The European Tour heads to South Africa for the penultimate event of the season and our man likes the chances of three players in particular. Read his in-depth preview ahead of Thursday's start here...
"If we disregard Leishman, who’s never played Wentworth, the last five Sun City winners have either won the BMW PGA Championship or they’ve traded at odds-on to win it."
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 three 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.
The Gary Player Country Club, Sun City, South Africa
Par 72, 7,817 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 72.39
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, bentgrass 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 7:00 UK time on Thursday
Last Five Winners
2018 - Lee Westwood -15
2017 - Branden Grace -11
2016 - Alex Noren -14
2015 - Marc Leishman -19
2014 - Danny Willett -18
What Will it Take to Win the Nedbank Golf Challenge?
I'm not really sure how Branden Grace managed to win two 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 and last year's winner, Lee Westwood, had far more typical Sun City stats...
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. Westwood has long been regarded as one of the best drivers in the world so it's no coincidence that he's prospered here, winning the event back-to-back in 2010 and 2011, as well as last year.
Westwood actually only ranked 26th for Driving Distance and 36th for Driving Accuracy but the 2015 winner, Marc Leishman, ranked sixth for DD and 12th for DA and the 2016 champ, 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 six winners have ranked first for GIR and other than Grace, the odd men out, Danny Willett (2014) and Westwood last year, ranked third and fourth. 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 six winners have ranked 13th, first, first, third, 12th and 14th for Scrambling.
As was the case last week in Turkey, making hay on the par fives is very important and four of the last five winners have 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 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 that changed six 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 and 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 two years ago and the first four home 12 months ago all had an abundance of strong course form so it will be interesting to see what happens this time around.
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.
If we disregard Leishman, who's never played Wentworth, the last five Sun City winners have either won the BMW PGA Championship or they've traded at odds-on to win it.
This year's Qatar Masters winner, Justin Harding was eight here in 2017 and sixth last year. The 2017 Qatar masters winner, Wang, arguably should have won here in 2016 and Grace, the 2017 winner here, won back-to-back Qatar Masters titles in 2015 and 2016 and two-time Sun City winner, Sergio Garcia (who also traded at odds-on here last year) won the 2014 edition of the Qatar Masters.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Multiple winners are fairly common. David Frost, Nick Price, Ernie Els and Westwood have all won the event three times and four men, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Jim Furyk and Garcia have all won the event twice.
Scott Jamieson finished second in 2017, having begun the event as a 410.0409/1 chance, and Wang lost his way after double-bogeying the eighth in round four three years ago, having been a big outsider before the off too but this isn't an event for outsiders. Westwood went off at 55.054/1 last year and Leishman was matched at 80.079/1 when he won five years ago but he was the biggest priced winner in many a year so outsiders have a poor record and that isn't likely to change now that tournament's a Rolex Series event...
As highlighted in yesterday's De-Brief, four of the last five Rolex Series events have been won by someone that had won one previously and as you'll see by the list below, the vast majority of Rolex Series winners are well-fancied.
BMW PGA Championship 2017 - Alex Noren 22.021/1 1/2
Open de France 2017 - Tommy Fleetwood 25.024/1
Irish Open 2017 - Jon Rahm 18.017/1 1/3
Scottish Open 2017 - Rafa Cabrera-Bello 65.064/1
Italian Open 2017 - Tyrrell Hatton 20.019/1
Turkish Airlines Open 2017 - Justin Rose 9.28/1 1/2
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2017 - Branden Grace 18.017/1
DP World Championship 2017 - Jon Rahm 14.013/1 2/3
BMW PGA Championship 2018 - Francesco Molinari 22.021/1
Italian Open 2018 - Thorbjorn Olesen 130.0129/1
Open de France 2018 - Alex Noren 19.5 2/2
Irish Open 2018 - Russell Knox 27.026/1
Scottish Open 2018 - Brandon Stone 1000.0
Turkish Airlines Open 2018 - Justin Rose 5.85/1 2/2
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2018 - Lee Westwood 55.054/1
DP World Championship 2018 - Danny Willett 150.0149/1 1/2
Abu Dhabi Championship 2019 - Shane Lowry 90.089/1
Irish Open 2019 - Jon Rahm 10.09/1 3/3
Scottish Open 2019 - Bernd Wiesberger 46.045/1
BMW PGA Championship 2019 - Danny Willett 80.079/1 2/2
Italian Open 2019 - Bernd Wiesberger 55.054/1 2/2
Turkish Airlines Open 2019 - Tyrrell Hatton 20.019/1 2/2
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 very important here. Westwood sat tied for 13th and seven off the lead after round one last year and that's the furthest any winner's trailed since as far as I've gone back - 1996.
