffress, was 38, Matt Kuchar was 37 in 2015 when he took the title, Brandt Snedeker was 35 two years ago when he won, and last year's surprise 200/1 winner, Jason Norris, who claimed after his victory that he'd been contemplating retirement, was 44. Whether the wind blows here or not, experienced players have prospered and when an elite American has been in the field, they've walked away with the title.

In-Play Tactics

We've only got four renewals to focus on but all four winners were up with the pace all the way.

Jeffress was tied for eighth after round one but only a stroke off the lead and he sat second at halfway before taking up the running after round three at the inaugural staging. Kuchar, having sat second after round one, was never headed after the halfway stage, Snedeker sat tied for 11th after round one but he soon caught and passed his rivals to outclass the field by 11 strokes, and Norris was never far away either. He sat tied for eighth and three adrift after round one, he was tied for the lead at halfway and he sat second, just a stroke behind Wade Ormsby, after round three. Interestingly, all four winners have won very easily. Sneds by a whopping 11 strokes and the other three all by four.

Market Leaders

Veteran Aussie, Scott Hend, heads the market and given the strength of the field that makes sense but he's not for me, I'm not convinced he has the right temperament for the venue.

He led at the halfway stage last year before dropping away to finish 24th and he finished 19th last week after a poor finish around a tricky course. I really like Hend, he's a great character and he has more bottle that he gets credit for but alarm bells start ringing when he plays tracks that require patience. Maybe he will have learnt from last year's debut but I'm happy to swerve him.

It's hard to envisage Zimbabwe's Scott Vincent not contending this week. He was ninth on debut last year and he's finished inside the top-six places in four of his last five appearances on the Asian Tour but around the same price, I much prefer the chances of 32-year-old South African, Justin Harding, who's currently playing the best golf of his life by a country mile.

Harding ended the 2016/17 Sunshine Tour in disappointing fashion, blowing a two-stroke 54-hole lead at the season ending South Africa Tour Championship in March but after a period of reflection with a month off and a missed cut when blowing the rust off at the Zanaco Masters, he hasn't looked back. His form figures since reads an incredible 5-2-1-1-6-1-18-1, with the last two victories coming in his only two starts on the Asian Tour. He's in a ridiculously rich vein of form and only last week he won the Royal Cup in Thailand by six strokes. He's the man to beat for me.

Selections

There's a danger that Justin Harding gets overwrought by the prospects of a place on the European Tour but if he starts well here and keeps his nerves in check, that's precisely where he could be playing his golf in future and judging by his most recent results, he won't look out of place.

Compared with the other market leaders, Harding looks like a value play at anything around the 16/1 mark and that'll do for me in what looks a really tricky tournament.

Selection:
Justin Harding @ circa [16.0]

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

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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