Nedbank Golf Challenge: Bjork worth chancing at Sun City
The European Tour heads to South Africa for the penultimate event of the season and our man fancies a Swede and an Austrian to contend. Read his in-depth preview ahead of Thursday's start here...
“Bjork gave himself no chance with a dreadful start last week but he did nothing but climb the leaderboard after round one. Only three men scored better than him on Saturday and Sunday and he’s been overlooked again at [70.0] given he’s an accurate driver and that he ranked fourth for Scrambling last week.”
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 event right up until 2013 when it became an official co-sanctioned Sunshine and European Tour event for an extended field of 30 before it underwent and even more expansive revamp two years ago.
Having previously been the middle leg of the European Tour's now defunct Final Series, the Nedbank Golf Challenge is now the seventh Rolex Series event and the penultimate tournament of the season.
A field of 72 will assemble at the Gary Player Country Club to compete for the title in an event that has changed significantly of late.
As was the case in Turkey last week, there'll be no cut and all the competitors will play all four rounds.
The Gary Player Country Club, Sun City, South Africa.
Par 72, 7,831 yards
Stroke index in 2017 - 72.62
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.
A hole-by hole guide on the event's website can be viewed here.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 8:00 UK time on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2017 - Branden Grace -11
2016 - Alex Noren -14
2015 - Marc Leishman -19
2014 - Danny Willett -18
2013 - Thomas Bjorn -20
What Will it Take to Win the Nedbank Golf Challenge?
I'm not really sure how Branden Grace managed to win last year. 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. Prior to last year's renewal, and to a certain extent, even after it, GIR and Scrambling look the main stats to ponder.
As it's at altitude and the ball travels around 10% further than it does at sea level, 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 long been regarded as one of the best drivers in the world and it's no coincidence that he's prospered here, winning the event back-to-back in 2010 and 2011.
The 2015 winner, Marc Leishman, ranked sixth for Driving Distance and 12th for Driving Accuracy and the penultimate victor, Alex Noren, ranked 14th for DD and 39th for DA so Total Driving is a good stat to consider but Greens In Regulation and Scrambling are the most important. Grace looks like a real anomaly because three of the last five winners have ranked first for GIR and other than Grace, the odd man out, Danny Willett, ranked third. However, Grace may have only ranked 31st but the next four on the leaderboard ranked fifth, first, 11th and second so that definitely looks a key stat and the last five winners have ranked 13th, first, first, third and 12th for Scrambling.
Is There an Angle In?
I'm struggling for a strong angle in here. It 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 and 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 it's been all change recently.
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 and prior to Grace 12 months ago, who had course form figures reading 10-20-4-3, the previous three winners, as well as the 2016 runner-up, Jeunghun Wang, who traded at around [1.3] in-running, were all playing the course for the first time. The jury is now out about the strength of previous course form and having banged the course form is crucial drum for donkey's years, I'm now not so sure.
From a course form correlation perspective, I notice that a number of course winners (and seconds) have form at both Wentworth and Doha, home of the Qatar Masters but I'm not sure I'd give it too much credence and I really don't feel there's any really strong pointers to guide us.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Multiple winners used to be fairly common. David Frost, Nick Price and Ernie Els have all won the event three times, in its old invitation only format, and five men, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk and Lee Westwood all won the event twice but that was in the old 12-man field format.
Price wise, Leishman was matched at [80.0] when he won three years ago but he's by some distance the biggest priced winner in many a year so outsiders have a poor record. Scott Jamieson finished second last year though, having begun the event as a [410.0] chance, and Wang lost his way after double-bogeying the eighth in round four two years ago but he traded very short, having been a big outsider before the off too.
As it's a Rolex Series event, I've listed all 14 previous Rolex winners below and after Justin Rose's victory in Turkey last week, another well-fancied runner has prevailed. All things considered, it doesn't look like this is going to be a great event for outsiders.