Grace sat second and just one off the lead after round one in 2017 before Friday's foul-up saw him slip to 10th and he's the only winner to be outside the first four places since Sergio won from eighth place and six back in 2001 - although it is worth noting that three of the last five winners have trailed by five strokes at halfway.
Although a slow start is a severe hindrance and being up with the pace is important, third round leaders don't have a great record here of late. The last two winners have sat third and three back through 54 holes before winning and Noren came for six adrift after three rounds three years ago. Leishman led by one through three rounds in 2015 but the two winners before him both sat second.
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 first and fourth hardest, averaging 4.16 and 4.12 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.
Louis Oosthuizen won the Dimension Data here 12 years ago but he's yet to win this title despite finishing no worse than 14th in his last eight attempts, although 12th place in 2010 is a bit misleading - that was actually last place! He's finished inside the ten in each of the last three years and he was matched at just 1.384/11 12 months ago after Sergio Garcia (who was matched at just 1.3130/100) stumbled before he finished tardily.
Oosthuizen has a great record in his homeland and his last victory was the South African Open in December last year but he's just short enough for me given he's not always easy to get across the line (see last year's edition for starters) and that he's won just once in almost four years.
Tommy Fleetwood has fairly uninspiring course form figures reading 14-21-14-10 and his last three starts have seen him finish 20th at the CJ Cup in Korea, 22nd in the ZOZO Championship in Japan and 53rd in the WGC HSBC Champions so he hasn't been at his best of last and he hasn't won anywhere in almost two years either. He's easy enough to dismiss at the prices available.
Course specialist and 2008 winner, Henrik Stenson, who's course form figures read an impressive 2-4-12-4-2-8 is far harder to dismiss, despite the fact that he too hasn't won in some time. The likable Swede is without success since his fabulous Open Championship win in 2016. That has to be considered a negative but he's been showing a bit of form this year and he has to be highly respected.
Having finished inside the top-four in three of his last four starts on the European Tour, America's Kurt Kitayama is now the favourite to collect the Rookie of the Year title and deservedly so in my book given he's already won twice this season, in Mauritius and Oman. The big-hitting Californian isn't all about power and nobody on the Tour is scrambling better than Kurt of late - he's ranked first, fourth and ninth in three of his last four starts. Given his current form and that scrambling has been such a key stat here, I was more than happy to chance him at 36.035/1 despite the fact he's playing the venue for the first time.
The market repeatedly fails to give Race to Dubai leader, Bernd Wiesberger, the respect he deserves and that appears the case again here. Admittedly, his last two efforts, since he won the Italian Open last month, haven't been great but he's also dipped in form briefly after his two previous wins this year - in Denmark and Scotland. His course form is only ordinary given he's finished 25th and 19th but on closer inspection, this is definitely a venue at which he can win. He sat fifth with a round to go on debut before a disastrous 81 saw him tumble to 25th and he led after round one in 2017 after an opening 67. He's having a quite incredible season and a fourth victory is more likely than his odds suggest.
My third and final pick is Joe Dyer's each-way fancy, Justin Harding, who looked over-priced at 85.084/1 given he's finished eighth and sixth in the last two editions of the Sun City Challenge here and that he won this year's edition of the aforementioned Qatar Masters.
Kurt Kitayama @ 36.035/1
Bernd Wiesberger @ 38.037/1
Justin Harding @ 85.084/1
I'll be back later with my Mayakoba Golf Classic preview.
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