The South African Open returns to the iconic Gary Player Country Club in Sun City this week and Steve Rawlings is back with his comprehensive preview...
"Lombard led the Nedbank after rounds two and three back in 2019 and, if he can get off to a nice start on Thursday, he could well gain compensation for last week’s washout."
After last week's farcical DP World Tour opener at Randpark, and due to the developing situation regarding the new Omicron covid strain, this week's South African Open is no longer a co-sanctioned event.
With South Africa on the travel Red List, the DP World Tour took the decision to withdraw from the tournament so it's now solely a Sunshine Tour event, and next week's Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek, which was also due to be co-sanctioned between the two Tours, has already been cancelled.
It's a shame to have the event weakened by the absence of the European challenge but Christiaan Bezuidenhout is back to defend his title and the field isn't as weak as many would have expected it to be.
This year's renewal is again staged at the Gary Player Country Club, scene of Bez's victory 12 months ago and it's a venue we're familiar with as it hosted the Nedbank Golf Challenge for many a year.
Dating all the way back to 1893, the South African Open is the second oldest National Open in the world, with only the Open Championship, which was first staged back to 1860, dating back further.
The Gary Player Country Club, Sun City, South Africa
Par 72, 7,833 yards
Stroke index at the 2020 73.7
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 the Nedbank Challenge, the Gary Player Country Club also hosts a couple of events on the Sunshine Tour. The Sun City Challenge was played around the Gary Player CC between 2016 and 2019, and Lyle Rowe won the Blue Label Challenge there a month ago. A modified stableford event formerly known as the Royal Swazi Open.
The two nines were flipped before the 2020 edition of the South African Open and that made a lot of sense as the par five 18th is spectacular long hole with water in play for those brave enough to go for the green in two.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 10:00 on Thursday
Last Six Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
2020 - Christiaan Bezuidenhout 8.615/2 *
2020 - Branden Grace -21 25.024/1 *
2018 - Louis Oosthuizen - 12 9.08/1
2018 - Chris Paisley -21 400.0399/1
2017 - Graeme Storm -18 (playoff) 180.0179/1
2016 - Branden Stone -14 60.059/1
*Two editions staged in 2020
What Will it Take to Win the South African Open?
I'm not really sure how the first South African Open champ of 2020, Branden Grace, managed to win the Nedbank here four 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 the final Nedbank winner, Tommy Fleetwood, and the defending champ, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, 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. Lee 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 Nedbank three times in total.
Bez ranked only 39th for Driving Distance but a very respectable 10th for Driving Accuracy and Fleetwood drove the ball brilliantly when winning the final Nedbank, ranking seventh for DD and eighth for DA.
The 2015 Nedbank 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 usually the most important.
Bezuidenhout ranked first for Greens In Regulation and second for Scrambling and Grace looks like a real anomaly because three of the last seven Nedbank winners, like Bez, ranked first for GIR and other than Grace, the other three odd men out, Danny Willett (2014), Westwood (2018) and Fleetwood in 2019, still ranked third, fourth and eighth.
Although Grace only ranked 31st, the next four on the leaderboard ranked fifth, first, 11th and second so GIR definitely looks a key stat.
Fleetwood only ranked 40th for Scrambling in the final Nedbank but the runner-up, 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.
Bezuidenhout ranked first for Par 4 Scoring and second on the short holes but only 28th on the par fives and that was unusual. Making hay on the par fives was always crucial in the Nedbank and five of the last six Nedbank winners played the long holes better than anyone else in the field.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
This is a tournament that has changed quite significantly in recent years. It used to be a highly valued prize for the home contingent and, between 2002 and 2011, 10 of the 11 winners were experienced South Africans. Trevor Immelman, Tim Clark and Retief Goosen have all won the tournament twice recently and Ernie Els has taken the title five times in total but it's lost some of its gravitas over the last decade or so.
The last three winners have all been well-fancied South Africans but five of the six winners before Louis Oosthuizen in 2019 were from overseas. It's good to see Bezuidenhout back to defend as neither Oosthuizen or Grace did.
Last Five Course Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four
2020 - Christian Bezuidenhout - Led by five 1.282/7
2019 - Tommy Fleetwood T12 - trailing by six 80.079/1
2018 - Lee Westwood T3 - trailing by three 12.011/1
2017 - Branden Grace T3 - trailing by three 5.69/2
2016 - Alex Noren T4 - trailing by six 22.021/1
Bez romped to victory last year. He opened-up the event with three consecutive five-under-par 66s to take a five-stroke lead into the final round and after a slow, birdie-free, one-over-par front nine, he moved through the gears effortlessly on the back-nine to win by five. It was extremely impressive but equally unexpected given how the last editions of the Nedbank had panned out.
The Nedbank had changed considerably after 2013. It used to be a limited field event for typically only 12 players but the number of competitors increased once it became a European Tour event. The first three editions (2013-2015) had 30 participants but between 2016 and 2019 it was a 72-player field with no cut and the in-running trends changed significantly as a result.
As highlighted above, the last four Nedbank winners were all trailing by at least three strokes and two of the four trailed by half-a-dozen shots so there's a chance we'll witness plenty of drama on Sunday, despite last year's result, and taking on short-priced players in-running could well pay dividends.
There are very often delays here for thunder and the wind usually picks up a bit in the afternoons so that's well worth bearing in mind over the first couple of days at least.
The defending champion, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, heads the market but he isn't in the form he was 12 months ago and defending a title is tough.
He went off favourite last year after he'd won the Alfred Dunhill Championship the week before and this time around he plays after a week off following a slightly disappointing 32nd at the DP World Tour Championship, where he sat second after round one.
Some huge names have won this title over the years but Trevor Immelman in 2004 is the only player to successfully defend the title since the 13-time winner, Gary Player, achieved the feat in the 1970s and that must be a bit of a negative.
Dean Burmester hit the opening tee shot of the new DP World Tour season at the Joberg Open last week but he was on the wrong side of the draw and never really got going. He was in fine fettle prior to last week's strange event, although and he did at least finish the 36-hole tournament nicely, playing his last nine holes in three-under-par.
Dylan Frittelli lost his way badly in round two last week after looking the most likely winner for long periods of the opening day and I'm happy to leave him out. He's not been at his best for some time and the prolific young course winner, Garrick Higgo, makes more appeal at a slightly bigger price.
I suspect one of the fancied runners will take the title this week but picking one is devilishly difficult. They all have form at the course and any one of them is capable of taking the title.
Slight preference is for Dean Burmester, whose over all form and tee-to-green game has been strong of late.
I've had a small bet on him to bounce back after last week's disappointment and I've also had a tiny bet on Zander Lombard. He played nicely for two rounds last week, ranking 16th for GIR, fourth for Scrambling and 17th for Putting Average and he was arguably the most unlucky man in the field when the event was reduced to two rounds given he was only three off the lead at the time.
Lombard led the Nedbank after rounds two and three back in 2019 before eventually finishing eighth. But that highlighted his ability to play the track and, if he can get off to a nice start on Thursday, he could well gain compensation for last week's washout immediately.
Dean Burmester @ 12.5
Zander Lombard @ 38.037/1
I'll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
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