BMW PGA Championship 2017 - Alex Noren [22.0]
Open de France 2017 - Tommy Fleetwood [25.0]
Irish Open 2017 - Jon Rahm [18.0]
Scottish Open 2017 - Rafa Cabrera-Bello [65.0]
Italian Open 2017 - Tyrrell Hatton [20.0]
Turkish Airlines Open 2017 - Justin Rose [9.2]
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2017 - Branden Grace [18.0]
DP World Championship 2017 - Jon Rahm [14.0]
BMW PGA Championship 2018 - Francesco Molinari [22.0]
Italian Open 2018 - Thorbjorn Olesen [130.0]
Open de France 2018 - Alex Noren [19.5]
Irish Open 2018 - Russell Knox [27.0]
Scottish Open 2018 - Brandon Stone [1000.0]
Turkish Airlines Open 2018 - Justin Rose [5.8]
Again, we have to bear in mind how much the tournament has changed and how much larger the fields are now but a fast start has been historically essential here.
Grace sat second and just one off the lead after round one before Friday's foul-up saw him slip to 10th and five adrift at halfway and he sat third and three back through 54 holes before winning by one. Noren came for six adrift after three rounds two years ago but he sat only one adrift in a tie for fourth after round one and he was two clear at halfway, so both the last two winners have bounced back after chucking in a rogue three-over par 75. Grace on Friday and Noren on Sunday.
In 2014, Danny Willet trailed by five strokes after round one (tied for 11th) but the only other winner since 1998 to be trailing by more than two strokes after the opening round was Sergio Garcia but he only trailed by three so if you're going to bet in-running, concentrate on the early pace-setters.
The par fives are key here and what you do around the turn is vital. Holes 9 and 10 are both reachable par fives so scoring well there is imperative.
If you're betting in-running, before playing the 9th is the time to strike and not after the 11th. Anyone birdying either or both of the two long holes will definitely shorten-up in the market but unless they play them in two-under par or better they won't be making any ground up on the field and any gains can soon be given up over the tough finishing stretch.
The par five 14th was the only one of the final seven holes to average below par again last year but even that's not an easy hole. Many a drive strays in to the bush to the right of the fairway and the green is guarded by huge bunkers and pampas grass. The final two holes are tough and last year they ranked as the third and fourth hardest, averaging 4.21 and 4.2 so a par-par finish is by no means a bad finish.
There are very often delays here for thunder and the wind usually picks up a bit in the afternoons.
Rory McIlroy heads the market but I'm not sure he should. He has no course form (withdrew in 2009 with a stomach virus after opening up 73-76) and he was hopeless last time out at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where he finished way down the field in 54th. He could improve considerably this week but I wouldn't want to bet on it and Sergio Garcia should arguably be the favourite.
Garcia has always done okay here, with form figures reading 9-1-6-1-12-11-7-5-2 and he comes in to the event following his third straight win in the Andalucía Masters. He also ranks highly for both GIR and Scrambling but whether he's value to win at around the 10/1 mark is debatable. He isn't the most prolific outside of his homeland and I'm (just) happy to leave him out, albeit slightly reluctantly. I'd have taken 14/1.
Louis Oosthuizen is another that simply doesn't win enough and defending champ, Grace, isn't playing well enough to back. Haotong Li was fourth last year so he has both current and course form but how will he react to last week's playoff defeat in Turkey?
I'm going to keep my eye on the market and may yet have a small saver on Sergio but for now I'm playing just two before the off - Alexander Bjork and Matthias Schwab - who were both picks last week in Turkey.
Bjork gave himself no chance with a dreadful start last week but he did nothing but climb the leaderboard after round one. Only three men scored better than him on Saturday and Sunday and he's been overlooked again at [70.0] given he's an accurate driver and that he ranked fourth for Scrambling last week and I've made my case for Schwab in the each-way column here.
Alexander Bjork @ [70.0]
Matthias Schwab @ [140.0]
I'll be back later with my Mayakoba Golf Classic preview.
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