After all the disruption to the scheduling caused by the pandemic, we have two European Tour events to enjoy this week. The Golf in Dubai Championship (previewed here) starts very early tomorrow and this one – the second edition of the South African Open in 2020, which starts on Thursday.
Branden Grace won the first edition of the year at Randpark in January, which two weeks ago also hosted the Joburg Open and just to add to the confusion, this week’s renewal is at the Gary Player Country Club, which is the venue for the Nedbank Golf Challenge. An event that was dropped off the 2020 schedule after the reshuffle.
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.
It used to be a very prestigious event, with lots of star names in attendance at every renewal but those days are long gone now and this is a weaker renewal than the one staged in January.
The Gary Player Country Club, Sun City, South Africa.
Par 72, 7,833 yards
Stroke index at the 2019 Nedbank – 72.44
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 every year, the Gary Player Country Club also hosts a number of events on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour. Please see Andy Swales’ form guide and scroll all the way to the bottom for the Sunshine Tour form.
This hole-by hole guide on the Nedbank’s website is well worth a look but please be aware that the two nines have been switched this week so the tournament will kick off with the fairly straightforward par five that was the 10th at the Nedbank and it will end on the dramatic par five that was the ninth for the Nedbank.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 9:00 on Thursday.
Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
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
What Will it Take to Win the South African Open?
I’m not really sure how the defending South African Open champ, Branden Grace, managed to win the Nedbank here three 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 Nedbank winner, Tommy Fleetwood, 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.
Fleetwood drove the ball brilliantly when winning the Nedbank, ranking seventh for Driving Distance and eighth for Driving Accuracy. 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 usually the most important.
Grace looks like a real anomaly because three of the last seven Nedbank winners have ranked first for GIR and other than Grace, the other three odd men out, Danny Willett (2014), Westwood (2018) and Fleetwood last year, still ranked third, fourth and eighth. And 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 last year 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.
Making hay on the par fives is very important here and five of the last six Nedbank winners have 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, ten 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 five of the six winners before Louis Oosthuizen last year and Branden Grace in January were from overseas and the tournament doesn’t have anywhere close to the gravitas it once did. The last two winners aren’t here this week for example.
It’s a far more open affair than it once was and although Oosthuizen went off favourite, finding the winner had been tough of late so it’s not a tournament to invest in heavily before the off.
Nedbank Winner’s Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four
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
The Nedbank has changed considerably of late. 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 since 2016 it’s been a 72-player filed with no cut and the in-running trends have changed significantly as a result.
As highlighted above, since the Nedbank field sizes increased, the last four winners have all been 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.
As highlighted in yesterday’s De-Brief, four players traded at between 2.01/1 and 2.3811/8 at Leopard Creek last week and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we saw something similar this week. A tough course and a fairly low-quality field should result in plenty of market movements 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.
Last week’s winner, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, heads the market at a single-figure price but winning back-to-back is never easy and he has course form figures reading an underwhelming MC-25-24. His weekend off came in the Sun City Challenge in 2016 on the Sunshine Tour, as did his 24th last year last year before he finished 25th in the Nedbank. He’s yet to shoot a round in the 60s here and looks one to swerve at the price.
Dylan Frittelli missed the cut in the RSM Classic last time out but that came a week after his very impressive fifth in the US Masters. In two appearances in the Nedbank here he’s finished only 42nd and 21st but as a PGA Tour winner, he’s got a bit of class about him and an argument could certainly be made that he should be trading at a shorter price than Bezuidenhout.
Brandon Stone won this event four years ago – the first of his three European Tour titles to date – but he looks one to swerve here. In three Nedbank Challenges, he’s yet to shoot any better than 71 or finish any better than 60th and I fancy he’s better suited to an easier test than this.
South Africa has produced quality golfer after quality golfer for many a year and in Wilco Nienaber, Jayden Schaper and Garrick Higgo, they have three more incredible prospects emerging.
Nienaber really should have got off the mark on the European Tour two weeks ago in the Joburg Open, Schaper had a great chance to win his first title last week but Higgo already has his. He won the Open de Portugal back in September.
Higgo’s form is a bit in-and-out but he’s straight out of the top drawer and I’m a little surprised he’s the biggest-priced of the three given he’s played here once before and won – claiming the Southern Africa Tour Championship back in February in his one and only appearance at Sun city. Given Nienaber has never played a tournament here before and that Shaper’s only previous appearance was a missed cut in the Royal Swazi Open a month ago, Higgo may fare best of the three and I thought 34.033/1 was more than fair.
Fellow South African, Daniel van Tonder, hasn’t performed as well as he would have liked on the European Tour over the last two weeks, finishing 76th in the Joburg and 39th in the Alfred Dunhill last week but prior to that he was in incredible form on the Sunshine Tour, winning four tournaments in six starts and the last of the four came here in the Royal Swazi Open where he shot rounds of 67-68-67-68 to win by seven! I was more than happy to chance him at 40.039/1.
And finally, England’s Richard McEvoy has been well-backed but I’m not surprised. The 200/1 that was available on the Sportsbook has long gone but anything north of 150.0149/1 looks fair given his incredible figures last week.
He caught the eye in Cyprus when he sat third at the halfway stage of the Cyprus Open before a disappointing weekend saw him slump to 49th and that was followed by a missed cut in the Cyprus Showdown and a 42nd place in the Joburg Open. He only finished 25th at Leopard Creek last week but given he ranked first for Driving Accuracy, sixth for Greens In Regulation and second for Scrambling, it’s fair to say his game’s in good shape. If he can maintain that and get a few putts to drop he may well contend.
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