Steve takes a detailed look at the first European Tour action of 2014. What will it take to win the Volvo Golf Champions in Durban?
"Thomas Bjorn is a great links player, a superb wedge player and if he’s somewhere close to the form he was in before Christmas then he’s the man to beat."
This will be just the fourth edition of the Volvo Golf Champions. The inaugural event was staged in Bahrain but after the Arab Spring, it moved to South Africa. Fancourt hosted the second edition in 2012 before it moved on to this year's venue, Durban Country Club, 12 months ago.
It's a reduced field event with no cut. To qualify you need to have either won on the European Tour in 2013, won this event before and be aged under 50, or won ten events on the European Tour and be under 50. Or, it seems, be Colin Montgomerie. He qualifies on account of winning the European Tour's order of merit in the last ten years - something that apparently overrides the age criterion.
Durban Country Club, Durban, South Africa
Par 72, 6689 yards
Stroke index in 2013 - 70.46
Designed by George Waterman and Lawrie B Waters and opened in 1922, the Durban Country Club overlooks the Blue Lagoon estuary and the Indian Ocean. It's a very short (by modern standards) links course with some fairly tight landing areas (as narrow as just 12 metres) on the fairways and ultra-dwarf Mini Verde Bermuda greens that last year ran at just 10 on the stimpmeter. Built on dunes, six holes (1, 2, 3, 4, 17 & 18) have extremely undulating fairways.
The most famous hole on the course is the par 3 12th, known as the Prince of Wales. It has dramatic slopes either side of the green and when the Prince of Wales played the course over 70 years ago he made a 17 on the hole before returning the next day to record a birdie. It may look dramatic but it really isn't a tough hole for the calibre of player facing it this week. Twelve months ago there were only 17 bogeys on the hole all week and that was the worst score recorded.
The final hole is a drivable par 4 and a great birdie opportunity and this year the course will play even shorter than it did 12 months ago, as holes 8 and 15 have both been reduced in length by 20 and 23 yards respectfully.
Most recently, in addition to last year's renewal, DCC hosted the South African Open in 2010, 2005, 2002 and 1998 and it was also the venue for the Suncoast Classic on the Sunshine Tour between 2006 and 2012.
For even more on the course, this five minute video, produced in the run-up to last year's renewal, is worth a look.
Live on Sky all four days, staring at 11.00am on Thursday and Friday and 10.30am on Saturday and Sunday
First Three Winners
2013 - Louis Oosthuizen -16
2012 - Branden Grace -12 (playoff)
2011 - Paul Casey -20
What will it take to win the Volvo Tournament of Champions?
With some fairway landing areas as narrow as 12 metres wide, accuracy off the tee is advantageous but the last two course winners, Oosty in this event and Ernie Els in the 2010 South African Open, both ranked better for driving distance than for driving accuracy, so players with a good all-round long-game are likely to fare best.
The last four course winners all ranked inside the top-ten for greens in regulation and if you find enough greens and give yourself enough chances, putting the lights out isn't always necessary. When Clark won the South African Open here in 2012 he ranked just 36th for putts per green and 49th for putts per round.
Is there an angle in?
South Africans have now won all six European Tour events staged at Durban Country Club so sticking with the home contingent may well be the way to go. It's a quirky little track and those with plenty of course experience hold a significant advantage.
Looking at last year's renewal and the last four South African Opens staged at Durban, the stats suggest you need to be right up with the pace from very early on. All five winners were in the first four after round one and although he'd slipped to four back at halfway, Tim Clark, in 2005, was tied for the lead after round three. At the other three South African Opens, the eventual winner had already established an outright lead after round three.
Scott Jamieson blew a five-stroke lead with a round to go last year but I'd view that as very much a one-off occurrence and out in front looks like the place to be.
Charl Schwartzel finished 2013 well, winning again at Leopard Creek and finishing 4th in Thailand. He has a fair record in his homeland, winning five of his last 21 starts there and his form figures at DCC are fair enough - 15, 2, 4. I can see him going well and had he been bigger than 5.04/1 I'd have considered playing him but at around just 4.216/5 he makes no appeal at all. He's highly likely to contend but he's even more likely to trade a bit bigger in-running.
Second favourite, Jamie Donaldson, was in sparkling form at the end of 2013, finishing 8th in the HSBC Champion, 2nd at the Turkish Airlines Open, 8th in the DP World Tour Championship and runner-up at the Nedbank Challenge but will he return in the same form? And will he improve on his ordinary course form (15th in 2002 South African Open and 16th in this event last year)? Add to the mix his propensity to find a way to get beat and there are three reasons to look elsewhere.
Thomas Bjorn finished inside the top-ten 12 months ago and that was by some distance his best effort in the early part of 2013. He had to wait until May for his next top-ten finish and the best he could muster in-between his tied 9th here and that effort was a tie for 46th at the Masters. So the fact he's played well here when not at his best augurs very well for this week given that the last time we saw him he was playing the best golf I've ever seen him play.
After finishing runner-up to Jason Day at the World Cup, the Great Dane demolished the Nedbank field, ranking in the top-three for every aspect of his game bar putting, where he ranked a lowly 5th! He's a great links player, a superb wedge player and if he's somewhere close to the form he was in before Christmas then he's the man to beat.
Defending champion, Louis Oosthuizen, hasn't been seen at his best in some time and although I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him improve back on a track he clearly loves, his latest form hasn't be close to good enough to consider an investment and he's readily dismissed before the off.
With two wins and second in his last eight starts, on a course that suits, I couldn't leave in-form Bjorn out. I'd have loved a bit bigger but if he turns up in the sort of form he was in before Christmas, he's plenty big enough at a double-figure price.
Having made Julien Quesne one of my five to back every week this year and I'm disappointed to have only got a very small amount matched at what I thought was a decent price - 60.059/1. I may look to get a bit more on before the off if he drifts but having been well-backed so far this week, he looks a shade short now, even though he finished 5th here on his course debut last year.
Michael Hoey was my sole selection last year so he's been backed again and Darren Clarke is another I like at a triple-figure price and he's my each way selection on the Sportsbook this week but the one price attained that I really liked this week was the 200.0199/1 about South African, Dawie Van Der Walt.
Dawie has won twice in his homeland on the European Tour in the last ten months, including last time out in Durban. He was awful in-between those two victories and he hasn't made a cut in two attempts at the course, but even so, should he really be as big as he is? I didn't think so.
I'll be back this evening, or maybe in the morning, with my preview of this week's other event, the Sony Open.
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