Magical Kenya Open: Venue should suit Sharma
The European Tour takes in a visit to Kenya for the first time this week and our man has the lowdown. Read Steve's Magical Kenya Open here...
"Given he won the Joburg Open and played so brilliantly at Club de Golf Chapultepec in the WGC-Mexico Championship last year, this place should be ideal for Shubhankar Sharma. Like this venue, both have Kikuyu fairways and I’d have put the tree-lined Mexican venue as a great correlating course had more of the field played there."
The Kenya Open has been in existence since 1967 and it was won by some big names in the early days with the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam both taking the title. It's been a mainstay on the Challenge Tour since 1991 but it switches to become a European Tour event this year for the very first time.
Playing opposite the Players Championship (previewed here) was always going to lead to a weaker than usual field but the organisers will be very disappointed to see they've been rewarded with a seriously poor line-up.
Karen Golf course, Nairobi, Kenya
Par 71, 6,922 yards
Located just 12 miles south of the capital, Nairobi, Karen Golf Course, which was founded in 1937, is named after Danish pioneer, Karen Blixen, who's book Out of Africa, was made in to a film in 1985.
The course is largely situated on Blixen's land and the shade trees from her coffee plantation still dominate parts of the golf course, 80 years after they were planted.
Karen was the venue for the Karen Masters on the Sunshine Tour last July following a successful inaugural 36 hole event in March 2017 and it was the venue for this event when staged on the Challenge Tour in 1968, 2004-08, and 2013-16 so we do have some form to ponder but we should probably concentrate hardest on the last edition as a number of changes were made to the course in 2015.
At less than 7,000 yards, Karen certainly isn't long by modern standards and the fact that it's at altitude shortens it even further. The Kikuyu fairways are described as quite flat and narrower than average and the rough - a mixture of Kikuyu, buffalo and star grass - has been over-seeded with rye grass.
Water is in play on holes two, three, six, seven, nine, 11, 13 and 14 and the greens are small and undulating, and much quicker than they used to be. Prior to the David Jones redesign four years ago the Bermuda greens would be set at less than 10 on the stimpmeter but they've now been changed to Bentgrass and the organisers are aiming for a fairly speedy 12.5 on Sunday.
For more on the course, the European Tour have put together this hole-by-hole guide.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 8:00 UK time on Thursday
Top Three in the Last Four Events at Karen
2018 Karen Masters
1 Michael Palmer -18
2 Merrick Bremner -16
3 Pieter Moolman -15
3 Tyrone Ryan -15
2016 Kenya Open
1 Sebastian Soderberg -18
2 Romain Langasque -15
3 Berd Ritthammer -14
2015 Kenya Open
1 Haydn Porteous -17 (playoff)
2 Brandon Stone -17
3 George Woolgar -16
2014 Kenya Open
1 Jake Roos -10
2 Lasse Jensen -9
2 Adrien Bernadet -9
2 Pedro Oriol -9
What Will it Take to Win the Kenya Open?
We don't have any stats for the Challenge Tour events here so that's a serious hindrance but we can gather a few clues from the layout and weather forecast...
It's far from long and tree-lined so the more accurate types off the tee should fair best, with length being almost an irrelevance. The greens are described as small and undulating so being able to get it up-and-down with regularity when they're missed should be key. Driving Accuracy and Scrambling look the stats to concentrate on.
The weather forecast suggests another breezy week (the third in-a-row on the European Tour) so fine wind exponents should come to the fore and patience will be rewarded.
Is There an Angle In?
South Africans have a good record here and I can see why. Nairobi sits at just a shade under 1,800 metres which is around 50 metres higher than Joburg so anyone growing up playing there will have felt right at home here. The 2015 results highlights that perfectly with Joburg resident, Haydn Porteous, beating Pretorian, Brandon Stone, in a playoff. Pretoria's only 1,339 metres above sea level so maybe Porteous had the height advantage!
The course looks typically South African and that contingent must feel like they're playing at home. And it won't be a mere coincidence that Porteous followed his win here with success in the Joburg Open at the Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf club. Form of that event is well worth perusing and I should check out the recent South African Open at Randpark, where the runner-up here in 2016, Romain Langasque, finished second to Louis Oosthuizen.
The majority of courses the European Tour visit in South Africa have Kikuyu fairways so any form on the surface will be a plus. A few other tracks that could correlate nicely are Fanling, home of the Hong Kong Open, and possibly the New Delhi Golf Club in India that used to host the Indian Open on the European Tour. Both are short, fiddly, tree-lined venues with grainy greens.
I've looked at the last ten events here and it doesn't look like you can come from too far off the pace. Iain Pyman trailed by six after the opening round when he won this event in 2008 and Michael Palmer trailed by five after the first round at the Karen Masters last year but the other eight winners were all within three after the opening round. Palmer sat fifth at halfway, three off the pace, but every other winner has sat first or second at the midway point.
Daniel Vancsik shot 75 in round three in 2005 to go from three clear to three back between rounds two and three but he bounced back to win by three with a 63 in round four and he's the only one of the ten to be trailing by more than a stroke and to be outside the first two places with a round to go.
Last week's Qatar Masters winner, Justin Harding, is the favourite and it's quite conceivable that he'll kick on after securing his European Tour card. He was 18th in the Karen Masters last summer where he dropped away a bit having sat inside the top-ten at halfway.
Erik Van Rooyen missed far too many putts over the weekend to win in Qatar (finished tied second) but his tee-to-green game was very neat and tidy. What made that particularly painful, given I'd backed him at [80.0] before the off, was that he'd been putting quite well of late - ranking inside the top-four for Putting Average on each of the last three occasions he'd made the cut. If he finds a bit of form on the greens, he's the man to beat but he's yet to win on the European Tour and I'm reluctantly leaving him out after last week's painful watch. Van Rooyen has played here once before, finishing 19th in 2016.
George Coetzee returned to form last week, finishing alongside Van Rooyen and this course should suit him but last week's effort came at a venue he enjoys and out of the blue. He's never played here before and I'm happy to leave him out.
Given he won the Joburg Open and played so brilliantly at Club de Golf Chapultepec in the WGC-Mexico Championship last year, this place should be ideal for Shubhankar Sharma. Like this venue, both have Kikuyu fairways and I'd have put the tree-lined Mexican venue as a great correlating course had more of the field played there.
Sharma hasn't kicked on since his incredible run of form a year ago but he was second in his homeland a month ago and his best effort on the European Tour for some time was a sixth in Hong Kong at the aforementioned Fanling in November.
I thought he was worth chancing and I'm also happy to throw a few pounds at the enigmatic course winner, Haydn Porteous at [44.0].
Stuart Manley is my each-way fancy but I'll be happier to get more involved once I've seen the venue and looking past results, concentrating on the leaders after Thursday's first round looks like it could pay dividends.
I'll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter